HTC's New Smartphones Are Great - Let's Hope The Company Survives

People of a certain age will remember the Cola Wars and the blind taste tests of the late 1970s and '80s. The “Pepsi Challenge” was a cultural phenomenon that has endured as a enduring marketing slogan for almost 40 years. 

In 2013, the Cola Wars are passé. Now, we have smartphones. 

Last week I decided to perform my own Smartphone Challenge. I walked around with two smartphones, the HTC One and a Samsung Galaxy and handed them to random people. “First impression, which phone would you want more?” I asked. Of 25 people I asked, 18 of them preferred the HTC One. 

The test was not scientific and user interaction was not substantial. It was more of a first-impression type of thing. Now, this is not a marketing pitch for HTC. It is merely an observation that goes to support a point: HTC makes very nice smartphones and it would be a shame if this manufacturer died - which could happen. 

HTC has posted six straight quarters of declining revenue. Its most recent quarter, it barely eked out an operating profit and the company’s leaders expect the next quarter to be worse. Unlike mid-level rivals BlackBerry and Nokia (whose fall from grace mirrors that of HTC), the Taiwanese manufacturer is not sitting on a large cash hoard.

HTC’s two most recent phone launches, the One and the First (the “Facebook Phone”) show that it has the chops to rebuild its brand and market share. 

What Makes The HTC One Best Of Brand

Aesthetics: First, let’s move past the fact that the HTC One does not have a removable back or expandable memory slot. The One is built with a full metal body, 4.7-inch display with one of the best screens that has come out on a smartphone at 468 pixels-per-inch. At 143 grams (5.04 ounces) it is not the lightest smartphone on the market, but it is definitely sturdy. The weight, size and build were the reasons most-cited in the first-impression test when people held the One.

Apple, Samsung and Nokia all make beautiful phones as well. HTC can definitely put the One up against any of its competitors ounce for ounce, inch for inch and say that it has one of the best looking phones on the market.

Hardware: HTC has not always been a hardware leader. That title goes to Samsung and the specs from the forthcoming Galaxy S4 prove that yet again. But, HTC is no slouch. The battery is 2300 mAh, considerably bigger than the 1800 mAh the One X shipped with at this time last year. It still falls behind the impressive 2600 mAh of the S4 but the battery life of the One is good enough to last a full day of moderate to heavy use when Wi-Fi, GPS and LTE are all being employed by the user. 

The quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 keeps things moving along well on the One. The Snapdragon 600 is the same chip that the Galaxy S4 and LG Optimus G Pro will employ in the United States.

The One has two front-facing speakers employing what it calls “BoomSound.” Boom indeed. The sound on the One reminds me of the portable stereo I used to have in the early 90s, but better. I do not recall ever having to turn down the volume on a smartphone when playing music through its speakers, but I had to with the One. Quality was not sacrificed either, as every note came through clearly. Now, while the sound is impressive, not many consumers tend to play music through their smartphone speakers, eschewing it for the comfort and privacy of ear buds.

Sense Features: HTC has a new skin with the One – Sense 5.0. It has been difficult to quantify Sense among users over the years. Some love it, some hate it. If anything can be said about Sense 5.0 is that it generally stays out of the way of the user experience, with a couple notable exceptions. The first is “BlinkFeed” the built-in content feed that doubles as the home screen when you turn on the device. BlinkFeed aggregates from your Facebook newsfeed along with highlights from various publications of interest. It is kind of like having the Pulse News reading app as a home screen that updates itself. In and of itself, that is not a bad thing if you are a news junkie. Yet, BlinkFeed does not allow you to bring in customized feeds for publications not already in its network. For instance, if I want technology news, I can use the “tech highlights” setting or get feeds straight from The Verge or CNET. While quality publications, I prefer a more egalitarian set of choices for my news that I can control. 

You cannot remove BlinkFeed as one of the panels on your device. If you want to marginalize it, you can set a different panel as your home screen. Sense 5.0 only allows five panels, reducing real estate to pin apps and widgets to your device.

Camera: When HTC announced that the One would have “ultrapixels” we basically scratched our heads and said, “ummm, what?” Ultrapixels is a marketing term and not a very good one at that. But how does the actual camera perform? Very well.

Ultrapixels are supposed to allow more light into the aperture of the camera, creating clearer pictures, especially in low-light settings. We have found this to be true, as seen in the  examples below.

Low light conditions at a concert (Ben Mirin of VentureFizz beat boxing at a charity event) Low light conditions at a concert (Ben Mirin of VentureFizz beat boxing at a charity event)

The popular thing to do among smartphone makers these days is to pack as many features into their cameras as possible. The Samsung Galaxy S4 is particularly egregious at this, but Nokia and Apple are both guilty as well. HTC is no different. It has a variety of settings for sharing (under the HTC Zoe feature), the ability to take “sound photos,” panorama shots, various filters, shoot and edit videos (at 1080p) and more. Frankly, most people are going to just open the camera app and snap a photo but HTC provides a variety of advanced features as well. The smartphone camera wars are alive and well and the advanced capabilities brought forth by various manufacturers are a good thing for consumers, developers, hobbyists and enthusiasts. 

HTC First: A Decent Option For The Mid-Level

The Facebook Phone (the HTC First) is remarkable for really one reason: Facebook. Otherwise, this device is so non-descript that it is almost painful. David Pogue of The New York Times probably said it best when he described the First: “What’s the deal with this phone? It’s plastic, dull, uninteresting. It’s so generic, it should come in a plain white box that says PHONE on it.”

Harsh, but true. The first impression of the First when taken out of the box might be, “wow, this looks like an iPhone.” That is where the comparisons to Apple’s flagship stop. The phone runs Facebook Home as a launcher, which is fine if you like Facebook and want it centralized as the skin for your phone. Otherwise, the First runs stock Android Jelly Bean. You can use the phone without Home, which essentially turns it into a mid-level smartphone not unlike a Google Nexus device except without the official Google support that the company gives its flagship Android devices. 

Really, that is not entirely a bad thing. The First comes at a reasonable price ($99 on contract through AT&T or $449.99 off contract) and can be attuned to a full Android experience or an Android experience colored by Facebook. The market for that type of device could be parents looking to get their teenagers their first smartphones or developers looking for a relatively cheap Android device to test apps on. The First may not be anything special, but if you are looking in the middle market for smartphones, you could definitely do worse. 

With the One and the First, HTC could gain momentum to overtake several of its rivals, which are numerous. Right now, HTC’s biggest rival is probably Nokia, which has filed an injunction against the One for use of microphone technology in the device. But HTC also has to battle for position with the leaders of the pack in Apple and Samsung as well as the Android Army of ZTE, Huawei, LG and others. If it can avoid the pitfalls that doomed it the last two years (legal issues, distribution and marketing), HTC has the tools to come out ahead.