Review: HTC One Google Play Edition

There is currently no better Android smartphone on the market (July 28th, 2013)

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: HTC

Price: $599 (32GB) unlocked

The Good

  • Pure Google experience
  • Outstanding, high-res display
  • Stunning design
  • Faster Android updates
  • Superb performance

The Bad

  • Standard Android camera app weak
  • No 64GB version
  • Currently US-only

The HTC One Google Play edition is the answer to many users dreams for a device approaching Android perfection. When we originally reviewed the HTC One, we expressed appreciation for some of the software enhancements packaged in HTC's Sense 5 user interface, but felt that the pure Google Android experience found on Nexus devices offered a less cluttered, cleaner and more consistent user experience. HTC has now delivered on this wish in the Google Play Edition of its vaunted One 2013 smartphone flagship. So how does the reality stack up against the dream?



Design and construction

It is universally acknowledged that HTC has sculpted a beautiful product in the HTC One. When you pick it up, it immediately conveys a sense of prestige and quality that puts it on par with Apple's equally stunning iPhone 5 design. However, it is considerably larger than the iPhone 5 in the hand and also slightly heavier. In addition to the large 4.7-inch display that dominates the front of the device, the micro-drilled stereo speaker grills also help to accentuate the design while producing the best smartphone speaker experience we have yet to hear. However, by comparison with the Samsung Galaxy S4, its bezel is noticeably larger as a result, giving Samsung the opportunity to create an edge-to-edge design though this pushes the Samsung speaker to the rear of the device, compromising audio quality and clarity.



HTC has invested considerable energy and money into developing the design and build quality of the HTC One. Its unique manufacturing process has also been capitalized on in the new HTC One mini, and is expected to appear on other devices from the Taiwanese company. It has hit the right notes with its extensive use of aluminum, which makes for a rigid and strong chassis that is equally functional as it is gorgeous to look at. It clearly sets the HTC One apart from most other flagship devices on the Android scene, and has helped it carve out a niche in the market in the face of the daunting Samsung Galaxy juggernaut. Compared to the Galaxy S4, with its shiny and slippery plastic finish, there is absolutely no question that the HTC One is the more desirable device in the hand.




Display

The HTC One 4.7-inch 1080p IPS display continues to set the standard for smartphone displays on the market. At 468ppi, it retains the title as having the highest pixel density on any smartphone shipped to date. Reading text on any website is simply a pleasure on this display as it is extremely crisp with excellent contrast and clarity. It uses HTC's Super LCD 3 technology to further capitalize on this sharpness by producing rich and vivid colors that still manage to look natural at the same time.



Importantly, too, the display has a fast refresh rate, which means that scrolling text, playing games and watching movies remains blur and distortion free. If you look closely at the Super AMOLED display in the Galaxy, you will soon notice ghosting and blurring when scrolling through websites that remains the biggest weakness of that technology. Super AMOLED looks impressive on the display stand, but in daily use, we continue to hold a strong preference for the LCD displays in both the HTC One and the iPhone 5 Retina display.



The HTC One display is as good as it gets on a mobile device. While the display on the iPhone 5 is highly competitive and not noticeably inferior despite its lower pixel density, the HTC One display remains the clear winner on paper and in practice, perhaps because the additional display real-estate gives it more impact as well.


Camera

As with both the design and display on the HTC One Google Play Edition, and the rest of the hardware for that matter, the UltraPixel camera remains unchanged. It continues to offer a larger than usual F/2.0 aperture, with an oversize sensor that can capture more light than many 13-megapixel cameras, HTC's dedicated ImageChip that delivers continuous auto-focus, color shading, noise reduction and an enhanced HDR function, along with optical image stabilization. So while the fundamentals remain in place to produce exceptional photos in low-light conditions and in general use, the built-in software that helps to further differentiate the HTC One with Sense 5 is missing. In its place is the stock Android 4.2.2 'Jelly Bean' camera app that is one of the few relative weaknesses in Android, Photo Sphere notwithstanding.



However, on the plus side, there are numerous Android photography apps that can be downloaded to take the place of HTC's Sense 5 inclusions such as HTC Zoe, that can achieve very similar results. However, it does mean replacing one Sense 5 app, with at least two or more. This example, brings into sharp focus the double-edged sword of an Android device running customized software, versus the stock Android build. There is some give and take, but it does make a difference to the overall use experience and it something we will discuss further below. Regardless, the camera on the HTC One continues to be a brave experiment by HTC, as it puts forward the case for optics, sensor quality and imaging technology first, side stepping the smartphone megapixel arms race. It is not the best camera on a smartphone in all instances, but in typical smartphone usage scenarios it is very competitive. The photos below are have not been edited and are illustrative of the capabilities of the HTC One camera in general use.








Performance

There is little doubt that a pure Google OS is a much better bet from a performance perspective than a manufacturer tweaked version for a number of reasons. This was most apparent to us when testing the Samsung Galaxy S4. Not only does Samsung's TouchWiz overlay add many unnecessary and impractical 'features' such 'eye scrolling,' they create system bloat. Further, the more feature additions that are added, the greater the likelihood that it can create conflicts or introduce bugs not otherwise present in the stock Android build. As we found in our tests of the Samsung Galaxy S4, although it scored well on benchmarks, it would often display signs of stuttering and system lag, which just simply should not be in evidence with that much horsepower under the hood.



Conversely, while HTC has also modified stock Android to produce Sense 5, its additions are much less intrusive, and much more focused. Despite running a slightly older version of 'Jelly Bean' (4.1.2) against the 4.2.2 build on the Galaxy S4, it is a much smoother experience not dissimilar to the user experience on the Nexus 4. However, the Google Play Edition of the HTC One is simply flawless from this perspective. This is also born out in the new benchmarks that we have taken for the device running stock Android.



When we ran the Geekbench 2 test on the HTC One with Sense 5, we found that it scored 2852 points. By comparison, HTC One Google Play Edition, running exactly the same Qualcomm quad-core Snapdragon 600 clocked at 1.7GHz scores 3030. This is a noticeable jump in speed that could come simply from moving to Android 4.2.2, from Android 4.1.2, but it also likely reflects the advantage of running stock Android over any kind of manufacturer overlay.



Similarly, the HTC One Google Play Edition also returns noticeable improvements in graphics performance over the Sense 5 version. In our tests the One running Sense 5, it scored 6755 in the Futuremark 3DMark Ice Storm Extreme test, which compares with new score of 7037 on the Google Play Edition. Again there seems to be a distinct advantage from a performance perspective running the stock version of Android on the HTC One. Which takes us to a closer look at Android 4.2.2 'Jelly Bean' running on the HTC One as Google's engineers envisioned it in the next section.


Software

We've already explored some of the benefits and disadvantages of the HTC One running the pure Google experience versus the same device running HTC Sense 5. Playing with the two devices back to back really highlights just how important the operating system is to the entire look, feel and function of a device. HTC's hardware is the one gorgeous constant in this. Either way you go, you are getting a what is probably the premier smartphone experience going around at the moment. Ultimately, your decision may depend upon what it is you want from your device.



If you want all the features that HTC can pack into the One, then the Sense 5 version is for you. The raw hardware specifications may be exactly the same, but HTC has added a number of very useful additions to the pure Google experience, without messing with Google's fundamental formula too much. This is most notable in the in-built camera app, as discussed above, which not only includes the Vine-like HTC Zoe functionality, but also a burst mode that can simultaneously capture up to 20 photos at once as well as a three second video. The gallery app is also enhanced and features some neat capabilities including being able to automatically stitch together a 30 second movie, and automatically set up create photo slideshows. BlinkFeed is also a useful and interesting news and social updates live feed for your home screen, as is the Sense TV integrated TV remote control app.



Yet for all these positives, we distinctly prefer the pure Google experience on the Goole Play Edition of the HTC One. For exactly the reasons that we thought we would. The user experience is simpler, less cluttered and more consistent in terms of its overall look and feel. Up until now, if you wanted this software you either had to hack it on to your device or buy a Nexus-branded device. The Nexus 4 is a great device at a great price, but it doesn't look as good as the HTC One and it is also currently limited to 16GB maximum for storage. For the group of users who want the best of Android hardware and a pure Android experience out of the box, the HTC One Google Play Edition delivers in spades.


Final thoughts

The arrival of the HTC One Google Play Edition is an unexpected bonus. HTC had already done an excellent job of giving differentiating its hardware and software experience on the Sense 5 version of the device. So much so, that it is almost like using an entirely different device to even the Google Play Edition even though the two devices are otherwise identical. It does, however, offer users a tantalizing decision to make. Do you opt for HTC Sense 5 version of the One or do you opt for the Google Play Edition? Or if you go for the Google Play Edition, do you then just save some dollars, storage space and other hardware specs and just go for the Nexus 4 that also runs stock Android?

In reality, you can't go wrong with any of the options listed here. The Nexus 4 is great buying, but it does not offer the cutting edge design or specifications of the HTC One. The HTC One with Sense 5 is an outstanding device that does not stray too far from the pure Google experience, yet it brings with it some interesting and useful software enhancements over and above the stock Google user experience. However, in addition to getting faster software updates when they become available, the HTC One Google Edition is also extremely fast and responsive. Google's Android has never looked as good and worked better than it does on the HTC One Google Play Edition. Right now, it is the pinnacle of the Android user experience and it will only get better when it gets the Android 4.3 update in the near future.

by Sanjiv Sathiah


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