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HTC's new One battles the best smartphones out there

HTC's new One battles the best smartphones out there

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HTC's new One is an improvement over last year's model in most of the ways you'd want it to be: it's faster, it's built better, and it lasts longer on a single charge. But HTC's problem hasn't been making phones that look good — it's been making phones that stand out from the likes of Samsung, among other big smartphone manufacturers. We're taking a look at how the latest One was made to see if it also has what it takes to take on some of the top smartphones out there.

Click above for full specs on all five smartphones.

From the outside, it's obvious that the new One is a top-of-the-line phone. It's now almost entirely metal, and while its brushed style may not be quite as sleek as the smooth look on last year's model, there's some solace in knowing that it feels better than it looks.

Substance tries to meet style

That's important too, as most phones are still struggling to find the right balance there: Google's Nexus 5 is nice but plain, Samsung's Galaxy S5 feels better than its predecessor but isn't exactly stylish, and Nokia's Lumia Icon is strangely boxy and not quite as striking as its designers may have hoped. Preferences will vary on their varied looks, but HTC's latest certainly appears to be one the best built.

The phone is just slightly on the big side, however. The new One is a little bit taller, thicker, and heavier than the Galaxy S5 and the Nexus 5, and every millimeter matters when phones are getting this big.

The new One jumps up in size in another way too. Its display is even bigger now, measuring 5 inches on a diagonal instead of 4.7 inches as it did last year. That makes it a big phone — and not everyone is going to like that — but it's about what everyone else is offering. It's just as eye-catching though, and it once again sports a 1080p resolution.

The larger screen and steady resolution means pixel density has actually dropped, but only slightly so. And in fact, we actually found this new display to be much better at reproducing colors than what HTC used last year. It may be a slight difference to some, but you can expect images to display more accurately on the One than on something like the Galaxy S5's more color-saturated screen or the Nexus 5's slightly washed out one.

A close race on specs across the board

On the inside, it's a tight race between the new One and every other big phone out there. It has one of Qualcomm's new Snapdragon 801 processors on the inside, just like the upcoming Galaxy S5. That means it should be slightly faster than the Nexus 5 and the Lumia Icon, both of which are running Snapdragon 800s, but it's not likely that you'll see a dramatic difference in performance all around. There's also 2GB of RAM across the board and 16GB of storage in these phones. Unfortunately, that's actually a slight downgrade from the last One — which came with 32GB at a minimum — but this year the phone supports external storage, which should more than make up for the change.

One of the biggest differences is in these phones' cameras. HTC is once again taking an unconventional approach and using a camera sensor that captures images across a small number of megapixels, but pixels that are larger than you'd normally expect. That means a boost in low light, but it also seems to mean a lot of noise and really, really inconsistent results. Some photos look terribly washed out, while others have over-saturated colors, and others yet look like they've just been put through an aggressive photo filter. A fun result, maybe, but certainly not what you want for all of your images.

The new One does have a few neat photo tricks though, most notably the ability to refocus photos. It's not quite as elegant as a Lytro camera, but by combining two cameras, the One can do something a lot like it, letting you change the focus of a shot in post. It's fun, but it hardly makes up for the camera's problems in general. Finding a great smartphone camera is still harder than it sounds, but it is something that you can find elsewhere right now — including on phones from Samsung.

The One's camera remains a major weak point

On the brighter side, the One does well on battery life. Though it doesn't have a particularly huge capacity, we found that the phone managed it well, easily lasting over a day. We haven't put the Galaxy S5 to the test yet, but that's not a feat that the other phones we're comparing it to are regularly capable of.

Then, of course, there's how the One stacks up to the iPhone 5S. Despite being quite different from the One, it's impossible to ignore. It's far smaller, has a lower-resolution display, and largely doesn't try to win out based on raw speed. You can expect good built quality from both devices and a good experience from both operating systems. The One might be a bit faster, and the iPhone definitely has a better camera. But in the end, you may well be deciding based on size at this point anyway (and that's a good reason for why Apple seems to be taking notice).

HTC is getting closer and closer to a phone that's great all around. It hits some snags this year — especially with the camera — but it's easily among the most appealing Android smartphones out there. Even its custom software isn't offensive now. Unfortunately, every phone has its quirks and gimmicks, and while the One may be good, it isn't blowing anyone away. There's a whole lot to like in the new One — as we found in our review — but that's a big distinction from the One being appealing enough to fend off an arguably more powerful force: the name recognition of Apple's iPhone and Samsung's Galaxy lines.