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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Whew! A lot to take in, right? It is -- and that's the downside: With all this going on, it can be confusing to wrap your head around HTC's ambitious camera software. The Gallery interface is rather difficult to navigate, too, and I suspect many users are either going to fail to notice the Zoe-related features altogether or stumble onto them by accident and become befuddled by what's happening.

Additionally, by saving 20 images and a video every time you press the shutter button, the Zoe feature makes a mess of your phone's image folder -- something that could be particularly annoying for users who rely on automated image syncing services like those provided by Dropbox and Google+. And while you can opt to avoid Zoe altogether, the Highlight Videos are automatically created on the fly and stored on your phone whether you want them or not.

By the way, the One's camera can capture regular 1080p video, too; a 2-megapixel camera on the phone's front also takes 1080p-quality video and is equipped with a wide-angle lens for vanity pics and video chat.

The software

The HTC One runs custom HTC software based on Google's Android 4.1.2 (Jelly Bean) operating system. (I asked HTC if and when the phone would be upgraded to the more current Android 4.2 release, but representatives were unable to provide a specific answer.)

BlinkFeed is a Flipboard-like news stream integrated directly into the launcher.

The One's user interface is quite different from what you'll see on other Android devices, including past HTC phones. First and foremost, the default home screen panel is taken up by something called BlinkFeed -- a Flipboard-like news stream integrated directly into the launcher. You can set it up to include content from a limited range of specific websites or opt to add broad categories like business, entertainment and gadgets -- along with content from a few different social networks -- into your stream.

I found the BlinkFeed concept to be sensible enough in theory; many novice users won't search for apps and configure their home screens on their own, and BlinkFeed provides a nice starting point for easing such people into the smartphone world. It's well-designed, too, and easy to use (though I did find I received fresher, more diverse and more frequently updated content from Flipboard).

That said, a lot of users aren't going to want BlinkFeed as a permanent part of their lives -- and HTC doesn't provide a way for you to remove it entirely from the phone. I'm not sure why HTC didn't create it as a removable widget instead of baking it into the launcher; that would have allowed much more flexibility while still achieving the same effect.

You can, at least, deactivate BlinkFeed and ignore it if you want. When you swipe over to the right of BlinkFeed, in fact, you'll find a more traditional home screen setup. You can add up to three more traditional panels and set any of them to be the default. (BlinkFeed will always remain on the left-most panel.)

BlinkFeed aside, HTC's new user interface is flatter and more visually subdued than those the company has created in the past. Still, many of the UI changes feel rather arbitrary and unnecessary -- change for the sake of change -- and some of them actually make the user experience less intuitive than what Google's stock Android software would have provided.

Widgets exist in a separate area that's accessible via the phone's main settings menu.

To add a shortcut from the app drawer to your home screen, for instance, you can't just hold it and drag it into place; instead, you have to press and hold the icon, look for a "Shortcut" icon that appears at the top of the screen, drag the app to that icon, and then go about placing it on your home screen.

The Favorites Tray at the bottom of the home screen is even more vexing: You can't drag and drop a shortcut directly from the home screen into the Favorites Tray, and you can't drag and drop a shortcut from the app drawer into the Favorites Tray using the process described above, either. The only way to get a shortcut into the Favorites Tray is to drag it from the app drawer down onto the Tray's space. Good luck figuring that out.

Widgets, meanwhile, exist in a separate area -- a home screen customization tool -- that's accessible via the phone's main settings menu. And they appear in unalphabetized, random order. Oh, and you can also get to your apps from that tool. Sheesh -- it gives me a headache just trying to describe all of this.

HTC made several other puzzling UI decisions with the One, such as a permanent clock and weather widget at the top of the app drawer, a persistent notification for "Power Saver" that can't be disabled, a custom Share menu that's uglier and harder to use than the stock Android version and a configuration in which the old and outdated Android browser is set to be the default Web browsing tool instead of the superior (and actively maintained) Chrome for Android application.

Between HTC and the carriers, the One also has a mess of bloatware, ranging from apps like Lookout and SoundHound to -- on the Sprint device -- the ever-popular Sprint Zone and Sprint TV. (Some of these will obviously vary from one carrier to the next.) Several of the apps can be hidden and disabled, while others are set to remain permanently in place.

Bottom line

The HTC One is one of the best made smartphones you can buy today. The phone has high-quality hardware and a beautiful, premium build. It has a stunning 1080p display, great-sounding stereo speakers, and a camera with outstanding low-light capabilities and interesting (if somewhat overwhelming) software features. If all of that's not enough, it's also one of the fastest devices around, with top-notch performance that won't let you down.

The One does, however, have some drawbacks. Its camera isn't designed for detailed high-resolution images, its button configuration is far from ideal and elements of its user interface are needlessly convoluted and confusing.

For folks in the know -- and if you're reading this, there's a good chance you're one of them -- a custom Android launcher can cover up many of the software-related issues. The camera limitations won't be relevant for the majority of smartphone users. And the buttons, while irritating, are something you'll get used to after a while.

So all considered, the HTC One's strengths certainly outweigh its weaknesses. Ultimately, you'll have to decide how much the phone's quirks matter to you -- but warts and all, the One is an exceptional device that easily earns a place among the Android elite.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. For more Android tips and insights, follow him on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook.


Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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