HTC One Max deep-dive review: With this phone, size matters

The HTC One Max has a gorgeous 5.9-in. display and outstanding speakers -- but be ready to deal with some serious smartphone bulk.

What's the difference between a tablet and a phone? As smartphones get bigger and bigger, it's becoming increasingly difficult to tell.

There's no better example of the blurring of these form-factor lines than the HTC One Max, a newly launched device that makes other plus-sized smartphones seem svelte in comparison. The One Max, available now on Sprint for $250 and on Verizon Wireless for $300, could easily be mistaken for a small tablet -- albeit one that you carry around all day and use to make calls.

HTC One Max
HTC One Max

As Samsung's Galaxy Note line has demonstrated, there's consumer demand for such oversized mobile devices. So does the HTC One Max deliver?

I've been living with the phone for the past week to find out.

Body and display

First things first: Just how big is the HTC One Max? The device measures 3.2 x 6.5 x 0.41 in. and 7.7 oz. That's larger, thicker and noticeably heavier than Samsung's Galaxy Note 3, which is 3.1 x 6.0 x 0.33 in. and 5.9 oz. For perspective, the regular HTC One -- the One Max's smaller sibling and a device that's already relatively large for a standard-sized smartphone -- is 2.7 x 5.4 x 0.37 in. and 5.0 oz.

Not surprisingly, given those dimensions, the One Max is rather awkward to hold -- too big to grasp comfortably in one hand and not quite big enough to spread across two -- and unpleasant (or even impossible, depending on your pant preferences) to store in a pocket. The same could be said for any plus-sized phone, of course, but the One Max's extra heft makes it even more extreme.

Instead of thinking of it as a large phone, you almost have to think of the One Max as a small tablet that also happens to have phone functionality. Ultimately, only you can decide if that's the kind of device you want to lug around all day; I'd strongly suggest heading into a physical store and spending some time holding one before making that decision.

As with a tablet, the benefit of the bulk is the screen that accompanies it -- and that's one area where the One Max shines. The phone has a beautiful 5.9-in., 1080p LCD display -- a notch up in size from the 5.7-in. AMOLED screen on the Note 3. The large panel is nice when you're watching a video or browsing the Web; having that much space to view content really does enhance the experience.

Size aside, the Max's screen is bright with brilliant true-to-life colors, crisp text and excellent visibility both indoors and out. It packs fewer pixels per inch than the regular One -- 373ppi compared to 486ppi on the smaller device. But at this level of quality, such a difference is nearly impossible to detect; the Max's display is a treat for the eyes and one of the device's most compelling qualities.

Like the regular One, the Max's display is flanked by dual front-facing speakers that put most smartphone speakers to shame. Audio played from the Max is loud and full-sounding; it lacks the tinny, hollow quality other phones produce. When combined with the superb screen, multimedia consumption on the device is a delight.

The top speaker grille holds a small LED light to alert you to missed calls, text messages and other notifications.

Build, buttons and ports

The build style on the One Max is a bit different than what you might expect: While the Max bears a distinct family resemblance to the HTC One, the phone lacks the premium aluminum unibody design for which its smaller sibling is frequently praised. Instead, the Max has metal panels interspersed with plastic elements -- namely a prominent matte plastic trim that surrounds its display and extends onto its outer edges.

A removable metal panel, meanwhile, takes up most of the phone's back; sliding a small button on the left side of the device releases the panel and lets you pull it off the phone. Curiously, all you can access inside is a SIM card slot and a micro-SD slot; there is no removable battery.

On the review unit I have, the panel doesn't fit snugly into the phone's frame when it's attached; there's a subtle but noticeable area along its right side where the seam isn't smooth and you can feel its edge protruding. This is a flaw I've seen other reviewers and early adopters note as well. HTC tells me the panel should fit into the frame securely, with the metal edge sitting well beneath the plastic border, so I'll remain optimistic it's merely a quality-control issue with some of the early production units.

Following the unusual setup introduced with the HTC One, the Max's face is home to two capacitive navigation buttons: a Back key at the far left and a Home key at the far right. The configuration is tolerable -- it's certainly less vexing than the nonstandard approaches used by some other Android manufacturers -- but as I noted when reviewing the regular One, it creates awkward usage scenarios and is far from ideal. The setup omits the core Android app-switching button, for instance, and the capacitive nature of the keys causes some apps to place an obtrusive black bar on the screen in order to display a legacy Menu icon.

HTC does a decent job at providing workarounds to help make the setup passable, but it's hard not to wonder why the company didn't just stick with a standard Android button configuration and avoid the issues altogether.

The One Max has a volume rocker and power button on its right side. The top of the phone, meanwhile, holds a 3.5mm headphone jack and an IR blaster for controlling TVs and other electronics. A standard micro-USB port lives on the device's bottom edge; it doubles as an HDMI out-port with the aid of an MHL adapter.

Last but not least is an element new to the One Max: a fingerprint scanner along the top-middle area of its rear panel. (Fingerprint scanners are getting popular; note Apple's Touch ID system introduced with the iPhone 5S.) Once you set it up, the scanner lets you unlock the phone by sliding your finger along its surface; you can also set up different fingers to unlock the phone to specific apps.

The technology itself is impressive: The scanner has consistently recognized my finger on the first try and has yet to grant access to any unauthorized appendage. That said, I suspect most users will play around with it a few times and then never use it again, as it's novel but not terribly practical in its implementation. You have to first press the phone's power button to activate the scanner and then adjust your hand to try to find the right place on the back of the device to swipe. The process is difficult to do with one hand and gets frustrating fast; after a while, I found that entering a password is just much easier to do.

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