I really like the HTC One. I also really like the Galaxy S4. And the Optimus G Pro. And that's because there are a lot of great Android smartphones out there right now, and really, none of the very best ones are actually bad (nor are any of them perfect). And if I were to ask you, our readers, what would be the first thing you could change about any of them - if it could be just one thing - a few months ago the consensus likely would have emerged as "give them stock Android."

Well, we're two out of three - the HTC One and Galaxy S4 are both available in stock Android iterations, aka Google Play Editions, and are yours for the buying (if you're in the United States - admittedly a major caveat). A Google Play Edition is sort of an almost Nexus. Google promises to work "closely" with HTC and Samsung on providing quick Android OS updates, while HTC and Samsung still bear much of the responsibility for optimization, drivers, and developer resource policy. Eg., you probably won't be seeing the GPE devices showing up in AOSP (Android Open Source Project) any time soon.

Still, the One and S4 GPE are as close as you can get to a Nexus without actually buying a Nexus phone. This isn't a hacked-together custom ROM, and it isn't just stock Android - this is a Google-backed endeavor, sold by Google, with the promise of support (whether you choose to attach meaning to that promise is your own prerogative, of course).

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I've used a standard HTC One as my daily driver for some time now, and I quite like it. When I was given a chance to try out the One Google Play Edition, I obviously was curious. Would I like it more? Less? Would I be utterly ambivalent? For the last two weeks I have carried both of these phones everywhere with me and I think I've come up with a conclusion, albeit one I don't think everyone is going to sympathize with.

The One GPE is a very good phone. I could easily and happily live with it. But given the choice? Right now, I have to pick the Sense version. That could change in the future, but it's inherently uncertain - a change of opinion would rely heavily on just how much improving certain aspects of Android and the One GPE's firmware get. That's not exactly a place most people want to be with a phone, unless it's for the sake of being on the bleeding edge of Android - and that is what you're supposedly getting here.

This isn't going to be a normal review. I'm going to hammer on points of distinction - not similarity. This is a comparison. If you want to know about the HTC One more generally, check out our review of it.

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Comparisons of actual things

Hardware, design, and build quality

It's the same freaking phone.

Camera

Some reviewers have been lenient with the One GPE's camera. I am not going to be one of them. The camera is not outright bad, per se, but in comparison to the standard One, it is utterly inferior.

First, there's image quality. The One GPE softens the ever-loving God out of every single image it captures. The amount of detail lost in photos is staggering, and only made worse by the Ultrapixel sensor's 4MP resolution, which does not lend itself to much cropping. These pictures are usable for social media and the like, but at anything above 50% scale they just don't look very good. Here are a few photos I cropped to demonstrate this - Sense One on the left, GPE One on the right.

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This must be intentional. I know many people hate the way photos look at full crop after going through HTC's digital processing (sharp, noisy), and I'm guessing Google wasn't a fan. So, to reduce this effect, they cranked up the softness, big time. I suppose there's an aesthetic preference argument to be made here, but I just can't get over the loss of detail, especially in complex textures like the brick wall in the first pair of examples.

The One GPE also tends to overexpose shots, has difficulty deciding on that exposure in the first place, and suffers from the same autofocus problems Nexus phone users have been stuck with for years. I rarely ever get an out of focus shot on my normal One - the first shot is in focus 90% of the time (without tapping to focus), and if it isn't, the second one is. On the first shot of a scene, I'd say roughly 30% of the One GPEs photos were in focus, with the 2nd and 3rd shots tending to get with the program if I hadn't already become frustrated and just used tap-to-focus.

I asked HTC about this, and their response was basically "we tried our best." In other words, the blame here is getting punted back to stock Android - something I fear will become a trend should other issues with GPE phones arise.

Could any of this be fixed in updates? Maybe. The autofocus problem is one that has plagued stock Android for years, though, and as a result, many OEMs have licensed or developed their own AF software. HTC uses a DxO Labs library in Sense devices that works very well. Whatever is in the One GPE does not, and I can only assume that's because Google wanted to use the built-in Android solution to keep things simple.

Then there's the stock Android camera app. It's just not very good. No ISO settings, no contrast / saturation / sharpness adjustments, no filters, very few video settings, limited scene modes, no burst shooting, and a craptastic UI for adjusting what few features are there. But hey, you can take photo spheres, so there's that. Supposedly the Android 4.3 camera interface will be a lot more usable, let's hope it also gets a lot more powerful generally.

The Camera on the One GPE is enough to keep me reaching for the normal One most of the time. I want a phone with a great camera. The One GPE's camera, as it works now, is not great. It's decidedly mediocre.

Display

Oddly, the One GPE's display appears to be calibrated differently than the standard One. Colors are noticeably cooler, and thus, a bit more accurate. The color shift also appears to lean a bit more toward the blue end of the spectrum, but only just. These pictures illustrate the difference pretty well, though keep in mind that the GPE One is also a little dimmer, so the contrast on the Sense One (left) is a bit exaggerated.

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Auto-brightness on the One GPE adjusts much more gradually than the standard One, and appears to be just a bit darker in most situations. It is usually not too dim when to set to auto, however, a problem even high-end phones like the Galaxy S4 have apparently yet to figure out.

It also doesn't seem to get as bright. HTC uses some kind of active white / color balance adjustment witchcraft on the standard One, allowing it to appear to have greater contrast in certain situations, and the GPE doesn't exhibit this behavior as far as I can tell, but it also seems like the One GPE simply doesn't crank up as far. Take a look at the pictures below, and you'll see what I mean. Maybe this explains the GPE's superior battery life? I reached out to HTC on this, and I'll update if I hear back.

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Battery life

It's a little better on the One GPE in most circumstances. Granted, my GPE review unit has slightly fewer apps than my personal phone, but the most power-hungry services are still being synced, and I find the One GPE consistently ends up with more juice remaining by the day's end. The difference is not earthshaking, but it is definitely noticeable, and obviously quite welcome.

Storage, wireless, and call quality

There's about 26GB of free storage available on the One GPE, which is about 1GB more than the comparable Sense One, so you aren't really getting much more on the gee-bees front with stock Android.

Data and signal reliability on the One GPE has been spottier than my normal One. Both are on AT&T, support the same bands and have the same radio hardware, and both live in my pockets, so signal conditions for both devices are damn near identical. The One GPE seems to lose data connectivity at times (still shows a connection, just won't load anything), though the frequency of such incidents is on the order of once every couple days, and after 30 seconds or so it seems like it manages to fix itself. I will say this isn't a problem I've had on the standard One.

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Tethering just seems flat out broken at times, though. It works, but I constantly have problems on my tethered devices. Either no data is moving, or the connection is actually just lost and has to be re-acquired. Like, every 45 seconds. I tried multiple tether apps. My normal One does not have this problem. It is irritating. It doesn't happen all the time on the One GPE, but it's definitely been an issue.

Data speeds are also consistently higher according to Speedtest.net on the GPE phone, especially for LTE. I have no idea why this is - my APN settings are identical, but the results consistently show the One GPE edging out ahead by 5-10%.

Call quality is about the same as it is on the normal One. It's a cell phone. It sounds pretty crappy. But it's decently loud and certainly no worse than any other smartphone I've used.

Audio and speaker

I tested Bluetooth audio on the One GPE and the standard One with a pretty decent set of Bluetooth on-ear headphones, and didn't notice any difference in quality or reliability of streaming. Android 4.2's switch to Google's in-house Bluetooth software stack has been maligned from day one - rightly so on some devices, like the Nexus 7 - but here it seems to be working A-OK.

There is a Beats Audio mode switch in the One GPE under sound in the settings menu. It does exactly what the other One's switch does.

Performance

I'd say the One GPE is often noticeably quicker just moving around through the OS than the standard One. Running apps and the like, though, it feels pretty much the same. The difference really isn't material to liking one phone over the other, though - they're so close in this respect that it's not a big deal.

Comparison of experience

This part of the review is much more subjective. You've been warned. As far as what I've noticed that matters to me in choosing one device over the other, there have been some things I've noticed. I'll keep it short.

  • I like BlinkFeed to be there: If I'm stuck in line somewhere or for whatever reason occupying myself by aimlessly digging around my phone, BlinkFeed is a nice way to kill time. However, I'm not a big RSS user, and I never used Google Reader. The GPE One obviously doesn't have BlinkFeed, so that's a point off in my book.
  • A less good camera is a bad camera: More than anything, the One GPE's subpar camera performance made me hesitant to grab it at any given moment. It really bummed me out when I only had the GPE with me and found something I wanted to snap a photo of, because I knew the normal One would take a much better picture. I also missed Zoe and Sense's many camera tweaks and settings.
  • HTC's home button behavior is dumb: On the Sense One, if you launch an app from the app drawer, or multi-task away from the app drawer, hitting the home button thereafter sends you back to the app drawer. You have to tap it again to actually go home. This wasn't a good idea, HTC. I get the logic, but the result is so annoying. +1 for the GPE, which obviously does not do this.
  • Double-tap to multi-task is also dumb: I constantly screw this up when I try to do it on either device. I will say I have grown to prefer HTC's multi-tasking UI, though - you see your 9 most recent apps all at once, no scrolling. Just tap.
  • Sense 5 is pretty: I prefer the look of Sense 5 to stock Android hands down. Not even a contest in my eyes. Your mileage may vary.
  • Power saver mode: Yes, you can get apps that emulate - to an extent - HTC's power saver mode that comes on when you reach a certain battery threshold, but having it built into the OS is convenient, and I never understood why stock Android doesn't have an equivalent feature. Everyone else does.
  • I couldn't care less about the IR blaster: Even if I had a big home entertainment setup, I wouldn't use the IR blaster, so its functional absence on the GPE really didn't bother me. This feature is still pretty nascent on phones, and the IR app ecosystem is still catching up. Not having it isn't a big deal, at least for now.
  • I prefer the Sense keyboard: Prediction is better and accuracy is pretty much on par with the stock Android keyboard. It's a bit less responsive at times, but otherwise, my favored text entry tool. I will say the stock Android keyboard has gotten a lot better over the years, though.
  • No notification bar power controls is annoying and makes no sense: I don't like that Sense 5 doesn't have power control toggles in the notification bar. Easily my favorite TouchWiz feature (yes, I know it's in other phones, too). I also don't like Google's half-ass solution with the secondary notification pane. I will never, ever use it. So, I use the old Android power control widget instead, which is less than ideal.
  • HTC's Sense dialer is bad and they should feel bad: Sense 4 leftovers to the max. HTC's dialer will erase the phone number you have dialed if you multitask out of the app or even switch tabs in the app. That's just laziness, and there's no excuse for it. Stock Android's dialer is clean, simple, and friendly. HTC's is an ugly, cluttered mess.

Conclusion

Generally speaking, after a few weeks with the GPE One, I still find myself reaching for my regular One instead. It has a few things that matter to me - a better camera, BlinkFeed, a great keyboard - and those things are enough to keep me firmly planted in the Sense camp.

I'm not you, though. The GPE One is geared at an audience looking for a stock Android experience on an unlocked high-end phone. It's a hell of a niche, but the niche does exist (apparently), and obviously the One GPE will please those individuals more than the Sense-ified handset.

While I cannot quite understand those persons who unrelentingly demand a "pure Android" experience, there is one legitimate trump card that the One GPE may yet play against its Sense sibling - the next major version of Android. The big "K" release. Maybe it's coming this fall. Maybe it's not. But if it is, it would all but certainly mean that the One GPE would be getting a taste of a big revision to Android many months before the Sense version. That is, if this whole quick update thing goes according to plan. That could certainly change things, particularly if the "K" release comes jam-packed with new features.

All in all, if you're considering the One GPE, there aren't any big red "do not buy" flags, aside from the camera. Which may get fixed, or it may not. Personally, I'm not overly confident on that  - Google's always had a hard time with cameras in Android. But if you don't care about the camera, or BlinkFeed, or just have a burning hatred for Sense generally, the One GPE is a perfectly serviceable phone. It's actually a great phone (again, aside from the camera).

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But now I'm going to take this opportunity to rant a bit.

If you're expecting buttbows and candy and unicorns to burst fourth from the One's vibrant S-LCD3 simply because it's stock Android, it may be time to for a bit of a reality check. Custom UI skins did, at one point, suck. I know. I was there. I hated them too. Really. MOTOBLUR. Early TouchWiz. Whatever the hell LG's thing was. I remember Sense 3.5 getting completely out of control with toggles and switches and menus. It really was an era of malaise for Android smartphones. If that's the kind of mentality you have about skins today, though, I'm sorry - you are living in the past. That's just not the state of affairs anymore. Sense, TouchWiz, and even LG... thing are no longer bloated branding exercises that serve only to drain your battery and kill your frame rate. Yes, they do slow down updates a bit, but at this point the features and functions they add are probably going to weigh favorably against what is for most people a near-meaningless Android version number.

The argument for the GPE experience is much weaker today than it would have been 18 months ago. The differences between Android 4.1 and 4.2, or even 4.1 and 4.3, really aren't a big deal for anyone but hardcore enthusiasts and power users. And even for those individuals, the bump in version rarely matters - it's mostly about having the latest and greatest thing as soon as possible.

Obviously, the GPE One is catering to a tiny, tiny audience that does care about such things. A niche of a niche. And I guess there's nothing wrong with that, apart from there not being a lot reason to do another round of GPE phones. Regardless, those people will probably be mostly happy with the One or Galaxy S4 GPE. As far as a second act for the GPE program goes, we'll see what happens.

From where I'm standing, though, more and more of the smartphone innovation seems to be happening on the OEM side, and not in the Android OS. Just look at Motorola, or Samsung (even if some of Samsung's innovations are of questionable utility). And even when Google does add something to Android, be it compatibility for some new standard or a new API, developers and other third parties don't really get in gear to support it until a Samsung or HTC or Motorola starts shipping a device that can make use of it. This is why Google seems to be doing more and more of its Android innovation through Google Play and Google Play Services - opening up new features to tens of millions of handsets immediately, only adding things at the core OS level when absolutely necessary.

Anyway, I don't want to get too far down this rabbit hole. I just can't help but feel the One GPE is a phone whose time has passed before it ever began. Again, there is nothing particularly wrong with it, but there isn't anything extraordinary here, either. Stock Android, at one point, really was a desirable, beneficial feature. Now it just kind of feels like a lifestyle choice.

To each their own, then, I suppose.

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