HTC One S Review: A Winning Android Phone for Shutterbugs and T-Mobile Customers

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Harry McCracken /

Call it the great Android paradox. The whole notion behind Google’s mobile operating system is to give hardware makers software that’s flexible enough to let them build an array of different handsets. But when you start to compare the smartphones that manufacturers actually release, it’s their sameness that’s striking, not the diversity. What you have are a bunch of big-screen slabs incorporating similar features and components, and it can be tough to tell them apart unless you’re paying careful attention.

HTC’s new One S, however, is an Android phone with a distinct personality: it’s seriously sleek and has an exceptionally good camera. Those are easily its greatest assets, and they’re more than enough to make it T-Mobile’s flagship smartphone of the moment — something that T-Mobile could use, since it’s the only major U.S. carrier that doesn’t have the iPhone.

(MORE: Read our reviews of other phones and gadgets)

Despite the singularity of the name “One,” this phone is actually part of a line of slim HTC phones running Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich that vary a bit in specs. (Other variants are the One X, available on AT&T, and the EVO 4G LTE, on Sprint.) The One S is available from T-Mobile for $249.99 — not counting a $50 mail-in rebate — with a two-year contract. (T-Mobile loaned me a unit for this review.)

I’m usually skeptical about thinking that a phone’s precise weight and dimensions tell you much about about what it’s like to hold and use. But the One S, which weighs 4.2 ounces and is 7.8mm thick, not only  beats most other phones on the numbers but feels like a featherweight. The two-tone gray anodized aluminum case is wider and taller than the iPhone 4S, but thinner, and the 4.3″ display isn’t so humongous that it leaves the One S suffering from the gigantism that’s recently infected many Android models. It felt comfy in my hand and didn’t threaten to burst my shirt pocket at the seams.

The phone is so thin in part because HTC sealed in the battery, iPhone-style. (I didn’t perform formal tests of how long it could survive on a charge, but found that if I charged  it in the morning it was dangerously low by the evening — typical for an Android handset.) It also includes 16GB of built-in storage for apps, music, phones and the like, but no MicroSD slot for memory cards.

Its screen is based on Super AMOLED technology, and it’s just fair, not fantastic. It delivers the intensely vivid look that’s OLED’s signature feature; as usual, the sheer intensity of the color makes for an eye-popping experience, although anyone looking for accurate reproduction of photos may be less than enchanted. The 540-by-960 display uses a rendering technique called PenTile Matrix which is notorious for creating jaggies and color fringing; I noticed some of both when I eyeballed things closely, but didn’t find them distracting enough to be major liabilities.

When it comes to the rear-facing 8-megapixel camera, however, the One S is just plain terrific.  (There’s also a front-facing camera for videocalls.) Judged in terms of pure image quality, it delivered some of the nicest snapshots I’ve seen from any smartphone — nearly as impressive as those from the iPhone 4S, but a tad softer, with less crisp details.

It’s not just the quality of the images, though — HTC nailed the camera software. Many Android camera apps are overloaded with icons, controls and other clutter. This one isn’t, yet there’s plenty of power in there, including the ability to apply Instagram-style effects such as Vintage and Posterize as you snap pictures, rather than after the fact. You can take still images even while you’re simultaneously recording 1080p video, and can hold down the on-screen shutter to capture photos in lickety-split burst mode. And the phone comes with 25GB of free Dropbox online storage and the ability to automatically upload all your photos to it.

Here’s a One S photo  (reduced from its original resolution):

HTC Phone S photo

And an iPhone 4S one:

iPhone 4S photo

And another One S photo:

HTC One S photo

And an iPhone 4S one:

iPhone 4S photo

And one more One S one:

HTC One S photo

And its iPhone 4S equivalent:

iPhone 4S photo

One camera-related quibble: I wish that the One S, like some phones, had a dedicated camera button.

Like other HTC phones, the One S sports Beats audio, a feature for headphone listening which the company says provides a “richer and more authentic sound experience.” It pumps up the volume and boosts the bass, and while I’m not sure if I’d call the results “more authentic,” I did like them, at least for music that benefits from an extra jolt of energy. (If you don’t, it’s easy to switch off.)

The phone runs on T-Mobile’s HSPA+ 42 wireless network, a technology which T-Mobile markets as 4G, although purists would be happier if the company called it Really Zippy 3G. The “42” signifies that the network is capable of speeds up to 42-Mbps; as with every carrier and every wireless technology, your experience may vary wildly depending on coverage in your neighborhood.

How about my experience? Well, T-Mobile says that it may not be representative: the phones it loaned to reviewers such as me weren’t configured to take full advantage of the HSPA+ 42 network. (The ones that consumers get will be.) For the record, when I tried the phone around the San Francisco Bay Area, I got download speeds of around 4-Mbps to 8-Mbps — not spectacular, but usually around twice what my AT&T iPhone 4s eked out. At Chicago’s O’Hare airport, however, the One S was more sluggish than the iPhone. And in Mount Prospect, Il., deep in Chicagoland suburbia, it downloaded data at a blistering 17-Mbps to 21-Mbps — fast enough that only a churl would quibble with the “4G” label.

The One S is the first HTC phone and first phone on T-Mobile to ship with Google’s Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. It’s the slickest, most usable version of Android yet, but unlike Samsung’s Galaxy Nexus, the first Ice Cream Sandwich handset, the One doesn’t provide it to you in unvarnished form. Instead, HTC tops Android off with Sense 4, its own custom interface. As with other Android “skins” such as Samsung’s TouchWiz, seen on the Galaxy S II, Sense reworks certain aspects of Android while leaving wide swaths of it alone.

These skins have a reputation for being performance-killing bloatware, but the One S, which packs a Qualcomm Snapdragon processor and 1GB of RAM, feels adequately snappy. And Sense does improve on stock Android in meaningful ways. The e-mail program, for instance, bundles related messages into threaded conversations. The slide-to-unlock gesture lets you launch one of five apps of your choice — such as the camera or e-mail program — as you slide, saving you the bother of loading it once you’ve turned your phone on. Dragging one app icon on top of another places both of them in a folder (yes, just like on the iPhone).

Sense 4, like other Android modifications, is occasionally disjointed: when you skim between running applications, you go into a full-screen mode that’s so jarring that it could have been borrowed from another operating system. And HTC can’t do anything about the fit and finish of third-party Android apps, which still lag behind those of their iPhone counterparts.

It’ll be a great day when Android is so polished that no hardware maker is tempted to fiddle with it. For now, Sense 4 is a respectable effort — never less than bearable, and pleasing at its best.

Overall, the Galaxy Nexus, which is only available in the U.S. from Verizon Wireless, remains the Android smartphone with the most upsides — especially its excellent high-resolution screen — and the fewest downsides. (We’re talking Android here, so that honor is subject to change at any moment.) But if you want to buy an Android phone from T-Mobile, the One S is indeed the one to get. And if you’re a dedicated camera-phone shutterbug,  you may find it alluring even if you’re on another carrier.