Apple has the iPhone…and every other phone maker has several dozen different models to choose from. Samsung has their Galaxy S II phones which headline, and then cell carriers have their own favorite models, like the Motorola Droid Razr for Verizon or HTC Evo for Sprint. These top of the line phones almost always do well, both critically and commercially, but they also have a tendency to cannibalize both handset makers’ and carriers’ own models, and not for the better. Now HTC wants to get rid of that entirely with four completely new phones, starting with the HTC One S for T-Mobile.

Hardware

As we discussed in our comparison of the HTC One phones, the One S is the slimmest, thinnest model, and in many ways the overall best handset design of the bunch. In terms of just the physical build, I love the One S. It’s great in the hand, comfortable in the pocket, and really the overall perfect size. It’s not too thin, not too wide, not too tall, and it molds to the hand perfectly. I really dig almost every part of the frame and design of the S, above and beyond any Android phone previously tested, and in many ways better than the iPhone as well.

That design starts with the unibody shell, which admittedly rids of the option to remove the battery, and in the case of the One S means no upgradeable memory. I know for some that’s an immediate deal breaker, especially for users who want to replace their current phone and media player with a single device, or already use a single device and don’t want to be forced to go back to two separate portables. It only comes in a 16GB model, with 12GB of usable memory, so not all that much for media, apps, and games. Then again, I’ve found that most Android users don’t have large apps or games, and tend to stream most media anyways, so that preference is entirely up to you.

The actual build quality is excellent. The unibody case allows for the tiny 7.8mm frame, yet the ceramic back is so equally smooth and easy to grip that its never hard to handle the phone, be it one-handed or two, in the car or on the street. It fits in the pocket so well thanks to the slim body, and it looks amazing to boot. The receiver is long and elegant, and beside it is the very noticeable but not overwhelming front-facing camera. The qHD display is an AMOLED panel, and below it are the three Android buttons for Ice Cream Sandwich, or Android 4.0. The S has three buttons total, the volume rocker on the right side and the power/standby button on the top right. Unfortunately the standby button is sometimes difficult to press, not because of the button itself, but because the shape of the top of the phone. The frame around the receiver is higher than the button, so whenever I pressed that button I’d always press on the receiver as well.

There are three peculiarities regarding the build. The first is the camera, an f/2 lens, which sticks out slightly from the frame and breaks away from the very sharp design. The camera is supposed to be a standout feature, though it isn’t (more on that in the camera section below), but it really shouldn’t have to stick out. Next is the removable panel, which closes off the microSIM slot and nothing else. This entire panel is useless…there’s no reason why the microSIM can’t be removed with a pin like on the HTC One X, iPhone, or a number of other phones. This panel would only be useful if it also housed a microSD card slot, which isn’t the case.

Finally, the placement of the microUSB port, on the left side. As an Android dock user, this is an inconvenience. While good Android docks are built to work for any Android phone, the OS still isn’t. Some handset makers include software for docks, but T-Mobile does not. In either case, the phone sits on the side on a dock, and it really would benefit to have the port on the bottom of the phone, both for practicality and because it wouldn’t have an empty space on the left side of the frame.

The One S, right, beside it's bigger brother, the One X

Let’s talk a bit about the display. As mentioned earlier, the One S uses a qHD (960×540) resolution Super AMOLED panel. I’ve found it to be a very good, very clear display, though considering it’s the biggest phone T-Mobile may see for a few months, I’m surprised and a little sad to see it isn’t a 720p display. qHD is the lowest resolution any phone these days should have, period, and for a flagship model on T-Mo I’d have rather seen a full HD panel. The AMOLED technology makes colors pop with high light and color contrast and plenty of oversaturation, but not so much that it makes images look fake. The problem is outdoors, in direct sunlight, the screen isn’t viewable. Most AMOLED panels have that problem, and it seems HTC hasn’t found a fix for it.

Software

Again, the One S runs on Android 4.0, but it also includes HTC’s latest Sense UI, Sense 4.0. HTC didn’t have much time to work on their software overlay, so it’s pretty minimalist, but doesn’t necessarily improve the overall Android experience. Some things are nice, like the graphical design for apps switching, and some of the personalization options, but the rest is fluff.

There are a few things to note about the One S specific to software. First, if the battery dies, there is no indicator of it. I’ve had the phone run dry at least a half dozen times during my testing and each time I’d walk around for several hours not knowing. Every other phone I’ve tested for the last 3 years has beeped or vibrated when shutting down. Some even go so far as to play the start-up carrier tune, even when muted, often to users dismay. Not so with the One S.

The second issue is crashing. App stability is at an all-time low with the One S. This is likely due to Sense 4.0, and possibly also due to Beats audio for media apps. But while some apps crashing now and again is not a big deal, the real problem is with the phone shutting down entirely. And because there is no sound when the phone shuts off, this can be a very serious problem. I’ve had the One S turn off randomly a handful of times, and I didn’t know for quite some time. This is a serious software flaw, one that HTC must fix before I can fully recommend the phone to any user.

Beats Audio integration has also taken full form in the One S, and it’s the first HTC handset that the audio equalizer will work across all media applications. The previous phone with Beats, the HTC Rezound, only worked with the equalizer for the Android Music app, which no one uses. With the One S, it works for everything, from music apps like Pandora to streaming YouTube clips. If you like the bass- and vocals-centric equalizer, then you will enjoy listening to all media with the One S. It can also be disabled pretty easily in the notifications bar when playing media.

The problem I’ve found is that when streaming music, through apps like Pandora, Beats turns off between songs and will sometimes cause the app to skip a song mid-stream. It’s likely that Pandora isn’t the only app this occurs on, as I’ve had some trouble with various video players and streaming sites. It also happens whether Beats is on or off.

Battery Life

My battery life benchmark requires a slight overhaul. Not because the test no longer works, but because ICS is much better than Android 2.3 about power conservation. As you can see with the HTC Vivid, battery life averages just over five hours, yet on Android 2.3 it was closer to four and a quarter. So for the sake of simplicity I’ve thrown out all but the top scorers that run older Android versions.

That said, the One S isn’t particularly great when it comes to power, which is to be expected considered the 1650mAh battery. It lasts a full day, but in areas where roaming is the norm, the battery won’t last more than a few hours. Though unlike plenty of Android devices, it can remain on Wi-Fi for days before discharging, likely thanks to T-Mobile’s insistence that Wi-Fi calling is a necessity for its users. This makes it excellent for office use.

Again, the One S will last a full day under moderate to heavy stress, but don’t expect any miracles. And with the software as it is now, never go out with it unless it’s fully charged, or it may power off and you won’t be the wiser.

Benchmarks

When it comes to benchmarks, the One S is a monster. It sets some records, both thanks to ICS and to its faster processor. Take a look.

The One S set a new record on the browsermark test, very barely edging out two tablets, both of which have full-powered CPUs and significantly better batteries. This speed boost can be attributed to better software and the new Qualcomm Krait CPU the One S has. The same applies for the Java Sunspider test, although Java requires more from the GPU and is a more stressful test. It appears that the Nexus S performed better because of the additional Sense 4.0 software. There is no other explanation, since the One S has significantly better hardware.

Again, when it comes to standard processing, the One S performs exceptionally, blowing even the high scores of the Galaxy S II models out of the water. And with the smoothness of the OS and general app use, this score comes as no surprise. It even stuns in the GL Benchmark test, which Apple still dominates but HTC is now edging far ahead of both Motorola and Samsung. This, of course, is also considering that the One S is not the most powerful of the One phones, so it’s a serious step up.

What do all of these benchmarks show? That the One S is the most powerful Android phone on the market. We also already know that the One X and subsequent Evo 4G LTE share a faster version of the same CPU, which means the S may claim the title of fastest Android phone, but that tomorrow is another day. This reign won’t last long.

Camera

HTC’s last few major phone releases have all claimed excellent picture quality. This is both part marketing and part truth, thanks to some of the fastest lenses and some of the latest cameraphone technology. However, with the One S, users don’t quite get the picture-perfect cameras the company expects them to have.

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As you can see in the sample shots above, the One S can take some very good photos, but shots are all too often lacking in contrast, blurry, or lacking in vibrancy. Unlike phones like the iPhone 4S or Nokia Lumia 900, there is also a lack of sharpness in shots, which makes photos soft. This means that while it’s more than possible to take some great shots with the One S, it’s also too easy to take bad shots and not know about it until after the moment has passed.

That said, video quality is exceptional, with very accurate colors and no noticeable lag. Sound quality is also great. HTC has a promotion for shooting video with a One series phone, and I think it’s a great device to use for it. So, essentially, the camcorder feature can replace a point-and-shoot, but the still camera cannot.

As I mentioned earlier in this review, HTC has also done some excellent work concerning the camera software. Two major changes to traditional smartphone camera apps make shooting infinitely better, so much so that when I had to go back to the normal way, it was a little deadening inside. The first is two shutter release buttons, each specific to stills and video. So no switching between still and video mode anymore; just shoot as you please. The second is far more important, and that’s taking full-size stills while shooting video.

Conclusion

I really, really like the HTC One S. If I used T-Mobile as my primary cell carrier, it would be the top phone for me. No other phone that T-Mo offers really compares. The One S has an excellent build, superb style, blazing-fast processing, and it runs ICS faster than any phone out.

But it’s not perfect, far from it. There are some serious issues, specifically with the phone shutting down randomly. The combination of the OS crashing with no alert when the phone shuts down is the sole reason I can’t recommend the phone for purchase, at least not yet. There is a single expectation all users have from their phones, that they are there when we need them. The One S simply isn’t, and the last thing any of us needs is to miss that important call, not capture that important moment, or simply be inconvenienced again and again because the phone shuts off for no known reason.

There are a few things I’d have liked to see different. A better camera, for starters, but also a better design power/standby button, and a full 720p display. Even without these, the One S is a very strong phone, one I’d love to recommend, but won’t until HTC puts out a firmware update to fix the software problems plaguing the device.

Editor’s Rating:

Rating: ★★★½☆

Very Good

Bottom Line: A very solid Android phone, and the fastest one tested thus far, but with an only-OK camera and some serious software bugs.

Pros:

  • Excellent build design and sleek look
  • The fastest Android phone there is
  • Excellent battery life over Wi-Fi

Cons:

  • Camera quality is so-so, with soft photos and all-too-easy blur
  • Software and phone crashing is completely unacceptable
  • Even with a 4.3″ screen, T-Mobile’s most important phone yet should have a 720p display



James Pikover

 
Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.