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HTC gets serious with its 'One' smartphone series

No more cute names this year as HTC streamlines its product offerings and bulks up its camera and music features and a revamped Sense skin.

HTC Chief Executive Peter Chou holds the new HTC One X Android phone at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain.
HTC Chief Executive Peter Chou holds the new HTC One X Android phone at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain.
Stephen Shankland/CNET

BARCELONA, Spain--Remember the Chacha or Salsa? Yeah, few do.

They were among the several smartphones unveiled by HTC at last year's Mobile World Congress confab. The two, which stood out at the conference for their integrated Facebook button, barely made a dent with consumers with they hit the market.

But with another year comes renewed focus on the business. HTC today debuted just three smartphones under its new "One" series. While not a dramatic reduction in the number of devices, the intent is clear: pour a lot of resources into fewer devices with the intent to push them as flagship products to its carrier partner. The devices boast a stronger camera, better music and media capabilities, and high-end specifications.

"I've never been so excited about a phone," HTC CEO Peter Chou said during the company's press conference at Mobile World Congress. "It's the one phone you need."

HTC was on course for another typically superb year when it stumbled in the last few months of 2011. And it stumbled hard. It suffered a revenue drop in the fourth quarter and warned of an even harder hit in the beginning of 2012. Beyond the numbers, HTC lost its prominent position among the major carriers, ceding its once lofty spot to Samsung Electronics.

Of course, HTC wasn't the only one that was hit at the tail end of last year. It's no coincidence many vendors suffered just as Apple launched its iPhone 4S.

HTC has set its course to bounce back. It starts, of course, with the devices. The One X represents the company's high-end phone, packing in all of the next-generation specs expected of a premium device. Then there's the One S, which has a slimmer design and smaller screen. Lastly, it announced the One V, which is a mass-market version of the phone. The phones all share the same core of a high-quality camera, improved music and media capabilities, and an improved focused on design.

The company also revamped its Sense Android skin, providing a badly needed update to the look and feel of the devices.

Renewed focus
HTC plans to launch the One phones around the world with 144 carrier partners--the broadest commitment the company has ever gotten.

HTC is already off to a good start with major U.S. carriers. AT&T said it has committed to selling the One X within the next 60 days. The phone will be touted as the first Ice Cream Sandwich device for AT&T. Sadly, tradeoffs were required for LTE, so the U.S. version only gets a dual-core processor as opposed to the quad-core chip found in the international version.

AT&T plans to push the One X as one of its big flagship products, according to a person familiar with the carrier's marketing strategy.

T-Mobile USA, meanwhile, will sell the One S.

"We're thrilled to partner with HTC on the launch of its new HTC One series of smartphones and to bring the HTC One S to the U.S. as an exclusive for our customers," said Andrew Sherrard, senior vice president of marketing for T-Mobile USA.

The company plans to feature the device prominently in its marketing but didn't comment on where it would sit alongside its other major products.

HTC is certainly piling on the features. The enhanced camera, helped by Image Sense, the audio features from Beat and improved Music Hub, MediaLink capabilities and DropBox cloud storage integration make for an attractive proposition. The company also talked up the higher focus on design, including the use of polycarbonate unibody case--like Nokia's Lumia--and a metal unibody case for the slimmer device.

Avoiding the backslide
After launching the first Android device in 2008, HTC quickly became the leader in Android devices and a powerhouse in smartphones. Its popular Sense user interface complimented the company's ability to jump on new technology quickly, from 4G technologies such as WiMax and LTE to 3D displays.

HTC design chief Scott Croyle touts the HTC One line of phones at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain.
HTC design chief Scott Croyle touts the HTC One line of phones at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. Stephen Shankland/CNET

At last year's MWC, HTC unveiled another five new smartphones and its Flyer tablet and would continue to launch additional devices through the year. As a result, the company attempted to do too much, and stretched itself too thin. Compounding its problems was the loss of its chief innovation officer, Horace Luke, who left early in the year for personal reasons. Luke was instrumental in turning HTC into a consumer brand and fostering a culture of innovation at the company.

Instead, Scott Croyle, who took over for Luke, was on stage to talk about the design philosophies of the device.

"The One series is simple," Croyle said. "A lot of attention to quality was put into the smallest of detail."

For HTC's part, the company is showing a lot of excitement over the new devices, which it hopes will help HTC steady its feet. Chou even took some shots at the iPhone, calling it that "not-very-popular phone," and running side-by-side comparison photos that were taken by the two devices. The HTC One-taken photos looked much clearer than Apple's attempt.

"The HTC One is a true showcase of HTC's heritage of innovation and design," Chou said.