HTC One Max Review: Does Bigger Mean Better?

Reviews Paul Briden 11:37, 27 Mar 2014

HTC's first phablet, the HTC One Max, certainly lives up to its name on sheer scale, but how does it fare in other areas?

Rating: 
4
Typical Price: 
£600.00
Pros: 
Gorgeous display, Fast performance, Loads of storage, Excellent audio, Long battery life
Cons: 
Unwieldy and cumbersome, Mediocre camera (lacking stabilisation)
Verdict: 
For a first crack at the phablet space this isn't bad at all, the display, processor, storage and battery are all good reasons to consider this phone. The cumbersome size is unecessary, however, and the camera is a let-down

The HTC One range may not have shifted the numbers HTC has been looking for, but if it's done one thing it's put HTC on the map as a phone maker with a reputation for building fantastic-looking metal handsets which are well-made and robust.

It's unsurprising then, that in diversiying into the increasingly popular "phablet" space, HTC has continued with its striking metallic design on the larger scale. Does this translate well into the big form factor smartphone concept via the HTC One Max? Read on to find out.

HTC One Max review: Design and build

The HTC One was a relatively well received device in a rather specific way – critics and consumers piled praise onto it for its eye-catching design with a stylish aluminium unibody.

The confusing thing is that this admiration didn’t actually translate into the sky-high sales the company was hoping for. But because it apparently did get the aesthetics and build right, HTC, rather reasonably, has still stuck to its guns on the design front with its new phablet variant, the HTC One Max.

While the HTC One Max is the largest of HTC’s flagship trio, the design has a bit more in common with its smallest sibling, the HTC One Mini, as it has the same plastic surround which the original HTC One lacks.

On the front you’ve got an aluminium panel at either end of the display, complete with a punched grille speaker design for the stereo BoomSound audio hardware. Meanwhile, the super-thin and contoured plastic bumper (which is high-grade polycarbonate) peeks just around the outer edge.

In the middle is a vast expanse of inky blackness – power the display on though and you’ll see that there is a narrow black bezel around the touchscreen panel.

Flip the phone over and the panelled design continues. The whole rear of the device curves from side-to-side but the top and bottom panels from the front are mirrored on the back, divided from the central panel by strips of white plastic. It’s a very neat look in my view.

As with the other HTC One family members, the plastic comes down in a line from the top strip and surrounds the camera lens – I really like this as for some reason it reminds me of the sort of designs you see on robot battle suits in anime films.

HTC has deviated slightly from the previous two models with the addition of a removable back panel. A small sliding button on the side of the handset releases the large middle plate and it comes off quite easily. Getting it back on again is not quite so effortless, however, and I found getting the panel seated securely was a real struggle. Even when it was apparently secured I would frequently find later on that part of it was still popped up slightly.

Also annoying is the operation of the release button, which HTC appears to have designed so it doesn’t extend very far out of the bodywork. On the one hand, this means accidental operation is unlikely, but I found it made using it normally very fiddly.

The reason for the removable cover is to access the SIM slot and microSD slot (previous HTC One devices haven’t had card storage capabilities), but the battery is not removable, however. I can’t help but think that if these are the only reasons for the removable back, HTC should have implemented the usual trays rather than compromising the handset’s physical integrity.

In my first look hands-on, I wrote about how the rest of the build seemed solid and robust in the hand. On the whole that remains true, but in my longer use of the HTC One Max I have found that the top panel of the front fascia has a tendency to unseat itself – it doesn’t fall out, but you can push it and feel it travelling a few millimetres falling back into where it should be. It’s a bit unnerving to say the least.

I’ll concede that this could be purely a problem with our review unit, particularly as I’ve read reviews from other sites which have had pre-release/first-run units with a few similar build issues. At any rate, I would urge a bit of caution.

Apart from this though, the aluminium feels nice and premium and the rest of the fit and finish is very good indeed. The power and volume rocker are particularly nicely done, being made of brushed metal and having a very satisfying level of feedback – they’re also well positioned for operation with either hand.

Sadly, there are more negatives. The HTC One Max is heavy at 217g and the size of it means it’ll dominate any pocket you put it in. Even with my fairly large hands operating the HTC One Max was not exactly a breeze. On top of this, the aluminium finish is a bit slippery, making it even more difficult to handle – as Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3 showed: if you’re making a big phone it pays to use grippy materials.

On the subject of build this really comes to the heart of the matter. I’m no Samsung fan, but when it comes to the phablet concept I did think with the Galaxy Note 3 Samsung got the size, proportions, weight, balance and handling down to an absolute T. You had all the advantages of a big phone with a big display, but it wasn’t like getting to grips with an unwieldy brick.

Unfortunately, for all its admirable build quality, metal chassis and good looks, the same cannot be said of the HTC One Max. As HTC’s phablet debut, it lacks the nuanced refinements of design delivered by Samsung now that the company is expertly well versed in (and on its third iteration of) the phablet idea.

HTC One Max review: Display

The HTC One Max’s display is an absolute marvel. It’s a 5.9-inch Super LCD3 panel with a 1920x1080 pixel full HD resolution at 367 pixels-per-inch. As with the regular HTC One, image quality is incredibly sharp, while brightness, colour and contrast are all excellent.

Black depth, normally a weakness of LCD, is really rather good, while viewing angles are wide enough that you can accommodate viewers either side of you and in bright sunlight the phone is still perfectly usable.

All of this, on such a large scale, makes the HTC One Max superb for browsing and multimedia consumption and it even gives Samsung’s Galaxy Note 3 a run for its money.

HTC One Max review: Processor, software and performance

The HTC One Max’s running gear is a virtually identical setup to the HTC One, so anyone who’s seen that particular model streaming through its interface and effortlessly chewing up apps, games and multimedia is going to find things very familiar.

You’re looking at a Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 quad-core processor clocked at 1.7GHz, with 2GB of RAM and an Adreno 320 graphics processing unit.

That high-flying combo has seen a number of flagship devices deliver fantastic performance and despite the arrival of the beefier Snapdragon 800 it’s still more than capable at demolishing the vast majority of smartphone tasks and pretty much anything on Google Play in terms of content.

On Android 4.3 Jelly Bean with the HTC Sense 5.5 interface the HTC One Max simply flies. As with a number of other flagships I’ve reviewed recently, there was not a hint of lag or slowdown during my entire run with the phone, regardless of what I threw at it from intensive multitasking to high-end gaming.

HTC may have a slightly older chip in play but the company knows a thing or two about optimisation and it seems it’s squeezed every last drop here.

One thing worth mentioning is that although it doesn’t negatively impact performance, the HTC One Max shares the HTC One’s tendency to get quite hot when doing more intensive activities.

On the benchmarking front, scores from AnTuTu, Quadrant and Vellamo put the HTC One Max above the HTC One but below the similarly specced Snapdragon 600-based Samsung Galaxy S4. It’s perhaps to be expected that it ranks below the Snapdragon 800 equipped Samsung Galaxy Note 3, but that doesn’t mean it’s a slouch.

HTC Sense 5.5

Compared to stock Android, HTC Sense 5.5 is a very different breed. While HTC has kept Android’s signature blue colour for its settings toggles and the like, the vast majority of the interface is dominated by contrasting white icons and text on black and dark grey backgrounds. It’s very minimalist, in a good way. HTC even has its own modified version of Google’s Roboto font, which is really clear to read and looks pretty neat too.

Neat is probably the word I’d use to describe the majority of the UI, it looks like it’s been created by a German interior designer (and this is a good thing), with tidy icon styles and everything based on grids.

HTC’s Blinkfeed homescreen makes a return. This screen is your default homescreen and presents a tiled feed of notifications from your social networking accounts, a suite of news sources and your own photo gallery. In a pleasing move, HTC for the first time offers you the option of switching the whole thing off if you wish.

The drop-down notifications menu is usually the first port of call for manufacturers to get tinkering, but here, aside from the signature font, it’s more or less standard Android fare.

Notifications can be expanded, tapped to open or swiped to close. There’s a quick settings menu accessed in the usual fashion – either a two fingered swipe gesture or by tapping the icon in the top right.

Inside you’ll find controls for brightness, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, rotation, power save, mobile data, Wi-Fi Hotspot, Do Not Disturb, Aeroplane mode, a shortcut to the full Settings screen and...a fingerprint scan key. I’ll come back to that final option in a little while.

Just like other manufacturers, HTC has sub-divided the Settings menu into different categories and the background is now bright white.

The multitasking menu is perhaps the most dramatic overhaul, though purely from a visual standpoint rather than a functional one. It still operates much as normal with the user tapping on a screen preview to open it or swiping it upwards to close. Rather than a carousel though, you’re presented with a grid of tiles.

Customising the homescreens is quite different from stock Android, but a similar setup to what we’ve seen before from HTC and elsewhere. A hold press or pinch gesture on the homescreen brings up a left-to-right carousel in the top third of the screen, showing previews of your homescreen and with the ability to add new or remove existing ones, or set which one is your default homescreen. This is also where you can toggle Blinkfeed on or off.

Below these, you have your app shortcuts, an app search tool and a toggle for switching to widgets instead. Both widgets and apps can be dragged to the homescreens.

The app drawer has a large clock widget at the top and operates with a vertical snap-scroll, pulling it all the way down brings up a set of controls, allowing you to order apps alphabetically, by “most recent” or with a custom order you can arrange yourself. There’s also a shortcut to Google Play, a search function and a menu with settings for grid size, hiding apps and so forth.

The lock screen lets you add widgets by swiping to the right and pressing the “+” icon, although I found it very clunky to get it to register the gesture as it seemed to keep thinking I was trying to swipe up to unlock.

HTC’s Sense 5.5 keyboard is quite good in normal operation and also benefits from a swiping input, which is very useful.

Sense 6 Is Coming... In Time

HTC has just revealed the successor the original HTC One, the HTC One M8. The handset itself is a big improvement over last year's HTC One and adds in lots of new hardware, a reimagined – but still very premium – chassis design and a larger, beautiful 5in display. It also comes with the brand new Sense 6 UX which – HTC assures us – is also coming to older handsets like the One Max. 

The company has not confirmed when this will be happening, however. Although the One, One Max and potentially the One X+ are all likely to recieve the new software. 

HTC has done a lot of work to improve Sense 6 aboard the HTC One M8, and it really shows. The UX is simple to use and is very easy on the eye – it's the nicest custom Android skin out there in our opinion. BlinkFeed is still included and is now accessed via a swipe left from the home screen. New additions to BlinkFeed include FitBit, giving you glance-based information on things like how many steps you've taken and how many miles you've walked in a day. 

HTC One Max review: Hardware, connectivity and web

Now, onto the fingerprint scanner. Many may be wondering, “is this as good as Apple’s Touch ID on the iPhone 5S?” The answer to that question depends on whether you think fingerprint unlocking is a “good” and useful thing to have in the first place. Personally, I can’t see what all the fuss is about, but assuming for a second that you actually want this feature I will say that Apple’s implementation appears to have been thought out better.

The Touch ID scanner, you see, is housed inside the iPhone 5S’s Home key, which means when you press the Home key to wake-up the device, you automatically scan your print and if it’s your phone scanning your print it unlocks. Seamless.

The HTC One Max’s fingerprint scanner is on the back of the handset, a little black square just below the camera port. This is, frankly, a bit of a weird location for a number of reasons. I found myself fumbling around trying to find the square most of the time and on more than one occasion dragged my finger across the camera lens instead. Not ideal.

Ah yes, that’s another thing, the scanner requires that you slide the fingertip across it in a rather specific way, rather than hold it in place as you do on the iPhone 5S. Getting it wrong (easy in a hurry) results in you not being able to access the phone. This, combined with its “blind” location, is doubly annoying to use.

Tapping the fingerprint icon in the settings or quick settings menu takes you through the tutorial. This is well implemented and easy to follow. You can set up different fingers to perform different functions, the most obvious being phone unlocking, but others include launching specific apps.

While the iPhone 5S lets you store scan data for up to five fingers, the One Max will only work with three.

Another thing I found weird was that the setup goes to the effort of specifying things like “right index finger”, “left index finger” and so on, and yet I was able to unlock the phone with my left index finger having set it up for my right. A quick Google search shows the two fingerprints are supposed to be different from one hand to the next, so this really shouldn’t be happening and makes me wonder whether any Tom, Dick or Harry with vaguely similar fingerprints to mine could get into the phone.

Assigning a specific app also only works with regard to opening that app when you’re unlocking the phone – it’s a dual function, but you can’t, for example, have the phone already unlocked and then scan the associated finger to open the app it’s assigned to. Daft.

Furthermore, unlocking the phone works in a silly way as well. Rather than registering the swipe of a finger on the scanner when the phone is asleep to wake it up, you have to first tap the power key to rouse the device from its slumber and only then can you use the scanner.

As I mentioned earlier, Apple’s setup is one fluid motion as the same button does both stages, having a two-stage wake-up on the HTC One Max feels fiddly, convoluted and dpes not take full advantage of the fingerprint scanning concept, which should really make things faster, easier and more fluid.

Combine this with the two pitfalls mentioned above – blind operation and temperamental registration of a scan, and you have an infuriating recipe for disappointment.

Of course, it’s of no consequence for the rest of the phone that the fingerprint scanner is a dog’s dinner, you can still use the HTC One Max as any other handset, it’s just a bit of a waste of time, effort and resources on HTC’s part as it really doesn’t deliver the goods.

In short? I’ll stick to pattern unlock, thanks.

Storage

For storage the HTC One Max is handsomely equipped with 16GB or 32GB onboard. Better still, it’s the only model amongst its stable-mates to carry a microSD slot, which is good for cards up to 64GB. This should be more than adequate for even the most space-hungry multimedia enthusiasts.

Connectivity

Connectivity includes your usual slew of high-end options: 4G LTE and 3G (with HSPA+), GPS, Bluetooth 4.0, microUSB, Wi-Fi (with Hotspot), DLNA, NFC, an infrared blaster, MHL/HDMI TV-out.

Audio

Audio is well worth talking about. The HTC One Max is the first premium HTC device in a while not to sport Beats Audio enhancement for headphone use. Quality is still decent, however, although a good set of headphones is always going to be a deciding factor.

The front-facing BoomSound speaker setup continues to impress. Like its brothers, the HTC One Max is possibly one of the loudest phones on the market, but thanks to the built-in amplifier such deafening volumes don’t compromise on sound quality, which is rewardingly lacking in tininess and has good range for treble and bass.

Everything’s nice and clear, and combine this with the excellent display and you have a fantastic mobile cinema or gaming platform.

Web and browsing

The web and browsing experience is fairly typical for a handset in this class powered by a Snapdragon 600 chip. It’s relatively zippy for jumping from one webpage to another with a good connection and the built-in Wi-Fi and 4G/3G modems are more than capable.

Sunspider showed a score of 1479 milliseconds in Chrome, while Vellamo HTML5 chalked up a score of 2555 compared to the Sony Xperia Z1’s 2716 and the Samsung Galaxy Note 3’s 2512.

HTC One Max review: Battery

Battery life was a chief concern when testing the HTC One Max because both the HTC One Mini and HTC One were quite disappointing in this department. Unsurprisingly, HTC took the opportunity to stuff as large a cell as possible inside the HTC One Max’s sizable chassis with a 3,300mAh unit.

As a result, the HTC One Max performed best of any handset so far in the “Django Test”, running the entirety of Quentin Tarantino’s 2 hour 45 minute epic from 100% charge with full brightness, power saving off and both Wi-Fi and mobile data on. By the end of the film it still had 72% charge remaining.

I then tested the phone from 100% charge with the same settings under my typical usage conditions. This involves intensive browsing and social networking in the mornings from about 8am-9am and fairly light-to-moderate use throughout the rest of the day with less intensive use in the same activities, plus the addition of calls, texts and instant messaging, up until about midnight.

In this test the HTC One Max lasted a full weekend, being at around 48 per cent by Monday morning. I could easily see it lasting the rest of that day under similar conditions, so you’re looking at around three days on a single charge under this kind of use. That’s quite similar to the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. With power saving mode on, brightness on auto and non-essential connectivity turned off when you don’t need it, you can expect a bit of a boost on top of this, though I’d hesitate to suggest a full fourth day.

Of course if you throw lots of multimedia consumption into the mix – films, games, music – you can expect such battery performance to dip noticeably.

A number of 3,000mAh plus handsets I’ve reviewed recently, including the Galaxy Note 3, have given me multiple days on a single charge, but Rich has blitzed through them in a single day with his constant use of messaging apps. As they say, your mileage may vary.

HTC One Max review: Camera

The HTC One Max once again mirrors its compatriots with the camera hardware, carrying a 4.3-megapixel sensor using HTC’s “Ultrapixel” technology. This setup uses a smaller number of larger pixels in its sensor with the idea that it takes in more light, with the trade-off being a lower resolution image. It’s equipped with a wide f/2.0 aperture and a 1/3” back-illuminated sensor (BSI), plus an LED flash.

Unfortunately, one key element missing from the HTC One and HTC One Mini’s configuration is the optical image stabilisation (OIS) – the HTC One Max has none.

With the HTC One and its smaller counterpart, KYM observed that while the picture quality was certainly passable for your average social sharing and holiday snap use, as a flagship device with an emphasis on imaging as a selling point it has a bit of noise and lacked detail despite having relatively robust sharpness, exposure, colour and dynamic range. Low light performance was more impressive, however, and video was a particular highlight in all conditions.

So how does the HTC One Max compare to this?

It’s actually good, but not great. OIS was, in many ways, the HTC One’s saving grace and its absence makes a noticeable difference to video, which has gone from being a highlight to decidedly mediocre.

Above: With HDR

Above: Without HDR

More generally, low-light performance and normal stills don’t appear to have taken too much of a hit despite the loss of OIS, which is surprising, but still, in the current market there are plenty of better options if low-light is really your thing. For normal use the HTC One Max is decent enough, just not particularly amazing due to the lack of detail and the presence of noticeable noise.

Above: With HDR

Above: Without HDR

Oddly enough, HDR was a bit of a damp squib on the HTC One but here it actually makes normal shots noticeably better.

HTC One Max review: Conclusion

The HTC One Max is a gorgeous phone, no doubt, but then it was always going to be with HTC’s luxurious metallic bodyshell design being continued on the larger scale. The display contributes tremendously to the overall experience as it’s easily one of the top five on the market currently. Add to that some of the best speakers, a hefty engine giving smooth performance, a sizeable battery pack and oodles of onboard storage with microSD on top, and it certainly sounds like a winning combination.

But, it’s oversized and unwieldy –– unnecessarily so. There are other options on the market which give as good an experience while being considerably less cumbersome – most prominently the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. It also has components which, while passable, in their current state aren’t really at home on a handset carrying this kind of price tag and put it at a disadvantage against better equipped rivals. A whole £600 for a mediocre camera and a squiffy fingerprint scanner? No thank you.

If you can ignore the bulk of the HTC One Max and want a brilliant display with stacks of battery life, you may find you’re happy with it. Just make sure you’re not going to be looking longingly at the cameras on the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, iPhone 5S or the Nokia Lumia 1020.

To be honest, these two features lacking wouldn’t bother me too much in my day-to-day use, but it’s the extra heft of the HTC One Max which is the real kicker. If I were in the market for a phablet I would stick to Samsung’s optimised offering.

Related Content: 

HTC One Max review: Will the HTC One Max flop? 

Want an HTC One Max? Well, if Forbes is to be believed you're pretty much on your own.

The publication has spoken to vendors in Taiwan and found HTC's landmark phablet is "lagging" behind its peers in sales.

HTC hasn't commented on the Max's sales since its 23 October release, but as analyst Wilson Mao tells Forbes the Max is "pretty ordinary in Taiwan".

“Six inches is not a particularly remarkable size", Mao says. “It’s big, but the sense is I saw this a year ago. There’s nothing too unique.”

“The addition of the HTC One max means that we now have an HTC One phone for everyone. The family has been built on quality and game-changing innovations and the HTC One max is certainly no exception,” said Peter Chou, CEO of HTC Corporation. 

“The upgrade to HTC Sense 5.5 will provide our most amazing mobile experience yet, with the HTC One max delivering the size and power required to do everything you want, and more, without compromise.”

According to Forbes, a slow pick up in Taiwan could mean trouble for the One Max's sales in the USA. As Neil Mawston of Strategy Analytics remarks, it's not a "Note 3" killer just yet.

On that note, the unlocked SIM-free model of the phablet is now available in the UK.

Multiple retailers are now stocking the unlocked device, including Expansys, Mobilefun, Clove and Unlocked Mobiles, ranging from £585 to £600 depending on where you shop.

Any takers?

Specifications

Length 164mm
Width 82.5mm
Thickness 10.29mm
Weight 217g
Screen Colours 16 million
Screen Size 5.9-inches
UK Launch October 2013
Phone Style Phablet
Typical Price £600
Website http://www.htc.com/uk/smartphones/htc-one-max/
Camera Resolution 4.3-megapixels
Video Resolution 1080p
Flash LED
Music Player Yes
Song Storage Yes
Speaker Stere BoomSound

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