HTC One Hands-On Preview

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After HTC unveiled its new One smartphone today at simultaneous events in New York and London, president of HTC North America Mike Woodward made a bold statement, referring to it as the “best smartphone ever.” Luckily, we were in New York and got to spend some hands-on time with the One and judge for ourselves whether or not Mr. Woodward was telling the truth.

HTC One BackBuild and Design

The HTC One is on the slightly larger side, but its footprint is nothing completely out of control like the Galaxy Note. But for a phone sporting a sizable 4.7-inch 1080p (468 ppi) display, it’s surprisingly comfortable to hold in the hand. This is due in large part to how light it is (143 grams) and the way the edges taper gently towards the rear of the phone, giving it a slightly curved back.

The body, which is almost entirely metal, has a quality feel to it thanks to the matte aluminum finish and what HTC dubs “zero-gap construction.” In other words, the company tried to make the One’s unibody design as smooth and sleek as possible with low-profile buttons and “no moving parts,” as one rep said. Tack on a Gorilla Glass display and a subtle silver color and you have one seriously pretty phone. It will also be available in black, but HTC was only showing off the silver version today.

The New HTC Sense

With the new HTC One, the company is also introducing a new version of its Sense skin for Android, version 5.0. Some of the new UI is familiar, including its zippy performance, though much of that can be attributed to the phone’s impressive 1.7 GHz, quad-core processor humming under the hood. But a new, major part of this version of Sense is the BlinkFeed, which is basically a synthesis of Flipboard and the live tiles from Microsoft’s Windows Phone OS.

HTC One BlinkFeed

Like the live tiles, BlinkFeed displays, well, tiles that are regularly updated with images and small bits of information. Tap on any one of the feeds on the BlinkFeed page and you’re taken to a full version of the story, complete with a larger photo and the ability to share the article through social media or email. While in the full version of the story, swiping to the left or right takes users to the next story on their feed.

The BlinkFeed worked smoothly in my preliminary testing and it’s a great idea, but that’s why it’s been done before. This isn’t anything new and comes across as a bit of a rip-off; in fact, it isn’t even designed as smartly as the live tile setup on Windows Phone. With live tiles, users can simply hold down on any one of them and be given the option to resize it, move it around, or unpin it completely. With BlinkFeed, users have to pull down a menu from the top of the page, select a menu option, and then scroll down a menu of literally all of the services that are available for BlinkFeed and individually mark each of the services they want to show up on their BlinkFeed page.

HTC One Right SideBlinkFeed tiles cannot be resized or rearranged, but there is one handy feature that helps users get what they need faster: from the same pull-down menu, users can select a single service from a list of all of their chosen highlights and their BlinkFeed page will be filtered to show only stories from that one particular service. After they’re done, users can go back to the menu and simply tap “highlights” and the page displaying all of their chosen services will be restored.

Other notable elements of Sense 5.0 included Sense TV (a universal remote app that uses the One’s IR blaster) and a rather peculiar set up for the Android home screens. Instead of the usual set up of five home screens across which users can place widgets or shortcuts to their apps, Sense 5.0 features only the BlinkFeed page — all the way to the left — and two standard home screens.

Almost as perplexing as the truncated home screen setup was the way users are forced to scroll through the Sense UI. The scrolling mechanism essentially snaps to full pages of apps or feeds, meaning that you can’t scroll down just a single line in your app listing. Instead, users have to swipe far enough to force it to snap to the next full page of apps, otherwise too short of a swipe will cause it to just bounce back and users will remain on the same page. This may not sound like a big deal, but when users are accustomed to using just a tiny swipe to go down the page, it will prove to be frustrating since they will be repeatedly snapped back to the same page until they get used to swiping far enough to snap to the next full page.

Camera

HTC is not specifying the resolution of the One’s camera, since the company is insisting that “the age of the megapixel” is over, citing resolution as an irrelevant factor when determining the quality of a camera. It’s all about the size of the pixels now, said HTC, since larger pixels let in more light.

As such, instead of providing a megapixel resolution for the shooter, HTC has dubbed the camera on the One as an “Ultrapixel camera.” Equipped with a BSI sensor, an 88 wide angle lens with HDR capability, and a pixel size of 2.0 ?m, design director Jonah Becker claimed that the Ultrapixel camera can capture up to eight times more light than standard smartphone sensors, drastically improving low-light shooting and minimizing motion blur.

So how did the Ultrapixel camera fare in practice? Its low-light shooting abilities were certainly tested in the dimly-lit, windowless room where the event was being held, and the shots I took of the bizarre parkour demonstration taking place came out with a respectably small amount of noise and graininess.

HTC One TopThe real issue, however, were the action shots, which came out looking mediocre at best. Since the demonstrators were constantly moving, I took plenty of photos with moving targets and I only got one that was even recognizable as a person. The rest were just colorful blurs that revealed that all of HTC’s motion shots from its slideshow minutes before had clearly been taken under ideal conditions.

One other major factor with the One’s camera is the new “Zoe” software, which offers a number of shooting options that, while intriguing, are once again being borrowed from competitors. When using Zoe, whenever users snap a photo, a short video clip is simultaneously shot, with the benefit being that they can then scroll through the video clip to find the exact perfect still if the initial shot was no good.

There are other familiar features, like the ability to combine elements from several shots into one image to create the perfect picture, or automatically generated slideshows featuring pre-selected “highlights” and set to music.

I was impressed when a rep demonstrated the Zoe’s object removal feature, which allows users to do just that: take unwanted elements out of a photo. But there were a couple of caveats. First, I asked if object removal could be handled manually and I learned that it could not; it is only performed automatically. The software uses the short video clip to detect moving elements and automatically marks them for removal. If it fails to mark the thing or person in the picture you want removed, you’re out of luck.

The other issue was that once something is detected and marked for removal, Zoe can only remove it from the initial shot, not the video clip. Therefore, if there is an undesirable element in the picture, but your intended target doesn’t look quite right until a second or two into the clip, you’re going to have to choose: Either you remove that pesky photobomber and use the initial shot in which your targets are smiling with their eyes closed, or you skip to later in the Zoe clip to where their eyes are open and leave in the unwanted element.

HTC One BoomSound SpeakerAudio

HTC also heavily touted the new audio features of the One, including its new music player (an equalizer with scrolling lyrics and artist info), Beats Audio amplifier, and dual front-facing speaker system, dubbed “BoomSound.” It more than a little noisy at the event, so I thought I’d give BoomSound a try and see if it actually achieved HTC’s goal of pumping out headphone-free audio that can actually be heard.

So I started up one of Zoe’s automated slide shows with accompanying music, and the good news was that I could hear it quite well. I could make out almost all of the lyrics and the rhythm could be heard clearly, even if the phone was shaking in my hand a little from blaring the sound so loudly. I even turned a few heads around me; I found it shocking that anybody could hear anything in that place, much less audio coming from a phone.

The bad news was that sound that loud coming from such small speakers is obviously going to get distorted. And boy, was it distorted. With the sound roaring out of these two tiny speakers at such a high volume, it sounded like they were in the process of being torn in half. Needless to say, BoomSound accomplishes its goal in that users will be able to share audio and video with their friends, because they’ll definitely be able to hear it…it just won’t sound great.

Speaking of audio quality, the One is also equipped with two different mics with dual membranes for higher quality audio capture and better voice clarity in noisy environments. So, for example, users can make a phone call from a concert and actually be understandable to the person on the other end, rather than being completely unintelligible as a result of the microphone being overloaded. Unfortunately, I was I was unable to test this feature since the demo phones could not make calls, which was a shame since I was in ideal conditions.

HTC One Sense App ScreenConclusion

The HTC One is a fantastic top-tier Android phone, no doubt about it. It’s got a super sexy build, powerful hardware, and an updated skin sporting new elements like BlinkFeed and improved camera features. But the “greatest smartphone ever”? Look, I know it was just marketing hyperbole, but let’s not get carried away.

The most significant new features of Sense — BlinkFeed and the camera options — borrow more than heavily from existing ideas, so they’re not exactly revolutionary and can be found elsewhere. And there are enough flaws in the UI and shortcomings with the audio/photo/video capabilities to ensure that, while many aspects are still impressive, nobody will be completely satisfied. The key, however, is that the One is an effort to create a smartphone that’s a perfect amalgamation of all of the best ideas in technology right now. And though a few missed (minor) marks show that the new One may not be perfect, HTC is certainly headed in the right direction.

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