It’s a constant of the tech industry that no matter how many spec sheets, reviews and opinion pieces you read you’ll never really get a proper feel for a device until you hold it in your hands and use its key features. Fortunately for us, HTC held a belated HTC One launch in Sydney last night and we got to do just that.
HTC One Design
Firstly, the HTC One really is a well-built device. Its “Zero Gap”, full aluminium alloy unibody design is light, sleek, comfortable to hold and feels pretty sturdy, although we still wouldn’t drop it on a whim.
At first glance, the “Stealth Black” model does come off looking a bit “samey” when compared to other smartphone models, but the “Arctic White” design is definitely an eye-catcher. The unibody metallic frame is certainly an achievement of engineering, but it’s one that we think the customer will appreciate without really realising. A full-body, single-piece metallic frame is something we haven’t seen yet from any manufacturer, so the HTC One is bound to offer a feeling of unique quality when simply held in the hand, even if the user can’t quite put their finger on why.
HTC has become fond of pointing out that, at its thinnest point, the side of the HTC One is just 4mm. What they don’t tell you is that “thinnest point” is a chamfered edge and, as such, it puts on a couple of extra mm almost immediately. Still, the HTC One is only 9mm at its thickest point, meaning that its curved, ergonomic design is, for the most part, between 9mm and 4mm.
HTC One Display
Unfortunately we didn’t get to really put the display through its paces with a bunch of HD videos. Even so, we did get to play with the device and get some hands-on goodness. From what we could tell, the display is fantastic. At no point were we even momentarily distracted by the suggestion of a pixel. Images were incredibly crisp, clear and colourful.
Swiping around the UI was fast and totally without lag or jerkiness. The short bits of video we did see, generally Zoe’s, impressed us. We’ll hold off singing more praise until we actually get our hands on one, but so far we have a lot of respect for that 1080p, 468ppi display that HTC claims has 43% better resolution than an Apple Retina Display.
HTC Zoe and Ultrapixel Camera
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: megapixels are not an accurate way measure or judge the quality of a camera. A larger megapixel count certainly allows for a more detailed shot, but just cramming in more pixels means nothing if you don’t have a quality system backing it up. Light filtering, lens quality, image sensors and general imaging software are all far more important than the number of pixels.
Keeping with this idea, HTC has, at least in terms of marketing, dumped ‘megapixels’ all together. Their new ‘ultrapixel’ (UP) system is essentially a way for them to significantly increase the size of each pixel (meaning less pixels overall) in a photo without suffering from the negative marketing that would accompany it, due to the public’s misunderstanding that ‘more’ is ‘better’.
HTC’s new UP system has doubled the size of its pixels. This allows for the camera to capture up to 330% the amount of light per pixel, leading to higher quality and detail in low-light situations. The demonstrations that were shown off were quite impressive, but as always with smartphone camera’s we’ll wait until we can do our own review to make up our minds.
One thing we can safely say we found impressive is HTC Zoe. Despite the Zoe system’s adherence to HTC’s penchant for questionable names, it really does offer something new. It’s not a completely new form of media, but it’s a unique approach to photos that sort of blurs the line between what is a photo and what is a video.
The Zoe button occupies its own, unobtrusive spot off to the left-hand side of the camera UI. Turn it on and the camera will take a photo, but will also record a 3 second clip of HD snapshots that is paired with the final photo. This video clip can then be used in various and interesting ways. This is called ‘taking a Zoe’. Like we said, it’s questionably named, but stick with us, it's actually pretty cool.
Most simply, the album or gallery where your pictures, videos and Zoes are kept becomes much more animated. Instead of displaying a still image, Zoes play their 3-second clip. They don’t play all at once – such a thing would probably be a massive drain on battery. Each Zoe will play its little clip, finish and then the next one will begin. It’s not a big deal, but it does add a really nice, new visual element to the picture gallery.
Photo editing is one of the more impressive aspects of Zoe. During various demonstrations, we were shown three major ways in which a Zoe can be significantly edited with incredible ease. It’s important to remember that we didn’t take these photos ourselves, so real-world shots may end up being a bit more troublesome, but what we saw was still pretty cool.
The first and probably least outlandish of the three options is the eerily named “Always Smile” function. We say least outlandish, but that’s really only because we’ve seen this feature already on the new BB10 phones. a fact that doesn’t make it less useful or awesome.
Say you take a photo/Zoe of a person or group of people, but the shutter goes at a moment where not everyone is paying attention or smiling. Not only does the 3 second nature of a Zoe allow you to choose between multiple frames, you can splice elements of certain frames in to each other. “Always Smile” detects the faces of those in shot and, after selecting an offending snapshotee, allows you to go from frame to frame of just that face without changing the rest of the picture. The face and its surroundings are then blended with the rest of the photo to create a seamless image. This is a potentially incredibly useful tool.
“Remove Object” is also a great feature. Say you take a Zoe but just as everyone smiles some fool jumps in for the photobomb, or a cyclist half enters the screen in the background. Zoe can automatically detect ‘objects’ (basically anything that is only in the Zoe for a portion of the 3 second clip) and offer the option of removing it. Just click the little cross on the outlined object and it disappears, leaving the background perfectly intact. I don’t know about everyone else, but an anti-photobomb feature is something I would get a lot of use out of in a camera.
The last main editing feature allows a user to combine multiple frames in to one shot. This feature takes the focus of the image, say a bicyclist executing a trick, and displays the rider at various points throughout the Zoe. What the user ends up with is several images of the same person in various positions, all displayed as one image. The demo looked pretty cool, but we don’t see this feature being a key selling point for most users.
Our final bit of Zoe news is to do with its highlights function. Selecting an album on the HTC One, such as your “European Vacation” album, means that the user can utilise the highlights button. Highlights automatically takes all the photos and Zoes and converts them in a to a highlights reel complete with music, professionally designed transitions and even zoom-ins and outs.
Different themes can be selected that offer different music, colour filters and visual effects, with the end result being anything from an up-beat colourful compilation to a black and white, old school reel with a 1920’s Parisian feel.
We weren’t sure about BlinkFeed before we went to the event and, to be honest, we’re still not entirely positive it’ll be a hit. Granted, with a better understanding of its offerings we became more appreciative, but everything is just so… big.
BlinkFeed is the new Home Screen for Sense 5.0. Essentially it’s a merging of Android widgets and Windows Phone live tiles, at least aesthetically. It even scrolls vertically, albeit with a different visualisation between screens.
Our main issue with it is the sheer size of all the tiles. It's the same problem that the Windows Phone 7 UI faced before WP8 came in with resizable tiles. If you have more than a few subscriptions you're going to end up scrolling down for a long time.
What HTC has done with BlinkFeed is partner with over 1400 online services and news sources. This means that, depending on your area, you will have a huge number of potential live-updated feeds for BlinkFeed. Each subscription shows up as its own resizeable tile.
Sources can be sorted by genre (sport, entertainment, gaming etc), making it easier to locate news that’s more important to you. It also allows to you temporarily filter out certain news sources if you’re only in the mood, for example, for checking sports scores and viewing your social media updates.
You can even select a “highlights” button and switch your entire BlinkFeed to display only one or two sources, with each of the tiles showing a different notification or piece of new information.
It’s definitely the best attempt at an integrated live feed we’ve seen on a smartphone, but that doesn’t mean it’ll succeed. Live feeds on mobile OSes don’t exactly have a stellar history of success, but BlinkFeed is at least in with a chance.
Moreover, we’re just happy that HTC has finally changed up the Sense UI again. For a long time Sense was the best and prettiest Android skin out there, but nothing was shaken up in around a generation and a half. Now Sense 5.0 looks like it could very well reclaim the crown for HTC.
HTC One as a Universal Remote
We’re not sure about whether or not HTC is the first to do this, but it’s definitely amongst the forerunners. The HTC One has an infrared transmitter built in to it, allowing it to function as a universal remote for most popular set-top boxes and TV brands.
Not only that, being a smartphone and a remote has its advantages. Users can peruse an HTC-designed TV schedule on their One's screen. The schedule shows all TV shows in your area (assuming that you live in one of the 24 supported countries), including both national networks and cable channels. By tapping a currently running show not only will the TV switch over to that channel, but will turn on if it was off beforehand.
The schedule is even capable of showing you how far in to an episode it already is, making it easy to decide between a show that’s halfway through and one that’s about to start.
This is cool. This is (as far as we know) a new use for smartphones that definitely hasn’t hit the mainstream yet. Not only that, it really does make sense. It’s not gimmicky; it’s actually useful; the kind of useful that isn't going to go away any time soon. We just wish somebody thought of it sooner.
Assuming that the HTC One has support for a wide enough range of TVs and Set-Top Boxes this could very well be a game-changer.
SenseVoice for HTC Sense
SenseVoice is a new function that measures the level of ambient/invasive noise in your vicinity and adjusts mic and speaker volume during a call accordingly.
So were you in a quiet area nothing would change, but say you’re at a loud birthday party or a concert the HTC One would increase speaker volume and tweak some mic settings so that you could both hear and be heard more clearly.
It’s a good idea and we’re keen to give it a test run.
Unfortunately, the large, loud room in which the demonstrations took place didn’t allow for us to really test out HTC’s new BoomSound.
BoomSound is a new speaker system that attempts to enhance the use of a smartphone as an actual music or video player sans-headphones. Two speakers, one and the top and one at the bottom, have their own specific amp and provide stereo sound.
The quality is apparently quite high, although that could just be marketing talk. We were impressed by the fact that we could hear anything at all, considering the noise that surrounded us, but that same noise didn’t allow for us to really hear anything clearly. We’ll have to wait for a review model to really check BoomSound out.
All in all we were really happy with what we saw of the HTC One. HTC has been struggling to keep up with other major players for a couple of years now, usually releasing really solid smartphones that didn’t offer anything new, but did the stuff that we already expected quite well.
The HTC One, on the other hand, is a smartphone that we’re now really excited about. HTC Zoe and the universal remote functions are absolutely fantastic ideas. HTC BoomSound has the potential to be pretty cool, although variably useful depending on the user, and BlinkFeed is a great melding of two already really solid aesthetic designs, with its own unique underlying linkage to news and social media outlets.
We’re very keen to try out the HTC One and honestly think it has a great chance of being one of this year’s best smartphones. Of course, we’ll have to wait to see what Samsung has in store with the Galaxy S IV before we can make that claim, but, at least for now, the HTC One is the phone we’re most keen to try out.