Review: HTC One is the style champ for Android users

The real rival to the iPhone 5 is the HTC One, not the Samsung Galaxy S 4

Samsung's Galaxy S 4 has been the center of attention for months, considered the main rival to Apple's iPhone and the signature Android smartphone. But the HTC One should share those honors. It's a more sophisticated piece of hardware and much more stylish -- more Apple-like in its simplicity and attention to quality than the Galaxy S 4. And it has none of the half-baked apps that the Galaxy S 4 suffers from, though the AT&T model I tested came with a bunch of AT&T junkware.

Make no mistake: I like the Galaxy S 4 a lot. But I like the HTC One even more.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Review: The Samsung Galaxy S 4 shows more is not always better. | Where Android needs to be fixed. | Keep up on key mobile developments and insights with InfoWorld's Mobilize newsletter. ]

It's a classic issue of taste: If you like simple, solid, and precise details, you'll prefer the HTC One. If you like your tech soft, curvaceous, and laden with options, you'll lean toward the Galaxy S 4. The former style is much more the Apple way, which is why any iPhone owner tempted to go Android for the bigger screen should look at the HTC One.

The HTC One's slick hardware
The HTC One's aluminum body is much like that of Apple's MacBooks, with the same solidity. Just as a MacBook makes a PC laptop feel cheap by comparison, so does an HTC One make the Galaxy S 4 feel, well, plasticky. On the other hand, the HTC One's aluminum body can come across as cold and hard, whereas the S 4's plastic feels warmer and softer in the hand.

With the Beats Audio setting enabled, the HTC One's sound quality is the best of any mobile device I've tested. It's rich and well balanced, whereas the Galaxy S 4 has a hollow tone. The HTC One's audio quality even beats the best tablet audio, that of the iPad Mini. The HTC One's speakers do very well at high volumes, avoiding the distortion that often occurs at the loudest settings. It can easily function as a boombox in a small room.

The HTC One's screen is very nice, but the Galaxy S 4's is both a tad larger and, more important, easier to read when viewed at an angle. The HTC One's screen dims more when viewed from the side.

The Galaxy S 4 also has a removable battery, unlike the HTC One. But the One's placement of buttons is more sensible than the S 4's, which has a power button that's too close to the volume buttons, leading to frequent unintentional presses.

Both devices support NFC short-range wireless, though there are few other NFC-based devices for them to interact with. Both devices support the MHL video-out standard in their MicroUSB ports for output of video to an HDMI monitor. But you need the newer 11-pin version of the MicroUSB cable, and compatible MHL cables require that you connect to a USB power source; it's nowhere near as easy to plug these devices into a monitor as it is an iPhone or iPad. The wireless screen sharing on both the HTC One and Galaxy S 4 work only with a small set of devices. (Neither works with my DLNA-compatible LG Blu-ray player, which does work with the BlackBerry Q10's DLNA support. DLNA is the weak industry response to Apple's AirPlay.)

A simpler, more restrained version of Android
The precision feel of the HTC One's body extends to its UI skin for Android. Everything about the HTC One's UI says steely precision, to the point of coldness. The dark colors, the condensed bold font, the spare design, and the higher contrasts all contribute to that ultra-architectural impression. The Galaxy S 4, by contrast, is cartoon-colorful and a bit messy with an explosion of options and choices and widgets.

The HTC One has two versions of its home screen -- really just the apps screen used as a home screen -- and the more traditional Android home screen with a mix of widgets and app icons. The icon for the App screen changes based on which app is active. It's a nice touch.

Review: HTC One is the style champ for Android users
The HTC One's standard but stark App screen (left) and the simpler and starker alternate App screen (right).
Review: HTC One is the style champ for Android users

Unlike standard Android, you scroll through the App screen vertically, not horizontally -- as if it were Windows Phone. That change in a fundamental Android convention took some getting used to, and it doesn't really make the HTC One easier, but there's nothing inherently wrong with the idea.

The core apps on the HTC One are Google's standard titles: Calculator, Calendar, Chrome, Clock, Contacts, Downloads, Email (called Mail on the HTC One), Gallery, Gmail, Google Search, Google Settings, Google+, Maps, Messaging (called Messages on the HTC One), Messenger, Music, Navigation, Play Books, Play Magazines, Play Movies & TV, Play Music, Play Store, Settings, Talk, Voice Recorder, Voice Search, and YouTube. The Galaxy S 4 has enhanced many of these, such as Calendar, Clock, and Email, to make them more readable or easier to use than on the HTC One. But the HTC Settings app is simpler to use than the S 4's version.

The S 4 comes with a lot of cutting-edge features, such as touch-free gestures, that work only partially. As a result, they're frustrating to use and ultimately capabilities to avoid. The HTC One does none of that. It adds just a few apps such as Stocks, Tasks, and Weather that are simple but do what they need to do.

Oh, and there's the TV app, which turns the HTC One into a remote control for your home entertainment equipment. Nicely designed and easy to set up, it works well with my Sony TV and Pioneer receiver, but only somewhat with my TiVo -- you can change channels with it, but not if you have another TiVo screen open, such as Find Programs or TiVo Central. By contrast, the WatchOn app on the Galaxy S 4 -- clearly based on the same core engine as HTC's TV app -- is much harder to set up and not as smart about pulling the right settings from the Peel database. The bottom line: I can control my TV system from the HTC One easily, but not from the Galaxy S 4.

The rest of Android is Android
The rest of the HTC's capabilities are standard for its Android 4.1.2 version, with the same advantages and limitations.

In a corporate environment, you can manage the HTC One with Exchange ActiveSync policies, such as for passwords and encryption, as you can on pretty much any Android 4.x devices. Additional capabilities are available through third-party mobile device management (MDM) tools. In this regard, the HTC One and Galaxy S 4 are equivalent.

VPN access to Cisco IPSec VPNs doesn't work -- a standard Android incompatibility -- but other VPNs are supported if you know all the arcane settings. Encryption is 256-bit and takes nearly an hour to set up when activated (also a standard Android behavior).

Samsung says its forthcoming Knox security capabilities, which will let you partition the device into separate work and personal environments, will give the Galaxy S 4 an advantage over other Android devices. Maybe -- it's not a real service yet, though the Defense Dept. says it trusts Knox. If you need top-level security, you should look at a BlackBerry Z10 or iPhone 5.

The HTC One costs $699 without a contract from AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile, but is available for $200 with a two-year contract from AT&T and Sprint. Verizon Wireless plans to carry the HTC One this summer. It has 32GB of storage capacity, which is not upgradable.

Ultimately, the decision to get the HTC One comes down to style. The device is slick, simplified, and stark. That'll appeal to many people, especially those who love the machined look. The HTC One delivers the Android features you need, without much in the way. That's a good thing.

This article, "Review: HTC One is the style champ for Android users," was originally published at Follow the latest developments in mobile computing, read Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog at, follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter, and follow InfoWorld on Twitter.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Web and Internet support (20.0%)
Security and management (20.0%)
Hardware (10.0%)
Business connectivity (20.0%)
Usability (15.0%)
Application support (15.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
HTC One 9.0 8.0 9.0 7.0 8.0 8.0 8.1

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