Fortunately, you still have full control over BlinkFeed through a hidden pull-down bar nestled in between the tiles and clock widget, which is accessed by dragging your finger down on the starting page (you can also use this gesture to manually update your feeds, although you can set it to auto-refresh on mobile data and WiFi or WiFi-only). A tab on the left lets you pick and choose which feeds you want to look at; for instance, you can opt to view only updates from Engadget or go for the whole kit and kaboodle of topics that interest you. If you want to change which feeds are highlighted, just head to the settings, found in the BlinkFeed menu. Additionally, you'll also find options to post to Facebook or Twitter directly from this bar.
An SDK will eventually be offered so that devs can publish their apps to BlinkFeed as a means of making the service more useful. This is something we look forward to; the entire concept just feels like it's too drastic a shift from stock Android. Fortunately, in case you're not a fan of BlinkFeed being the default screen every time you unlock your phone -- and let's face it, it's a huge departure from anything we've seen on Sense or Android in general, so it's not going to please everybody -- you can choose a different home page. There doesn't appear to be any way to completely disable it, however, so you're stuck with it taking up one of your five main panels. This leads to our major frustration: while the idea behind BlinkFeed isn't terrible (and we imagine serial social networkers and news junkies may find it quite handy), it makes Sense feel a little too cluttered with unnecessary bloat and users should be given the option to disable it if they don't get any benefit out of it.
We should note that BlinkFeed's tiled layout isn't restricted to that main panel; it's actually a recurring theme in the gallery as well. The app uses tiles to let you choose between your own photo galleries, your friends' Facebook albums and other online services like Dropbox and Flickr. When you go into your own photo albums, you may see a few images moving on their own -- those Harry Potter-like movies hanging out in your once-stagnant album are Zoe shots. Each picture (Zoe or otherwise) can be starred as a "highlight" so you can show your friends and family the best images from last month's Disneyland vacation instead of, you know, all of them. You can also upload those precious memories to Zoe Share, a service that generates a URL displaying up to 10 photos which you can share with whomever you want -- whether they're Zoe or plain, old stills. Each website is active for 180 days, in case loved ones or stalkers want to visit over and over. (We've generated a sample URL for you to take a peek here.)
Admittedly, Zoe Share is a much slicker feature than we first gave it credit for, but there's another clever way to share these five-second clips: the One can take your collection of Zoes and stills from that day and create a professional-style highlight reel complete with images, clips, special effects and music. There aren't a lot of song choices available yet, and you can't use your own music, but the stock tones offered are at least diverse. Each individual song comes with its own theme -- one comes with an old-timey filter, for instance -- and the pictures are synced almost perfectly with the music. These 30-second movies can be uploaded to Zoe Share on a unique URL for 30 days, or it can be uploaded to other services such as YouTube. We had a hard time believing that the resulting movies weren't done by a human, but this is just one creative way to take advantage of the Snapdragon 600 chipset.
The main home panels on Sense 5 really aren't that different from what we saw on the previous version. The iconic Sense clock and weather widget is missing by default, but don't panic, fans -- it's still offered as a widget, so long-press the main screen and you'll get the standard Sense setup that lets you pick out which widgets, shortcuts and apps you want. You may also notice that the font is different from Senses past, but it's actually Roboto, the stock font on Android 4.0+ (albeit, Sense uses a different weighted version). The notification bar uses the same setup as before, but it also takes advantage of the new font and a slightly modernized style.
Besides BlinkFeed and the gallery, the other area that received a major revamp is the app menu. The grids, which offer a more Holo-style look than the ones found on Sense 4, are aligned vertically instead of horizontally and come in two different sizes: 3 x 4 and 4 x 5. By default, the grid shows up as 3 x 4, and just as we saw on BlinkFeed, the Holo-style clock and weather widget take up the top row of icons on the very first screen (for either size). App placement is different here than on the stock app tray: you customize your docking tray from here instead of the main screen, you can create or manipulate folders and another pull-down bar with tabs and settings sits between the app icons and clock. This tab allows you to change the grid organization to show alphabetical order or recent apps (folders are non-existent in these modes).
The One makes good use of the included IR blaster with Sense TV, a Peel-powered feature that blends a program guide and universal remote into one app. Stateside, Hulu Plus is integrated and all major cable services are supported; in the UK, Virgin Media, Sky, Freesat and Freeview will be included in the offerings. We'd love to see Netflix supported as well, but HTC hasn't announced any plans on that end yet, so we'll become more virtuous by exercising heaps of patience. (It's a win-win, really.)
As for the remote itself, it still works pretty well but not as flawlessly as the Optimus G Pro's iteration. It comes with a library of IR codes to support nearly any TV brand, cable service and home theater setup you can think of. The software guides you step by step as you attempt to get your phone properly set up with all of your equipment, even going as far as to tell you to align the One with your universal remote if it's unsuccessful at getting everything programmed correctly. Once you're ready to actually use the remote, your mileage may vary depending on your TV brand and cable provider. We weren't able to turn off the Dish DVR despite easily being able to control the menu, and a Hitachi TV recognized the input menu button on the remote but refused to let us select any of the options in the menu. Aside from this little hiccup, everything worked as advertised. As another nice touch, you can access basic controls and recent channels in the notification tray, use the remote on the lock screen and even tell the app to remind you of upcoming TV shows in BlinkFeed.
Sense 5 also brings with it an updated HTC Sync Manager. This feature is primarily aimed at new users hoping to move their information from iPhones or other Android devices. If you're coming over from an Apple, you can use Sync Manager to go into iTunes and grab your contacts, calendar appointments, photos, videos and music (DRM-free, natch). If you're coming from an older Sense device (3.6 or higher), you'll be able to transfer all of the above as well as texts, bookmarks and preferred settings. You can achieve similar results on other Android phones (2.3 and up) by installing an HTC app from the Play Store, whereas any other devices can still transfer contacts the old-fashioned way -- via Bluetooth. Sense 5 also makes it possible to store encrypted backups on your Dropbox account (or Sina, if you're in China), which is then tied to your Facebook creds. Using this method, you can back up all of your settings, apps, widgets, BlinkFeed, TV, home screen layout and account information.
Finally, HTC's partnered up with Zoodles to add Kid Mode. The app serves as a password- or gesture-protected launcher that your children won't be able to exit. Once enabled, you have the ability to restrict which apps your children use, while also offering a place to make drawings and read storybooks. Speaking of storybooks, the service lets you record stories via the front-facing cam, so your kids can watch you read The Three Little Pigs to them, even if you're out of town. There's also a video mail feature that allows you and your young 'uns to exchange messages back and forth to each other.
Since your offspring are likely all sorts of ages, each individual child can have their own specific mode in which their favorite apps and preferences (along with your own parental customizations) pop up. As a parent, I found the service to be incredibly handy -- it's no secret that kids have just as intense a love for electronic gadgets as we do, so it's important to keep them (not to mention our personal data) safe as they play with our phones.
Performance and battery life
Outside of that stunning design, the star of the show is the One's Snapdragon 600 (APQ8064T) chipset, which pairs a 1.7GHz quad-core CPU with an Adreno 320 GPU and 2GB RAM. This particular piece of silicon is the next logical step up from Qualcomm's Snapdragon S4 Pro (APQ8064). The CPU features Krait 300 -- a bump from the S4 Pro's Krait 200, which results in a 15 percent improvement in instructions per clock (IPC) and a "speed-enhanced" Adreno 320 GPU. The 600 is also built using a 28nm process, just like the S4 Pro, and offers support for LPDDR3 -- even though the One uses LPDDR2 specifically -- and 802.11ac support on the WiFi side (in addition to the standard suite of a/b/g/n). This is the same chipset used in the LG Optimus G Pro and ASUS PadFone Infinity, and doubtless countless more over the next few months. It won't stay king of the Snapdragon hill for long, since Qualcomm expects the 800 to be available in mid-2013.
Still, the fact is that, as of this writing, the Snapdragon 600 is the strongest processor on the market, and the benchmarks -- as you'll see in the chart below -- indicate a solid improvement over the S4 Pro chip. We've compared the One with its predecessor, the One X+, as well as the S4 Pro-powered Droid DNA and Snapdragon 600-powered Optimus G Pro, so take a look at how the One holds up.
It shouldn't be much of a surprise to see the One edge out HTC's older flagships, but it also handily beat the G Pro in all but one benchmark (SunSpider). Since the silicon itself is essentially the same, this likely indicates that Sense 5 is more optimized than LG's Optimus UI. In any case, the differences aren't visible to the naked eye. When they're both that good, tiny discrepancies in performance just aren't as noticeable: but for what matters most, the One definitely does the job, and does it well. It runs buttery smooth and the screen is quite responsive. We strained our eyes looking for any sort of lag with no success and the graphics in games like Shadowgun, Asphalt 7, Real Racing 3 and Riptide are as quick and detailed as we've come to expect with high-performance phones, if not just a little bit more so. (This reviewer's personal performance when playing games, however, is a completely different story.)
The One's 2,300mAh battery is a solid improvement in size over previous flagships -- the One X used a 1,800mAh cell, while the One X+'s was beefed up to 2,100 -- so we were hoping to see a measurable boost in how long its battery held up. Now for the moment of truth: in our rundown endurance test, in which we play an HD video on endless loop, the One made it through six and a half hours before all of its juice was sucked dry -- an average result. As a disclaimer, our initial real-world usage tests were conducted on AT&T's 1900MHz network, which admittedly doesn't offer consistent HSPA+ speeds in our area; with this in mind, we got almost nine hours of constant use, which consisted of emailing, social media, taking pictures, making a few calls and an assortment of other random activities.
Update: Our UK team just received a unit with full LTE coverage and has had the opportunity to take it for a spin. Noble gentleman Mat Smith shares his experiences, which are quite similar to ours: "On the UK's EE LTE network, we were picking up download speeds around 10 Mbps, while uploads were often even higher, circling around 22 Mbps during our tests in central London. Further afield, however, it was closer to those 10 Mbps down speeds. During a standard day's use on LTE (including a heavy-use three-hour stint in a hospital waiting room), our European review model powered down just after eight hours' use -- not far off our HSPA rundown, possibly thanks to Qualcomm's integrated radios in its new 600 series."
As flashy as the One is, it's an actual phone first and foremost -- and even this aspect of the device is specced out to the max. HTC has thrown in a pair of HDR microphones designed to cancel unnecessary background noise and handle a wide range of sound levels without saturating. Call quality was solid, but what really stood out to us was what we didn't hear. At one point in a recent conversation, we told the person on the other line to excuse the UPS truck passing by right behind us; our friend couldn't even tell that anything was in the background, let alone a noisy truck.
Remember those stereo speakers taking up all that room on the front of the One? They're the best set of external speakers we've heard on a phone so far, and as afraid as we are to admit this, Beats Audio may have something to do with it. HTC's BoomSound technology makes it so you don't have to use earbuds or an on-ear headset to take advantage of the various codecs Beats has to offer. If you don't want to annoy others -- and why would you? -- the phone uses the same 2.55v headphone amp used in the Droid DNA, giving you similar bass levels even when you're not listening through the speaker. In any case, if you do decide to go the no-headphone route, the result is a much fuller audio experience. Not only that, we cranked the volume as loud as it could go and we couldn't hear any distortion whatsoever.
Regardless of how well Samsung's soon-to-be-announced flagship does on the market, we'll continue to have a soft spot for the One. Last year, we were very impressed by the One X, but that wasn't enough. HTC pushed itself and made its sequel even more polished than the original. We love the phone's industrial design and the camera, while the Snapdragon 600 chipset and 1080p display aren't bad either. We're not sold on every aspect of Sense 5, such as BlinkFeed and the One's two-button layout, but overall the user experience is much improved. As far as we're concerned, HTC has a hit on its hands.
Update: Here's a ZIP file containing most of our un-retouched full-size HTC One photos along with matching shots taken with other handsets.
Myriam Joire and Mat Smith contributed to this review.