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HTC One S reviewed: A superb T-Mobile smartphone

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T-Mobile is launching the HTC One S on April 25 for $199 with a two-year contract and $50 mail-in rebate. The slim, 4.3-inch handset boasts the latest version of both Google Android(s goog) and HTC’s Sense user interface, along with a fast processor and support for T-Mobile’s 42 Mbps mobile broadband network. The phone is touted as a triple threat in the areas of design, audio and camera capabilities. I’ve spent the last five days testing the HTC One S to see if it lives up to that billing.

Finally, a new design out of HTC

HTC has churned out  dozens of smartphones over the past several years, but many have been incremental upgrades over the prior models. Not so for the HTC One S, which is part of HTC’s new One line. The One S has a refreshing look and feel that’s greatly improved. If you like a thin handset, the One S is right up your alley: At 7.8 millimeters, it’s HTC’s thinnest yet. And the 4.3-inch display is a nice compromise in size between smaller screened phones — I’m looking at you iPhone(s aapl) — and handsets that can double as small tablets. Weight is a scant 119.5 grams, or 4.2 ounces.

HTC beveled the sides of the phone where the display meets the case, making for a trapezoidal, comfortable feel in the hand. Below the screen are three capacitive buttons: Home, Back and Recent Apps. I don’t miss the Search button, but if you’re a daily user of it on a current Android phone, this configuration will take some getting used to.

Another difference? The back isn’t removable, which means you can’t replace the 1650 mAh battery. Instead, there’s a small cover that slides off to expose the microSIM card slot. I didn’t find the integrated battery to be problem, as I was getting through every day on a full charge with what I consider average use.

Sights and sounds are very good

The 8-megapixel camera with f/2.0 aperture in the One S may be the best yet for an HTC device. I used it for stills and video — it supports video capture up to 1080p — and liked the output compared to most other phones I’ve used. There’s no dedicated hardware button for the shutter, likely because of the phone’s thin design. But I like how the onscreen shutter buttons work. Note that I said buttons, plural. In the camera software are two buttons: one for stills and one for video. HTC calls this setup Video Pic. This wasn’t intuitive to me at first, but I like it better than a switch that forces you to choose between the two functions.

Instead, you tap one button for a still or tap the other to start a video. It’s a faster and simpler method. The phone is fast to take images as well. Holding the shutter button on the display activates a continuous shooting mode, which captures a stream of images, roughly 4 per second. You can then easily choose the best shot from the bunch. The image quality and fast shooting mode are likely helped by a dedicated HTC ImageChip.

HTC’s investment in Beats Audio is part of the One S package as well. The sound enhancements work best with Beats headphones, but I wasn’t able to test the phone with a pair of Beats. However, the feature does work with all headphones and can be enabled or disabled with a screen tap. To my ears, music sounded richer and louder with the Beats Audio function. The handset also includes an FM radio for music.

A high-performing Android 4.0 handset with Sense

Having used a Galaxy Nexus, the flagship Android 4.0 smartphone, since November, I figured I should compare the HTC One S to that device. Long story short: T-Mobile’s newest phone easily holds its own. Apps and navigation activities are snappy with little noticeable lag. Video playback, even in high-definition, is smooth and seamless. And browsing the web is generally an enjoyable experience too. I personally prefer Chrome for Android to surf the web, but HTC’s skinned browser is quite good: fast to zoom, with a desktop view option and an offline reading list.

I’m also partial to the stock Android 4.0 interface, but I think most potential buyers will find HTC Sense 4.0 to be very appealing. The interface is refined and intuitive, making it easy to figure out most of the phone’s functions. I especially like how Sense shows the recently used apps. Instead of a flat, 2-D list like I see on my Galaxy Nexus, the One S shows the apps in a 3-D card-like view. Like prior versions of Sense, the phone’s lock screen has a moveable ring: Slide it to unlock the device or slide it to one of four functions for quick access to the Phone, Camera or other oft-used application.

Another improvement due to Sense? Widgets can be added with a tap-and-hold on any home screen. This differs from Android 4.0, which only allows for wallpaper changes with this action. For some reason, Google hid the installable widgets in the application menu after all of the app screens. HTC’s approach makes far more sense to me, no pun intended.

A phone is only as good as its network

As a phone, the HTC One S worked well in my tests, both in hand and in speaker phone mode. The handset also supports T-Mobile’s 42 Mbps HSPA+ network, which the carrier calls 4G. Next year, the carrier will roll out LTE, a faster mobile broadband network, but for now HSPA+ 42 is fast enough for most potential buyers. The only caveat here is coverage areas.

Last year, T-Mobile completed rolling out network upgrades to HSPA+ 21 but it is still in progress of doubling the network speeds across the country. Where I live, for example, is a 21 Mbps coverage area, so connection speeds on the One S aren’t as fast as they would be in areas with 42 Mbps coverage. However, I was able to get download speeds averaging around 10 Mbps where I live with the handset and would expect to see at least a 50 percent boost in areas already upgraded. T-Mobile offers an online coverage map here.

The verdict

Consumers looking for a fast, thin handset running the latest version of Android need look no further. The HTC One S performs admirably in all areas and the only reason I’d consider passing on it is if you simply don’t like HTC Sense. If you’re focused on hardware specifications, the phone should prove a winner, although there are higher-resolution displays on the market these days. I didn’t find the 960 x 540 resolution to be a detriment, however. And although there’s only 16 GB of internal storage with no memory card expansion, HTC does offer 25 GB of free Dropbox storage for two years.

Overall, T-Mobile is likely to move a good number of HTC One S handsets; good at a time when HTC is fighting back to regain sales momentum and T-Mobile is readying a transition to LTE next year.

4 Responses to “HTC One S reviewed: A superb T-Mobile smartphone”

  1. Just another plastic clone cluttering up shelves, land fills and cluttered car consoles… AND, what is this insane obsession that T-Mumble has with ‘mail-in rebates’ ?? You can take your plastic melt-down candidate and your idiotic rebate and jam it in your new Ducati exhaust.