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Testing: HTC One Google Play Edition

By Norman Chan

Switching from the iPhone 5 to the best Android phone I've used so far. And at this point, there are more reasons to stay than there are to switch back.

Since received the HTC Google Play Edition, I've been using it as my primary phone instead of my iPhone 5. It's the first Android phone I've used regularly since the Nexus 4, another phone I really liked. With the Nexus 4, I switched back to the iPhone after a month of testing partly because of the iPhone's superior screen and camera, but more importantly, because I wanted a phone with LTE connectivity. I have also become very used to Apple's Siri functionality for quick access to tasks like reminder creations. With the HTC One, however, those advantages are largely mitigated. The HTC One Google Play Edition supports LTE, Google Now has many more voice commands, and this phone has the best screen of any mobile device I've seen.

I'm really loving the HTC One, and don't have many reasons to switch back to the iPhone. We'll go in-depth with the HTC One in a future video, but I wanted to share my experience using it for the past two weeks. Here are the things I like most about it, and what are its disappointments.

Let's first talk about the HTC One's screen. It's a 1920x1080 display, the resolution found on many of the high-end Android phones from OEMs like Sony and Samsung. When 1080p phone screens were announced at CES, my take on them was that the resolution was unnecessary for devices smaller than five inches. The iPhone 5's 4-inch screen--at 1136x640 pixels--is technically lower resolution than 720p and it still looks great. Most HD video online is 720p, and the bitrate on 1080p streams doesn't do that full HD resolution justice. I was in the camp that phones should not have 1080p screens just because they can, because higher res displays require more powerful backlights (and therefore consume more power). I would rather have longer battery life than unnecessary pixels, which I didn't think would be noticeable.

But the incredibly-high pixel density of the HTC One (~480ppi) is really noticeable in everyday use. The HTC One's screen is actually 4.7-inches, so its 1080p screen is even sharper than that on the 5-inch Galaxy S4. And HTC is using an IPS LCD here (called Super LCD 3), with subpixels arranged in an RGB matrix. It's bright, it's vibrant, and it's tremendously sharp. The LCD is optically bonded to the glass, just as in last year's HTC One X, which means the images look more like they're on the surface of the glass than underneath it. The One X was our favorite phone display last year, and the One's is even better. High-resolution photos downloaded from Flickr look incredible, as do photo wallpapers on the home screen. This is a phone I have no problem staring at all day--it's also very usable in bright daylight.

The HTC One Google Play Edition runs Android 4.2.2, but not exactly the same kernel that's on Nexus phones. Google initially announced the Galaxy S4 and HTC One Play Edition phones as having a "Nexus Experience," but the stock Android experience only translates to user interface. Low level HTC code runs on this phone to support device-unique hardware like the camera, which means HTC has to issue OS updates after Google releases the Nexus ones. The just-released Android 4.3 will be a good test of how long it takes between Google's OS update and HTC's follow-through. I would hope that HTC releases 4.3 for the Google Play HTC One phones first before HTC Ones with its Sense UI, which may take longer to port.

This is also only sold as an unlocked phone, directly from Google for $600. It only supports GSM bands--meaning AT&T and T-Mobile in the United States--and not all of T-Mobile's bands. Anandtech's Brian Klug breaks it down: "HTC One GPe will work on all of AT&T HSPA+ but only Band 2 (1900 MHz) T-Mobile HSPA+. The HTC One GPe will not work on T-Mobile's Band 4 HSPA+, only its Band 4 LTE."

Switching over to the HTC One from my iPhone was just a matter of plugging the nano-SIM into a micro-SIM adapter and jamming that into the HTC One. I'm on a grandfathered AT&T unlimited data and phone plan, and everything worked fine out of the box. No calling AT&T required. LTE is just as fast on the HTC One as it is on the iPhone, and call quality is good. I was also surprised that I was able to turn on Wi-Fi hotspot on the HTC One, as that feature is disabled on the iPhone 5 without paying an additional $20 a month. The HTC One didn't prompt me to say additional fees would be levied, but I'll find out with my next phone bill. Hotspot tethering was a godsend last week when on the road to Comic-Con and in San Diego, where AT&T's LTE was faster than the internet connection at our hotel. If it does turn out that the hotspot is free, that may be reason alone to stick with this phone.

Another thing I really appreciate is the generous battery life on the HTC One. It's still a very new phone, so it's not fair to compare it to the 10-month old battery on my iPhone 5. But in the weeks that I've been on the HTC One, I've only had to charge the phone before the end of the day once--a week ago when I used it heavily until midnight at the California Extreme convention. All other days, including at Comic-Con, the battery held up and had a healthy amount when I plugged it in before I went to bed. Like with the Nexus 4, I use HD Widgets to display a battery percentage indicator on the top left of the status bar, and most days it's still above 40% by the time I get home from the office.

The Nexus 4 shipped with Android 4.2, and the HTC One Google Play Edition ships with 4.2.2. There aren't any major differences between the versions--mostly bug fixes and small UI tweaks, but in the time between those releases Google has also made numerous improvements to its mobile services. Google Now, for example, has seen an influx of new cards that tap into Google's Knowledge Graph, as well as the ability to function more as a digital assistant by letting you create voice reminders or search flight schedules. An ongoing list of Google Now Voice Commands can be found on this XDA-Developers thread. The continuing upgrades to Google Now make it a real viable alternative to Apple's Siri, especially with the HTC One's physical home button that you can hold down to activate Google Now (the Nexus 4 had virtual buttons that took up part of the screen).

One area that I'm slightly disappointed with is the HTC One's camera. With a stock Google camera app (slightly different control interface than on Nexus phones), you lose HTC's Zoe feature, which takes a 3-second clip with each photo that act as animated thumbnails--think GIFs or Vines--in the gallery. But even with stock software, the camera hardware is still HTC's much clamored about "Ultrapixel", a 4 megapixel sensor that has relatively large pixels for a smartphone and a wide f/2 lens. I still found the photos unimpressive, especially the ones taken in broad daylight or optimal lighting conditions. Bigger sensor pixels and a faster lens may be fine for low light photography, but if your camera's daylight photos look overblown and washed out, that's a cause for concern. The bland images--curiously saved in 16:19 format--are just accentuated by the phone's great screen.

I'm not nitpicking photo quality because I'm shooting mostly with a DSLR now, either. Compared to the iPhone 5's photos, the HTC One's photos have too many blown out highlights and coarse edge detail possibly due to software noise reduction. Between the two photos below, I prefer the second, which was shot with the iPhone.

But personally, smartphone camera quality isn't as important to me as it used to be, since I'm always carrying a dedicated camera. The HTC One's photos are still good enough for capturing whiteboards or a spur of the moment party scene, like George RR Martin destroying a guitar. Good enough is nothing to write home about, though.

As someone who's been using an iPhone 5 since last September, the HTC One is downright impressive. I've already grown accustomed to its larger size and weight, and it fits fine in both my front and back pockets. My essential daily apps are all in Google Play, and it's a toss up for the ones I like more on Android vs. on iOS (Flickr, for example, is better on Android). There are two mirror issues holding me back from deciding to switch permanently. First is Apple's grip on iMessages, which is a pain to properly disassociate with my phone number, making texting people with iPhones a mess. This is more of an Apple problem than an Android one, but I still feel its consequences.

The second is touchscreen responsiveness, which I still feel is superior on the iPhone over every Android phone. It's not that scrolling or panning on the HTC One isn't smooth--there is no stuttering here--it's that there is an ever so slight delay/lag between when my finger starts scrolling and when the screen responds. I don't think this is a hardware limitation, but rather Android OS having a larger "dead zone" than iOS for detecting touch movement. I shot some high-speed comparison videos between the iPhone 5, HTC One, and Nexus 4 that illustrates the differences, which we'll show with the video review. For now, the HTC One Google Play Edition remains my primary phone as I continue testing.