Yep, I'm calling it: the HTC One is the most important smartphone that will be released this year. And I know, this year is far from over - but let me explain why I think it will hold true regardless of what's to come.
Right now, the smartphone industry is slowly but surely evolving into a duopoly. Samsung and Apple control a larger piece of the proverbial pie than ever, as almost every other major Android OEM's market share shrinks - a trend that has continued for nearly two years now. HTC has borne the brunt of this sea-change, something a quick look at the company's financials can tell you in more words than I will here.
Around this time last year, HTC was already in need of a jumpstart. The One X was a valiant but ultimately ineffective effort to get back that lost momentum. This year, Peter Chou's company needs an emergency transplant, and the One is a freshly excised heart resting in an Igloo ice cooler. It's do or die - and it's all too clear that HTC is aware of this. That is why the One is so important: if it fails, it seems increasingly unlikely HTC will be able to recover.
The One will be on all four major carriers in the US (well, Verizon is rumored to be coming later, but seeming very likely). It's built on a durable, highly stylized aluminum chassis, and its dual front-facing speakers give it an instantly-recognizable façade. The One sticks out like a Countach in a Walmart parking lot. It's not all flashy anodized this and unibody that, though; HTC has packed some legitimate innovations in here. The rear camera is like no other smartphone's, and those big perforated speaker grilles aren't just for show. A brand-new Sense doesn't simply throw a fresh coat of paint on top of Android, either - this really is unlike any other device's software experience.
This leaves two questions to answer. First, has all of this stuff worked? Did HTC's big bet on big changes pay off? And second, even if it has, is there a real reason to choose the One over another phone? To the first, I say yes without hesitation. The One is a brilliant smartphone. To the second, I really do believe there are reasons. I just hope HTC can convince consumers they're ones worth thinking about.
HTC One: Specifications
- Price: Varies by carrier and region
- Processor: 1.7GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600
- GPU: Adreno 320
- Network compatibility: Varies by carrier and region
- Operating system: Android 4.1.2
- Display: 4.7" S-LCD3 1920x1080 (469 DPI)
- Memory: 2GB RAM / 32/64GB storage
- Cameras: 4MP rear, 2.1MP front
- Battery: 2300mAh, non-removable
- NFC: Yes
- Ports / expandable storage: microUSB / none
- Thickness: 9.3mm
- Weight: 143g
- Build quality: Not only is the One gorgeous, it is hands-down the best built Android phone ever. It feels extremely solid and well put together. You cannot buy a phone more tightly assembled than this that doesn't start with a lower-case i.
- Sense 5: I really, really like it. It's hard to articulate in a couple sentences why, but I'll just say this: HTC's gone through it with a fine-toothed comb - the level of attention to detail / smoothness is impressive. It's also just a refreshing take on Android, something no other UI overlay really offers right now.
- Dual front-facing speakers: Do I really have to explain this? They sound great and are literally a bajillion times better than any other smartphone speaker I've heard.
- Camera: The One's camera has received mixed reviews, but I think that's bull. The UltraPixel sensor is an absolute win. Combined with HTC's new video highlights and Zoes (and already stellar camera software), I think this is the best smartphone camera on the market right now.
- Display: This is probably the best smartphone display out there right now. It fixes issues with color accuracy that the DROID DNA's 1080p panel had, and the result is an absolutely gorgeous screen. I finally think the One X / X+ have met their match.
The Not So Good
- Battery life: It's reasonable by 2012 standards, but there's no leap forward here. Battery life is decent, but not remarkable. Some people will be reaching for a charger before the day is out, depending on how you use the phone. I made it through most days, but I really was hoping for more.
- Power / volume buttons: I'm struggling to find negatives, so this one's relatively minor - the power button and volume rocker are too far recessed into the phone's chassis, making them difficult to find with your fingers, and sometimes difficult to press.
- Capacitive buttons: I don't mean the lack of a recent apps or menu button, I mean the ones that are there. The touch targets are too small, and they're kind of hard to tap until you get used to them. Again, a pretty minor complaint.
- Notification light: Like every HTC phone in the last year, the notification LED is all but worthless. Too small, too hard to see.
- It doesn't make me breakfast? Being serious, I do have a lot more minor complaints about the One that you'll read in the review, but they're just not bullet-worthy. This is an insanely good phone.
Design and build quality
When HTC unveiled the One X last year, it was arguably the best-looking Android phone ever made. With the One, there isn't an argument: this phone is drop-dead gorgeous. I like it even better in black, but the unfinished anodized aluminum look is fine by me, too. Some people (whom I can only assume have never gazed upon a One in person) have alleged there are visual similarities to the iPhone 5, but I just don't see it at all. Considering that Apple and HTC have an IP truce at the moment, I also suspect that this design very intentionally steers away from any kind of iPhone vibe. Maybe it's the whole aluminum thing? That aluminum, by the way, does have its downsides - scratches are more noticeable, and so is anything else that decides to stick the One's body (eg, sweat and oil).
Either way, the One is an ode to smartphone design, with a look all its own. The white polycarbonate banding around the sides and across the back provides a striking accent, and keeps the phone from looking (and feeling) too cold or sterile. Everything feels like it's part of the whole design 'package,' communicating a consistent aesthetic that elegantly highlights function, rather than hiding it. The milled circular holes for the sensors and front-facing camera aren't an eyesore, but a point of interest.
The aluminum volume rocker is embedded perfectly into a gap in the white plastic banding. The black power button is actually translucent, as the IR blaster sits directly underneath it to more naturally use the One as a TV remote. HTC has also finally moved its microUSB port back to the bottom of the phone, albeit off-center to the right. Whether this is an issue of chipset placement or simply about breaking the rules, I don't know.
Holding the One, everything feels very tightly put together. There is no flex, no creaking, no snapping. The beveled aluminum edges make it much more pleasant to hold than you would imagine, too, though I'd still say Samsung holds the crown in the 'handfeel' category. The volume and power buttons have a nice, clicky action, but both are a little too far-recessed into the chassis - I often reach for the power button and miss because it sits so flush against the phone, and sometimes I simply can't find the volume rocker. This feels like a design decision more than an engineering one.
Embedding the notification light in the upper speaker grille, as HTC has done for quite some time now, is a neat way of blending it in to the phone, but the result is a functionally useless light. It's is too small and too dim, you really can't see it unless you're looking straight down at the phone.
The One's display is probably best smartphone screen I've ever seen. HTC fixed the blue-cast issue on the DNA's 1080p panel, and the result is magnificent. The One's S-LCD3 IPS panel is extremely subdued in comparison to Samsung's AMOLED's, and lacks the much more apparent blue hue shift of the 1080p IPS display on LG's Optimus G Pro. The One probably has the most balanced color reproduction of any high-end device released this year - just don't rely on what my camera is showing you, for whatever reason the color is all out of whack in the photos.
The 1080p 4.7" display provides sharpness well beyond what your puny human eyes will ever be able to appreciate, and viewing angles are absolutely superb. Brightness is strong, as well, but really isn't noticeably better than any other 1080p LCD display out there. I think LG's Optimus G Pro actually gets a touch brighter, but suffice to say, the One is very adequately luminous.
Oh, and HTC's auto-brightness mode is actually automatic, and it actually works. You hit the checkbox, and it sets the brightness. No slider bar nonsense, and it adapts to most situations perfectly. No one seems to be able to get this right except HTC, and they've had it right since the One X. It's still right on the One. HTC also uses some kind of dynamic contrast adjustment based on the content you're viewing (it can't be turned off), which allows it to lower the brightness a tad more in certain situations without reducing visibility in auto mode, and gives it the illusion of even better contrast regardless of the 'auto' setting. For example, when reading black-on-white text, the contrast adjusts to make the white really 'pop.'
To wrap this section up: you won't find a phone out there with a display that will make you happier than the One's for sheer beauty. AMOLED diehards will still lament LCD's not-quite-black blacks, but I'd argue the other benefits (brightness, color accuracy, true 1080p) are absolutely worth it.
It's... OK. I'm really conflicted on how to land on the One's battery life. On the one hand, it's served me well getting through a day out of the house until 6 or 7 PM. On the other, I already suspect the Galaxy S4's 2600mAh battery will easily best it. On a day out - taking photos, checking email, Twitter, etc., the One never died on me. That usually entails 2-2.5 hours of screen on time, and a relatively constant stream of email. While testing the One, I kept Wi-Fi off, brightness at auto, mobile data always enabled, and Power Saver mode off until I hit 15% remaining battery (which unfortunately did happen several times). Remember: not using Wi-Fi uses a lot more battery than using it. I think some people, for whatever reason, think the opposite is true.
Anyway, the One has battery life that I'd basically equate to the One X+. For light to moderate users, it's totally adequate. If you're a phone addict, you're going to have issues if you're not using Wi-Fi throughout the day. I've become rather spoiled using a Note II when it comes to battery longevity, but switching to the One wasn't a total shock. I did have to think about how much battery I had when I left home for an extended period of time, and I did catch myself 'panic charging' (eg, "Oh crap, I have to leave in 45 minutes but my battery is at 20%!") a couple times. That just doesn't happen with the Note II or Optimus G Pro.
Yes, everyone wants better battery life. No, the One does not advance the industry by leaps and bounds in this area. But I think that for all but the heaviest phone users, what life the One's 2300mAh battery does provide won't disappoint - it just won't wow, either.
Storage, wireless, and call quality
The One comes with 32GB of internal storage, of which around 25GB is actually usable. There is no microSD card slot. AT&T will carry a 64GB version of the One, but if you absolutely need more storage on your One and can't live with Ma Bell, the unlocked developer version of the phone (with LTE) comes with 64GB as well.
I received a Sprint version of the One to review, which has basically made my wireless experience awful. I was never able to maintain an LTE connection in Los Angeles (and that includes testing in four distinct geographic regions) for more than what seemed like 10 seconds - it constantly just flipped back to 3G, often losing all connectivity in the process for 15-30 seconds. When I did get LTE, the speeds weren't anything to write home about compared to other 4G service that was also available in those areas: anywhere from 5-10Mbps down and 6-7Mbps up. AT&T and Verizon LTE in the same locales were able to double those figures. Of course, Sprint's LTE rollout is also far from complete (LA isn't even an official market yet), so I was stuck on 3G most of the time anyway, which was often tantamount to not having a data connection at all. I'll just say this: I won't be switching to the Now Network any time soon.
Call quality was strong, and the One's earpiece speaker delivered a consistently good experience. I can't say anyone on the other end remarked upon the clarity of my own voice, but I never suspected they were having trouble hearing me, either. Perhaps that 'dual-membrane' microphone will make more of a difference when Voice-over-LTE (VoLTE) starts to roll out.
Audio and speaker (yes, this is the BoomSound part)
OK, let's start with the headphone jack. I'm pretty sure HTC is using the standard headphone amp Qualcomm sells with the Snapdragon 600, and that's good: it's a very nice headphone amplifier, and Qualcomm's audio hub has always impressed me. Music from the One sounds clear and clean, and gets plenty loud - you aren't going to find a smartphone that sounds noticeably better.
So, that leaves us to the One's dual front-facing speakers, aka BoomSound (I won't write it again, promise). Yes, they're very loud. But not only are they loud, they sound great. You could easily prop up the One against something in a quiet room, sit back, and do a little YouTube watching. In fact, I just did exactly that here at my desk for the last 20 minutes with the volume set to max, and there really wasn't any noticeable clipping. One thing to note about these speakers is that you probably won't want your notification ringtones set to max volume, as that could get really annoying (they are loud).
Combined with the great display, the One is without a shadow of a doubt the best smartphone for watching video content sans headphones. Nothing comes close. It sounds almost as good as my laptop speakers. Just make sure you have Beats enabled, as when it's turned off the experience is decidedly less impressive. This is a bit of an annoyance for me, as I don't want Beats on when I'm wearing headphones, but I do want it without them. Oh well.
Camera (yes, this is the UltraPixel part)
I admit, I was one of the One camera's early detractors. All the sample shots I saw looked pretty unremarkable, and oftentimes had a washed out or overexposed quality to them. Apparently, though, a software update was issued that improved the quality of the photos, and I'm guessing this Sprint handset already has that patch, because I've certainly not been left wanting by the One's camera.
I'm not going to explain the whole 'ultrapixel' thing. People who understand cameras better than I do already have many times, so feel free to exercise your Google-fu. I'm much more interested in discussing what I think makes it so awesome, and there's really two factors to that. First, the One's camera is capable of capturing really, really great photos. Even by non-smartphone standards, I managed to get some very impressive shots using the One, only adjusting the 'scene' mode occasionally. The second aspect of this awesomeness is the ease of use of the One's camera. You point, you tap, you shoot - and it gets it right I'd say 80% of the time on the first try. Exposure, ISO, and focus are all working in harmony to get the photo you want to take.
The latter is what I think many people underestimate the importance of. You can have the greatest camera in the world, but if the camera's not being told how to capture the photo properly, it doesn't really matter - you'll end up with a mediocre picture. Now, don't get me wrong, I took plenty of botched shots on the One, and still habitually take 3-4 snaps at a time. But part of that is definitely psychological: the One can provide much better photos than its predecessor, and you start to expect that level of quality on every shot. You get picky, and what would have passed for usable last year is no longer good enough this year.
HTC has talked a lot about low light performance, and it seems they have reason to. The night shots you'll see below aren't going to win any Pulitzers, but the level of detail and range of lighting and color captured at 8PM (sundown was at 7:20PM) on a dark suburban street handily trounces anything this side of a Lumia 920, and most comparisons I've seen have it beating even that device. Note that these photos were taken with "Night" mode enabled - and that does make a big difference (shutter speed drops to 1/7").
The photo on the right was taken in a basically pitch black house.
That low light performance also translates into an ability to parse out dynamic lighting situations more effectively, making shots like the one below possible without the use of blurrying HDR (that car in the middle is moving) or the artificial look of an LED flash (which would delay the photo).
Are certain smartphone cameras out there probably going to best certain aspects of the One's camera? Probably. I found, for example, that the Xperia ZL's Exmor RS sensor has a better eye for detail in (well-lit) macro situations, and produces less noise. Of course, the ZL's camera takes longer to capture, is more prone to blur, often has issues with exposure, and is more difficult to focus. I imagine that Nokia's latest and greatest Lumias, when they come out, may do a little better at night than the One. And I'm willing to bet Samsung's Galaxy S4 camera will have its merits, too. But I don't suspect they'll provide the complete package the way the One does.
The strength of the One's camera is in its flexibility. It takes good outdoor shots, good indoor shots, great motion shots, good macro shots, good night shots, and good backlit shots. And it does so pretty easily. When it comes to smartphone cameras, I believe it's far better to have the best all-around performance than it is to focus on a single aspect of photo-taking. Smartphones are often used to capture candid, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. What good does low light performance do you when you're trying to get a picture of your kid awestruck as he rides a bicycle without training wheels for the first time? And how does hardware HDR help you capture the beauty of a fireworks display? HTC's philosophy on cameras, I think, is about having the right camera with you for every situation - and that's why I think this is the best smartphone camera to date (barring the PureView 808, perhaps).
The one negative thing I will say about the One's camera is that the HDR sucks. It's basically broken. Nearly every HDR photo I took came out washed out and way overexposed - far worse than just switching to backlight mode on the scene selector. Maybe this is because my phone is running prerelease software, or maybe the One's just not very good at processing HDR photos. Either way, after trying it in numerous situations time and again, I gave up. The results were consistently bad. And as a piece of general advice when using the One's camera - wipe the lens every time you pull out the phone. It is crazy sensitive to fingerprints / oil, and it will make your photos look washed out and blurry.
And if you're wondering where all the Zoe and HTC Share stuff is, it'll be in the software section - the Camera app has a subheader. I'm going to toss a few more samples down here, because why not.
Performance and stability
Compared to my Note II, the One X and X+ always felt like laggards - they stuttered and hesitated when the going got rough, and bogged down when multitasking. The DROID DNA made things a little better by upping the RAM to 2GB, but it was still apparent that I could do everything faster in TouchWiz or stock Android. Sense 4 just wasn't fast. Sense 5 finally is. The app drawer loads up lightning quick, homescreen panes swipe without hesitation or delay, and menus scroll with absolute smoothness.
That said, I already expect the Galaxy S4 will be smoother and quicker, and even the Optimus G Pro I'm testing feels more responsive in some regards (swiping homescreens is a bit faster). However, those increases in speed are finally reaching a point of diminishing returns, I think. In part because we can only do so many things at once on a touchscreen that fits in our hand, and in part because, well, phones are just getting pretty damn fast. I would like the unlock animation to be a little quicker on the One, for example, but I'm guessing it's that way because HTC chose to make it that way.
Regardless, this is one of the fastest phones on the market right now, and is likely to remain so for quite some time.
On the stability end, I've not had any major bugs or issues with the One's software so far. Actually, I can't even recall a single force close incident in the last week. That's kind of impressive for a brand-new high-end phone.
Frankly, I dread this part of almost every phone review I write. Mostly because I'm usually not sure how to turn three words ("I like it" / "I don't like it") into a thousand talking about a UI overlay that's largely similar to some other UI overlay, with a few relatively unimportant distinctions that don't really affect your day to day usage of a device very much. Thankfully, the One has more changes than most phones - HTC's getting fairly aggressive in crafting its own user experience here. Some people may hate that. Some people may find it refreshing. You can definitely put me in the latter camp.
What I like about it particularly is that Sense 5 doesn't feel like it's just painting the walls and stuffing furniture in the apartment that is the Android operating system. HTC is remodeling the bathroom with a sledgehammer and tearing out that awful deco linoleum in the kitchen - they mean business here.
General UI and navigation (homescreen, lockscreen, app drawer, etc.)
Modifying Android's general UI and navigation paradigms is often considered somewhat taboo. Google, after all, is behind the world's most popular phone OS, and it might make sense that they sort of know what they're doing. HTC hasn't completely turned Android on its head, but even for me, my first day with the One provided a few moments of confusion - things are different here.
Let's start with the homescreens. Your default homescreen is BlinkFeed (next section), a roughly chronological catalogue of 'story tiles' from various news and social sources. Again, I'll discuss it in more detail later. This will already confuse the bejesus out of most people, because it looks nothing like a typical Android homescreen. It doesn't even look like a widget. Thankfully, the launcher bar is still at the bottom with the app drawer, and the notification bar is still up top, which will quickly orient most people.
Swipe to the left, and nothing happens - you get scroll bounceback. The BlinkFeed homescreen is set to the leftmost pane (this cannot be changed). That's a little odd, though I think it makes sense in a way - you begin on the left when you're in a book, why would you start in the center on a paginated UI? There is the point that you'll only be one swipe away from two other homescreens at any given moment by starting in the middle, though, so HTC's decision does mean more swiping if you choose to use BlinkFeed as your default homescreen. While BlinkFeed cannot be turned off, you can set your default homescreen wherever you want, which I ended up changing to the first 'real' homescreen.
Homescreens are pretty normal otherwise. HTC's full-blown widget / shortcut addition UI (brought up by long pressing in an empty area) is still here, though it works a little differently, using an overflow menu instead of tabs to switch categories... which doesn't really seem like a step forward, but whatever. The search function for widgets and app shortcuts is still present, too, a part of Sense I've really come to love, as it saves me have to swipe through 20 pages of tiny widgets to find what I'm looking for. Work on making that happen, Google. You can add additional homescreen panels, but only two, for a total of four, not counting BlinkFeed. If you use more than four, you'll need to download a custom launcher. I personally can't say I've ever used more than three.
The home button's behavior has been changed from stock Android in a way some people may find odd. If you launch an app from the app drawer, then hit the home button, you don't go 'home' - you go back to the app drawer. It still weirds me out occasionally, and I'm really not sure this was a good idea. I'm fairly used to it now, but it still makes my brain double-take sometimes when I end up back at the app drawer after pressing home. Wait, am I home? Nope, I'm in the app drawer - I need to press home again to actually get home. Adding to that potential confusion is the fact that the back button doesn't do anything in the app drawer (in stock Android and basically every OEM skin, it will take you home).
The lockscreen has changed for the first time since Sense 3.5, and gone is the metallic pull-up circle. Now you just pull up on the clock / weather widget above your quick launch icons. Frankly, my brain finds this hard to process sometimes. Because the text lies flat against the background, it doesn't feel like an animated UI element. My finger also naturally gravitates to the much more animated-looking quick launch icons, and I have inadvertently pulled up on one of them instead of the clock on several occasions.
You can choose between several lockscreen styles (or no lockscreen), and I'm personally partial to the productivity one. It shows your upcoming calendar events in a swipeable list, along with SMS's and email from the stock email app (sadly not Gmail, though). HTC remains the only OEM of which I am aware that manages to control both Pandora and Amazon MP3 playback from the lockscreen, and as a user of both services, it's a very nice perk for me. Play Music works, as well.
The lockscreen unlock animation has also been integrated into two parts of the One's UI - BlinkFeed and the app drawer. On the BlinkFeed homescreen and the app drawer, there is a clock / weather widget that looks exactly like the one on the lockscreen. If you left your phone in either of these places before turning off the display, then turn it back on and unlock it, the clock widget slides up to the top of the screen, stops, and becomes the widget on BlinkFeed / the app drawer. I'm probably not explaining that very well, but otherwise, if you leave the One anywhere else but those two places before locking it, then unlock it, the clock widget simply fades away as it slides up the screen. It's just a neat little flourish.
This is the animation stage by stage - the clock starts at the bottom, slides up, and then stops at the top when BlinkFeed appears.
Time to move on to the app drawer, which I decidedly disliked the first day I used the One. Now that I've become accustomed to its ways, I actually like it. Sense 5 uses a vertically scrolling paginated app drawer - you swipe up and down pages of apps instead of left to right. That part is easy enough to get used to. I actually kind of prefer it now. Potentially less likeable are the oddly-hidden settings / shortcuts in the app drawer. When you pull up the app drawer by default, you just see your clock / weather widget, and 3/4 of a page of your apps. Pull down (like you're trying to go up, that is), and a menu of options suddenly appears.
App drawer settings hidden and open, respectively
It's cool, but also a little disconcerting! You have a pull down menu for sort options, and a 3-dot for other stuff, along with search and Play Store shortcuts. Was that extra bit of UI cleanliness / quarter-inch of real estate really worth the extra step, HTC? I think this is going to confuse a lot of people.
You can hide apps and change the app drawer grid size.
Interestingly, your quick launch shortcuts are also persistent in the app drawer. This I kind of get (you can also tap the app drawer button again to go home). You'll notice that the shortcuts for the apps you have in the quick launch bar are not present in the app drawer. There is actually a logical reason for this, and it's not just duplicate OCD. You cannot remove icons from the quick launch bar on the homescreen. Can't be done - if you drag it out of the bar, it'll just create a homescreen shortcut, and the original will remain.
Left 2: No. Right 2: Yes.
You can only do it in the app drawer, where dragging an icon into the drawer will put it back. Hey, that actually makes sense! I have accidentally removed one of my quick launch icons from the bar many times on almost every phone I've owned. This basically ensures that can't happen, without the need for an annoying 'lock' setting toggle. What makes less sense is that things can be added to the quick launch bar from the homescreens, which is actually just as annoying when it happens, because you'll end up creating a folder. As you might have intuited based on the way this works, that means you have to complete a secondary action to drag an app from the app drawer to the homescreen, otherwise you'd have to drag your quick launch icon into the app drawer, then drag the app drawer icon onto the homescreen. The Sense 5 app drawer requires you to hit the 'Shortcut' target in the top left (in screenshot #3 above) to actually send an app to the homescreen, which is admittedly annoying. You can still uninstall apps by dragging them to the top right, though, which is good.
The notification bar will comprise the shortest paragraph of this section: there's a clock, the date, a persistent toggle to activate power saver mode, and a settings shortcut. It is the cleanest notification bar you'll find outside of stock. I do miss my notification bar power controls, though. I'd gladly give up a little cleanness for those.
Finally, there's the recent apps menu. Given that there is no multitasking button, just home and back, your first instinct will likely be to long press home. Nope - that brings up Google Now. You have to rapidly double-tap the home button to bring up the recent apps menu, which HTC has totally redesigned. You get a 3x3 grid of your recent apps - meaning a maximum of 9 recent apps to choose from. Compared to the Sense 4 recent apps menu, this is a godsend.
Compared to stock Android, I'm not sold - the tiles are pretty small, and without the app icons to label them (text only), I have to search for that app I want longer than I'd like. Visual cues, HTC: they're important - Dropbox, Facebook, and Twitter look pretty dang similar when they're the size of a postage stamp you're just trying to glance at. You can remove apps from the recent apps menu by swiping up on them, by the way. I have only accidentally single tapped and gone home instead of bringing up recent apps a couple of times since I've had the one, but I will admit to long pressing several times before remembering to double-tap. Again, this could be confusing to some people.
OK, you're ready to talk about BlinkFeed now, right? Because we're going to do that.
It's easy to toss off BlinkFeed as a neutered reader widget that takes up one of your homescreens. And hardcore fans of services like Pulse, Flipboard, Currents, News360, and Feedly will probably look at it with absolutely zero interest whatsoever. As a person who uses literally none of those things on any kind of regular basis, I actually kind of like BlinkFeed. Your mom will probably like BlinkFeed, and many of your less tech-savvy friends probably will, too. I've started using it pretty often when I'm waiting in line at the store, getting lunch, or, yes, on the toilet. It's undeniably convenient, and the fact that it forcibly occupies one of your homescreens means you will check it occasionally.
So, is it any good? Right now, it's definitely usable. All the animations are smooth, the tile interface is very pretty, there is a respectable selection of mass-consumption-friendly content and categories, and the reading UI is actually nice and simple. But it still feels incomplete in several key respects.
First, there is some content. I want more. Or the ability to add my own. For example, I like car news, but Autoblog simply isn't my favorite car blog. It's not my second favorite. It might be my third. But it's the only featured automotive news outlet in BlinkFeed. Same goes for political news - I'm sorry, but I am just not a fan of HuffPo (the only real option - Reuters and AP are too broad), I'll take CNN any day for my political drivel. If I had more content options, I would use BlinkFeed more, plain and simple, because it's actually pretty good at what it does.
Moving on the second issue (or issues, really), there are some basic functional problems with the app. If you're reading an article in BlinkFeed and then head over to Gmail to read an email, there's no way to get back to that article. It's not in recent apps, and hitting Home just takes you to the BlinkFeed splash. Back does the same. Now, there is some memory to BlinkFeed, because it will come back to the set of tiles the article you were reading was on. So you can get back to it without thumbing through a million pages. But right now, leaving and coming back to BlinkFeed is really annoying.
The other problem is with the paginated tiles - you thumb through sets of three to four at a time vertically, but to refresh the list, you pull down at the very top of the feed, which also reveals the menu (like the app drawer). That part in itself is fine, but there's no quick way to get back to the top of the feed! You have to thumb back through every set of tiles one at a time, which you can do relatively quickly, but not quickly enough. There needs to be a way to 'go to top.' Maybe a two-finger swipe down or something, I don't know, but something needs to happen here.
Update: Turns out, you can go to the top of BlinkFeed by just tapping the notification bar. So excuse that last paragraph. It'd be nice if they explained it a little better, though, or had some kind of visual cue.
The social integration into BlinkFeed (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Flickr are supported) is what's going to make it for most average consumers. You can even post from the BlinkFeed splash to Twitter or Facebook. People go to social networks to read a feed of things that are potentially relevant to them, and to get a glimpse into the lives of people they care about (or don't).
BlinkFeed crams all that into a single homescreen pane in a very accessible, user-friendly way that you simply can't avoid. It is also dead simple to use and set up, I have to give HTC credit for that. The way it intersperses news and social content is pretty even-handed, too, so unless you really want to see every single rehashed Reddit meme your friends post on Facebook (eg, disable almost all other news / content sources), you probably won't. In summary, I think HTC did something very good here - it's not perfect, but it's the most useful thing to happen to Android homescreens for regular people in years.
I'm warning you: this is going to take a while. I'm going to start with the gallery app, because it's got a couple cool things worth talking about. The first is undoubtedly video highlights. Sense 5's gallery arranges your photos by event (a chunk of time, usually a day) by default. Yes, that is annoying if you don't have photos with timestamps, or are looking to access your screenshots, and you'll probably go back to album view immediately. Event view is worth using for one feature, though, and that's video highlights.
Selecting items for a video highlight.
Video highlights are automatically assembled videos (stay with me here), but they're more like an Instagram-meets-Vine-meets-montage kind of thing. So, the gallery looks at a particular event, chooses a bundle of photos and Zoes (if you have any), and then puts together this thing called a video highlight. You can pick a soundtrack (with accompanying filter), mix the order of the content around, choose up to 13 photos and Zoes you want to include if you don't like the random choices, and then share the result - a 30ish second video clip. You can upload it via HTC Share (more on that in a minute), or as an MP4 file to the service of your choice. The files are quite small, too, so storing them locally won't eat a ton of gee-bees.
You may scoff at something as simplistic and crude as a random assemblage of photos and video with a few filters and some background music, but this is basically magic to casual smartphone users. You open up the gallery, see the highlight video, tap it, and you get a cute little clip you can share with your friends or family to preserve memories. It's very, very easy, and it's actually pretty cool.
Now, what's HTC Share? Well, if you go into an event in the gallery and hit 'share,' you'll have the option to upload to HTC Share. This uploads your video highlight, and up to 10 additional photos or Zoes that appear as a mosaic on the web. You can view them on the HTC Share website for up to 180 days (yep, there's a shelf life). Here's a sample album I uploaded, including a couple Zoes. The fact that these "Shares" have a finite existence is probably going to be off-putting to hardcore photo takers, but really, I think HTC's strategy here is logical. People won't ever use HTC Share as a dedicated photo repository, because it's not built to be one. People will share links to Shares (yo dawg) on their preferred social networks, and those social posts will only receive attention for a finite period.
The main splash of the gallery app contains not only your photos, but photos and videos from your Facebook friends and liked pages, which you scroll through in a manner exactly like BlinkFeed. This is exactly the sort of social integration I don't want. The gallery app has a function: managing my photos. I don't want other people's photos.
The real problem is that you can't turn this integration off unless you turn off account sync for things like Facebook. Annoying. However, the "My Photos" section is always at the top, so at least you can escape this socialized view quickly and easily. Going into my photos with album view, you not only get camera shots, but Dropbox, Picasa, Facebook, and Flickr albums. Screenshots get an album, too. Unlike Sense 4, you can now hide any of these albums if you should so choose. But if you want to see these pictures in the first place, you have to be in album view mode. Events view only shows local content taken with the camera. Again, I see potential for confusion here by making events the default view.
My last gripe about the gallery app is the way sharing and deleting is accomplished. You have to choose "Share" or "Delete" from the tabbed options at the bottom of the album or event your viewing, choose your sharing service, and then all the pictures reflow with checkboxes. Then you choose what to share, then you hit upload. The user flow is all out of whack.
The order of operations here does not make sense.
Stock Android and TouchWiz's implementation - long press to start multi-select, then choose an action - is simply superior and much more logical. It's a little hard for me to believe HTC left it this way.
Alright, next up is the camera app. The camera has two basic modes: normal and Zoe. Normal mode works like every other smartphone camera you've used - tap to focus, tap the camera icon to take a picture, and long-press it for burst shot (which works great, by the way).
HTC's scene modes are simple and to the point: portrait, landscape, backlight, text, macro, night, and HDR. Sweep panorama also gets its own mode. You won't find some of these modes on other smartphone cameras. Namely: backlight, text, and macro. The fact is, a software algorithm is only so good at detecting what it is you're taking a picture of, and then adjusting to optimize for that situation.
Sony's tried to make this automatic on the Xperia Z / ZL, and I'll admit, with some success. HTC has decided to let you decide. So instead of tapping furiously at the focal point in normal mode for a macro shot, you just go to macro mode, and the camera figures out what object has the shortest focal length in the scene, and focuses on that. Backlight mode realizes you're trying to get the best exposure balance in a photo, and text mode understands you really want crisp, contrasted text.
And when you're in normal mode, it's not like getting the results from these other modes is impossible. Macro shots are perfectly doable, and tapping to a desired exposure level is still pretty easy. The modes just make things more simple and automatic. HTC also doesn't play 'hide the ball' in the camera UI - the 3-dot menu button houses all of the settings. I often get a little confused where things are on really crowded camera UIs (looking at you, Samsung), so this is a benefit in my opinion. The scene modes are the second item on the list after the front / rear camera toggle.
All your other standard camera tweaks are there - video capture mode (slow motion, fast HD (60FPS), video HDR (1080p)), a timer, aspect ratio, review duration, continuous shooting, white balance, ISO, image processing adjustments, and more. There's also a dedicated shortcut at the bottom right for Instagram-style filters (ugh).
So, what's all this Zoe business? A Zoe is a video - sort of. Actually, a Zoe is your camera taking full resolution (4MP) stills in very rapid succession, and recording audio at the same time. The result is a 3-second clip called a Zoe. Think of it like a Vine with sound and without looping, but shorter - it's a lot better than a GIF, but it's also not really a video, either. This sounds really, really useless at first blush - but it's actually not! Zoes, because they're composed of still photos, can be navigated through like a series of pictures. You can then choose frames to extract and save as photos - you can even edit them straight from the Zoe interface.
Think of it like a really powerful burst shot mode. And the neat part is that Zoe includes the second before you actually hit the capture button, the benefits of which should be obvious. The downside is that this means Zoe is capturing images continuously as it runs, and I doubt that's great for battery life. Zoes can, as I stated earlier, go inside video highlights - but they're not the same thing.
A captured Zoe still
The one annoyance I found here is that when you choose to save a frame, you're kicked out of the Zoe and to the frame you just saved. It makes saving multiple frames from a Zoe much more difficult than it should be.
This is easily the best keyboard Sense has ever shipped with. I haven't found a single truly annoying aspect of it yet, and the prediction engine has been spot-on, generally. Accuracy is very high in practice, something I've consistently found to be true of HTC's software keyboards. Gesture typing is included (must be enabled manually), and it actually works very well, even if it's not my preferred input method.
Of all the OEM keyboards I've used on Android, this is the best. SwiftKey is still better in many respects, obviously, but I've not had the near-immediate urge to switch that so many other phones give me. This is a great keyboard if you're like me and like to type out every word, and I can't imagine anyone would be particularly unhappy with it. If this was my phone, I'd have probably downloaded SwiftKey by now, but as an out of the box experience, HTC's Sense keyboard is very, very good.
I'm going to give this one some brief attention since the One's IR blaster received a lot of love when the phone was announced: HTC's included a TV app powered by Peel on the One.
The polite thing to say is it's not done yet. The TV app is very pretty and all (waaaaaay better than Peel's Android app), but it just doesn't seem complete. Swiping panes causes a refresh and re-flow every time, and that's really annoying. I couldn't get On Demand listings to work reliably, and the number of video services the app can cross-reference for streaming is pretty limited (Hulu Plus, Crackle, Watch). Movie listings can be sparse about information (an IMDB link would be great!), though season listings and upcoming episode schedules for popular television shows seem pretty robust. You're getting pretty much anything Peel has in terms of info, so that's quite a bit.
I just wish the app flowed and ran a little better. Choosing what channels you have is also a nightmare - there are around 800 U-Verse channels available in my area and I had no idea which I had and which I didn't. This actually matters because Peel will suggest shows on the 'best' channel you select as available during setup.
I successfully - and very easily - paired the One with a Samsung flat panel TV, AT&T U-Verse box, and Denon stereo receiver. Everything worked fine, but you don't have as many buttons as you do on your satellite/cable remote, so be aware this can never be a complete replacement. It's not going to change your life, but it's definitely a nice feature to have - there is something very cool about being able to tap a television show on your phone and have it appear on your TV.
I accidentally discovered another neat feature of TV while I was playing with it, as well: if your display times out while in the TV app, and your gyroscope then detects motion, it will wake the display. So whenever you touch the phone the display will come back on, if you were in the TV app last. It's kind of a niche use scenario unless your screen timeout is set really low, but it's neat nonetheless.
The settings menu on the One looks largely like Sense 4 phones before it, just with a different font and icons. I honestly haven't noted any significant expansion of things you can adjust (though HTC did add a 'kid mode,' which given how much I've already written, I won't be diving into), but there are a few changes. If you're using a PIN, pattern, or password to unlock your phone, you can now allow missed call info, SMS previews, and music controls to show without having to unlock the phone (I'm pretty sure that's new - but not 100%).
System font, for whatever reason, has been moved to the 'Accessibility' menu (it's still in display settings, too), which I highly suggest turning to 'small' if your eyes are any good. HTC's content transfer tool is still present, and if your old phone runs Android 2.3+, you can wirelessly transfer contact information, installed apps (they install fresh from the Play Store, though - no settings / login info), and a few other items to your new One. The easy setup tool on the desktop is another option.
The new double-tap gesture for multi-tasking has a speed recognition setting, which you will absolutely want to leave at 'normal,' because the other, slower settings will delay the responsiveness of the home button significantly. The power menu looks the same as ever, and still doesn't show the display as part of your battery usage information, because apparently someone still thinks that's a good idea.
Power saver mode works just the same as it has since Sense 4+, as far as I can tell, and it comes on when you have 15% battery remaining no matter what - you can't adjust that behavior. You can turn it off after it comes on, and it won't come on again, but still - give me the option to set when or if I want to use it, please. Many of you will rejoice to hear that HTC now includes a toggle for 'deep sleep' mode, which basically stops data sync from 11PM to 7AM on Sense 4 / 4+ phones to greatly reduce idle battery drain, and I'm pretty sure it works the same here.
There's a new Wi-Fi notification popup, as well, and it's extremely annoying - whenever you open an app while Wi-Fi is turned on, but you aren't connected to a network, the UI below pops up. Luckily, if you delve into the advanced settings area of Wi-Fi in the settings menu, you can disable this wonderful 'feature,' also shown below.
Other Apps (calendar, browser, FM radio, etc.)
The One comes with the standard gamut of built-in productivity and utility apps, like a calendar, clock, calculator, etc. The calendar app is quite nice, in that it defaults to 'agenda' view, so you're not just looking at a big empty schedule with no details. Google Calendar and Samsung's S Planner both have an agenda mode, but they just use a simple vertical list. HTC's calendar uses tabs that you swipe across horizontally. This does prevent the scroll lag that Google and Samsung's apps exhibit, but if you want to see a particular day's agenda that's more than a week in either directions, that's a lot of swiping. One cool thing about HTC's agenda mode, though, is that you get a countdown in minutes of your upcoming (within 2 hours, I think) events for the day, which is kind of nice.
The calculator is nothing special, car mode looks like a skin-only refresh, and the FM radio app still does FM radio. Actually, the FM radio is a little more useful on the One than most phones because of the powerful front-facing speakers (you can set the radio app to speaker mode - you still need headphones).
The stock browser is quick and smooth, as it has always been, and still includes a bundled version of Flash Player (11.1). So that's kind of neat, even if you despise Flash (like me). The dialer is a dialer - I think it's substantially prettier than the old Sense 4 one, though. I still think the number pad is a bit too small.
If you made it through this review not thinking that I love this phone, read it again. I love this phone. I really, really do. I am probably going to go buy one (pun absolutely intended). It's easily the best Android phone made to date. Not just because it's aluminum, not just because Sense 5 is a great take on the Android OS, and not just because it has a fairly outstanding camera. It's because of all those things: no phone has compelled me in the "total package" way that the One has. Sure, there are flaws. But every phone has flaws, and the HTC One's pale in comparison to many of the other smartphones I review.
Issues with Sprint aside, using this phone has been an absolute joy. I really am struggling to find serious problems with it. HTC has a great product, one they should be glowingly proud of.
Let's hope consumers feel the same way.