HTC One S Review

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Introduction and Design
This is a review of the international HTC One S version. The phone is scheduled to arrive on T-Mobile in the US with AWS frequencies.

Introduction:

HTC One S is the middle child in the new One series of the Taiwanese smartphone maker, taking it down a notch from the flagship HTC One X, while floating above the One V munchkin in terms of hardware.

It has a lot going for it, though, being HTC's thinnest device to date, sporting a metal ceramic-coated or anodized chassis, and featuring the fourth generation of Qualcomm's Snapdragon chipset plus a dedicated HTC ImageChip for the camera. Not to mention that it comes with the latest Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich and the tailored for ICS Sense 4.0 user interface overlay.

It also has a lot not going for it, especially if you frown at the trend of smartphones with non-removable batteries and lack of memory card slots for storage expansion.

Can the compact design, premium chassis materials and powerful hardware overcome the sealed battery and lack of microSD card slot well enough for the HTC One S to avoid the “middle child” syndrome? Is it priced right for what it offers? Read on our review to find out...

Design:

The first impression upon grabbing the HTC One S is how compact it is for a 4.3-incher.

The handset's 0.3” (7.8mm) thickness makes it one of the slimmest and most compact Android phones out there, and the only place where the slightly curved design gets thicker is the 8MP camera lens circle protruding slightly on the back, hinting at an HTC design heritage. The lens's rim is blue in our anodized aluminum unit, and red on the black version with the ceramic metal coating. The One S is definitely a break from the Sensation line slabs, but as with all very thin phones, it is a bit fiddly to pick up when lying on a flat surface.



You can compare the HTC One S with many other phones using our Size Visualization Tool.

Despite the chassis made of anodized metal, our gradient blue HTC One S is also remarkably light at 4.2oz (120g) – this is almost as light as the 4.1oz Galaxy S II, which carries a display of the same size, but is all-plastic. The chassis has a fairly narrow and elongated profile, too, which helps with one-handed operation, allowing your thumb to reach across the display easier. The volume rocker on the right and the power/lock key up top are easy to feel and press, with good tactile feedback.



HTC outed a dedicated video about the technology behind the One S's frame, called Micro Arc Oxidation, which is used for the black version of the handset. We are particularly interested in it, as it results in a metal ceramic composite fusion coating the chassis, which is said to be on the Galaxy S III body as well. Geeky, we know. The tech involves 10, 000 volts zapping the aircraft grade aluminum until the oxidized metal reaches tensile strength a few times that of stainless steel. HTC is clearly experimenting with modern alternative materials for its phones, as it uses polycarbonate for its flagship One X, for instance, like on the Nokia Lumias, instead of its usual aluminum cutouts.

The top and bottom parts of the back are plastic, though, for easier antenna signal penetration. The top piece, which is painted in a slightly lighter hue than the rest of the phone, can be easily pried open for inserting a micro-SIM card, but that's that. No microSD card slot there, and no way to swap the battery without cracking the phone open, which might be a dealbreaker for some.



Display:

The front features a waterfall design, with the edges falling off seemingly uninterrupted to the sides, like on the One X, but upon closer inspection the screen part is still very slightly recessed, so it's mostly an optical illusion.

The 4.3” display is of the OLED variety and of a Samsung make, like the S-LCD piece on the One X. That means you get vibrant, yet quite oversaturated colors and pitch blacks, resulting in an almost infinite contrast. The cold colors that plague Samsung's Super AMOLED screens are present here as well, especially when you tilt the phone from about 30 degrees onwards – white quickly starts to turn even more blueish. Otherwise the viewing angles are excellent, and the image doesn't fade or lose brightness almost until the end of the curve.

The screen sports 540x960 pixels of qHD resolution, meaning a decent 256ppi pixel density, and one can easily tell it uses the PenTile RGBG matrix arrangement. PenTile somewhat improves brightness and power consumption, but some elements like icons, especially greens, and zoomed text might look pixelated to the trained eye, because of the honeycomb pixel structure. The average user probably won't even notice though, but if you are not fan of the alternative PenTile pixel arrangement, consider yourself forеwarned.

Whether due to the 30% less pixels in the PenTile arrangement that allow more backlight to pass through, thus making the screen much brighter, or due to good antireflective coating, outside visibility is very good. Even with the sun shining directly on the screen, you are still able to work with the interface comfortably, which usually comes with displays north of 500 nits of brightness, and that's what we have here. Not an HD display, but still a very decent screen is what greets you on the HTC One S, unless you are striving less “eye-popping” color gamut.

HTC One S 360-degrees View:





Interface and Functionality:

We won't be spending time on the pros and cons of the new user interface on the One S, since we've examined it extensively in our HTC Sense 4.0 hands-on, and our video overview of its implementation on the HTC One X. It's lighter and more streamlined than the previous version that ran on Android Gingerbread, but still has some kinks to be worked out.

With the HTC One S being an Android Ice Cream Sandwich phone, the capacitive navigational buttons underneath the display could have been entirely replaced by on-screen ones. We are saying that not because it should be a goal in and of itself on every ICS phone – many people prefer having separate keys – but because Google has done some things with the interface that warrant a more painless transition. For example, the HTC Ones S has the three vertical dots of ICS that mark a context menu tab in each default app, and uses the right capacitive key underneath the screen for the multitasking menu. It's a good fusion, since we use the context menu key much more often than the multitasking key, so we don't have to stretch our thum way down, but just tap on the upper right screen corner instead.


The context menu button, however, appears in downloaded apps as well, but placed down in the ICS bottom strip for on-screen navigation keys, taking up precious screen real estate, yet the back and home buttons are still capacitive, making for two layers of navigational keys on top of each other. Not the most efficient arrangement.

Processor:

The lighter HTC Sense feels rather peppy now, powered by the latest dual-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 chipset with “Krait” cores, in its MSM8960 reincarnation with HSPA+ radio and the new Adreno 225 GPU. The phone has the usual 1GB of RAM, and also 16GB of internal memory which are all you get, since there is no microSD card slot.

We got 5136 on Quadrant at first run, which is a pretty high result, 7015 on AnTuTu, and 204.9 MFLOPS on the Linpack multi-thread test, also quite a good score for the CPU. The Adreno 225 GPU turned out capable too, maxing out NenaMark 2 at the phone’s 60.3 fps cap. The graphics processor scored 49.13fps on the taxing Basemark ES 2.0 Taiji 3D benchmark, which is pretty stellar and much higher than what Tegra 3 manages, but Taiji is known for working well with Adreno GPUs.

All in all, you won't have any issues with processing power on the HTC One S, and the phone doesn't warm up significantly under load like its One X sibling with Tegra 3.

Internet and Connectivity:

HTC has added new functions to the on-screen context menu key placed at the right of the address bar in the browser, making it a snap to change otherwise obscure settings, unless you are left-handed, of course. You can turn on and off Adobe Flash or switch to desktop mode from the mobile version of sites directly from there, instead of fumbling around in the settings menu as on most other Android phones.

Scrolling, panning around and pinching to zoom work smoothly as advertised, and the Adobe Flash rendering is pretty seamless. The phone flickers for a second before it reflows the page upon double tap, and text reflow could be more fluid and intuitive. In addition, the Bookmarks, Tabs, etc. buttons that are constantly appearing and disappearing at the bottom of the screen make for a somewhat irritating experience.

HTC has a Read mode now in the default browser, so you can stripan article you found online from all ads, pics and distractions witha touch of the Read button left from the address bar, leaving you with an e-reader style layoutof just the text body reflown to fit in the screen, and introduced onone page, pretty handy.



The HTC One S sports 42Mbps HSDPA radio, meaning that it will be able to take full advantage of T-Mobile's 4G network when it hits the carrier's shelves in an AWS version. It is also laden with a full connectivity suite – Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, A-GPS, a joint MHL/microUSB port for hooking up TVs, and DLNA for wireless media streaming, but there is no NFC chip inside.



Camera:

Update April 11, 2011: We updated the camera section with the sample results from a second HTC One S unit, as the original one this review was based on seemingly had a flawed module, producing poorer than normal photos. 

The HTC One S features an 8MP camera with LED flash and a dedicated HTC ImageChip, which circumvents the default chipset manufacturer’s DSP. The result is an extremely snappy, sub-second camera, when we refer to the amount of time it takes to start the app, focus and take a picture. You still have to unlock the screen and fire the camera app first, of course, meaning that the Sony Xperia S will always beat it in the sleep-to-snap speed, but as far as picture taking speed goes, the One S is on par with the excellent sub-second cameras on the iPhone 4S and Xperia S, for example. Those “S”-es have to stand for something, right?

We also have a number of new Instagram-style effects and different scene modes like Group Portrait and Closeup to choose from, as well as HDR, panorama, face and smile detection modes, and geotagging, making the One S a pretty versatile shooter. The phone sometimes struggles with focusing in Closeup mode, making us tap on the subject many times before we get it to focus for a macro shot.


Outdoors the pictures came out with slightly oversaturated colors, good contrast and a fair amount of detail. White balance measurements were spot on, with no weird tinting. Although there are barely any over- or under- exposed spots, in very tricky lighting situations you might want to resort to the HDR function to get a better exposure. It is only good for that, though – HDR can actually make regular evenly lit shots worse; it is quite slow, hence blurs moving objects more than it should with the slightest tremble of your hand, and the end result is as if you have used one of the retro effects from the camera interface.



Indoors and in low light scenarios overall the phone performs pretty well, with the fast focus and shutter times helping to keep the photos relatively sharp. The amount of noise is kept in check in well- and medium-lit environments, and not for the sake of sharpness, while it shoots up in low light settings, but the pic still isn't blurry then if you hold the handset steady.


An LED flash rarely does a good job illuminating the scene outside a certain range – we get overexposed nearby sections or after a certain distance objects usually fall in darkness, or cast weird shadows. That tendency is not as visible with the One S, since HTC's new brightness setting of the LED flash based on measuring how close the subject is, did a decent job in our shot from about 5 feet.

The phone also takes good advantage of the embedded Ice Cream Sandwich functionality that allows you to snap a photo while shooting video. The photo and video shutter buttons are thus folded into one screen, but for some reason the phone zooms in slightly when you tap the video capture button, thus cropping a bit from the frame you see initially, which is annoying, as it always has to be on the back of your mind. That “zooming” phenomenon happens regardless if you are using the standard 4:3 or a 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio, and regardless if the image stabilization is on or off.

The phone records 1080p video with 30fps outdoors on a sunny day, but indoors the frames fell down to 23. Video is fluid (smoother than the one from the One X), with good contrast and accurate colors, but a bit soft and the bright spots got a tad overexposed on a sunny day. The stereo audio that the phone records is nothing to write home about, and picks up the slightest gust of wind.

HTC One S Sample Video:



HTC One S Indoor Sample Video:



Of note is the zippy continuous autofocus which (almost) seamlessly moved the attention of the sensor to an object we introduced right in front of the lens while filming, blurring the background, and then smoothly returned it to the previous scene when we took said object out of the frame. With the Xperia S, for example, we had trouble doing this quickly in 1080p mode. There is touch-to-focus on the One S, too, which helps a lot when filming a sporting event, for example.

Multimedia:

The music player sports a polished interface with the works – cover art, tunes categorization, equalizer presets and visualizations. Since the HTC One S is a Beats Audio phone, we also get the plumped base sounds when listening to music through the headphones, but when it comes to the loudspeaker, we'd like to see more strength, not only a clear enough sound. It also sounds a bit flat, especially in the base department, not that we expected much else from a speaker in a 0.3” thin phone.


As far as video playback goes, the One S ran everything we threw at it, DivX/Xvid included, out of the box, and at up to 1080p definition. While in the interface the oversaturated AMOLED screen colors look a bit tacky, watching video with this contrast ratio and the vivid colors is a joy.

The video player also allows brightness adjustments, screenshot capture, locking the controls, and has a sound enhancer mode, where you can choose from HTC presets, including Beats Audio in headset mode. You can also access basic trimming right from its menu, which takes you to the Movie Editor app, and the video player supports subtitles as well. About the only missing things are the ability to loop the video, and to adjust the screen color tone, like on Samsung's AMOLED handsets.



Performance:

Call quality is very good on the HTC One S – due to the strong and very clear sound in the earpiece, we could easily tell the caller. The other side said we sounded very loud and clean as well, and the noise-canceling microphone duo did a great job at weeding out the background noise while we were talking. We already complained about the loudspeaker, which is not very strong, so there is a chance you might miss a call if the phone is buried in a purse in the other room, for example.

The 1650mAh battery inside the HTC One S is non-removable, and is cited for 7 hours of talk time and nearly 18 days on standby.. It holds itself up well, so you will be able to survive a day with modest to average usage.

Conclusion:

The HTC One S might be the middle child in the new One lineup, but it can’t realistically be called mid-range just because the screen is qHD instead of HD. Upper mid-range would be a good fit, if you are a categorization nazi. We loved the compact and sturdy design with a very light and premium feel. In fact, the One S feels higher-end in the hand with its sexy slim metal body, toned by the anodized coating, than the flagship One X, made of fancy plastic.

We also liked the very good call quality and the camera speeds (although the images themselves left a lot to be desired). All in all, we love the new trend in higher-end phones to pay attention to shooting speeds, as the phone often becomes your main camera when out and about, and, while nobody expects stellar results from a phone image sensor, we can at least get some speed now, and sometimes that's all you need for an impromptu shot.

The new HTC Sense 4.0 is slimmed down, and runs peppy under the boost from the latest Snapdragon S4, which has a surprisingly good for Qualcomm new graphics processor. The OLED screen is a bit tacky to look at in the interface with its oversaturated colors, but when watching video these vivid colors, the pitch blacks and the deep contrast will make you want to throw your average cheap laptop with their terrible washed out displays out of the window.

Still, we have to take points off for the lack of a microSD card slot meaning a 16GB memory restriction, and the sealed battery compartment. These won't bother everybody, but if you are like us used to the comfort of always carrying a charged spare in your wallet, you'd hate the fact that the One S sports a non-removable unit.

As for the missing memory card slot - the free 25GB Dropbox account that comes with the One S for two years, and the SkyDrive integration in HTC Sense provide plenty of cloud storage, but data connections cost money, and those 1080p videos might fill up your 16GB of storage when vacationing pretty quickly.

Yet the HTC One S seems a better value for the money compared to the One X for our average smartphone user, which is its main target. Granted, we have 32GB of storage and an HD screen on the One X, but huge displays are not for everybody, and the One S has a more compact and premium feel.

Looking around for other competitors, our eyes inevitably stop at the Samsung Galaxy S II now that it comes at a few tens more than the One S launch price, but offers expandable storage via microSD slot. Its screen is of lower resolution, though, and the One S sports a more premium feel.
   
Sony Xperia S should also be in the cards, as it has a better screen and more storage, for which you’d pay roughly a few tens (bucks or euros) more as well. Granted, it sports the previous generation Snapdragon S3 processor, but we are yet to meet a regular phone buyer that would care much about that fact.

In the Windows Phone world, the Nokia Lumia 800/900 will do the trick as an alternative to the One S with its jolly and distinctive design, but it’s about the same price, and is restricted by Microsoft’s mobile OS to lower screen resolution and 720p video recording.

Software version of the reviewed unit: 1.53.401.2

HTC One S Video Review:




Pros

  • Light and compact 4.3-incher with premium metal chassis
  • Snappy sub-second camera
  • Very good call quality
  • Bright screen with good outdoor visibility
  • Free 25GB Dropbox and SkyDrive integration

Cons

  • No memory card slot
  • Fiddly focus in Macro mode
  • Unintuitive web browser

PhoneArena Rating:

8.0

User Rating:

9.7
10 Reviews

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