HTC One: An Android phone that works as good as it looks

May 2, 2013: 10:13 AM ET
htc one samsung galaxy s4 gallery
The HTC One is more than just a pretty face.
NEW YORK (CNNMoney)

The HTC One is the other major Android phone to launch in 2013.

Just because it hasn't been ushered into the world with the same fanfare and marketing budget as the Samsung Galaxy S4 doesn't mean it's not just as worthy of your attention.

Under the hood, the HTC One isn't terribly different from the Galaxy S4. It has the same Qualcomm (QCOM) Snapdragon 600 quad-core processor (albeit running a few hundred megahertz slower), 2 gigabtyes of RAM, and 1080p resolution on a slightly smaller 4.7-inch display. That technically makes the picture even sharper than the Galaxy S4, but you'd probably never tell the difference.

Where the HTC One stands out is in Sense, the smartphone's bold new user interface. Sense essentially turns your home screen into a stylish, news-oriented feed.

Related story: Sould you buy a Galaxy S4 or an HTC One?

The heart of the Sense home screen is not too different from a news aggregator such as Flipboard. You choose the topics you want in your feed, connect your own social networks, and let Sense do the rest. The end result is a never-ending Mondrian of information.

The idea has the potential to be really great, but in practice it feels a bit limited. For starters, you're confined to a handful of news sources hand-picked by HTC, which means that you can't toss your favorite blogs and sites into the mix. Nor can you view any other vital information from your phone on the home screen, such as text messages, chat notifications or Google Now cards. It seems like a missed opportunity.

Also strange is HTC's decision to mess around with the Android standard for navigation buttons. Unlike what you'd fine on the Nexus phones or even the Galaxy S4, the HTC One has only two touch sensitive navigation buttons along the bottom -- back and home. And while they mostly work fine, if you've been a long time Android user, you may find yourself awkwardly reaching for the multitasking button that isn't there. (Pro Tip: double-tap the home button).

In today's uniformity of high-end smartphones, it's more of a surprise when one of them doesn't handle fluidly and responsively. The HTC One is no exception. Calls rarely dropped, coming through crisp and clear thanks to its "HDR" voice technology. And data performance was respectable on Sprint's (S) still-developing 4G LTE network.

But three areas that really warrant mention are the design, the display, and the camera.

Design: The true magic of the HTC One comes in the form of its industrial design. A ring of polycarbonate sandwiched between plates of machined aluminum and glass not only gives the phone a feeling of supreme functionality, but also comfort. It's arguably the only phone that really stands up to Apple's (AAPL) iPhone in this aspect. Every detail, with the exception of the flimsy volume rocker, appears to be carefully considered, and the gentle curve of the metal back makes the phone a joy to hold.

The nature of the design, however, means that you can't swap out the battery. That isn't ideal, but can get you through a day with some proper power management.

The HTC One is a little thicker and heavier than the average phone, on account of its size and materials. But it is by no means cumbersome, and it is far less clunky than Nokia's (NOK) Lumia 920.

The speakers are especially wonderful. Though they're not going to make your home stereo obsolete, they sound louder and clearer than any other smartphone.

Display: The HTC One's "Super LCD 3" display technology is brighter and less saturated than the Super AMOLED screen technology Samsung uses. The HTC One's whites are a little bit whiter, and the blacks are blacker.

There are tradeoffs to both display technologies, but side-by-side, the HTC One edges out the Galaxy S4.

Camera: With the camera, HTC is taking the less-is-more approach by offering a camera that only snaps at 4 megapixels. That's half the number of pixels the iPhone camera offers and less than a third of the Galaxy S4. But there's more to the story.

The HTC One has a light sensor that offers image quality on par with a higher megapixel camera. Megapixels themselves have never meant much on their own as far as image quality goes. It's really the light sensor that impacts image quality.

So what HTC did is increase the size of the pixels on the camera's sensors, allowing them to capture more light. That creates clearer, sharper, more vibrant images.

It handles low light situations better. In natural light, there are other cameras superior to the HTC One (including the Galaxy S4), but in low light, there are few that can compete. Only in the darkest conditions is image blur a problem. That's not to say you'll be shooting beautiful photos in the dark -- they'll still be grainy -- but you won't have to worry about ruined photo opportunities in dim-light situations.

HTC also offers some nice software features with the One's camera, including the HTC Zoe burst mode. Zoe captures 20 images from the time just before you hit the shutter button and in the moments just after.

The HTC One also comes with a surprisingly good automatic video editor, which takes all your amateur photos and footage from a given album and recuts it into something more dynamic looking. The feature works much better than I had expected, and for those who have no idea what they're doing when shooting photos, it's a nice, effortless way to make use of all that raw footage.

Bottom line: As it stands right now, there are three Android phones most users - -and definitely power users -- should consider. The Nexus 4, which is Google's (GOOG) ideal vision for Android. The Samsung Galaxy S4, which offers the best pure hardware performance of any device. And, now, the HTC One, which provides the best overall combination of design and performance that you'll find in the Android universe.

Each has its strengths and weaknesses. But when it comes to the HTC One, you'll be getting a fantastic display, a camera with great low light performance, excellent phone speakers, a clean news-focused interface, and a build quality that's second-to-none.

If those are things you value most, it'll be tough to be disappointed by the HTC One.

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