HTC's flagship smartphone for 2013, the One, really impressed us when we reviewed the international version last month. Its stellar design, speedy performance, and absolutely incredible display overshadowed some of the complaints we had with its camera and battery performance.
Since then, we've been eagerly waiting to get our hands on the proper US version of the phone with support for LTE networks here in the States. I've been spending some time with AT&T's variation of the One, which will be available for purchase on April 19th for $199.99, and suffice to say, much of what we said about the international version applies to to the AT&T model, save for the fact that you can access a much faster network with it. Now that there is a One on the market that you can easily buy, should you?
Note: The video above is from our earlier review of the international HTC One, as the hardware for the AT&T model is virtually identical to the global version. Just pretend David says AT&T a couple of times and he says that it does indeed have LTE capability.
Design for days
From a design perspective, the AT&T version of the One is virtually identical to its international relative — and that's a wonderful thing. The One is by far the nicest piece of Android hardware I have ever held, and its design and build quality really give Apple's iPhone 5 a run for its money. Other Android manufacturers (*cough* Samsung *cough*) have been content with using cheap feeling, unimpressive plastics on their devices, but HTC has really pushed the envelope with premium materials and top-notch fit and finish on the One. To my surprise, the only extra branding that AT&T put on the One was a small, silk-screened "globe" logo on the back of the device, just above HTC's Beats Audio logo. Such a minimal modification of a phone's design is exceptionally rare for American carriers, which love to put their own stamp on devices (Verizon could take some notes here).
Performance-wise, the AT&T One is just as fast and agile as the international model, thanks to the same 1.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 quad-core processor and generous 2GB of RAM. Apps open with little to no hesitation, and apart from the occasional jerky scrolling in apps like Chrome, performance was flawless. (The AT&T One's benchmarks were also off the charts.) The other features that HTC has thrown into the One, such as the IR blaster for controlling your TV, worked as expected and are nice things to have, if not make-it-or-break-it features. I found HTC's TV app to be quite impressive — setting up with my Panasonic TV and cable-service-provided DVR took about two minutes, and the remote functions worked without any delay or frustrations. Since I'm constantly using my smartphone when watching TV, it's super convenient to have simple remote control functions accessible right on my device, even if it's not a complete replacement for a proper remote.
Likewise, corny marketing names aside, the One's BoomSound dual stereo speakers are the best sounding speakers I've ever heard on a mobile device and can even show my MacBook Air's (admittedly disappointing) speakers a thing or two. Every smartphone and tablet manufacturer should be take heed: speakers are far more effective when they are placed on the front of the device rather than on the back or sides, and I would love for this design to become a trend for new devices.
Since the AT&T version of the One is tuned to properly work with the carrier's network, it can take full advantage of AT&T's speedy and spreading LTE network. In New York City, the One was able to hit respectable network speeds of 10 to 15Mbps in most locations, though it struggled to connect to the network in very crowded areas in midtown Manhattan, an AT&T sore spot for years. Outside of AT&T's LTE footprint, performance on the HSPA+ network was actually quite good, with download speeds in the 8 to 10Mbps range and the only really noticeable difference from LTE being in the upload speeds, which were in the 1 to 2Mbps range. (LTE uploads were generally in the 8 to 10Mbps window.) Call quality was loud and clear, though there was no mistaking that I was making calls on a cellphone, nor was I ever fooled into thinking I was placing an HD Voice call.
The One is still the best Android hardware ever made
Starting to make sense
AT&T’s included software is annoying and obnoxious
From my perspective, HTC's Sense 5 Android skin is by far the best version of Sense yet. Coming from the Droid DNA or last year's One X, both of which run Sense 4+, the One's software is better looking, less intrusive, and just generally more pleasant to use. That said, one of the first things I did when I picked up the One was set a normal home screen as my default to get the BlinkFeed out of my way. BlinkFeed is a novel idea when you have some time to kill and just want to browse what's happening on the internet, but 95 percent of the times I turn on my phone and unlock it, I have a specific task or purpose in mind, and BlinkFeed is just one more barrier for me to cross before I can use the device. The new virtual keyboard in Sense 5 is actually quite usable, and it's the first Sense keyboard I've used that I didn't immediately want to replace with an alternative from the Google Play Store. The updated multitasking menu is also way better than that used in Sense 4, and I actually liked it better than the stock Android version. I'm still a fan of stock Android's user interface over what HTC has created, but it's safe to say that Sense 5 is no longer the abomination that older versions of Sense used to be.
Other things that I thought would be big issues for me when HTC announced the One actually turned out to be not that big of a deal in practice. The new two button layout below the display gave me pause and consternation when I first saw it, but once I started using the device, I adapted quickly and just went about my business. Double-tapping and long-pressing the home button to access multitasking and Google Now can be annoying, but once it becomes part of your daily habit, you forget that you are doing more gestures to accomplish the same thing as on other devices. For some reason, I was never compelled to hit the HTC logo between the buttons as David found when he reviewed the international version, but there were times when the large size of the phone made it difficult to tap the home key without shifting the device around in my hand.
Unsurprisingly, AT&T has included a fair amount of bloatware on its version of the One. The carrier's entire suite of apps come pre-loaded on the device, and though most of them can be disabled (but not uninstalled), they aren't much more than annoying and tend to needlessly duplicate the built-in functionality of Android. (I'm looking at you, AT&T Navigator, and your $9.99 per month subscription fee.) Additionally, while much of Sense 5's interface has a clean, polished look, AT&T's proprietary apps look like they were designed by a neanderthal and completely clash with the aesthetic of the rest of the device. The most annoying piece of bloatware, however, is AT&T's Address Book, which attempts to take over the contacts application in an effort to sync it with the carrier's own cloud service. Not only is it annoying, but its nags are persistent — even if you've dismissed it once to tell it that you don't want to use it, it will come back at a later date to remind you again of its existence. Oh, and this particular carrier app can't be disabled or uninstalled.
A seeing eye
As with the international version, the AT&T One features the much-hyped UltraPixel camera, which eschews a high megapixel count for larger pixels to provide a higher sensitivity to light. It's also the first Android smartphone to have optical image stabilization to even further extend its low-light capabilities. As we found with in our original review, the UltraPixel camera is a bit of a letdown when it comes to capturing fine detail, and many of the captured images — even in bright light — exhibited lots of noise reduction. However, while using the camera, I found that it excels at taking the pics that most people want to shoot on their cellphones. In low-light situations like at a bar, the One's camera captured much brighter images than any other smartphone I've used, and its rapid capture speed let me keep up with my fast-moving 15-month-old daughter when at home. That's not to say I was absolutely in love with many of the photos, but the One was able to take rather sharp and bright images in situations where other smartphones just give up. You shouldn't expect to be able to make great prints from the photos — the lower resolution combined with heavy noise reduction is detrimental to print quality — but when shared on the internet or viewed on the phone itself, the images look great.
The other half of the One's camera story is the new Zoe feature, a hybrid still and video mode that captures both images and short video in one take and fluidly combines them into one file. On the phone, a Zoe looks pretty cool — it really does feel like a still image that comes to life, which is what I assume HTC is going for. But outside of the One, once you share the Zoe with others, you either have to use HTC's proprietary, time-limited cloud service to demonstrate the Zoe effect, or just share a plain video file where the impact of the Zoe gets lost in translation. I do like the idea of the Zoe, and I had some fun shooting Zoe clips on the One, but I think the execution still needs some work before it becomes a viable option for capturing memories.
The camera excels at the pics most people shoot with a cellphone
Surprisingly, LTE isn't the power suck you might expect it to be
Finally, the AT&T HTC One offers the same 2,300mAh non-removable battery as the international model. David found the international One to have just average battery life in our review — it can be made to last the entire day if you are careful, but it's not a long distance runner by any means. There's always concern that speedier data networks will have a negative impact on battery life, but in my tests and usage on the AT&T One, nothing really changed. In daily usage on LTE, the One would last about 12 hours before tapping out — enough to go from 7AM to 7PM, but not into the evening hours. On our standard Verge battery rundown test, the LTE One managed 4 hours and 41 minutes, just about the same as the international model.
When I did some heavy lifting on the device, including watching a movie streamed to the 1080p display (The Expendables 2, if you must know, which looked and sounded amazing on the One), playing Asphalt 7 for 30 minutes, and placing a couple of phone calls, I saw my battery meter plummet 61 percent. Needless to say, the One didn't exhibit astounding battery life in any of these situations, but it mustered a merely average performance. That's half of a win, since you have access to faster data speeds with the LTE model, but it's not something I would get too excited about. Unless Mophie or another company comes out with a case with a built-in battery, power users will want to tote around an external USB battery to make sure they can get through the day.
The HTC One is one of the best Android phones I have ever used — and it is by far the best Android hardware ever. The addition of LTE support only makes the whole package better, and while I'd love to see better battery and camera performance, it's hard not to recommend the One. We still have yet to see how Samsung's upcoming Galaxy S4 fares in the real world, but as it stands right now, HTC has a much more compelling device in my eyes. I just hope that the company and its apparently superior product will be able to withstand the marketing and mindshare onslaught that Samsung has planned for this year.