HTC has today announced its new top-end smartphone, the HTC One. As usual, a lot of rumors have been floating around the web for quite some time, with some leaked product information sprinkled in between. The new device was expected to be called the M7, but HTC has decided to simply drop the 'X' from the predecessor's name and call the new model the HTC One.
There was also talk about a Foveon-style 3-layer sensor in the new device's camera which got the attention of the mobile photography community, but it turns out this was really just a rumor. That said, today not only is the phone's name official but also the specifications. And it has to be said that, despite a conventional rather than stacked sensor, the HTC One looks rather exciting both from a general device and imaging perspective, and could easily become this season's go-to device for the mobile photographer.
Looking at the specs it is clear that the HTC One is competing at the top-end of the 2013 smartphone-generation. Qualcomm's latest gen quad-core processor is the heart of the One, with Android's Jelly Bean 4.1 OS running the show. Android 4.2 with the integrated Photosphere feature would have been nice, but we have yet to see this version on a non-Nexus device.
In terms of storage space, the HTC One offers 32GB memory (a 64GB version will be available in some regions) which means ample space for music, videos and pictures, but there is no Micro-SD slot. However, you get 25GB of Dropbox cloud storage space free for two years with your purchase.
Like its predecessor the One X and many of last year's top-of-the-range smartphones, the HTC One comes with a 4.7" screen. However, while the 2012 generation had to make do with a 720p screen resolution, the new HTC flagship boasts a 1080p full HD screen. A few of the new phones announced at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, such as the Sony Xperia Z, the ZTE Grand S or the Lenovo K900 offer 1080p screens but at 5 inches or, in the Lenovo's case 5.5 inches -- making them larger and therefore less pixel-dense than the HTC. The One's display has a display resolution of 468ppi, in comparison the Samsung Galaxy S3 offers 306ppi and the Apple iPhone 5 326ppi. The HTC One display is bonded to Corning's scratch-resistant Gorilla glass.
In the sound department the HTC One features dual membrane stereo mics. Essentially this means there is one low sensitivity and one high sensitivity mic for each channel, allowing for HDR sound recording that picks up low signals without clipping loud sounds. Underneath the two grilles on the phone's front you'll find the dual speakers which, as usual with HTC, incorporate Beats Audio technology. The speakers are front-facing and powered by a dedicated amplifier. HTC calls this 'Boom Sound'. They sound surprisingly good for their small dimensions. There is an option to have volume controlled automatically and like on the iPhone 5 you get noise cancellation during voice calls. The input from the ambient noise mic is also used to adjust the volume of the earpiece speaker.
Also worth mentioning is the built-in IR remote control function which allows you to operate any AV equipment, such as TVs, DVD-players and digi-boxes. We'll have to wait and see if the One will be able to control cameras with IR remote receivers too, but it's quite possible. Another nice detail is that the antennae are integrated into the metal back plate, similar to what we've seen in a recent patent filing from Apple. There are no plastics being used in the casing at all, the speaker grilles are made of metal and HTC says the sides are made from a ceramic material.
From a software point of view the Blinkfeed feature, part of HTC's Sense UI, looks very interesting. It essentially unifies all your social media and favorite website feeds in one stream that is accessible from the One's unlock screen.
Camera / imaging specs
While the general device specification leaves very little to complain about it's of course the camera components and technologies we are most interested in. Here the sensor draws most attention. While it's not the much-rumored 'stacked' sensor, HTC's approach with a 4.0MP 1/3" sensor is nevertheless unusual, with most competitors opting for very pixel-dense 13MP sensors of the same size for their 2013 models. Instead, the pixels are similar in size to those found in enthusiast compact cameras such as the Canon Powershot G15 or Fujifilm X20, which should give an idea of the low-light performance to expect.
HTC likes to speak of 'ultrapixels' rather than megapixels but this is simply a marketing term, essentially meaning 'megapixels from large photosites.' Yet the Taiwanese manufacturer has to be applauded for aiming to improve the camera's low-light capability by using fewer but larger photosites on a sensor that has been developed in-house. Usually camera and phone manufacturers tend to go for 'bigger is better' in the megapixel department. It's very unusual to reduce the pixel count in a new generation; Canon's replacement of the 14MP Powershot G10 with the 10MP G11 is the only predecent we can think of.
The combination of the large-photosite sensor, a fast F2.0 lens and optical image stabilization make the HTC One look, at least on paper, like the smartphone camera to beat in 2013, especially if low-light photography is high-up on your agenda. And on a phone the low-megapixel approach makes a lot of sense. After all, most of the time you will be sharing low-res versions of your images online, and most editing apps don't support high-resolution output at this point in time.
Another imaging feature worth mentioning is the ZOE movie function. It is similar to the Best Shot functions we've seen on some other devices but appears slightly more sophisticated. It simultaneously records a 3-second full HD movie clip and still images at 5 frames per second. In addition it captures five stills before the initial shutter release. In a group shot with multiple faces you can then compile a composite still, manually selecting your favourite expression from each person, which sounds pretty awesome. This combination of stills/movie capture also allows you to pull out any still image and save it separately. ZOE movies are shareable via the HTC website.
We haven't got a reviewable unit yet at the office, but Andy Westlake, our man in London, had a chance to play with the One at a briefing organized by HTC UK. He reports the device looks gorgeous, feels very well made and finished, and is very responsive and quick in use. The gently-curved back makes it more comfortable to hold than 'flat slab' designs and navigating the OS and reviewing images on the ultra-high-resolution screen is a pleasure too. We were not allowed to take any pictures with the device, but the combination of a sensor with large photosites, a fast F2.0 lens and optical image stabilization make us this think this could be the best phone for low-light photography yet.
Essentially in terms of specification, finish and feature-set the HTC One looks like the best Android phone to date and is also, at least on paper, way ahead of one of its no doubt closest rival, the iPhone 5. We'll only find out how the specs translate into real-life performance once we get a test unit in our hands for a few days but we are certainly looking forward to it.