The HTC One S is the second in command in HTC's new One series rankings, one rung down on the size and power ladder from the HTC One X. That's no bad thing because the giant scale and quad-core power of the One X won't be for everyone.
Spec sheet top trumps are all very well when you're jawing off down the pub about who's got the flashiest phone, but most people prefer to have bragging rights and a mobile that fits in their pocket. That's where the One S comes in.
This handset is fully loaded with the newest version of Google's Android operating system, Ice Cream Sandwich, and the latest HTC Sense software, plus a dual-core 1.5GHz chip and an 8-megapixel snapper. Did I mention it's also waif-thin? There's even a choice of fancy finishes -- either a black, carbonised ceramic coating that looks like it should be adorning the underside of an astronaut's boots or a snazzy gradient grey metal finish.
SIM-free, the One S will set you back around £400, or it's available free on a two-year contract for as little as £21 per month. Alternative Android handsets at this price include the Beats Audio-branded HTC Sensation XE, the perennially popular Samsung Galaxy S2 or the 'acquired taste' LG Optimus 3D.
In my view the HTC One S is the Goldilocks choice of HTC's new One series -- neither too big to pocket, nor too small to feel cramped. Rather than having four cores -- the majority of which would surely sit idle most of the time -- it packs a powerful dual-core 1.5GHz processor, which is plenty of power for most people's mobile needs.
In benchmark tests, the One S showed itself to be no slouch. Its smaller screen size and lower screen resolution than the One X, coupled with its powerful dual-core chip, give it the edge in certain scenarios -- as the quad-core bigger sibling has to shift around a lot more pixels.
In the Quadrant benchmark, the One S managed 4,877 versus the One X's 4,904. And in Vellamo's benchmark, the One S beat the One X -- scoring a a huge 2,437 -- topping the Android power charts by a distance.
I also ran GL Benchmark's standard Egypt test, which the One S handled with aplomb, running at 60 frames per second versus the One X's 52fps.
The One S was ludicrously fast and responsive during testing, with menus zipping around and apps loading in a flash. To my eye, it looks generally faster than the One X -- although the latter's engine is more capable in certain specialist situations. But for everyday mobile tasks, such as browsing the web, flipping through emails, opening apps, and the like, the One S is blisteringly -- nay, terrifyingly -- quick. As Jezza Clarkson would say, it goes like stink.
For example, loading up a photo gallery filled with snaps is near instantaneous. Yet the Sony Xperia S, which also has a dual-core chip, has a noticeable lag when you open the gallery as it builds the photo cache -- leaving you waiting for blurry snaps to come into focus. By contrast, the One S is white-knuckle-ride fast -- with photos appearing in focus before you can shout "I hate the iPhone".
Shifting around the pixels of the desktop version of a rich HTML5 website is also nay bother. And its pinch-to-zoom performance seems smoother than the One X -- although it does have a similar glitch where it annoyingly realigns page content after you stop pinching. This can mean the portion of the page you were trying to get closer to jumps off screen.
During my time with the One S, I also encountered the same occasional issue that strikes the One X, where the phone stops responding for a few seconds, displaying a loading screen over an empty home screen. This bug -- if indeed it's a bug -- is not frequent and only causes a short delay.
Ice Cream Sandwich and Sense 4.0
The HTC One S runs both the latest Android OS -- Ice Cream Sandwich -- and HTC's newest interface, Sense 4.0. The presence of ICS means you get the option to unlock the phone just by looking at it, thanks to Face Unlock. You can also download Google's Chrome for Android browser, which is ICS-only.
HTC's Sense 4.0 software has been pared back, with the company jettisoning some of the animations and flourish it added over the years. In the main, this is a welcome evolution with a more streamlined and capable interface emerging.
One key change is a new customisable launch bar on the home screen, which lets you choose up to four apps or folders to quickly tap into. These apps can also be displayed on the lock screen, where you can pull an app or folder into the ring to launch it straight from wake-up.
Sense 4.0 also has fancier folders than Sense 3.5. They're much easier to fill with apps as you can just drag and drop them together to create a folder, and use a checklist-based add function that allows you to speedily pile various apps into a folder. There's also a more streamlined notifications tray -- and you can now flick items out of the list to delete them.
It's not all new by any means. Sense 4.0 has retained plenty of the trademark Sense features -- such as the pinch gesture that brings up a multi-home screen view, so you can easily see all the home screens and choose which one to dive into.
You'll also still find scores of great HTC widgets that can be added to your home screens -- including the familiar flip clock and weather widgets, plus all manner of handy toggle tools, utilities and more. You can preview the widgets before adding them and easily select which home screen to send them to via a useful overview feature.
The recent apps menu has had a makeover. Instead of a grid of app icons, you now get a 3D deck of cards with each card depicting a recent app. These can be flipped through or flicked off screen when you've had enough of them with a satisfying flick -- an action that hat-tips HP's webOS. Despite these fancy 3D graphics, the menu is lightning quick.
For a closer look at how HTC has evolved Sense 3.5 into Sense 4, check out this photo story.
Design and build quality
The One S has a generous 4.3-inch display, which is big, but not so gigantic that even dainty-handed folk like me can't hold it comfortably. The device feels long and narrow in the hand, not least because it's so thin -- a skeletal 7.8mm thick.
While the One S's design is that oh-so-familiar HTC rounded oblong, it feels a lot more stylish than many of its slabby predecessors -- thanks once again to that size-zero waist and some fancy finish options.
There's a choice of either a black ceramic option, created using a micro arc oxidation process that involves bathing the metal unibody casing in a plasma field, and electrocuting it so it carbonises. Ouch. This has a stylish, matte look. Or there's an anodised, shiny grey metal coating that has a gentle colour gradient going from light grey at the top to darker grey at the base.
HTC claims the ceramic finish is five times tougher than the anodised casing. It should also resist light scratches but don't take your keys to the back of the device -- it's not that tough.
Despite having a mostly metal casing, the One S feels relatively lightweight -- it's just 119.5g, which includes the battery since that's not removable.
My review handset was the ceramic model. I like the matte feel of the finish, which is not as slippery as the plastic casing of the One X. The black One S also has a snazzy red metal collar protecting the camera, which protrudes slightly from the back of the casing.
The top and bottom sections of the case are rubberised plastic to aid grip. The top one of these sections can be fully removed to get at the micro-SIM card slot.
Despite being so thin, the black One S feels solid and well made, and does not have the problem with screen flex at the edge that I encountered on the One X. Despite copious poking and prodding, the One S's screen remains rigid on all four sides.
There are only two ports on the exterior of the One S: a 3.5mm headphone jack on the top, and a micro-USB port for charging on the left-hand side. There are also only two physical buttons: a volume rocker on the right-hand side and a power key up top. Both these physical keys are responsive, but the plastic power key does seem as if it might be prone to damage since the button is removed every time you take the plastic door off to get to the micro-SIM.
There are three touch-keys on the front of the device, which I found to be generally responsive to a light tap. These are the same keys as on HTC's other One Series devices -- a back button, home and a recent apps key. HTC has ditched the menu key found on previous generations of its Android phones.
The One S has a 4.3-inch LCD display. It's not as curvaceous as the One X's display, nor quite as brilliantly bright, so it definitely doesn't look as fancy. But on the plus side, it is rock solid -- with absolutely no flexing along any of its edges (unlike the One X). The viewing angle seems good, with colours remaining deep at a considerable tilt. I also found the touchscreen very responsive.
Resolution is 540x960 pixels, which equates to a density of 256 pixels per inch -- considerably less than the One X (312ppi). It's not even close to the retina-slicingly sharp screen of the Sony Xperia S (342ppi). But the One S's screen does beat the Samsung Galaxy S2, which has a mere 217ppi. Expect the S3 to have a more competitive pixel count.
The camera on the One S has the same specs as the flagship One X -- with 8 megapixels, an f2.0 lens, back-side illuminated sensor and updated camera software. But the cameras aren't identical -- the One S has a definite tendency to over-saturate bright colours so shots can appear less natural than photos taken with the One X.
The One S's camera is very good though. Like its big brother, it can serve up impressive shallow-depth-of-field shots and beautiful close-ups. It's more fussy when dealing with tricky sun-and-showers April weather though -- conditions you'd expect to test a camera phone -- with variable light producing uneven exposures. Indoor lighting can cause lens flare too.
HTC's new camera software includes a burst mode for taking up to 99 photos in a continuous sequence by holding a finger on the shutter button. I encountered a bug with burst mode on several occasions on the One S device I was using. After tapping the shutter once and removing my finger, the mode was triggered when I didn't intend it several times, as if it had stuck.
Another feature of HTC's new camera software is the ability to snap stills while you're shooting or playing back a video. The One S also supports multiple levels of flash to reduce the risk of subjects being washed out.
Video can be recorded in up to 1080p resolution. Footage looks good -- especially in Full HD -- but the sound quality wasn't amazing in my experience.
As with all of HTC's One Series range, the One S is badged with the Beats Audio logo, and this partnership is purported to bring a range of audio enhancements.
The rear speaker produces clear sound but the audio tends towards being shrill and tinny, so you'll certainly want to plug in a decent pair of headphones to enjoy the best possible audio. The speaker is also sited on the back of the phone, rather than the bottom edge, so it's all too easy to muffle with your palm.
Don't expect Beats Audio cans to arrive in the box -- my review unit came bundled with a generic HTC set of earbuds, which should only be used in emergencies.
Call quality was fine, although there was some audible background humming during one test call. I didn't encounter any dropped calls or other connectivity issues.
The One S comes with 16GB of internal storage, which can't be expanded because there's no microSD card slot. However, also included in the price are two years' free access to 25GB of cloud storage from Dropbox.
If you're not already signed up for Dropbox, it's a very handy storage locker in the cloud, which can be used to transfer media to and from your phone. You can also configure the One S to automatically upload photos and videos taken on the phone to your Dropbox account for a handy back-up feature.
HTC says the One S has a 1,650mAh battery, but doesn't specify how long it will typically last. As with most modern smart phones, don't expect to get more than a full day's normal use out of the device without needing to charge the phone at bedtime.
I only had a limited time to test the One S so wasn't able to run a battery benchmark to give it a real going over. But, after more than 5 hours of testing (with the screen brightness moderated to one-third of its possible maximum), it still had a third left in the tank. So unless you're a really heavy user that dials the screen up to the max, then the One S should comfortably see you through the day.
The HTC One S is a very tasty handset indeed -- delivering lashings of Android goodness topped off with a sensible sprinkling of HTC's own software. The latter that makes Android easier to use for the majority of users who don't want to spend their evenings geeking around in settings menus.
Best of all, it's lighting fast, with menus and apps jumping to attention at the tap of a finger, thanks to a powerful dual-core chip that throws pixels around like a hyperactive clubber throws shapes. The lack of a microSD card slot will put some people off saddling this slender Android racehorse -- but with 25GB of Dropbox storage thrown in free for two years, that won't be a deal breaker for every Android lover.
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