My experience with smartphones started with the iPhone 3G. It didn’t take me more than a couple of days to realize I was just carrying a little tiny computer in my hand and would be able to do amazing things with it. For fun (at least in the beginning) I put a mobile web interface on the company CRM that gave me access to valuable info when I was out of the office.
Figuring out that the phone was more than a computer took a bit longer. Initially I still carried my iPod on long trips, as well as my point-and-shoot camera and GPS. The iPod because I worried about battery life on extended trips like camping. The camera because the iPhone 3G camera was horrible compared to my previous LG Envy, and especially compared to my Olympus camera. GPS wasn’t even a real option, especially for off-road use.
The iPod was the first to go, I found I was carrying it an never using it. By the time the iPhone 4S came along I completely gave up on the point-and-shoot camera. The GPS was great for driving, but miserable off-road. I also started using the phone to record my sons band when they were at shows. I found the video rivaled my Flip camera, and the audio on those videos was better than the Flip.
Then big phones started coming along and I got screen envy. Not the really big ones, but the 4.7 – 4.8″ sweet spot, something that would still fit in my pocket. When the iPhone 5 finally showed up and the screen was an oddball skinny 16×9 it wasn’t for me. I don’t just watch video and look at pictures on my phone, I do real work and that format in that small size is just too narrow for vertical use, and too short for horizontal – a lose, lose situation. Plus that crummy iPhone slab is just uncomfortable to hold – why can’t they make them nice and curved like the iPod touch?
Along came the Nexus 4. I already had a Nexus 7 tablet, so the transition wasn’t as rough as it could have been. There was a bit of work to move my apple-centric email and calendar, but once I did that things basically worked the way I wanted. I loved the big screen, the shape was a bit better to hold, and I suddenly had access to some interesting features.
One of those was Swype – when looking at Swype I never thought it would really work for me, but it turns out it just does. It take me about 5 minutes to completely fall in love with it. I still had the old iPhone 4, but swapping the chip back was unbearable between the hard angled sides, the tiny screen, and tiny non-swype keyboard. Not to mention the haptic touch. Poking keys with your fingers just seems so old fashioned.
The other thing was the widgets, as you’ve probably guessed. Not every widget is good, and in fact there are far more bad ones than good ones, but the good ones are really indispensable – more on this later because the HTC One was where things got really good in that area.
Unfortunately there were some downsides to the Nexus 4. Plain vanilla Jelly Bean was just great, but the phone has some serious limits for a high-end user, which isn’t surprising given it’s reasonable price. But here’s what didn’t work great.
First the screen, yes it’s big, and yes it’s colorful with a decent PPI, but the color accuracy was poor compared to the iPhone. The camera had some cute gimmicks, but the pictures were just awful – I went back to carrying the old Olympus, after clearing it of cobwebs. And I lost the ability to capture business cards with my phone camera – it just wasn’t up to the task. And comparing other Android cameras showed the same results. I know some say the camera is good, but they must be starting with something much worse than I could deal with.
When it comes to the built-in speaker, it was even worse than the iPhone, and everyone knows that iPhone speakers aren’t what you’d call good. It was fine for phone calls, but playing music was like the old mono AM radio in my 63 Dodge – with the volume down low. I know, you’re not supposed to rely on your phones internal speaker, but I wanted to (another thing I’ll speak of on the HTC One in a moment.)
Recording was even worse. I use my phone for audio memos and recording Webinar audio etc. It worked OK though not as clear as the iPhone. But when it came to trying to record my son’s rock band it was a complete disaster – the audio was unusable. Not just bad, but not usable at all – just random noise and cutting out. I tried several times, it was always a disaster. A bit of research let me to find out that this is [Note 2019 – no longer true] way too common with Android phones.
The third was the storage. I came from a 64 GB phone, and I just couldn’t be happy in 16 GB. Much of my time is away from strong cellular service or wifi, and so I keep about 20 or 30 GB of music on my phone, as well as a movie or a couple of TV shows. I was OK on the Nexus 4, but not happy. [Note 2019 – storage is soooo much better now]
Then came the HTC One. A really solid build quality like I was used to from Apple, and a nice curved back like my old iPhone 3G, but lighter and a bigger screen. This was worth looking at. Plus actual stereo speakers, and on the front – why doesn’t everyone do this?! [Note 2019 – my Google Pixel has this again! I ask again, why doesn’t everyone do this!?]
So I went online and bought the developer edition. This was so I would have an unlocked bootloader for OS experiments and I thought I would probably just put straight Jelly Bean on it since I was used to it. Plus I wanted an unlocked SIM for overseas travel. I went to the HTC website and ordered a 64 GB version.
My only real complaint with HTC was their purchase process. The order took forever, and they didn’t keep me up to date on status as is now common. I had to call every few days to find out what was going on. Anyway, several weeks later I finally had my new phone. As it turns out, the AT&T online process is just as bad, in some ways worse, but that’s a story for another day.
I connected the phone to my account, loaded my Android apps from my Google account, put my photos, video and music on it and was ready to go. I was showing it to my wife and when she saw the screen and heard the music quality of the speakers she was done with her iPhone. Just that fast, no experience with Android, but the HTC One was what she wanted, so I headed back to the AT&T store the next day and bought her one as well.
So here’s what I love about it. First the screen. We compared it with an iPhone 5 and the Nexus and the color rendition was much more accurate and properly white-balanced. It’s big, it’s unnaturally sharp, and it’s bright. Much better in daylight than the Nexus was. This is the best smartphone screen I’ve ever seen, bar none.
The camera is great for snap shots, dark shots, and video. It’s only shortcomings are when you’re doing big enlargements and small up-close details. I can scan business cards again and the Olympus has been re-retired. [Note 2019 – mostly shoot Sony fullframe these days, but an Olympus micro-four-thirds is an important part of my portable arsenal] Not only does it take good dark shots, but it’s the first smartphone or snap shooter I’ve seen that handled flash properly – not more choosing between dark and blurry or over-flashed. [Note2019 – today’s flagships all smoke this, but especially the Pixel]
I did a dark picture test against the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S3 and it was really great compared to either of them. I put a black pocket-knife under my desk. Each camera was two shots – once without flash and once with. Notice if you look at the large image zoomed in on the HTC how sharp the image is, and how well balanced the flash shot is.
The video camera shoots 1080p HD and it really looks quite nice, both day and night. I’ve attached a fun little video below that I shot on the airport tram at Dulles – it starts slow but you’ll see what I mean – it’s like Star Tours at Disneyland. [Note 2019 – I still take these videos – look for a new one coming soon on my youtube channel “Backside of Blue”]
The audio playback is amazing, it makes me dissatisfied with my iPad and even outshines the Kindle Fire HD – why did they put the speakers on the back? Audio recording works well for memos and even recording music if you’re using the video app. Other apps so far haven’t been able to record live music well – I suspect they somehow don’t make use of the HDR microphone. I’m hoping one comes along – it seem silly to record video to just get audio. But the quality is good again.
The size and shape are good – the phone is comfortable in my hand for the first time in a couple of years. The weight is fine, and it still fits in shirt and coat and even pants pockets.
The GPS is now good enough for off-road thanks to the Backcountry app. I have to say that for navigating I’ve still personally had better luck with Apple maps than Google and I still find Magellan and Navigon are even better as I’ve mentioned before. But for off-road the iPhone can’t compete with Android. [Note 2019 – maps are another thing that has radically improved]
The only downside is the battery. It’s no worse than the iPhone or Nexus but not better. I long for the old days of charging my phone once or twice a week. Heck I’d settle for two days of really solid use, or even 24 hours of heavy use. HTC I hope you’re listening. [Note 2019 – battery life is just as bad today on pretty much every phone if you really use them. We’re still struggling to make it through a full day.]
The really unexpected pieces were because of Sense. I had planned to replace the launcher at the very least and possibly even switch to plain jelly bean. However I quickly got used to Blend, the news feed, and now don’t use Flipboard at all and News360 only occasionally. I’m a Sense fan. [Note 2019 – I still miss Sense – this SHOULD have been a game changer. Flipboard isn’t even close.]
The contacts widget is really great, and the contact manager is the only one I’ve ever seen in mobile (iOS, Android, Windows 8, and Chromebook) that can handle multiple accounts properly, IE Skype, LinkedIn, Google, Exchange, Twitter, Facebook, and more. All without showing you duplicates.
I’m hoping HTC is successful, because I think a tablet built with the same quality would be amazing – sign me up, I’ll pre-pay.
My son, who was instrumental in pointing the HTC One out to me in the first place and helping research what the best phone would be, has finally made the change as well. His One is on the way (you can’t get a black 64 GB in any store – why not HTC?) and he’s giving up his iPhone 5.
So that’s a clean sweep – 3 iPhones changed into 3 HTC Ones. Try it yourself – you can’t go wrong.
[update 2015-02-11 – moved the subway video to youtube for easier viewing.]
[update 2016-03-11 – Finally gave up on android – slow performance and horrible battery life compared to iPhone]
[Update 2019-07-31 – I’m baaackk! Got my hands on a Pixel 2XL awhile ago, just to prove to myself that the hype surrounding the camera couldn’t be real. Sold my iPhone 6plus and lately upgraded to the Pixel 3 non-XL. For me, the camera is so great that I put up with the other Googly issues like poor battery life and inconsistent performance. Bonus – with front-facing speakers it has the great audio that I loved in the HTC One. Also I fixed some old outdated links on this post.]