HTC aims for the top with its gorgeously crafted, high-powered firework of an Android phone.
Editors' note (March 25, 2014): HTC has announced the successor to this 2013 model, the HTC One (M8).
As HTC's new flagship smartphone, the HTC One is packed to the rafters with top-notch components and technologies including some of the latest processing gear from Qualcomm. In addition to being state-of-the-art, the successor to 2012's HTC One X is lovingly crafted from premium metals, leaving no doubt that the Taiwanese smartphone manufacturer has put a considerable amount of blood, sweat, and tears into this handset.
HTC definitely brought its A game, and it needs to to defeat its archrival, the Samsung Galaxy S4. Like all other smartphones though, the One isn't perfect -- it lacks an SD card slot for extra storage expansion as well as a removable battery. The camera isn't quite as revolutionary as advertised. Android purists may not love HTC's Sense UI skin, and the One's nonremovable BlinkFeed news reader isn't particularly welcome.
Quibbles aside, though, the HTC One should be at or near the top of the list for anyone looking for a phone on Sprint, T-Mobile, AT&T, or Verizon -- where it's going head-to-head with the Galaxy S4. Yes, it's a game of inches between both of those big-screen Android superphones (read our story to see how they stack up, feature for feature). But I can easily say the HTC One is the fastest, most beautiful phone I've ever used, and it will sway anyone looking for a worthy alternative to the Samsung GS4.
Editors' note, April 26, 2013: This review has been updated to reflect the release of the Galaxy S4.
Editors' note, June 26, 2013: HTC and Google now offer a no-contract Google Play Edition version of this phone (same hardware, but running the basic Android OS, without BlinkFeed or the Sense UI skin).
Editors' note, September 18, 2013: This review has been updated with experience using Verizon's version of the HTC One.
Pricing and availability
The HTC One is currently being sold by all of the four major U.S. cellular providers. A Google Play Experience of the HTC One running stock Android is also available unlocked.
Here's how the various versions of the HTC One stack up against each carrier:
AT&T HTC One (32GB, $199.99 or 64GB, $299.99 with two-year contract): 4G LTE; simultaneous voice and data; black and silver color options
Sprint HTC One (32GB, $199.99 with two-year contract): 4G LTE; black and silver color options
T-Mobile HTC One (32GB, $99.99 down plus $20 per month for 24 months): 4G LTE
Verizon HTC One (32GB, $199.99 with two-year contract): 4G LTE; silver color
HTC One Google Play Edition (32GB, $599, sold in the Google Play store): 4G LTE; stock Android OS; unlocked
HTC One Developer Edition (64GB, $649, sold by HTC): 4G LTE; unlocked SIM and bootloader
We used the silver 32GB version of AT&T's, Sprint's, and Verizon's HTC One for our review, as well as an unlocked international model.
Rectangular, flat, and extremely thin, the HTC One is practically all screen. Its 4.7-inch (1080p) LCD display uses what the company calls SoLux technology for improved picture quality and generates 468 pixels per inch (ppi). This, says HTC, helps the One's screen boast the most impressive viewing experience of any phone it has ever created. Since the display is slightly smaller at the same resolution, the One's screen has a denser pixel count than the Droid DNA (5-inch, 440ppi). The same goes for the Samsung Galaxy S4, which uses a larger 5-inch OLED screen (441ppi).
I can certainly verify that the One's display has impact, with vibrant colors, wide viewing angles, and plenty of brightness. Details also look extremely crisp, which makes me eager to compare the One's display against that of the Galaxy S4. I suspect that Samsung's latest monster will offer higher contrast and brighter colors, but the jury is still out until I place both handsets side by side.
HTC also makes a big deal about the One's all-aluminum chassis, describing it as using a zero-gap unibody design. Indeed, available in black and silver, the handset feels sturdy, with reassuring heft, and its smooth, metallic skin exudes high-end craftsmanship. HTC also took pains to point out that while the thin, white trim encircling the silver model I manhandled appears to be plastic, it is, in fact, metal.
Measuring 5.4 inches tall by 2.7 inches wide by 0.37 inch thick, the HTC One is certainly a handful. Tipping the scales at 5.04 ounces, it's by no means lightweight either. I recommend stuffing the One into large, or at least secure, pockets to tote around town.
In another interesting twist, dual speakers (one on each side of the screen) act in unison to deliver a livelier audio experience for watching movies or listening to music. Paired with an onboard amplifier and Beats technology, HTC has given the system the rather unfortunate name BoomSound. It reminds me of the kind of cheesy trademark Philips used to plaster all over its old boom boxes.
That said, the One's speakers do pack a hefty punch, producing rich audio with a satisfying helping of bass. The phone's audio system has wide stereo separation as well, plus a surprising amount of volume.
In fact I found that I could rely on the One's speakers in a pinch when my portable Bluetooth speakers weren't handy. While nowhere near as loud as, say, a Jawbone Jambox or Jabra Solemate, the phone provides enough audio oomph for small groups in quiet rooms.
Above the display sit a 2.1MP front-facing camera and a notification light. Below are just two capacitive Android buttons, while a headphone jack and volume button are up top. What's really interesting is how the power button also doubles as an IR blaster to control home theater equipment. A volume rocker is placed on the right side, and a SIM card slot holds court on the left. On the bottom edge sits the phone's Micro-USB port. Around back is the 4MP main camera with LED flash, which also uses HTC's UltraPixel sensor.
Software, UI, and features
The HTC One has all the power of modern Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean at its disposal. It may not be the freshest Jelly Bean flavor available, currently 4.2, but you do get all the tight integration with Google's wide range of software and services that modern Android phones enjoy. These include Gmail, Google+ social networking, Google Talk, Google Drive, and so on, plus access to over 700,000 apps for download through the Google Play store.
Layered on top of Android is yet another version of HTC's Sense UI. As is typical of this sort of added interface, the latest version of Sense offers more enhancements you may or may not find useful.
The first is something HTC calls the BlinkFeed, a main home screen consisting of dynamic tiles that display content from a wide variety of news outlets, blogs, and Web sites (including CNET). If you're familiar with popular news aggregators such as Flipboard and Pulse, then you get the idea.
There are drawbacks to BlinkFeed that you should be aware of, most notably that you can't turn the feature off, at least not entirely. By default the BlinkFeed screen is set as the phone's primary home screen. You can, however, select any of the HTC One's home screens as its starting point.
Another annoyance I ran into is that BlinkFeed pulls content from a stable of vetted sources. While that's fine for casual news viewing, you'll probably run into roadblocks trying to tweak it to display more-targeted outlets.
I admit that I like the revamped Sense user interface. Besides BlinkFeed, the skin has a cleaner look with icons that are less crowded across and within the app tray. Also odd is that unlike in stock Android Jelly Bean, the app tray doesn't side-scroll; it scrolls vertically. The scrolling motion also jumps through icons by the page, not smoothly at a set rate, which takes getting used to.
Gone is HTC's iconic weather clock widget, which has graced its phones since way back in the days of Windows Mobile. You will still find information about time and weather forecasts at the top of the home screen, but displayed in a much more low-key fashion. An icon here and on the lock screen displays current conditions by taking the shape of a sun, clouds, and so on. It will even blink at you with eye-catching animations such as falling rain or snow.
Confirming that the line between tablets and smartphones is blurring more every day, the HTC One also features an IR blaster on its top edge. In combination with the HTC Sense TV app and HTC Remote software, the HTC One can be used to control a TV with the phone while keeping tabs on local programs.
I have to say, this feature comes in handy more than I would have originally thought. After going through the simple, if rather lengthy, setup process, which asks you to lay out the TV channels you receive in detail, I was able to control my home theater set effectively. That meant switching channels via my cable box, adjusting volume on my Onkyo receiver, plus opening the guide to sift through available programs.
What's also pretty slick is how I could tap icons of shows I had marked as my favorites to immediately begin watching them if they were currently on.
Other useful software tools you'll find on the HTC One include a task list maker, a voice recorder (something many phones lack), and Kid Mode. Kid Mode locks the handset up tight, along with all your apps and services, and only lets tykes access a special kiddie view complete with age-appropriate games and distractions.
Handling media duties are typical Android apps such as Play Music and Play Movies, plus HTC Watch, which offers HTC's own selection of video and TV content to rent or buy. The free Tune-In app (a personal favorite) streams Internet radio, but the phone also has an FM tuner. I like HTC's homegrown music player, too; it's intuitive and easy to use, plus it has a slick visualization function if you're into that sort of thing.
Sprint just couldn't resist adding its own smattering of bloatware to the HTC One. SprintZone rolls up access to your Sprint account and its 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. Sorry, but I'll pass.
AT&T also throws in a sizable chunk of its branded software. These include AT&T DriveMode to put the kibosh on texts while driving, AT&T FamilyMap to keep tabs on loved ones, and AT&T Navigator for GPS directions, just to name a few. Thankfully they're all tucked away in a folder, both in the app tray and on the home screen by default.
On the Verizon version of the phone you'll find the usual selection of irremovable bloatware and carrier apps. These include NFL Mobile, Verizon Tones, VZ Navigator, and the VZ Security application.
A flagship smartphone wouldn't be worth its salt if it weren't backed up by a bevy of screaming components. You'll be glad to know that the HTC One doesn't disappoint. Beating inside the heart of this regal machine is a 1.7GHz quad-core Snapdragon 600 processor, fresh off of Qualcomm's factory floor. It's the first device I know of to officially feature the new silicon. Because of that, I'm sure a lot of smartphone addicts out there will be itching to get their hands all over this gadget.
The HTC One will ship in two memory configurations, a stock 32GB (internal storage) model and a tricked-out 64GB version. Keep in mind, though, that Sprint will only sell a 32GB version. Both devices will feature a full 2GB complement of RAM. The One features wireless radios for Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11 a/b/c/g/n Wi-Fi, plus NFC connectivity, too.
Quick benchmark tests confirmed the HTC One's processing power. My Sprint HTC One unit turned in an impressive Linpack score of 696.97 MFLOPs (multithread) which the phone completed in a short 0.24 second. Additionally, the device managed an astronomically high Quadrant score of 12,194. Both results are the fastest I've ever measured on an Android smartphone and prove the One is more than a match for the HTC Droid DNA (401.6 Linpack, 8,165 Quadrant).
Anecdotal use backed up my impression that the HTC One is a seriously nimble machine. The device smoothly flipped through menu screens, launched apps, and fired up Web pages with no hiccups or stutters to speak of.
I tested the HTC One on Sprint's and Verizon's CDMA network and AT&T's GSM network in New York. On my Sprint test calls, I enjoyed relatively clean audio quality with very little distortion. Callers described my voice as clear if a little flat, and could easily understand the words I spoke. They did notice a slight crackle at the beginning of sentences and could certainly tell I called from a cellular connection.
Voice quality over an AT&T connection was virtually identical, if slightly better. Callers couldn't detect any crackling, though again they did say my voice had a flat quality. Chatting over Verizon's network was the least pleasing, with people on the other end describing my voice as sounding robotic and compressed.
On my end, voices came through loudly no matter which carrier's network conversed through. That said I did hear a hint of robotic flatness. Callers, however, said the speakerphone handled audio well and transmitted what I said clearly. I was surprised though that the speakerphone didn't produce an impressive amount of volume despite the HTC One's large speakers.
HTC One (Sprint) call quality sample Listen now:
HTC One (AT&T) call quality sample Listen now:
HTC One (Verizon) call quality sample Listen now:
While the Sprint HTC One is compatible with the carrier's 4G LTE network, its fast data service is only available in a handful of locations. Sadly, New York -- where I tested the phone -- isn't yet one of them. As a result I clocked slow data throughput speeds that were pokey even for 3G. Average download speed came in at just 0.45Mbps and upload speed at a similar 0.46Mbps.
Data speeds improved greatly when I tested the AT&T version of the HTC One over AT&T's 4G LTE network. Performance was dramatically faster. I logged downloads at an average blistering clip of 24.6Mbps while uploads topped out at an impressive 12.6Mbps.
Compared with what I saw on AT&T, however, throughput over Verizon's 4G LTE network in New York was much slower. Downloads averaged a decent not blazing 7.9Mbps, and uploads reached an unimpressive average of 4.3Mbps.
An embedded 2,300mAh battery serves as the One's power source, which I admit doesn't sound like much on paper, especially compared with phones with ultra-high-capacity batteries such as the Motorola Droid Razr Maxx HD (3,300mAh). Of course the HTC Droid DNA managed a long 8 hours and 43 minutes on the CNET Labs video battery drain test with a smaller 2,020mAh battery.
In terms of longevity, though, the HTC One didn't disappoint. The phone beat out the Droid DNA on the same test, lasting a full 9 hours and 37 minutes when subjected to the official CNET Labs video battery drain benchmark.
The HTC One continues the company's strong focus on phone camera capabilities. The new One handset features an updated ImageSense system and new ImageChip 2 hardware, along with a revamped light sensor. Called the UltraPixel Sensor, it technically is able to capture a resolution of just 4 megapixels. Still, HTC says, the actual size of the sensor is larger and the pixels it creates are much more detailed. HTC claims that the end result is a camera able to capture 300 percent more light than competing camera phones.
With the phone in hand, I can confirm that its camera is extremely fast, capturing shots almost instantly.
Color was also accurate in both my indoor still-life shots, if a bit dark. Outdoors in strong sunlight I did notice some heavy-handed image processing, which tended to blur background details, especially with complex forms such as the branches of trees and other foliage. Also, while the HTC One could take images quickly in dark environs, thanks to onboard hardware image stabilization, the ISO was bumped up so high that color noise became rampant.
How does the One's camera compare to the competition? Again, check out our comparison of the HTC One and the Galaxy S4. Also, my CNET Asia colleague Jacqueline Seng earlier included the HTC One in a four-way smartphone camera shootout with the Nokia Lumia 920, iPhone 5, and Samsung Galaxy S3.
I like that the camera can record a short 3-second video, what HTC has labeled the Zoe (inspired by 19th-century Zoetrope movie machines). The idea is for users to shoot these brief clips, similar to using the Vine app for iOS, and share them with friends and loved ones via a special camera mode within the HTC One's camera app.
My favorite camera feature is that the HTC One will automatically stitch together highlight reels based on all the video, pictures, and Zoes you've snapped each day. Each highlight film is set to canned HTC music, which I admit isn't that bad, and you have the option to save them as MP4 files locally or share them via Facebook or e-mail. Frankly, it's a cool little tool for keeping family in the loop about the kids' latest shenanigans or giving a polished spin to daily activities.
Even in this Galaxy S4-dominated world, there's no doubt in my mind that the HTC One is one of the best Android options on Sprint. Ironically, though, that may be the weakest carrier on which to get the One, thanks to Sprint's poor 3G infrastructure and scarce 4G LTE access.
I suggest One fans go with AT&T if blazing 4G is what you crave. At the moment, AT&T's 4G LTE network is a known quantity and it actually exists, including in major metro areas such as New York and San Francisco.
Go for a T-Mobile HTC One if the carrier's no-contract plans and lower prices appeal to you. And while T-Mobile's LTE network has barely gotten off the ground, its 3.5G HSPA+ speeds approach real 4G in quickness.
Verizon's version of the HTC One is compelling too especially if you need a much bigger 4G LTE footprint on which to rely. That said, the carrier's data speeds don't seem to be as fast as AT&T's service -- at least in the congested NYC metro area.
Not committed to any carrier just yet? Perhaps the special HTC One Developer Edition has your number. While its steep $649 unsubsidized price might be hard to swallow, the fact that the device features an unlocked SIM card slot and bootloader made for tweaking is tempting. Built to work on U.S. carriers, the phone supports GSM, CDMA, and LTE signals.
Another unlocked option, and better one in my opinion, is the HTC One Google Play Edition. For $599, this device merges the outstanding build quality of the standard One with pure Android 4.3 Jelly Bean plus 32GB of internal storage.
In the One, HTC has created a premium phone that's fast and thin, and which flaunts a drop-dead gorgeous design. In my experience, the phone's screen and its camera largely live up to the hype, though the camera's low-light performance is a bit oversold.
I was surprised, however, by how much fun I found the phone's Highlight video function to be. Sure, shooting Zoe videos is limited because it uses a proprietary file format. The Highlight movies, on the other hand, are convertible and much easier to share. It also resulted in me capturing one of my best phone videos ever, but new parents are a subjective bunch.
Opinions on manufacturer-specific Android skins vary, with the general consensus being that deviating from Google's stock Android interface usually causes more harm than good. While it's as subjective as anything else, I liked the new, subtler Sense UI found on the One. The BlinkFeed feature, meanwhile, may be exciting for Android newbies but isn't extremely useful for smartphone veterans -- and it's annoying that you can't uninstall it.
If you can get past the few drawbacks, the HTC One is without a doubt worth buying. However, with the Samsung Galaxy S4 competing head-to-head with the One on T-Mobile, Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon, Android lovers have a tough decision on their hands. Choosing is most difficult on Verizon, though, with the entrance of the $299.99 Motorola Droid Max. It's pricey but its battery life can't be beat.
Immediately, there's one clear difference between the One and Galaxy S4. For $200, the AT&T and Sprint versions of the HTC One will net you 32GB of storage, while the $200 GS4 has half as much (16GB). On T-Mobile, it's an even more amazing deal: the 32GB HTC One can be had for $100 up front (plus $20 per month for 24 months on the carrier's new no-contract plan).
That said, the HTC One's lack of an SD card slot and removable battery are sure to stick in the craw of some smartphone shoppers, and the image quality of the One's camera isn't best in class. If those are deal breakers, you'll want to opt for the Galaxy S4 instead.
Ultimately, I feel the Galaxy S4 ekes out the thinnest sliver of a victory over its nemesis. (Here's a full play-by-play of the epic battle.) But it all comes down to priorities. The HTC One trumps the GS4 in physical and interface design, as well as bang for the buck. It remains one of the best phones we've ever laid our hands on. And that's why it earns an enthusiastic Editors' Choice Award and a warm and fuzzy spot in my heart.