Last year, HTC made the best Android phone in the world, the HTC One.
Tech reviewers like me couldn’t say enough nice things about the One. At last, someone had built a device that rivaled the iPhone in beauty and build quality. The design and reader’s choice awards piled up. HTC had a real winner on its hands.
Unfortunately, relatively no one bought it. In the year since the original One launched, HTC saw its market share drop as customers chose Samsung phones and iPhones instead.
Still, the company is pushing forward with a new model of the HTC One that launched this week. The new HTC One has a bunch of incremental improvements over last year’s version, like a bigger screen, improved camera, and a tweaked design. Again, this year’s One is a beautiful device, and after spending a few days with it, I think HTC can once again keep its title as the best Android phone-maker.
You can buy the HTC One now for about $US199 with a two-year contract through most carriers. It costs $US649 without a contract.
Smartphones are very personal devices. They’re always with you, either in your pocket, on your desk, or in your hand. Like a piece of clothing or jewelry, the device you choose makes a personal statement about you. When I’m ready to drop $US600 or more on a phone, I want to make sure I’m getting something that looks good in addition to being functional.
Besides the iPhone, I think the HTC One is the only device that accomplishes that. I’ve tested dozens and dozens of Android phones over the years, but so far, HTC is the only manufacturer I’ve seen that’s been able to match Apple’s devices in beauty and build quality.
It’s the same story with this year’s HTC One. The body is almost all metal and comes in three colours: silver, dark grey, or gold. I think the gold model looks tacky, but the silver and grey versions are really nice. Because of all that metal, the One is a lot heavier than other phones with similar-sized screens. It’s also significantly thicker than the iPhone. But HTC added nice curves to the device, so it’s still easy to hold in your hand. It’s also much lighter than it looks.
I have one minor gripe with the design: HTC stuck the power button at the top of the phone, which is kind of difficult to reach on a large 5-inch device unless you have Shaq-sized hands. HTC’s solution for that is letting you switch on the device by swiping or double tapping the screen, but you still have to stretch to reach the power button and switch it off. Samsung and other Android makers put the power button on the side of their big screen devices, which I think is a much better solution.
Overall though, the new HTC One is just as drool-worthy as the original.
All that beauty is pointless unless the phone works well, too. The One is your standard Android device, but HTC layered some special features on top of all the goodies Google normally offers.
The most notable addition is the second camera on the back, which is used as a depth sensor to shift the focus. If you’ve ever seen a Lytro camera, you’re probably familiar with the process. The dual cameras can focus on multiple objects at once when you snap a photo. After that, you have to go into the photo editor and double tap the part of the image you want to focus on.
Here’s a portrait I took of my colleague Jillian. Notice how the One is able to blur out everything in the background thanks to the the secondary camera. If I wanted to, I could blur her out and focus on something in the background instead.
It works pretty well, but I don’t see many people taking advantage of the feature. I care more about being able to take good photos quickly, which the One is more than capable of doing. Photos didn’t look as good as they did on my iPhone 5S, but they’re good enough. I also liked the new camera interface, which makes it easy to switch between shooting modes. And yes, there’s a selfie mode.
Another major part of the HTC One is BlinkFeed, an app that lives on the home screen and pulls in news from social networks and several major news outlets, sort of like Flipboard. BlinkFeed originally debuted on last year’s One phone, but has a cleaner look this year. It also syncs with some other third-party apps like Foursquare and the FitBit fitness tracker. BlinkFeed used to be the default home screen on the One phone, but you now have to swipe over from the home screen to view it, which I think is a good decision. I care more about getting to my favourite apps than reading the news when I switch on my phone.
HTC also made a clever case for the One called Dot View, which flips over the screen and lets you view incoming notifications. When you slip on a Dot View cover, the One’s screen adapts and lets your notifications shine through dozens of tiny holes punched through the cover. It sort of looks like a Lite Brite toy. You can also double tap the cover to get a quick look at the time, weather, and missed notifications. The Dot View cover is clever and cute, but probably not worth the extra $US49 HTC sells it for.
Finally, buying an HTC One comes with a big advantage that other Android phone-makers haven’t been able to match yet: the guarantee that you get the latest and greatest software updates for two years. Rivals like Samsung and LG tend to abandon major software updates for their devices whenever a new phone comes out, but HTC says it will update last year’s One with the same software the new model is getting. That’s impressive.
If you want an Android phone, the HTC One should be the first phone you consider. It looks and feels better than its closest Android competitors, and can handle all the stuff you care about.
Still, if you’re on the fence, you may want to hold out a few more days for Samsung’s Galaxy S5, which launches April 11.