Network - not software or hardware - is the big difference in the Sprint HTC One, for better or worse
Finally, we're getting our first look at the U.S. versions of the HTC One, the phone that many believe (right or wrong) will either make or break the Taiwanese smartphone manufacturer, which has been struggling financially for a number of quarters.
The HTC One represents a bit of a shift for HTC. As the name implies, it's one line. One brand. For all intents and purposes, we're looking at the same smartphone from Europe to Asia to the U.S., and everywhere in between. There will be a few small changes, of course -- radios and storage space and what not. And he U.S. carrier versions will have slightly different applications packages preloaded. But put, say, the Sprint HTC One beside an unlocked, European phone, and you'll not see a difference in looks, or in function. And maybe most important -- they're the same phone in name, finally giving HTC a proper platform to push its brand. That's something HTC has tried and failed at for a number of years, most notably with the 17 variants (more or less) in the originally attempt at the HTC One.
But no more.
I've had the Sprint HTC One for a week or so now, and I've had a European version for a number of weeks. There's simply no real difference in terms of hardware and functionality. For that, please see Alex Dobie's excellent comprehensive HTC One review.
We're going to do things a little differently here. What follows is not a deep dive into the Sprint HTC One. It's just not that different from what we've already reviewed. Instead, it's my thoughts on the HTC One in general and a breakdown of the specifics for Sprint's version. School's in session.
The Sprint HTC One video walkthrough
Not to beat a dead horse here, but there's not that much different, at least on the surface, between Sprint's HTC One and other versions. Storage will vary slightly. (Unless you get one of them newfangled 64-gigabyte monsters.) Sprint's got a couple of its own apps -- and some of them, like Lookout Mobile Security and Sprint TV, only download if you accept the "Sprint Default Configuration." (More on that in a bit.)
HTC One hardware and design
For you Sprint folks out there, the HTC One is a pretty big departure from last year's EVO 4G LTE (which itself was an offshoot of the HTC One X). You're going from glossy plastic to matte aluminum. There's tons over debate over which one is "better" -- and remember that there were plenty of folks who scoffed at the glossy plastic on the EVO 4G LTE versus the matte polycarbonate on the HTC One. To each his own.
The HTC One design is something special. Some of that has to do with the angles at which we've all (that includes HTC) been shooting it. But there's a reason for that. The HTC One may well be HTC's best designed and manufactured smartphone. Save for the SIM card try (yes, Sprint's version is a Global roamer and has the same external SIM card as everyone else's), the power button and the volume buttons, there are no moving parts here. No creaking. There's nothing that can break. That's done by milling out a block of aluminum and then injecting the plastic bits into it. And it's pretty damn impressive.
More: Be sure to check out our HTC One Forums!
That's not to say there aren't areas of concern. This is a tall, skinny phone, and much like tall skinny people, there's not a whole lot of extra meat to hang on to, if you know what I mean. It's slick, without any real grab points. But then again, I'm pretty well convinced the HTC One's not meant to be a one-hander anyway -- at least not if you don't have relatively large hands. For me, it's the same sense I got with the Droid DNA -- and the two are actually pretty close in gross design. It's just a little too tall and a little too thin for my liking.
Another minor annoyance is that it's so symmetrical and so smooth that there's no real obvious way to tell if you're pulling it out of your pocket right-side up, or upside down. The power button on the top is nearly flush -- to the point of being a little difficult to press quickly, and same for the volume buttons. Closest I've been able to come is to hopefully feel the micro USB port on the bottom of the phone, which means I'm pulling it out the opposite of how I'll be holding it. Again, a minor annoyance? Probably. But it's one I experience a number of times a day.
Everything else still lives up to what we've been saying for weeks now. A Super LCD3 display at 1080p may be the best you've ever seen. And having resurrected my Galaxy S3 for a little while, there's simply no comparison outdoors. HTC (and LG with its IPS display) wins that battle, hands down.
The front-facing stereo speakers are loud -- maybe too loud -- but they're also a great feature. HTC's got its usual deal where the ringer will quiet down as soon as you pick up the phone, or it'll be louder if it thinks it's in your pocket. But it really should have a quick and easy "Shut the hell up" toggle for nighttime. Just remember to lower the volume before you go to bed and you should be good. (That's still applicable even if the phone's on the other side of your crib. It's that freakin' loud.
Now, about those buttons down at the bottom.
Part of me hopes there's some technical reason HTC put the back button on the left, and the home button on the right, with the non-functioning HTC logo in the middle. But I don't think so. If the move was to ensure HTC's got its branding out front (which hasn't always been the case for U.S. carrier versions of its phones), it was a poor decision. The home button is the most used button on the phone, save for the power button. It should be in the middle of the phone, where it can be reached most easily.
But at the same time, I've been talking myself out of that argument, too. Perhaps the HTC One, being as lanky as it is, really isn't meant to be one handed. In which case would it really matter whether the home button's in the center? Or maybe it's just because it's different, and different is baaaaaaad. I've gotten used to it, but I don't have to like it.
Speeds and feeds
No matter how good a phone might be, if it's on a struggling network it'll never live up to its full potential. That's the case with the HTC One on Sprint. As we've had to say in far too many other Sprint device reviews, we've got a great phone here on a sub-standard network.
That is to say, Sprint's 3G network is downright painful. And poor connections are murder on battery life, too.
But Sprint does have a fledgling LTE network. I tested it at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, where speeds and connection weren't great. Airports can be like that. Lots of people, lots of planes, lots of signals flying through the air. The connection dropped from 4G to 3G so often, speed tests were moot.
Things were a little better in San Francisco, however. Never mind that SF's not even listed as having LTE data, at least as far as Sprint's coverage map and official list are concerned in early April 2013 -- but it's there, sort of. Connections again were wonky, and I never saw more than 6 Mbps (and change) downstream. Uploads were in the 1.2 Mbps range.
Again, this was in San Francisco, which isn't even listed as having Sprint LTE yet. So don't take those numbers as gospel. If you're a current Sprint customer, you likely know what your data speeds are like, for better or worse.
I don't have a whole lot to say about battery life because of all that. On Wifi, the HTC One is a champ. Twelve, 14, 15 hours? Absolutely doable. In fact, only having to charge it once a day with that sort of use makes up for the longer-than-usual charging time. Plug it in, go to sleep, forget about it. On Sprint's network, though, the phone's pinging the hell out of towers, desperately trying to to get or keep a signal where I live. So battery life was well worse than what I've been getting on the European version of the HTC One on HSPA+, which has been pretty good, given that at 2,300 mAh it's not the highest capacity we've ever seen in a smartphone.
I've had zero issues with HTC using Qualcomm's Snapdragon 600 system. The phone runs as fast as I'd expect -- and maybe even cooler than I'm used to, though the aluminum body can get damned hot in the sunlight. That should be interesting to test once we get proper car kits. The 2GB of RAM has proven to be ample, and I've had none of the multitasking issues that plagued the original HTC One X owners.
HTC One hardware - the bottom line
My personal quibbles notwithstanding, the HTC One easily is the best-designed and put-together Android smartphone we've seen thus far. I've written before that HTC's smartphones can always always be described as "solid," and none more so than the HTC One.
Sprint's version is exactly the same (so far as we can tell) as the European model. No extra buttons or markings -- not even a Sprint logo. Just a worse network.
The HTC One software
At risk of sounding like a broken record, not a lot has changed here for Sprint, either. We've got Sense 5 running atop Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean. European-specific applications have been swapped out for Sprint-specific apps, mainly Sprint TV & Movies, Sprint Worldwide (which is a simple but helpful page with info for world travelers), and the Sprint Zone apps for downloading other Sprint specific apps. Sprint's also added Lookout Mobile Security, and there's a Qualcomm Enhanced Location Services app that's new to us, too. But especially in the "Custom" view in the app drawer, you might not even notice any of the Sprint-specific apps.
There are a handful of Sprint widgets available as well. But if you're anything like the folks HTC is targeting with the HTC One -- folks who don't customize home screens, remember -- you'll never use them.
I've found Sense 5 to be pretty usable. The new, slimmer font is pretty pleasing, as is the darker motif. It's nowhere near as friendly as the older versions of Sense, but neither is it as cold and, well, robotic as Google's flavor of Android. That's not to say I don't have issues with Sense 5, though.
Different isn't always better. Start with HTC's implementation of folders. Instead of a stacked view as you add apps into a folder, HTC's gone with a 2-by-2 grid. It's OK so long as you have at least four items in a folder. But anything else (OK, two or three apps is your only other option in this scenario) leaves a whole lot of blank space. That's just bad design, no matter how much data tells you "most folks" probably have at least four apps in a folder.
And I've already written a few hundred words about how the Sense 5 app drawer overly complicates matters.
I like the idea of BlinkFeed well enough, even though I don't use it on a regular basis. It's just not how I consume information. But then again I'm not normal. (What I wouldn't give for the old green CRT terminals of days gone by for parsing stories.) It's nicely implemented and easy to set up. It's also pretty easy to overwhelm with feeds, between Twitter and Facebook and news. Don't want to have Facebook as in-your-face as you might with Facebook Home? Here's a happy medium. And remember: If you don't want to use BlinkFeed, you don't have to, and it's not in the way at all.
One slight incongruity: For a phone that's supposed to be all about the "normal" user, having HTC's own custom Webkit browser alongside Google's Chrome is bound to be confusing. But then again, it gives you the option to view Flash content. (Never mind that Flash is being deprecated and this move only serves to drag out that long overdue death.)
One more annoyance: I'm not sure why this doesn't seem to bother me as much on other phones the number of different dialog boxes I've seen for sharing items on the HTC One is staggering. There's HTC's way of doing things. Or Google's. Or an individual app's. It's a ridiculous exercise in incongruity. Not necessarily HTC's fault, I suppose, but for whatever reason it's bugging the hell out of me on the HTC One. Maybe because I'm already having to reach all over the display (and up and over the speakers) in the first place.
Here's something that you might miss the first time around with the Sprint HTC One. (I did.) After the initial setup, there's a notification asking if you want to install the "Sprint default configuration." Ummmm, sure. Why not. Hit "continue," and you get a screen that reads thusly:
Your Sprint Default Configuration is now ready to be installed. Sprint ID gives instant access to apps, ringtones, wallpapers and more, and you get it all in a single download.
You can switch between ID's by tapping the ID button shown on the home screen or in the applications menu. All of your apps are available, no matter which ID you are using.
Tap Install to complete installation and switch to the Sprint ID pack.
That's just like we've seen in previous Sprint phones with Sprint ID. Only, none of it's to be found in the Sprint HTC One.
I'm not sure if this will be in the final, shipping ROM, or if it's just pre-release noise. It seems too purposed, yet worded oddly. We're still waiting to hear back from Sprint on that. (If it's the latter, this little section will be stricken, with a note explaining so.)
HTC One software - the bottom line
BlinkFeed is fine. I don't use it, but it's not in the way. Sense 5 is fine -- definitely digging the new font -- but it still gets in the way at times. I want my app drawer to scroll. Not scroll-stop, scroll-stop. I've been using Action Launcher on the HTC One and am plenty happy with it.
I've found that I'm not using Google Now as much as I do on, say, the Nexus 4. That's a direct result of the location of the home button. Also, HTC, I beg you. Quick settings. Suck it up and get with Google's program here.
The HTC One Ultrapixel camera, Zoes and Video Highlights
Depending on which review you've read so far -- or, worse, which sound bite -- the HTC One's camera is either the greatest thing since sliced bread, or not getting anywhere near all the hype. I haven't been able to nail myself down on one side or the other. Instead, when someone asks, I simply tell them "Not once have I thought I needed to carry another phone with a different camera alongside the HTC One."
I have pictures that are great. I have pictures that are not so great. The good ones tend to look pretty darn good, and the bad ones tend to be crap that I'll not be showing anyone anyway, same as with any other phone. A lot of that has to do with me as a photographer.
The 4-megapixel resolution -- the HTC One shoots at 2688 by 1520 -- hasn't really bothered me. Most of what I do is online anyway, and there have been a couple instances in which I've used pictures from the HTC One as hero shots here on the site. (This one was a still shot taken from video, actually.)
My biggest complaint, I think, has to do with the dynamic range. When you've got something light (or bright) next to something dark, the whites tend to be blown out. And seeing as how I'm a pretty casual shooter, I'm not going to spend time messing around in the settings to try to get the perfect shot.
I am, however, absolutely in love with Video Highlights. I travel a lot. I have cute kids. I have a beautiful wife. So a lot of what I share gets sent to close friends and family. And for that, a 30-second Video Highlight is awesome. I'd like to see more options for background music -- the included six start to get old fairly quickly, and I've been avoiding the overly Parisian "Eifel." But at the same time, I'm not sure being able to upload your own music is the right answer, either. You quickly find personality in HTC's background music. It's got a life of its own, and at the same time it's new, so you're not going to relate your pictures to something else while you're watching the highlights.
Zoes -- those 3-second video pictures (or clips, if you must) are a big part of all this. I've found that if you don't have enough Zoes in a given event, the algorithm that puts the highlights together will start repeating a still image too often.
Shooting Zoes instead of still pictures does a couple things:
- It creates about 20 still images in the process. Take a second and look though those, and there's a chance there's a better one than in that group than if you shot just a single still picture.
- You get better, more entertaining Video Highlights.
For as simple as highlights are -- start shooting and the HTC One starts making highlights -- they require far too much explanation. Same for Zoes. It's a confusing naming convention. Moreover, they're buried within the gallery and camera applications. The philosophy behind the HTC One home screen experience is that most people don't really customize their home screens. Why, then, is one of the more important features of the phone not presented there? Highlights are also a bit more difficult to manipulate than I'd like, and you often end up copying images to new folders on the phone. That takes time, and it takes space. Not being a coder, I don't have a better suggestion -- but I do know that I don't want the same Zoe with its video and 20 images in more than one place, if I can avoid it.
I've previously mentioned automatic upload services like Dropbox and Google+, but it's worth repeating again: Turn them off if you're taking Zoes with the HTC One. Those 20 jpeg stills and one mp4 video will muck 'em up right quick. That's especially true for Google+, which is more of a pain to comb through.
By the way, I've not been using HTC's "Zoe Share" service. It's not that it's bad, it's that I can't, on principle, share things that have a known shelf life. YouTube and Google+ and Facebook and Instagram probably aren't going anywhere anytime soon. But Zoe Share links die after 180 days. Here's an example. It's nice. But view it while you can.
For more on the HTC One camera, we recommend:
- Inside Zoes and Video Highlights
- Camera tips - take better pictures with your HTC One
- How to keep Events organized on the HTC One
A few sample shots from the Sprint HTC One
Really, no difference (so far as I can tell) than with the other HTC One I've been using. The camera application has a slightly higher version number, but I've got no idea if anything big has changed.
Images open in full resolution in a new window:
There's been a lot of talk about how well the microphones perform with a lot of background noise. So in San Francisco recently, I hopped up to a rooftop deck in SOMA and gave them a real test.
You might want to turn down your speakers.
A few other odds and ends
- Not getting enough attention is HTC's setup process. It's gotten better with each iteration, and that continues with Sense 5. In fact, I backed up the Euro HTC One using HTC's backup tool (it syncs through Dropbox, so you've got your data), and reloaded my apps and most settings onto the Sprint HTC One. App data doesn't transfer, though, so you'll have to log back in.
- Also deserving more praise is HTC's inclusion of "Kid mode." HTC bought Zoodles in late 2011, and it's a great feature to keep kids from getting into things they shouldn't be.
- HTC's stock keyboard is OK, but you can download better.
- I had nary a problem with calls on Sprint's network, but then again I didn't too many. No simultaneous voice and data on 3G, of course.
- GPS and Bluetooth behaved just as they have on other HTC Ones. No worries there on my end.
This honestly did start out as a "casual" review, less formal than I might otherwise write. Some 4,000 published words later and I realize I forgot about the infrared remote control. Yeah, there's an IR port in the power button. I've already written about watching TV with your HTC One, but it's worth another mention here. It's not going to replace your remote control, but then again it's not supposed to. It's a fun little gadget that's worth a look.
More HTC One and Sense 5 features
We've been breaking down the major features of the HTC One and Sense 5 over the past several weeks. Here's a great place to start:
The bottom line
This review's been more of my thoughts on the HTC One in general than with Sprint and its version of the phone specifically, because there really isn't much of a difference of the phone. HTC's done well to get that deal done, with a single line of hardware and nearly identical software, at least as far as Sprint's concerned. Sprint also gets credit for that, as it's been paring down its footprint on phones in recent releases anyway. Sense 5 is plenty usable, though it still feels over-engineered a tad. BlinkFeed is a nice feature, but I don't use it.
I'd recommend the HTC One to anybody, particularly if you like to share photos and videos. As a parent, Video Highlights have been a great way to show off the kids to family and friends. The camera might not wipe the floor with competitors in every situation, but it's been a solid overall performer, and I've not once wished I had another phone with me.
Battery life, in my daily use, has been pretty good. It's something I have to pay attention to a little more than usual while on the road, because you (obviously) can't swap out batteries, and the HTC One charges a little slower than you might be used to. For me, that's not a deal-breaker. It's just something to be aware of. (And if you're bouncing around on Sprint's network, it's something you'll be very aware of.)
The front-facing stereo speakers are excellent, especially if you're a podcast or talk radio listener. They won't replace a dedicated speaker set for music, but at the same time anyone nearby will do a double-take to see if that much sound is really coming from a phone.
Whereas I'd recommend the HTC One to anybody, I'd not recommend Sprint's network to someone who's not familiar with coverage in their area. If you're in a new, good LTE-laden location, more power to you. Purchase at will. But much of the country isn't. Sprint's still working on this, of course, with its Network Vision upgrades, but the clock's still ticking. And that's a shame, because Sprint still has some of the easiest and most economical plans available, and it's got competitive phones in its stable, including its HTC One.
For a deep-dive look at the HTC One, be sure to read Alex Dobie's review.
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