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.

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HTC's two-button approach also omits the Android app-switching key, which typically exists alongside the Home and Back commands. That key allows you to multitask and quickly switch from one app to another. To access it on the One, you have to double-tap the Home key -- a hidden and less convenient process that many users may not even realize exists.

On top of that, the phone's physical-button approach results in some apps -- including Facebook -- placing an obtrusive black bar at the bottom of the screen in order to display a single legacy Menu icon. (On a button-free phone, that icon would appear discretely alongside the on-screen buttons when needed.)

And finally, the One's capacitive buttons don't consistently light up during use, even when the phone is in a dimly lit room. Because of that, it's often impossible to see the buttons and know where to press in dark lighting conditions.

Under the hood

The HTC One runs on a 1.7GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor equipped with 2GB of RAM. The result is a phone that's lightning fast: Apps load instantly, Web browsing is smooth and snappy (even with multiple tabs open) and swiping between home screen panels is swift and lag-free. The One has handled everything I've thrown at it with ease and shown no signs of stutters or slowdowns.

Most U.S. models of the One will ship with 32GB of internal storage. AT&T will also offer a higher-capacity 64GB model. The One does not have an SD card slot for external storage expansion.

The HTC One packs a 2300mAh nonremovable battery. In my experience, the battery has been good but not bulletproof. On days where I had low to moderate levels of usage -- what typical smartphone users would probably consider normal -- I made it through with plenty of charge to spare.

On days with heavier use, though -- 30 minutes of video streaming, an hour of audio streaming and a couple hours of scattered Web browsing and social media activity, for example -- I started seeing low battery warnings toward the end of the evening.

What about data connectivity? The One supports both LTE and HSPA+ networks. For AT&T and T-Mobile users, that means the phone will connect to LTE by default,then automatically drop down to HSPA+ if you're in an area where LTE isn't available.

Given the fact that HSPA+ data speeds are often equal to or even greater than LTE speeds, this is a meaningful advantage -- particularly when compared to Sprint, where LTE connectivity is still rare and painfully slow 3G service is the only alternative.

I found voice call quality on the HTC One unit I tested -- which was a Sprint-connected model -- to be perfectly fine; I could hear people loud and clear and those with whom I spoke reported being able to hear my voice without any crackling or distortion. HTC says the One has several call-enhancing features, like ambient noise detection and dynamic volume adjustment, but I was unable to detect any noticeable increase in quality based on their presence.

The HTC One supports near-field communication (NFC) for wireless payments and data transfers. It does not, however, support wireless charging.

Cameras

By now, you've probably heard about the HTC One's unconventional approach to smartphone imaging. In short, while most manufacturers brag about a large megapixel count for their smartphone cameras, HTC has opted to go with fewer but larger megapixels on the One -- a change the company says results in better real-world performance for the types of pictures most people take.

The HTC One's camera uses 4 megapixels -- "UltraPixels," as HTC calls them. According to HTC, that configuration allows for 300% more light to be captured than what you'd get with a typical 13-megapixel smartphone shooter.

The One features a bunch of other fancy-sounding camera technology, like a dedicated image processing chip, an f/2.0 aperture and a high-frequency optical image stabilization system. In my real-world tests of the device, all that stuff added up to pretty solid performance.

HTC One
The One's most impressive images seem to be those captured in low-light environments.

The One's most impressive images seem to be those captured in low-light environments: I found the One could take sharp-looking images in dimly lit areas where higher megapixel smartphones failed. At times, the One even produced lighter and more detailed images than I could see with my own eyes -- and that was without the use of a flash.

When it comes to other types of photos, the One does fairly well -- but it does have its limitations. Due to the low megapixel value, the highest resolution you can get on a photo is 2688 x 1520. And if you carefully inspect an image blown up to that full resolution, you can sometimes see some quality loss in the fine detail.

Does that matter? For most people, probably not. Images captured with the One look great at the sizes used for the majority of online viewing and sharing.

The same applies to paper. I tried printing a handful of images captured with the One in different conditions (using a professional photo printing service). At 4 x 6 and even 5 x 7, prints looked sharp and no different from shots taken with a standalone camera. When I reached the 8 x 10 size, I could see some subtle quality loss if I looked carefully in the right places -- but even that was relatively minor.

(Still not sure what to think? Check out my HTC One camera sample gallery to view a collection of images I captured with the phone and judge for yourself.)

The smaller image size also allows for some interesting and innovative camera features. One of them is an unusual way of capturing images called Zoe. When you activate the One's Zoe mode -- by touching an icon at the top of the Camera app -- the phone records 20 still images and three seconds of 1080p video every time you tap the shutter icon.

Using Zoe delivers a few benefits: First, instead of having just one snapshot, you can pick from 20 images taken over a more natural period of movement. Second, it enables you to use speciality editing features, like one that mixes and matches faces from multiple Zoe images in order create one in which everyone in your group is smiling -- or another in which you blend multiple Zoe images together to erase an unwanted person or object from the background.

Last but not least, the One automatically compiles images and Zoe videos into Video Highlights: 30-second clips that put related content together with visual effects and music. Video Highlights can be exported as regular MP4 files and shared anywhere you want.

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