HTC One max review

What happens when the best Android phone on the planet gets supersized?

Review
HTC One Max Review

Pound for pound, the HTC One is easily among the best smartphones on the planet. Back in August, I pitted the One against Samsung’s flagship Galaxy S4 and crowned HTC’s handset the winner. With a gorgeous design, premium materials, solid performance, a stunning 1080p display and several unique software enhancements, it’s no wonder the One regularly receives praise from those who use it. But unfortunately, the sleek smartphone has done precious little to reverse HTC’s fortunes.

This year’s September quarter marked HTC’s first ever quarterly loss since becoming a public company. HTC makes terrific phones and the One is its best to date, but stiff competition from rivals has proven insurmountable thus far. Not even Iron Man has been able to help the struggling smartphone maker as Apple and Samsung continue to lob billion-dollar marketing campaigns at consumers around the world.

What on Earth is HTC going to do to turn things around?

It’s going to launch a gigantic phablet.

HTC’s recent smartphones certainly haven’t been small, but the HTC One max is the Taiwan-based vendor’s first foray into the supersized smartphone category. And supersized it is — the One max is absolutely enormous, with a 5.9-inch full HD display and a footprint that is even bigger than Samsung’s class-leading Galaxy Note 3.

An HTC spokesperson told BGR that the One max is the third piece of a puzzle that will be representative of HTC’s hero phone strategy moving forward. A flagship smartphone at the center and then two complimentary devices, one that addresses the mid-range market at a smaller size and a second that addresses the phablet market.

It’s an interesting approach that finds something of a compromise between Apple’s lean and mean strategy and Samsung’s multi-pronged attack that involved launching eight different versions of the Galaxy S4 alone in 2013.

The HTC One max itself is a solid handset that carries forth the design identity of the One and scales it up to a much, much bigger size. The phone is 164.5 millimeters tall — which is even taller than Nokia’s gigantic Lumia 1520 — by 82.5 millimeters wide and 10.29 millimeters thick. For the sake of comparison, the original HTC One is 137.4 millimeters tall by 68.2 millimeters wide and 9.3 millimeters thick.

That means the max is about 20% taller and 21% wider than the One. At 217 grams, it’s also a whopping 52% heavier than the One, which weighs an already hefty 143 grams.

It’s massive.

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The HTC One max’s 5.9-inch display features the same 1080p resolution as the 4.7-inch panel on the One, so the pixel density drops to 373 ppi from 468 ppi. The difference is indeed noticeable, but “ultra HD” 4K smartphone screens aren’t yet ready for primetime so there wasn’t much HTC could have done to prevent this relative downgrade. The display on the HTC One max might not have the ppi count of the One’s panel but blacks are deep, contrast is good, color reproduction is natural and it gets nice and bright, just like the One’s display.

The face of the One max is composed mainly of one huge sheet of glass with aluminum panels above and below it. An ear speaker, sensors and a front-facing camera sit above the glass on one panel along with a micro-drilled matrix of dots that cover one of two amplified BoomSound speakers. The second speaker cover is found beneath the display.

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A volume rocker and a power/unlock button lie on the right edge of the phone and a switch that pops off the aluminum battery cover is alone on the left edge. The battery covered by that panel is a massive 3,300 mAh unit that should carry owners through a full day without a problem. The bottom of the phone has a microUSB charging port and a microphone, and the top holds a standard 1/8-inch audio jack and an infrared blaster.

Around back, the One max has a secondary microphone for noise cancellation and audio capture during video recording, an LED flash, a large camera lens and a fingerprint scanner.

Of note, HTC’s One max loses one of the most unique and impressive design elements from the HTC One: the glass face that reaches past the edges of the phone and spills over to the sides, continuing the line created by the polished, chamfered edge. Instead, the phone is wrapped with a thick plastic like the HTC One mini.

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Inside, the $249.99 One max’s specs aren’t terribly impressive on paper — especially compared to Samsung’s beast of a market leader, the Galaxy Note 3.

A quad-core 1.7GHz Snapdragon 600 processor powers the handset and it is supported by 2GB of RAM. The UltraPixel 4-megapixel camera from the original One is carried over to the One max but it loses optical image stabilization, which would have been quite useful on such a large, heavy phone. HTC says the new camera features enhanced electronic image stabilization in its place, however I did notice some blurring in a few test images.

The camera is bolstered by some new HTC Zoe features though, such as the ability to create and share animated GIFs. Zoe, for those who haven’t tried it, is a very creative feature that automatically combines photos and videos taken in any given location into a highlight reel of sorts, complete with a soundtrack. These short films can also be edited if the user doesn’t like the results that were created by the phone automatically, though they’re typically pretty impressive.

Photos captured with the One max’s camera are decent, but they definitely don’t compare to market leaders like the Lumia 1020 and iPhone 5s.

Where storage is concerned, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that the phone only comes with either 16GB or 32GB of internal storage compared to 32GB or 64GB in the original HTC One. The good news, however, is that the One max includes a memory card slot and microSDXC support for up to 64GB of additional swappable storage.

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HTC’s Sense software also gets an update on the One max, and version 5.5 brings with it a few key enhancements. HTC continues to focus on its BlinkFeed product, which provides a cascade of updates from news sources and social networks in an arrangement similar to Flipboard, but it scrolls endlessly. New news sources are now available in Sense 5.5, users can add their own RSS feeds, and a few extra social services have been added as well, such as Google+ (which will make dozens of people happy).

Sense TV — which was easily one of my favorite things about the HTC One — gets a minor update in Sense 5.5 as well, and can now be configured to control any consumer electronics device on the planet rather than just devices in HTC’s database. I found that the infrared blaster on the One max is just as strong as the HTC One’s IR blaster and I didn’t have any issues at all with range.

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I reviewed Sprint’s version of the HTC One max phablet, which comes preloaded with Sprint’s various Android bloatware. Much of it will likely go unnoticed after some annoying pop-ups following the initial setup process.

The One max is also one of the first devices to feature compatibility with Sprint’s new faster 4G LTE service “Spark.” The service isn’t live in any areas I visited with the phone, however, and speed tests were generally on the slower side around my home, where Sprint’s LTE coverage is somewhat new. Speeds I saw averaged about 5Mbps on the upload side and less than that for downloads. I didn’t have a chance to test the phone around my office in New York City.

Of course, the biggest new piece of the puzzle on the HTC One max, aside from the massive size of the phone itself, is the addition of a fingerprint scanner on the back of the device.

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HTC becomes the third major smartphone vendor to launch a handset with a fingerprint scanner. Motorola was the first with the Atrix 4G back in 2011 and Apple became the second earlier this year with the iPhone 5s. While Apple integrated its scanner into the home button, the One max moves the scanner to the back of the device like the Atrix. This was a smart move.

On the iPhone, having the scanner in the home button is fine because the device is so small and light. Similar positioning on the One max would be very awkward since the phone is so tall and heavy. Moving the scanner to the back of the phone allows the user to hold it naturally with the screen facing forward and while swiping a finger across the scanner.

Setting up the fingerprint scanner is a bit different from the iPhone 5s. Rather than tapping repeatedly on the sensor, the One max requires the user to swipe downward on the scanner several times until it has captured all of the necessary data. For those concerned with security, fingerprints aren’t stored on the device as images but rather as encrypted data files.

As to the function of the fingerprint scanner, it’s still quite limited just like it is on Apple’s iPhone 5s. Right now all it does is unlock the device but more functionality is coming. Unlike Apple’s implementation, however, the One max allows users to assign a print to a specific app. So, for example, unlocking the phone with your index finger might take you to the home screen, unlocking it with your middle finger might unlock the phone and automatically open the email app, and your ring finger might automatically open the Facebook app.

You can also let other users program their prints. So, for example, your child might be able to unlock the One max directly into “Kid Mode,” which provides restricted access that can be configured by a parent.

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The One max’s fingerprint scanner only supports up to three prints for the time being. This is fine for a single user, but when two hands or multiple other users come into play it’s an obvious limitation. An HTC spokesperson assured me that this is not a technical limitation though, so it could be increased sometime in the future.

Setting up the fingerprint scanner is quite simple and users are prompted to configure the feature during the device’s initial setup, though it can also be set up later. The One max asks the user to swipe his or her finger across the scanner four times in order to save a print. Unlocking the phone also requires the user to swipe a finger across the scanner rather than hold it in place while the scanner reads the print, as is the case on Apple’s iPhone 5s.

Where performance is concerned, I found HTC’s print reader to be just as impressive as Apple’s. I had no problems at all with the setup process and scanning was performed quite quickly each time I unlocked the phone. I did find that I often missed swiping the scanner, however — especially when I first started using the device.

The One max is designed so that the scanner is swiped with the phone facing the user, so he or she can hold it in one hand and unlock it without having to flip the phone over. Early on, my first attempt or two always managed to only catch a corner of the scanner surface, so the phone wouldn’t get a good read. I later found that the easiest way to do it is to first find the camera lens with your finger and then use that as a starting point when swiping downward.

Unlocking the phone become much easier once I got used to that technique, though the camera lens on my review unit was constantly smudged as a result.

HTC confirmed to me that it plans to make various APIs available to third-party developers that will allow them to integrate fingerprint scanning functionality into their apps. This is something that the iPhone 5s is sorely lacking for the time being, and there are plenty of possibilities for added security and other unique functions in all kinds of apps. HTC wouldn’t say how long it will be before developers can get their hands on these new APIs, though.

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The HTC One max is yet another great effort from HTC. But once again I’m not sure how far it will take the struggling vendor.

HTC’s new phablet is among the best in the business. Its specs aren’t all on par with most modern phones due in part to HTC’s decision to go with a previous-generation Snapdragon 600 processor, but performance is still quite smooth in most cases. The One max is also one of the best phablets on the market in terms of design as well as fit and finish, and the aluminum case has a nice premium feel.

But still, the One max is a very tough sell.

Apple is running on all cylinders promoting iPhones, the Samsung marketing steamroller has kicked into high gear ahead of the holidays, and the One max’s main competition just so happens to be one of the best phablets ever made. In fact, it might be the best smartphone Samsung has ever made, period.

The One max does plenty of things well, but I’m not sure it offers any truly compelling differentiation versus the market leaders out there. Without Samsung’s marketing muscle, many consumers won’t even know the phone exists when they head to retail stores to make their purchases. And without real support from sales associates and prime floor space in carrier stores, other phone brands are going to win every time.

It’s a shame, really. The HTC One max is a terrific option for those seeking a new device in the plus size smartphone category. But the odds of it doing much to reverse HTC’s fortunes seem very slim.

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