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HTC One mini 2 review: average by design

Wherefore art thou mini?

The HTC One is a smartphone you can fall in love with. It presents an irresistible mix of sculpted contours, gorgeous display, and fast performance. When the list of best Android phones for 2014 is drawn up, the One will be at or near the top. But the One is also expensive — a premium device at a premium price — and for HTC to thrive it needs to sell millions of phones to millions of people. Even Apple isn’t immune to these market pressures, as evidenced by last year’s introduction of the iPhone 5C as a more affordable way to get new users on board. When it goes on sale in June, the One mini 2 will be the HTC equivalent: a phone for those who want the One experience but not the One price.

HTC already did this once, with mixed results. The 2013 One mini was a cut-down version of that year’s One flagship phone. It had a similar aluminum build, the same camera, and an equally attractive display, but it also used too much plastic to cover up for its tighter budget. Nonetheless, says HTC, it was a success for many carriers because it “hit a good price point.” Now it’s time to do it all over again, with the added benefit of a year’s worth of hindsight and user feedback.

Htc-one-mini-12

The One mini 2 is an amalgamation of all three of its forebears. At 4.5 inches, its display is a little bigger than the 4.3-inch One mini, a little smaller than the 4.7-inch 2013 One, and different enough from this year’s 5-inch flagship to justify that tenuous "mini" title. Like the older devices, its power button is at the top left and its headphone jack is on the top right. Unlike them, the One mini 2 drops the capacitive keys in favor of on-screen Android navigation.

The big story here, though, is the lust-worthy brushed aluminum design of the new HTC One. More than anything else, that’s what makes HTC’s leading phone desirable and sets it apart from the competition, so the question is, how much of it has made the transition to the mini 2? There’s a mathematical answer to that. 90 percent of the One’s case is made of aluminum, whereas the One mini 2 only reaches a mark of 70 percent. So it’s 77.78 percent as awesome.

How much do chamfered edges really matter?
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A plastic frame that wraps around the sides of the One mini 2 accounts for most of the lost aluminum. I don’t mind it at all: it’s matte and subtle and integrates well with the phone’s overall design. Still, it’s not the One. The chamfered metal edges at the front of the bigger phone gleam invitingly, reminding the user of the craftsmanship required to perfect them. As Scott Croyle, HTC’s departing chief of design, told me recently, "just by the way the light reflects off that brushed surface, you instantly know that you’re looking at metal." That’s true when looking at the back of the One mini 2 but not the front.

Placing a One and a One mini 2 in each pocket, I’ve been walking around trying to distinguish a difference between them. There isn’t much. In spite of its name, the new handset isn’t that much smaller nor very much lighter than the 5-inch original. It’s once I pulled the devices out and started using them that the real difference manifested itself. I checked emails quicker, captured photos faster, and made calls more easily on the so-called mini phone — simply by virtue of it being so much more usable with one hand. The curved back of the One has always been a pleasure to hold, but its elongated body makes that awkward and sometimes frustrating. With the One mini 2, you don’t need to stretch your thumb’s tendons before attempting to reach the top-left corner of the screen. You just do it. It’s a small change in size that leads to a big improvement in ergonomics.

Htc-one-mini-18 A small change in size leads to a big improvement in ergonomics

Comparisons outside of HTC’s own smartphone range are less favorable. The cheaper Moto X has a larger 4.7-inch screen, but is physically smaller than the One mini 2. With its side-mounted power button and Active Display notifications, it’s also more convenient. The better-specced Nexus 5 also costs less, and for the same price as the One mini 2 you could get the bijou powerhouse that is the Xperia Z1 Compact. Then there’s the very real threat of the Moto G, a handset running the same 1.2GHz Snapdragon 400 processor, with the same 720p display resolution, and now also the same LTE connectivity as the One mini 2. You could get a pair of Gs for the price of a One mini 2. What none of these phones will give you, though, is an aluminum unibody construction. Or the BoomSound.

Htc1m-330-2 BoomSound speakers make the phone bigger, but also better

Every size critique of HTC’s One line has to be tempered by the quality of its front-facing stereo speakers. They consume an unusually large chunk of space on each phone, but deliver sound that cannot be matched by any comparable device. I can casually listen to music on the One mini 2 without always needing my headphones. Only the Xperia Z2, which uses smaller but similarly arranged speakers as HTC does with BoomSound, comes anywhere even close. Having used that phone, the One, and now the One mini 2 for the past couple of months, I find myself reluctant to return to more conventional handsets. Good audio is a very nice thing to have, because it can be felt and appreciated in so many circumstances. Like the screen, it’s a pervasive part of the user experience and is worth the time to get right.

Display quality is a traditional strength for HTC, however the One mini 2 is a step below the best the company has shown so far. Its 4.5-inch 720p display is sharp and crisp, but it just doesn’t have the viewing angles or contrast of the HTC One or even last year’s mini. Whereas images on those handsets can look so lifelike as to seem drawn-on, the new mini’s colors fade when it’s not squarely facing the viewer. It’s a subtle distinction, but like those chamfered aluminum edges, it takes away from the sense of excellence that the One emanates.

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A more significant difference from the One is the switch to a 13-megapixel camera. Lacking the UltraPixel technology of the senior phone, it performs worse in low light, but is generally decent. It’s hard to say whether this is an upgrade or a downgrade for HTC: I’ve seen breathtakingly good 4-megapixel stills from the One and taken my fair share of atrociously bad ones. What the One mini 2’s camera has going for it is consistency. It’s reliably average.

Giving the One mini 2 more resolution and dropping the extra Duo camera sensor of the One are both changes for the better. HTC knows it’s easier to sell a camera with more megapixels and the added depth-sensing capabilities are nice to have when you’re bored, but hardly a must-have. The mini 2 focuses and adjusts exposure quickly and captures photos instantly.

Htc-sam-1 Htc-sam-2 A really fast way to take really mediocre pictures

HTC’s clean and minimal camera interface remains a pleasure to use, even if it’s slower to load and switch between modes than on the company’s flagship phone. It makes configuring and accessing custom camera settings a cinch. That means you’re only ever a couple of taps away from the particular mode you want to use, whether it be a 60fps 720p monochrome video or a filter-stylized, square-cropped photo. HTC has also migrated the 5-megapixel front-facing camera from the One along with its Selfie mode. That’s one of the better front-mounted image sensors on the market, though dedicating any coding time to making selfies easier just feels wrong on an intergalactic scale.

Ultimately, though, this isn't a camera I'd recommend or rely on. The images it produces are rarely in perfect focus and its dynamic range is too narrow. Too often I had to choose between overexposing one area of an image or leaving another in shadow — which is a typical issue with smartphone cameras, but more severe with the distinctly mediocre sensor on the One mini 2.

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Other than pushing the boundaries of specs and design, HTC is best known for its Sense skin. In the early (and, let’s be honest, ugly) days of Android, Sense was a welcome enhancement and beautification of the stock user experience. The HTC Hero of 2009 got it all started, then things started stagnating and looking dated, and the past couple of years have seen HTC’s software slowly claw its way back to being more desirable than detrimental.

Htc1m-330 The Motion Launch controls and Fitbit pedometer are sacrificed Htc-one-mini-13-1020

BlinkFeed is at the core of Sense 6. Or, to be more precise, just to the left of the core, since it’s accessed by swiping that way from the home screen. If you’ve ever used Flipboard, it will be instantly familiar. Acting as a compendium for all the news streams and social updates you might be interested in from the web, it presents a "snackable" view of the latest pictures and information. HTC has iterated quickly with BlinkFeed, growing its library of content sources and integrating it with more services like Instagram. While I’ve never been its biggest fan, I admit to now using it on the One mini 2 with some regularity. The greater customization options and the clean design achieve the goal of presenting information in a format that’s both relevant and glanceable.

Zoe photos are the other big deal for HTC’s marketers, but the full Zoe app isn't available on the mini 2. The most important part of it is, though, which is the automated highlight video creator. Once you’ve accumulated a few images in your photo gallery, the One mini 2 can set them to a soundtrack, add jump cuts, and also weave in video clips — it’s all done by the ghost in the machine, and it’s done well. As with BlinkFeed, this feature has evolved to the point of legitimate usefulness, especially now that you can share the resulting MP4 files out with ease.

Besides those two highlight features, HTC’s software doesn’t differ a great deal from the basic Android 4.4. It’s rarely better or worse, it just looks different in a few places. I’m fine with that. Android is a mature operating system that no longer requires custom solutions to major pain points. Companies now have to assert their value through standalone apps or experiences, or — as Motorola has chosen to do — compete along vectors like price and software update speed rather than uniqueness. HTC did add a suite of Motion Launch controls that let users wake the HTC One with taps and gestures on the screen, but those are all absent from the cheaper and less powerful One mini 2. The same hardware cutbacks are the reason why you won’t find the Fitbit app preloaded or pedometer functionality built in.

The One mini 2’s performance can be viewed in one of two ways. Relative to the original One, it does fewer things and does them more slowly. Viewed as a midrange phone with a midrange price, however, the mini 2 is perfectly adequate. You won’t be spending your days performing obsessive side-by-side speed comparisons, so this phone is unlikely to ever feel too sluggish. The mini 2’s 2100mAh battery lasts roughly as long as the larger cell on the One. 30 hours on a single charge is an easy goal to reach, and in my experience both of HTC’s 2014 phones have lasted longer than earlier competitors like the Nexus 5 and Moto X. The Xperia Z2 is this year’s leader in that category, but HTC isn’t far behind.

HTC has a habit of making the most desirable Android smartphones on the market. The One X in 2012, the One in 2013, and the One again in 2014 have all been rightly celebrated for raising the bar for mobile design and performance. Now the company that knows how to do “best” is trying to do “good enough” and it’s obviously struggling to find the perfect formula. The One mini 2 retains plenty of the One’s visual and ergonomic appeal, but it’s just not as polished nor as coherent a device. Like murder by a thousand small cuts, its various little downgrades combine to kill the subtle aura of exclusivity that the One conveys. That phone is the One, whereas this is just another One.

The One mini 2 aims to bring premium design into a part of the smartphone market that’s more sensitive to price than aesthetics. I wonder how many people would be willing to pay extra for the sumptuous metal finish without stepping up all the way to the flagship One. Those whose budgets are constrained to the One mini 2’s price bracket would probably be better served seeking greater functionality and performance — as offered by Sony’s Xperia Z1 Compact — than classy good looks. They’re likely to derive greater satisfaction from that device than this compromised recreation of an uncompromising design.

Photography by Sean O'Kane.

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