The HTC One: Don't Drop It

TheStreet.com

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The HTC One has been widely lauded by the tech press as the best Android smartphone hardware you can buy today.

Sadly, I'm here to report that I disagree. I cannot recommend this device.

The HTC One is the fanciest Android smartphone you can buy today. It is the Android to buy if you are impressed by metal construction and Breitling watches. It's the iPhone of the Android world, if you wish.

This is clearly the Android smartphone that can compete with the iPhone 5 for a spot in the Museum Of Modern Art. The design is extremely beautiful.

Here is the first problem: A smartphone is not a museum piece. It's something that you hold in your hand and potentially drop on the ground. The primary task of a smartphone is that it needs to feel secure in the hand.

The HTC One feels terrible in the hand. It's too big and, more importantly, extremely slippery. It feels like a moderately used bar of soap, ready to fly out of your hand any second. It's a little bit like getting into a car where you can't get a comfortable seating position but you have a back ache from the first second.

Interestingly, HTC also makes the two smartphones that may have the best feel of any smartphone, ever -- the HTC First, aka the so-called Facebook Phone, as well as the HTC 8X for Windows Phone. The contrast couldn't be more stark. Holding the HTC One feels terrible, whereas the HTC First and 8X are a pleasure.


The other obvious comparison is the Samsung Galaxy S4, which looks rather unremarkable compared to the HTC One. No pedestal in MoMA for the Samsung Galaxy!

However, in a simple blind test, the Samsung Galaxy feels pretty good in the hand. Not great, like the HTC First or HTC 8X, but decent enough. It doesn't feel like it's about to slip out of your hand anymore than most phones.

The HTC One is made in fancy metal, and it looks like it could have been carved from one piece. As it turns out, it is not. After only hours of using it, in my case, the front plate covering one of the two speakers came off. Nothing of the kind has ever happened to me in 17 years of often carrying as many as four cellphones simultaneously.

The review unit was swiftly replaced, of course, but I asked a Sprint store what would happen if one of these front plates came off for a regular consumer. I was told that if it happened outside the initial exchange/return period, it would be treated as "user error" and that I would either have to repair it myself, or buy a new one for $550. The Sprint store said it could not repair it.

Keep in mind, the front plate came off the device not because I dropped it. It just came off while inside a pocket, and I noticed it when I pulled it out. You can even feel the sharp line at the corner of the HTC One where something could get stuck and rip off this front plate, which is affixed seemingly only with glue.

iFixit gave the HTC One a teardown/repairability score of 1 -- the lowest of any phone ever. In contrast, the new Samsung Galaxy S4 got a score of 8 -- one of the highest ever. In combination with the apparent sensitivity to this front plate coming off, Sprint's inability or unwillingness to repair it for a general consumer and the record-low iFixit score, these are key reasons I would never buy the HTC One.


There are other parts of the HTC hardware that are great, however. The display is the best I've seen at 1080x1920 in a 4.7-inch size. The CPU is the market-leading Qualcomm Snapdragon 600. WiFi is 801.11ac. Basically, the hardware specs are almost exactly like the Samsung Galaxy S4. For now, the HTC One is a spec leader.

One other part of the hardware that's class-leading is the speakers. They are stereo and point forward. I have never heard any other smartphone match it. You can watch a movie on this one and fill up a small living room with sound. Truly the best of its kind.

What about the software? Several points to be made here, none of them positive:

1. Which version of Android does it run? It is based on Android 4.1.2, which was current as of October 2012. The current version of Android is 4.2.2, and you have had it for a while already if you have the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, which was introduced in October 2011.

2. On May 15, Google is widely expected to introduce a new version of Android, most likely version 4.3. When will the HTC One get this new 4.3 version of Android? Nobody knows. If history is any precedent, it will take at least many months.

3. How has HTC customized Android? Most prominently, it has created a default "home page" which looks a lot like the Flipboard app. Basically, you can take various inputs such as Facebook and Twitter, and let it show there.

I had the HTC One set to use this new home page newsfeed, but I didn't like it. I prefer to go into applications such as Feedly and Twitter selectively, as I don't like to co-mingle these information feeds.

So how do you get rid of this HTC news feed? It took a while, but I finally figured it out. It was a non-intuitive menu setting.

Speaking of difficult to use, I found there are only two home pages as the default (aside from the news feed). This compares very poorly with the Nexus, which has five.

Again, I had to go to the Sprint store and ask how to increase the number of pages from two. Turns out, you can increase it to four. Again, difficult to figure out.

One more in the "terrible interface" category: The camera. I'm the simplest possible person when it comes to a camera. The only thing I do is to open the camera app, and then press a button to take a picture.

So, on the HTC One, where is the button to take a picture? I have absolutely no idea. I finally figured it out, using an exhaustive process of elimination. I basically pressed every icon (and non-icon) on the screen, and finally was able to discover what took a picture. Then, of course, I forgot it the next time I wanted to take a picture.

In contrast, on the Galaxy Nexus there is no doubt where you press to take a picture. How difficult can these most simple of the basics be? Are there no focus groups?

4. In other words, the software compares negatively to the more recent Android Nexus phones. I don't find any improvement in the way HTC has modified the software from the "clean" or "pure" Android Nexus software.

5. In comparison with the Samsung Galaxy S4, the HTC software certainly looks better, in the sense that the icons and related color schemes are not nearly as ugly. As far as functionality, that's too long a story for this article, but they are close to equally bad.

Conclusion: Back to the Drawing Board

HTC, just like Samsung, needs to realize that it is not a software company. By making a non-Nexus version of Android, they are subtracting value on the software side of Android, allowing Apple to laugh all the way to the bank.

HTC, please leave the software stuff up to software companies such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook!

On the hardware side, I don't like this HTC One at all. Its greatest sin is that it feels like it's about to slip out of your hand any second, and what's worse than that? Well, if it does break because the glue holding together the semi-loose front pieces comes off, then it might be impossible to repair and the user -- according to my Sprint store -- might be left holding the bag.

HTC makes the most pleasant smartphone hardware in the market in the form of the HTC First and the HTC 8X. Get one of those! As far as the HTC One is concerned, I would avoid it.

At the time of publication the author was long GOOG, AAPL, FB and QCOM.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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