HTC is in a bind, too. Not a Nokia-sized bind, perhaps, but a tough situation nonetheless. The Taiwan-based vendor has been making terrific smartphones for a number of years now, but it really saw its business take off in 2011 with six consecutive months of record revenue. That impressive streak came to an abrupt end thanks to the launch of the iPhone 4S and increased competition from Samsung, however, and the company’s new One-series smartphones are the first collective step toward regaining an edge in the competitive smartphone market. Two One-series smartphones are set to launch in the United States this month, and here, I take a look at T-Mobile’s upcoming flagship One S to see if it may indeed position HTC for a comeback.
HTC’s One-series smartphones are all impressive, and I’ve spent some time with each of the three handsets the company unveiled in Barcelona this past February. The One V was a surprisingly capable entry-level smartphone, and the One X is a tremendous high-end device. For my money, however, the One S is the star of the show.
The One X garnered the lion’s share of attention when these devices were unveiled, and the fanfare for this impressive device started even before then in November when BGR exclusively detailed the phone ahead of its announcement. The One X deserves all of the attention it is getting, but the One S absolutely shouldn’t be lost in the shuffle.
HTC’s One S is a marvel of modern design and engineering. In a case that is just 7.95 millimeters thick, HTC packed an array of cutting-edge technology that couldn’t fit into a smartphone three times its thickness even a year ago.
A Qualcomm MSM8260A Snapdragon S4 processor, which combines a dual-core 1.5GHz Krait CPU and an Adreno 225 GPU, powers the One S, and Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich is very responsive as a result. Responsiveness aside, I have noticed some slight hiccups here and there under heavy use, but we’ll cover that a bit later.
The One S also houses GSM, WCDMA, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios, as well as 16GB of internal storage that is not expandable and 1GB of RAM. This is T-Mobile’s fourth cell phone and sixth device overall to support the carrier’s HSPA+ 42 network technology, and I found data speeds to be a bit faster than other previous-generation 4G networks.
I saw very slow data speeds of less than 1Mbps in and around BGR’s offices in the heart of midtown Manhattan — this is on par with AT&T’s HSPA service and Verizon’s EV-DO network in midtown — but things definitely picked up as I moved away from the chaos. Download speeds averaged between 6.5Mbps and 7Mbps, peaking at about 9Mbps, and upload speeds hovered between 1 and 2Mbps. This smartphone is more than fast enough to accommodate users’ needs, especially in less densely populated regions, but according to T-Mobile, speeds will be even more impressive at launch. The carrier provided BGR with the following statement via email:
During your review of the HTC One S, you may have noticed speeds inconsistent with your past experience on our HSPA+ 42 network. These are not the speeds consumers will experience – your pre-launch device needs to be provisioned today to provide access to T-Mobile’s HSPA+ 42 network. This provision will be active on consumer devices at launch.
HTC somehow managed to include a 1,650 mAh battery in the ultra-slim One S, and while I haven’t had the T-Mobile-branded version of this handset for long enough to comment on battery life, I have been using the international version of the phone for several weeks and the battery has been surprisingly solid. HTC took a lot of time picking components and tweaking software in order to squeeze as much life as possible out of the battery, and the company has done a tremendous job.
I am able to get well over 24 hours of use out of the One S on a single charge, and that typically includes sending and receiving dozens of emails, streaming about 90 minutes of music through Pandora each day when I commute, regularly checking social networks like Twitter, browsing the Web with Google’s Chrome beta, making a few phone calls throughout the day, regularly checking Reddit and Google Reader, reading up on the news using News360 and other apps, making notes in Evernote and more. Streaming video using Netflix and talking excessively can hurt battery life of course, but users can expect to charge the device once a day or even less frequently with typical moderate usage.
T-Mobile’s One S features build quality that is second to none. The phone sports a unibody aluminum case with a unique anodized finish that includes a gradient on the back. The finish is dark gray toward the bottom of the phone and it fades to light gray at the top, and the rubber-finish plastic pieces at the top and bottom continue the fade, creating an interesting overall look.
The face of HTC’s One S is comprised mainly of Corning Gorilla Glass that covers a 4.3-inch, 540 x 960-pixel (qHD), Super AMOLED display with a rating of 256 pixels per inch. It’s gorgeous. The screen is on par with some of Samsung’s recent Super AMOLED displays, and the colors are deep and vivid. Its oleophobic coating also does an even better job of repelling oils than Apple’s iPhone 4S, with is a huge feat that does not go unnoticed.
A T-Mobile logo is the only branding on the face of the phone, and it is located between the top of the display and the ear speaker. A front-facing VGA camera is positioned to the right of the speaker, and the three on-screen Ice Cream Sandwich navigation buttons are replaced by capacitive buttons beneath the display. I found the quality of audio from the ear speaker to be somewhat lacking during voice calls. The volume is adequate but sound is a bit tinny and a faint hissing sound accompanied the audio on several test calls.
The bottom of the phone houses only a small opening for the main microphone and the top is home to a standard 3.5-millimeter audio jack, a secondary microphone for noise cancellation and a power button. A volume rocker sits on the right edge of the phone while microUSB port is included on the left side. A speaker sits near the bottom on the back of the One S and branding occupies the middle area. At the top sits a large camera lens surrounding by a blue aluminum enclosure, and a multi-stage LED flash is located off to the right of the lens.
Overall, the phone measures 130.9 x 65 x 7.8 millimeters and weighs 119.5 grams.
I am absolutely blown away by the One S in terms of design and build. This smartphone sets the bar for flagship devices in 2012, and I doubt many phones will even approach the One S this year.
At 7.95 millimeters, this smartphone is one of the thinnest handsets that has ever been produced. At the same time, the phone is extremely solid and it has a terrific feel in the hand. The anodized coating has a smooth feel as opposed to the ceramic feel of the micro-arc oxidized version, but it does not feel cheap at all like many plastics do.
The phone also includes fantastic detailing on the sides. Instead of being flat or smooth and rounded, the case features edges that come to a point that curves down both sides. Beyond adding to the unique look of the phone, it creates the illusion that the whole handset is concave when in fact the face is perfectly flat and the back is slightly convex. It’s a small detail, but one that doesn’t go unappreciated.
Moving past the hardware, the real story here is Sense 4.
I have historically been a fan of HTC Sense, but to call Sense 4 a huge improvement is an understatement. HTC saw a good amount of backlash following the launch of Sense 3 as users began to complain quite loudly that HTC’s UI and services layer was becoming far too cumbersome and complex. The vendor took that criticism to heart and Sense 4 is a reimagining of HTC’s software that lets Android 4.0 shine but enhances the experience in a number of key areas.
The overall look of HTC’s UI elements is softer in this iteration of Sense. It uses more light elements and fewer dark colors, and several animations have been refined as well. Starting with the weather widget that greets users on the center home screen, HTC’s widgets are still my favorite among all of the various vendor interfaces and they match the look of the UI perfectly.
Even more appealing than the look itself is the added personalization and functionality Sense 4 affords. A few quick examples:
Sense’s weather feature includes a setting that is so simple and so useful it pains me that it doesn’t exist on every smartphone. With the check of a box — and it is checked by default — the One S will display a large graphic on the lock screen with the current temperature and the current day’s forecast the first time a user wakes the phone up each day. The next time the users wakes up his or her phone, the regular lock screen will be present.
Another example is HTC’s smart use of the accelerometer and other sensors. Using simple settings available in the Sound menu, the One S can immediately decrease the ringer volume when a phone is picked up while ringing to alert the user of an incoming call. There is also a “Pocket mode” feature that instructs the phone to automatically increase the ringer volume when a phone is tucked away in a pocket or purse, and another feature that will automatically enable the device’s speakerphone mode when it is flipped over and placed face-down. Speakerphone is then automatically disabled when the phone is lifted back up.
Smart little details like these combine to create an overall experience that is a cut above the competition where customization is concerned.
The camera hardware and software are also areas where the One S really shines. HTC’s One-series smartphones feature camera technology that has never been included in a smartphone before, and it allows users to take mobile photography to the next level.
The One S features an 8-megapixel camera with an f/2.0 wide-angle lens. It can capture 1080p HD video at 60 fps and snap 8-megapixel stills as it does. It can shoot multiple images per second in burst mode and then allow the user to flip through them and pick the best photo to save. Images are actually captured in RAW format, converted to JPG and saved, and then the camera returns to a ready state — all within the span of 0.7 seconds.
The quality of the images the One S captures is among the best I’ve seen on a smartphone. Colors can sometimes appear a bit washed out in certain lighting, but the clarity of the shots is very impressive for a smartphone. The camera UI includes a number of great new features as well, ranging from HDR and a special low-light mode to integrated Instagram-like retro filters.
Finally, Beats Audio is a feature I really do enjoy on the One S and HTC’s other recent smartphones.
In Sense 4, Beats Audio tuning is available not just for the device’s integrated music player, but for all audio. Whether the user plays music through Google Play Music, Pandora, Slacker, iHeartRadio, the in-built music player or any other apps, Beats signal processing has a dramatic impact on sound quality; more so than equalizer functions on any other smartphone, in my opinion.
The Beats Audio equalization makes sound much fuller. Bass is deeper, mids are more clear and highs are cleaner. The feature is tuned for optimal performance with Beats headphones — which, by the way, will be on sale in T-Mobile stores across the country along with HTC’s MediaLink accessory — but it has a dramatic impact on audio quality regardless of what brand headset or speakers are being used.
As much praise as I gave the design and materials found on the One S, I far prefer the micro-arc oxidized aluminum finish on the international version of the phone.
Micro-arc oxidation refers to a process where aluminum is treated by blasting it with plasma at extremely high temperatures. The result is a silky finish similar to ceramic that is soft to the touch but incredibly solid thanks to the aluminum that lies beneath. HTC has confirmed that there are chipping issues with this finish however, and I have experienced them myself with the demo unit I have. As such, T-Mobile may have dodged a bullet by opting for the anodized version of this phone.
Beyond the phone’s feel and finish, which are largely matters of opinion, the performance issues I mentioned previously are the only significant drawback with this handset in my eyes.
While I found overall performance to be very impressive, the phone has a tendency to hiccup in certain instances. For example, any time I exit an app and go to the phone’s home screen, the live wallpaper I use (Phase Beam) stutters and the animation jumps backward a bit. It’s quite bizarre and while it may not seem like a major issue, it’s very annoying to see dozens of times each day, every single time I leave an app.
There are other hiccups as well, mostly when the device is running a number of processes simultaneously and available memory gets low. Sometimes a scroll skips, sometimes an app lags when it’s opened, and so on. These issues don’t harm the user experience irreparably, but smartphones running Windows Phone or iOS do not have these problems and neither do a number of recent flagship Android devices. I’m not sure if Sense is the culprit, but I sincerely hope that a future software update irons out these kinks.
The Bottom Line
I won’t beat around the bush: when the HTC One S launches on April 25th for $199.99, it will be one of the best smartphones T-Mobile has ever launched. In fact, it might be the best.
HTC had a lot to prove with its One-series smartphones, and in terms of hardware and software, it delivered. There are some issues that need to be ironed out, as there are with all smartphones, but the company did a tremendous job marrying Google’s latest Android operating system with its own unique features and UI elements. T-Mobile’s network offers very solid performance in my area, and the fast speeds I experienced will be even faster when the One S launches next week with HSPA+ 42 provisioned.
HTC’s One S features an outstanding design that is both unique and elegant, solid construction, an amazing camera, a terrific user interface and outstanding all-around performance. Samsung’s Galaxy S III could pose a serious threat to HTC in the near-term, but I’m confident that the One S will hold its own against Samsung’s new flagship in terms of hardware and software. I’m also confident that the overwhelming majority of T-Mobile subscribers who choose to take a look at this sleek smartphone will be very impressed.