HTC One mini review an attractive middleweight smartphone with some drawbacks

Just weeks after we put the Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini through its paces, we're looking at the HTC One mini, another attempt to shrink a flagship down into a smaller (and cheaper) package. As you'd expect, the 4.3-inch mini looks much like the full-sized version, and that goes for both the hardware and software. In addition to its similar-looking aluminum-and-plastic frame you'll find both a 4-megapixel Ultrapixel camera sensor and HTC's Sense 5 UI, meaning automatic video highlights, Zoe and BlinkFeed all make an appearance here as well. There are, however, a few hardware drawbacks compared to the original, with the IR blaster, optical image stabilization on the camera and NFC stripped out for space- and cost-saving reasons. Can HTC launch a mid-range phone that won't get lost between similarly priced offerings and last year's discounted flagships? We'll try to reason that out after the break.

HTC One mini review

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Hardware

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The physical similarities to the HTC One are glaringly obvious -- and it's a huge part of the mini's appeal. HTC is certainly not the only phone maker trying to inject some flagship charm into its cheaper handsets. Borrowing much of the design language first seen in the One, the mini is mostly wrapped in aluminum. The front panels are actually slightly rougher than the surface of the original model, although the backing has the same smooth finish. However, it doesn't sport the matte seam of plastic we saw on the original One; instead. it has a glossy white all-plastic frame, reminiscent of last year's unibody One X.

The physical similarities to the HTC One are glaringly obvious -- and it's a huge part of the mini's appeal.

The body still follows the same palm-friendly curve, although both the camera unit and flash are center-aligned on the back this time around. There are also two white plastic lines breaking up the all-aluminum cover, ensuring the unit's antennae work and also creating the illusion that you might be handling the pricier flagship model. The volume rocker on the right edge is now comprised of two keys, but they're still thankfully made of metal -- no nasty metal-finish paint here. That plastic edging is visible on the front, so unfortunately you won't get the same chamfered aluminum edge as the One. That's a shame, as that chamfering was one of the design flourishes we loved most on the original.

HTC's BoomSound speakers lie beneath micro-drilled holes both above and below the screen, bringing plenty of oomph, as advertised. Prolonged listening through the smartphone won't grate on the ears, although the sound quality isn't quite as bass-rich as the One. HTC also snuck in a single LED notification light into the top speaker -- one of the more refined ways we've seen light-up reminders integrated into smartphone design. The not-quite-standard Android button layout remains, with a HTC logo separating back and home keys. As it's running Android 4.2.2, however, HTC now offers you the option to switch some of the menu button functionality to the home key, launching Google Now with a swipe and accessing the options menu within apps.

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But the mini has something on its big brother: it's arguably a better size. We could grasp the device, slip it into pockets, bag side pouches and use it one-handed without any issue. Reaching with a thumb on larger screens (and reducing your hold on the device in the process) increases the chances that those hundreds of dollars you just sank into a new smartphone will end up a splintered chalk outline on the concrete. We're enjoying this apparent return of more sensibly sized handsets, although it's something you may not appreciate until you switch from a larger to a smaller phone for a sustained period.

Now about that screen: the 4.3-inch display beams out Android at a resolution of 720p. That means, then, that there are fewer pixels than the One, but it's still leagues ahead of its qHD rivals. We're more than happy to drop down to this resolution from 1080p, especially when it's been accompanied by a reduction in screen size. In fact, it appears to be identical to the display found on HTC's Facebook experiment, the First. Same resolution, same size and, well, same conclusions. HTC uses SuperLCD2 tech, which gives pretty accurate color reproduction and it's easy to share pictures and videos with strong image quality at off-angles. Our only complaint is that we wish it were a little less reflective and a little more readable in sunlight.

Underneath the screen, there's a dual-core, 1.4GHz Snapdragon 400 processor (another component that made an appearance in the HTC First), along with 1GB of RAM and 16GB of built-in storage. Given that the One mini is completely sealed, there's no opportunity to expand storage through a microSD card, but it's a pretty respectable chunk of storage for a phone below the flagship level.

There are some features that didn't make it to the One mini, however, and our biggest regret is the loss of the IR blaster. Yep, I'm one of those people who's begun to ignore my AA-powered TV controllers and navigate through channels and TV menus almost exclusively on an IR-capable Android device -- whether it's a Galaxy S 4, HTC One or Xperia Tablet Z. I inadvertently tried to launch the remote app several times while working on this review and while it's not a hardware feature everyone was going to use, I already miss it. Remote functionality would also have made a great talking point when going up against rival devices. NFC didn't make the cut either. If that (and maybe the IR blaster) were the only omissions, we'd be okay with the minor price difference. However, there's also the reduced screen resolution, the lesser processor, reduced storage and RAM, and the lack of optical image stabilization, which is supposed to work in tandem with HTC's Ultrapixel camera to improve shots. That's quite the list of cuts.

Camera

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The HTC One mini packs largely the same camera sensor as the debut One model. The technical spec sheet says it's a backside illuminated sensor paired with an f/2.0 lens -- both good things. In case you missed all the discussion earlier this year, HTC's Ultrapixel camera might take a bit of explaining. The maximum image resolution is capped at four megapixels, but it's not all about the pixels. The way HTC created this camera sensor offers a larger area for light to bounce off and the opportunity for more light to hit it. This means you'll get better low-light shots and less noise; less flecks of blue and red in your nighttime photos.

HTC One mini sample shots

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The One mini can capture 1080p video (even in HDR) and you can see how it fares in our demo clip below -- the white birds are a little too washed out during the clip. The camera's dynamic range has issues keeping the light levels properly balanced, unfortunately. However, video recording was responsive enough to capture butterflies in flight.

Our sample shots also hint at strong performance. In fact, compared to last year's major smartphones and the current mid-range phones, the mini could place in the top three -- regardless of pixel count. Unfortunately, it doesn't have optical image stabilization (and a few of our shots visibly demonstrated this) but HTC's Ultrapixel camera holds onto its Lumia-baiting skills in low-light photography.

A quick flurry of photos taken in a dim bar at night showed lots of detail and minimal noise. However, the lack of OIS is presumably why our One mini pictures were a bit less sharp than what we got with the One. With bright lighting, some shots were often washed out, regardless of whether we used the HDR mode. The front-facing camera here is a perfectly serviceable 1.6-megapixel shooter, although the lack of the wide-angle lens seen on both the HTC One and Windows Phone 8X is a bit of a shame and constrains how many friends you'll be able to cram into your selfies.

Software

Blinkfeed, Zoe and HTC's addicted automated video highlight reel feature make the One mini feel like the original. Running on Android 4.2.2 (and packing some software additions that the flagship also recently received), HTC's restyled Sense has grown on us. Sure, it's still divisive, but the black-and-white scheme is understated and the added functionality includes things we actually use -- something we can't say about the raft of new features that Samsung throws into its yearly flagships. There are some smaller additions in this latest version of Android that we'd like to mention in passing, including a percentage battery level indicator in the status bar and a quick-setting panel (with toggles for WiFi, Bluetooth and more), which you can access by dragging two fingers down from that status bar. Finally, HTC's matched a feature that's long been available on Nexus devices.

HTC One mini screenshots

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We're still not completely sold on Blinkfeed; we'd prefer instead to make stock Android screen our de facto home base. The topics and services available to add to the news and social feed haven't noticeably changed (or expanded) since HTC launched the service. All told, it still feels like a protracted way for us to browse through social network content; some efforts to curate or focus on popular tweets, like Twitter does itself in its own discovery tab, would have been welcome.

On to the good stuff. HTC has refined the camera option menus making access to different settings easier and adding a new file format to its Zoe captures (a video and still-frame combination), ensuring that any Google+, SkyDrive or Dropbox account you own no longer gets filled with lots of similar-looking shots. Video Highlight options have now been expanded to include six extra themes. Even more importantly, perhaps, you can now add your own music, as BlackBerry Z10 users have been doing on BB10.

Within the camera app itself, you can also now lock exposure and focus on the viewfinder screen. Press-and-holding will fix both, and you can also unlock with a subsequent tap, expanding your options for nailing that shot. In an attempt to ameliorate the loss of optical image stabilization, HTC has added a software-based feature to reduce shakiness. Unfortunately, using it leads to a significant drop in the level of detail. We'd recommend you use the camera without it -- we did. We'd also like to mention HTC's Sync service, which stores apps, WiFi passwords, home screen layouts and more within a Dropbox file. Thanks to this, we were able to transfer our smartphone settings from an older HTC One without a hitch. This setup also offers a stress-free way of recovering your phone's layout and content should you ever lose (or have to replace) the hardware itself.

Battery life and performance

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Smaller phone, smaller screen and yes, smaller battery. At 1,800mAh, we wondered where that would place the device when it came to lasting out the day. In our video looping test, with brightness at 50 percent and social networks polling at 15-minute intervals, we got just over six hours. It's a bit disappointing, frankly. While it's a half-hour less than the full-sized HTC One managed, we were hoping that a drop in resolution and screen size would translate to battery savings. Even during more casual use, we'd have to plug it in after around 10 hours' use. Be prepared to have a charger close at hand.

HTC One mini

Samsung

GS4 Mini

HTC One
Quadrant 2.0 5,200 7,250 12,495
Vellamo 2.0 2,118 1,980 2,429
AnTuTu 3.2 10,048 13,732 25,140
SunSpider 1.0 (ms) 1,442 1,142 769
GFXBenchmark T-Rex 2.7 HD Offscreen (fps) 15 17 16
CF-Bench 6,543 13,646 25,267
SunSpider: lower scores are better

There's no shortage of phones to pit agains the One mini, but we settled for a competitor (Samsung's Galaxy S4 Mini) and the original HTC One running very similar software. The S4 Mini is powered by a faster-clocked 1.7GHz dual-core processor with 500MB of extra RAM, and it performed substantially better than the One mini on several of our benchmark tests. Still, as is often the case with synthetic benchmarks, other tests put the One mini ahead. In use, we found that the phone's responsiveness was mostly on par with the original One. It didn't take any more time to process video highlight clips or capture photos, despite the differences in hardware. Browsing the web on Android phones in recent years has become a more consistent experience; indeed, the One mini gave us swift page loads and responsive scrolling even on media-heavy sites.

The mini packs the right LTE bands for EE in the UK (Band 3) while also including tri-band HSPA on this European model (900/1900/2100 MHz), offering speeds of up to 42Mbps down. In speed tests on LTE, we logged downloads just short of 10Mbps, with uploads reaching about the same speeds, if not better. Voice calls were also clear, and the secondary mic helped to dampen background noise when we were using the One mini as, well, a phone.

Wrap-up

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The HTC One mini is the most appealing non-flagship smartphone we've seen in a while. And that's saying a lot: there are more choices than ever, with recent screen and processor improvements now adding incremental improvements across the board. Ultimately, it all comes down to the pricing here. The One mini is a beautiful phone that feels and often handles like a top-tier model, even if it isn't quite as classy as the One flagship. In the UK, Carphone Warehouse has priced the One mini at £380 (roughly $580), or free on contract at £27 per month. The bigger One costs only £100 more off-contract, or free from £33 per month. Is that a big enough pricing gap to win over discerning shoppers? Probably not.

All told, the mini still bests rival middleweight phones in several ways, with the similarly sized, similarly priced Galaxy S4 Mini making for an easy comparison. The One mini's 720p screen is way ahead of the qHD screen found on Samsung' Galaxy S4 Mini, while the build quality and styling is a cut above the competition. There's also the excellent camera and software additions HTC has made -- all points in the One mini's favor. For most people, the drawbacks (no optical image stabilization, IR blaster, NFC, lower screen resolution and storage) will outweigh the price saving compared to the original One, but the mini remains a strong phone in its own right. If only it were a little cheaper.

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