HTC One Review: Premium Crafted Smartphone With Great Sound, Sense UX Is Second-Rate

 @tommylikeyt.halleck@ibtimes.com on September 28 2013 1:40 PM

The HTC One is a beautiful phone, but it is not without its flaws. However, the good points will continue to outweigh the bad for many – including premium construction, powerful and intelligently designed speakers and a gorgeous 1080p screen.

There is a long list of great features when it comes to the standard version of the HTC One, but its faults are frustrating. This review is for the version of the HTC One purchased from most major wireless providers, which comes equipped with HTC's Sense user experience (UX), and not the Google Play or Developer versions of the One.

That being said, if you are planning on purchasing an HTC One, you are likely to be very happy with your smartphone, but frustrated with the time it takes HTC to provide updates to the device -- and the overall quirkiness of the HTC Sense UX.

HTC One: Design Around An Aluminum Unibody

When the HTC One was unveiled, I had two initial impressions about the physical design, the first being that the One looks like someone had taken my MacBook Pro and shrunk it into a smartphone. The second was: Just how well does the concrete hold up? When crafting the unibody aluminum construction of the HTC One, the Taiwanese manufacturer was presented with a dilemma: how to allow wireless signals to pass through the device while maintaining its premium construction.

HTC engineers chose to craft the midsection of the One out of concrete, a durable material currently trending in the design world, giving the phone a premium feel and avoiding oft-maligned plastic. The fact that the HTC One is designed from a single piece of aluminum is no small feat, and HTC should be commended for the achievement. However, concrete raises its own questions: Does it scratch or crumble too easily against metal? Does it collect dirt easily, since concrete is more porous than metal and most plastics?

I found, after spending several weeks with my review unit, that the HTC One is physically built to last. At first, I found the One’s curved back off-putting, but it quickly grew on me. The concrete is capable of scratching -- especially where the USB charger is plugged in -- but generally holds up nicely.

I was also concerned that aluminum would have less flexibility compared to plastic, and therefore allow more force from a drop or fall to reach the glass screen. While this may be true, in most of my field tests with the device (read: butter fingers), the HTC One held up against some seriously devastating drops, minus a case, relatively unscathed. One particularly bad fall on to pavement only caused the phone a nick, when I was almost sure the screen would have been devastated. Of course, I could have just been lucky, as my HTC One fell on its corner, rather than the front face of the phone.

The integration of the infrared remote sensor into the power button is one of the cleverest innovations in a smartphone on the market. The combination is simple, makes sense, and looks great. I was surprised at how quickly HTC's TV app was able to set up with my Home Theater. I was able to add my Pioneer receiver, Motorola cable box and Panasonic television quickly and easily. I tested the setup on family and friends' home theater setups and it worked just as well. It was fast and easy, although most of the time I ended up using my standard remote controls -- force of habit, perhaps.

The metallic volume rocker is beautiful, and feels nice to use. As someone who cares more about listening music on their smartphone than social media, I have to say the HTC One really rocks when plugged in to a set of headphones, or when showing a music video to friends.

The HTC One has four speakers that face the front of the phone, with individual amplifiers, or so they say. I used the One to listen to music while jogging with a friend on a windy day, and we both could hear the music clearly. I am a bit obsessed with portable Bluetooth speakers, and I found myself playing music off of the One's built-in speakers more often than searching for a speaker to hook it up to.

Beats Audio has a bad reputation online as being nothing more than an equalizer -- but I found it to work much better than the rest of the equalizer software available on the Google Play Store. I used Beats Audio most of the time while wearing headphones or playing music off of the HTC One's loudspeakers, but left it off when connecting to my car's Bluetooth to stream Spotify.

The HTC One truly is a gorgeous phone to behold, and it holds up following the release of the iPhone 5C, the Moto X and the LG G2. It is absolutely top shelf if you are an audiophile -- especially if you are not interested in carrying around and external DAC to power headphones.

HTC Sense UX

Some reviewers have made a positive note of HTC’s Sense user experience, and with that in mind, I went into reviewing the One with as open a mind as I could, coming from a stock Android experience off of my LG Nexus 4.

I have to say, while Blinkfeed was interesting, and certainly a lot better-looking next to an Android Homescreen than my official Facebook and Twitter widgets, I did not prefer much else about Sense than the stock Android experience. I found it frustratingly buggy, and as most HTC handsets are still awaiting an official rollout to Android 4.3, I noticed that apps froze and required a force-close more often than on my Nexus 4. I say this at risk of angering HTC fanboys, but I am not a huge fan of Sense -- or any manufacturer's UX, at this point. Most features offered in a UX are already available in the stock version of Android 4.3, so UX's just offer an alternative way to get from A to B.

I am not saying that stock Android is perfect. And as I said, BlinkFeed is a neat feature. There are also things I like about UX's from other manufacturers, including Samsung and LG. However, I find thus far in my travels that stock Android works better overall, and needs fewer force closes, than any manufacturer's UX.

That being said, I am not recommending those interested run out and purchase a Google Play Edition of the HTC One instead, as that removes interesting features like HTC remote control software and Beats Audio. I have to say that using the HTC One, I was very interested in doing just that -- purchasing an HTC One Google Play Edition for my main smartphone. An HTC One Google Play Edition has apps available that will allow it to utilize the IR sensor, and adjust the equalizer.

Those purchasing a standard HTC One full of carrier bloatware and the Sense UX are going to have a great phone on their hands, with an incredible form factor, gorgeous screen and insanely nice sound. But if it was me, I would probably go looking to play around a little bit with the HTC One's operating system.

Follow Thomas Halleck on Twitter if you want to yell at him about how great the Sense UX is, or if you just love Android smartphones.

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