An Android phone is like a Leatherman Tool. It does a lot of things - without a doubt, a triumph of function over form. Android is the world's most versatile mobile operating system, the most tweakable, the most adaptable, and the most fully-featured. It just does more than any other comparable product out there. But if Android is a Leatherman, the iPhone is the basic Swiss Army Knife - compact, simple, iconic, and good enough for the vast majority of people, even if it does do a little less.
Building on that analogy, Android users, even die-hard fans, actually look at their phones more like tools. We (well, most of us) don't have some kind of deeper loyalty to a particular brand or device, most of us just want whatever the "best" phone on the market is for our needs. You might hate Motorola today for its bootloader policy, but if that were to change tomorrow, you probably wouldn't hold a grudge. iPhone users, on the other hand, are attached to their devices (and Apple generally) at the hip. They love their phones - I've heard of people breaking down in tears because of a shattered iPhone. And more importantly, I hear people talk about iPhones and Apple products a lot more than I do Android.
In my opinion, the reason those differences exist is because it has been very difficult to find an Android phone that you can really love. Until now.
As you might have guessed, I'm talking about the HTC One S, which is headed to T-Mobile as the carrier's newest flagship handset. It's also already available in many places around the world. The One S isn't a perfect phone (but what phone is?), and for the power user, there are substantial flaws worthy of consideration before laying down your hard-earned cash on this piece of kit. But for the first time, HTC has made an Android phone that I truly believe almost anyone can really enjoy. And because of that, I have no hesitation when I say the One S is a milestone achievement.
T-Mobile HTC One S: Specifications
- Price: $200 with 2-year agreement, $550-600 off-contract, available April 25th, 2012.
- Processor: MSM8260A dual-core Krait processor at 1.5GHz
- GPU: Adreno 225
- Operating System: Android 4.0.3 with Sense 4.0
- Display: 4.3" Super AMOLED with PenTile subpixel rendering scheme
- Memory: 1GB RAM / 16GB internal (12GB usable)
- Cameras: 8MP rear/ 1.3MP front
- Battery: 1650mAh, non-removable
- Ports/Expandable Storage: microUSB port / none
- Thickness: 7.8mm / .31"
- Weight: 119.5g / 4.2oz
- Build quality - it's excellent. Aside from the 2 plastic pieces on the top and bottom of the rear of the phone, this thing is solid as a rock. It's also dead sexy.
- Crazy fast - the S4 processor blazes through mundane tasks like a knife through warm butter. In June. On the surface of the sun.
- Battery life - is pretty great. You'll easily get a day of moderate usage, if not two.
- The camera - it's awesome. Well, as long as your lighting is good, and the focus cooperates. Images do look a bit oversaturated, particularly when light isn't ideal, and too many shadows can cause colors to wash out.
- Overall, there's just a lot to like about the One S. It's not the kind of phone you have buyer's regret about.
The Not So Good
- The SAMOLED display suffers from PenTile pixelation to some extent, and compared to the One X, is just generally worse. Sunlight performance is poor.
- Storage isn't expandable (with 12GB usable), nor is there a model with more capacity available.
- Beats Audio doesn't really do anything useful.
- Sense 4 has its aesthetic downfalls (awful dialer, lame lockscreen, outdated looks).
Build Quality / Design
HTC has made it clear that the new One series is all about design and quality of construction, two things every other Android manufacturer have, frankly, not done very well. Android phones have always been known for their sci-fi looks and use of plastics and rubberized surfaces, and it has become pretty clear that after a while this results in them feeling (and looking) like cheap pieces of junk. Glossy plastics are easily scratched and attract fingerprints, rubberized surfaces become oily and pockmarked with gouges, and textured plastic just looks bad.
The One S (and by relation, the One X) is the first Android phone you can whip out of your pocket and be proud of before you ever turn on the screen. It's actually that pretty. The cut aluminum chassis lends a feeling of solidness that no Android phone has ever come close to, and really sets a new benchmark for quality of construction. Once you go aluminum, you won't want to go back. I can honestly say that I will never buy a phone with a predominantly plastic exterior again.
The One S does have some plastic, though, in the form of the removable upper rear cover (where the SIM card is housed), as well as a similarly shaped (but non-removable) cover on the bottom of the phone. Why it needs two, I'm not sure. Perhaps one of the wireless components sits near the bottom of the device. Whatever the reason, these two pieces of plastic are the only low points of the One S's otherwise stellar build quality.
As you can see, the T-Mobile version of the One S does not have the oxidized black aluminum finish of the international version, but a rather distinct painted silver gradient that goes from light to dark the further down the device you go. It's very striking, because on the front of the phone, the bottom of the frame is nearly black, while the top is much lighter, giving it a sort of "two-tone" appearance.
I actually prefer the look of the One S to its bigger brother, the One X, in some ways, though both devices are truly at the pinnacle of modern handset design, and mark the beginning a new era for the look and feel of Android phones. And really, while you may not care how a phone looks all that much, people walking into retail stores do, and I have no doubt that the One S is going to get a lot of attention sitting on one of those white T-Mobile pedestals.
Moving on to the more functional side of things, the power button on the One S is definitely too far recessed for my taste, and while the press action is good and provides solid feedback, I just don't see why it couldn't be raised a little higher. The volume rocker, while similarly recessed, is very long, making in-pocket or otherwise eyes-off adjustments easy. I think HTC's goal here was to make these buttons look as flush against the chassis of the phone as possible, as both are seated very low.
Hardware / Performance
The One S represents the cutting-edge of Android in terms of hardware and performance (mostly) - thanks in large part to its Qualcomm S4 dual-core processor. The S4 is the first 28nm processor to go in an Android phone, and it's the most powerful dual-core mobile processor in any Android phone, as well. Four cores makes for great marketing buzz, but really, the Krait is such a great chipset that I really don't care how many cores it has - this thing flies. As a point of reference, here are some results from the GLBenchmark offscreen 720p test, a resolution-agnostic way of comparing GPU performance (higher score is better):
- Samsung Galaxy S II: 4727
- DROID RAZR: 3202
- HTC One S: 6326
- HTC One X (T3): 7164
Benchmarks aren't everything (or anything close to it, really), but GLBenchmark provides a good way to compare the raw GPU power of devices, and the One S clearly runs away with it when compared to the Galaxy S II and RAZR. I won't dwell too long on performance, because really, the One S feels like it makes Android go about as fast as your fingers are capable of keeping up. There is the occasional hiccup, though, such as when the device decides to push the app drawer out of memory, resulting in a prolonged load when you try to bring it back up. Additionally, the 5-button launcher seems to get confused at times, failing to recognize presses of the app drawer icon.
Overall, though, in terms of smoothness and snappiness, you won't find a better-performing Android phone on the market today.
In regard to storage, the One S may fall short for those who demand expansive space on their mobile devices. While the One S is advertised as a 16GB phone, only 12GB of that is usable out of the box, around 2GB of which is dedicated to apps. The One S does not have expandable memory of any kind, meaning you're stuck with that 12GB for the duration.
For media junkies, this may be a deal-breaker. For almost any casual user, the iPhone has proven this amount of storage is perfectly adequate, and frankly, something tells me HTC is more concerned with the average Joe than the FLAC enthusiast. Still, given that the One S has a removable top panel, it seems fair to inquire why there wasn't room for a microSD slot.
Calls / Wireless / Sound
In terms of phone calls and signal, the One S performed well during my time with it. Call quality was strong, and came through the One's speaker grille crisp and loud. T-Mobile's 4G HSPA+ network, where you can get signal, is quick enough for big app downloads and music streaming (I got around 5-8mbps down/1.5-3mbps up in my area). The One S also has one of the quickest Wi-Fi radios I've seen on a mobile device (or it just gets very good signal, either being a good thing).
The ping is definitely wrong.
As for Beats Audio, well, let's just say it doesn't make the phone any worse. Sound out of the HTC One S headphone jack is a bit louder, and definitely heavier on the bass, than most other phones, but it's not like it's demonstrably better. If HTC were to include a superior headphone amp or loudspeaker, the whole Beats thing might be a little more convincing. For now, it remains a gimmick - you get boosted bass and a logo on the back of your phone.
To wrap up the hardware section: HTC's notification light is still basically useless. It's nearly impossible to see unless you're looking straight down at the phone, mostly because it's incredibly tiny (one hole on the upper speaker grille). I've always wondered why HTC doesn't come up with a better solution (read: bigger hole), but I rarely rely on the notification light anyway.
Sense 4. If there's one thing that has stirred up emotions about HTC Android phones since the days of the Hero, it's Sense. Love it or hate it, Sense is HTC's branding of choice for Android, and it invades almost every nook and cranny of the OS. The thing about Sense is this: talk all you want about its "ugliness" or "bloat" - it doesn't slow down Android a bit on the One S. Personally, I think it adds a number of enhancements over stock Android, and I find I'm pretty neutral on the aesthetics.
I'm not here to convert anyone, though, so here are some screenshots of Sense in action - make your own judgments.
I'm a big fan of the Car app (large landscape screenshot), as well as the interface for adding apps or widgets to homescreens (center shot in the bottom row). HTC also eschews the standard Android app switcher first introduced in Honeycomb for its own paginated system, which I can't say I see the point of. Still, like many of HTC's changes to Android - it doesn't really affect how you use your phone, Android is Android is Android, it just looks and feels a little different on the One S.
I'd also argue that Sense makes Android more "friendly" for novice users. Basic additions like apps for taking notes, using the LED bulb as a flashlight, and a voice recorder just make Android feel more complete. Even simple steps like including the official Facebook and Twitter apps can make a world of difference for someone who has never used a smartphone before. And in case you've forgotten, HTC includes 23GB of additional Dropbox space (for 2 years) on all of their Android phones, which is a definite plus, and getting this extra space is made very easy - just sign into the app and click on a confirmation email.
The lockscreen is one part of Sense I really don't like. Too often I find myself accidentally hitting one of the four quick-launch buttons instead of the unlock circle, but that could just be a result of the fact that I'm not accustomed to reaching so far down on the screen to unlock my phone.
The keyboard included with Sense is probably the best HTC implementation yet, but it's definitely imperfect, and takes a lot of getting used to. The spacebar is just too small, and this results in accidentally hitting either the period or enter key far too often, and attempts to enter a comma hit the inexplicably poorly placed hide keyboard button on the lower left.
Additionally, the accuracy of the keys themselves is very average - if you prefer to type out all your words key by key, you're far better off with a 3rd-party keyboard. The HTC keyboard's saving grace is its prediction engine, which is extremely good. Since most people prefer to type using prediction engines, the spacebar and punctuation placement become less substantive gripes. Still, it's sad to see that no Android manufacturer seems to be able to make a software keyboard with the accuracy of the iPhone's - the Galaxy Nexus is the closest I've seen any device come to Apple's implementation.
At the end of the day, most people will like the look of Sense, and the changes it makes to Android, especially people who are new to Android or smartphones generally. Power users may lament the bloat, and the outdated looks (the dialer does look pretty awful), but it all works pretty well, and more importantly, makes Android a little more "user-friendly" - and that's what really matters.
The Super AMOLED panel on the One S is one piece of hardware on the phone that isn't cutting-edge. While it's not bad, the display is highly reminiscent of the one found on the DROID RAZR, and uses the same PenTile subpixel rendering scheme at the same qHD resolution. Compared to the S-LCD2 on the One X, it's a very noticeable step down. See the close-up shot for PenTile's now-infamous edge-pixelation.
Given that the One S is markedly cheaper than its larger sibling, it's pretty obvious this is where that money was primarily saved. If you're very concerned with display quality, the One S may disappoint - phones like the Galaxy Nexus, Galaxy Note, and the upcoming One X on AT&T will surely best the screen of the One S.
The One S's display also has the same yellow gamma shift as most AMOLED panels (though it is decidedly less pronounced), and doesn't get extraordinarily bright. Sunlight performance is on the very edge of acceptability for a high-end device. Again, I wouldn't call the One S's display disappointing, it's just not very exciting.
The One S gets amazing battery life. To give you an idea of what "amazing" means, using it as a replacement for my daily driver entailed the following:
- 3 push-synced Gmail accounts (50-100 messages per day, total)
- 1 Facebook account (sync default)
- 1 Twitter account (push sync)
- Multiple other synced apps
- Automatic brightness
- Wi-Fi off and on
- No Bluetooth
- GPS on
- Mobile data on
I would call my use "moderate-heavy" - I'm not playing games or listening to music often, but I do check my email and Twitter quite regularly, and use my phone for casual web browsing and texting. Under these conditions, the One S will easily last you an entire day or more. With slightly more conservative usage (lots of Wi-Fi, low brightness), you might even be able to manage 2 days.
The reason the battery life is so good seems to be two-fold. First, the Qualcomm S4 processor, because it's on a 28nm process, just consumes a lot less juice than previous-generation dual-core mobile chipsets. Second, the idle drain on the One S (especially overnight) is very low. While the One S has no power management settings, it seems to have a very efficient "sleep" mode, reducing idle power consumption to almost nothing, especially during off-hours. Just look at this graph (which started around 9PM), and you'll see what I mean, it's quite obvious when I woke up and started using the phone:
Even with Wi-Fi off at all times, the One S still gets far above-average battery life in terms of idle drain. When the display is on, you're shooting photos/video, or playing a high-end game, consumption seems normal for an Android device. If I were to sum up the battery life in a single sentence, I'd say this: the One S is the first Android phone I've used where I haven't had to obsessively check how much charge I have remaining. Enough said, I think.
HTC has been very aggressive in marketing the camera on the One S and One X (they share the same hardware), and it seems at least some of that puffery is deserved.
First and foremost, the One S shoots photos crazy fast. Like, as fast as you can tap your finger. The rapid shot mode, initiated by holding down on the capture button, shoots a burst of photos in extremely quick succession, and lets you pick (and also suggests) a "best shot." There are a myriad of camera settings, too, including ISO, filters, lighting, and flash behavior.
The real questions you have, no doubt, are about quality. So, onto the samples (unedited, uncompressed, unaltered).
Those are the good pictures - selected from multiple shots taken of the same scene. As you can see, the camera on the One S loves to saturate colors, and in good lighting, the effect is actually quite nice. While the tint of the sky in some of the images is less than vibrant, greens and reds "pop" very well. Unfortunately, when it comes to shadows or low light, the One S's performance drops off dramatically. For examples, see below:
Top: daylight with shadows, bottom left: daylight in shade, bottom right: night
For a phone, the One S has a very good camera. Is it as good as the iPhone 4S? I'd have to say no - the colors just don't feel right, and the autofocus can be less than cooperative at times. But this is very likely the best camera on any Android phone to date, and that's no small feat. So, if you're looking for a phone with a good (even great) camera, the One S will not disappoint.
The One S is easily the best smartphone available on T-Mobile today - nothing else comes even close. I also think it's currently the best Android smartphone in the US (at least until the One X comes to AT&T, and the EVO 4G LTE to Sprint after that). Not just because of its amazing design and build quality. Not because of its blazing-fast S4 processor, its laudable battery life, or its class-leading camera.
It's a great phone because all of these things have come together in one device. I can't think of another Android phone that has ever brought this level of fit and finish (and most importantly, usability) to the market, and I can scarcely imagine buying something that doesn't meet the expectations the One S has shown me I can now have of a smartphone.
Is it perfect? Of course not. The display isn't great. Beats Audio is near worthless. Sense still needs some cleaning up (dialer, lockscreen, general theme all come to mind). But the thing is, these problems don't detract from the One S in ways that I really find myself caring about on a day-to-day basis. And because of that, the One S has proven to be the most enjoyable experience I've ever had with an Android smartphone. I would recommend it to the Android Police team, to my mom, to my friends, and to people walking down the street - it truly is an every-person's phone, and that's really something to be excited about.