HTC One S review: T-Mobile's new shining star

HTC's One S sets a new standard for smartphone greatness for HTC and T-Mobile.

HTC and T-Mobile have a lot in common. For months, both companies have been struggling to find a standout phone. And now, with the launch of the new HTC One S, both companies have a true home run on their hands.

HTC's One S is a premium phone and the effort put into its design is immediately apparent.

The HTC One S, available April 25 for $200 (after a $50 mail-in rebate and with a new two-year contract), is a standout phone if I've ever seen one. The device is one of HTC's finest efforts to date, reflecting the manufacturer's promise to scale back its production in 2012 and focus on achieving exceptional quality with a small number of devices.

The One S is part of a trio of HTC One phones on their way to carriers. It'll soon be joined by the beefier HTC One X, set to launch on AT&T in the near future, and the One V, the lower-end model likely headed to some of America's prepaid carriers. All three devices run Google's Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich OS.

The One S may be the middle child of HTC's new lineup, but make no mistake about it: This phone is no slouch. In fact, aside from its screen and overall size, there are few things separating it from its One X sibling -- and for some users, it may actually be the preferable choice.

Body and display

The first thing you notice when you hold HTC's One S is simply how good the phone feels: This is a premium phone, and the effort put into its design is immediately apparent. The One S has a striking aluminum unibody shell and is surprisingly light and thin, coming in at just 0.31 in. thick and 4.2 oz. in weight. That makes the phone thinner and lighter than most -- including the Verizon Galaxy Nexus and Droid Razr Maxx -- but not quite as thin as the original Droid Razr.

Unlike the Droid Razr, the HTC One S has a smooth, hump-free design, interrupted only by the ever-so-slight protrusion of its rear camera lens. The phone is sleek and modern-looking; the body itself is 2.6 x 5.2 in. and bluish-gray in color. (HTC is also marketing a black model of the phone, but that model is not available from T-Mobile at this time.)

The One S's trim figure is partially a result of its screen, which, at 4.3 in., is relatively small compared to the giant-sized displays on many modern phones (including the One X, which has a 4.7-in. display). While some may prefer a larger screen, the One S's display certainly doesn't feel puny; for many users, I suspect it'll be a worthwhile tradeoff for the lack of bulk.

Size aside, I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that the One S's screen isn't exactly its strong point. The phone uses a 960 x 540 Super AMOLED display that's less eye-poppingly impressive than the 720p HD-quality displays on other high-end devices. (The Droid Razr and Razr Maxx are two noteworthy exceptions; those phones' displays are roughly comparable to the One S's.)

To be fair, most users probably won't think twice about it: Colors on the One S are bright and vibrant, and blacks are deeply black. For the most part, the screen actually looks quite good. But smartphone enthusiasts or users who are coming from higher-resolution devices may be somewhat let down by the subtle inaccuracies and grainy qualities that can sometimes be detected in the phone's display.

The HTC One S has a micro-USB port on its upper-left edge; that port doubles as an HDMI out-port with the use of a special cable or adapter (not included with the phone). A headphone jack and power button sit along the phone's top, and a volume rocker lives on its upper-right edge.

The button factor

The One S has three capacitive buttons on its face: a back button, a home button and a multitasking button. This is a significant deviation from Google's model Android 4.0 setup, in which those same buttons appear as virtual icons on the phone's screen (as is the case with the Google-backed Galaxy Nexus device).

The basic purpose of Google's approach, aesthetics aside, is to allow the buttons to rotate vertically or horizontally to match your phone's orientation -- and also to disappear altogether when they aren't needed, such as when you're viewing a video. By opting for capacitive buttons, HTC's One S misses out on these Android 4.0-level benefits.

On top of that, with certain apps, the phone is forced to tack an awkwardly centered legacy menu icon onto the bottom of the display. (On a button-free Ice Cream Sandwich phone, the legacy menu icon would appear alongside the on-screen buttons -- and only when an older app not yet updated to Android 4.0 design standards is in use.) What's more, the One S's strangely positioned icon even showed up for me when I was using apps that had no need for it, such as Google's own ICS-optimized Google Reader application.

In general, I found myself resenting the capacitive buttons and wishing HTC had gone with Google's virtual on-screen model instead. (I can't say for certain why HTC decided to go this route, but I'd suspect the reasons are largely a matter of consistency with past designs and matching what they perceive to be a preferential way of using the phone.) In addition to the aforementioned issues, the capacitive buttons didn't consistently light up when I was using the device, making it impossible to see them and to know where to press in darker lighting conditions.

1 2 3 Page 1
Page 1 of 3
7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon