HTC's not making it easy for us. The Taiwanese smartphone manufacturer is doing its best to convince us that the HTC One S, despite being the "middle" phone in the HTC One line — between the One X and the One V — in fact is the best phone in the bunch. And, truth be told, we're wavering.
Point is, we're not unfamiliar with these phones. And neither are you after the thousands of words and (what feels like) hours of video we've brought you.
What follows is our T-Mobile HTC One S review. It has a lot in common with its European counterpart, and we'll highlight what those of us in the states have to look forward to.
This phone is a little slice of sexy. Never thought we'd call a 4.3-inch smartphone little, but the HTC One S is a mere 7.8 mm thick, and it makes it feel smaller than it really is. Has a powerful processor and great design, and an excellent camera. It's running the most recent version of Android with some nice customizations from HTC.
The non-removable battery and lack of a microSD card will be a nonstarter for some. The display, while not bad, isn't as good as its big brother in the HTC One X. Can get pretty hot under a heavy load.
If you're in the market for a new smartphone on T-Mobile, you need to check out the HTC One S. It's got a great design, it's got great hardware, and the software is top of the line. And it can nearly replace your point-and-shoot camera.
Inside this review
T-Mobile's HTC One S is, for all intents and purposes, the same as the international version we first at Mobile World Congress in February 2012 and recently reviewed in full. It's still got a 4.3-inch Super AMOLED display at qHD (960x540) resolution. It's still extremely thin at 7.8 mm. And it's still got a dual-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 (aka Krait) processor, with 1 gigabyte of RAM. It's got Gorilla Glass. And it's got the usual smartphone bells and whistles.
T-Mobile's opted for the more traditional aluminum finish on its One S, at least at launch. That means no micro arc oxidation treatment to the metal, giving it a smoother finish. And, after spending a few weeks with the MAO-treated One S, we're pretty sure we prefer what T-Mobile's bringing. The paint job -- which HTC has told us is called a gradient paint color sheet -- feels a little smoother, seems like it'll be less prone to minor dings, and has just the right amount of reflectivity to it. By comparison, the black MAO finish tends to look more dull and shows fingerprints and oils more often.
The only real visual difference difference we've been able to discern between the T-Mobile One S and the European One S is a small section just below the three capacitive buttons. Whereas the shell is a single continuous piece on the Euro version, the metal's been spliced on the bottom bezel and replaced with what feels like a very similar material. It's got a slightly different finish, however, so it's noticeable. (We're betting it's to help let some radio waves loose.) Well, that and the camera housing and internal housing are teal, and the Beats Audio logo has changed from red and white to white and gray.
Otherwise, same phone. Same speaker grille and camera housings on the back. Same non-removable 1650 mAh battery. There's still no microSD card, so you'll have to make do with the 16GB of onboard storage (which breaks down to 2GB for apps, and 10GB for everything else).
We've shouted from the rooftops about the display on the HTC One X. It's bigger, has a higher resolution and is Super LCD 2, compared to the One S's Super AMOLED. Side by side, it's a noticeable difference. Switch back and forth from one to the other, and your eyes will wonder what they've done to deserve that sort of treatment. But that's not to say the HTC One S display is a deal-breaker. Far from it. Hell, just a year ago a qHD display was the cream of the crop. Yes, icons aren't as sharp as on the One X, whether it's because of the PenTile makeup of the pixels themselves, or the lower resolution. Yes, we prefer the display on the One X if we have a choice. But we also can function just fine with the One S display. Going down from a 720p screen to a 540p display isn't as bad a shock as going from 480p to 320p. We'll always lean toward higher resolutions. But the One S also has something that almost no other phone has.
It's ridiculously thin.
At 7.8mm, it shaves .69mm off the Galaxy S II. It's more than a full millimeter thinner than the GSM Galaxy Nexus. It's not quite as thin as the Motorola Droid RAZR (7.1mm), but then the RAZR cheats a little by getting fatter at the top by the camera. It. Is. Thin. The One S feels great in the hand. That's helped by the fact that it's a "mere" 130mm tall and 65mm wide. Back in the day that'd be huge. But not now. And the rounded edges make it feel that much better. When you hold the One S to your ear, you don't feel like folks are going to make fun of you. In fact, you kind of feel like someone's going to stop and ask why the side of your head suddenly got so sexy.
The One S design is as simple as it is sleek. The volume rocker's where you'd expect it. The microUSB port is on the left-hand side (we'd still probably prefer it on the bottom), and the power button and 3.5mm headphone jack are up top. It's got that removable panel on the back so you can get to the SIM card. And ... that's it. Slim, sleek, slick.
What's under the hood
If you're a spec nerd, you've no doubt been immersed in the battle over which is "better" -- the quad-core Tegra 3 platform, or Qualcomm's dual-core Snapdragon S4, also known as Krait. The HTC One S uses the latter running at 1.5 GHz. Some benchmarks say one is "faster," other benchmarks favor the other.
Regardless, the One S will try to do an impression of a frying pan if it's really chugging through the data or while gaming. It doesn't get surprisingly hot, but it's definitely capable of getting uncomfortably warm. (It's also not exactly a shock given how thin the phone is.)
For those of you who care whether it just works, we'll answer thusly: The HTC One S flies. Home screens are fast. Sense 4 (HTC's customization of the Android user interface) is as fast as stock.
As for data, you've got Wifi 802.11 b/g/n, and the One S works on T-Mobile's 42Mbps "4G" HSPA+ network (where it's active, anyway). So fast data is available.
We do need to have a little talk about the battery, though. Like the HTC One X and One V, the One S does not have a removable battery. You do get a capacity of 1650 mAh, which is pretty standard these days. But that's all you get. There's no swapping out the battery for a fresh one. We're not going to ding the One S for that. It's a design decision, and it is what it is. And it's not a new phenomenon. But it is something to be aware of. If you know you're going to be in a position where you can't charge your phone, you might need to look elsewhere.
We'll update with further battery findings after more use, but in initial testing we're not seeing severe drainage, and standby time is excellent.
Guess what. The HTC One S is running Android 4.0.3 Ice Cream Sandwich and Sense 4. Chances are you knew that. If you're new to Android, though, we'll sum it up in a single sentence:
This is the best version of Android yet, and HTC has customized it beautifully.
Before you go any farther, make sure you've read our comprehensive guide to Sense 4 and Ice Cream Sandwich.
As is always the case, the U.S. carriers like to put their own stamp on things, and that's not always a good thing. T-Mobile has populated the seven home screens a little less usefully than the international version of the One S. There's the iconic HTC clock and weather widget on the main home screen, of course. It's joined by the Gallery and Internet apps, and the Google search widget. But the Google Play (nee Android Market) is relegated to a second home screen. Flip one to the right, and there it is. This is a longstanding gripe of ours. One of the first things you'll want to do with the One S — whether you're an Android veteran or new to smartphones — is to install new apps. Why, in the name of all things holy, is Android's official app store not placed front and center?
- 411 & More: T-Mobile's directory assistance, weather, horoscopes and sports app.
- Amazon: Shopping from your phone.
- Game Base: A separate app store for games.
- Lookout Security: Provides security, backup and location services. (Will require signing up with Lookout to find your phone if it's missing.)
- T-Mobile Hotspot: Lets your phone serve as a hot spot.
- More for Me: One of those local deals apps.
- My T-Mobile: Account info. Doesn't work when connected to Wifi, which is ridiculous.
- Polaris Office: A useful office app.
- Slacker: Internet radio.
- T-Mobile Mall: Apps, music, games, more. Kinda like Google Play, only it's not.
- T-Mobile Name ID: Phew. For a second there we thought we were going to see City ID on the One S and -- oh, DARN IT! It's City ID in T-Mobile colors.
- T-Mobile TV: It's TV. From T-Mobile.
- Where's My Water: A fun little game.
- Zinio: The magazine app.
And those are just the extras that T-Mobile has preloaded. There's still plenty of fare from HTC itself, including the all-important Flashlight app, FM radio, HTC's excellent new car dock app, HTC Watch for movies, the ever-improving Weather app, and HTC's customized Ice Cream Sandwich browser. And don't forget that Beats Audio is on board and works with any app that outputs music through the 3.5mm jack.
Outside of the traditional realm of applications are Wifi Direct capability, as well as T-Mobile's Wifi Calling. There's also HTC's Media Link HD, which will let you stream content to your TV. Missing, sadly, is NFC compatibility.
Maybe you don't use it, but we'd rather the option be there.
The T-Mobile One S uses the same camera and app as the One X and One V. It sports HTC's new ImageSense (or ImageChip) processor as well which (among other things) gives nearly instantaneous shutter speed. (It's 0.7 seconds.) And if you haven't heard us talk about it by now, you're about to get our standard line: It's the best camera HTC's done yet. That's not to say the 8-megapixel camera is perfect. And it might not be quite as good as, say, Sony or Nokia. But if you're coming from an older HTC device, the difference is night and day. Folks with the Amaze or myTouch 4G Slide might not notice as much.
There's also a front-facing VGA shooter if you're into that sort of thing.
The camera app also has the same bevy of real-time effects that apps like Instagram have made so popular. (See our walkthrough of the effects here.)
Enough talk, though. Let's get to some samples.
The front-facing camera
The rear-facing camera
Other odds and ends
Lest we forget ...
- Hey, this thing's still a phone. And the phone works well enough. (As per usual, you're beholden to T-Mobile's network. If it's good, voice quality is good.)
- The rear speaker is surprisingly loud, but it's also pretty tinny. There's very little bass coming out of this thin fellow.
- As far as hackability goes, unlocking the bootloader should be as easy as going to HTCDev.com. Rooting's already taken care of, and custom ROMs will come in due time.
- GPS has worked as you'd expect.
- All of the developer options remain on the phone.
- T-Mobile's left intact the option to use the phone as a mobile hotspot.
- The One S rocks HTC's new keyboard, and it's pretty good. Maybe not as good as some of the third-party keyboards, but it's definitely usable.
T-Mobile's got itself a hell of a phone here. We know, we know. We've been crowing about the 720p Super LCD 2 display of the One X. And it is better. But let that go. Embrace the fact that the HTC One S probably the closest we've seen to the venerable Nexus One. Marvel at its thinness. Bask in its beauty. (OK, now we're going too far.)
Point is, we really are having a hard time calling the One S the No. 2 phone in the HTC One lineup. It stands on its own merits quite nicely. The design is there. The software is solid. The hardware performs admirably. You'll have to weigh whether a non-removable battery will work for you, and whether you can get by with (only) 10GB of usable on-board storage. But those are the only real hang-ups when it comes to the T-Mobile One S. We've taken to calling them decisions, not necessarily detractors. (Your opinion might well vary, and that's cool, too.)
If you're in the market for a new phone on T-Mobile, the HTC One S is a must-see.