Smarter tech Here’s a smartphone that could arguably be a load-shedding-ready phone during these ongoing power outages across South Africa. Huawei South Africa has…
The HTC One is the firm’s new attempt at a market-leading handset, and with an all-aluminium body, super-high-res 4.7-inch HD screen and futuristic camera technology hint that this could be something of a winner.
It’s well-documented that HTC hasn’t had the best of it recently, with the profits slumping and market share down. The firm rode a heady wave just two years ago with the success of the HTC Desire and friends, but it seems since then the trend has been firmly downward.
However, with the HTC One there’s an instant reason (actually, two) to think that it will be able to arrest that decline. Firstly, there’s the design: an all-aluminium body, which simply delights when held in the hand – the back is simply lovely.
HTC’s VP of design Scott Croyle said ‘the way we like to describe it is the only place there isn’t metal is the screen’ – which isn’t strictly true, as there’s a non-aluminium band that runs around the edge of the device, but in reality that ‘total metal’ effect is the one you’ll get on picking it up.
When handling the device, you’ll also note the sheer weight of the thing – as in, there is very little. It’s surprising to find out that the phone actually 143g, as that makes it 13g heavier than its One X predecessor – but it certainly doesn’t feel that way in the palm.
It’s different also to the iPhone 5, which was too light in the minds of many that moved from older models, and the HTC One marries balanced weight with enough heft to make it offer that premium feel.
The screen isn’t as edge-to-edge as the likes of the Motorola Razr i or theSony Xperia Z, but the 4.7-inch offering isn’t dwarfed by the border of the phone, although we’d love to see a more edge-to-edge offering with all phones these days to offset the sheer size we’re being forced to carry in our pockets.
The Super LCD 3 screen on offer is pin sharp though – there’s no doubt about that. The contrast ratios on offer still bring out the best of the blacks and whites on the image, and while the colour saturation isn’t as deep as the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S3 with its Super AMOLED screen, some people won’t necessarily see this as a bad thing.
It’s definitely superior to the Xperia Z, which has a disappointingly washed out screen on certain apps – plus the fact that it has a smaller screen means an even higher sharpness. It’s not really noticeable, but it will certainly appease the spec-fans out there.
There are two main changes to the interface on the HTC One: the new and upgraded version of Sense, unofficially dubbed Sense 5.0, and the use of a new service called BlinkFeed.
We’ll wait for the our full review to properly dig into HTC’s new version of Sense, but it’s certainly a lot cleaner. The idea with this is to de-Android the user interface, (which is running Android 4.1.2 out of the box, by the way) but takes another step away from the more ‘traditional’ Sense experience we’re used to – even the weather and clock widget isn’t automatically on the home screen any more, although you can replace it should you so wish.
The reason for this change is two-fold: HTC told us that it wanted to simplify the Android experience for all those involved, and to that end it’s even done things like make the grid of apps narrower to a 3×4 iteration, although you can extend it if you need to see more on the screen (and we think you really do, 12 simply isn’t enough).
But the main reason for the change is to cater for ‘Generation Feed’ as HTC is calling it – and here’s where BlinkFeed comes in. Think Flipboard, think Inq’s new Material service, and you’ll get a feeling for what BlinkFeed is all about. A system of Windows Phone-esque tiles deliver information from the feeds you want, although you can only subscribe by technology type at the moment.
The newsfeed is designed to give you information to ‘snack’ on any time of the day or night, with HTC saying it’s looking to get you for a 30 seconds when you’re waiting in line at the bank. There will also be Twitter feeds involved in the mix too, although when you tap on these you’re taken to the app itself, showing that Blink merely resides on top of your home screen to supply info.
Speaking to the Taiwanese brand about the new service, there’s very much a ‘Version 1.0’ feel to Blink, as you can’t add in your own RSS feeds, can’t get personalised information and the range of information flicked up by these tiles seems limited.
However, the brand told us it wanted to open up the SDK to third-party developers, which means more can be done with the platform going forward.
The likes of Google Now cards, for instance, could become part of the ecosystem to make things easier when you’re on the fly. It already includes things like your agenda and will supply pictures and such from the weekend on a Monday morning – it’s just a case of convincing users to actually get on board with Blink now and not simply move back to the standard home screen many will know.
Zoe? Zoe? Who the deuce is Zoe?
The other big change with the HTC One is the camera: it’s ‘only’ a 4MP sensor. It should be put into context though: the camera has a smaller sensor but much larger pixels to allow in more light, and therefore more data, to make your pictures look that much better on the go.
The Ultrapixel method is one to be applauded, as it’s pushing back on the 13MP image sensors that are being crammed into ever-thinner phones these days.
Side by side comparisons with top cameras of the moment showed that only the likes of the iPhone 5 could really compete when it comes to low light performance, which bodes well for the One.
However, there’s a lot more you need to see on a camera these days, despite improved low-light performance being a big hitter for most manufacturers, and we’ll watch with interest to see whether HTC can convince the world that it doesn’t need a high MP number to be considered a quality camera.
The addition of HTC Zoe will certainly help though. This innovative new app brings a ‘Harry Potter’-like experience to the HTC One, according to HTC, as your photos will become animated in a way that makes them more than just a collection of static images.
The system works by taking a photo 0.6 seconds before you press the shutter button, and then waits three seconds afterwards to capture far more information than you’d have previously nabbed; in short, it’s a quick high res video every time you take a pic.
The resulting images / video can then be run through the clever Video Highlights program, which takes both the static pictures and a range of motion, analyses it, and then puts together a 30 second clip to really capture the essence of that wedding/ski trip/sauna orgy you unwittingly found yourself in.
It’s a neat feature, and can then be exported as an MP4 file, so sharing on Facebook and the like won’t be too hard – and HTC is keen to see this all shared online for obvious reasons.
However, it’s going to get slightly confusing after a while, as while the initial Video Highlight reels will be stored online, it will only be for a month (the theory being that you won’t want to share older vids). It makes sense commercially, as HTC won’t have to pay huge amounts for server space, but does dampen the idea of having a universal cloud store for all your memories.
We’re well impressed with HTC Zoe though (the name aside – it’s based on the zoetrope mechanism from olden times, if you’re interested) and it brings a new spin to capturing memories we haven’t seen automated to such an extent.
It will be interesting to test this service in a more detailed way though, as with the lower res and long shutter times some people may rather to just have a normal high-res camera instead.
Who’s the BoomKing?
The other area HTC has upgraded in a big way is the music experience, and in two relatively large ways. The first is the music player itself, which now comes with lyrics where available, and an all-new visualiser to let you play the music on a desk or dock – visual music is the way forward seemingly.
There are two front facing speakers as well as the built-in amplifier seen on the likes of the HTC 8X Windows Phone – this means that it can drive headphones that much better and give a purer sound. In fact, HTC is touting this combination of speakers and amplifier (plus the obligatory Beats Audio enhancement, of course) as an industry first – and it’s calling it HTC BoomSound.
It is indeed powerful, and provided you’re not listening to / watching anything with incredible bass levels, the sound doesn’t sound wrenched from the phone and will fill the space you’re in pretty well.
However, we’re struggling to see why this is a really necessary – we can see the case on a tablet perhaps, and the Full HD larger screen does have leanings towards that product type, but in reality we can’t help but panic at the thought of accidentally blaring out the Spice Girls’ greatest hits when the headphones aren’t plugged in on the train to work.
Speakers on phones have always been a bugbear of many, given the penchant teenagers have for playing music out loud on public transport – and we’re not sure that sound will be any more pleasant even if it’s less tinny.
There’s also a cheeky little extra feature here in the shape of HTC Sense TV – all because the HTC One features an infrared blaster on the top of the phone, which allows you to control a TV. The app will scan for programs on at the moment, presents thumbnails of the current shows and a quick tap will see the phone changing the channel on the TV for you.
It’s an innovative idea by bringing in the visual features, but given it can’t automatically change the source input for you should you want to jump into streaming video from your device over HTC’s MediaLink HD, it seems like it will be a little-used feature for many.
There’s no doubt that the HTC One is a real step forward once more for the brand – but then again, we said that with the HTC One X, and that didn’t set the world alight in the way we thought it might have done, partly due to a lack of marketing.
However, with the new One, HTC has brought even better design (polycarbonate is still plastic, after all) and improved things even further by trying to actually innovate on things like user experience and camera functionality – in a world of smartphone patent litigation, this is a breath of fresh air.
We’re not sold on the likes of BlinkFeed, as it seems a bit too ‘beta’ for something launched on a flagship phone – it really needs to be tailored to the needs of the user rather than something they have to work hard to customise, and we can see loads of people just switching it off.
That said, this is a phone that wows the second it hits the hand, has a great screen, strong internal storage of up to 64GB (albeit with no microSD card slot) and a superfast processor – plus the battery has been boosted to 2300mAh too, which should see it last much better than that seen in the One X.
In short, we’re really glad to see HTC is still putting its weight behind a top-end smartphone; confusing name aside, the HTC One shows a lot of promise and could well see the firm pulling back into the black in 2013.