HTC should've had a best-seller with the HTC One. The metal-bodied phone was the go-to recommendation for Android fans in the know, and that it didn't get the attention of Samsung's Galaxy range is arguably more about marketing than anything else. HTC followed Samsung's example in distilling the brand for a smaller version, in the shape of the HTC One mini, and has now scaled things up with the HTC One max. A 5.9-inch display, metal body, and UltraPixel camera technology are arguably ingredients for the perfect phablet, but has HTC baked the One max badly? Read on for our full review.
Hardware and Design
The family resemblance is strong, though where there was a relatively small difference in size between the One mini and the One, there's no disguising the surprise when you see quite how much bigger the One max is. Measuring in at 164.5 x 82.5 x 10.29 mm and 217g, it's a monster in comparison to the 137 x 68 x 9.3 mm, 143g original One. On the lower edge of the rear are pogopins for an eventual dock and charging case.
HTC calls it "super sized" but we can't escape the feeling that it's just too bulky and heavy. We knocked Samsung for the plastic construction of the Note 3, but HTC's metal One max has us wondering if we were too quick to judge. The phablet actually looks more like the One mini than the One, with its distinctive white plastic rim around the bezel; that's a shame, as it feels cheaper than the crisper metal edge of the first phone. The power button has been shifted from the top edge, for ergonomic reasons, to the side, above the volume rocker; its also been divorced from the IR blaster in the process, which still lives on the top for universal remote purposes.
Dominating the front is the new Super LCD 3 display, a 5.9-inch panel running at 1080p Full HD resolution. Like the original One it's bright, has great viewing angles, and beautifully accurate colors. Unfortunately HTC opted not to include a stylus; the One max will work with a generic capacitive stylus, and even be offered alongside an HTC branded one in Asia, but lacks the precise digital pen found on the Note 3.
Inside, you get the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 quadcore running at 1.7GHz, paired with 2GB of DDR2 memory, and 32GB of internal storage as the original One; that means none of the performance and graphics improvements found in the LG G2 or Samsung Galaxy Note 3 with their Snapdragon 800 chips. For the first time (outside of Asia variants) the One family has a microSD card slot, too, which can be found along with the microSIM slot under the removable rear cover.
Producing a solid, non-user-accessible device was, HTC told us at the One's launch, the price paid for making it sturdy. That seems to be the situation with the One max: the rear panel is still metal, and it fits well enough, but it's a minor point of movement where the One and One mini are rock-solid. You also don't actually get the full benefit of access: the battery - now a capacious 3,300 mAh - is still non-removable, as it's integrated into the stacked circuitboard design HTC uses.
Wireless choices are the same as before, with 4G LTE - on Verizon or Sprint in the US, with no current talk of AT&T or T-Mobile versions - along with WiFi a/b/g/n/ac and Bluetooth 4.0 with aptX audio support. There's also NFC, the usual collection of sensors - gyroscope, GPS, accelerometer, proximity, ambient light - and a microUSB port with MHL-HDMI output if you have the right cable. There's the biometric fingerprint scanner of course, too, which we'll cover in the next section.
The bigger body also allows for bigger BoomSound, HTC's stereo front-facing speakers. They're certainly louder and clearer than before, and in fact we'd be comfortable calling the One max the best-sounding Android phone around. You don't get Beats processing, however, with HTC opting to push its own branding instead.
Apple wasn't the first to put a fingerprint sensor on a phone, but the iPhone 5s and Touch ID have certainly popularized the idea this year. The One max puts its biometrics on the back, rather than the front as on the new iPhone though, like Apple, HTC has cooked up its own sensor technology.
Up to three fingertips can be registered, stored by picking the finger you want to use on-screen and then swiping it across the sensor four times in succession. You can also set an app to load automatically when that finger is swiped; so, for instance, you can have the camera app automatically run when you use your left forefinger, whereas your right forefinger merely unlocks the handset. As with Apple, the fingerprints - or, more accurately, the key points the One max reads from them and stores, rather than an actual image of your print - themselves are only ever saved on the phone, not in the cloud, in an encrypted part of the device.
Unfortunately, the overall experience lacks the polish that gives fingerprint sensors promise. Where unlocking the iPhone 5s with a fingerprint is effectively made invisible, on the One max it adds an extra step to the process: first you hit the power button, then you swipe your finger.
Then there are the ergonomics. The sensor is right below the UltraPixel camera on the upper middle of the rear of the phone. It demands a swipe straight down from top to bottom, which means you usually need to change your grip on the One max in order to get the angle right, and then you invariably leave a fingerprint on the camera lens in the process.
Three fingers seems an artificially restrictive limit - though HTC hinted that it was one that could be changed for the right reasons - and there's no way to trigger an app with a fingerprint but leave the rest of the phone unlocked. That would've been useful for handing over your One max to your kids and letting them get to games but not your email or the internet. Down the road, HTC is considering giving fingerprint sensor access to third party apps, the company told us, though for the moment the scanner only works for unlocking the handset, not replacing any password entry while you're actually using the device.
At least it's accurate once you get into the habit of adjusting your finger so that your angle of swipe is right. We've had less than 1-in-10 failed logins during our time with the One max, with our track record improving as we've grown more familiar with its foibles. Still, it's not the must-have feature that Apple has managed to deliver on the iPhone 5s, and the hiccups make something that needed to be seamless a little more frustrating.
Software and Performance
Android 4.3 and HTC Sense 5.5: they're pretty familiar things by now, with the original One getting the latest public version of Android over the past few months (location depending) and Sense's combination of the BlinkFeed social stream and classy, minimalistic app launcher repeated on the One and One mini. As you might expect, though, there are some tweaks along the way.
BlinkFeed now gets Google+ and RSS integration, and you can set keywords for the One max to look out for in news headlines and pull them into your aggregator. They can be as broad as "cats" for your daily dose of feline news, through to specific apps, names, or other detailed topics. There's also a Reading List feature which allows you to store articles surfaced through BlinkFeed for offline reading later; it can keep up to 120 articles, at which point older pieces are automatically deleted as you save new ones.
Do Not Disturb now works much in the same way as a snooze for the phone might: you can choose anything from 30 minutes to twelve hours and have the phone silent for that period. Exceptions can optionally be made for specific callers, alarms, and timers.
In the photo app - more on which in the next section - there's the extra Zoe themes we saw added in the last Sense update, along with the ability to use your own music and make longer Highlight reels than the 30 second limit the tool launched with. There's also a GIF maker, accessed through the gallery app, which should keep the tumblr addicts happy.
The TV app now works as a universal remote, which we had set up quickly with no issues, and there's more control over what portions of Sense can be hidden. BlinkFeed can be completely turned off, for instance, if you're not a fan. HTC also throws in 50GB of Google Drive storage for two years.
They're minor tweaks, and while they leave the One max feeling like its had a polish, there's nothing that truly takes advantage of the 5.9-inch display. The Scribble app has lingered around from the days of the Flyer, but it's hardly capitalized on, particularly without a proper active stylus. LG and Samsung have been experimenting with split-screen interfaces, windows-within-windows, and other interesting ways of capitalizing on bigger displays - they don't all succeed, true, but at least they're trying - whereas HTC is just business as usual, only bigger.
As for speed, the Snapdragon 600 chip isn't Qualcomm's fastest but it does a decent job at moving the One max along without lag. Apps load swiftly, and we didn't have problems running some of the more demanding Android games.
The business-as-usual theme continues with the camera. It's the same 4-megapixel "UltraPixel" unit as on the One and One mini, trading the number of pixels present for an increase in their physical size, and it supports 1080p Full HD video recording. There's an LED flash, but bizarrely - given the size of the phone HTC has to play with - the optical image stabilization from the One has been left out. On the front, there's a 2.1-megapixel camera with a wide angle, 88-degree lens.
HTC's differentiator remains the Zoe mode, which simultaneously shoots a 3.6s Full HD video clip and twenty burst stills in one go. You can then dig through the stills for the freeze-frame of your choice, cut out moving objects that have passed through the frame, or piece together faces from multiple shots so that everyone is smiling.
The One max will also automatically juggle different Zoe snippets into a Highlight video, with various different transitions and effects; as of Sense 5.5 that can use music from your own library, and run longer than 30 seconds. There's also more manual control over which parts get selected and in which order.
Unsurprisingly, then, the final shots the One max is capable of are much akin to those from the One and One mini. Low-light performance is a particular strength, the oversized pixels doing a better job of capturing all the available light, but the omission of optical image stabilization does mean there's a tendency to more blur than on the original phone. You need to keep your hand still if you want to get the most out of the UltraPixel hardware.
The one new feature - though something Samsung and LG have offered for a while now - is a dual-shot mode, which can combine a photo taken with both front and rear cameras simultaneously. If you've always wanted to show your reaction to the scene in front of you, it's the shooting mode for you, though it feels gimmicky.
Phone and Battery
The bigger BoomSound speakers mean the One max may well seize the impromptu-conference-call crown from BlackBerry. Put the HTC down on a table and you've got volume to spare. We had no problems keeping a signal or with dropped calls, and Bluetooth streaming worked well, particularly when the receiving device supported the aptX profile for higher-nitrate sound.
As for the battery, HTC claims up to 25hrs of WCDMA talk time or up to 585 hours of WCDMA standby. In practice, the One max has some serious legs: even with heavy use we made it through the day with charge to spare. Average users could well get two days out of the phone - standby power consumption is a particular strength, with the One max merely sipping at its charge when it's idle - and HTC's upcoming battery case will add another 1,200 mAh for even heavier users.
The One max was the obvious next step for HTC's range. "We're very committed to being tight with the product portfolio" HTC told us, contrasting its scattershot approach of old - different devices for every different carrier, and for every different possible market niche - with a new age of restraint. The company is particularly proud of the fact that the One max will launch with that branding universally, rather than being renamed on Verizon.
Unfortunately, the innovation that endeared us to the original HTC One is absent this time around. The HTC One max slaps the One onto a photocopier, hits "enlarge", and then grafts on a half-baked biometrics system. It's too bulky, too heavy, and lacks key features of the original like optical image stabilization.
Most damning, however, is the fact that HTC simply hasn't taken full advantage of the larger screen size. We're used to phablets being big and demanding compromise in how much space they take in your pocket or bag, but the accepted deal is that they pay it back in extra functionality. Instead, the One max gives you the same software experience as on the One, just on a device that's more unwieldy to hold. Phablet fans should continue their pilgrimage to Samsung's Galaxy Note 3; if you want HTC's best, our advice is to stick with the original One.