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The new HTC One review

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My first car was a 1997 Saturn SL1, a tiny black box with headlights that were too close together and a 0-60 time in the neighborhood of three and a half hours. It had power nothing, automatic nothing, working-properly nothing — and I loved it. I thought I did, anyway, until the night I got to drive my girlfriend’s brother’s brand-new, black Audi A4. I’ll never forget it: it tore through corners and took off with the slightest tap of the pedal, its glowing dashboard of red lights all the while making me feel like I was at the helm of a dangerous weapon. I even loved the sound it made, the roar I’d never heard while putt-putting in my Saturn and praying that rattling sound wasn’t the muffler again. I don’t think I ever went more than 45, but I’ll never forget that night, that drive, or that car.

That feeling is exactly what companies advertise, and ultimately what you pay for. As we learned to take horsepower and navigation systems and cup holders and high-end audio setups for granted, our cars became about something else. Something more instinctive.

Something similar may be about to happen in the smartphone market. Our phones all have big screens, fast processors, and giant app stores; those are the table stakes. So HTC’s spent the last two years trying to build a phone so spectacularly well-made, so beautiful, so intimately personal that from the moment you see it there’s no way you’re not leaving together.

It’s called the One. This year’s model is the One (M8), technically. The original One was a thing of beauty with some crippling performance flaws — the Alfa Romeo 8C of smartphones. This year’s model is supposed to be powerful, long-lasting, feature-rich, and still a work of art. Plus, unlike your average luxury car, it’s not overpriced — it’s the same $199 (or $249, depending on your carrier) as every other good smartphone out there. HTC wants to sell me an A4 for the price of a Camry.

Smartphones are still marketed on what they do, not how they make us feel — and Samsung has that market locked up. But our phones are our most intimate, most personal devices, the ones we use all day every day. Maybe it’s time we start thinking about whether when we turn them on, they return the favor.

We as a society and a marketplace seem to have agreed that the proper screen size for a flagship phone is somewhere between 5 and 5.2 inches. To the ranks of the Sony Xperia Z2, Nexus 5, and Samsung Galaxy S5 HTC now adds the One, and it slots in nicely. At 5.76 inches tall it’s slightly longer than last year’s One, but HTC did a nice job fitting a larger display in virtually the same body.

An excellent formula, further refined

The 5-inch screen that covers the device’s front is a gorgeous 1080p panel, with nearly perfect color representation and a measure of brightness and pop that even last year’s model can’t match. It’s actually slightly less pixel-dense than last year’s model, but I can’t tell the difference — this display is lovely to look at. And it’s flanked by two big BoomSound speakers, which are the loudest and best phone speakers I’ve ever heard — which is particularly impressive given how loud last year’s speakers were. Your average set of headphones still sounds better, but when it comes to my Saturday routine — wake up, prop the phone up next to me in bed, and catch up on Parks & Recreation — they’re a great addition. And they look good, too.

The phone’s body is the real stunner here, though. It comes in silver and gold (gorgeous and avert-your-eyes ugly, respectively), along with a slightly more subdued brushed-metal gray. Pictures don’t do it justice: I only really understood how well-made the new One is when I held it in my hands. It’s not quite the stunning piece of angular art last year’s model was, but it’s a much more comfortable, accessible device. Its curved metal sides and softly rounded corners feel natural, where last year’s sharp angles and plastic sides felt so much more machined. The One is that wonderfully rare mix between the beauty of the old One and the unabashed utility of a phone like the Galaxy S4. It’s made to be looked at, to be ogled and admired, but it’s also made to be used. I’ve dropped it twice now, too, and the metal body doesn’t have so much as a scratch — though I know a few people who haven’t have such good luck.

Even the cases are cool. I’ve only had a chance to play with the Lite Brite-like Dot View case for a few minutes, but I love the idea: it shows notifications, the time, and the weather through the many-holed case itself, and looks awesomely retro doing it. You can answer calls, or swipe away notifications without ever having to open your case. HTC’s design head Scott Croyle told me as many as 90 percent of people put a case on their phone, and while that seems like kind of a waste of the One, at least HTC made a case worthy of the device.

I don’t care if it’s the standard size for a flagship Android phone, this phone is big. At 9.35 millimeters thick and 5.6 ounces, I feel it in my jeans pockets the way I never feel my iPhone or the Moto X. But HTC’s found small, subtle ways to make a huge phone not feel so unwieldy. The power button sits on top of the phone, as annoyingly unreachable as ever, but I can’t remember the last time I pressed it. Far more often, I’d just double-tap on the screen to turn it on. Or I’d swipe to the right on the blank screen, and open straight to BlinkFeed. If it's ringing, I just pick it up and it answers automatically. One swipe down opens HTC’s weird-but-effective voice dialing, and there’s even a slightly over-complicated motion to go straight to the camera. HTC took LG’s KnockOn feature and built on it, and it’s so useful I already miss it on other Android phones.

HTC’s design and manufacturing abilities give it an appeal few can match — I’ll gladly accept the compromises of a huge phone to get one this striking. But HTC’s long been the bar for Android phone design, and it’s never been enough to take down Samsung and its massive feature list and marketing budget.

(Note: don't miss our exclusive report on how HTC designed the new One.)

Samsung doesn’t sell phones, it sells features. Its ads show people waving their hand over their phone to answer it, or tapping their Galaxy S4 to someone else’s to share a picture. It touts the camera and wireless charging, or it promises the translator app will totally get you laid.

With the One, HTC apparently endeavored to find features it too can make commercials about. The most obvious candidate is BlinkFeed, a personalized newsreading app that lives one screen to the left of your home screen and presents a never-ending stream of things for you to read when you’ve got a minute or two to kill. It’s a useful app, though it’s really no different from a Flipboard home screen widget. The universal remote app is cooler, a great mix of simple controls and lots of hyper-visual ways to find things to watch, along with corresponding social feeds, scores, stats, and more.

HTC needs hit features as much as a hit phone

To the right of that BlinkFeed screen is HTC’s sixth version of Sense (which it’s calling "Sixth Sense," because of course it is), the word I once considered synonymous with hideous, pointless changes to Android. That’s no longer the case: yes, HTC has changed nearly every pixel of Android 4.4.2; and yes, I’d rather most of the icons and setting menus be left unchanged thankyouverymuch. But Sense 6 has a flat, friendly design that isn’t even necessarily worse than Google’s stock vision for Android – it’s just different. (There is a Google Play Edition model of the One coming, if you’re so inclined.) All you really need to do is swap the keyboard for SwiftKey or something, because the built-in HTC keyboard is horrendous.

With Qualcomm’s brand-new Snapdragon 801 processor and 2GB of RAM inside, the One flies whether I’m playing games, watching movies, or furiously typing text messages. Even scrolling is smoother than I’m used to on just about any Android device. I’ve had exactly zero performance issues with the One — I can’t say that very often.

And it lasts awhile, too. I get 30 hours without much effort, and I’ve gotten through two full days with only a little babying. In this case, "babying" really just means turning on Extreme Power Saver mode, which essentially disables everything but the phone, texting, and manual email refreshes, and in my experience can last an entire evening on only a few battery percentage points. You won’t want to use it often, but it’s a life-saver in a pinch.

The One really only has one major flaw left, and it’s a big one: its camera is still pretty bad. It’s the same UltraPixel camera HTC debuted last year, which trades resolution for pixel size so as to collect more light at a time. The idea is certainly sound, but the execution was wrong then and it’s wrong now. And the changes it did make are either niche features or interface changes attempting to disguise the device’s basic shortcomings.

There’s a new simple icon-based settings menu that lets you switch between Selfie mode, Camera mode, and HTC’s cool-but-pointless Zoe mode, which makes a sort of hacky animated GIF out of your photos. Manual settings like white balance and ISO are only one tap away, and there are filters and effects galore; there’s even a surprisingly powerful image editor, which let me either fix photos or do truly terrifying things to my own face.

Most of its camera features are gimmicks, but the coolest one, the one we’re sure to see in a commercial before long, is UFocus. It uses the second lens on the back of the new One as a depth sensor, recording data alongside the image you shoot. Put together, they let you refocus your photos after you shoot them, Lytro-style, and even play with a slight 3D perspective shift. The effect isn’t perfect and requires some real staging, but it’s endlessly fun to refocus a shot in the gallery app.

HTC improved everything but the image quality

I love the One’s camera interface, I love what it lets me do with my photos. I just don’t like most of the photos I take. The UltraPixel sensor sees remarkably well in the dark, able to capture a usable picture in virtually any situation, but my praise for the One’s pictures rarely goes beyond "usable" in any situation. Photos are mushy and soft, as if nothing’s ever quite in focus. Even the 5-megapixel front-facing camera, the ultimate selfie machine, is better in a lot of situations. And it has higher resolution than the rear camera, which makes no sense to me. The new One does do far better than last year’s camera, which took almost hilariously bad photos in spots — color depth is particularly improved — but this is not a good camera. I’d rather use the iPhone 5S, any of a number of Nokia phones, or even the Galaxy S4 or Nexus 5. They don’t do as many wacky things (well, the S4 does), but they take good pictures. I’m in the business of taking good pictures.

Truth in engineering

There are a lot of great Android phones on the market right now, but two stand out: the Nexus 5 and the new HTC One. The Nexus 5 is Google’s purest vision for Android, the One the platform's most mature and developed form. I desperately wish it took better pictures, and I’m reluctant to buy or recommend it until it does, but I like absolutely everything else. It’s fast, long-lasting, does everything a phone should, and does it all with totally unparalleled class and style. From motion gestures to the Dot View case, it has genuinely new, genuinely useful features.

It may not outsell Samsung and the relentless marketing sure to follow the feature-rich Galaxy S5, but HTC executives say they don’t care. They say they just want to build a phone for people who like nice things.

I can still remember sitting at a red light, revving the A4’s engine and just listening to the car purr. I felt powerful. Invincible. I don’t know if my smartphone can ever make me feel quite that way, but the One’s a full step closer than any other Android phone out there.

I can't wait for next year's model.

Photography by Michael Shane