When the HTC One debuted back in March/April, it was met with stellar reviews from media outlets virtually across the board. In our own in-depth review, we had mostly great things to say about the device, raving about its full HD display, UltraPixel camera, BoomSound front facing speakers, and yes, even Beats audio.
Now that we know everything there is to know about the One, HTC threw the mobile world for a loop when they announced the “HTC One Google Play edition,” a skinless version of the device now available from the Google Play Store. Is it possible an already great smartphone could be made even better, simply slapping a “stock” Android experience onto it?
After putting the HTC One GPe through its paces, let’s find out how the One GPe stacks up against the reigning champion of the Google Play Store — the Nexus 4 — as well as its Sense 5 counterpart in our HTC One Google Play edition review.
So, uhhh.. What’s the difference?
Going over the hardware, you’re looking at 2 identical devices. Same awesome front facing speakers, gorgeous 1920×1080 display, premium aluminum build materials, UltraPixel 4MP camera, and odd capacitive button placement. It’s all the same. Heck, even Beats audio managed to make the cut.
The biggest, and only real difference between the HTC One bought from the Play Store and the carrier branded HTC One you can find at your local retail store is the software. The HTC One GPe offers a pure “stock” Android experience, while the carrier models offer the latest version of HTC’s custom UI dubbed Sense 5. Think of the GPe like a scoop of plain vanilla ice cream, while the Sense version throws on loads of peanuts, hot fudge, whip cream, and anything else you’d normally add to your favorite sundae.
Why would anyone want the HTC One GPe?
2 words: speedy updates. And, well…. because it’s not the Nexus 4. Android is great. I think we can all agree on that. Part of what makes Android so great is that it’s open source. This means manufactures can take the software and do with it as they please, typically baking in new features, adding their own apps, and making it “theirs” with a slick custom user interface.
It can be argued that having these options are what’s always made Android so great (and differentiated it from other mobile OSs). Still, there were those that opposed manufacturer UI’s. Typically known for bogging down devices and contributing to Android’s growing fragmentation “problem” and the painfully slow firmware update process.
With the introduction of “stock” Android on HTC’s flagship device, (this is a loose term as none of the current “Google Play edition” devices are technically running pure AOSP like the Nexus 4) owners of the HTC One GPe can look forward to updates directly from HTC/Google, without the usual carrier middleman getting in the way.
Originally, the only device to receive speedy stock Android updates from the Google mothership was the Nexus. Those of you that have been around, know well my complaints with the current Nexus 4: terrible display quality, fragile build, lack of LTE, not-so-great camera, and low internal storage. The HTC One GPe makes a great alternative for those wanting something a little more premium and don’t mind paying out the extra cash to get it.
Does “stock Android” make the HTC One better?
For many, the clear benefit the HTC One Google Play edition has over the HTC One Sense edition is that it’s running stock Android 4.2.2. Users with the GPe device can expect all the latest Jelly Bean goodies you’d find on the Nexus-line of devices, with the exception of Google Wallet (this has something to do with the secure element found on the HTC One). So, does stock Android 4.2.2 really add anything to the HTC One? Not really. In fact, you actually lose some features.
One of the GPe’s biggest advantages is that it’s running a newer Android firmware (4.2.2). But it’s a short live advantage once HTC One Sense versions begin receiving their own Android 4.2.2 update (already rolling out across Europe, and coming soon to the US). Once that finally takes place, the HTC One unlocked/carrier model actually pulls ahead thanks to improved quick notification toggles, and other HTC additions (with the exception of PhotoSphere, which can simply be sideloaded by another app).
Not only that, many of Android 4.2’s shortcomings are also evident in the HTC One GPe, like Bluetooth 4.0’s high quality aptX streaming which can only be found in Sense version. Of course, Android 4.3 will help with this and at the same time, showcase the GPe’s single greatest strength: quick and timely updates from HTC/Google.
With everyone screaming “stock Android,” many seemed to have overlooked that in many ways, Sense 5 improves on Android. And that’s not a bad thing. Many custom AOSP ROMs like CyanogenMod do the exact same thing. Of course, looking ahead towards Key Lime Pie and the countless small updates sure to come inside that firmware update, the GPe still has the potential to pull ahead. Well, providing KLP can add better features than those already found on the HTC One carrier/unlocked models.
Comparing the HTC One GPe to the Sense version, what’s missing? A lot. For one, the IR blaster is dead on the GPe, along with the Sense TV app that went along with it. In fact, all of HTC’s exclusive apps are gone. Everything from Sense 5, the Calendar, Car Home, Blinkfeed, etc. — nowhere to be found in the GPe. While some would see this as a “good thing,” I missed the increased functionality that these apps brought. The ones in particular that hit me the hardest were HTC’s awesome camera and gallery app.
The gallery app allowed users to create “Highlights,” HTC’s easy to create n’ share home videos, while the Sense camera app featured a robust set of settings and even behind the scenes special imaging tweaks. The results are images on the GPe that simply look a bit more flat and dull compared to their Sense 5 counterparts.
While having only the bare bones camera software on the GPe might not sound like too much of a downside, it’s the video that really suffers thanks to mono-only audio recording. Also, pictures while recording video aren’t full 4MP image resolution, merely screengrabs from the recorded video.
While the question of whether or not stock Android software actually makes the HTC One GPe better than the original is a purely subjective one, there are some areas we can look at and compare objectively, like performance. Back in the day, manufacturer UI’s like Sense and TouchWiz featured slow and heavy interfaces that seemed to bog down the system, with Sense being the biggest offender. The resulting lag was most evident, not just in the opening of apps, but the bootup time of these devices as well.
When comparing the HTC One Google Play edition and the unlocked Sense 5 version, I found that the GPe was able to boot about 3-5 seconds quicker than Sense 5 from a cold start. One thing to consider is the fact that I have almost double the amount of apps, games, and media stored on my Sense version as the GPe one. Even then, it was never anything too noticeable, and for those that feel like this might be an issue, the HTC One Sense edition features a nifty fastboot/shutdown option that can power up the device in half the time as the GPe. You know, if boot times concern you.
For some, benchmarks weigh heavy in their decision to buy a new device in which we found similar results for both the HTC One GPe and Sense version. Neither device clearly dominated the other and this can largely be attributed to the fact that the HTC One GPe and Sense version run on the same HTC kernel and feature the same underlying framework. A real difference in end user speed is negligible, and in most cases, nothing more than placebo (although I swear Sense version feels snappier). Here are the benchmark results:
Antutu – GPe: 24345, Sense: 20624
Quadrant – GPe: 12846, Sense: 11872
GFXBench (GLBenchmark 2.7) T-Rex – GPe: 15, Sense: 15
GFXBench (GLBenchmark 2.7) Egypt – GPe: 41, Sense: 41
Vellamo (HTML5/Metal) – GPe: 2399/775, Sense: 2394/768
What did I find interesting was how much cooler the HTC One GPe ran, even while running these high-performance benchmarks. While a little heat from a device running graphically intensive applications is never cause for concern, the HTC One carrier/unlocked model got alarmingly hot in some instances, while the GPe only ran warm. Strange.
Battery life on both devices was nearly identical (remember, both devices feature the same software kernel) but I did notice a slight advantage on the Google Play edition (if only an extra hour) during normal use. Because the Sense 5 version actually features a “Power saver” mode, when enabled, gave it a slight advantage or bigger one with further PowerSaving mode tweaking (at a loss of functionality). All in all, we’ll give the HTC One GPe the win on this one thanks to its no fuss great battery life.
Is the HTC One GPe the right device for you?
The answer to this question is going to depend largely on the individual, and what they actually want from a smartphone. For one, this is a GSM-only device that will only work on AT&T or T-Mobile’s network. With AT&T, you get the benefit of LTE (something sorely lacking from the Nexus 4) and on T-Mobile, the device wont connect to their usual 3G/4G network unless you find yourself in one of T-Mo’s newly refarmed areas (but apparently, T-Mobile LTE is still looking good). So for most users on T-Mobile, it’s either 2G or LTE. Those criteria alone limit the device to only 2 networks at best (or even 1 and 1/2 if you think about it).
Ultimately, it’s only the Android enthusiast crowd that even knows what “stock Android” is, let alone why they would want it on all their devices. Once again, the benefit is more timely updates from HTC and the latest n’ greatest features Google incorporates into future Android releases.
For those that were looking for a Google supported Nexus-like device, but found the Nexus 4 lacking in terms of specs, in many ways the HTC One Google Play edition is the perfect marriage of stock Android and cutting edge smartphone hardware. Like most things, this comes at a cost. Because the HTC One Google Play edition is sold off-contract, the full MSRP applies. At $600 for the 32GB version (64GB version isn’t offered), your mother wont be rushing for her checkbook to pick up the HTC One Google Play edition when the carrier model is being offered at an easily digestible $100. Of course, this device was never meant for mainstream consumers, now was it?
It seems fairly obvious that the HTC One Google Play edition was created for one purpose: to put a sock inside the mouths of the enthusiast crowd who demanded a stock Android experience from HTC. For these Android enthusiast who don’t mind paying a premium to have the latest from Google, the HTC One Google Play edition is near-Android perfection. Everything you love about the best mobile OS on the planet, coupled with equally amazing hardware. I guess now it’s time to see if anyone will put their money where their mouths is.