In the past, HTC has been criticized for releasing too many phones that all seemed to be alike with only minor differences between each one. It seemed like every month there was another "superphone" from the Taiwanese manufacturer. While each phone was a great device in its own way, the market saturation became too much for some consumers and HTC appeared to be focusing on quantity rather than quality. In an effort to appease the people and simplify its line-up, the company recently announced a new naming scheme - One. Along with this, it announced three new phones, supposedly their flagship phones that will carry them for the next few months. The One X is easily the head honcho. With a quad-core processor and Super LCD2 display, it's the top dog. However, the One S is no slouch either. Its dual-core Snadragon S4 processor can go toe to toe with the One X and it has its own stellar hardware and amazing display. It may be the middle sibling between the One X and the lower-end One V, but there's little to complain about with this device, as you'll find out throughout this review.
Design & Features
In nearly every way, the One S' hardware is stunning. First, it's incredibly thin. Like I-can't-believe-how-thin-this-phone-is thin. At just under 7.9mm in thickness (that's .31 inches) I spent a good five minutes just marveling at its sleek profile. Featuring a metal unibody shell, the phone is durable but stylish. The surface material has been put through a process called micro arc oxidation that blasts it with 10,000 volts of electricity and transforms it into ceramic. This treatment makes it five times more durable than stainless steel. The model we were given for review features a different anodized aluminum finish that creates a sort of gradient effect on the metal. Overall, the phone measures 5.15-inches tall, 2.56-inches wide, and .31-inches thick.
There are a couple of downsides to having a phone this thin. In order to cut down on bulk, the 1650 mAh battery is non-removable. Also, there is no microSD card slot. Instead, you're limited to 16 GB of on-board storage. You are, however, offered 25 GB of Dropbox storage for free. The microSIM card slot (note: microSIM) is underneath the only removable cover on the phone, located on the top-back. On the top of the phone is the Power button and 3.5mm headphone jack. The microUSB port is on the left side and the volume rocker button is on the right side. There are two microphones - one on the top and one on the bottom of the phone. There is a VGA front-facing camera next to the front speaker grill. Also near this speaker grill is the LED notification light.
The phone's 4.3-inch Super AMOLED display is stunning but some may be disappointed by the use of Pentile technology. This means that pixels are discernible and the edges of text and graphics are not entirely smooth. For the average consumer, this will not be a huge down-side, but for those who can tell the difference, you will notice it the minute you turn on the display. With a qHD resolution (540 x 960), you're looking at about 256 pixels per inch - more than the Samsung Galaxy S II but less than the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and much less than the iPhone 4S which packs in 326 pixels per inch of its display. If it weren't for the pentile matrix layout, the One S' display would be perfect. Interestingly, the screen's bezel actually wraps onto the sides of the phone, almost making it look like it's floating on top. (Seriously, there are so many subtle design elements that make this phone so attractive that you may spend the first day you own it just admiring its hardware.)
Usability & Performance
Out of the box, you're using Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich) with Sense 4. There are a few visual upgrades in this version of Sense UI, but most of the improvements come with simply conforming it to Ice Cream Sandwich. The graphical widgets are still there, but some of the 3D effects have been toned down a bit. Additionally, these widgets are now resizable. This is probably one of my favorite new features of the UI. I've always liked Sense's widgets but since most of them took up the entire page, they simply weren't space-efficient enough to make it worth it. HTC has made a couple of customizations to Ice Cream Sandwich. The three function buttons for Back, Home, and Recent Apps are capacitive buttons on the phone itself instead of virtual buttons on the display. The multi-tasking interface has a new look and things like the app drawer, notification panel, and menu system have all received subtle color and gradient changes.
There is one problem I've noticed when working the One S, and that is the fusion of Android 4.0 with Sense 4 and apps that were designed for neither. Apps are generally blind to the UI your phone is using; however, as I mentioned in the previous paragraph, Sense 4 has been redesigned to mirror Android 4.0, and Android 4.0 has some pretty big design changes that most apps have not yet been updated to accommodate. The biggest problem is the menu button. Android 4.0 doesn't have one and all apps are designed for one (unless they've been updated). To fix this issue, a black bar will pop up at the bottom of the screen with three dots that stand for Menu. Not only is this system wildly inconsistent (when and where it pops up is random), it's also difficult to figure out. This bar will appear even when the app doesn't have a designated menu. So the bar is there, you think there's a menu, but there isn't one. I can imagine this will be extremely confusing for the average customer. However, as apps are updated for Android 4.0, it should slowly resolve itself.
As mentioned in the outset, the One S is considered the smaller sibling to the One X because the S features a dual-core processor and the X features a quad-core processor. While this may seem like a disadvantage on paper, it is not one in real-world use. The One S flies through any and all tests I put it through. With several apps running and at the same time playing games, switching between apps, web browsing - virtually anything I do - there is no lag at all. Everything is smooth as silk. This is not surprising as some people say that Qualcomm's S4 chip with the now-famous Krait CPU is just as efficient and powerful as the Tegra 3 processor found in the One X. The phone has 1GB of RAM which helps with multi-tasking. In a Quadrant Standard benchmark test, the One S scored a 4,674, blowing the competition out of the water. On the Smartbench 2012 benchmark test, it scored a 3,068 on the Productivity Index and a whopping 4,052 on the Gaming Index. These scores are higher than even the Asus Transformer Prime (which has a quad-core processor, by the way). The One S recorded 101.987 MFLOPS in .82 seconds on a single thread test on Linpack and 179.815 MFLOPS on a multi-thread test. Lastly, the phone scored a 7,111 on an AnTuTu Benchmark test.
One of the big selling points of the One S is its camera. It features a backside-illuminated 8-megapixel sensor with f/2.0 lens and captures 1080p HD video at 30 frames per second. It also boasts features like high-speed burst mode, the ability to take pictures while recording video, and it can autofocus in .2 seconds and capture a picture in .7 seconds thanks to the HTC ImageChip processor. HTC has even included a few Instagram-like filters for good measure. So basically, the phone has enough marketing terms to sell itself without you even opening the camera app. What about pictures? Picture quality was good, great even, but not what I would call excellent. The details are a bit blurry and I was surprised by the over-saturation of bright colors once the picture was processed. Yellows and reds appear so robust that there's hardly any detail in the object itself. Cooler colors like greens and blues do okay, but brighter colors seem to be bleeding off the page. Pictures taken in low-light settings didn't suffer from this problem as much, but the noise was more evident and you can forget about taking close-up shots as the flash will make the object appear as one big blob. These problems are replicated when capturing video. Detail is great but not excellent and bright colors are extremely saturated. Audio quality was actually great, a change for HTC. Noise cancellation worked very well and the sound was pretty clear.
The One S features another bonus feature you won't find on a lot of other phones: Beats Audio integration. It's a shame that HTC decided to stop including Beats earbuds with its phones, but the software works just as well, I suppose. The nice thing about this integration is that it works in third-party music apps, not just HTC's native music player. So you can listen to your music through Pandora or Slacker and still get the same audio improvement. Now, whether or not you feel that Beats is a gimmick is up to you, but there's no denying that it does add a little "umph" to your music. I immediately noticed it and enjoyed its presence. (You can easily turn it off in the settings.) You're not going to be fooled into thinking you're using $300 headphones (even $100 headphones for that matter), but it's a nice little feature that makes music sound somewhat better.
The unit I'm testing is an international version. I popped in an AT&T microSIM and got no network connection. A T-Mobile microSIM worked but this means that I got EDGE speeds which are not great for a review. Therefore, I can't give any solid info on what data speeds may be like. I had no problems connecting the phone to my home WiFi network and data speeds were okay once that was set up. I generally get download speeds of about 30 Mbps on a PC and averages of 10-20 Mbps when using a smartphone. However, with the One S, I could never get above 5 Mbps, no matter what I did. Obviously, data speeds when not connected to WiFi were pretty slow, about 50-1,000 kbps. The phone can also act as a WiFi hotspot.
Not having a typical data connection also means that battery test results may not be the most accurate, though having it connected to WiFi all day may account for something. With normal to heavy use (playing a few games, syncing email and Twitter every 15 minutes, downloading apps, sending a few text messages, web browsing, taking pictures, etc.), I got 12 hours of use before I needed to plug it in to the charger. With more mild use, including leaving it on standby overnight, the battery lasted over one full day before dropping below 20 percent. Again, keep in mind that the battery is non-removable so don't buy this phone thinking you can just slap on an extended battery.
All in all, the One S is a fantastic phone and has plenty of reasons to gain your adoration. It's thin and infinitely sexy, has an amazing display, features the newest version of Android along with the newest version of Sense UI, has a lighting-fast processor, and packs some additional add-on features like Beats Audio that will be great for showing off to your friends. That being said, I wish HTC had not decided to go with a Pentile display; the fusion of Android 4.0, Sense 4, and Android 2.3 apps clashes at times; and the camera created some over-saturated photos. So which side wins - the pros or the cons? Easily, the pros win this one. Pentile display aside, the screen is stunning. Apps will eventually get upgraded and hey, who ever complained about colors looking too good? The One S is one of those phones that you can just pick up and fall in love with. International fans, I would say go with the One X since it's undeniably better than the One S, but T-Mobile fans, this one is heading your way and you won't want to miss it.
The Good: Android 4.0; dual-core Snapdragon S4 processor means you'll experience zero lag; extremely thin and totally sexy; good-looking display; terrific camera features.
The Bad: Pentile display; non-removable battery; no microSD card slot; camera over-saturates bright colors.
The Verdict: If you're trying to decide between the One S and the One X, go with the One X as it is better in many ways. However, the One S is no slouch and if you're locked into T-Mobile, this will easily be one of your best options.