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Review: HTC One Mini

While everyone else is yammering on about the new iPhone, I bought a HTC One Mini at around half the price. I take a look at it here.

I’m an Android person in that I’m not an Apple person. I could spend time explaining that but I think I’ve done so in enough detail in other places on this blog. This will be my third Android phone, and my opinion on Android has changed fairly drastically. From the HTC Magic (my first Android phone) where I thought of Android as heralding the future of mobile telephony, to the Nexus S where, once I saw Ice Cream Sandwich, I started to see the crapification of Android, to the new HTC One Mini, where I’ve made my peace and it’s just a phone, and at least the bootloader’s unlocked, right?

On the left, we see the HTC Magic which was as adorable, but the “vodafone” logo on top means that it not only has about 2/3 the RAM of a “real” HTC Magic, but also a locked bootloader. In the middle, the Nexus S, a solid performer, and one which, after really really wanting to get Ice Cream Sandwich on it, I really started to dislike what Android was becoming, and on the right, the new HTC One Mini.

The first thing you’ll notice is the sizes. Phones have been getting progressively bigger, and despite my best efforts, these are some of the smaller phones I could get at the time. From the 3.2" screen of the Magic, to the 4" of the Nexus S, to 4.3" of the One Mini. Note that a 4" phone with hardware menu/home/etc. buttons is roughly the same as a 4.3" screen without hardware buttons, but the HTC One Mini curiously has a 4.3" screen with a 16:9 aspect ratio, but also has hardware buttons.

Incidentally, I don’t mind the hardware buttons on the One Mini — which only has “back” and “home” compared to regular Android phones which have at least one other button. The Nexus S has four buttons, for example: Back, Home, Search, and Menu. The One Mini has that “...” sign instead of a menu button, and the Search button ended up doing nothing on Ice Cream Sandwich forwards anyway, so just having the Back and Home buttons is fine for me.

Incidentally, I loved the search button in the Android 2.x series. I could just press it anywhere and start typing. It worked a lot like Win 7 / Unity / Gnome where you just press Search / Windows, then start typing whatever you are looking for, whether that’s an app, a person, or whatever. I mourn its loss.

In any case, in the end, the hardware buttons means you get a slightly large phone. It’s the same width as the Nexus S, a fair bit thinner, but also about a centimetre taller. This might not seem like much but it requires a little bit of acrobatics to reach the corners in a way that the Nexus S did not. The Nexus S, in turn, made it slightly annoying to reach the corners in a way that, with the Magic, felt very natural. I think that the Nexus S hits a sweet spot between a large screen and hand comfort, and the One Mini kind of stretches that perhaps a smidge too far (especially with the new Android design guidelines which put buttons on the far corners).

On the flipside, you get a 16:9 screen, which means that, like the software-only buttoned phones, you get proper full screen videos. I’ve used phones with the software only buttons, and I have to say I feel safer with the hardware buttons. So, with the larger screen size, but hardware buttons and a 16:9 screen, I don’t know where I stand on this phone, other than thinking “Android is not what it used to be”.

The screen itself is gorgeous. 720p on a 4.3" device pushes it over 300PPI, which means incredibly sharp text and pictures. It’s Super LCD2, which means the viewing angles are great, but not like the Nexus S which is AMOLED. I’m not saying you’ll be disappointed, but there are times when the screen feels “real” on the Nexus S, and the One Mini screen can sometimes feel like a “screen” when you’re handling it generally, though certainly not while in use.

On build quality, the One Mini is fantastic, but not quite at the level of the One. I like plastic, and the way the One / One Mini meshes plastic and Aluminium at the back is fantastic, but the same is not true of the two grills on the front face. I think on the HTC One the whole thing feels like one piece, but here that’s not true. However, I love the look of the white plastic as a relief from the Aluminium on the One Mini, where the One feels a lot more relentless. I’m also not a big fan of the way Aluminium feels. It’s slippery, cold, and heavy.

On the bright side it also feels very solid, though I doubt that’s actually true on the front grills. I’ve dropped the Nexus S several times, and although the phone actually creaks when you press on it, it has always come up trumps when being dropped. I think plastic ends up being a much better shock absorber than metal. I have no idea why people feel that a metal phone will be more able to withstand a fall.

I actually like Sense UI. There’s serious caveats to that, but I like the humanity of it. It’s way cleaner and more colourful than stock Android 4.x, and I generally like its interpretation of “flat” over Google’s. By default, almost all of Google’s apps are stuffed into a single folder, “Google”, and they are an eyesore compared to the Sense icons!

This kind of brings me to the first big issue with Sense, or any real UI on top of Google’s. You see, you need Google’s apps to use Android properly now. In Android 2.x, this might not have been true, but 4.2? You cannot do anything without Google’s suite of apps. The main one, amazingly, is the Play Store, but that brings with it the full suite: Gmail, Google Calendars, Currents, Google Now, Google Music, etc. etc. HTC also bundles their own email, calendar, etc. etc. and some of these do not necessarily integrate with Google’s services as well as Google’s apps. So now you need two sets of apps: Google’s (which I actually dislike compared to HTC’s apps, now that I’ve seen them), and HTC’s (which might not integrate as well with Google’s infrastructure).

You cannot “delete” Google’s apps. If you could, Google couldn’t check if you had the rights to install them again (because it’s not on a per-account basis, it’s on a per-phone basis). Google also wants to track you in a direct sense, whether it’s to use you for their maps data, or for advertising, or to capture your preferences for Google Plus. All of Google’s services, politely or not, will try and get you to use them. The Google universe generally doesn’t mesh well with the Sense universe, and it will minimally mean that you have an inconsistent time, and at most mean that you’re forced to juggle apps and use ones you do not like! If you like Sense, then Google becomes the “crapware”.

Speaking of crapware, I have the Telstra “edition” of the phone, which is apparently “completely unlocked”, but it means that I have some Telstra crapware, even though I’m not a Telstra customer. Worse, you cannot even disable the Telstra crapware, where you can disable everything else (note that there’s a difference between “disable” and “uninstall”. Many applications cannot be uninstalled, but almost everything can be “disabled”). Fortunately the physical phone itself doesn’t mention Telstra at all, so hopefully all it’ll be is a firmware update to switch to stock (stock Sense that is, not Stock Google).

HTC also comes bundled with a bunch of reasonable services, like Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Instagram, Dropbox, etc. These are best in class, and use the real apps from the Play store, not some HTC facsimilies, and you’ll likely have some of these accounts. However, all of these apps are stuck on your phone for better or for worse; you cannot uninstall them. Of all the intrusions from Google and Telstra, Having these apps is the only imposition that HTC puts on the user, and it’s the least inconvenient.

I like that HTC are a very “phone-ish” company. They think about how many button presses it will take you to call someone. You just unlock your phone, click the “dial” button, then start typing on the num-pad, which will list all your contacts with the given phone number fragment, but also by name. This is unclear, but also very efficient. I just overall really like the speed with which you can find contacts. For a phone, I think it’s good to value that efficiency even at the cost of some clarity.

I think HTC’s developer time has been spent well. Blinkfeed is quite good, and it delivers on the Android promise of apps which connect to one another right from the home screen. It’s like a “here's some stuff that's happening”, and you can just browse around. I think Zoe, as well as all the other camera features, are quite cool, though I haven’t really used many of them. A lot of it isn’t quite so intuitive, but the app itself appears to be fairly advanced, and will let you do a lot of stuff.

Also, in case it’s not clear from every other review or spec sheet, one of the unique selling points of the phone are front facing stereo speakers. These work as advertised, and I do not think you can find another phone that does this. If you watch anything on your phone, this is the one to get (or the bigger brother, the HTC One). Having said that, possibly due to the fact that these speakers are (relatively) massive, every now and then you’ll hear a “click” sound when you enter an app which uses sound. It feels slightly chintzy in an otherwise fairly glamorous experience.

In fact, the strangest thing on the phone that I might not like is the FM radio. For some reason, the phone... has one... but it also only works with the headset. I’m not really sure why. Probably because it’s powered off a separate chip and the whole OS can go to sleep while you’re listening, but this isn’t that valuable. I know it’s not hurting me, and there’s probably someone out there who’s yelling “YES! WHY DON'T MORE PHONES HAVE AN FM RADIO?!”, but for me it just feels an awkward uncle who came to your otherwise really cool party.

Looking at it now, what I would prefer is if HTC went their own way and removed the play store and all of Google’s apps, then started a more “open” store that allowed you to plug vendors into it, like Amazon or Ebay or even Ubuntu, for example. Really, HTC doesn’t have any interest in peddling Google’s stuff, and trust of Google is at an all-time low. Whereas Samsung really doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence with their version of Android, I could really dig a HTC one.

One thing about HTC is that their motto: “Quietly brilliant” had rung particularly true during their heyday. They got fantastic word of mouth because people were genuinely surprised at how great their phones were — like a well kept secret. While HTC has dropped that slogan; and really they did make a bunch of crappy phones in the interim; I hope they want to reform, and give customers that feeling of “Hey wow this is actually a really cool phone”. Part of being a really cool phone is being able to do what you want. Part of being a really cool phone is feeling secure about your data, and a part of being a really cool phone is just having software that doesn’t suck.

HTC’s Sense doesn’t suck, but their bundled crapware makes me feel like I don’t control my own phone, and Google’s footprint doesn’t leave me feeling secure. If there’s a conclusion to this review, that’s what it is! That despite what every other reviewer says: That sense is worse than Google, that having Google Apps is great, and that the crapware doesn’t matter, my assessment is the opposite: that Sense is worth saving here, it’s what matters, and it’s good.