The HTC One S was announced alongside the HTC One X (be sure to read our full review) and the One V during Mobile World Congress in February. The One S, spec-wise, sits right between the two phones, but it’s not really much of a downgrade from the One X. It offers the same super fast ImageSense camera engine, a thinner body, an excellent industrial design and a dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor. The device will launch on T-Mobile USA in the United States soon and we’ve been playing with an international model for the past several weeks. Should the One S be your next smartphone or should you stick to the higher-end One X? I’ll address those questions and more in my review.
I’m madly in love with HTC’s One X hardware, but part of me likes the One S even better — from a design standpoint, that is. The device is thinner than the One X and measures just 7.18mm thick. It fits perfectly into my pockets and is super light at 4.21 ounces, too. HTC’s design team is “obsessive” with creating first-class phones and it shows in both the One X and the One S.
There are two versions of the One S, a blue gradient aluminum unibody model and a matte-black plasma-blasted model. The major differences between the two are the color schemes and the orb around the camera sensor. The blue-gradient has an aluminum blue border around the camera while the matte-black model has a red one. I had the black plasma model, which looks great. However, it’s terrible when it comes to scratches and scuffs. My review unit was in the same pocket as my keys and after just two days already had copper key scratches all over the backside. You’ll see those scratches in several images throughout the review. I was under the impression that the phone was resistant to scratches and scuffs but that’s definitely not the case. You’ll need a case the day you buy the phone if you want to keep it in tip-top shape. In general, I’d advise grabbing the gradient blue version just to avoid the scratches — plus, it looks just as amazing as the black model.
My biggest gripe with the HTC One S is its display. It’s 4.3-inches and has a resolution of 960 x 540-pixels and it’s far more pixelated than the HD display on the HTC One X. The two displays are light years apart and, while I understand the One S packs a lower-resolution display likely to keep costs down, I really wish the phone had the sharper screen available on the One X. Everything from websites to text while reading a Game of Thrones eBook was noticeably less crisp on the One S than it was on the One X. You can tell the difference just looking at the two homescreens side by side, too. In the image above, for example, you can see how much more of the TechnoBuffalo homepage is available on the higher-resolution screen of the One X. If resolution doesn’t bother you too much then you’ll be perfectly pleased with the screen’s other aspects. It’s easily viewable under direct sunlight, provided the brightness settings are hiked up, and the colors are supe vibrant.
The One S has a 3.5mm headphone jack on the top, which is enhanced for Beats Audio support, and volume toggle keys in easy reach on the right-side of the phone. There’s also a microUSB charging port on the left side. I’m a bit bummed there isn’t a microSD expansion slot, but the phone does ship with 16GB of storage plus 25GB of free storage from Dropbox for two years, so you’ll have plenty of storage for the greater part of the life of the phone. I was able to load mine up with hundreds of cached songs from Spotify, hundreds of pictures and several videos and never felt pressed for storage. If you’re a media mogul you’ll want to consider the One X for its 32GB of on-board storage.
The One S doesn’t have an HDMI-out port, but don’t let that worry you. If you swipe with three fingers, from the bottom of the screen to the top, you’ll automatically activate the Media Link HD setup feature. You’ll need HTC’s optional Media Link HD dock, but if you have it, you can mirror the phone’s display on your HDTV. Unfortunately, we weren’t given a unit to test out but we’re told they should retail for about $80 when they hit the market.
The HTC One S runs Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich with HTC’s custom Sense 4 user interface on top. I’ve always been a fan of Sense, but I understand that a lot of users prefer naked ICS because it runs faster. I have good news, however: the One S’s 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 processor and 1GB of RAM helps it breeze through Sense without any trouble, just like the NVIDIA Tegra 3 in the One X did.
Sense 4 adds a ton of enhancements, too, including the ability to customize your lock screen with the weather, photos, your financial portfolio’s performance or custom icons. It also allows you to use HTC’s Beats Audio technology with any application. That means inside games, Spotify, Google Music or the phone’s default music player, among other areas. There’s a noticeable sound improvement. Audio sounds fuller and there are more noticeable highs and lows. I personally use Spotify most of the day so I really like that it’s enhanced when I play back cached tunes. HTC also added its ImageSense engine in the One S and Sense 4 includes plenty of new camera UI options and more. I’ll discuss that more in the camera section.
I received an international review unit from HTC, so it wasn’t pre-loaded with carrier bloatware. You can bet you’ll see a few pre-installed applications in T-Mobile’s version, but for now I’m pleased to report you won’t have to go digging to remove apps the second you power the phone on.
The One S has the exact same 8-megapixel camera with a single LED flash and ImageSense technology as the One X. That means you can expect excellent photos right out of the box. The shooter is capable of auto-focusing on a target in less than 0.2 seconds and capturing images in just 0.7 seconds. There’s an amazing multi-shot feature that allows a user to simply hold down the shutter button in order to capture images in rapid fire. When you’re done shooting, you can choose to save just one image or keep the whole batch in an album. I love this option.
The camera capabilities don’t end there, though. You can also capture photos while recording 1080p video at 60 frames-per-second. That means you can record a video of your friend diving into the ocean and snap a picture of her or him mid-air while recording the video. It’s a great feature, especially if you have kids and want both photos and videos at the same time.
Speaking of the video quality, the HTC One S’s video is top notch. It automatically auto-focuses in on objects quickly and the quality was on-a-par with what I’ve seen from other high-end cameras in Samsung Galaxy S II, Galaxy Note and other 8-megapixel packing Android phones.
Call Quality / Data
I had an excellent experience using the One S as a phone. It sounds silly to say that, but we’re more and more using our devices for texting and web surfing and downloading apps than actually making phone calls. I’m pleased to report, however, that call quality was excellent, as was the speakerphone, and I loved that I could place the phone down to automatically activate the speakerphone option. You can deactivate this feature, of course, and it’s one that HTC and many others have included in plenty of devices before.
The One S model I tested was built for international networks and not specifically for AT&T on which I used it in New York City. Even still, data speeds were OK for an HSPA device. I typically saw speeds around 1.72Mbps for download throughput and .77Mbps on the upload side. Those are slow speeds but, again, this device wasn’t optimized for AT&T so your experience will vary greatly depending on the carrier you’re using it on.
T-Mobile USA users will likely see much faster speeds since the One S version for that carrier will support 42Mbps HSPA+ data connectivity. I’ve heard of users achieving speeds between 8-12Mbps in New York City on that network but haven’t seen those results myself (the coverage is skattered and you can get better data speeds depending on what part of Manhattan you’re testing in).
The battery life on the One S was quite good. I was able to get through most of the day on its 1,650mAh battery without an issue, but sometimes found that I needed a charge around 7:00 p.m. at night if I wasn’t around an outlet during the day. Generally, you should be pleased with the battery life on the One S and HTC has gone to extends to ensure that the battery lasts longer than previous devices by turning off sync for unnecessary HTC-branded background applications.
The One S is an excellent smartphone that will likely land on carriers at a lower price-point than the HTC One X. It’s essentially the same phone as the One X in the United States, save for its lack of 4G LTE support and a lower-resolution and smaller screen. But it’s also skinnier while maintaining the same great camera and user experience. When it launches on T-Mobile it will be, I suspect, the best Android device available on that carrier for quite some time. Its feature list is leagues beyond other Android smartphones and it’s the first that will offer Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich to T-Mobile customers in the United States. The One X is great, it’s the cream of the crop, but the One S is no slouch either. If you’re looking for excellent hardware at an affordable price point, look no further than the One S.
For more information on how we rate phones, be sure to check out our official mobile review scoring format guide.