This isn’t a standard HTC One S review. You’ll be able to find reviews all over the web that talk about the phone from an objective standpoint. Reviews that pick it apart compared to the market at large. This isn’t like that. It’ll even miss some obvious bits off. The HTC One S is similar enough to its bigger brother, the One X, which we’ve called the best Android phone yet, for you to know it’s a belter. If you like Android.
Instead, this review is written from the point of view of a longtime iPhone user, and aims to answer one very simple, but often-asked question: has Android evolved enough to make an Apple fan happily switch camps? Buckle up kids, I’m about to serve up a huge serving of home truths.
What’s past is past
My smartphone history has been mixed. My first was an iPhone 3G, which I had for about 18 months before swapping to Android and the HTC Desire. I did this for one reason: at the time the iPhone couldn’t multitask, and I wanted to use Spotify while doing other things on the phone. After a brief flirtation with Windows Phone I returned to Apple with the iPhone 4, which I’ve now happily used for some 12 months.
My experience with Android was mixed. I liked some of it, but overall I found both Android 2.2 and the HTC Desire to be quirky and ungainly. I’m not a simpleton, but I appreciate the less complex nature of the iOS design. So much so that I ended up using an Android launcher that let me make my Desire look almost exactly like an iPhone.
But that was then, and this is now. Android has, so I’m told, made leaps and bounds in the right direction, culminating in Android 4.0. The HTC One S is a mix of Ice Cream Sandwich and HTC’s Sense, and it’s a mix that Ben really loved in his HTC One X review. But then Ben is an Android user. He’s watched it evolve, even got used to some of its kinks and foibles. So, let’s tear this bad boy apart: What’s it like taking the plunge and going straight from iPhone to this: the modern standard in Android? I used it for a week to find out.
Hardware and design
OK, so let’s get one thing said straight out of the gate: this is a far better-looking phone than the HTC Desire was. Ice Cream Sandwich has slammed in a golden rule: no physical buttons on the front of the phone. And that’s nice. I hope that Apple eventually does this with the iPhone, having had to replace an iPhone due to a faulty ‘home’ button. The Desire was a complete button-fest, in part brought about by Google’s long standing requirement to have at least three buttons, home, menu and back, on the phone. HTC went even further with a search button and a trackpad too.
This, however, is far more streamlined. The HTC One S is also impressively slim, but that slimness is perhaps due to it being considerably larger than the iPhone, allowing HTC to spread out the innards (more on the screen in a minute). But that’s where my praise sort of stops. While the iPhone 4’s glass casing will crack if you look at it the wrong way, it does feel a lot more sturdy. Apple makes things out of metal and glass.
The HTC One S is plasticky, by comparison, with completely unnecessary panels on the back, and a camera that juts out of the casing. That might not bother some people, but to me it looks odd and catches things on the way in and out of your pocket. The worst part is the button design, though. You will press the volume control by accident. Lots. It’s just too feeble and loose. Weirdly, the top, power button is the opposite – it requires you to shift the phone in your hands to reach.
And that’s because of the screen size.
Now, this is a really thorny issue – one where I ask you to remember that this purely is my opinion, and that yours may well differ. My stance, like many iPhone owners I know, is and always has been that the 3.5-inch size laid out by Apple in 2007 is the optimum. You wanna watch movies in exceptional detail? Here’s David Lynch’s opinion, which I wholly agree with.
Three and half inches is enough screen estate to see what you’re doing, while also – and pay attention now, because this is mega important – letting you touch every corner of the thing with your thumb, when held with that same hand. I appreciate that big screens are no longer a new idea – if anything, sales of Samsung Galaxy phones prove it’s the norm – but that’s kind of my point. I think the trend is still about size for the sake of size. It’s megapixel syndrome all over again. A bigger number on the box is marketing gold.
The large, Super-AMOLED 4.3-inch display on the HTC One S certainly shines in a way that rivals the Retina Display to my eyes, and does make Draw Something a bit easier, but all that goes out of the window when you step outside. Why? Because there’s another drawback to this combination of size and material: thieves are everywhere.
Call me paranoid, but I like the fact that I can confidently grip the iPhone in the middle of the street like my hand is a tungsten vice. The HTC One S, by comparison, feels like someone’s about to run along and slip it out of my hand like buttery soap. I feel like I’m barely holding it, and I’ve not got small mitts. That’s in part down to the size, and in part due to the curviness of the casing, but I feel it’s a valid argument. And that’s all I’m going to say about it, so you can sit down.
Inside the HTC One S there’s a dual-core 1.5GHz processor with 1GB of RAM. Nice looking numbers, sure, and it all boils down to an incredibly slick, fluid experience. Slicker than the iPhone? My human eyes aren’t capable of capturing micro-second differences. But I will tell you this: it lets you take a million photos in a row instantly after each other. Which is nice.
The call quality is decent, if a little thin and tinny-sounding, but the inbuilt voice recording app makes things sound like you’re behind a glass wall. Signal is good, though: handily giving me 3G in some of my regular iPhone blackout zones. Battery life, too, is a vast improvement from HTC’s Desire days.
OK, so that’s that. Oh no wait, I remember: the bulk of this is about Android. HTC’s run Ice Cream Sandwich through a mangle and slapped some of its Sense UI stuff on it. This is all editable, customisable and changeable with new launchers, but I’m going to pretend for a little bit that that’s not the case, because I’d imagine about half of the people who end up buying the One S won’t know how.
The best way to go through this is from the start, inwards. The lockscreen makes sense. Drag the ring up to unlock, pull your preset apps down into it to open them. That’s cool, but it can be oddly fiddly when you’re answering calls. Is it any better than the iPhone’s slide? Arguably, yes, given that it gives you instant access to apps, but too often I’d try to do that by dragging the ring to the app (rather than the other way round), which just unlocked the phone. But maybe that’s my brain’s problem.
When you land on the homescreen you’re confronted with a handful of apps, a massive clock widget and a little dock. I don’t like the Android dock’s size. You’ve got this massive screen but tiny, fiddly icons. Icon size is the same across the board: I don’t understand why you’d have smaller icons on a bigger screen unless you plan on putting more onto it. It’s still 4×4, though. Apple wins out on that, for me.
There are seven homescreens, all of which can be easily edited, deleted, created or swapped about. The chance for optimising your layout is pretty endless, I just wish Android, HTC et al didn’t still feel the need to bombard these screens with widgets when you first boot it up.
Widgets, like screen size, are a feature that divides iPhone and Android users. I can see the case for them, in as much as I’m still waiting for Apple to dump a simple ‘WiFi On/Off’ one under the Spotlight Search screen to the left of your iPhone’s homescreen. There are plenty on Android that prove their worth, too, but there are just so, so many useless ones.
Manufacturer-installed ones are universally bobbins, while to my (and many iPhone users’) eyes most widgets seem to be plastered on just to justify having seven screens, even if they melt the battery. Surely having fewer screens and only really essential stuff gives a phone a more streamlined user experience? To that end, I deleted five of the HTC One S’ seven homescreens.
But I’m avoiding the issue: Android and HTC Sense, and how it feels to use. Honestly? It’s slick, and I’m genuinely impressed. I will say that there’s still a fair bit of Google confusion to it, but by and large, this is not the Android I used to know and hate. It’s so, so much better designed now. People at HTC and Google have started paying attention to the simple aesthetic things that make using a smartphone fun.
There’s a much more universal, minimalist design language being employed, which I like, but it’s even simpler than that. Android now has animations and flourishes it didn’t before, and it makes all the difference. There’s a satisfying alternative to the iPhone’s elastic snap-back gesture (when you tap and drag any onscreen action to its limit). For example, the menus flex and tense open in a concertina fashion, whereas in previous Android iterations they’d remain dead, lifeless, statues. It’s a tiny addition, but this increased attention to detail and playful interaction makes things feel far more fluid.
Elsewhere everything seems to mix in elements of both the Sense UI and Android 4.0 nicely. It all requires far less fiddling and researching to get up and running than it used to. I know what I’m doing, obviously, but I’m always wary that a vast amount of Android phones will be sold to the non-tech everyman. And now it rightly should be.
Perhaps my favourite thing here is the new multitasking system, which employs a similar look to WebOS and the PlayBook’s ‘cards’: it shows you a screenshot of your last apps in a 3D row. HTC’s jazzed it up a bit from Google’s stock version, but it still works the same way: it’s one button away and gives you a more useful idea of where you were at than the iPhone’s app switching drawer. In this respect, it is definitely better.
My only gripe is with the age-old multitasking argument, which states that the iPhone doesn’t ‘truly’ multitask. It does to the extent that almost everyone needs on a phone. Android users who argue that you need one app to be loading a web page while another loads an email and another runs a game of FIFA must live in a very different world to me.
Yes, I’m saying it: I think Apple’s multitasking solution, which only allows for a few, key processes to run in the background, is the better way about it because I don’t think real life actually calls for multiple things to be running in the background at once. *Dons flame-retardant suit.*
As nice as the OS now is, and it is a staggering leap forward from my old Android 2.2 Desire, there were a few minor tweaks that I felt like I had to make. HTC’s stock keyboard is still atrocious. It’s just overly clustered, confusing to the eye and thekeysaretooclosetogether.
Promisingly, the best alternative is the free Ice Cream Sandwich Keyboard, available from the Google Play Shop. It’s a far better experience, even though – and Ben will argue against this – it’s a complete, utter rip-off of the iPhone’s keyboard. Yes, it suggests punctuation for you at the end of sentences,but I just don’t use it.
What it does have, though, is a decent way to select a specific point in a block of text. Finally. Hold the point down and a magnifying glass will pop up. You know, just like the iPhone. I’m not saying that to piss anyone off – sure, it’s stolen, but sometimes things are imitated for good reason. Look at Apple’s Notification Centre – it stole that from Android. Now everyone’s a winner.
I also had to stick on HTC’s Power Monitor app, thanks to Android’s weird insistence on making me turn GPS on and off, rather than doing it for me depending on what app I’m using. But then that all stems back to the multi-tasking debate du jour.
Well, well; my how you’ve grown. The newly-rebranded Google Play Shop is properly beautiful now. It’s obviously carefully laid out. It makes sense and gives more instant access to everything it contains. This, I like.
As I mentioned the other day, we’re getting to a point where there’s almost no big-name apps that are on the iPhone that aren’t now on Android. This wasn’t the case a couple of years ago, when I often had to try and find weird Android copycat versions of my friends’ iPhone apps. It’s great to see.
This is only going to continue. It’s quickly proving that big-name developers would be mad to launch apps on just the iPhone. It means that the Google Play Shop is now bulging with top quality apps. Netflix? Yep. Skype? Yep. Draw Something? Of course. It’s also got Bacon Reader, which is as good a Reddit app as I’ve managed to find on any platform (And now included in our Best Android Apps Of All Time list).
Put simply, in terms of general app range and usage, we’re at a point where the iPhone user can confidently move to Android without having to give anything up. Apart from some key services, of course…
Let’s get this out of the way first: I’m an iTunes user. I’m buried deep into it. Now, I know it’s really easy to sync up an Android phone with iTunes, but my usage goes a bit beyond that: I’ve paid Apple £23 (per year) for iTunes Match, which stores all of my music in iCloud and streams it to my iPhone.
I’m a niche case, sure, but it means that I can’t easily stream my songs – which is something I’d like to do, given that I have 40GB of music and only a 16GB HTC One S on my hands. Still, it’s not all bad news. In fact there’s lot to love here.
HTC’s done a deal with Dropbox to allow you 25GB of free storage for two years. That’s really great. It means, in theory, that I could move much of my backed up music onto Dropbox and stream it from there, even if there’d be no way to listen to concurrent songs or playlists.
Still, the Dropbox integration is pretty sweet; on Android, it’s now integrated into the camera so that, if you like, you can have it automatically upload all of your shots to the cloud, no matter when you activate it. That’s actually better than iCloud, because iCloud only lets you upload photos taken in the last 30 days.
Being from Google, you also get the best Google Maps tools on any platform. That includes free turn-by-turn navigation, which manifests itself here as ‘HTC Car’. Genuinely, this is brilliant; the buttons are big, the layout familiar to anyone who’s used a standalone satnav and it has music integration.
These are all things that cost you a fair bit of cash on the iPhone, and Android’s dishing them out for free. Along with blockbuster movie rentals for an iTunes-matching £3.49 and eBooks either from Google Play or Kindle, you won’t be stuck for entertainment.
When I showed the HTC One S to my housemate, he looked at it, played around with it and said “I’m just too used to the iPhone. I’m scared of anything else.” He’s not stupid or uninformed; he’s a lead web and app developer.
This is what we’re dealing with here: people who are scared of the unknown, or who’ve seen an older, less-developed version of Android and think that they just can’t swap. Well, to cut a very long short, they can. An iPhone user should now confidently be able to move to Android with gusto.
Google’s OS is now a far better prospect when sat next to the iPhone than it ever used to be. The extent of this actually shocked me.
But… The inevitable ‘but’. I won’t be swapping. Why? Because my Apple-loving ways don’t start and end with the iPhone and iTunes. I am a Mac user. I have two of them, and I think I may buy an Apple TV box fairly soon. The fact of the matter is that Apple provides a really good set of cross-platform services, the likes of which Google’s never quite been able to string together. The Chromebook laptops, for example, seemed to offer no discernible link to Android that made either really worth having.
I’m sure this will change. Google Play is driving this movement, and it’ll improve as Google’s online portfolio does, but at the moment I’m an Apple user. I’m an Apple user who’s now jealous of some key Android niceties, but I’m still in the camp I was when I started.
But then, that’s just me and just my opinion based on my personal needs. Everyone’s different… Let me know just how differently you think about all this below.