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Review: HTC One Max

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In my quest for the perfect phablet, I decided to give HTC's One Max a try, courtesy of the folks at Verizon. I know I'm late to the party on this one so like DVR'd content that you've already had a bunch of people talk about, I already had some preconceived notions of what my experience with HTC's phablet might be like. Some of those notions held up and some were blown out of the water, so without further ado, my review.

 

The Hardware

First things first, if you're familiar with HTC's flagship phone the HTC One, you'll find the Max to be almost identical. Almost identical because unlike its little brother's shell, this one isn't a one piece design. This has been lamented ad nauseam on other tech review sites but I can't say I didn't like it. The One Max has a white band around and through some parts of the phone instead of the seemingly seamless design sported by the One. I like it! I think it's a nice touch and gives a little something extra to the appearance of the device. The rest though is all aluminum until you get around to the front of the device and that large, beautiful, 5.9" full HD display.

Bordering the top and bottom of the screen is something you may be familiar with if you're a One fan and that is two speaker grills right on front, or what HTC calls BoomSound. And booming it is! One of the loudest, richest sound experiences on a mobile phone is no exaggeration when it comes to the quality of sound output from those front-facing speakers. You're not going to get booming 808 bass hits, but what you will get is on par with, and even surpasses, many laptops. On the front of the device, you get the standard compliment of light and proximity sensors, a 2.1 megapixel front-facing camera with HDR which will also record 1080p HD video.

The One Max has finally given users something they've been clamoring for by providing removable storage, giving you the ability to use a microSD card. You access it by removing the back plate of the phone. In an environment where manufacturers are trending toward the exclusion of expandable, physical storage, I applaud the effort! And while we're talking about what's under that back plate, you'll also find a massive 3300mAh battery which should power you through the day. Also on the rear of the device, HTC decided to make use of that extra real estate they gained by upsizing the One and included a fingerprint scanner. I'm not going to go into much detail here except to say that the implementation isn't very compelling given the functionality of its closest biometric competitor in the space, the fingerprint scanner on the iPhone 5S. Yeah, I really hate when people drop the Apple comparisons because they're often apples and oranges but in this case you have two fingerprint scanners, one where a company clearly took the time to look at the drawbacks of the tech and refined it to make it much more user friendly and the other seemed satisfied to go with the status quo. You can use the fingerprint scan with three different fingers and once configured you can unlock your phone with the simple swipe of a phalange and even use the swipe to open the home screen or an app. One caveat though, the screen must be on in order for this to work so you can't unlock the phone from its sleep state with the fingerprint scanner.

While the fingerprint scanner left me feeling, "meh," the overall design of the back of the phone makes it a joy to hold in hand- even though the rounded back does add heft and thickness. I actually like devices which feel substantial in hand instead of what seems to be this culture of paper thin products with no weight to them. Also on the back of the One Max you'll find their LED flash and UltraPixel camera which is packed with features galore, without the megapixels galore. Instead of adding more pixels to the camera's sensor, HTC took 4 megapixels and gave you larger pixels to help with those low light shots. The problem, there is no image stabilization so the shots just don't turn out as great as more recent, camera-centric smartphones from Sony and Nokia. In a nutshell, in order to take good low light shots, the "shutter" has to stay open longer to take in more ambient light, but with the shutter open longer, shaky hands become more apparent and affect shots much more, making them come out blurry. And, that's tough sell when looking at the cameras on competing products like Nokia's Lumia 1020 or even the camera on the Note 3 which have optical and digital image stabilization, respectively. I will say that the photos taken from the One Max don't look any worse than other phones which don't have image stabilization baked in but in phones this size which should have more horsepower, in my opinion, leaving features out of them just doesn't make any sense! It's just as much a let down as not including an LED flash on the Sony Xperia Z Ultra. If you're going to make a phone this large, I don't understand why manufacturers don't take the time to throw in as many goodies as keeping decent battery life will allow.

On a side note to my camera frustrations, the One Max, like it's little brother, takes photos just as fast as the iPhone. One of my pet peeves with most Androids is how slow they are when it comes to taking photos but the HTC One line has been awesome in this area! You won't miss a thing when taking shots of the kids playing their favorite sports because the shutter speed on the One Max keeps up with whatever is going on in front of you. The quality with which it captures it may not be there if the lighting isn't optimal, but the shot definitely will be!

 

The Software

One of my favorite features of HTC's One Max, and specifically their overlay Sense 5.5, is (gasp!) Blinkfeed. Manufacturers and software developers alike have been working for years to try to give users some form of home screen implementation of your social media and RSS feeds, often with terrible results. Blinkfeed is the first manufacturer installed social media/RSS feed reader that I've actually thought was well implemented. It was good on the One, but with Sense 5.5 they've added more flexibility and functionality making it great! You can now add your Google+ feed, RSS, read later and offline reading, making Blinkfeed something you may not want to turn off. In case you do though, HTC's made it easy to kill the feature by hitting the home page editor screen and tapping the button in the upper left of the screen. When we're talking software, one thing that stands out with HTC devices is their lack of bloatware and the One Max continues the tradition. You get just what you need without having dozens of extraneous apps pre-loaded onto your device like you may have come to expect from LG or Samsung. What does come included, like Blinkfeed, does actually add value. Case in point, the camera app. If you're unfamiliar with some of the features of the One, the Max gives you HTC Zoe and Video Highlights. You should have a lot of fun playing with Video Highlights as the feature allows you to take video highlights and work with default music or add your own soundtrack and share the content. When working with default theme music, your video clips can be only 30 seconds but using your own music removes such limitations.

Other software that you'll get with your One Max is HTC's Car app which adds driver friendly features to your handset, including the ability to control certain functions with your voice, and large, easily identifiable icons to make it easier to get to what you need while on the road (preferably at a stop light people!). In addition to the Car app, you also get Kid Mode (along with Parent Dashboard) which you'll love the next time the little one asks to play with your phone and SenseTV which works with the built-in IR blaster to allow you to roll your TV, cable box and home theater remote controls into one device. It's fairly intuitive and easy to use! The app will get some data from you and even provide a guide of your programming once you tell it who your provider is and your zip code. Last, you can check out the app that used to be known as Notes but is now called Scribble. Anyone who has read my articles or social media feeds knows that I'm a huge Evernote junkie so it was much to my chagrin to learn that Scribble, which used to sync with Evernote no longer does. As long as I can use Evernote and Skitch, that's not a huge loss, but I'm always a proponent of clever and useful integrations with the Evernote service (like S Notes on the Note 3).

 

The Bottomline

All-in-all, I couldn't help but feel like the One Max is not a flagship phone. I like the design, the feel in hand, the build quality and size but much like some of my other phablet experiences it just felt like it was missing that thing that would get me excited about owning one. I think HTC may have missed the boat by not providing functions like multi-window which you find on competing devices from LG and Samsung, along with image stabilization and a fingerprint scanner which was underwhelming. I hope that a second generation phablet from one of my long time favorite manufacturers steps up to the plate with a homerun but for now, this isn't the One for me. If, however, you are a big fan of the One but wanted it in a bigger package you should definitely take a look at this device if you need to upgrade right now. If you can hold out just a little longer, there may be something right around the corner in the One family of devices worth waiting for.

Tshaka Armstrong Tech Ninja Tshaka Armstong writes about the latest technology and helping FOX 11 Viewers understand how to be safer, smarter users of the internet and their "gadgets. He's also one of our social media guys, helping guide the station's online efforts and social media outreach.
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