Review: HTC One Is the Current King of the Android Hill

Let's get something out of the way right off the bat: the HTC One is a damn fine Android phone. It's the finest I've ever used. Being an Android phone is tough, though

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Doug Aamoth / TIME

Let’s get something out of the way right off the bat: the HTC One is a damn fine Android phone. It’s the finest I’ve ever used, and I’ve used a fair number of Android phones in this line of work.

Being an Android phone is tough, though, due in large part to the sheer number of Android phones that are on the market and the speed at which they become available. Case in point: HTC’s own Droid DNA is and was a damn fine Android phone that came out less than six months ago; aside from the DNA having a slightly larger screen and being available on Verizon, the HTC One has basically taken the wind out of the Droid DNA’s sails.

That’s what HTC’s biggest challenge might be with the One: there’s always another Android phone looming right around the corner that may be able to knock the current champ off its pedestal. In the One’s case, that phone might be the Samsung Galaxy S4, which is due out in a couple of weeks. For now, however, the HTC One is absolutely the Android phone to beat, and arguably the smartphone to beat regardless of platform.

Of all the One’s features, five stick out as notable: its design, screen, speed, camera and battery. These are five major things that aren’t superfluous or gimmicky. These are important, useful features, and HTC nailed them.

The One is an exercise in thoughtful, beautiful design. It’s wrapped in aluminum, not plastic; it’s big but not too big; substantial but not heavy. A lot of care went into crafting this phone. The 4.7-in. (12 cm) screen packs a full HD (1920 by 1080) resolution and pushes out rich colors. It’s truly gorgeous, whether you’re reading text, looking at photos or watching video. And the 1.7-GHz quad-core processor coupled with 2 gigabytes of RAM ensures every swipe, tap and scroll is as smooth as the next.

When it comes to the camera, HTC opted out of the megapixel race, instead referring to the One’s camera as an “UltraPixel” camera, which is basically a fancy way of saying that it’s got a large-ish sensor that HTC claims can capture 300% more light than other smartphone cameras. Whatever the case, photos taken with the One look great. There’s nothing mind-blowing here, though. The camera takes great photos by smartphone standards, but we’re not talking about some grand leap in imaging technology.

Here are some sample photos — click for higher-resolution versions:

And perhaps most important of all, the HTC One’s battery doesn’t disappoint, especially given the fact that this isn’t a gargantuan phone. This is the first Android handset I’ve used that hasn’t felt like I could actually watch the battery indicator dwindle in real time (I have not extensively used Motorola’s Droid Razr Maxx or Samsung’s Galaxy Note II, however — both feature far-better-than-average battery life). With light to moderate use, I’ve found that a full charge on Monday morning wouldn’t need to be dealt with until late Tuesday or later. Even with heavier use, you’ll almost certainly be able to make it through an entire day.

HTC has infused the One with some unique software features, none of which are make-or-break additions, but they’re nice nonetheless. The main screen of the phone consists of what HTC calls BlinkFeed. In the company’s own words, “simply pick the social networks, news and feeds you want to stay updated on and they’ll all stream live to your home screen. The pulse of your world is in the palm of your hand.” You basically get a tiled view — similar to Windows Phone’s Live Tiles — of tweets, Facebook updates and news items that update every so often. It’s a quick way to glance at things you’re interested in, but I wouldn’t call it a huge selling point, despite HTC’s best efforts to market it.

Far more useful is the built-in TV-remote feature, which turns the phone into a tricked-out universal remote. You tell the HTC One’s TV app which shows you like, and it’ll lay out your favorites as they’re on the air or let you set reminders for when they’ll be on. Tap the icon of the show you want to watch, and your TV, cable or satellite box will tune to the correct station. It’s much easier and way, way, way more fun than any onscreen guide I’ve used.

And then there’s the camera app’s Zoe feature, which manages to edge up against the gimmicky line while actually remaining useful. In Zoe mode, the camera captures a sequence of 20 images and three seconds of video, after which you can independently adjust individual sections of the overall photo to, for instance, make sure everyone in the photo is smiling or remove a wayward tourist in the background. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but it generally does a good enough job to improve photos.

Oh, I almost forgot: the phone makes phone calls too — and they sound good. There’s a little mike on the backside of the handset that monitors the background noise around you, then filters it downward so the person on the other end can hear you better and raises the volume of their voice so you can hear them better.

The phone — like all phones — does have its shortcomings. There’s no way to expand the storage, which HTC attempts to address by shipping the base model with 32 gigabytes of memory instead of the more standard 16 gigabytes. There’s also no way to replace the battery. The power button on the top left of the phone is set at a bit of a downward angle that forces your finger to curl up and over the top edge of the phone in order to access it, which makes waking the phone up a tad cumbersome at times. And people with small hands may still find the 4.7-in.-screened handset too large to use comfortably.

If you’re even mildly curious about this phone, however, go to a store and play with it. If you’re already leaning toward getting it, go ahead. You won’t be disappointed. For everyone else, waiting a couple of weeks to see what the Galaxy S4 has to offer wouldn’t be the worst idea in the world. Whatever the case, the HTC One is a mighty impressive phone — the best Android phone out there right now, and an incredible smartphone to consider if you’ve been thinking of jumping ship from the Apple, Microsoft or BlackBerry platforms.

The HTC One is available today through AT&T and Sprint for $200 with a two-year contract, and through T-Mobile for $100 down plus $20 per month in equipment fees for two years. It’s also available at several major retailers.

HTC One Smartphone []

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