HTC One review: The gorgeous HTC One is a winner

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The Good The HTC One flaunts a stunning metal design, a powerful quad-core processor, and a beautiful 4.7-inch, 1080p screen. It runs Android Jelly Bean, takes great pictures, and has a feature-packed camera app.

The Bad The sealed case design means no SD expansion slot or user-replaceable battery. The BlinkFeed software can't be completely removed.

The Bottom Line A few quibbles notwithstanding, the powerhouse HTC One is a beautifully crafted, near-ideal smartphone.

8.5 Overall
  • Design 10
  • Features 8
  • Performance 8

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).

The HTC One's design is thin, metallic, and striking. Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

The HTC One has an all-aluminum frame. HTC

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.

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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.

The HTC uses a cleaner, tighter Sense UI. Brian Bennett/CNET

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.

BlinkFeed is front and center on the HTC One. Brian Bennett/CNET

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.

Set up HTC Remote to control TVs and home theater gear. Brian Bennett/CNET

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.

View what's on TV now right from the HTC One. Brian Bennett/CNET

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.

It's hard to ignore the HTC One's metallic design. Sarah Tew/CNET

Core hardware
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.