HTC One (Sprint) review

The first truly great smartphone of 2013, the innovative, well-built, high-quality Sprint HTC One is an easy Editors' Choice winner.
Photo of HTC One (Sprint)

The most beautiful phone available today, the aluminum-clad HTC One ($199.99 with contract) is also the first truly compelling smartphone of 2013. Its strong design perspective won’t be for everyone, especially Android purists. But it’s a major step forward, and should satisfy those who think Samsung’s plastic-based Galaxy phones look and feel a little chintzy. It’s an easy Editors’ Choice for smartphones on Sprint.

We’re going to see a lot of Android software experiments this year. Choosing your smartphone will more than ever come down to whose software ideas you think are most intriguing. HTC is focusing on less-technical users with an easy setup strategy, content-heavy default screens, and multi-window multitasking, both here and on its “Facebook phone,” the HTC First. Samsung’s grab bag of features in the Galaxy S4 strongly suggests that you buy other Samsung products, like cameras and TVs, for ease-of-use bonuses. And if Amazon and Motorola release rumored handsets, we should see a seamless Amazon media experience and a “pure Google” offering as well.

Physical Design
The HTC One is the best-built phones I’ve ever seen. It’s a very rare aluminum unibody, in silver or black. With its 4.7-inch screen, the phone is rather large at 5.4 by 2.7 by .37 inches (HWD), but that’s just part of the current trend of big phones led by the Samsung Galaxy S III and Galaxy S4, which are both wider, although a touch slimmer than the One. My thumb can’t cross the One’s screen diagonally when held in one hand. I long for a flagship Android phone that I can actually use with a single hand, but they’re hard to find.

At five ounces, the One is also slightly heavier than its Samsung rivals, but it’s a very satisfying heft: solid, but not heavy. The phone’s back panel is smooth, curved, and just a touch slippery; it settles very well into your hand. The screen’s glass falls over the sides, and the top and bottom of the front panel are beveled metal. Broad speaker grilles dominate the top and bottom, with a little red notification LED peeking out of the top one. The phone has no removable parts and only one slot, a pop-out SIM tray.

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Some people, including my editor, say the One “looks a lot like an iPhone 5,” but that’s only if you say any metal unibody handset looks like an iPhone. The One has a very strong design perspective: The large speaker grilles, the wraparound screen glass, the centered camera, the convex back, and the prominent HTC logo show that this phone is a design innovation, not a copycat.

One of those strong design decisions I don’t really agree with: HTC has messed with the three standard Android touch buttons below the screen, reducing them to two (Back and Home) with an HTC logo in between. To get to the multitasking screen, you double-tap Home. I found myself unconsciously tapping the HTC logo to get Home pretty often, just because it’s large and centered.

The 4.7-inch, Super LCD 3 screen shows very little reflectivity and looks gorgeous in sunlight. At 1,920-by-1,080 and a startling 469 pixels per inch, it now holds the crown for densest screen in the land. The pixels are completely invisible. 

Sprint’s HTC One comes with 32GB of non-removable memory. AT&T will have a 64GB model, but it’s apparently exclusive to that carrier.

Calling and Networking
Sprint’s 3G network is very slow, as we showed last year in our Fastest Mobile Networks tests. Sprint currently offers LTE in 67 cities, but the carrier clearly needs more high-speed network coverage. Sprint hasn’t launched LTE in New York yet; while I saw plenty of LTE signal while testing the phone, speeds on the network clearly aren’t ready for prime time at 1Mbps-4Mbps down. The 3G network, meanwhile, was even slower, with speeds of 300-400Kbps down near our offices in midtown Manhattan and 700Kbps-1Mbps near my home in Queens. At least I’m happy to say there’s no ‘death grip,’ and that signal reception is excellent.

This model of the One supports Sprint’s 3G (CDMA 800/850/1900) and LTE (1900 only) networks, along with GSM/EDGE on 850/900/1800/1900 and HSPA 14.4 on the 1900 and 2100MHz bands. That means this phone will roam internationally at 3G speeds. In theory, you could unlock it to work poorly on AT&T’s and T-Mobile’s networks, but it wouldn’t be able to take advantage of fast speeds on either.

Voice quality was mostly good in my tests, but hurt by some persistent problems with Sprint’s network in Manhattan. Too much background noise made calls skip and cut out both on this phone and a Sprint Samsung Galaxy Note II in the same location. Earpiece volume is moderate, and transmissions from noisy areas sound a bit computerized as the phone’s noise cancellation kicks in. The noise cancellation isn’t as elegant or fast-acting as the Audience-powered solution on the Samsung Galaxy S III and S4, but it gets the job done. The speakerphone, on the other hand, is excellent: It’s very loud and clear.

The HTC One supports Sprint’s new HD Voice system, which is available in cities where the carrier has launched LTE, and currently only between its HTC One and HTC EVO 4G LTE phones. That’s a real pity; Sprint could have been first with HD Voice, but has lost the momentum to T-Mobile, which is offering it on more popular devices like the Samsung Galaxy S III and Apple iPhone 5.

I was able to trigger voice dialing with both Plantronics Voyager Legend and Jawbone Icon Bluetooth headsets, but voice dialing is extremely basic—not comprehensive voice commands, just a request to say “call” and a name.

Battery life was very good—it better be, because the big 2,300mAh battery is sealed in. I got 11 hours, 25 minutes of talk time and 5 hours and 48 minutes of YouTube streaming over Wi-Fi with the screen set to maximum brightness. These are both solid results that suggest a full day’s use, but heavy users will still want to pick up an external battery solution.

This is the first phone we’ve tested with 802.11ac Wi-Fi (along with 802.11 a, b, g, and n); the wireless connection easily maxed out my 15Mbps backhaul. Also on board are Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, and GPS with Qualcomm’s new Izat location-technology enhancements, which gave me unusually quick and accurate GPS locations—even indoors.

Performance
The One is the first phone we’ve seen with the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor, a quad-core, 1.7GHz chip. We’ll see a lot of this CPU this year. Performance is two steps forward, one step back. The One scored 23,630 on the Antutu system benchmark and 2,354 on Geekbench, both the highest scores we’ve seen so far. (That Antutu score is around double that of competing phones.) But those are raw processor performance benchmarks.

Results on Web, graphics, and application benchmarks are a bit less impressive. The Browsermark score of 2,392 is considerably lower than lower-end phones like the MetroPCS LG Spirit 4G. The phone fared well on the Sunspider JavaScript benchmark and the Basemark OS application benchmark. It was on par with the best phones on the market right now, but not at the level you’d expect from the Antutu and Geekbench results.

What’s up? My guess is that 1080p screen. It takes more processor power to push more pixels the same distance, whether you’re rendering a high-res game or more of a Web page at once. And if you compare the One with the HTC Droid DNA, the other 1080p phone on the market, there’s a convincing jump in performance: from 196 to 255 on the application-based Basemark OS benchmark, for instance.

In day-to-day use, I didn’t run into any performance hiccups. Scrolling was smooth, and the relatively heavy Asphalt 7: Heat game also played smoothly. The phone got noticeably, but not uncomfortably warm in heavy use.

HTC Sense 5
Installed over Android 4.1 “Jelly Bean,” Sense 5 is HTC’s strongest-flavored Android skin yet. The goal, like with Facebook Home on HTC’s First phone, is to deliver content to the large number of Android users who don’t customize their Home or Lock screens.

Part of that “gentle” introduction to Android is a new setup process, which uses your computer’s Web browser to set up the phone’s ringtones, wallpapers, and default apps. I found it much easier to use than the standard Android setup, but the commercial opportunities for HTC are fairly obvious: The process pushes a bunch of partners’ apps on you, although you can say no.

The default home screen is topped by a new weather and clock widget, over a Flipboard clone that HTC calls BlinkFeed. Android experts will consider it way too didactic, but I actually found it convenient. I just wish it had a broader array of content sources available. BlinkFeed delivers content from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Flickr, your calendar, and a decent, but too-limited list of news and information sites that have made deals with HTC—you can’t add your own feeds.

If you don’t like BlinkFeed, you can’t turn it off, but you can swipe right and from then on, your phone will default to a more traditional Android home screen. The phone starts with two, but you can add more. Pop over to the app drawer for another shocker: A well-spaced 3-by-3 app grid with folders, but startlingly little content. Fortunately, you can switch that to a more standard 4-by-5 grid. I’m frustrated to see no Quick Settings on the notification panel, forcing you to drill down into the Settings screen or install a widget if you want to, say, turn on Wi-Fi.

All of this seems designed to appeal to those who’ve never had an Android phone before, and as an experienced Android user, I’m not impressed. On the other hand, HTC’s contacts and calendar apps are still top-notch, supporting multiple sources including Twitter and Facebook, custom groups, and shortcut dialing by name. And I think HTC’s multitasking menu, which gives you nine thumbnails of recent apps, is easier to use than the standard cover-flow approach.

It feels like HTC has left no app unaltered. Other custom additions include a completely rejiggered photo gallery with Facebook and HTC Share integration (more on that below), HTC’s TV app, its Watch video store, a stocks app, a Tasks app, Dropbox, a PDF reader, and Zoodles Kid Mode, which gives you a controlled home screen for your kids. Sprint only added a few apps: its Sprint Zone store, Lookout Mobile Security, and Sprint TV.

TV and Multimedia
Why doesn’t every phone have front-facing speakers? HTC’s dual BoomSound speakers are one of those “duh” features that I’m shocked not to see more often. They’re noticeably louder and more powerful than most other cell phone speakers; although they’re still tinny, the sound can fill a room.

The headphone listening experience is typical Beats, which is to say better than typical: The phone comes with a pair of comfortable Beats-branded earphones, and your two options for sound are Beats and not-Beats. (That basically means massive bass and pretty flat.) The slightly customized music player automatically downloads artist and album art from Gracenote, and plays music from DLNA servers, but it doesn’t do lyrics the way Motorola’s music player does. A solid, clear FM radio is also on board.

Video playback is very sharp with videos up to 1080p, although format support is a bit limited; there’s no support for DivX or Xvid, and you pretty much want to stick to H.264. You can get videos onto your HDTV via an MHL cable, DLNA wireless, or HTC’s Media Link HD wireless box, although it’s a real buzz kill when a calendar or e-mail alert interrupts your video on the big screen.

The phone comes with three—three!—media stores: Google’s Play, HTC’s Watch, and Sprint TV. Sprint TV offers up streaming channels as well as on-demand video; otherwise they’re all redundant, competitively priced, and not as comprehensive as what you’ll find on Amazon.

But there’s also a TV twist here: The One integrates an IR emitter (it’s in the Power button) and TV remote-control software based on Peel Remote with a built-in program guide. The basic TV remote worked with both Sharp and Samsung TVs, and Dish and TiVo cable boxes. It doesn’t control third-party set-top boxes like Roku or WDTV, though, and I’m perpetually disappointed by Peel, because it doesn’t do anything with DVRs. Nielsen says about half of U.S. homes have DVRs, and I’m willing to bet these are the same people who buy high-end smartphones. While the remote app shows you what’s on right now, the contents of your DVR are completely missing from Peel’s program lineup. (Samsung’s version of Peel has the same problem.) That makes it more of a curiosity than a truly useful tool.

Pictures, Ultrapixels, and Zoes
We don’t need more megapixels; we need better megapixels. That’s how HTC feels, and I agree. The company has dubbed the One’s 4-megapixel camera an UltraPixel camera because it uses 2-micron pixels, larger than the typical 1.1-micron pixels on camera phones, and thus capable of capturing more light. The front camera is a standard 2-megapixel model.

This results in absolutely stunning low-light images. I took shots indoors, in a dimly lit bedroom, which would have been cripplingly blurry with almost any other phone. Yes, they definitely got noisy, but they were still a cut above any phone I’ve seen other than the Nokia Lumia 920.

In terms of more standard shots, the One’s camera isn’t a game changer, but it’s very good. The shutter is instantaneous, HDR is available for both stills and videos, and even that’s fast. In outdoor shots, I couldn’t shake the graininess of very aggressive sharpening. On the positive side, though, outdoor shutter speeds were often insanely high, in the thousandths of a second, capturing action very well.

The only loss I found with the UltraPixel camera over traditional high-megapixel cameras was with digital zoom. A four-UltraPixel image gives you less room to crop and zoom than a higher-megapixel image, so you need to make sure your photo is framed correctly when you shoot it.

There’s no dedicated camera button, but the camera has a ton of options and scene modes. The most notable is Zoe, which takes a three-second, 1080p HD video and 20 still images when you press the shutter button. Zoe is a really interesting idea, but I’m struggling with what to do with them. You can share them through HTC’s own Share website, which gives you a dedicated link to send around to friends. But Zoes don’t automatically embed in other photo-sharing sites. Try to download a Zoe yourself, and you get 21 files totaling 25-35MB each time. That builds up fast. And in low light, I found that many of the Zoe component stills were very blurry.

Go into the Gallery app, and the top image for each album (whether auto-created or self-created) will be a Highlight Reel, an automatically generated video combining the Zoes and images in that folder. That’s quite neat, and the 30-second highlight reels share cleanly to other services. But the highlight reel doesn’t build chronologically, which led to some strange narrative skips.

Going Zoe-happy with my daughter on a trip to the park, I ended up generating 1.3GB of photos in a single morning, and I wasn’t quite sure what to do with them. Downloading them to my computer gave me 490 very similar image files. Uploading them to HTC Share gave me a link that I could send around, but that didn’t integrate with any of my other services.

For video, both cameras capture 1080p videos at 30 frames per second in good light. I saw some dynamic range issues with a bright background; the HDR Video mode helped with that. Zoe videos taken at night indoors cut down to as low as 17 fps.

Comparisons and Conclusions
The HTC One is advanced enough that you don’t want to compare it to last year’s phones; you want to compare it to this year’s models, especially the Samsung Galaxy S 4 and rumored future devices from Apple, Google, and Motorola. That’s difficult to do, as we don’t know how well those phones work yet.

I can start to see a division between the potential HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 owner, though, and that’s a division between form and function. The Galaxy S4 has a removable battery, expandable memory, and a less aggressive Android skin than HTC’s BlinkFeed. The Galaxy S4′s camera is also more traditional and less ambitious than HTC’s attempt to upend the whole industry with UltraPixels and Zoes.

We rate phones and offer up awards based on what’s being sold today, not on what’s coming in the future that we haven’t tested, and right now, the HTC One is the best phone available on Sprint. It beats all the other options on screen resolution, processor speed, and body design. It’ll draw eyes and turn heads. If this is the pace the smartphone world is setting for 2013, it’s going to be a marvelous year.

Specifications
Service Provider Sprint
Phone Capability / Network GSM, CDMA, UMTS, LTE
Total Integrated Storage 32 GB
Screen Resolution 1920 x 1080 pixels
Dimensions 5.4 x 2.7 x 0.37 inches
Weight 5 oz
Screen Type Super LCD 3
Operating System as Tested Android OS
Physical Keyboard No
High-Speed Data EDGE, EVDO Rev A, LTE, HSPA+ 42, CDMA 1X
Battery Life (As Tested) 11 hours 25 minutes
802.11x/Band(s) 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac
Bands 850, 900, 1800, 1900, 2100
microSD Slot No
Processor Speed 1.7 GHz
GPS Yes
Screen Size 4.7 inches
CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 Quad-Core
Form Factor Candy Bar

Verdict
The first truly great smartphone of 2013, the innovative, well-built, aluminum-clad Sprint HTC One is an easy Editors' Choice winner.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc