By Hiawatha Bray, Globe Staff
The latest sales figures for Apple Inc.’s iPhones are out, and they look just fine. But for how long? People keep buying the iPhone 4 and 4S and 5 in the confident belief that Apple makes the best smartphones in the world.
But the latest hardware from Taiwan’s HTC Corp. could change that. The company’s new phone is simply called the One. And it is.
Available for $579.99 from T-Mobile USA with no service contract, or $199.99 from Sprint Nextel Corp., or AT&T Inc. with a two-year contract, the One is the best looking and best performing smartphone I’ve tried, and it just might be the product that rescues HTC from oblivion.
Once the leading maker of phones running Google Inc.’s Android software, HTC earned justified renown three years ago with its Evo phone, one of the first 4G handsets in the US market. But since then, HTC and nearly every other phone maker has been overwhelmed by South Korean tech giant Samsung Corp. HTC kept on making good phones, but up to now, that hasn’t mattered.
The One might turn the company around, by setting a new standard for HTC and everybody else. For one thing, it’s gorgeous, carved from dense, gleaming aluminum and robust Gorilla Glass. Its rounded contour fits nicely in one’s palm, and the video screen is brilliant and crisp. It’s bigger than an iPhone screen at 4.7 inches, and has a higher pixel count than Apple’s vaunted Retina display.
The One’s screen comes alive whenever you fire it up, thanks to a user interface with a silly name (BlinkFeed) and a wonderful new look. Instead of a bunch of icons, BlinkFeed shows a set of colorful tiles headlined with the latest feeds from your favorite Internet sources. You can set it up to show incoming Facebook or Twitter messages from friends and colleagues, as well as news headlines or sports scores. BlinkFeed constantly downloads new items, refreshing your screen whenever you touch the home button.
Notice a trend here? Microsoft Corp. started it with the “live tiles” on its underrated Windows Phone software, and Facebook’s new Home app for Android also constantly pumps updates onto the user’s screen. But the iPhone’s static icons have scarcely changed since the Red Sox last won the World Series. It’s become the Toyota Camry of smartphones: well-built, reliable, and dull.
Meanwhile, HTC is taking risks like an underdog. Check out the One’s built-in camera, which packs a measly four megapixels. That’s far less than the iPhone or other high-end handsets. But this camera combines extralarge pixels with massive image-processing power from the phone’s quad-core processor. The results are delicious. The One’s camera shoots fine photos in low light without a flash, and resolution is dagger-sharp.
Along with the camera, you get a heap of advanced image-processing features, including special effects filters like those in the popular Instagram photo app. I also liked a feature called Zoe, which shoots three-second mini-movies. Coolest of all is software that can assemble your favorite images into a 30-second movie, complete with music soundtrack and visual effects. You don’t have to know a thing about video editing; the phone does it all.
HTC managed to cram even more awesome into this little phone. Two front-facing speakers on the top and bottom edges of the phone crank out loud, decent-quality sound. Then there’s the slick notion of an on-off button that doubles as an infrared transmitter. You know, the kind that works as a TV remote control. With a built-in app, you can program the One to talk to your TV or set-top box. About 40 percent of Americans watch TV with tablet or smartphone in hand, according to the Nielsen Co., so we’re already tweeting about our favorite shows. With the One, we can also turn up the volume.
I’ve tried hard to complain about with the One, but with limited success. It lacks a slot for adding additional flash memory, but with a minimum of 32 gigabytes built in, that’s not much of a handicap. As with the iPhone, the battery is built in and unswappable. But then, battery life is solid enough. I did my usual test — streaming a four-hour-long movie via Netflix — and still had 43 percent battery life when the film was done.
It’s hard to be a critic when there’s so little to criticize. But I’m on easy street compared to Apple, which isn’t expected to introduce a new phone for months. I suspect many consumers will lose interest in waiting once they’ve seen the One.