Thanks to Three UK, I have been reviewing the HTC One S over the past two weeks. The phone is one of HTC's latest and greatest. It takes the middle position in their new One series of phones, but, frankly, could easily be the flagship phone of another company. HTC are marketing the phone with the slogan: "Amazing camera, authentic sound." Let's see how it stacks up.
- Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS) out of the box
- Perfectly sized 4.3" screen (in my opinion)
- Very, very fast
- Incredible camera
- Non-720p screen
- Awkward old-style menu button
- Sense takes away from the ICS feel in many cases
Ice Cream Sandwich
The HTC One S is one of the first phones to come pre-loaded with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich - I know, it's nearly seven months since ICS was released, but at least we're seeing it now! Ice Cream Sandwich is the latest version of Android, packed with: good design, Beaming, Face Unlock and a whole host of other goodies. Today, any phone without ICS is outdated and I certainly would not recommend it. But, the HTC One S is running ICS, so let's see if the rest of it is worth it.
As you probably know, HTC customise Android with their own, in my opinion, over the top, disgusting skin. Their software tries to add a more relatable theme to the phone. It aims to make the interface seem like every-day objects. For example, the text cursor mimics a magnifying glass with a fake glass effect. I think HTC have let themselves down in this area. Stock Ice Cream Sandwich is the best looking and best working version of Android so far and these HTC add-ons do not do it justice. They seem to miss the entire theme of ICS - futuristic and quite flat. Sense is the opposite of this. It is flashy, quite complicated (no matter how it was intended to be) and meant to attract buyers, not make the device the best it can be. So, in this light, I urge HTC to think about the user in the long term, not just try to attract them to buy the phone, and focus on competing with their hardware - ironically, the One S' hardware is very competitive!
The design of the HTC One S is just great. The body is made of a single piece of treated aluminium. The build quality is second to none and the entire shell feels very sturdy. It has a matt finish making it very comfortable in the hand and easy to grip. The overall form of the phone is smooth and curved apart from one edge, but the top of the phone has a sharp edge which struck me as odd given the rest of the design. It is actually sharp enough for it to hurt when you drag your finger across it; it's the sharpest edge I've ever felt on a phone, not that I'm a phone-edge-feeler.
On the top of the phone a 3.5mm headphone jack and a power button can be found. The left side hosts a microUSB slot and the volume buttons are on the right. The volume buttons are nice and large, too, which is uncommon on modern devices. The bottom of the device is completely clean. On the back of the phone is the ('amazing') camera, on this model coloured red; the single LED flash; and the HTC and Beats branding. At the very bottom of the phone is the ('authentic') speaker. On the other side of the phone is the screen. It's a Gorilla Glass, super active-matrix organic light emitting diode (SAMOLED) display with a diagonal of 4.3". Despite it being PenTile, I noticed little, if any, distortion as I saw on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus' display. It is very bright, has good contrast, the viewing angles are all you could wish for; overall very good, even though it's not 720p like its series' flagship. Joining the display on the front of the phone is a front-facing VGA camera, which enables Face Unlock, and another (slightly less 'authentic') speaker.
To conclude, the design makes the phone easy to handle, durable and beautiful to look at. Not bad, HTC.
One big feature of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich is Beam. It allows files, apps, links, videos and more to be transferred with just a tap, and an NFC connection. Unfortunately for the share-oholics out there, the One S doesn't have an NFC chip so you're stuck with ye old time methods like Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. That really wasn't a problem for me though as NFC still seems slightly gimmicky considering there are no tap-to-pay solutions in my local area and I can easily share all my photos with Dropbox - you get 25GB of free storage for two years with the One S, by the way!
One of the main ways we interact with phones is through common keys. These come in various forms; the One S' are capacitive, physical keys at the bottom of the phone in nearly true Ice Cream Sandwich style. There is a back key on the left, home in the middle and multi-tasking on the right. The keys are very responsive, perfectly laid out and easy to use. In fact, they're the best physical keys I've used. While ICS does use these three keys, it also makes use of another, the menu key. This is the one which was standard on older Android devices, bringing up extra options in Android 2.3 and below. In order to support older apps, ICS carries over this function and, in its stock form (like on the Galaxy Nexus), displays it as a software key (on the Nexus, next to the other keys). On the HTC One S, as there are no other software keys, the menu key - also known as the overflow key - sits alone on a black bar across the bottom of the screen. It looks terrible, uses a huge amount of screen space and it hard to use. In my opinion, it is the worst thing about the HTC One S. On the bright side, it is a software problem so could theoretically be fixed by HTC - please, HTC; it is in desperate need of fixing!
You'll be glad to know the news gets better from here on.
As I mentioned, HTC is focussing heavily on the cameras of the phones in the One series. That focus paid off. The One S' camera is the best I have used on a phone. It is an 8MP, f2.0, 1080p recording beast which can take super sharp shots (while recording video if you'd like!). HTC have done a lot of work on the software side of things, too, so not only is the One S packed with a top notch sensor, but the interface you see when taking a photo or recording a video is nice.
The main buttons in the camera app are the camera button and the record button. Surprisingly, it is a big step to put these next to each other. The shutter lag of the camera is practically non-existent meaning the shots are not only captured well, but quickly. The camera also jumps on the back of the $1bn dollar success adding several live effects and filters. These range from the reasonable to the ridiculous but I'm sure anyone who enjoys destroying their memories will be happy with them. The various shooting modes (ranging from low light to group shot) are very useful and adapt the photos very well (above).
Sharing photos and videos is also made very easy, mainly due to Ice Cream Sandwich (above).
Below are just a few of the shots I captured with the One S.
Amazing camera? Yes.
HTC's marketing of the One S, and the rest of the One series, has focussed a great deal on sound. They have had a partnership with Beats by Dr Dre - Oliur was at the launch party of the partnership in London - for a while and, after releasing it in a limited form in their Sensation series of phones, are now stepping it up a gear. The Ones now enable Beats across apps meaning wherever you're listening to music, it can be enhanced. On all supporting apps, Beats enhances the sound, raising the bass. And it's noticeable. Even the slight enhancement the treatment has is effective and it does increase the audio quality by a good degree. You won't regret turning it on, no matter how much of a gimmick you think it is.
The HTC One S' 4.3" screen sets the base of its size. It is 130.9mm tall by 65mm wide and just 7.8mm thick which, for me, is the perfect size for a phone. It's not to big, not too small and fits perfectly in the hand. I actually find it to be the best form and size of any phone I have had the chance to use. It is quite simply perfect.
As I mentioned, the One S I am reviewing was provided by Three UK on their One Plan. In my honest, unbiased opinion, they are the best network in the UK. As the name suggests, they focus on making all of their signal 3G even out of densely populated areas. I live in the remote North of Scotland and get good signal so you should have no problems. The Three One Plan provides unlimited data -- yes, unlimited. This is one of the few carriers which still offers it, in the world. It is practically impossible to find a contract like this in America or even in other countries in Europe. To get unlimited data, though, you don't need a contract. I am firmly staying off-contract and with Three I have unlimited data for just £15 per month. Aside the price and data, signal is great. So I definitely recommend Three to any data draining smartphone user.
Disclaimer: Three UK has not paid for this review or requested this section. Author, Graham Macphee, is the sole promoter of the service.
While the HTC One S has its downfalls, mainly on the software side, its industry leading hardware makes up for it. It has one of the best industrial designs of all Android phones I have ever seen and, once you get used to the Sense overlay (or remove it as I strongly wished to do), it is very easy to use. It has a bunch of user-friendly add-ons that can make your life easier all wrapped up in a lovely shell. The camera is truly amazing - possibly the most enjoyable camera I have had the pleasure of using, and that includes various DSLRs - and the sound is... not authentic, but enhanced - Beats technology definitely improves music.
The main let-down for me has been the lack of stock Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, as seen on the Galaxy Nexus. But, considering the design and other hardware, I guess with a few customisations I could slip into using it as my daily device.
So, what do I recommend? If you can, I recommend you get the One S right now; if you know how, root it and install stock Android ICS; and get on Three UK. They are my network of choice.