Hands On With the HTC One

HTC One

HTC's gorgeous new flagship phone, the HTC One, doesn't look like any other phone on the market. It's a solid piece of aluminum with a next-generation processor and the densest, most colorful screen I've ever seen. It turns your photos into videos. It boots into something that looks like Flipboard. It runs hundreds of thousands of apps, and it'll be available on several major U.S. carriers.

We got to spend some time with the new HTC One, and it's very impressive. The phone is a block of tough, silvery aluminum with two inlaid plastic lines on the back; apparently, it takes more than three hours to mill and tool the metal for each phone. At 5.4 by 2.7 by 0.36 inches and 5 ounces, it's similar in size to most other flagship phones nowadays.

This is one of those phones you have to hold in your hand to understand. I had the same feeling about HTC's One S. There's nothing flimsy, nothing plasticky, nothing removable. It has the same precision-tooled solidity as the latest iPhones, but feels much more durable.

The "UltraPixel" camera on the back is slightly inset to prevent scratching. On the front, a thrillingly bright 4.7-inch, 1080p Super LCD 3 comes in at 468 pixels per inch, the densest I've ever seen. It's bracketed by loud, dual front-facing stereo speakers on the top and bottom with built-in amplifiers, and there's also a 2.1-megapixel, wide-angle camera above the screen. Dual-membrane microphones help the phone capture loud and quiet sounds without distortion. The power button on top of the phone doubles as an IR emitter, so you can use the One as a universal remote control.

Inside, this is the first phone we've seen with the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor, a quad-core chip running at 1.7 GHz. The phone will come with either 32 or 64GB of storage and 2GB of RAM, and it's backed by a non-removable 2300mAh battery to support that very dense screen. There's no memory card slot and just two ports: a headphone jack and a MicroUSB that doubles as an MHL output for HDMI TVs.

HTC Sense 5 and Android
At Tuesday's launch event in New York, HTC CEO Peter Chou said that "although smartphones are one of the main ways we stay in touch with the people and information we care about, conventional designs have failed to keep pace with how people are actually using them." HTC plans to remedy that, it said, with a brand-new version of Sense, along with a number of new features like "BlinkFeed."

The HTC One runs Android 4.1.2 with HTC's new Sense 5, a very heavily customized skin. (Android 4.2 is coming soon, but HTC said there isn't actually much difference between 4.1 and 4.2 on phones; I agree.) You know you're in Sense even at the lock screen, which has the famous HTC time-and-weather widget; your notifications shoot across the screen in stylish gray bars.

The most striking new innovation here is the BlinkFeed, which is basically Flipboard on your home screen. HTC can't say "Flipboard," because it doesn't have a deal with Flipboard, but it looks and works like Flipboard, mixing in news feeds, social media updates, and local information like calendar alerts into a shifting, scrollable set of panels. You can get rid of BlinkFeed and go back to the standard Android home screen, of course.

I don't love BlinkFeed, because I actually have things I like to put on my home screen. But HTC made a good argument that this is for people who don't think about their home screens much, and who just want a stream of default, readable content. In any case, Blink Feed won't make or break this phone—there's a lot else going on.

Dig down deeper and HTC has changed a lot of things. There are only two buttons below the screen, not three or four as on most recent Android phones: to get to the multitasking feature, you have to double-tap the home button. The app icon grid defaults to a spaced-out three by three with folders rather than the usual four by five. All of the standard PIM apps, like the dialer, contact book, and calendar, have "pivots" where you swipe left and right to see different categories of information.

But that's not all! The One also includes a "kid mode" with parental controls and a new Web-based setup and data transfer system that lets you easily customize your phone and bring data over from iPhones or other Android phones.

It's all very well-designed and elegant, a little bit understated, and with fewer odd "bloop" noises than you get on the Samsung Galaxy Phones. On the other hand, it isn't "stock Android," which will drive purists nuts. Frankly, we're not seeing much of the "pure Google experience" anymore.

Groundbreaking Camera
We'll drill down on the One's camera features in a separate story. But HTC is trying to replace megapixels with "ultrapixels," cutting down the size of photos but using much larger individual pixels to sharply reduce noise and improve low-light performance. The idea here is to give you images that look like they were taken with a real digital camera, not a cameraphone, at a resolution that you'd actually use: 4 megapixels, more than enough for a 4x6 print or Web viewing. I saw a comparison of low-light pictures from the One, the iPhone 5 , and the Samsung Galaxy S III , and the One's images were far clearer and brighter.

The phone also sets your photos in motion, with a new feature called "Zoe." Short for "zoetrope," the Zoe mode records three seconds of video every time you take a photo. You can look at the Zoes individually, or let the phone automatically sew them together into a 30-second "highlight reel" from an event or evening made up of photos, videos, and Zoes. When I saw a demo of the highlight reel, it looked compelling but still needed some tweaking; highlights from a day at a cooking class properly included shots of chopping vegetables and sizzling meat, but also threw in a couple of random shots of blank walls and floors. HTC is fine-tuning that intelligence, the company said.

It Isn't Apple, It Isn't Galaxy...
HTC makes a lot of good phones; I considered its One S for T-Mobile to be one of last year's best phones. But the company is getting positively crushed in the marketplace by Apple and Samsung, largely on the back of Samsung's massive advertising spending.

HTC's old slogan, "Quietly Brilliant," was maybe too humble in an era of smartphone makers who are quite loud about their brilliance, and its strategy of letting carriers take the lead on marketing doesn't actually seem to sell HTC phones anymore.

If everything works as expected, the HTC One will probably have better build quality than the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S IV, and the ultrapixels and Zoes set it apart.

The HTC One will begin shipping "in late March" on AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile. Pricing has not yet been announced. For more, see the slideshow above.

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