The Smartphone to Beat


We loved the first generation HTC One when it came out a year ago, touting it as the first non-iPhone that was worth switching over to Android, thanks to a slim design, a big high-res screen, and innovative photo features. After a refresh at the end of last year, the model has been given a major facelift and inside overhaul, and the new HTC One, available for pre-order now and in your hands on April 19, is nearly as much of a step forward.

On a hardware level, the most impressive new features are the twin speakers on either side of the screen, which have built-in amplifiers that help them blast crisp and clear audio. Bass sounds tight without being too tinny, something approximating a high-end Sony portable radio from the 1980s – that’s a compliment to anyone who doesn’t remember those – except at a fraction of the size. From the morning news to jazz to the new Strokes album, audio was blasted with no distortion by the speakers. And unlike many other phones, and even laptops, we’ve tested, the HTC One can handle movies on its own, too: We didn’t feel the need to pair with external Bluetooth speakers when watching Oliver Stone’s ‘Savages’ – the speakers delivered crisp, easy-to-understand dialogue over a home-theater-lite action soundtrack. One of the best things that HTC did for its hardware was purchase Beats by Dr. Dre Audio a couple of years ago, because that company’s technology has clearly set HTC’s audio apart. The phone even ships with Beats earbuds, but any pair of Beats headphones or external speakers will benefit from additional Beats-specific sound processing to make your music and movies sound spectacular.

Also impressive, a bigger sensor that grabs even more light than previous HTC phones. Apparently, the new sensor can capture up to 300 percent more light, and the built-in optical image stabilization (OIC) means the camera’s lens actually moves when it senses motion, but we just judged the HTC One’s improved photo capabilities by the clear pictures of the Empire State Building we took at night without a tripod, not to mention equally clear and defined portraits with the iconic skyscraper in the background. Compare that with the blurry night shots we’re used to getting from our smartphone cameras, even ones with image stabilization, and the HTC is a winner in the imaging category as well.

Besides all the burst shot capabilities of the previous model, the new HTC One also includes a feature called Zoe, which captures about five seconds of high-def images and video at once, letting you essentially pick any moment of that five seconds and turn it into a high-res image. This is handy for sports or other live events when you want to catch that perfect action shot in its full high-res glory.

On an everyday level, the other big new development on the HTC One is HTC BlinkFeed, which is the smartphone manufacturer’s Flipboard-like overlay that features a scrollable feed of news and social media updates on different-sized modules on your home screen. It may not be as sophisticated as Flipboard, but it’s simple and makes catching up on the news a vast improvement over having to go to a specific widget, tile, or notification screen to get your info. For the Android interface you know and love, just click on the Home Screen button on the bottom of the phone.

Lastly, we like HTC Sense TV, which is part program guide, part universal remote for your TV. Setup is refreshingly easy – just enter your TV brand and aim it at your TV and you’re ready to go (do the same for home theater receivers and cable boxes). You can do it for multiple TVs, too, but there’s a drawback: It doesn’t learn much beyond volume, on/off, and channel changing, and won’t tackle external media streamers like Apple TV or Roku, among others. On the program guide front, it shows you what’s on TV in real time via a grid of thumbnails, then lets you click on any of those thumbnails to go immediately to the right channel. Picks are based on your pre-chosen TV favorites, but at least on the initial setup, it didn’t allow us to pick our favorite shows beyond popular ones like ‘CSI,’ ‘Seinfeld,’ and ‘Sports Center,’ so show recommendations are still a bit basic. Our guess is that this feature will improve over time, but we still find its basic control features useful, especially since setup couldn’t have been simpler.

There are a lot of smartphones out there, each touting its next gen features, but HTC once again shoots to the front of the line with unrivaled audio quality, camera capabilities, an innovative interface, and, in our view, extremely intuitive controls (we can’t say the same about some of the rival company’s smartphones). If we were to recommend one new state-of-the-art Android phone at this moment in time, it would have to be the HTC One. [$199 with a two-year contract from AT+T, Sprint, and T-Mobile;]

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