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

HTC's One S sets a new standard for smartphone greatness for HTC and for 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 adaptor (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.

Under the hood

The HTC One S is powered by a dual-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor along with 1GB of RAM. The processor is actually the same power chip used in the upcoming U.S. version of the One X phone; while the international One X model has a quad-core Tegra 3 processor, the AT&T version uses one of Qualcomm's 1.5GHz dual-core chips instead.

We can talk all day about gigahertz, cores and all that fun stuff, but here's what really matters: The One S is fast -- really fast. The device is as zippy as any I've used, with snappy transitions, lag-free animations and stellar multitasking performance. Apps load instantly, home screen swiping is fast and fluid, and Web browsing is speedy and smooth.

The One S has a 1650 mAh battery, which, in my experience, was more than capable of keeping the phone powered through the day. Following full days of moderate to heavy usage, my device consistently had around 30% of its charge remaining. The One S's battery is not removable, however -- likely a tradeoff for the device's thin profile -- so if you're hoping to swap out for a larger battery or to keep a spare nearby, you're out of luck.

The One S comes with 16GB of onboard storage. Once you factor in HTC's operating system partition and various preinstalled software, you're left with about 10GB of actual usable space. Like many other recent devices, the One S does not have a microSD slot, so you're limited to the internal space and any cloud-connected storage you choose to utilize. (The One S does come with a two-year subscription for 25GB of cloud-based storage from Dropbox; after those two years, you'll be defaulted back to Dropbox's free 2GB level unless you opt to pay a minimum of $10 a month or $100 a year for a higher-level plan.)

Unlike the One X, the HTC One S does not have near-field communications (NFC) capabilities. In practical terms, that probably doesn't mean much for most people at this point. In the future, though, contact-free payments -- through services like Google Wallet and carrier-backed alternatives may become more prevalent, as may contact-free device-to-device sharing, which NFC chips also enable.

The One S uses T-Mobile's 4G HSPA+ data network. I had no problems with data connectivity or voice quality; in my tests, people I called sounded loud and clear, with no distortion or echo. Callers on the other end reported similarly good-sounding quality with my voice.


HTC has worked hard to differentiate its One line of phones with high-quality cameras, and the One S is no exception. The One S has an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera with 1080p HD video recording. The camera uses HTC's new ImageSense technology, which means it has a dedicated chip -- called, fittingly, the HTC ImageChip -- along with an f/2.0 aperture, a higher-end sensor and specialized software to create a top-notch image-capturing experience.

Images captured with the HTC One S look fantastic, with bold colors and crisp details.

That all sounds impressive enough, but the real test is how well it works -- and the HTC One S doesn't fail to deliver. Images captured with the phone look fantastic, with bold colors and crisp details. They're easily among the best I've seen from any smartphone. The One S is capable of taking ridiculously fast "burst" photos, too: Holding down the on-screen shutter button causes the camera to take rapid-fire snapshots; once you release the shutter, you can look through the pile of photos and pick the ones that best capture your scene.

HTC's custom camera UI is fairly easy to use and provides plenty of options for getting the kinds of shots you want. The phone's software includes integrated tools for editing and manipulating images as well, though the tools' placement actually struck me as somewhat less intuitive than the configuration in Google's stock Ice Cream Sandwich setup. Some effects are accessible via the Camera app itself, applicable only while you're taking a photo, while others are available in the Gallery and can be applied after the fact. I found this split to be a bit arbitrary and confusing.

The One S has a front-facing VGA-quality camera for self-portraits and video chat. That's another area of distinction between this phone and its One X sibling: The X model has a higher-quality 1.3MP camera with 720p video capture on its front.

The software

HTC's One S runs Google's Android 4.0.3 OS integrated with its own Sense 4 software. The result is a heavily modified version of Ice Cream Sandwich that combines many of Google's base features with HTC's own customized interface and feature additions.

With Sense 4 and the One S, HTC has come a long way from the over-the-top OS modifications of its past. The company's Ice Cream Sandwich modifications add a number of interesting and innovative features that provide extra value to the user. That said, most of the added features could be accomplished via third-party apps, and many of the customizations add clutter and muddy up the newly simplified interface Google created with Android 4.0.

For example, HTC trades the subdued blue and gray scheme of ICS for its own multicolored -- let's call it "rainbow sherbet" -- alternative. Design touches like the transparent notification pulldown introduced in ICS are gone, as are functional system elements like the streamlined People app proudly displayed at Google's ICS launch event.

HTC has replaced the condensed customization tool Google introduced in ICS with a standalone setup utility.

Added, however, are features like a customizable lock screen, which can show things like the latest local weather (with gorgeous fly-in animations), a list of upcoming events and missed calls or messages, or a stream of updates from connected social networks. HTC also built in an expanded home-screen customization tool, which lets you have anywhere from one to seven panels, and a handful of specialized widgets that provide everything from calculators to designer clocks for your phone's home screens.

Beyond that, HTC put its own touch on home-screen configuration by taking apart the condensed customization tool Google introduced in ICS -- wherein apps, widgets and shortcuts all exist in a single application drawer -- and instead offering a standalone setup utility, similar to what it's offered in the past. HTC also revamped Google's ICS-level multitasking tool, replacing the transparent on-screen thumbnails of recent apps with a full-screen, card-like deck of applications.

Many other parts of the Android system have been replaced with or supplemented by HTC's alternatives, including the Gallery, the music player and the system keyboard. HTC modified the system browser, too, adding a handful of on-screen options and changing the program's look.

And of course, it wouldn't be a nonstock Android phone without the bloatware. The HTC One S has about two dozen pieces of bloatware glued into it -- everything from T-Mobile's 411 & More to Amazon, Lookout and Polaris Office. Thankfully, Ice Cream Sandwich allows you to disable and hide these types of system apps, so even if you can't fully uninstall them, you can get them out of your hair.

Last but not least, the HTC One S features Beats Audio integration, which supposedly enhances the quality of audio played from the phone. I tested it thoroughly, toggling Beats enhancements on and off and also listening to the same song on a different phone. I'll be honest: The enhancements provided by Beats are pretty darn minimal. More than anything, they sound like a slight bass boost. Maybe you need Beats headphones in order to fully appreciate them -- the One S doesn't come with any -- but as it stands, I wouldn't factor in Beats as a meaningful feature of the phone.

Bottom line

HTC's One S is a beautifully designed Android phone with an awful lot going for it. The phone is thin and light, with a modern, premium-feeling design. It has impressive performance, a phenomenal camera and great battery life to boot. The One S doesn't have the absolute best display available, but it's certainly not terrible -- and the vast majority of users will be perfectly pleased by it.

At a Glance


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