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Review Summary:HTC One S 4

An excellent 'all-rounder', the One S has a range of enviable features including a fast 1.5 GHz dual-core processor and an 8 megapixel camera that takes high quality images. The One S also boasts the latest Android 4.0 and at just 7.9mm thick it's one of the slimmest phones around!

  • Positives
  • Exceptional design
  • Intuitive interface
  • Excellent camera
  • Negatives
  • Storage not expandable
Review by on 15 May 2012.
Introduction

Early in 2012, HTC introduced a new range of smartphones – the One Series. Three new Android smartphones were featured in the series: the budget-friendly One V, the high-end One X, and the mid-range One S.

HTC One S Angle View

Actually, no, that's not quite right. To describe the HTC One S as 'mid-range', while accurate, strictly speaking, does this device a disservice. With a 4.3” Super AMOLED touchscreen, a speedy 1.5 GHz dual-core processor and a top class 8 megapixel camera, this is a phone that could proudly sit at the top of many a manufacturer's range.

What keeps the mid-range label pinned to the One S' lapel is, of course, the monstrous quad-core One X, which packs the most power and commands the highest premium in HTC's One Series. But this isn't a simple matter of 'more money, better phone'. While beaten down on pure processing punch by the One X, the One S has a few features that its bigger brother can't claim and with its more modest dimensions, it's presents less of a test to the stitching of your trouser pockets.

So is the One S destined to be a 'second-best' handset, stuck in its larger sibling's considerable shadow, or does the middle child pack enough new tricks to stand tall and proud on its own merits? Read on to find out...

Design

Straight out of the packaging, the One S distinguishes itself. From the moment I plucked it from its snug recess inside the box, the One S' design brought a smile to my face. The cool feel of the aluminium shell, the reassuring but not excessive weight and the ergonomic curves all tell the tale of a mobile phone built of quality materials to the highest of standards

The majority of the front face of the phone is occupied by a span of dark glass, covering and extending beyond the borders of the phone's 4.3” Super AMOLED display. The glass inlay curves around the sides of the phone, arcing into shallow black crescents along its sides. The line of these crescents is echoed by the subtly peaked edges of the phone's aluminium shell and contrasted by the shape of the handset's back, which tapers at its centre and bulges at top and bottom.

HTC One S Bottom Edge

Our review model was the grey edition and I think the phone's look is excellent. The metal chassis is finished with a gentle tonal gradient, flowing dark to light from bottom to top. The protruding lens surround of the centrally aligned camera is finished in a striking electric blue – a bold dash of colour that adds real flair to the design.

Thanks to the simultaneous launch, comparisons to the HTC One X are inevitable (and you'll find plenty of them throughout this review!). In regard to design, I honestly feel the One S has the edge. The metal in the build gives it an instant advantage in my estimations, but I think the overall design is superior – in line, shape and ergonomics.

Sadly, the One S bears the same small design omissions as its One X counterpart. A 3.5 mm headphone socket and micro USB port are present, on top and left edges, respectively, and a judiciously applied fingernail flicks off the top of the back panel to reveal a micro SIM slot, but a microSD port is nowhere to be found and the battery is not removable.

HTC One S Disassembled

A non-removable battery is less of an issue here than with the power-guzzling One X (we'll discuss this further in the Performance section), but microSD card support may be missed by heavier users as the HTC One S carries 16GB of internal storage to the One X's 32GB. Still, 16GB is a considerable amount of data and unless you plan on using the One S as a primary media storage unit and hub, it should be comfortably sufficient.

Features

Let's start with the display. The HTC One S is equipped with a 4.3” Super AMOLED display with a resolution of 540 x 960. It's a very bright display and colour reproduction is particularly good. Like most AMOLED displays this screen excels at producing light-dark contrasts. Because AMOLEDs don't employ backlights in the same way as LCDs, blacks are deep and almost truly black.

On the flip side, the viewing angles of the One S aren't as truly exceptional as those of, say, the One X. While perfectly serviceable for nearly all uses, when viewed from acute angles the display of the One S does display some distortion and visible tinting. I'm personally not in the habit of squinting at my smartphone from the bottom edge, though, so this is hardly a deal-breaker.

A resolution of 540 x 960 over its 4.3” screen achieves a pixel density in the region of 256 pixels per inch (ppi). To put this in some perspective, this is noticeable step up from the sharpness offered by some older handsets like the Samsung Galaxy SII (ppi ~217), but not up to the dizzying standard offered by the cream of today's crop like the HTC One X (ppi ~312). In practice, the One S' display is very sharp, offering excellent clarity for its mid-range pedigree and revealing hints of pixellation only on very close examination.

The camera is a different story. There's no upper-range/mid-range divide here and very few compromises. The HTC One S packs the same 8 megapixel camera with ImageSense technology as the One X and it is an impressive affair.

HTC One S Camera Sample

The One series cameras are really among the very best in the business, but since this is a near identical unit to that found in the One X I'll not spend overly long discussing it here – those eager for more detail can check the features section of the One X review. There are, though, a few noteworthy extra features that there wasn't space to cover in the One X review.

Firstly, the One series cameras feature one of the best 'panorama modes' I've used on a smartphone. For those unfamiliar, a panorama mode takes a series of images as the user turns the phone's camera and stitches these images into a wide 'panoramic' picture of the surroundings. HTC's version is quick and accurate, but really distinguishes itself with handy UI elements that tell you when you're level and which points to aim for.

Another highlight is an HDR (or 'high dynamic range') mode that quickly captures a series of photographs using different settings and merges them. The advantage of this mode is that it can capture details in challenging light conditions that would otherwise be lost. Finally, I found the camera's 'close-up' mode to be excellent and capable of capturing a quite stunning level of detail in some cases.

As the logo on the back of the handset proudly boasts, the HTC One S features Beats Audio by Dr Dre. I have been reliably informed by the cool kids that this is very important and trendy, so I spent five minutes turning the Beats Audio 'Sound Enhancer' on and off while listening to some tunes. I still can't tell the difference, but if you have better hearing and more street cred than I, you may appreciate this feature.

HTC One S Beats Audio

Phantom phonic enhancements from swanky brands notwithstanding, the One S is a capable little media player and benefits greatly from HTC's well designed and deeply-integrated music app. Even the external speaker has a loud and relatively clear sound, though the good doctor Dre will decline to enhance your experience if you choose to listen through this. What a shame.

Really, the only thing that holds the One S back from being a perfectly serviceable replacement MP3 player is the lack of microSD support, as there's no substitute for being able to just pop a card full of your favourite tunes in and out as you please. The 16GB of on-board storage will of course prove more than adequate for most users, but it is a good deal less spacious than the 32GB afforded to One X users.

Performance

Performance: where the smartphones are separated from the not-quite-as-smartphones.

A year ago, the specifications of the HTC One S would have made many a mobile tech junkie drool like a hungry dog in a sausage factory. It boasts a 1.5 GHz dual-core processor with an Adreno 225 GPU and a full gigabyte of RAM. Times move on, though, and the credentials of the One S are now overshadowed by the quad-core super-phones available on the market... Aren't they?

Well, yes and no. It's true that in terms of pure processing power, the One S' dual-core chip can't compete with the quad-core ilk found in the HTC One X (and others). Arguably, though, there are few tasks you could ask of your smartphone aside from cutting-edge HD gaming that really need four cores and, despite the protestations of chip manufacturers, anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that powering a quartet of processors through the day is no mean feat for your battery.

Anyway, that's enough conjecture – let's get down to some tests.

I put the One S through the tests of the popular Quadrant benchmarking app, and was very pleased to record a total score of 3453. That's short of the staggering 5014 achieved by the One X but well ahead of many other dual-core devices like the Galaxy Nexus (2024). This isn't entirely surprising because the One S is equipped with an advanced, fourth-generation Snapdragon chip and there is, of course, more to performance than number of cores and clock speed.

HTC One S Browsing

It's nice to have a good, high benchmark to point to but I've encountered a few handsets that showed Olympian prowess in test apps and then collapsed into a wheezing heap when asked to send a text message. Thankfully, the One S is not such a phone.

Navigating the phone is as snappy and responsive as you'd expect from the powerful internals and browsing is a particular treat: smooth and fast. Compared to the One X, I noticed a slightly slower response when pinching to zoom in or out on complex websites – not at all slow, just not quite as fast.

The One S can't run the handful of Tegra 3 optimised games on the market with their lavish graphical delights, but it's by no means unarmed in the gaming arena. Because quad-cores are a very recent arrival on the scene, the vast majority of the more demanding games and apps in the Google Play store are still built for and supported by dual-core devices. The fast processor and advanced GPU of the One S take complex 3D games like Shadowgun in their stride.

HTC One S Gaming

Finally we come to the issue of battery life and the HTC One S claims a victory over its larger counterpart. Where the One X required a touch of austerity to get through a full day's usage without sputtering to a halt, the One S coasts happily on through a good day and a half to two days of average use. Given that the One S is equipped with a smaller battery, 1650mAh to the One X's 1800, I was very pleased with the phone's performance in this area.

Usability

Just like its costlier sibling, the HTC One S comes loaded with Ice Cream Sandwich, the latest version of Google's Android OS, overlaid with HTC's Sense 4.0 user interface.

HTC has done an exceptional job of skinning the stock Android UI and the Sense interface is one of the real highlights of this phone. Smooth and intuitive touches abound and the whole dish has been cooked up with such skill and attention to detail that even a raw Android lover like myself finds it delectable. (Note to editor - I think this metaphor got away from me)

There's probably no better place to begin talking about Sense than with the range of widgets that have become nearly synonymous with this UI. Our review model came loaded with over one hundred HTC widgets. There are photo albums and social networks, weather widgets and stock trackers – all attractive, functional and ready to be added to your homescreens from the simple new widget selection menu.

Navigating around the various homescreens (there are 7, like in earlier versions of Sense) has a cool semi-3D carousel effect that's impressively slick looking. The widgets are designed to work with this 3D effect, so you see the side of clouds as they spin onto your screen with the weather widget, for example.

HTC One S Lockscreen and Homescreens

Personalisation doesn't stop with populating your various homescreens with widgets; popping open the 'Personalize' app (while chivalrously ignoring its colonial spelling) reveals a whole host of options ripe for the tinkering. You can give your menus and launch bars a new look with the 'Skin' options, select from various pre-defined and customisable 'Scenes' (basically themed sets of homescreens), or even add a widget to your lock-screen.

I'm particularly enamoured with the weather lockscreen – who would have thought having a celestial armful of clouds hurled at you every time you turn on your phone would be so entertaining? (Note to editor - At this point in the review I began to wonder if I should get out more.)

If the wide scope for customisation that the Sense UI offers is beginning to sound intimidating, I'm not fairly representing it. There is a huge degree of tinkering available, but it's all very optional. The Sense UI is equally well suited to those new to the smartphone game or those who just like things to work right out of the box.

On a first boot-up, a clear and simple set up utility guides you through everything from inserting your SIM card to transferring your old contacts. You can skip any stage and come back to it by opening the app from your app drawer, so there are no worries if you get impatient and just want to play with the phone right now.

HTC One S Back

Finally, what modern smartphone would be complete without social networking? The HTC One S comes pre-installed with the standard Facebook and Twitter apps, but its best tricks naturally come from that comprehensive widget selection. The pick of the social networking widgets is HTC's FriendStream which amalgamates feeds from Facebook, Twitter and Flickr and pumps them straight onto your homescreen. Perfect.

To sum up, the One S is a highly usable phone thanks in no small part to the outstanding Sense 4.0 user interface. As previously mentioned, this is the same UI employed by the more expensive HTC One X. I tried my best to find a feature that was omitted from the version of Sense found on the One S and came up with nothing. If anybody else can find one I'd love to be corrected, but in the meantime I'm giving HTC top marks for packing their second-tier model with the full, sumptuous Sense experience.

Conclusion

I worry about the HTC One S. I worry that, with the giant, super-powered One X next to it on the shelf, it will look small and ineffectual, a compromising, second-best phone to be selected based on budget constraints alone. In short, I worry that this will be seen as a smartphone to settle for.

That would be a gross underestimation of the One S' value. In the ranges of lesser manufacturers the One S could proudly sit atop the pile. It's really only the extravagant excesses of the One X that keep it from this place in HTC's One Series. The interesting part is that, despite its lower price tag, there are persuasive arguments to be made that this is the better phone.

In terms of build quality, the One S is one of the best handsets I've encountered. Every line and curve is perfectly placed, its profile is whisker-thin and the solid weight of the cool metal body is impossible to emulate in plastics – many smartphone makers have tried.

The camera, like that of its siblings in the One Series, is absolutely first-rate and further blurs the boundaries between camera phone and point-and-shoot camera. I'd go so far as to say this snapper is superior to a good many dedicated digital cameras I've used.

The lack of SD card support and a removable battery are niggles that will bother some more than others. For my part, as much as I love the idea of taking a spare battery along with me on long journeys or swapping SD cards on the fly to move my files around, I've never actually got around to buying that spare battery and I generally make do with one SD card, cutting and deleting as necessary. These restrictions, then, I can live with.

So what's left? The display and the processor. So far as the display is concerned, the step down in pixel density from the One X is a slight disappointment but a sacrifice I would personally make in exchange for greater portability and, critically, the ability to access the whole screen with one hand. This will be a matter of personal preference, of course.

I feel the processor is less of a compromise. This chip has proven itself to be fast, powerful and efficient and as tempting as it is to always aim for the bigger number, a dual-core chip like this one is more than capable of quickly achieving almost anything an average user might require. If you're a power gamer, quad-core is the thing for you.

The One S is a smartphone built with capability and style. While the One X is perfect for the power hungry elite and the One V offers excellent value, this is the phone I'd expect to appeal to the majority of people and I've no hesitation in recommending it. I might just pick one up myself...

(Note from the Editor: You’re not having mine!)

HTC One S Front

Also Consider

Sony Xperia Ion – Falling into a similar price range to the HTC One S, the Sony Xperia Ion packs in a matching dual-core 1.5GHz processor but ups the ante with a monstrous 12MP camera and a 4.6-inch HD display. While the HTC One S will appeal to music-lovers, fans of great visuals might want to opt for the Ion.

HTC One X - Of course, the big one deserves a mention. It's been discussed abundantly throughout this review, so there's not much more to say about it here. If you're after a big, super-powered smartphone, check the HTC One X out.

HTC One V – If you don't think you'll need all the power afforded by dual-core technology, the HTC One V is the most affordable handset in the One series. It offers the same user interface with Ice Cream Sandwich and Sense 4.0, as well as Audio Beats technology, but is powered by a smaller, single-core 1GHz processor. It's also lighter and smaller than the other models, with just a 3.7-inch display.

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