After months of rumor and speculation (which I typically avoid), HTC finally made it official. The HTC One Max is HTC’s first entry into the phablet market. While its clear there are some compromises that were made, and it doesn’t truly compete in the same sphere as the Note 3, it still seems like it will be a fairly solid device. For all intents and purposes, this device is a big HTC One.
The HTC One Max earns its Max moniker (although it slightly steals it from Motorola) by having a freaking giant screen. It still has the same older Snapdragon 600 quad-core processor, the same front facing boom-sound speakers, the same 1080P resolution and also presumably the same Super LCD screen technology, but this device will have a 5.9″ screen. The device narrowly beats the Samsung Galaxy Note 3′s similarly giant 5.7″ screen and is much bigger than it’s 4.7″ progenitor, meaning if you want a beautiful aluminum device and the most gigantic screen you can get, the One Max is the one to get. However, if you’re not quite sold on the benefits of a phablet, the One Max isn’t going to win you over. Sense 5.5 does offer some welcome changes to the Blink Feed Social Media aggregator, such as Instagram, Google+, and RSS integration, in addition to offline viewing and its still the cleanest and fastest skinning of Android available. However, while the fast and efficient user experience is a welcome change from Samsung’s bloated TouchWiz, there doesn’t seem to be any additional features that really make use of the bigger screen. It has the same resolution, there is no stylus support, and no Galaxy Note style-app windowing. Despite this though, big screen phone fans will be happy to get more options than just Samsung.
Fingerprinting Comes (back) to Android
The last Android phone to have a fingerprint scanner was the Motorola Atrix for AT&T. Unfortunately, Fingerprint scanning tech was just not ready yet so it was the last…until now. On the heels of the iPhone 5S’s home button front facing fingerprint scanner, HTC is hoping to capitalize on the trend by putting the sensor in a more natural position.
And here it is. That plain looking black square under the camera lens is HTC’s new fingerprint reader. The placement is a little odd, as its clear there may be quite a bit of smudge marks on that camera lens, but as I am holding my 4.5 inch phone, my index finger naturally rests close to the camera lens (which is roughly in the same position as on the HTC One). With a large 5.9″ screen, the natural position for my index finger would be just below the camera lens, which is where the fingerprint sensor lies.Those that are making a big deal about smudgy camera lenses are making much ado about nothing. We’ve had glossy camera lenses in the backs of our phones for decades and only when HTC puts a fingerprint scanner below it has it become a problem? I’m not so convinced that will be problem.
Although the hardware is here, the features are a little light so far. While Apple’s fingerprint scanner allows you to unlock your phone, authorize purchases and assign passwords to a fingerprint, HTC’s implementation is currently limited to unlocking the phone and launching apps. Due to the placement of the sensor, I would prefer that it could be used to sign into apps and services as the index finger is really the only finger that can comfortably swipe across it. While it’s cool that apps can be assigned to open with any of your fingers, it’s made a bit silly by the fact that utilizing that feature is a bit uncomfortable. However, adding a bit of hardware with this much potential on an open platform like Android is delivering a truck load of Legos to a room full of engineers. You are bound to get some awesome stuff out of it.
Some Strange Compromises
This isn’t just a HTC One with a big screen and fingerprint scanner, though. HTC took this opportunity to make some additional changes to the hardware. The only welcome change is that the back cover is now removable. In a time where most modern smartphones are impenetrable slabs that are just daring you to run out of space or dunk it in water, it’s refreshing to see phones like the One Max that are okay with a little more bulk for the ability to add microSD storage (up to 64GB worth of it). However, removable back plates normally mean a removable or replaceable battery, but this is not the case with the One Max. I find it odd that they made such a distinction, but with a giant 3,300 mAh battery, I suppose they couldn’t spare the room to insert a removable battery and battery terminals.
Another strange compromise is the removal of Optical Image Stabilization on the camera. For those who don’t know, OIS is a technology that keeps the camera lens steady within a spring-locked frame even as your hand will natural shake. This allows for quicker, more natural, and less blurry shots, buttery smooth video, and has been one of the most innovative pieces of technology to come to camera tech in many years. Now that many manufacturers are introducing OIS in their smartphones, it’s disappointing that HTC has decided to remove the technology, but it is possible that the fingerprint scanner’s close proximity to the camera sensor limited their options. In that case, however, I would have preferred to keep the OIS and move the fingerprint scanner, but I’m just guessing. The innovative Ultrapixel camera is otherwise unchanged, so it should still be able to take some pretty decent shots.
Finally, there’s the hardware. Oddly enough, HTC chose not to upgrade the One Max with a Snapdragon 800 but instead kept the slightly lower powered Snapdrahon 600. Does this matter? Absolutely not. HTC’s Sense UI runs much faster and efficiently than TouchWiz and that will mean more for performance than the processor. The user experience should be cleaner and more consistant than the Note 3, but I wonder how many will be duped by the spec sheet.
Great Phablet, But Why?
This device is the most beautifully designed phablet in existence, but it’s a bit of a strange device. The addition of the fingerprint reader and microSD expansion are certainly great, but I feel that anyone seeking to compete against Samsung in the phablet market will need to do something other than give a great phone a bigger screen. As much as I hate to pit Samsung favorably against HTC, Samsung does phablets better by giving the Note line some innovative features that actually make good use of the screen real estate. By removing OIS, not upgrading any of the hardware, and not offering any real reason to use a 5.9″ screen over a 4.7″ screen, HTC has created a product for a very small user base: those who want an HTC One, but don’t feel it’s big enough. I certainly hope that HTC’s beautifully machined casing and potentially hackable fingerprint sensor will be enough to entice phablet buyers away from the Note, but I don’t really know why this device exists.