HTC One camera test

Above: Taken with the HTC One in NYC’s Central Park.

Image Credit: Devindra Hardawar/VentureBeat

A different kind of smartphone camera

While most other smartphone makers are racing to pack in as many megapixels in their cameras as possible, HTC went in a completely different direction with the One. Its camera only offers 4 megapixels, but it makes up for that low figure with Ultrapixel technology, which lets in more light than typical smartphone camera sensors. That means the One should be better equipped than most other smartphones to take shots at night.

The One’s camera is also optically stabilized, making it better suited for low-light shots without blur and video without too much shakiness. The One’s night capabilities are helped by an incredibly low f/2.0 aperture, which camera geeks will surely appreciate.

Nokia’s photo-friendly Lumia 920 is the only smartphone on the market that can compete with the One’s camera specs. The iPhone 5’s 8-megapixel shooter doesn’t have optical stabilization and it has a higher f/2.4 aperture (so it takes in less light than the One).

I found the One’s camera excelled at low-light shots. Daytime shots weren’t always as clear as higher megapixel cameras from the iPhone 5 (8MP) and Galaxy S 4 (13MP). Still, I preferred the flexibility of taking decent low-light photos without the need for a harsh flash. That’s something professional photographers strive for with their expensive cameras and lenses. And as you can see from the photos below, the One’s day shots still look pretty great.

Stretching the functionality of its camera even further, the One includes a new feature dubbed HTC Zoe. Once enabled, Zoe records a short 3-second video and up to 20 still photos whenever you take a shot. It’s a nice way to make sure you don’t miss a single moment, and it’s fun to see the Zoe clips alongside your static photos. For the most part though, I haven’t found too much use for Zoe.

I respect HTC’s bold camera approach with the One, as it both attacks the megapixel myth head-on (the idea that higher megapixels instantly means better pics) and offers a solution that works well for the way we take pictures today. Ultimately, cellphone camera pictures will most likely end up on Facebook or Instagram, not in a framed photo on your mantle. And with storage space a priority on smartphones, it makes more sense to focus on higher-quality images that are reasonably sized, rather than huge files from a high-megapixel camera.

Software you’ll actually use

In my review of last year’s HTC One S, I called for the death of the company’s Sense Android skin, which slowed down an otherwise fantastic phone with tons of software bloat. Well, I didn’t get my wish this time around, but I have a feeling HTC has been listening to complaints.

The company’s updated Sense 5 skin is stripped down and never gets in your way. It’s focused mostly on a single screen called the BlinkFeed, which is sort of what you’d get if you mixed together social media and news updates from Flipboard and Pulse with Windows Phone’s flat home screen tiles. The BlinkFeed is a core part of HTC’s home screen, so you’re typically never more than a few swipes away from it.

While it’s certainly no replacement for a dedicated news application, I grew to love sifting through news updates during my idle time. The BlinkFeed is perfect for when you want to glance at the news but don’t feel like digging through your news app.

HTC has also revamped its music player and created a new TV app as part of the new Sense. Powered by technology from the startup Peel (which also powers Samsung’s similar app on the Galaxy S4), the TV app lets you control your home entertainment system and keep an eye on what’s on the air. The One’s power button doubles as an infra-red sensor, which means it can control practically anything that relies on a traditional remote control.

Even though I’m an unabashed couch potato, I still haven’t found much of a reason to use a smartphone to replace my remote controls. The One’s TV app is a decent effort, though, and it could appeal to people tired of juggling multiple remotes at home. And I’m sure some fans will appreciate never having to leave the glow of the HTC One’s screen just to change the channel.

With Sense’s new diet and focus on useful features, you could say that it finally makes sense.

The bad: Not much

It’s rare that I don’t have many negative things to say about a smartphone, but there’s just not much to complain about with the HTC One. One minor issue may bother some buyers though: It only has two capacitive buttons — a back button and a home button.

You can double-tap on the home button to access all of your running apps, which takes some getting used to at first but quickly becomes second-nature. Just like HTC’s previous One models, there’s nothing that takes the place of the standard Android menu button, which was used in the past (and is still used on some new phones) to display additional options for an app.

Google deprecated the menu button last year (a signal to developers that they should stop supporting it), but plenty still haven’t updated their apps to take advantage of the new interface guidelines. For HTC One users, that means they’ll see a black bar at the bottom of the screen that simulates the Android menu button of yore. It’s only a few pixels tall, but it’s an eyesore every time it pops up. (Twitter recently updated its Android app to remove its reliance on the old menu button, so it seems that Android devs are finally paying attention to Google’s changes.)