The HTC One mini is, in many respects, very similar to its larger, older sibling, the HTC One. It has a [mostly] aluminum body, BoomSound speakers (though they've been noticeably downgraded), and HTC's Ultrapixel camera. It runs Android 4.2.2 with Sense 5, and its 720p S-LCD2 display with Gorilla Glass 3 is breathtakingly good for a "mid-range" phone.

So, how does it cost a full $170 less than the HTC One? Well, there's more plastic around the frame of the phone (sorry, chamfered aluminum lovers). The front-facing camera has been changed to a cheaper 1.6MP unit. There are only 16GB of internal storage and a mere 1GB of RAM. It uses a Snapdragon 400 dual-core processor. The battery has been reduced to a capacity of 1800mAh. The IR blaster and NFC are gone. And the most obvious change is in the size and resolution of the display, at 4.3" and 1280x720 (not that 1080p is needed on a 4.3" screen).

I'm also at something of a loss as to how exactly the HTC One mini is "miniature" relative to anything but the standard HTC One. While it is substantially narrower (7mm) than the Galaxy S4, and thus more palm-friendly, it's nearly as tall and almost as heavy (the One mini is 8g lighter). The narrowness is important from an ergonomic standpoint, but it's only a small phone in the sense that most other phones are now quite large.

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HTC One mini: Specifications
  • Price: $99 on contract at AT&T ($429.99 off contract)
  • Processor: 1.4GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 400
  • GPU: Adreno 305
  • Network compatibility: 3G (850/1900/2100) LTE (Bands 2, 4, 5, and 17)
  • Operating system: Android 4.2.2 with Sense 5
  • Display: 4.3" S-LCD2 1280x720 (342 DPI)
  • Memory: 1GB RAM / 16GB storage
  • Cameras: 4MP rear, 1.6MP front
  • Battery: 1800mAh, non-removable
  • NFC: No
  • Ports / expandable storage: microUSB / none
  • Thickness: 9.3mm
  • Weight: 122g
The Good
  • A truly excellent 4.3" display. HTC made the right call in terms of keeping a top-tier screen experience.
  • Solidly built, and even more comfortable to hold than the One, somewhat paradoxically, because of the cheaper and more extensive plastic framing.
  • Very good battery life, all things considered. I've read many reviews saying it's subpar, but that's not been my experience at all.
  • I still really like Sense 5, and the refinements brought to Sense since the One was released have made it even better.
The Not So Good
  • RAM. There isn't enough. 1GB does not cut it, HTC, and it was a tragic misstep to only give the One mini a single gig. Task switching and opening / closing apps becomes maddeningly slow the more you use the phone. It ruins the experience for me when this is happening many, many times a day.
  • The BoomSound speakers have been substantially downsized, and they just don't sound all that great anymore. They clip and crackle at high volumes.
  • No NFC, no IR blaster, and no OIS on the rear camera. The victims of cost-cutting, presumably.
  • It's not really all that small for a phone that purports to be "mini."

Hardware

Build quality and design

The One mini, by design, looks very, very similar to the standard HTC One. There are noticeable differences, though, the most apparent of which is the additional plastic around the One mini's aluminum frame. The frame itself is the same stuff, but HTC opted not to give the mini the chamfered aluminum edges, probably reducing the cost of construction substantially. That area is filled in with a hard, shiny polycarbonate plastic. The result is actually, in my opinion, a better phone to hold. The warmth and smoothness of the plastic is a sharp tactile contrast to the the regular One's hard aluminum edges.

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Does it feel cheaper, though? I can't say it does. The plastic does make it look a bit cheaper, I suppose, but I don't think that's necessarily the worst thing in the world. It provides an interesting accent that I think the standard One lacks - it's not so cold and clinical. There is a bit of play on my review unit where the plastic meets the top speaker area, and the volume down button feels, for lack of a better word, mushy. I think both of these issues are ones of quality control, though, not design flaws. HTC has been no stranger to complaints of inconsistent fit and finish when it comes to the standard One, so let's hope they've sorted things out better with the mini.

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The One mini's size (or really, its narrowness) makes it a lot easier to hold in one hand than the Galaxy S4 or normal One. But I think that's sort of a "duh" when it comes to making a phone smaller. I can't say it's such an advantage that I would actually prefer a smaller phone. Big displays for me, please.

Display

It's fantastic, period. The display appears to be a downsized version of the S-LCD2 panel used on the HTC One X / X+, both of which had outstanding screens. By dropping it down to 4.3", that means even at 720p there's more resolution here than your eyes will be able to detect. I can't even really call the One mini's display a downgrade from the One. It's just smaller.

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Compared to the One's S-LCD3, greens and reds are noticeably more subdued and natural looking on the mini, though whites appear a bit dingier. I think some of this is because the One mini's display doesn't get quite as bright, and the viewing angles are very slightly inferior.

All in all, this is a top-notch display. And if you want icing on that cake, the One mini has Gorilla Glass 3, while the standard One is fitted with Gorilla Glass 2.

Battery Life

Despite having a smaller 1800mAh battery, the One mini has had consistently good battery life, something that cannot always be said of its larger brother. This is down to a few things, I think. First, the One mini has a smaller display with fewer pixels to push. That certainly helps. Second, the mini is fitted with a much less power-hungry dual-core Snapdragon 400 series processor, a descendent of the notoriously un-thirsty Snapdragon S4 MSM8960. Third, it's running a newer software build, and HTC has probably eeked out a bit more power efficiency in it. The standby life is outstanding, too.

Like almost any phone, if you use it a lot, you probably won't make it through a whole day. But for light to moderate users, the mini is a power-sipper you can rely on.

Storage, wireless, and call quality

The One mini is equipped with 16GB of built-in storage, of which just under 11GB is available to you, the user. It's a mid-range phone, 16GB is pretty reasonable.

Mobile network performance has been very good, in that I haven't had any problems with the mini on AT&T. Like other Snapdragon 400 devices, Wi-Fi support is limited to the 2.4GHz band. Bluetooth works reliably. The One mini does not support NFC, oddly, and I'm not really sure that was a good call on HTC's part. The IR blaster featured on the One is also gone.

Call quality has been solid, and honestly, I can't tell a difference between calls on the One versus the mini. They both sound like cell phone calls. Surprising, right?

Sound quality and speakers

The audio from the headphone jack on the One mini sounds remarkably similar to the standard One. I believe Qualcomm uses largely indistinguishable headphone amplifiers and DACs on most of its current-gen chipsets, so that's not surprising. And the sound is great, by the way.

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The BoomSound speakers, though, are another story. Are they better than what you'd get on most comparably priced, mid-range phones? Definitely. But these are clearly not the some speakers found on the standard HTC One. They sound much more compressed, are somewhat quieter, and will produce unpleasant crackling when clipping the limits of their volume. Not such a great experience, HTC, and it's probably not going to do much for the BoomSound brand.

Camera

The only real difference between the camera on the HTC One and the One mini is optical image stabilization (OIS) - the One mini doesn't have it. This is undoubtedly going to be of concern to hardcore mobile photographers, so it's something worth noting. This can be especially important in low-light situations (when the shutter speed is very slow) and candid shots. Otherwise, it's the same 4MP Ultrapixel setup, and it largely captures the same kind of photos from a qualitative perspective, though remember to keep your hands steady.

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Like the regular One, exposure in bright scenes can present a challenge for the mini, and there's basically no crop room to play with on those 4MP stills. You get it framed right or you don't. That said, photos snap quickly, and you can get some pretty impressive shots. The Ultrapixel camera is something I've grown a little less fond of over time, frankly, and I now lean toward the Galaxy S4 as the cream of the Android camera crop for the time being. It captures much more detail and generally seems to get color balance and exposure right more consistently.

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Software

Performance and stability

This is where the One mini loses me - it's the RAM. 1GB is not enough for a modern, mid-to-high-end Android device. Is it enough for an Android phone to function reasonably well for people who realize they're buying a kind-of-cheap phone? I guess. But it sure isn't enough for me, even at this price point. And it shouldn't be something you settle for, either. If we're getting into the sub-$350 market, 1GB of RAM might be understandable. The One mini is $430 off contract. Why on earth would I spend that on something which I know is only going to see its performance degrade as time goes on and apps gets more memory-hungry?

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I'm actually also using a Galaxy Mega 6.3 at the moment, which has the same Snapdragon 400 chipset as the One mini. The difference? The Mega has 1.5GB of RAM. Even the Galaxy S4 Mini, with its qHD display and 8GB of storage, has 1.5GB of RAM. The Mega performs miles better than the One mini when task switching / launching apps. Do you see a pattern here, HTC? Even last year, the One X was much poorer at multi-tasking and bogged down under load much more readily than the Galaxy S III, despite the fact that the two used identical chipsets in the US. And it came down, again, to the RAM. The One X had 1GB, the S III had 2GB. It makes a world of difference.

This is enough for me, as a consumer, to discount the One mini as a possible purchase. I can't ignore the fact that after the phone's had several apps loaded up, almost every time I go to launch an app or switch tasks it takes abnormally long because Android is pulling and pushing things back into and out of memory. It's extremely aggravating after you've used so many devices that don't feel like this. If the One mini was substantially cheaper, I might let this slide. But it isn't, and I won't. It's not OK, and it makes for a poor user experience.

I've read numerous reviews saying the One mini is "plenty quick," and yes, moving around the UI and once most apps are fully loaded, it's no slouch. But it's the in-between times, when things are loading, closing, or opening that it really struggles. The launcher constantly reflows when I go home, for example, after using Google Maps. When slowdowns / pauses like this are happening many, many times a day, it is terribly frustrating.

UI and features

The One mini is running a slightly updated version of Sense 5 based on Android 4.2. The One has / will receive this updated Sense version, though US and Canadian Ones will be going straight to Android 4.3. Some international Ones are running this 4.2-based software, however. If you want an in-depth look at Sense 5, which I won't provide here, check out my HTC One review.

HTC has opted to finally remove the "battery saver" persistent notification, as well as the settings shortcut at the top right of the notification bar. It has implemented a slightly modified version of Google's secondary notification pane with power controls (two finger swipe also works to bring it up). I personally think this is a crap replacement for persistent notification bar power toggles (as on TouchWiz and LG's UI, among others). But it does mean the other side of the notification bar is very clean. This may please Holophiles and minimalists.

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The app drawer no longer hides apps that are in your quick launch bar, and moving apps from your quick launch bar to a homescreen no longer results in that icon staying in the quick launch bar and merely producing a duplicate. This definitely is a little more intuitive. Pressing the "back" button in the app drawer will now actually send you back to the homescreen, whereas it did nothing on the old version of Sense 5. Additionally, the home button behavior has been changed, and tapping home will send you to your default homescreen regardless of whether you launched an app from the drawer. In the old version of Sense, it sent you to the app drawer (assuming you launched or multitasked to an app from the drawer), which was rather annoying!

HTC has begrudgingly added back the option to sort-of remap the home button, as well as changed it. Long-pressing still opens Google Now, but swiping up on the home button opens it as well. Double tapping still does multi-tasking. You can remap the button such that long-pressing acts as the menu button, which means apps that force a software overflow menu button will no longer have that ugly black bar on the bottom. More remap options (such as long-press for multi-task, swipe up for Now, double tap for menu) would be nice.

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Smaller changes are to be found on the mini as well. Kid mode is gone, a "Verify apps" toggle is now in the security menu, the power submenu has a new ugly icon for some reason, the car mode app is gone, the gallery app no longer has the BlinkFeed style main splash (which just meant an annoying extra tap to get to your photos), and there's now an app icon shortcut to the Wi-Fi hotspot settings.

Overall, I still like Sense 5, and I still think it's the best case currently being made for an OEM-developed software layer. BlinkFeed is cool, HTC's camera app is stellar, and from an aesthetic standpoint, I prefer the look of Sense to stock Android. The little refinements and tweaks HTC's made to Sense 5 since the release of the One are almost universally welcome, too, and address some of my gripes / confusion with the 4.1-based Sense 5.

Conclusion

I really wanted to like the HTC One mini. But as it turns out, starting with a $600 phone and then cutting $170 of stuff out of it just hasn't worked out exactly how I'd hoped it would. While the Ultrapixel camera is certainly good in many situations, it has its drawbacks (you pretty much can't crop Ultrapixel photos without them looking terrible, exposure can be a bit wonky), and getting rid of OIS takes a significant feather out of its cap. The economy class BoomSound speakers just don't do it for me like those on the regular One, and I'm almost tempted to say just get rid of them to make the mini into a phone that is actually, you know, kind of small. Taking out NFC is a bewildering choice as more accessories are using it for pairing, and more people using it for sharing. And then there's the RAM, that's what really ruins it for me. The One mini does not feel as quick as it should. The extra 1GB, or even 512MB, is such a small price to pay for such an improvement in UX.

And if you have to choose where to sacrifice in order to justify that RAM's cost, HTC, I can help you: literally anywhere else. Change the speaker grilles to plastic? Sounds great. Switch to plastic power / volume buttons? Fine with me. Sell your stake in Beats? Hey, now there's an idea.

If you want to make a good, small phone, you should probably focus on a good user experience above all else. I'm sure some people will buy the One mini and be satisfied enough with it, but I just couldn't. It will inevitably get slower as time goes on, and let's be realistic: that 1GB of RAM is going to be used as a justification for not updating this phone at some point. Even Motorola had the foresight to equip the DROID Mini with 2GB of RAM.

For the regular consumer, perhaps the One mini is perfectly OK. It's not like it's bad, and it's not like going back in the Android time machine to the slow, clunky phones of yore. But for a smartphone enthusiast looking for a good, long term buy? It just didn't hit the right buttons for me. Unless you're willing to go the ROM route and hope stock Android makes better use of that single gig, the One mini ends up feeling cramped and stifling, all thanks to a single specification. That's disappointing.

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