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HTC One deep-dive review: A smartphone that flirts with perfection

With its high-quality hardware and stunning design, the HTC One is one of the best smartphones you can buy today -- but it isn't without its drawbacks.

April 12, 2013 12:01 PM ET

Computerworld - When you evaluate enough mobile technology, one thing becomes painfully clear: Device quality and commercial success don't always go hand in hand.

Just look at HTC: The company's One X and One S were among the finest phones of 2012, but both suffered from limited availability and lackluster marketing. Despite being very much on par with their rivals, the phones failed to take off.

This year, HTC has an even stronger contender on its hands: the HTC One, launching April 19 on AT&T ($200 for a 32GB model or $300 for a 64GB model with a two-year contract) and Sprint ($200 for a 32GB model with a two-year contract) and "sometime in the spring" on T-Mobile. The One combines many of its predecessors' best assets with an inspired new design, innovative new features and a bold new approach to smartphone photography.

So is the HTC One the right one for you? I spent a week using the device in place of my own personal phone. Here's a detailed look at where it shines -- and where it falls short.

Body and display

The moment you pick up the HTC One, you know you're holding a premium product. The phone's silver aluminum unibody casing is visually striking and a pleasure to touch; it gives the device a high-quality feel and serves as a sharp contrast to the plasticky builds seen on some Android devices.

HTC One
The HTC One has an inspired new design and innovative features.

The HTC One measures 5.4 x 2.7 and is only 0.37 in. thick. The phone has a gently curved back that makes it even thinner at its edges -- it gets down to 0.16 in. at its narrowest point -- without creating an unsightly camera "hump" or any other midsurface protrusion. At 5 oz., the One feels light yet substantial and not at all flimsy or fragile.

The One does have a touch of plastic -- a thin trim that covers the phone's outer edges and crosses its back, presumably for reception-related purposes (antennas and metal, as we've seen in the past, don't exactly play well together). The strips are firm and finished with a matte effect that helps them blend seamlessly into the design.

The One's left edge houses a barely visible micro-SIM tray that opens only with the help of a small pin tool. On the top-left edge sits the power button -- an awkward placement that makes the button difficult to reach, particularly if you hold the phone in your left hand. The power button doubles as an IR blaster for controlling TVs and other components -- one of the phone's cooler features -- which may explain its otherwise baffling position.

A 3.5mm headphone jack is also on the phone's top. A textured metallic volume rocker lives on the right edge, while a micro-USB port is built into the bottom. You can use the micro-USB port as an HDMI out if you have an MHL adapter.

One odd touch with the One's design -- and this is admittedly picking a nit -- is the way the metal meets the plastic trim on the bottom edge. While the materials come together seamlessly elsewhere on the phone, on the bottom, the plastic is not completely flush with the metal; instead, it extends ever so slightly beyond the plastic, resulting in a sharp and uneven surface on an otherwise smooth device. Big deal? Not really. But given the attention to detail that's apparent in the rest of the phone's construction, it's a curious disconnect that, once noticed, is difficult to ignore.

Enough about the body, though; let's move on to the face. The bulk of the One's front is taken up by a 4.7-in. 1080p LCD display. At 468 pixels per inch, the screen is downright gorgeous, with brilliant colors and sharp detail that make images and text pop with stunning clarity. Even in bright sunlight, the One's Gorilla Glass 2-protected screen remains perfectly visible.

The screen is flanked top and bottom by dual front-facing stereo speakers that deliver the best audio I've ever heard from a smartphone. Music played through the One sounds full and clear and lacks the tinny, muted quality so many smartphone speakers possess. And it's loud, too: While the phone obviously couldn't replace a full stereo system, it sounds better than most laptop speakers and could easily suffice for listening to tunes at your desk or in your living room with friends.

A notification LED is hidden within the top speaker grille; it lights up different colors to alert you of events like missed calls and new voicemails. You can customize how and when the LED illuminates with the aid of a third-party application called Light Flow.

The button factor

Despite its commendable design decisions, HTC made one unfortunate move with the One's form: It opted to rely on physical capacitive buttons instead of the virtual on-screen alternatives Google recommends for modern Android devices. The setup takes a negative toll on the overall user experience -- and its effects are not insignificant.

The first problem is with the basic positioning of the buttons. HTC has opted to place a permanent Back key at the bottom-left, just below the screen, and a Home key at the bottom-right. Between the two buttons sits an HTC logo that serves no functional purpose.

That configuration is a deviation from even the standard physical-key Android setup, in which the Home key lives in the bottom-center of a device. That standard exists for a reason: The Home key is one that's probably accessed most frequently during use. With a centered position, the button is easy to reach with your thumb while holding the phone with one hand. With the far-right placement HTC has opted to use, single-handed access to the button is either incredibly awkward or downright impossible.



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