HTC One review: The gorgeous HTC One is a winner

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.

Call quality
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:

Data speeds
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.

The HTC One was fastest on AT&T's 4G LTE network in New York. Brian Bennett/CNET

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.

Battery life
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.

Colors were accurate in still-life shots. Click to see larger image. Brian Bennett/CNET

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.

In sunlight, colors were bright but details were heavily processed. Click to see full image. Brian Bennett/CNET
In low light, color noise became a problem.Click to view full image. Brian Bennett/CNET
Hues of flowers were vivid as well. Brian Bennett/CNET

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.

The HDR mode lightens up shadows in strong backlight. Brian Bennett/CNET

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.

Now playing: Watch this: The HTC One's cute kid filming prowess
Now playing: Watch this: New York through the HTC One's eyes

Which carrier?
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.

The power key doubles as an IR blaster. Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

BlinkFeed may be nice to some but a pain to others. Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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