Next-generation hardware meets bold software changes as HTC forges ahead after a tumultuous 2012
Take a seat, folks. This is going to take a little explaining. HTC today at simultaneous events in London and New York once again rebooted itself. Yes, it did so a year ago at Mobile World Congress with the launch of the HTC One line. Only what was to be a singular brand built with low-, mid-range and high-end phones (the HTC One V, One S and One X) was diluted into any number of variants in any number of markets. It was business as usual, and HTC paid the price for it financially in a 2012 that saw Samsung bring more chips to the table than anyone while playing the same winning hands over and over with the Galaxy S3 and the Galaxy Note 2.
Something had to change. Of that there should be no disagreement. And so today we have the HTC One, which until today has been going by its nom de plume, M7. HTC has taken its 2012 sigil -- which never really worked as an overarching brand name for multiple devices -- and recast it, literally and figuratively, in a single body. One phone. One vision. And, as we said at the outset, a good bit of explaining is required.
On one hand, HTC is continuing down the trail it's walked (or blazed, company execs will remind you) for years. Custom software. Powerful hardware. And in a more recent discovery for HTC, quality audio and optics. All of these things continue with the HTC One. But they're going to require letting go some of the old ways of thinking about smartphones in general, and with the Android experience in particular. You'll know your way around the HTC One just fine, but there's also a lot more to explore.
What follows is a preview of things to come. We've got the usual initial hands-on posts and, later, our full review. But consider this your guide. A roadmap to what's new, what excites us -- and what concerns us -- in the HTC One.
The HTC One (M7)
What to look for from the hardware
The HTC One is born from a single block of aluminum with a 4.7-inch Super LCD 3 display on top and a Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor and Adreno 320 GPU tucked inside. On paper, Qualcomm boasts a 40 percent improvement over the Snapdragon S4 Pro, which powered much of 2012's fleet.
It’s got a 2,300 mAh embedded battery. No more camera hump. (In fact, it's recessed ever so slightly.) And, yes, a new two-button scheme down at the bottom -- back and home, flanking the HTC logo (which doesn't actually do anything). That’s going to be the cause of much gnashing of teeth, but you can still get to the task-switcher by double-tapping the home key, and load Google Now by long-pressing it.
As for audio, the HTC One has dual front stereo speakers (no more flipping your phone face-down on a desk) and they’re extremely loud and clear, something HTC puts down to its larger speaker chambers. For bass enthusiasts, Beats Audio remains on board as well. And it's all got a name -- "BoomSound."
A new HTC Sense
The software side is where things get really interesting.
The HTC One is running Android 4.1.2 and the all new HTC Sense 5, which includes a Flipboard-esque "BlinkFeed" view in addition to a more traditional Android home screen experience, and a revamped app drawer.
Sense 5 has been significantly rebuilt over the previous iteration. It's taken on a more sleek look and feel, with fonts based off Android's "Roboto" standard. You still have app shortcuts on the lock screen, as well as the ability to add notifications along with weather info.
Certainly the biggest change is Blink Feed. The idea is that HTC's giving you a quick way to check on what's happening in the world as well as your world with a host of news feeds as well as hooks into Facebook and Twitter. (No Google+ yet, unfortunately.) While Blink Feed is on the home screen, it's not the only home screen. Swipe over and you get a more traditional view, with the usual app icons and widgets. The iconic clock has been replaced by default, but it's still available if you so choose.
And the app drawer has been redesigned as well. The grid size can be customized, apps can be rearranged and put into folders directly inside the app drawer, and there’s a search button up top. The new Sense 5 home screen dynamic seems centered on hopping between Blink Feed and this new app drawer, and that’s arguably a better fit for “civilian” users who don’t obsess over customizing their devices.
The HTC One camera - a new way of thinking
Everybody talks about how "megapixels aren't everything." That's not a new premise, and it's one we've repeated for quite some time. The HTC One sees the introduction of "Ultrapixels." The idea is simple. While the end result is an image with the equivalent size of 4 megapixels -- 4 million (more or less) little dots -- each individual pixel on the sensor is larger in the HTC One -- with things now at 2.0 microns. By comparison, the HTC One X used 1.4-micron pixels. So the HTC One gets more light -- 300 percent more than a standard 8MP sensor, HTC claims -- and that means better images, particularly in low light.
The flip side is that you'll probably end up seeing a lot of "OMG it only has a 4-megapixel camera" statements. That's going to be an uphill battle for HTC, but it's not an insurmountable one.
For those keeping track of camera technologies, the HTC One’s shooter features Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) to help counteract motion blurring. A second-generation HTC ImageChip is included too, speeding up the task of peeling images off the sensor. That allows the phone to record not just HDR photos but HDR videos (a feature you might remember from the Sony Xperia Z.) So theres plenty of imaging tech working away behind the scenes.
Zoes, highlights and other sharing awesomeness
Taking pictures is what's up just one of HTC's sleeves. Presenting your images is about to become a lot more fun. The idea of using short video clips and plucking still images out of them -- so you can be sure to get the perfect shot -- isn't new. Any number of manufacturers has been doing that for some time not. But HTC is taking these little pre- and post- videos -- called "Zoes" (look up Zoetrope if that makes no sense to you) and turning them into little highlight clips. An apt description is the sort of moving pictures you'd see in one of the "Harry Potter" movies. At a technical level, a Zoe is made up of five stills taken before you press the shutter and fifteen afterwards, as well as three seconds of video. That means when you load up the gallery app, you’re presented with an animated tapestry rather than just a grid of static images.
Beyond that, Sense 5 can also string together a series of Zoes into "Highlights," automatically identifying groups of pictures/videos and making 30-second highlight reels, complete with background music and effects.
That's the oversimplified version. We'll have much more later, including on how you'll be able to share all this new stuff. And if you're thinking it's a little gimmicky, you're right. But it's also very cool to see in action.
Much more to come
As we said at the outset, this is merely a primer for what we’re seeing today in London and New York for the HTC One. There’s a lot to wrap our brains around. Proper first looks. Full reviews. Camera tests. The new software. But this much we know -- there are a lot of good things in this 4.7-inch package. And there are a few that we’re not yet sure about.
These are tumultuous times for HTC, financially as well as in terms of its place in the smartphone world. A David-versus-Goliath metaphor is too easy, but it’s also not far off, and it’s still got two giants in Samsung and Apple stomping around. One stone’s probably not going to reshape HTC’s world, and there’s a lot of risk in the HTC One. Rebooted branding. A new way of thinking about camera optics. A new home screen paradigm. And, frankly, hardcore users who can be afraid of change.
It’s a risk. But that’s something, for better or worse, HTC has always embraced.