The HTC One S is the best designed phone of the year so far. It measures just 7.6mm in thickness but feels even thinner thanks to its slanted sides and the way the front glass surface slopes off the edges. For a 4.3-inch phone, the One S feels remarkably light and easy to handle. If you think back to the leap HTC made between the Desire HD and Sensation — making its 4.3-inch Android flagship significantly thinner, lighter and more ergonomic — the same delta is apparent between the Sensation and this handset. Part of that is down to the company moving to a Super AMOLED screen with the One S, allowing for a thinner display construction and improving dramatically on the viewing angles and vibrancy of the Sensation. It's not all good news, however, as the display is Pentile and exhibits the familiar lack of pixel-level clarity associated with that screen technology.
Don't let the above comparisons to HTC's previous handset fool you, though — this is no mere iterative upgrade. Stung by (rightful) criticism of its recent design timidity, the Taiwanese company has returned to MWC with renewed vigor and a distinctive new look. The aluminum unibody shell has been treated with microarc oxidation for increased toughness and its color is gradated so that it goes from dark at the bottom to light at the top.
Once you press the top-mounted power button you'll be greeted by Sense 4.0, which does a good job of disguising the fact this phone is running Ice Cream Sandwich, but that's not actually a terrible thing. HTC has managed to maintain the familiarity of Sense while trimming out a heap of unnecessary animations and faux 3D design touches. The user interface is now flatter and leaner, designed to let you get to the things you want to do quickly and without fuss. The onscreen keyboard, a perennial weakness of the Sense skin, has been entirely overhauled. While HTC is keen to highlights its expanded Beats Audio and Dropbox integration, the real star of its new Android software is the camera application.
HTC has shortened startup time for the camera to 0.7 seconds and autofocus time to 0.2 seconds. Onscreen buttons for recording video and stills are now right next to each other (no more mode switching), there's an intelligent burst mode that lets you pick only the best shot, and you can extract stills from video with a single tap. The only thing that would've made this a more appealing phone to camera enthusiasts is a physical shutter button.
One of the other ways in which HTC diverges from the stock Android 4.0 experience is by omitting the trio of onscreen menu buttons and instead offering them to you as a set of capacitive keys below the display. That may seem like a retrograde step, but its practical impact is actually positive: moving those buttons off the screen gives you more real estate to work with. Only aesthetics snobs will find reason bemoan this decision. Less forgivable is HTC's decision to leave the One S without a microSD card slot or a user-replaceable battery. While ultrathin phones will necessitate compromises, I hate to see storage and power flexibility being among them.
Although HTC now has the 4.7-inch One X as its leading Android smartphone, the One S is the device that has stolen away my attention. It's as distinctive a phone as HTC has launched in a long time, and it gives the company reason to once again be proud of its design department.