The HTC One Reviewby Brian Klug on April 5, 2013 8:50 PM EST
It is nearly impossible to begin to review the HTC One without some context, and I’ll begin our review of the HTC One (formerly the device known as codename M7) much the same way I did my impressions piece simply by stating that HTC is in an interesting position as a result of last year’s product cycle. If there’s one thing Anand has really driven home for me in my time writing for AnandTech, it’s that in the fast-paced mobile industry, a silicon vendor or OEM really only has to miss one product cycle in a very bad way to get into a very difficult position. The reality of things is that for HTC with this last product cycle there were products with solid industrial design and specs for the most part, but not the right wins with mobile operators in the United States, and not the right marketing message abroad. It’s easy to armchair the previous product cycle now that we have a year of perspective, but that’s the reality of things. HTC now needs a winner more than ever.
For 2013 HTC is starting out a bit differently. Rather than announce the entire lineup of phones, it’s beginning with the interestingly-named HTC One. It’s just the HTC One — no S or X or V or any other monikers at all. It’s clear that the HTC One is the unadulterated representation of HTC’s vision for what the flagship of its smartphone lineup should be. HTC is different from other OEMs in that it only makes smartphones, and as a result the flagship clearly defines the rest of the product portfolio below it. With the One it looks as though HTC is making that kind of statement by literally letting it define the entire One brand.
Enough about the position and the strategy for HTC, these are mostly things that are interesting to enthusiasts and industry, but not really relevant to consumers or the review of a singular product. Let’s talk about the HTC One.
For whatever reason I always start with industrial design and aesthetics, probably because it’s the most obvious superficial thing that hits you when picking up almost anything for the first time. With a smartphone that’s even more important, since there’s so much that revolves around the in-hand feel. I pick up my phone too many times a day to count for better or worse, thus the material quality and in-hand feel really do make a big difference.
The HTC One’s fit and finish are phenomenal. There, I said it. You almost don’t even need to read the rest of this section. In my books, fit and finish goes, in descending order of quality, metal, glass, and finally plastic. Or instead of plastic, polymer, or polycarbonate, or whatever overly-specific word we use to avoid saying plastic.
I’ve talked with a lot of people about HTC’s lineup last year, and even though the One X was a well constructed plastic phone, the One S really stuck out in my mind for being a level above and beyond in terms of construction and industrial design. I asked Vivek Gowri (our resident Mechanical Engineering slash industrial design connoisseur slash mobile reviewer extraordinaire) if I was crazy, and he agreed that the One S was one of, if not the, best industrial designs of 2012.
So when I heard about M7 being on the horizon as the next flagship, I couldn’t help but worry that there would no longer be a primarily-metal contender at the high end from HTC. The HTC One is that contender, and brings unibody metal construction to an entirely new level. It is the realization of HTC’s dream for an all-metal phone.
HTC begins construction of the One from a solid piece of aluminum. Two hundred minutes of CNC cuts later, a finished One chassis emerges. Plastic gets injected into the chassis between cuts during machining for the antenna bands and side of the case, which also gets machined. The result is HTC’s “zero-gap” construction which – as the name implies – really has no gaps between aluminum and polymer at all for those unibody parts. There’s no matching parts together from different cuts to achieve an optimal fit, everything in the main chassis is cut as one solid unit. It’s the kind of manufacturing story that previously only the likes of Apple could lay claim to, and the HTC One is really the first Android device which reaches the level of construction quality previously owned almost entirely by the iPhone.
The only place there’s some fit and finish weakness is in the top and bottom front facing aluminum pieces, which aren’t part of the CNC machining that the rest of the chassis undergoes. Instead I suspect these are adhered onto the rest of the phone after the display, PCB, and battery are inserted into the back case. The result is that there is unfortunately a small gap between where those parts come together, but we’re talking about a tiny, tiny gap.
The back of the HTC One is one continuous, gently curved, bead-blasted piece of aluminum, with the exception again of the thin plastic bands which insulate the top and bottom antennas from each other. The camera aperture sits near the top of the One and has a third small plastic band attaching it to the primary one. It turns out this is a critical feature to enable NFC, whose active area is the loop antenna formed by the ring around the camera. Industrial design and antenna design are often in direct, almost absolute opposition when it comes to mobile devices, and with the HTC One a huge part of the story is how such a design is possible without falling prey to unintended attenuation a-la iPhone 4. In all honesty, the technology which empowers this new generation of all-metal phones (actively tuned antennas) is a huge part of both the iPhone 5 and HTC One stories, and other phones coming in 2013, but more on that later. What’s interesting about the HTC One is that there aren’t glass cutouts on the opposite side of the antennas, in fact on the opposite side are matching aluminum pieces married to the top and bottom of the 4.7-inch 1080p LCD display.
HTC won’t disclose exactly the alloy of aluminum used in the One, however it feels well hardened and not as prone to deformation as other aluminum devices. That’s of course the tradeoff with going to aluminum – to make the material easily machinable, it needs to be more malleable. Of course, more malleable is great for making machining easy, but not so good for longevity or resistance to deformation when dropped. In the case of the One, HTC says it is using an alloy of its own composition which it believes is the optimal balance between the two.
An obvious benefit to aluminum construction is that there is no flex in the HTC One. With the One X and One X+, I developed a fidget with those devices where I would pop the display out of the plastic unibody all the time when standing idle or needed to do something with my hands, which is literally the way to disassemble them. That or I would flex the thin backside of those phones by pressing on them to take up the gap between the plastic frame and battery. With the One there is no opportunity for me to fidget and semi-disassemble the phone, no flex if I push really hard on the back, or anywhere on the device. This is what build quality is about, making an actually solid device.
There’s a tiny notch in the top plastic band of the HTC One, which is the aperture for the secondary microphone. At the bottom just to the right of the microUSB port is the primary microphone. The bands are again an important part of the design which enable antenna diversity.
The HTC One is ringed with a plastic band between two aluminum chamfered edges. The band isn’t glossy or shiny plastic, but rather a textured, rigid feeling material which also seems to have been sand blasted or bead blasted, and also gets machined as a part of the case. Rather than being perfectly perpendicular to the front of the device, the edge is angled inward slightly. It’s difficult to describe, but the result is surprisingly noticeable.
It’s in this plastic lip around the edge that basically all the ports or buttons lie. On the left side up top there’s the microSIM tray plus ejection port, and on the right side the single piece volume rocker. At the bottom, off center is the microUSB port and primary microphone. Up top, the One locates the headphone jack off-center and just cutting into the aluminum. On the opposite side is the power/standby button, which doubles as an infrared port which supports transmit and receive for controlling a TV or entertainment system.
There are two aluminum cutouts which lip the One’s display. These two speaker grilles are a tight grid of laser cut holes, behind which sit two speakers for stereo sound. Up top on the right is the 88 degree wide field of view front facing 2.1 megapixel camera, and on the left side is the ambient light and proximity sensor. The notification LED is the only thing that really gets a downgrade compared to the Butterfly or DNA, as there’s no longer an awesome rear facing LED in addition to the front facing one behind the grille.