Apr 25 AT 8:40 AM Nick Gray 59 Comments
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The international version of the HTC One S has been available for a few weeks already and now customers in the U.S. can purchase the phone from T-Mobile for $199.99 (after $50 mail-in rebate) with a new two year contract. HTC was kind enough to send us a demo unit a few weeks early so that we could give you a detailed look at what to expect from the HTC One S. Early reviews of the international version of the HTC One S were favorable, but does T-Mobile’s software tweaks and HSPA+ network allow the One S to live up to its full potential?

1. Hardware design

Since the introduction of the HTC Magician, HTC has focused on delivering handsets which feature a unique personality and standing apart from the indistinguishable plastic slabs pushed out by the competition. The HTC One S takes HTC’s design language to the next level while bringing back many of the characteristics which give the phone that recognizable HTC look. To say that the design of the HTC One S is minimalistic would be a gross understatement.

The HTC One S is an astonishingly elegant phone made of a single piece of aluminum which wraps around the entire device. The front of the phone features 4.3-inch display, three capacitive buttons, a front-facing camera and micro-drilled speaker holes. The One S features an MHL enabled microUSB port long its left edge, volume rocker on its right edge and the phone’s power button and 3.5mm headphone jack can be found along the top. The back of the phone is accented by a blue ring around the camera lens which is paired with an LED flash, an HTC logo in the middle and a Beats Audio logo towards to bottom. The back of the phone features two plastic panels which house the antenna, speakerphone and microSIM card slot.

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2. Build quality

With the exception of a few select devices, the majority of smartphones produced these days are made of cheap, glossy plastics. These phones may look nice in a display case, but once you get your hands on them, you can feel that very little thought was actually put into the production material and you find yourself constantly looking for ways to clean the phone from the smudges left behind by your greasy fingers.

Fortunately, the HTC One S is one of the few devices where the design of the phone is just as important as the materials used to make it. HTC has been milling aluminum casings for their phones since the HTC Legend was introduced in 2010, but HTC has taken things one step further this time by giving the aluminum a gradient finish on the HTC One S. The color of the phone fades from dark to light. The color fade is present on all sides of the device, but it is more noticeable when looking at the back.

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The HTC One S measures 130.9 x 65 x 7.8 mm, making is the thinnest phone ever produced by HTC. Though the handset only weighs 119.5 grams, its balance and aluminum shell give the device a solid feel.The attention to detail on the One is is pretty remarkable. Rather than cutting out a hole in the aluminum and fitting it with a cheap speaker grill, HTC used a micro drill to create 76 holes in the aluminum.

HTC has also stepped up things up when it comes to the glass which covers the display on the One S. While most phones have a glass panel which covers the front of the phone, the glass on the One S flows over the sides, accentuating the slight curve on the back of the phone. But HTC did not stop there. A closer look reveals that the glass panel features a raised edge which keeps the glass from making contact when the phone is placed face down on a surface.

3. Display

The HTC One S is the first phone from HTC to feature a Samsung Super AMOLED display. HTC dabbled with AMOLED displays from Samsung a few years back, but made the switch to Sony’s Super LCD panels when supply issues caused production delays for the original HTC DROID Incredible. Since then, the technology has gotten a lot better and it seems as though Samsung has been able to boost production enough to keep up with demand.

The 4.3-inch qHD display on the HTC One S should be a familiar size for those’s who are familiar with the HTC Sensation or the EVO 3D from last year. The size of the display may not be as impressive as the 4.7-inches of the HTC One X, but it does allow single hand use of the phone without  re-positioning your grip to reach the far edges of the display or pull down the notification bar.

The display on the One S is optically laminated to its Gorilla Glass covering, reducing the space between the glass, producing some pretty amazing viewing angles. Unfortunately, the optical lamination does not make up for the fact that the pentile matrix display looks inferior to the Super LCD displays HTC has used in the past. The traditional RGB subpixel layout is swapped for a RGBG configuration, causing noticeable discoloration in high contrast situations. The issue is easily noticeable in the application drawer where white application icons show a green hue on their left edge and a magenta hue along the right side.

Another down side to the Super AMOLED display on the one S is its outdoor performance. We wouldn’t suggest taking your phone out of your pocket to check your email in direct sunlight, but you will be able to use the phone on a cloudy day or if you’re in a shaded area.

4. Software

Besides the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, the HTC One S is the first new phone to be released by a U.S. carrier with Android 4.0 pre-installed. Unlike the Galaxy Nexus, the HTC One S does not come with stock Android. Like the overwhelming majority of Android phones, the One S comes with a custom skin – HTC Sense 4.0. In the past, HTC Sense offered some amazing advancements, but things got a little stale last year when HTC introduced Sense 3.0 on the HTC Sensation. The software build got a lot heavier that it needed to be with 3D animations and glossy buttons that didn’t add any real benefit to the end user.

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Fortunately, HTC listened to consumer feedback and gave birth to Sense 4.0. The latest version of HTC’s UI is intended to allow users to customize the look and feel of their device while making interaction with the OS slightly easier. But HTC Sense is a lot more than just a skin. HTC has modified or replaced the majority of the stock Android applications on the phone is order to give users a consistent look and feel.

One of the first things you’ll notice when you turn on the HTC One S is the new lock screen. Users can choose between a variety of lockscreen styles which display the weather, calendar events, stock quotes, pictures or even social media updates from friends. But the customization doesn’t end there. While stock Android allow users to unlock the device or launch directly into the camera, the Sense 4.0 lock screen allows users to launch whichever application or folder is placed in the launcher dock on the home screen.

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HTC has also taken the liberty of customizing the multitasking menu in Android 4.0. Rather than displaying a vertical list of applications with cropped images, Sense 4.0 features application cards (similar to those in webOS) which scroll horizontally and must be flicked up to be removed from the list.

There are many who think HTC and other OEMs should be forced to produce phones with stock Android. Unfortunately, we don’t see that happening any time soon. Sense 4.0 may not be as sharp as stock Android, but it’s the best custom skin we’ve used in quite some time.

5. Performance

The Android ecosystem is made up of some amazing devices, but when it comes to performance – the HTC One S takes the crown. Inside the HTC One S is a dual-core 1.5 GHz Qualcomm MSM8260A Snapdragon S4 processor (paired with an Adreno 225 GPU) which runs laps around the competition.

Those who love to play games on their Android phone will certainly enjoy using the HTC One S. The phone was able to tear through games like Temple Run, Dead Space, Shadowgun and NBA Jam without missing a beat and we wouldn’t be surprised if the phone’s power is able to keep up with the newest titles for at least a year.

When it comes to regular use, the HTC One S is as smooth as silk. We didn’t experience any lag within the UI and launching applications is faster than ever.

To give you an idea how much power the HTC One S has under the hood, we run the phone through a few benchmarks. The HTC One S came out on top in most benchmark tests – even beating out the quad-core Tegra 3 powered HTC One X on several occasions. Naturally, you should always take benchmark score with a grain of salt since they don’t really tell you how a phone will perform in day-to-day situations, but we were blown away.

Benchmark Test Score
AnTuTU 7020
Quadrant 5057
Linpack 104.8 (single-thread) 221.4 (multi-thread)
Nenamark 2 60.3 FPS
Vellamo 2426
SunSpider 0.9.1 1833.7ms

6. Cameras

The HTC One S may be the thinnest and most powerful phone ever made by HTC, but one of the main selling points is the handset’s advanced camera and ImageSense technology. HTC’s focus with the One series is to give users “the power of a true digital camera on your phone.” In order to pull that off, HTC has equipped the HTC One S with an 8 megapixel BSI (back side illuminated) imaging sensor, f2.0 lens and a dedicated imaging chip which work seamlessly and deliver some of the most stunning images we have ever seen from a camera phone.

But HTC didn’t just add amazing hardware components and call it a day. HTC completely redesigned the camera application on the HTC one S, giving users quicker access to more settings. The most noticeable difference in the camera application is the camera shutter and video capture button which are shown at the same time. This simple change allows you to launch the camera application and record a video or snap a shot without having to dig through the menu switch between video or camera mode.

What’s even more interesting is that you can capture images while recording video in 1080p HD. While recording, you can press the camera shutter button and the One S will extract the frame from the video and gave it to your gallery. The system isn’t perfect since pressing the button while shooting video can cause the phone to move slightly, but we doubt most people will notice since most people have a hard time holding their phone still while recording video as it is. If you forget to snap a picture while recording a video, you can always go back and extract the image you want after the fact. Images extracted from video will match the size of the video resolution, producing 2 megapixel images while recording in 1080p.

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Capturing a picture at the right time has gotten a lot easier with the HTC One S. Rather than going into setting and selecting Bust Mode, simply press and hold the camera shutter button and the One S will capture four pictures every second (up to 99). Once you are done shooting, the interface shows you all the images you captured and you can choose to save as many as you want or just the one shot which captured the moment just right.

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The flash has also been improved with an LED Smart Flash with 5 power levels which automatically adjust based on lighting levels. The new flash settings do a better job than most LED flashes we have used in the past, but the BSI sensor on the One S allows you to snap pictures in very low lit situations.

The front-facing camera on the HTC One S is capable of capturing video and pictures in VGA (640 x 480), a dramatic reduction from what the main camera is capable of. The resolution may sound like a drawback since there are devices on the market with feature 1.3 megapixel front-facing cameras capable of recording video in 720p, but we’ve found that the only thing we really use the front-facing camera for is the new face-unlock feature in Android 4.0.

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7. Battery

The HTC One S features a an average sized 1650 mAh battery which is built into the phone. Those who are used to carrying around an extra battery or two to make sure they can make it through the full day have voiced their concern with HTC’s decision, but we really don’t see too much of an issue. In the few days we have spent with the HTC One S, we observed better than average battery life which is most likely due to the Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 chip used to power the device and the Super AMOLED display.

The longest the battery has been able to keep the HTC One S up and running has been a little over nine and a half hours. In that time period, I used the One S to stay on top of multiple email accounts, browse the web, listen to Pandora for a good hour, tweet, run benchmark and network speed tests several times, capture 100+ pictures and record 10 minutes of video. If that’s not considered heavy use, I don’t know what is.

Under regular use, I expect the HTC One S will easily make it through an entire work day (12-14 hours) without needing to be recharged. I’ll be updating details about the battery performance in about a week so that I have a better representation of how long the 1650 mAh battery inside the HTC One S will last.

8. Call quality and sound

Even though the HTC One S can do some amazing things, at its roots, it’s still a phone. Call quality on the HTC One S isn’t as remarkable as the new HD Voice feature which will be available on the HTC EVO 4G LTE, but it is on par with other Android phones currently on the market. Call quality does improve when using T-Mobile’s WiFi calling application which  routes voice calls over WiFi.

Like most other HTC phones these days, the HTC One S features Beats Audio integration for an “authentic sound experience.” Unlike previous iterations of Beats on HTC’s phones, HTC Sense 4.0 integration with Beats Audio brings the audio enhancement to all audio and video applications on the device. Beats Audio doesn’t make a dramatic difference if you have a good pair of headphones, but I did conduct a “blind test” with several people and 6 out of 8 people claimed they enjoyed the audio tones better with the Beats Audio equalizer turned on.

9. 4G

When it comes to 4G speeds, LTE reigns supreme. T-Mobile’s has outlined its 4G LTE rollout plans, but the first LTE markets are not expected to go live for at least another year. Consequently, the HTC One S is equipped with a radio which is capable of taking advantage of T-Mobile’s 42 Mbps HSPA+ 4G network.

While I typically don’t have any issues with T-Mobile’s 4G network, the HTC One S has presented some curious issues. Speed tests on the device have been very inconsistent, ranging from 14.3 Mbps down and 2.1 Mbps up to 350 kbps down and 105 kbps up. I’ve also encountered issues with web pages not loading and application download errors in Google Play. I may have a faulty unit, but the issue most likely stems from a faulty radio which will probably be fixed through an update from HTC and T-Mobile.

The times when the HTC One S had a good connection, data speeds were impressive. At one point I was able to download and install a 24 megabyte game from Google Play in less than 15 seconds. While all the major networks are caught up in the 4G game, most consumers still don’t know the difference between HSPA+, LTE or WiMax. T-Mobile’s network may not technically be 4G, but it usually delivery consistent data speeds which are faster than most people’s home internet connections.

10. Multimedia and accessories

When buying a new phone, you always want to make sure there are accessories which can be used to enhance the phones functionality or protect it from your clumsiness. HTC has pledged full accessory support for the HTC One S with screen protectors, cases (some with built-in kickstands to prop up the device) and even desktop and car docks. But HTC didn’t stop there. The HTC One S comes with support for the new  HTC Media Link HD and Car Clip so that you can enjoy your phone while in the car of just sitting at home on the couch.

HTC Media Link HD is a DLNA dongle which connects to a display via HDMI and allows dual-screen and mirroring capabilities from the HTC one S over Wi-FI.  As you might expect, the device allows you to use any application on your big screen TV, browse the web, play games and a lot more, but the real magic starts when you start up a movie. Rather than being forced to put down your phone so that everyone can enjoy a full length film, the HTC Media Link HD allows you to press the home button and continue using your phone and even make a call or two while the movie continues to play on the big screen.

HTC Car Clip allows users to integrate the HTC One S into their car via  the stereo’s 3.5mm auxiliary input. A new intuitive interface on the phone surfaces your music, maps, contacts, messages and more so that users can easily access all their information on the HTC One S without the typical distractions of the traditional Android UI. There’s always the option to just buy a $5 3.5mm audio cable to connect the phone to your car stereo, but where’s the fun in that?

HTC One S8.5 / 10

Every phone we have reviewed has had its own set of issues. Some have buggy software builds while others simply don’t have enough horse power to accomplish simple tasks or play a few levels on Angry Birds. Fortunately for T-Mobile and HTC, the One S is beautifully designed, bug free (from what we can tell), features the best camera phone we have ever come across and has enough processing power to muscle through anything you can throw at it.

That being said, some people will shy away from the HTC One S due to minor issues with the display or the fact that it runs a custom skin on top of Android 4.0. Others will choose to wait things out to see what the competition has in store. There will never be a perfect phone which appeases every single consumer, but if you’re looking for the best T-Mobile phone that money can buy, the HTC One S is the phone for you.

Nick is a tech enthusiast who has a soft spot for HTC and its devices. He started HTCsource.com (the first HTC blog) back in 2007 and later joined the Android and Me family in the summer of 2010.

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