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HTC One Max REVIEW – A Viable Phablet Competitor?

by Todd Haselton | October 15, 2013October 15, 2013 12:00 pm PDT

HTC officially announced the HTC One Max on Monday, the third installment in its One family of smartphones. The original One was launched with a 4.7-inch screen, and it was followed shortly after with the One mini, a smaller phone with a 4.3-inch display. Now, in an effort to quell the thirsts of phablet lovers, we have the One Max and its mighty 5.9-inch 1080p screen.

The One Max also offers a few other compelling features, such as Sense 5.5, Android 4.3 and a fingerprint reader on the back of the device. Enthusiasts may also be pleased to learn that there’s a removable back cover and expandable storage through a microSD card slot.

The One Max will launch in mid-October around the world, and in the United States shortly after. We’ve had the device for five days now, so let’s dig into what it offers, what it doesn’t, and what we think about HTCs latest and largest foray into phablet territory.

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Hardware

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HTC isn’t alone in the massive phone market, and the company told TechnoBuffalo that it created the device largely for the Asian market, where 6-inch and 7-inch phones are common and popular form factors, particularly among women. And, as we said in the Note 3 review, we can’t bash the phone for being “too big” since consumers know what they’re getting at the outset. We can, however, discuss why it’s still super cumbersome.

That said, the One Max probably isn’t the best name for the One. It should probably be called the One Massive, or the One Super Huge. Yes, the screen is beautiful and bright and easier to see outdoors than the Note 3 display. However, while it only measures 0.2-inches larger than the 5.7-inch screen on the Note 3, the device as a whole feels so, so much bigger.

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We blame a lot of that on the aluminum design, which definitely adds a lot of heft to the device – though the positive end of that is that it looks brilliant and feels solid. Additionally, the One Max has two large BoomSound speakers above and below the screen; that drastically increases the diagonal length of the phone compared to the Note 3, which doesn’t have those speakers. The good news? The speakers are fantastic and are the best we’ve ever used on a smartphone.

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We’re big fans of the removable back cover, which allows you to add a microSD card or, in some markets, a secondary SIM card. However, you can’t remove the battery and re-applying the back cover can be tough. There’s a small button that you can push to pop the cover off, though there are small teeth that need to be correctly aligned to get it back in place, and they don’t always grab on correctly, which means the cover doesn’t always sit flat if it isn’t placed on perfectly well. We saw this issue with several units, so we know it isn’t only a problem with ours.

To address button layout: HTC moved the power button to the side of the device, right next to the volume buttons, but kept the 3.5mm headphone jack and IR blaster (which is actually part of the power button on the original One) on the top of the phone.

Finally – the guts. It would seem that the latest and largest phone in a smartphone family would have the best specs, but that’s far from the case. The HTC One Max has 2GB of RAM and a Snapdragon 600 processor, the same specs found in the HTC One that launched months ago. The Note 3, by contrast, offers a Snapdragon 800 processor and 3GB of RAM. Thankfully the experience is super quick, so there wasn’t a real noticeable difference between the two in day-to-day use. That said, it’s a letdown for spec heads and if the phone comes in at the same $300 price point as the Note 3 it’s going to offer lower-end specs for the same cost.

Fingerprint Reader

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The One Max has a fingerprint reader. It’s a small pad that sits just below the camera on the back of the phone. Unlike the iPhone 5s, however, this reader requires that you swipe your finger in order for it to register, which means you can’t simply tap your finger to unlock the phone.

HTC addressed security concerns and said that it’s not storing the fingerprint data and that everything is encrypted. Unlike on the iPhone 5s, you can actually use the fingerprint reader to launch applications, such as the camera, instead of just for unlocking the phone. HTC says it has plans to launch an API to developers so that other apps can take advantage of this functionality.

The fingerprint reader works well, but it was so cumbersome to hold the device and swipe my finger with one hand that I turned it off almost immediately. It’s extremely awkward trying to reach up and swipe with your index finger while holding the phone in your palm, and I thought I might drop the phone nearly every time.

Software

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The HTC One comes with Android 4.3 Jelly Bean and Sense 5.5 out of the box. Sense 5 was a big leap for the user interface, but this is just an iterative improvement. Let’s talk about Sense 5.5, since that’s what offers the most change here.

BlinkFeed now includes the option to add RSS feeds, and you can also customize your content based on your location. If you want news catered to the U.K., for example, you can pick that, or you can read U.S. news. Additionally, it syncs up with Facebook for quick sharing and for importing topics that you’re interested in. There’s an offline reading option, too, for saving articles to read later. And yes, you can turn BlinkFeed off now, though we really like the experience on the larger screen and actually preferred having it on. Finally, you can access all of your feeds and control BlinkFeed from a new side menu, which works really well and provides highlights, your reading list, and lets you customize your BlinkFeed content based on specific topics, or even search for topics that are being discussed on Twitter.

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HTC also made some updates to the gallery application, which is cleaner and easier to navigate. Our favorite tweaks were actually made to the Highlight reels, however, which are much easier to customize with specific Zoe, picture and video content.

You can now create Highlight videos with your own MP3 soundtrack, and the software will automatically sync the highs and lows in your track to fit with the sequence of your Highlight reel. You can specifically choose which part of the song you want to play, too. It works really well and overall we’re pleased with the changes to Highlights.

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Sense 5.5 has a lot of other minor changes, there’s a do not disturb mode that keeps your phone quiet during pre-set hours, for example, and even after five days with the phone we’re still finding other small tweaks. It’s a really nice improvement over Sense 5, though not as drastic, and HTC will issue an update to the One and One mini with Sense 5.5 as well.

Camera

There are a lot of questionable choices that were made with the One Max, and one of the most head-scratching is why HTC decided to ditch optical image stabilization in the camera. The HTC One has that option, which helps make images much clearer during movement, and we definitely noticed the difference while testing the camera.

We took the One Max out on a boat ride on the River Thames, for example, and found that a lot of images had some blur since we were bumping around on the waves. The rest of the optics are the same, however, so you’re still getting the 4-Ultrapixel camera that works really well in low-light situations. We were really pleased with most photos snapped by the phone, both in good light conditions and in lowlight, though Apple took a similar approach with the 8-megapixel camera on the iPhone 5s, and so far we prefer that camera to the One Max.

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As with other One-branded smartphones, the One Max shoots video in 1080p. The Galaxy Note 3, however, also has an option to record in 4k UHD, so take that into consideration.

Data and Call Quality

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We’re still testing the data speeds and call quality of the One Max. We tested the phone on Three in London and a few quick test calls were fine, but we’ll save our final reservations for additional testing with a U.S. review unit.

The same goes for data speeds – we only had access to a 3G network in London. Verizon and Sprint will offer LTE models of the One Max, and those are obviously going to offer a much better data experience. We can say, however, that the signal dropped noticeably in the bowels of the large hotel we were staying in, while our iPhone 5s managed to keep a signal from Vodafone UK just fine.

Battery Life

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The One Max packs a huge 3,300mAh battery that provided more than enough battery to get through a full day. I took it with me from 8 a.m. in the morning until about 10 p.m. at night and still had about 40 percent of a charge left. To be fair, I was in meetings and not using the phone as frequently as I would had I not been in meetings, though it idled very well and was also searching for a signal for a lot of that time – a definite battery draining task.

4G LTE versions of the One Max will obviously add more strain to the battery, so we’ll also revisit that once we have Sprint and Verizon models in our hands. For now, though, we’re confident in claiming that most people will easily get through a full day of use.

Should you require additional battery life, you can pick up HTC’s optional Flip Battery Cover, which employs a flexible 1,200mAh battery, providing you with a total battery capacity of 4,500mAh. The Flip Cover will cost about $89.99 and works well, though we found it to be so bulky we often left it off of the phone entirely – at the sacrifice of knowing we had less battery life.

Final Thoughts

While we still love the aluminum design, we think that most consumers are better off with the Galaxy Note 3.

This is one of the tougher reviews we’ve had in a while. The One Max feels too bulky for what it offers under the hood, and that’s our biggest complaint with the phone. The fingerprint reader is a neat addition, but the phone is so big that it’s was more of a pain to use. Additionally, HTC opted to ditch optical image stabilization on the camera, went with a slower Snapdragon 600 processor instead of the newer and more powerful Snapdragon 800 chip, and really didn’t add anything compelling over the original One save for a larger screen.

The software is great, and while we know it’s purely a matter of opinion, we really like Sense 5.5 and the additional features that are now available. That’s going to be made available to the HTC One as well, though, so it doesn’t make the One Max a “must have” device over the smaller option.

While we still love the aluminum design, we think that most consumers are better off with the Galaxy Note 3, which offers more powerful features in a more compact body. There’s going to be a niche market of people who love the One Max, and that’s great, but we don’t think this is the big breadwinner that HTC needs right now. The company would have done much better to squeeze all of the latest technology into this phone as possible, which would allow us to more easily overlook its bulk. At the end of the day, we prefer the HTC One.

HTC provided the One Max review unit to TechnoBuffalo during meetings in London where we were provided information on the device under embargo. We’ve had the phone for five days, during which we used it as our primary smartphone. We plan to revisit this review with information on battery life, call quality and data speeds with tests from the LTE models launching on Sprint and Verizon in the United States. We will return the review unit to HTC following the completion of all tests and comparisons.


Todd Haselton

Todd Haselton has been writing professionally since 2006 during his undergraduate days at Lehigh University. He started out as an intern with...

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