Can HTC squeeze the essence of its best phone yet into a smaller, more affordable package?
We’ve made no secret of the fact that the HTC One is our favorite phone of the year so far. Back in March HTC knocked it out of the park with exceptional build quality, a stunning display and fast, well-designed software. And though not entirely perfect — we took issue with image quality from the camera, for instance — it’s been hard to find another device that’s as consistently fast, beautiful and enjoyable to use.
In previous years, HTC’s sold different devices with substantially different designs and features for the mid-range and high-end. However 2013 sees the Taiwanese manufacturer adopting a more consistent approach. As such, this year’s leading mid-range phone is the HTC One Mini, a device which aims to distil the essence of the HTC One into a smaller form factor with a lower price tag.
But as we’ve seen from previous mid-level offerings, it’s easy to make one compromise too many, resulting in a lackluster device. So has HTC succeeded where others have faltered? Find out after the break, in our definitive HTC One Mini review.
Great performance, bright and vivid screen, attractive design, strong ergonomics and good battery life. The complete HTC Sense 5 software experience has made it across intact.
Lack of IR port and NFC. “Ultrapixel” camera is still hit-and-miss, with narrow dynamic range and average video performance. Price tag is comparatively high.
The HTC One Mini has stayed true to the spirit of the HTC One name, bringing combination of excellent build quality and a gorgeous screen, not to mention speedy, well-designed software that matches almost every feature of the larger One. The compromises made by HTC are measured and sensible, and most of the hardware omissions don't greatly impact the user experience. For that reason, we can recommend the HTC One Mini as enthusiastically as we did its big brother.
At a distance, the HTC One Mini is the spitting image of HTC’s full-sized flagship device. From the front, you’re looking at a 16:9 aspect ratio display, sandwiched between two front-facing speakers. Around the back, you see a classy brushed aluminum exterior, divided by a polycarbonate trim. Put the two handsets side by side, and it’s clear you’re dealing with two very closely related devices.
Like the HTC One, the One Mini sits comfortably in the hand, thanks to its curved metal back. In fact, the combination of the smaller size and curved plastic trim makes the Mini a smidgen more ergonomic than its big brother. The glossy bumper extends around the sides of the device, so you’re dealing with a bit more plastic and a bit less metal in the One Mini. That means the Mini’s appearance is somewhat less striking than the original, but at the same time it's an easier fit for the palm.
The inclusion of capacitive keys, front-facing “BoomSound” speakers and a fair amount of vertical bezel makes the HTC One Mini a pretty tall phone — in fact, it almost matches up to the height of some 4.7-inch phones like the Nexus 4. Instead of height, it seems, it’s the Mini’s width that has been trimmed down the most, and that helps the phone become more hand and pocket-friendly. Reaching all the way across the screen with your thumb is easy, and there’s less bulk when the phone’s pocketed, even though the overall thickness hasn’t changed much.
At a distance (and in photos and official renders), the covers of the dual front-facing speakers might appear to be brushed aluminum, like the original HTC One. In reality they feel decidedly plasticky, and they have a textured finish with a strange, rough feeling. It's a stark contrast to the aluminum atop the One's speakers, and it's the one area of the Mini’s build quality that we’d take issue with. Thankfully it’s not something you notice very often.
The speakers themselves also aren’t quite as loud as those of the HTC One, nor as bassy. Regardless, they’re far beyond most smartphone speakers in terms of both loudness and quality. And the differences between the One and the Mini in this area won’t be noticeable unless you’ve got both devices sitting side by side.
HTC’s using the same slightly wonky button setup on the One Mini — a capacitive home and back button, and a central HTC logo where perhaps something more useful could sit. Nevertheless, it’s not too much of an adjustment to switch to HTC’s new way of doing Android buttons. Task-switching is accessed through a double-tap of the home key. Additionally, as is the case on the latest HTC One firmware, you can swipe up on “home” to get to Google Now, and re-map a long-press of the home key to act as “menu.” It’s a little awkward, but not deal-breakingly so.
A quick glance at the HTC One Mini’s exterior reveals ports and connectors in the same places as the full-size version. You’ve got microUSB down below, volume on the side — two buttons, rather than a rocker — power and headphones up top, and a SIM tray on the side, accessible with a SIM removal tool. The buttons are a little firmer than those of the HTC One and they’re almost flush with the outer trim, meaning there’s a little less tactile feedback.
Aside from the large, central HTC logo, the main feature on the back panel is the rear-facing camera. It’s another “Ultrapixel” camera, using the same sensor that’s found on the HTC One, only without optical image stabilization (OIS). We’ll get to what the removal of OIS means later in the review, but suffice it to say that like its full-size sibling, the One Mini’s camera issues have to do with the sensor more than optical stabilization.
Eagle-eyed readers might have also noticed that there’s no plastic trim around camera lens. That’s because this is where the NFC antenna lives on the HTC One, and the One Mini lacks NFC support. We suspect the loss of NFC won’t mean much to most consumers, especially in the UK, where smartphone-based contactless payments haven’t really taken off.
Onto another omission — the One Mini has no IR blaster. (The full-sized One hid this feature behind its power button, allowing you to control your TV using the integrated Sense TV app.) Again, this isn’t a show-stopper, but something that makes the Mini just a little less feature-packed.
By contrast, the areas where HTC hasn’t skimped on hardware are arguably the most important. The One Mini packs a gorgeous 4.3-inch 720p SuperLCD panel, giving you 342 pixels per inch. It’s not as crazily detailed as the HTC One’s 468ppi, but it’s still more detail than the average human eye can discern at a distance. It’s bright, vivid, easily usable in daylight, and auto-brightness ramps aggressively enough so that you don’t have to tweak your settings when moving between locations. Colors are generally accurate, though images on our One Mini appeared a little warmer than those of other LCDs like the HTC One and Nexus 4. The bottom line is that 1280x720 on a 4.3-inch panel looks great, and if you pick up a One Mini, you can do so knowing you’re getting the best display on a phone of this size.
On the inside, the HTC One Mini is powered by a dual-core 1.4GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 CPU — a mid-range chip, but a perfectly capable piece of silicon — with 1GB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage (you’ve got around 11GB available for your own stuff.) Many high-end devices are shipping with 2GB of RAM, but the One Mini gets along just fine with a single gig. Despite having only half the memory of its big brother, we didn’t notice any issues with multitasking or browsing in Chrome across multiple tabs. There’s a chance the Mini’s RAM may limit its future upgrade prospects, but for the moment it’s ticking along on Android 4.2 and Sense 5 without any problems.
The same can be said for performance and responsiveness in general. Despite the move from a Snapdragon 600 (quad-core, 1.7GHz) on the HTC One to a dual-core Snapdragon 400, the Sense 5 UI performs almost identically on the Mini. In fact, the only real instance of lag we noticed was during initial setup, when the phone was pulling down app updates, syncing accounts and restoring backups all at the same time. During regular use we suspect most users won’t even be able to tell the difference between the speed and responsiveness of the One and the Mini.
More intensive apps like games and benchmarks will show the limits of the Mini’s CPU and GPU, but we found that even relatively demanding titles like Sonic 4 Episode 2 and Epic Citadel were perfectly playable.
The Mini provides a full range of wireless connectivity options — with the exception of NFC, which we’ve already mentioned. You’ve got Wifi a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0 and 4G LTE on the same bands supported by the European HTC One. What’s more, there’s also support for quad-band HSPA-42. Both 3G and 4G data worked as expected, and calls came through loud and clear.
HTC One Mini specs
The HTC One Mini runs Android 4.2.2 Jelly Bean and HTC’s Sense 5 UI. If you’ve been following any of our HTC One coverage, you should know more or less what to expect here. HTC has faithfully recreated the HTC One user experience on its smaller device, resulting in software almost identical in feature set and performance to the HTC One. It also includes all the new features that the HTC One recently gained through its Android 4.2 update — lock screen widgets, quick settings shortcuts, new video highlight templates and the ability to disable the on-screen menu bar.
But what don’t you get? Well, the list is actually pretty short. The only missing app we’ve been able to spot is Sense TV, which is omitted on account of the One Mini’s lack of IR blaster. Everything else, it seems, has made it across in one piece.
We’ve already covered all of HTC Sense 5 in exhaustive detail in our HTC One review, so we’re going to focus on a few highlights here, starting with the home screen experience. In addition to four regular Android home screens, you get the BlinkFeed home screen reader, which draws in content from news publications and social networks, as well as your calendar and the Gallery app. All this content is combined into a vertical-scrolling stream of visual information, with three or four blocks per page. It’s a great little distraction to have a single swipe away, and although we don’t consider it a killer app, we’ve found ourselves using it more than we expected on Sense 5 phones.
Should you switch over to the regular Android home screen view, you’ll find a wealth of HTC widgets with which you can customize your screens. These include calendar, agenda, weather and settings widgets, and you can even bring back the old HTC flip clock if you want. The app drawer is arranged somewhat confusingly by default, but it is at least customizable, allowing you to switch to a more logical alphabetic grid of apps if you want.
The Sense 5 gallery app is among the most fully-featured out there, too. Instead of just lumping all your photos into a single gallery, Sense intelligently groups them into events based on location, date and time. From each event, Sense then automatically creates a 30-second highlight reel based on one of twelve themes.
On the productivity side, you’ve got the Sense Calendar and Tasks apps — ideal for folks living in the Google ecosystem. And the sense Mail app is a good option for those juggling multiple IMAP, POP or ActiveSync accounts.
The Beats Audio software enhancements are included too, and these work through third-party music and video apps, not just the integrated Sense ones. That allows you to enjoy the boost in bass and clarity brought about by these tweaks in just about everything that uses the front speakers or headphones. As we mentioned in our HTC One review, HTC has tweaked and pared back the Beats Audio tweaks of late, meaning playback with Beats enabled isn’t as ridiculously bassy as it was on previous HTC phones.
Overall, HTC Sense 5 remains our favorite Android “skin,” and the experience we first came to enjoy on the HTC One has been faithfully recreated on the One Mini. The fact that HTC has fitted a top-notch screen to its miniature flagship also allows Sense’s design — focused on sleek typography, bold colors and clean lines — to shine through.
The HTC One Mini has an 1800mAh non-removable battery sealed within its aluminum shell. That’s a lower number than we’re used to dealing with on high-end smartphones, but remember there’s a lower-powered chip and a smaller display on the One Mini. During a day of intensive use we got a little under twelve hours out of the One Mini before it hit the 20-percent warning level. Our usage patterns involved browsing and checking emails, streaming music over HSPA+, taking a few dozen photos and syncing accounts in the background. For much of that time, we had Skype running, and we were regularly switching between HSPA+ and Wifi.
With less intensive use, mostly restricted to Wifi, we could get through around twelve hours of mixed use and have around half capacity remaining.
Additionally, there are power saving modes that can reduce CPU speed and screen brightness to save juice, if you find yourself in a tight spot.
We also tested the One Mini on EE’s 4G LTE network and found, unsurprisingly, that 4G data didn’t impact our longevity in any noticeable way. (Data thoughput, too, was comparable with what we’ve been getting from other devices on EE’s network.)
So we have no concerns regarding the HTC One Mini’s ability to get us through a full working day, though as is the case with any device with a fixed battery you won’t be able to perform a quick battery swap on longer days.
The HTC One Mini sports a 4-megapixel “Ultrapixel’ rear shooter, in addition to a basic 1.6-megapixel front-facer. The front-facing camera doesn’t have a wide-angle lens, like the full-size HTC One, however the main camera does — in fact, it’s almost identical to the rear shooter on the larger device. Same 4-megapixel, widescreen sensor with large pixels intended to improve low-light performance. And for the most part, the same software experience is backing it up.
The main casualty of the move to a smaller device is optical image stabilization, or OIS. This is a system which allows the lens itself to move to compensate for camera motion, thus reducing blurring in shaky shots. However after spending a good deal of time with the HTC One Mini’s camera, we’re not convinced OIS is such a great a loss. In regular daylight shots, the Mini’s camera matches the HTC One’s capabilities — and even in darker conditions we didn’t find ourselves coming away with too many blurry shots. If you do find yourself in a particularly shaky situation, however, there’s an Anti-shake software mode to help out.
The only place we found ourselves missing OIS was in the video camera. Moving footage exhibits more shaking and wobbling on the One Mini, while it’s a little (though not a whole lot) smoother on the HTC One. (That anti-shake option, by the way, doesn’t seem to do much in video mode.)
While OIS is an easy, absent hardware feature to point out, the real sticking points with the One Mini’s camera are the same issues affecting the original HTC One. The “Ultrapixel” sensor — while great in low light — is just way too hit-and-miss in daylight, mainly due to its narrow dynamic range and tendency to capture noisy images. And as photos are captured at just four megapixels, that noise is easier to spot than in traditional 8-plus-megapixel smartphone images.
This inconsistency means you can shoot crisp, clear photos one moment, and images that look like they were taken with a potato the next. When you’re not shooting in overly bright conditions, the One Mini can take great-looking images with bright, vivid colors and plenty of detail. But like the HTC One, when the One Mini underperforms, it does so spectacularly. Skies become washed out on account of the poor dynamic range, and images exhibit more visible noise than we’d expect from a high-end smartphone camera. These issues are more excusable on a mid-range product, but that doesn’t completely exonerate HTC. When you strip away the fancy software features, what you’re left with is a camera that’s merely satisfactory most of the time, and above-average in low light.
The overall camera experience, then, is much the same as on the HTC One — decent, if not outstanding images, backed up by some superb software. Capture speeds are fast, tap-to-focus works well, and you can machinegun through a series of shots by long-pressing the shutter key. There’s a dedicated HDR mode, which goes some way towards mitigating the camera’s dynamic range issues. And you also get a number of nifty real-time filter effects to apply, if you’re into that sort of thing.
We’re still huge fans of Zoes, HTC’s three-second video clips which also include full-size photos. The 30-second automatic video highlight reels, too, remain a favorite, and Sense 5 now includes twelve video highlight themes. HTC should also be commended for bringing more advanced features like “action shot” and “object removal” to the Mini. The former lets you string different parts of a burst shot into the same image, while the latter lets you (photographically) eliminate photobombers and passers-by.
Video performance follows a similar pattern — good, but not without its share of issues, mainly to do with transitioning between bright and dark areas. In especially dark areas the camera suffers from a reduced frame rate, which is disappointing to see.
The HTC One Mini can record 1080p video with 30 frames per second, or 720p with 60 frames per second in “fast HD” mode. There’s also an HDR video mode, designed to capture more detail concurrently in bright and dark areas. In practice this produces jarring transitions in brightness, and we wouldn’t recommend using it.
In summary, we’d call the One Mini’s camera adequate. Satisfactory. All right. Like its larger sibling, its strength lies in what you can do with photos after taking them, rather than the quality of the images themselves.
We’ve covered a lot of “mini” versions of popular phones in recent weeks, and in doing so we’ve talked at length about compromises — the decisions regarding what to cut and what to keep which can make or break such a handset. Broadly speaking we, agree with the choices HTC’s made in transforming the HTC One into a less expensive 4.3-inch phone. To be blunt, the average consumer simply doesn’t care about NFC or IR, and these seem sensible sacrifices to make. Even the missing OIS capability isn’t as big a deal as it might seem, for the reasons we’ve already discussed.
Crucially, display fidelity and build quality haven’t been sacrificed, and the One Mini boasts the same solid construction and striking looks as the larger version. And while the internal hardware has taken a hit, the impact upon performance is negligible — Sense 5 on the Mini is as fast as it’s ever been. The software capabilities too almost exactly match those of the HTC One.
For the moment, the One Mini’s greatest barrier to widespread success is going to be its price tag. SIM-free prices of £380 place the Mini towards the expensive end of the mid-range spectrum, and we’d expect carriers to pass that expense onto on-contract buyers too.
That amount of money gives you a great deal of choice when it comes to competing devices. There’s Samsung’s Galaxy S4 Mini — less refined, with a lower resolution screen, but with a better all-around camera, expandable storage, IR and NFC support. And we hate to keep mentioning the Nexus 4 in these “mini” reviews, but that’s still a great device for those not concerned with LTE, and the 16GB model comes in at around £100 cheaper than the One Mini.
Ultimately, the HTC One Mini has stayed true to the spirit of the HTC One name, bringing combination of excellent build quality and a gorgeous screen, not to mention speedy, well-designed software that matches almost every feature of the full-sized One. The compromises made by HTC are measured and sensible, and most of the hardware omissions don't greatly impact the user experience. For that reason, we can recommend the HTC One Mini as enthusiastically as we did its big brother.
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