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.


HTC One X, HTC Butterfly, HTC One

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.

Hardware

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.

Hardware (Continued) and Cases
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  • Thud2 - Sunday, April 14, 2013 - link

    Sigh ....

    Harrumph...
    Reply
  • funnyhog - Sunday, April 14, 2013 - link

    As for the camera, you are right in saying that it is a compromise and trade off instead of a glowing fanboyish review like so many other reviewers. And in terms of trade off, it works if the person only wants to share over the web (and not to large screen format either, else it really really look horrible) or view their photos over small format viewers.

    But for most consumers who wants to print their photos, view it on their 17 inch HD laptop display or otherwise needs large format printout, it is a no go as the lack of details really really show, especially when the composition have lots of details or words/numbers. It is so bad that it can really detract from the overall quality of the photo, if it is enlarged and viewed over a large display or printed out onto just an A4 size paper. ( I tried both using the review images that claims to be the actual full size).
    Reply
  • repoman27 - Monday, April 15, 2013 - link

    You do realize there are no 17-inch laptops in existence with displays that have more pixels than this camera sensor? The only laptop with a screen resolution greater than 4 megapixels is the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display. Also, prints up to 5"x9" could still be output at 150 LPI from a 300 DPI source.

    So yeah, the camera in this phone isn't exactly the same quality as a DSLR, but it is very well suited for "most consumers".
    Reply
  • peter123 - Sunday, April 14, 2013 - link

    You people need to calm down with the bashing of this review. Anandtech also reviewed SGS2 and it was highly praised, REMEMBER? If you don't accept that a company other than samsung can produce an excellent device than I'm sorry but you are a fanboy. HTC is an excellent device. Period. Reply
  • praftman - Sunday, April 14, 2013 - link

    17 Pages and only one on UI? How can I have just read every comment and yet nobody speaks with surprise about this amazing lack in an otherwise exceptional review?

    I'm purchasing this phone, and I like it for many of the same reasons Brian gives. I respect this review and yet…

    The UI is probably more important to the experience than all of the hardware; It's at least as important. Yet we receive one of the slimmest run-throughs of Sense 5.0 I've come across. I was hoping this indicated a companion review…but weeks in and there remains no Sense 5.0 review. What sacrifices are made by the lack of Jellybean 4.2.2? How do the quick-access functions differ from main competitors (silence, notifications, etc.)? How does the browser stack-up (it's an internet device after-all)? There is not even a quick breakdown or reminder of the main bullet-points for any of these significant topics, though apparently we need a refresher on all sorts of other things, hardware based of course.

    Moreover, the obvious competitor to this phone [GS4] has built its efforts with a particularly strong focus on software tweaks. But evaluating the phone's hardware with such heavy emphasis…the very battleground most-contended is largely ignored, making the real-world use of this review questionable. Did anyone really wonder if the HTC ONE was going for build-quality? Did we need this review to figure that out? It seems two-thirds of the review speaks the language of the obvious, the fact obfuscated in magnificent detail...Detail that almost no bearing on purchase-decision. I love that kind of detail, but I certainly wouldn't want in to substitute the meat of what determines a review's real-world value: Should I buy this?

    As a doc on technology, and to learn about the development of hardware, this is a fantastic piece. But in that sense [pun!] it is like a case-subject for technological education in general, industry education or even archiving. It's akin to the [deservedly beloved] engineerguyvideo series. That isn't for purchase decision, unless the reader is swayed by being lost in the brilliant and impressive information-overload, information that ultimately…isn't the right context.

    Context…that fails to address the blogosphere. We see no redress to the rumors of QC issues with gaps, no mentioning of availability or carrier-exclusivity. No discussion of carrier-comparison at all. No setting-the-record-straight with regard to inaccuracies in well-published reviews. No discussion on sticking points for many reviewers (such as the difficulty in customizing the home-screen with an awkward increase in dragging, pausing, dropping). …Part of the advantage to such a late review is to address all the other reviews and opinions now out there--but this one seems largely in a vaccum. Those concerns floated to the top, virally, for good reason. With each further review the gaps [pun!] they all share become more apparent. Here we have the best review to-date, but it's merely rehashing what we've already seen, just at a finer level. The community is asking questions this review still does not begin to address.

    Then there are the sort of flaws we'd expect when one reviewer attempts to 'do it all'. No single person designed this phone, and a single reviewer expecting to be minute in detail and *definitive* in their review is not likely to succeed. So we see the claim:

    …that softer metals are easier to machine; False in most situations.

    …of performance based on benchmarks Anand.com itself refutes with newer, better methodology. Odd that.

    ...that larger photosites are best to fight noise; Despite his expertise in this specific area Brian continues this simplistic and ultimately false refrain. Technology does not develop uniformly, and the nature of noise is multi-faceted. All things being equal bigger photosites are best. But…all things are not equal. Increasingly the best real-world strategy for fighting noise has been an *increase* in pixel count up to our current limits. This is from page 46 of the comment section, and many here would do well to read it:

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    sigsegv0x0b - Monday, April 08, 2013 - link

    There is only one problem with HTC's ultra pixels. DXO Mark seems to disagree

    http://www.dxomark.com/index.php/Publications/DxOM...
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    People have said the HTC ONE is just flash and form over function. Another iDevice [if you believe the common anti-fanperson's refrain]. I think it has stellar function, and again--this will be my next phone--but admittedly it does trade some real-world practicality for that build 'quality' [and here I thought quality was something built right, not something built to give the appearance of right]. The phone has a smaller screen [but I think that bezel will protect against errant contact] and they could have used that extra wiggle-room to protect the glass from all sides…instead they used the same glass expanse as the GS4, just with a large able unused portion. That's form over function...and over build-quality. No SD-card and the poor excuse they couldn't fit it in. The GS4 does. The Sony Xperia Z does, even though it's water-proof. The metal will not be comfortable in the sun (glare, hot to the touch) so when you place it on your accessory car-dock…make certain it isn't catching rays the whole time across its various edges. The metal will not be comfortable in the cold (now we have a reason not to wear gloves with this phone…and to wear gloves with this phone). The battery…ugh. I replace my phone every year and I still think this is an obvious misstep. Even the iPhone, while not user-replaceable, has a battery that a service technician can remove. It's clear that with the ONE many more phones will need to be fully replaced over otherwise minor fixes. I'd pay money to have this phone *not* constructed in this manner. I'll take a subtly rubberized exterior, please.

    This review is being celebrated as some sort of benchmark. It is…with regards to hardware. I'd hate to see the ball dropped so heavily on the software side by its blogger-imitators. This review, with its undue focus on the physical object, and its stark glossing over of the actual battlefield this phone faces, shares the same superficiality. Well made [review/phone]? Yep. Like an Armani Jacket. Functional [review/phone]? Not as much as it might have been…had the focus been on wearability.
    Reply
  • dyc4ha - Sunday, April 14, 2013 - link

    ill be honest i didnt read the whole thing, but just a quick comment: I believe the black version is the polycarbonate version, similar to the one x (someone correct me if im wrong) Reply
  • nerdstalker - Sunday, April 14, 2013 - link

    See my reply two posts below... :) Reply
  • Thud2 - Monday, April 15, 2013 - link

    I HAVE USED THE PHONE. It is extremely solid, really nice looking, VERY fast, Browser is very fast. Apps open instantly, screen is bright and sharp, it's very thin and fits the pocket well. Sound is better than any phone I've heard. Camera is fast and gets great shots that you would not be able to get with other phones. Stop fanboy trashing to start rumours. Nobody wants to hear your biased bull****. Reply
  • praftman - Monday, April 15, 2013 - link

    Maybe the comment system is messing up, or maybe you are responding to the wrong comment by accident, or maybe you just didn't read my [admittedly] lengthy comment...but I'm no fanboy. Not biased. Not much anything like what you're saying. Reply
  • gnx - Thursday, April 18, 2013 - link

    Just one point on why there isn't enough analysis of UI. This is Anandtech, a site built on review of hardware, which began with reviews of motherboards. Software and UI is really not the main focus of Anandtech. Hardware and Build, whether as in the external aluminum case, or in the internal SoC, are the main (and strong) suits of Anandtech and their reviews. Reply

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