I’m frantically trying to get rid of an HTC One.
I’ve spent a week persuading myself that my One’s time is up, that it’s time to investigate trade-in prices, or whether I can upgrade by ending my contract early - you know, the usual obvious symptoms of a constant, fruitless quest to find the Killer Handset.
But try as I might, the One just won’t go.
A few weeks back, I even tried borrowing a Galaxy S4 for a few days, hoping that it would instantly expose the One as an over-designed, underpowered fop, so triggering the inner justification to swap. The S4 failed.
After just 48 hours, the Samsung Galaxy S4 limped back into its wood-effect packaging for return to its owner, let down by a laggy user interface (an aside, but how do they do that when it’s packing a 1.9GHz quad-core chip?) and a tacky plastic body that seemed custom designed to collect fingerprints.
So after 90 days with the One, the device that may yet save the High Tech Computer Corporation from oblivion, what is about the HTC flagship that makes it a keeper?
If you were going to design and launch your own One-destroyer (which we know that you plan on doing, given your natural flair for industrial design and access to limitless funds and a global distribution network), what could you learn from the HTC team?
USE HUMAN HANDS DURING PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT
By comparison with the One, every other handset feels as though it was never held during development and testing.
I’m reliably told that Mercedes engineers spend hours with German taxi drivers and chauffeurs, working out the precise modulation of a brake pedal needed to achieve a smooth stop under hard braking.
OK, so maybe an analogy between a German car’s brake pedal engineering and the side sculpting of a smartphone is a tad strained, but the One feels as though it was subject to the same scientific, obsessive scrutiny - hundreds of boffins spending months in an over-equipped lab, with access to an endless variety of homo sapiens hand shapes and sizes, and the freedom to get it just so. (Not far from the truth, as it happens).
Even after three months, I still pick up the One during the day just for the hell of it - it’s nice to hold. And the combination of the aluminium bodywork and reassuring weight - not too heavy, not too light - just seal the deal. If the mission was to jolt Apple by reminding them that they didn’t own the rights to seamless, high quality design, HTC has done its job.
That said, I can understand why an HTC One Mini is coming down the tracks: my household’s split between those who find the body housing the 4.7in screen a dream, and those who find it unmanageably huge. Thumb size appears to be the differentiator, especially when they start reaching for the notifications screen.
I’ve even grown accustomed to the One’s surreal button arrangement. I hold my phone in my left hand. The on/off button (which doubles as an IR blaster) is positioned top left of the handset. You see the problem. Now add a home button that’s bottom right, and I’ve had to learn new hand gymnastics.
How to out-One the One? Sort the screen size. My daughter can’t work the One’s 4.7in screen one-handed; Apple knew their market in keeping the iPhone 5 to 4in.
The only thing I can find that’s anywhere near as snappy as the HTC One’s interface is the Google Nexus 4.
I’ve thrown everything at the HTC One: three heavyweight games running at once in the background, with four CPU-melting utility apps thrown in for good measure. The One doesn’t care. Quite how they’ve created a device that absolutely refuses to stutter from the raw ingredients of a quad-core Snapdragon 600 processor and 2GB of DDR RAM is beyond me (let’s face it, how many others have failed?).
You can even go hunting for those grim, hideously coded apps at the back of the Play Store catalogue, the sort that usually make other handsets dissolve on launch. Again, the One laughs at your absurd, pointless antics.
Transitions are lightning fast - from opening the app drawer to flipping between screens to opening the multi-tasking display (which, by the way, is a 1000% improvement on the abomination that passed for multitasking on the One X). Even the usual ‘blame an errant widget’ excuse doesn’t cut it: you can pack all five screens with widgets (including the big Play Store Library widget, which usually slaughters any device), and the One will remain stupidly fast.
How to out-One the One? You can't. You could make your new handset more powerful, but no user will notice.
GET RID OF THE INTERFACE skin
HTC Sense was the laughing stock among Android purists for years - Sense 5 (almost) shows the core Android UI team how it should be done.
It was my one moment of hesitation before placing the order for a brand new One: would I be hurled back into depressing memories of my old HTC Desire, suffering through layers of completely unnecessary, bloated, obstructive Android interface customisations that robbed you of the will to live?
But the HTC One has zero bloat. And yes, Sense 5 is beautiful.
It’s like the HTC design team took the best of the flat Holo design language from the core of Android, then set about making every element slightly better (don’t bother sending the hate mail, AOSP lovers - I won’t open it). The typography throughout is almost perfect, and 99% of the custom icons are tasteful and well finished (OK, I’ll ignore that cheesy Personalise icon in Settings).
The HTC One’s UI manages that trick that every mobile interface designer aspires to: allow the user to forget the design. Every common job - check mail, send a tweet, find an appointment, launch a game - is about as easy as it’s possible to make it, helped no end by the aforementioned rapid performance.
What about Blinkfeed, you cry? What lunacy inspired a team to give over an entire screen to an endless scrolling tiles of pre-selected news, without the ability to turn it off? OK, so it’s an issue. Even after living with it for three months, I can’t quite understand why HTC didn’t include an ‘off’ switch for Blinkfeed, so allowing One buyers the freedom to use the maximum of five available screens as they see fit.
But then after three months of punishing a One every day, I’ve found myself regularly checking Blinkfeed, rather than opening Flipboard or Feedly (both of which I have installed), mostly because it’s… well, there, and easy.
Eventually, I set my home screen as the middle of my maximum five screens, which means that Blinkfeed is on the far left - so only two quick swipes away. Which is actually quicker most of the time than launching an app.
Yes, I’ve wasted a few hours tweaking Blinkfeed channels, and I wish there were more of them. But most days, at least in the way I have it set up, it’s out of the way enough to be painless, but there enough to be useful.
There were quirks in the HTC One’s launcher at first. The device came to market with Android 4.1.2, overlaid with the firm’s revamped cut of the stock Android launcher, Sense 5. This included such maddening issues as the inability to remove an app from the shelf without a PhD (it was easy, by the way, you just needed to open the app drawer first, then drag the shelf app into it. Who knew?), and a app drawer that in its default state only offered a minimal number of apps per screen.
But 90% of the HTC One’s usability quirks were squashed by the recent update to Android 4.2.2. Moving apps around is more intuitive now, and the update also brought such delights as quick access to settings from the notifications screen and, of course, lock screen widgets.
(In case you're wondering, the default app drawer grid could be fixed from launch, simply by adjusting a setting under grid size).
How to out-One the One? Tell your new smartphone’s marketing department that an entire screen given over to a feed reader is a bloody stupid idea. And if they really have to do it, include an off switch.