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A couple weeks ago we got to have our Ice Cream Sandwich and eat it too, thanks to a gorgeous couple phones from HTC -- the One X and the One S. Both run Sense 4 -- a thinner, lighter version of the company's polarizing UI -- and together with the entry-level One V, represent HTC's attempt to make a comeback after a lackluster year of me-too products. The first to make its way to the US is the One S which lands on T-Mobile April 25 for $199 on contract (with a $50 rebate). We just spent a weekend with Magenta's new flagship handset. So how does it compare to the global One S? Find out after the break.

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HTC One S for T-Mobile review

HTC

HTC One S (T-Mobile)

Pros

  • Beautiful design
  • Fantastic camera
  • Good battery life
  • Impressive performance
  • Sense 4 is unobtrusive

Cons

  • Display is a little underwhelming
Summary

Don't mess with a good thing -- that's clearly, wisely and rightfully the approach T-Mobile chose to follow when minting its own version of HTC's One S.

Hardware

T-Mobile's One S is almost cosmetically identical to the bluish grey SIM-free version we just reviewed. Other than the carrier's logo replacing HTC's branding on the glass above the screen and below the earpiece, you'd be hard-pressed to tell the two phones apart. The pair are equally handsome, beautifully made, almost as thin as Motorola's Droid RAZR (7.8mm vs. 7.1) and pleasantly light (4.22 ounces). For better or for worse, HTC's black, plasma-heated micro arc oxidation (MOA) finish with red accents isn't making it to T-Mobile.

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Of course, the handset features the same mid-range 4.3-inch qHD (960x540) Super AMOLED (PenTile) display under Gorilla glass. Likewise under the hood, you'll find a dual-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor with 1GB of RAM and 16GB of built-in storage (of which 12GB are user-accessible). The tri-band 42Mbps HSPA+ radio's been tweaked to support AWS for T-Mobile (2100 / 1700 / 900MHz, vs. 2100 / 900 / 850MHz) and the aluminum unibody includes an additional antenna cutout below the capacitive buttons.

Performance and battery life

Our biggest concern when testing a carrier-branded device -- and comparing it to its unlocked variant -- is with the often detrimental operator-mandated customizations made to the software and baseband firmware. In terms of performance we're happy to report that our T-Mobile One S review unit feels every bit as snappy as our foreign model. The benchmarks confirmed our seat-of-the-pants feelings, with matching scores across the board -- the T-Mobile's One S is still one of the fastest phones we've ever used.

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Battery life on T-Mobile's One S is similar to -- if not slightly better than -- what we recorded on its global stablemate. Our video loop rundown test came in at nine hours and 10 minutes, which is a slight improvement. Calls sounded loud and clear but 42Mbps HSPA+ performance was a mixed bag. While we saw peak speeds of 10.6Mbps down and 3.6Mbps up, we sometimes achieved better results with our 21Mbps-only Galaxy Nexus HSPA+ and found that T-Mobile's Galaxy S II consistently outperformed the One S in the same location.

Update: T-Mobile just provided the following statement regarding the HSPA+ speeds we experienced.

During your review of the HTC One S, you may have noticed speeds inconsistent with your past experience on our HSPA+ 42 network. These are not the speeds consumers will experience - your pre-launch device needs to be provisioned today to provide access to T-Mobile's HSPA+ 42 network. This provision will be active on consumer devices at launch.

Camera

Photography fans rejoice. T-Mobile's One S features the same fantastic 8-megapixel camera as its foreign twin (and the HTC One X), complete with backside illuminated sensor, f/2.0 autofocus lens and ultra-speedy capture. We're still longing for a dedicated two-stage shutter key to lock focus and exposure, but whether you're taking pictures while recording 1080p video at 30fps (in stereo with continuous AF), snapping HDR shots or stitching panoramas, the One S delivers -- in fact we've re-posted the samples from our original review for lack of difference.

Gallery | 95 Photos

HTC One S sample shots

Software

While T-Mobile's One S and its global sibling both showcase HTC's much improved Sense 4 skin running on top of Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0.3 to be exact), the carrier's made a few minor changes. Fortunately, these don't adversely impact the user experience. The most jarring departure from HTC's slick One brand and design vision is Magenta's gaudy startup / shutdown animations and accompanying jingles. In addition, the network status indicator's been reprogrammed to show 4G (aka "faux-G") for HSPA+ (instead of H), and 2G (instead of E) for EDGE.

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The handset comes preloaded with a dozen apps beyond HTC and Google's own -- many of them operator-specific. Sadly but predictably, most of them cannot be uninstalled. T-Mobile certainly isn't the only carrier that's guilty of this, but we'd really like to see an end to this practice. Magenta's bloatware includes 411 & More, Game Base, Mobile Hotspot, Music Hub, My T-Mobile, T-Mobile Mall, T-Mobile Name ID, T-Mobile TV and Visual Voicemail. Amazon, Dropbox, Lookout, Polaris Office, Slacker Radio, Where's My Water and Zinio round up the list of bundled apps.

WiFi calling's another (welcome) T-Mobile addition and it's conveniently baked into the settings. Interestingly, no tethering plan's required to activate the hotspot functionality, but connected devices are redirected to a landing page until the feature is added to your account. Keep this in mind if you're planning to unlock T-Mobile's One S and use it on another network -- you'll likely have to root the phone to remove this hotspot restriction.

Wrap-up

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Don't mess with a good thing -- that's clearly, wisely and rightfully the approach T-Mobile chose to follow when minting its own version of HTC's One S. There's no doubt this handset is the carrier's new flagship, a crown previously held by Magenta's Galaxy S II. If you can't afford the HSPA+ version of the Galaxy Nexus, $199 subsidized (after rebate) buys you a state-of-the-art Android smartphone that combines strong branding, refined design and a top-notch user experience. Now, can we have a One S with an HD or non-PenTile display, please?

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