Thursday, 20 September 2012

HTC One V Review

The HTC One V was announced at Mobile World Congress in February 2012, along with its larger siblings the One S and One X. It went on sale in the UK in April, and thanks to Steve and Tim from Phones Show Chat, I've been able to use a review unit as my primary device for the last few weeks. The One V is without a doubt third in the pecking order behind the One S and One X in HTC's first half of 2012 Android line-up, but my penchant for smaller devices has meant the One V was always been the one I was most keen to try out.


HTC One V

Hardware

The design of the chassis is very reminiscent of the Legend, HTC's 2010 phone with an infamous chin. You can in fact trace the heritage of the chin through the Legend, the HTC Hero and all the way to the T-Mobile G1, the phone that first introduced us to Android back in 2008. Also shared with the Legend is the uni-body aluminium construction, making the device feel incredibly sturdy in the hand and giving a sense of quality merely through it's weight alone. That's not too say it feels heavy though; at 115g it certainly isn't overweight, but in direct comparison to its plastic-constructed counterparts you will notice a difference.


Spot the difference! HTC Legend (left) and HTC One V (right)

Part of my keenness to try out the One V was its size, something which ironically would put a lot of smartphone enthusiasts off. At 120mm x 60mm and with a 3.7 inch screen, the One V is much closer to "phone-sized phone" than current flagship devices from all the Android manufacturers. 4 inch screens appear to be the absolute minimum for anything with top end specs, and most flagship devices (see the Galaxy S III, Razr Maxx, Xperia S, Ascend P1, Optimus L7 and One X) are in fact comfortably closer to 4.5 inches. Bezels are getting smaller, and devices thinner, but there is still something about about a 3.5/3.7 inch device that just fits nicely into the pocket in my opinion!

My personal preference is still for a physical home button, something with which only Samsung seem to agree. Unfortunately for me therefore, the One V has backlit capacitive buttons for "back", "home" and "recents" (the three standard navigation system buttons for Android going forward). They work fine though, and we still have physical buttons on the right side of the chassis to control volume, and a power/wake button on the top. Also on top is a notification light, something rarely included in recent handsets.




At the bottom of the One V, on the reverse, you'll find the one break in the aluminium uni-body; a hatch constructed of plastic which houses access to the full-sized SIM card slot, and micro SD card slot. The aerials are also expected to do their work through this area of the chassis, which doesn't work particularly well in my experience. WiFi performance was on par with other plastic-based devices I tested alongside the One V, but GPS performance seemed weak, taking longer than other Android handsets to gain accurate location from cold-start, and losing lock whilst driving using Google Navigation. Tim from Phones Show Chat had also noted poor cellular performance during his testing. There is clearly a cost/benefit analysis to be done for this type of chassis construction, and whilst not disastrous in my testing, it does seem that the solid feel gained from the aluminium body impacts performance of the wireless components.



Plastic hatch reveals SIM and microSD slots


Screen

At time of writing in September 2012, the HTC One X arguably had the title of best screen amongst all the Android handsets on the market. The One X's Super LCD 2 technology, whilst curiously not used in the One S (AMOLED in case you were wondering) is in fact used here for the One V, and the results are stunning. At 800 x 480 WVGA the One V clearly doesn't have the resolution of the flagship One X, or the pixel density (~250ppi against ~310ppi), but the colours are extremely vibrant and the viewing angles amazing, coupled with that feeling that the display is on the glass as opposed to behind it.


 
The impressive One V screen


Not so impressive is the storage: 1GB for apps and 100MB for media, and a 2GB SD card in the retail package (though not included in the review unit I had). The 1GB space carved out for apps will serve non-geeks just fine, but the chances are that if you're reading this review, it won't be enough for you long-term. The 100MB for your media is nothing but a token gesture, so all media storage hinges on the SD card, and you'll want to swap that measly 2GB card out for a larger one pretty quickly. At least you can swap the card out though, something or a novelty amongst the increasing majority of devices not shipping with micro SD slots.

To wrap up the hardware, the One V has been very light on its 1500 mAh battery. Android devices are notoriously poor in their efforts to get through a single day on charge, an attribute I can confirm with personal experience of over 10 devices I've personally owned and used day-to-day whilst being truly mobile. Recent exceptions like the Galaxy Note and Razr Maxx have included large capacity batteries, but for the One V to last as long as it does in my normal usage pattern, with only 1500 mAh, is very impressive.

Operating System

The core specs of the One V are very mid-range in the current market. A 1GHz single-core Snapdragon CPU pairs an Adreno GPU along with 512MB RAM. This is probably the bare minimum for an Android 4 device such as the One V, and whilst there isn't any appreciable lag around the operating system, you don't get the same fluidity as the Galaxy S III or Galaxy Nexus for example. No less than four software updates were waiting for me on booting up the One V for first time, core app updates and "system updates". I'm not sure why these couldn't be wrapped up into cumulative updates, as the full reboot each time was a pain! I was hoping one of them would be an upgrade from Android 4.0.3 base to 4.0.4, but this wasn't forthcoming. Android 4.1, codenamed Jelly Bean, has been promised for the One S and One X, but at time of writing there has been no word from HTC about the One V.

Regular Android enthusiasts will know that as an HTC device the One V comes with HTC's interpretation of Android, Sense. We're looking at version 4 of Sense, and one which is cut-down from the "main" version of Sense 4, as seen on the One S and One X. HTC inexplicably created their own version of the recents view (aka multitasking) for Sense 4, but presumably due to the system resources required this has been dropped for the One V, with its weaker CPU and lower RAM count. There are also 5 homescreens instead of 7, and fewer 3D transitions when compared to the One V's bigger siblings.


One V Sense/stock mix and match!
Left to right: Sense lock screen, stock recents screen, Sense app drawer

The rest of Sense 4 is however fully in tact, but if HTC had to cut down Sense 4 on ICS to fit the One V's hardware resource limitations, I'm actually not surprised they haven't committed to getting Jelly Bean out to the One V. Not only would Jelly Bean have slightly higher resource requirements, but there may be even more work on the Sense front, cutting even more bits out here and there to again fit the One V's smaller resource limitations.

Now, whilst Sense 4 is less of an eye sore compared to previous incarnations, I still dislike HTC's customisations and general look and feel. They may only be little things, like the effect when scrolling to the end of a menu list, or the circular tick boxes with frustrating colour choices, but when they are as frequently seen as those GUI components are, they can start to annoy. A lot. See below the mix of GUI elements, tick boxes and themes all present in one phone. Interface consistency is certainly one area where iOS and Windows Phone are streets ahead or Sense-based Android phones (and any skinned android phones in fact), and provide yet another good reason for Android manufacturers to lay off their skins and go with stock.


How many themes?
Left to right: Sense Bluetooth, Sense Privacy, SMS Backup+, GMail, Seesmic

I encountered a few bugs during my time with the One V, the first being the WiFi network notification. I turned this off but it still persisted. Through turning it on and off a few times, and a factory reset, this was still the case so, can only presumably be a bug. The second was the lack of calendar notifications, where events with reminders passed without any notification from either the stock calendar app or Business Calendar, whilst notifying on all my other Android devices. Again, this persisted through clearing the calendar app's data, and a factory reset, so again appears to be a genuine bug. Both of these were after checking for updates and being up-to-date, as far as the phone reported.

Camera

Dedicated camera buttons are seemingly on the way out; very few devices are seen with this useful hardware feature, with a few exceptions and camera-centric phones like the Nokia N8 and 808 Pureview. The One V therefore relies like many on screen presses for taking pictures, and focusing, should you wish to compose your shot off centre for example. There is a 5 mega-pixel unit, incorporating HTC's "Imagesense" technology, with a dedicated imaging chip and backside illumination sensor claiming improved low-light performance. This may be true, but I had very varied results with the One V, from decent indoor shots and good outdoor close-ups, to very poor shots of anything past a couple of metres away, see the sample photos below and see what you think.


   

Sample shots from the HTC One V

Shutter lag is however very minimal, and there is a continuous shooting mode accessed by holding down on the shutter on-screen button. Also impressive is ability to take photos whilst recording video, admittedly recently released in iOS 6 so no longer unique. Video recording is available up to 720p and is again good enough without blowing anyone away.

Conclusion

Living as I prefer and choose to do with smaller phones, I've become far too used to devices like the One V. Its larger siblings, the One S and One X, have far better specs and take all the glory, and the One V is left to splutter along with a slimmed down software experience to match its under-powered hardware. Sure the screen is great, one thing that did make it down from the big daddy One X, and the chassis design incredibly sturdy whilst providing great feel in the hand, but the camera was inconsistent, the software trimmed, and even then not as smooth as the flagship devices, and you really can tell this is handset is firmly in that terrible clich├ęd "mid-range" territory.



My closing comments apply to HTC as much as Samsung, Sony and all the other Android manufacturers, in that this size of device (under 4 inch screen) does not have to automatically mean that is has to hit the mid-range price bracket. Size of chassis does not have to be proportional to price of handset, and as most flagship handsets are incredibly thin, I no longer believe that the top-range specs could not fit into a chassis the size of the One V, based on overall volume of chassis comparison. I can only assume I'm in a minority and that all the focus groups and consumer studies show otherwise, and that people want larger devices for the large screens, so for now this trend seems unlikely to change.