The HTC One is probably my favorite Android phone ever. Its combination of a stunning display, gorgeous industrial build and top-notch specs make it a formidable device more than seven months after it first came out. I’m not a huge fan of HTC’s overbearing Sense software, but there’s always the Google Play edition if you want to escape it completely.
It makes sense, then, that a supersized version of the HTC One – the 5.9-inch HTC One Max— should be just as good, right? Only it isn’t. After all, seven months is a long time, especially in the smartphone world. While the One Max is plenty powerful, it doesn’t quite measure up to Samsung’s latest “phablet,” the Galaxy Note 3, which offers improved performance and a better camera. And perhaps more importantly, thanks to solid multitasking and a built-in stylus, the Galaxy Note 3 makes a case for its huge size, aside from thinking bigger is simply better.
All that screen and nothing new to show
Let me get this out of the way and quickly mention something I made abundantly clear in my review of the Nokia Lumia 1520: I’m not a fan of gigantic phones. I think 4 to 5 inches should suit most users just fine, and until someone makes a solid case for why we need a phone that borders on tablet-size, I’m not sold. That said, there are plenty out people out there that disagree with me, so I’m evaluating the HTC One Max under the assumption that it isn’t too big for you. If you aren’t certain, make sure to go check one out in your local Sprint or Verizon store before buying to make sure you know what you’re getting into.
The One Max measures 6.47 by 3.24 by 0.40 inches and weighs 7.65 ounces. It’s the biggest phone I’ve seen next to the Nokia Lumia 1520, which is pretty similar at 6.4 by 3.36 by 0.34 inches and 7.26 ounces. As far as phablets go, I think the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 strikes a better balance in size, with a slightly smaller 5.7-inch display but overall measurements of 5.95 by 3.12 by 0.33 inches and 5.93 ounces. It’s the only phone of the bunch where one-handed operation feels like it’s in the realm of possibility. There’s simply no way to type or drag down the notifications bar on the HTC One Max without using two hands.
The reason for all that size is to make way for a massive 5.9-inch display. HTC claims the One Max uses the same screen as the original HTC One. That’s true, in a sense. Both phones feature a gorgeous LCD 3 screen with 1080p resolution. But the 4.7-inch HTC One packs that high resolution into a smaller space, making it one of the densest mobile screens available, at 469 pixels per inch. To my eyes it’s probably the best phone display on the market.
The One Max stretches that same resolution out across an additional 1.2-inches, which makes for a lower – but still completely respectable – 373 pixels per inch. Colors look richer and details are sharper here than on the Galaxy Note 3. I’m still a sucker for the rich, inky saturation in the Lumia 1520’s ‘ClearBlack’ IPS LCD, but there’s no doubt that the One Max has one of the best phablet displays currently available.
The problem is, HTC doesn’t really offer much in the way to do with all that additional display. Don’t get me wrong, watching Netflix and YouTube here is glorious. When you factor in the phone’s ‘BoomSound’ front-facing speakers – which rival some of the portable speaker options I’ve heard – it is clear that the One Max is a multimedia machine. But Samsung went the extra mile to prove a bigger display isn’t just a gimmick. True to its name, the Galaxy Note 3 features a useful built-in stylus for drawing and taking notes, and Samsung’s multi-tasking features allow you to open up more than one app on the screen at once. That’s genuine utility. The One Max simply makes everything larger.
Design: More of the same, only not
Physically, the HTC One Max follows most of its design cues from the original HTC One: If you place the two phones side by side, they look more or less the same, minus the difference in size. But a close look reveals the phones are actually quite different. Gone is the industrial, unibody design of the HTC One in favor of something that feels a little less premium. The One Max features aluminum on the front and back, broken up by a chunky plastic band around the edges of the phone.
The back cover is removable this time around, which is a mixed blessing. I’m grateful for the addition of a microSD card slot, which supports cards with up to 64GB of additional storage. But the 3,300mAh battery is completely sealed in, which is disappointing. On top of that, the panel has some flex to it, and overall it just doesn’t feel quite as snug as it should.
That said, the One Max’s 3,300mAh battery is just a bit larger than the Note 3’s 3,200mAh battery and slightly smaller than the Lumia 1520’s 3,400mAh cell. All three phones should offer about a day’s worth of battery life with moderate use.
As for call quality, I tested the Sprint model of the phone, and calls were clear in the phone’s earpiece, though some background noise made it through on the other end. On the plus side, the Sprint model of the phone supports the carrier’s brand new Spark network, and I saw some pretty fantastic data speeds where I tested it in Manhattan.
Arguably the biggest physical difference between the HTC One and the HTC One Max is the addition of a fingerprint sensor this time around. But don’t go comparing the One Max to the iPhone 5s just yet – Apple’s implementation of a fingerprint sensor into the home button of its new iPhone is vastly more successful.
Here, the fingerprint reader is located on the back of the phone. It’s right below the camera sensor, which means that half the time you’re able to find the reader right away, and the other half you wind up coating your camera sensor with a slick of oil from your finger.
The fingerprint sensor is used to unlock the phone. Setup is simple, and takes place when you first configure the phone. But unlike Apple, which allows you to awaken and unlock the iPhone 5s in just a single step, you first need to press the Power button on the side of the One Max before moving a finger around the back and onto the fingerprint reader. And given the phone’s unwieldy size, it never really felt comfortable to reach my index finger around the back. To be honest, I stopped using the feature completely after the first couple of days; it was just easier to use a standard unlock screen.
There’s also no other no other use for the phone’s fingerprint sensor right now. You can’t submit your fingerprint in the place of a password like you can in the Apple App Store. Like the size of the phone, I get the feeling that the fingerprint sensor is there “just because.”
Hardware, software and camera performance
Unlike its physical design, the One Max is virtually identical to the One from a hardware perspective. That means it comes powered by a quad-core 1.7GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 chip and 2GB of RAM. That’s plenty of power, but it doesn’t stack up to the newer Snapdragon 800 and 3GB of RAM in the Galaxy Note 3.
The software is mostly the same as well, and as previously mentioned, I’m not a huge fan of HTC’s Sense customizations. The One Max runs Android 4.3 (Jelly Bean) along with HTC Sense 5.5. Sense stacks a bunch of bells and whistles on top of Android, most notably BlinkFeed, which is a Flipboard-like home screen. It gets way too busy and crowded for me, and ultimately I’d rather just use the Flipboard app.
There’s also a good deal of bloatware here, at least on the Sprint version of the phone I’m reviewing. There are lots of Sprint-branded apps, like Sprint Music Plus, Sprint TV & Movies and Sprint Zone. There are also a bunch of pre-installed third-party apps such as CBS Sports, eBay, Lookout, NextRadio and Scout. I’d rather pick and choose what gets installed on my phone, so I’m not a big fan of bloatware.
But perhaps the biggest disappointment here is the camera. For the most part, the One Max uses the same 4-megapixel ‘UltraPixel’ camera as the HTC One. The idea here is that the camera uses larger pixels, rather than more pixels, to compose images. This means the camera has fairly good performance in low-light conditions, but regular shots just don’t look impressive compared to the competition. On top of that, HTC has dropped the optical image stabilization we saw in the One. Instead, the One Max uses software-based electronic image stabilization. HTC claims it did this to get better battery life, but I would’ve preferred more consistently steady shots.
Available for $249.99 with a two-year contract from Sprint or $299.99 on contract from Verizon, the HTC One Max isn’t a bad phone. It just doesn’t do anything to improve upon the original HTC One. Luckily, the HTC One is still a pretty fantastic phone. That means if you like the HTC One and you just want a bigger version of it, you’ll find a lot to like here.
On the other hand, HTC doesn’t take the same steps that Samsung did to justify the phone’s larger size. In addition to a built-in stylus and optimized software, the Galaxy Note 3 features more powerful hardware and a better camera. I’m not asking HTC to copy Samsung; I’m just asking that someone prove to me why anyone would need a phone this big by including features that take advantage of it. Samsung has done this to an extent, and so for most people, the Galaxy Note 3 is best Android phablet you can buy right now. It’s also available on all four major carriers, making it more accessible.
Also worth considering is the Lumia 1520, though it’s only available from AT&T. It costs just $99.99 on contract, which makes is one of the more affordable phablets. It also has a fantastic screen and a solid 20-megapixel camera. Windows Phone still isn’t for everyone, though, and if it’s apps you’re after, you’re better off sticking with Android.