Review of the HTC One S (T-Mobile)
✔ Editor's Choice May 2012: Best Smartphone (T-Mobile)
HTC One S review summary
It's not easy standing out in the crowd of Android phones. LG, Samsung and HTC are all making terrific phones (along with their share of clunkers). But the new HTC One S for T-Mobile manages to differentiate itself from the Android competition both in its design and features. And while T-Mobile may not have the iPhone, I would gladly take the One S over an iPhone 4S. Since I will no doubt spark some disagreement with this last statement, read on to learn why.
How it feels in the hand
The HTC One S is a perfect balance of size and comfort. Even though it sports a 4.3-inch display, the One S is the thinnest phone ever from HTC at only .31". That puts it just shy of the Motorola Droid Razr (Verizon) at .28". But the One S is far more comfortable to hold thanks to its better balance and narrower profile.
The One S also stands out with its medium-grey anodized aluminum case that is both very attractive and easy to grip. Over time, I expect the aluminum to hold up better than the plastic on many other Android phones, as well as the all-too-fragile glass back on the iPhone 4S.
And now that I've mentioned the iPhone, let me also point out that though the iPhone has a much smaller 3.5-inch display, it is thicker (.37") and considerably heavier (4.9 ounces for the iPhone vs 4.3 ounces for the One S). Though if you have small hands, reaching across the display for typing and navigation will be easier on the iPhone.
Buttons on the One S felt solid. The volume rocker is well placed for easy access, though the relatively flush top-mounted power button requires more effort to find.
Display & Sound
The HTC One S has a beautiful 4.3-inch qHD (960x540) Super AMOLED display. Colors pop (sometimes a little too much), there's plenty of brightness and contrast is excellent. The display resolution is a step down from the HD displays on the flagship devices from its competitors (and its big brother the HTC One X), but it's still quite good. The One S uses Gorilla Glass to protect against scratches and breakage.
The iPhone resolution of 960x640 nudges out slightly the One S, as does its pixel density (326ppi vs 256ppi). However, for watching movies, viewing photos or browsing the web, the larger display on the One S is definitely the better experience. And I found the One S performed slightly better in direct sunlight.
Call quality on the HTC One S was very good, and the speakerphone was loud and clear. HTC touts its Beats Audio technology for providing significantly better music sound quality through your headphones. I found that it provides a slightly better musical experience, which was very good, overall.
Web browsing & mobile hotspot
The One S runs on T-Mobile's 42Mbps HSPA+ network. My experience in New York City resulted in download speeds between 5mbps and 14Mbps, with typical speeds in the 7Mbps range. That's fast, but not a match for the "true 4G" LTE networks on AT&T and Verizon, which regularly deliver speeds north of 20Mbps in my testing.
Like pretty much every Android phone, the HTC One S can act as a mobile hotspot for other devices.
Camera & video recording
Almost every phone we test comes with a marketing sheet touting the quality of its camera. Very few live up to that promise. Let me just say that the HTC One S has the best camera I've used on any Android phone, and I would argue it outclasses the iPhone 4S as the best in the US market.
When I first saw the HTC One at a press event, it was clear that someone at HTC asked the question, "What can we add to the camera to actually make it more useful, not just more complicated?"
To answer that question, HTC gives us a handful of new features that facilitate photo and movie taking.
The first is simple—combine the photo capture and video record button in one place. No more shuttling between screens to shoot photos and video. In the same vein, you can now also capture full resolution images while shooting video. The other useful improvement is a burst capture mode that lets you take 20 or more photos, at 5 frames per second—you pick the best one and then the rest are automatically deleted.
The 8MP camera also sports superfast capture—an estimated 0.7-second shot time and a 0.2-second autofocus—and an f/2.0 lens that HTC says captures 40% more light than other smartphone cameras and should offer better low light performance.
All phones have scene modes, but those on the One S really work. The HDR mode, especially, delivered incredible results in low light (better than the low light mode, in fact). Shots that came out as dark blobs on other phones, were more than acceptable on the One S, delivering well exposed subjects and accurate colors. HDR doesn't work well for moving subjects—you'll end up with odd double-exposure artifacts—but for still subjects, it can be nothing short of miraculous. The HTC One S "Group portrait" mode also worked as advertised to reduce closed eyes and frowning in group shots.
In addition to the scene modes, the One S has numerous Instagram-like effects for adding a little artistry to your shots.
Given the fine quality of the camera, it should be no surprise that the quality of the 1080p video was excellent, as well. And it was, possibly the best on any smartphone I've tested. The one bug I found was that using the anti-shake mode caused the video to stutter (see video below). The One S also includes a slow motion video—my kids had a blast with it and it came in handy for filming my son's baseball swing to help him improve his technique.
Keyboard & Navigation
The HTC One S runs Android 4.0.3 Ice Cream Sandwich with HTC's Sense 4 skin. Those new to Ice Cream Sandwich and Sense 4 will appreciate the improvements, such as the ability to see mini-icons of apps in folders and unlock the phone with face detection. Engadget has a full review of HTC Sense 4 for those that want to dive into the details.
The 1.5 GHz dual core processor and 1GB of RAM had no problems handling navigation without lag.
The One S comes with 16GB of onboard memory, but no microSD card slot. HTC makes up for this omission with 25GB of free Dropbox storage when you purchase a One S. For many users, the Dropbox storage will be much more useful than the SD card. You can set the One S to automatically upload photos you take to Dropbox, and those photos can be synced to your personal computers.
The HTC One S battery life is superb. The 1650mAh battery easily lasted me through the day and well into the next under normal usage.
Pricing and availability
Should you buy it?
The HTC One S is the best Android phone on the market and, in my opinion, easily beats out the iPhone 4S as well. It has excellent ergonomics, a terrific camera, a big, bright display and long battery life. Yes, it could have an HD display, instead of a qHD. But when compared side-by-side with the HD display of its big brother the One X, the One S is every bit as clear.
The one drawback that matters is the lack of an LTE network on T-Mobile. The HSPA+ 42 network is far from slow, yet still delivered less than half the speed, on average, of the AT&T and Verizon LTE networks. In practice, that meant web pages loaded a hair slower. If you're into streaming video, though, those speed difference will make a difference.
Rating: Highly Recommended
Talk and Standby Time: Up to 10.5 hours talk time, up to 13.2 days standby
Band/Modes: HSPA/WCDMA 850/900/1800/1900 MHz
OS: Android 4.0.3 Ice Cream Sandwich
Weight: 4.3 oz
Dimensions: 5.15 x 2.55 x 0.31 inches
Battery: 1650 mAh
Display: 4.3" qHD Super AMOLED (960 x 540)
Camera: Rear-facing 8.0 megapixel, Auto Focus, LED flash
Front-facing Camera: .3 megapixel
Mobile hotspot: Yes
Processor: 1.5GHz Dual Core
Memory: 1GB RAM, 16GB onboard storage and 25GB Dropbox storage