In the year 2013, few things are as hyped as a new premium smartphone. There were adverts for the Sony Xperia Z all over the national press, technology journalists (ourselves included) are falling over themselves to pick up on any rumours about the Samsung Galaxy S4 and even staid, businesslike BlackBerry hired Alicia Keys to be its Creative Director. By contrast, HTC has been relatively quiet about the new HTC One.
There was a launch press conference in London but, acrobats aside, there were few gimmicks. Make no mistake, though; this is the big one. HTC has fallen far behind Apple and Samsung in sales, and it hopes this is the top-end phone to revive its fortunes.
First impressions, thankfully, are great. The One is a gorgeous phone, and we think it wipes the floor with the Sony Xperia Z. The combination of metal rear, bevelled metal edges and edge-to-edge screen are class itself, and make the Xperia Z feel square and tacky, despite its glass rear. The HTC One's curved back also makes it comfortable to hold - a minor downside is that it's tricky to type when it’s lying flat on a desk.
The metal-backed HTC One is a thing of beauty, and even out-classes the Sony Xperia Z's glass chassis
We were also seriously impressed with the screen. It's a 4.7in model with a Full HD 1,920x1,080 resolution, leading to a huge pixel density figure of 468ppi. When compared side-by-side with the Xperia Z's display, we preferred the HTC One's screen, thanks to its superb contrast. It has incredibly deep blacks (for an LCD at least), and our test photos showed rich, vibrant colours and plenty of shadow detail.
The Xperia Z had the advantage when it came to looking at web pages, however; its slightly larger 5in display meant text was ever-so-slightly larger and easier to read when web pages were fully zoomed out, helped by brilliant white backgrounds, compared to the very slight grey tinge on the HTC One.
Last year it was 720p, now Full HD 1080p screens are becoming the norm on top-end smartphones
This difference was borne out in our subjective web browsing tests. Both phones rendered graphics heavy web pages at a similar speed, but when zoomed in and panning around a web page, the Xperia Z would stutter when coming across a large image – a problem we didn’t have with the HTC One.
Luckily, HTC has provided a huge 2,300mAh battery to power the fast processor and bright screen. The handset managed 8h 32m in our continuous video playback test, which is a strong result and bodes well for all-day battery life.
An Android smartphone can be beautifully designed and have an amazing screen and top-notch chipset, but none of this will make any difference if the software is rubbish. HTC sails closer to the wind than most on this front, as it heavily customises Android with its latest Sense interface.
Sense has always divided opinion, but this time HTC has really pushed the boat out. Running on top of Android 4.1.2 is Sense 5.0, and with it comes the end of the traditional Android homescreen, with its mix of widgets and icons.
Instead, you get what HTC calls BlinkFeed. This consists of a rolling grid of tiles, containing information aggregated from various news websites and your social media feeds. You can add all the major social media services, such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Flickr, but the choice of news websites is quite narrow; you get the Guardian, the Independent and Reuters for news, and CNET and TechCrunch for technology. For those used to getting their content from a wide variety of sources the BlinkFeed selection will seem very narrow.
BlinkFeed replaces the standard Android homescreen, and shows you news feeds and social networks in chronological order
It looks like the BlinkFeed needs to be specifically supported by the corresponding news outlet or website, so it remains to be seen whether overstretched publishers will be keen to support yet another platform. We found BlinkFeed more useful for keeping an eye on our Twitter and Facebook feeds, though, and often used Twitter links to find news stories anyway.
BlinkFeed is a clever idea which is in tune with how many people actually use their smartphones; to keep an eye on what's happening in the world and among people they know. Of course, if you prefer to use your Android smartphone to check your calendar widget at a glance on your homescreen before opening your email, you will most likely hate it.
The app tray is a smooth-scrolling lovely bit of design
The standard Android homescreen isn't completely dead and gone, though. Swiping right from the BlinkFeed takes you to a standard Android homescreen with space for the usual apps and widgets, and you can add up to three more screens if you need more room.
Most importantly, you can set a standard Android home screen as your default screen (the one that appears when you unlock the handset). BlinkFeed is still there, sitting to the left of the default screen, while your other home screens are off to the right.
Meanwhile, pressing the icon in the middle of the shortcut bar at the bottom of the screen takes you to the app tray, which is rather lovingly designed; we like the way it scrolls smoothly through pages of icons rather than continuously, as this makes it easier to keep track of where you are.
HTC has made a big deal about music playback ever since it first stuck a Beats by Dr. Dre logo on one of its phones, and the One is no exception. It has what HTC calls BoomSound – a pair of stereo speakers at the top and bottom of the phone - or left and right when watching video in landscape orientation.
Amazingly, these speakers sound reasonably good. It's the best sound quality we've ever heard from a phone, but the bar is set pretty low. The speakers are loud and produce audio with some definition, but the sound is certainly harsh with a definite high-end emphasis, but that's to be expected from speakers this size. We're also not convinced that putting loud speakers in a phone is a great idea, as most bus journeys we take are hellish enough as it is.
The One also has built-in twin microphones, which HTC says are designed for recording gigs. We didn't have any upcoming gigs during our time with the phone, so we decided to simulate one instead. We played back a Crowded House gig from YouTube on our PC with our speakers turned up high, and recorded the result on the HTC One.
When we played back the recording and compared it to the original, the concert sounded clear with little distortion, but there was a marked lack of bass compared to the original. You can compare the original video clip and the version recorded on the HTC One in the two YouTube clips below.
The original Crowded House recording…
And the same clip recorded with the HTC One's video camera
ULTRAPIXELS ARE THE NEW MEGAPIXELS
As if replacing the Android homescreen wasn't radical enough, HTC has also gone against popular convention with the One's camera. Instead of racing to fit as many megapixels as possible on a tiny sensor, which is normally a recipe for huge amounts of noise, HTC has made a sensor using what it calls Ultrapixels. These are larger-than-average pixels, which means that instead of having 12 or more megapixels on a small sensor, the HTC One only has four megapixels.
This should mean that there's less interference as light hitting one of the sensor's pixels scatters onto those around it, which is a key contributor to noise in digital images. HTC also claims the camera lets in 300% more light than a standard smartphone model, we're not sure how it calculated that but the 1/3in sensor, F2.0 lens and optical image stabilisation all sound positive.
Shake-free indoor shots with little noise indoors from the HTC One - click to enlarge
The Xperia Z can't manage the same level of detail, but colours are marginally more accurate
When taking photos indoors, the HTC One's camera excels. It managed camera-shake free shots under poor indoor lighting, with little visible noise or noise reduction. However, we did find colours rather muted. The Sony Xperia Z's camera captured shots with more vibrant colours, but they didn't have the same level of detail as those from the HTC One.
When we went outside, the One's camera was again impressive in some ways and less so in others. The camera captured plenty of detail in the medium distance, and shots were much sharper than on the Sony Xperia Z. However, once again we found the One's colours to be rather muted, and shots from the Xperia Z were both more vibrant and with more true-to-life colours.
The HTC One (left) produces sharper photos, but the Sony Xperia Z (right) has more accurate colours
However, when taking shots outdoors we noticed the limitations of the HTC One's low megapixel count. Photos were fine at short and medium distances, but detail tails off significantly in the distance, leading to smudgy details.
Pixilation is evident in the HTC One's shots (left) when you zoom in, showing the limitations of its 4-megapixel sensor
Like all smartphone cameras, then, the HTC One's model is a compromise. If you mainly use your phone for taking indoor shots of friends and family, you'll definitely appreciate the impressive low-light performance. It's also fine for outdoor snaps, but if you like your smartphone to be a replacement for a compact camera for holiday snaps, you're better off with choosing one with a higher-resolution sensor such as the Sony Xperia Z, or even maybe the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S4.
HTC has pulled off a blinder with the HTC One. It’s a gorgeous phone with a beautiful screen, and we think it's a more desirable handset than the Sony Xperia Z.
Given you can move BlinkFeed out of view, the HTC should appeal to everyone. It will be especially tempting to those who crave the low-light capabilities of its camera. Its metal chassis is also a big selling point - and one, based on past models, that is unlikely to appear on the Samsung Galaxy S4.
Most will be tempted to see that handset before making a choice, but with the HTC One, HTC has a huge contender for handset of the year. It's an amazing phone and deservedly wins our Ultimate award.