HTC One has all the bells and whistles and lives up to the hype

Consumer Reports News: April 12, 2013 12:38 PM

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In the battle for smart-phone supremacy, the highly anticipated HTC One appears to be the Taiwanese manufacturer's best warrior yet. While we haven't yet fully tested the HTC One, which hits the market next week, the press sample of the phone I've been using for several days has been very impressive.

The HTC One offers stellar specs, including a bright, very sharp 4.7-inch 1080p display, a fast quad-core processor, and myriad options for wireless connect: WiFi Direct, NFC, Bluetooth 4.0, and an IR blaster for controlling your TV and home-theater equipment. Its main camera has a unique image sensor called Ultrapixel that promises less noisy, less blurry images in low light. It also has more controls and effects than I've seen on a phone, including two compelling new multimedia elements called Zoe and Video Highlights.

The HTC One also has an eye-popping home-page interface, known as BlinkFeed, that pours calendar notifications and all of your news and social-network feeds into a cascading mélange of captioned photos and text boxes that double as links to their respective content. Interestingly, BlinkFeed seems like competition for Facebook Home, available today on the HTC First.

Indeed, this hot phone is stuffed with so many new features and controls, especially in its camera, that I had to spend more time than usual exploring and mastering them all. And once I did, I found some capabilities to be marred somewhat by automated settings that limited options for manual adjustment.

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We'll put the phone through its paces in our labs, beginning next week—when AT&T and Sprint begin selling it for $199, with a two-year contract, and T-Mobile offers it for $99 down plus $20 a month for 24 months, under the carrier's new "No Contract" plans.

Meantime, here are my initial impressions:

Appearance and feel. The HTC One has a sleek aluminum unibody case that feels solid and well made. It measures a svelte 137.4mm x 68.2mm x 9.3mm, and the back is slightly curved, which makes it quite comfortable to hold. At 143 grams, it felt a little heavy in my shirt pocket.

BlinkFeed. In place of HTC's trademark weather-temperature widget, which usually took up a third of a screen, the HTC One has a flowing grid of captioned, tile-like photos and other graphic elements linking to your calendar alerts and their respective news or social-network feeds. Feed choices include Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, to which you can also post; a dozen news sources ranging from AP and Reuters to Engadget and The Verge; and an even wider range of feeds organized under such themes as Business, Gaming, and Lifestyle.

When fully fed, BlinkFeed appears a little chaotic, more like an endless, disorganized buffet of your personal news world. But you can easily select and deselect the content you send to it in the app's setting menu, as well as focus its presentation to one particular source, such as Facebook or categories like Music or Technology and Science. While BlinkFeed's the default home page, the settings menu lets you choose an alternate page, which some will prefer.

Camera performance. In addition to the Ultrapixel image sensor, claimed to deliver faster auto-focus, richer colors, and reduced image noise, the main camera is one of few with an optical image sensor to reduce blurriness in pictures and videos. And the second, front-facing camera also promises better-quality videos with 1080p resolution. Our image engineers are currently checking the claims, but there were no striking improvements during casual use of the camera.

Camera controls. The HTC One's camera nicely refines popular features that HTC pioneered and which have become standard on top-tier phones from several makers. These include burst-shot mode, for taking up to 20 stills pictures in rapid success; Always Smile, an editing tool that combines the best poses from multiple shots in to one perfect photo; and the ability to simultaneously take pictures and videos. From other brands, the HTC One borrows the ability to edit out passersby who stray into photos and slow-motion video recording with variable-speed playback.

Multimedia options. The Zoe setting allows you to make intriguing 3-second hybrid photo/video elements from a string of 20 images, with sound added. You can keep a Zoe as a short multimedia clip, or capture and store individual still images. Enjoying Zoes in their multimedia splendor requires viewing them on the phone itself or uploading them to Zoe Share, HTC's new cloud service; posted to Facebook or e-mailed, the files appear only as still images.

When granted the appropriate permissions, the HTC One will automatically group pictures, Zoes, and video clips as Events in the phone's gallery, according to where (via GPS) and when they were taken. You can send them to an album, where they can be combined with content from other Events, or you can make them into a snappy, 30-second multimedia Video Highlight (see an example below).

You start by selecting one of several Themes, which range from the sentimental Avalon to the zippy Vega. They automatically trim and arrange your content to fit the format, slapping on a soundtrack in the process. You can change Themes on the fly as well as select which elements to use. And when you're happy with your Video Highlight, you can save it as an MP4.

But unlike iMovie and other popular video apps we've seen, you can't change much in Video Highlights beyond selecting a Theme or and the content within the event. You can't change their length or music, and it's virtually impossible to import elements from other Events (though I did it once with two Events I recorded on the same day). Also, the Theme music replaces the sound from your video clips, so there won't be any sound bites.

Sound. The HTC One's amplified front-firing stereo speakers were the best I've ever heard on a phone, presenting music and Video Highlights multimedia with sufficient loudness and clarity to keep headphones in their box. One quibble: If the screen times out, the phone's volume controls are useless. That means if your music playlist suddenly serves up an exceptionally loud track, you'll have to fumble with the phone to unlock the screen and change the volume level.

Cryptic calendar. With its pixel density of 468 ppi and ample size, the HTC One's screen is gorgeous. Yet the calendar won't show you appointment details in Week mode; colored blocks indicate when appointments are scheduled, but not what they are. You can, one appointment at a time, touch a block and see a popup window with Spartan details of the event. This may sound like a minor complaint, but if your smart-phone calendar is typically crammed with personal and business appointments and reminders, you'll probably want at least a hint of what they are when you're planning your week.

Bottom line: Out of the box, HTC One's many capabilities and vast number of controls are a bit intimidating, and not all are executed perfectly. However, after spending time with the phone, I found the HTC One's suite of bells and whistles among the best of any phone, rivaling even those on the Samsung Galaxy S4.

Mike Gikas

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