I’m not going to spend too much time on the hardware, because we’ve already covered it extensively in our earlier One reviews. To quickly recap: The HTC One Google Play Editionis a beautifully crafted phone, and easily on par with anything Apple has ever built. It measures 5.4 by 2.7 by 3.7 inches (HWD) and weighs five ounces. The aluminum body looks and feels great, and even the small plastic white band around the side looks good. Oversized speaker grilles at the top and bottom of the front panel hint at the phone’s audio prowess.
The 4.7-inch, Gorilla Glass 2-covered, 1080p display is stunning, thanks to its incredible 468-ppi resolution. It’s better than the iPhone 5’s 4-inch 1136-by-640 screen, although it loses something in viewing angles and color vividness both to the iPhone 5 and the Samsung Galaxy S 4. Beneath the display is a slightly perplexing pair of Back and Home buttons, which makes popping up menus (by double-tapping the Home button) too complex.
The HTC One Google Play Edition is a dual-band LTE (700/AWS), tri-band HSPA+ 21 (850/1900/2100MHz), and quad-band EDGE (850/900/1800/1900MHz) phone with 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi and NFC. That means, unfortunately, it works best only with AT&T. While it will function well in T-Mobile LTE cities, it’s missing the HSPA+ AWS band needed to make the most of T-Mobile’s fallback network, and it won’t run on Verizon or Sprint at all.
Ookla speed tests confirmed that there’s no difference between the Google Play Edition and other HTC Ones with regard to data speeds. Voice calls through the earpiece sound clear, sharp, and identical to the carrier-subsidized version; unlike with the Samsung Galaxy S 4, HTC didn’t do much to affect processing here. Just as before, there’s a decided treble tilt to the sound of callers’ voices. Transmissions through the microphone were clear, albeit with a bit more background noise than the regular model.
User Interface and Performance
Compared with the regular HTC One, the setup process was practically instantaneous. The regular HTC One forces you to jump through hurdles to set up the phone, and even tells you to go to a desktop PC to log into HTC’s website and set up an account as part of the process. Here, you just join a Wi-Fi network, input your existing Google account, and boom—you’re already at the home screen ready to go.
Once you’re there, the phone flies. There’s no perceptible lag when using the standard home screens, lock screen, and app drawers. The ‘standard’ HTC One looks crufty by comparison: I see an extra menu bar dividing up the home screen with buttons in weird places. App folders called Productivity and Tools bury needed programs an extra click down. Blinkfeed is fine if you like its news-feed idea, but I’d choose a different home screen immediately. The tall, thin system font is ugly, and the way HTC divided up the app drawer drives me nuts. The dial pad has small number keys, although it’s smarter than stock Android’s, thanks to its type-ahead features and more robust contact integration. These are all matters of taste, of course (and Sascha Segan, one of our other reviewers, disagrees with me), but I don’t get the feeling HTC nailed it with Sense 5 the way some other reviewers do.
In various benchmark tests, the Google Play Edition generally turned in slightly faster performance than the regular HTC One, despite the fact that both are equipped with a quad-core 1.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor. But that’s not what it seems, as I tested a subsidized HTC One running Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. With the Samsung Galaxy S 4 Google Play Edition, I saw almost exactly the same performance as the carrier-subsidized Galaxy S 4. So really, you’ll see more of a performance gain upgrading to Android 4.2.2 than using a One with the carrier bloatware and HTC Sense 5 stripped away. You get 32GB of on-board storage, which is a lot, but there’s no microSD card slot; some may consider that a dealbreaker.
Camera and Conclusions
One place you’ll see some performance degradation from the Sens-ified version is with the camera. HTC’s UltraPixel camera requires software processing to do its magic, particularly in low-light areas; otherwise it’s just a 4-megapixel sensor, albeit with very large pixels. In practice, this resulted in good-but-not-great photos across the board, with smeared fine details and a general inability to compensate for lighting changes. In back-to-back comparison testing, the HTC One with Sense 5 delivered more consistent and evenly lit photos than the Google Play version, and with a bit more detail. Recorded 1080p videos played smoothly at 30 frames per second, but the lack of image stabilization and some slight overexposure issues resulted in inferior overall quality. There’s also a 2.1-megapixel front-facing camera for video chats.
I really like this phone, because it’s beautiful hardware and because it runs stock Android. I don’t pick it up and think it’s missing apps or a UI layer. I pick it up and think, look, it’s just like the awesome Nexus 7 tablet, only smaller. With the Google Play Edition, you’re guaranteed OS updates whenever they’re first made available. You get a phone with zero bloatware from either HTC or the carrier of your choice. You get a phone that works with AT&T and (kinda) T-Mobile SIM cards here and inexpensive prepaid SIMs overseas.
The HTC One Google Play Edition is better than last year’s LG-built Google Nexus 4, thanks to the HTC One’s superior screen resolution, improved camera (despite its lower megapixel rating), quad-core processor, and full 4G LTE support, although the Nexus 4 remains a shrewd budget buy at half the price and performs better in T-Mobile HSPA+-only areas. Choosing between the One and the Samsung Galaxy S 4 is tougher, and is more about your priorities. The Samsung phone offers a slimmer design, a slightly larger display, a slightly faster processor, a removable battery, a better 13-megapixel camera, and a microSD card slot, all of which add up to an Editors’ Choice award over this HTC One. But the Galaxy S 4 is made of plastic, lacks the HTC One’s more powerful on-board speakers, and looks decidedly generic in comparison.
At its unsubsidized entry price, the HTC One Google Play Edition is guaranteed not to sell many units. Rest assured that’s entirely because of the cost; if this phone were available for under $200 up front the way the regular HTC One is, you can bet a lot more people would choose it. I certainly would.