HTC One Max review: One Max proves phones can be too big

HTC also heeded complaints that you couldn't add updates from news sites manually when BlinkFeed first debuted. I'm happy to report that Sense 5.5 brings this capability to BlinkFeed, which increases its allure and usefulness greatly.

As a self-acknowledged weather geek, I've always loved how much HTC phones have highlighted current atmospheric conditions. HTC's iconic weather clock widget, which has found a home in its phones since its first Android and even Windows Mobile devices, is no more. Don't fret, though; time and weather forecasts are presented at the top of the BlinkFeed screen, albeit in a much more low-key fashion. An icon here, and on the lock screen, displays current conditions in eye-catching animations for sunshine, rolling clouds, or falling rain or snow.

HTC One Max
Sense 5.5 still showcases slick weather-checking skills. Sarah Tew/CNET

Like the HTC One before it, the One Max is equipped with an IR blaster so the phone can double as a remote control. Paired with HTC's TV app, I was quickly able to configure the Max to command my TV and cable box. I suggest you have your local listings handy though, because the app will ask you some rather specific questions. With that data, the app informed me when programs I marked as favorite were on air. Noticeably missing, however, is a way to tag shows for DVR recording. You also can't use the One Max to control other home theater devices, such as digital media players like Roku or Apple TV, since the app only supports TVs and AV receivers.

Sadly, Sprint sprinkled the HTC One Max with plenty of bloatware. Sneakily tucked under an HTC folder in the app tray is SprintZone, which offers access to your Sprint account and that carrier's own software, video, and music storefront in one location. A separate Sprint TV & Movie app hawks live programming from the likes of Fox News, Disney, and ABC, along with video from partners such as Crackle and mFlix. No thanks, Sprint, I'm not interested.

HTC One Max
The One Max's camera app has plenty of settings. Sarah Tew/CNET

Camera and video
On board the HTC One Max is the same imaging system which first made an appearance in the HTC One. Billed as an Ultrapixel camera, the 4 megapixel sensor does operate well under low light conditions without the aid of a flash. And, like my time with the One, details in photos I snapped weren't as sharp as I've seen captured by other high-end smartphones including the Galaxy Note 3, iPhone 5S, and Nokia Lumia 1020.

Even so, the One Max is a nimble shutterbug able to snap shots almost instantly. The phone's camera app comes with a host of compelling features, too, including plenty of scene modes and special filters. Besides traditional fare such as Night, Anti-shake, and Sweep Panorama, there's an HDR mode to pull details out of shadows and silhouettes. Dual capture merges what the front and main camera see into one image. Continuous shooting takes pictures in rapid succession when you hold the virtual camera button down. And you can also grab stills while the 1080p HD video camcorder function is rolling.

Indoor images were well exposed, but not sharp. Brian Bennett/CNET

Want to delve into the ISO, white balance, exposure, contrast, saturation, and sharpness? No problem. There are manual settings for these as well. HTC has also expanded the capabilities of its Zoe photo and video highlights engine. Like the HTC One, the One Max will automatically create montages using the images and video you shoot, set to music. Sense 5.5, however, brings a total of 12 new themes (each with associated editing styles and background tracks) for crafting your personalized highlights.

The HDR mode pulled shadow detail from strong backlighting. Brian Bennett/CNET

For a phone this large, I was a little disappointed that the HTC One Max doesn't offer a processor on par with its main rival, the Galaxy Note 3. Instead of a 2.3GHz Snapdragon 800, under the Max's hood is a 1.7GHz Snapdragon 600 -- the same CPU the original One shipped with at launch. Honestly, I expect a phone costing almost $300 on contract to have a faster processor. Complementing this is a sizable 2GB of RAM which I used to consider a generous helping, at least until the Note 3 hit the scene with a full 3GB.

Even with a less than spectacular bucket of parts, the One Max felt lively and spry in my hands. The phone zipped across menu screens and opened applications with agility. I noticed no delays, outside of network connection issues, and using the handset for typical tasks, such as reading messages, Web sites, consuming movies, and music, were buttery smooth.

Benchmark tests backed up my experience with the HTC One, zooming through the Quadrant test and notching a high score of 11,862. That's understandably in the same ballpark of the HTC One (12,194) and Galaxy S4 (11,381), both of which use Snapdragon 600 processors. These results don't hold much water next to what the Note 3 delivered on the same test (23,048). Of course, it's also an undisputed truth that Samsung fiddles with the device to artificially squeeze more performance speed when running benchmarks. Samsung's arch rival LG and its G2 phone was close behind (19,050).

The One Max turned in quick, but not blazing, Quadrant scores. Brian Bennett/CNET

Data speeds
Sprint recently made its 4G LTE network in New York City official, and I was eager to take the carrier's freshly sanctioned infrastructure for a go. Data speeds were literally all over the map with average download speeds coming in at 7Mbps but varying widely, sometimes reaching a peak of 12.3Mbps, or dropping to as low as 1.77Mbps. Uploads hovered around the 1Mbps mark which is low even for faster 3G coverage.

4G speeds on Sprint's LTE network were all over the place. Brian Bennett/CNET

Call quality
I tested the HTC One Max on Sprint's CDMA network in New York. Call quality I experienced was solid but not what I'd call crystal clear. People I spoke to described my voice as compressed and a touch robotic. They didn't notice any major issues and could easily understand my words, though a slight hiss gave away the fact I called from a cellular line.

On my end I heard the odd warble and clip, especially at the start and end of sentences. To be fair though, the One Max had trouble grabbing a 4G signal for long with the phone often flipping between 3G and LTE seemingly at random -- or perhaps by walking a few feet in a given direction.

One bright spot is that people said that my voice through the One Max's speakerphone came through with cleaner audio than via the mouthpiece.

HTC One Max (Sprint) call quality sampleListen now:

Battery life
Serving as the HTC One Max's power source is a high-capacity 3,300mAh battery. I'm sure it played a large part in helping the handset achieve impressively long runtime. The One Max persevered through the CNET Video Playback Battery Drain test for almost 10 hours (596 minutes).

Of course, the Galaxy Note 3 managed to coast along for an extremely lengthy 15 hours on the same test, which involves playing an HD video until the battery calls it quits.

When I first learned of HTC's plans for the One Max I was very eager to give the big phone a spin. The company's HTC One rocked the mobile handset world with its lovely, luxurious aluminum styling and is still one the most beautiful phones I've ever used. The smaller HTC One Mini is also a success considering how good the compact device looks and feels, yet manages to offer a satisfying Android experience.

The $249.99 HTC One Max's metal chassis, however, when blown up to its huge proportions is way too large, heavy, and unwieldy. I never thought I'd sing the praises of a plastic smartphone but the $299.99 Samsung Galaxy Note 3's thinner and lighter footprint is simply more manageable to use. Also, for just $50 extra, the Note 3's more impressive screen, and better components translate into a smarter phablet deal any day of the week.

Comparable Phones

All phones

Best Products

All best products