Review: HTC One max
December 5, 2013
The HTC One was one of our favorite smartphones of 2013. But what happens when you take that phone and stretch it out to gigantic proportions? Well, you get the HTC One max, one of the bigger phones you can buy today. Join Gizmag, as we put HTC's first phablet through the paces.
A niche place
If you're already familiar with the HTC One, then you already have a good idea what you're getting from the One max. It's almost the exact same high-end flagship phone, only super sized.
And trust me, this sucker is enormous. If you thought Samsung's Galaxy Note lineup stretched the limits of what can be considered a smartphone, then wait until you see the One max. Phone? Nah. This baby's basically a small tablet that happens to have cellular capabilities.
Whether that's a good thing or a ridiculous thing is going to depend on what you're looking for. If you already have a tablet, then it might not make much sense to buy a "smartphone" that's basically another tablet in disguise. But if you want one device that can play both roles – and you don't mind cramming an enormous hunk of aluminum in your pocket every day – then the One max is a solid choice. That's probably a niche audience, but that doesn't mean there isn't a place for devices like this.
The Max's design and build quality are very similar to the HTC One. Same solid and stunning aluminum finish. Unlike the One (and like the One mini), though, there's a plastic band around the edge, so this isn't a single piece of aluminum.
In fact, the phone's back cover is actually removable this time around. Flip a switch on the Max's left side, and you can pop off the aluminum backing, where you can slide in a microSD card or perhaps change your SIM card. Unlike most devices with removable backs, though, the One max doesn't have a swappable battery.
The biggest issue is how it feels in hand. I don't think holding it is a terrible experience, but it's also a bit of a compromise. It's pretty damn heavy, at 217 g (the smaller HTC One only weighs 143 g). I have fairly large hands, and the Max is still a little awkward for one-handed use. I can grip the edge of it fairly easily for one-handed use, but once you accidentally slide your finger against the side of the screen, it's going to register as a touch. The most ideal approach I found was to cradle the Max with my left hand, then use my right hand to swipe and tap on the screen. It's basically the way you'd hold a Galaxy Note, minus the stylus.
If you're open to owning both a smartphone and a tablet, as many people already do, then either of those devices is probably going to be more comfortable to hold. Both of Apple's new iPads are extremely light and cozy in hand, and Amazon's latest Kindle Fires as well as the 2013 Nexus 7 all fare well in that department too. And of course any normal-sized smartphone (including the standard HTC One) is going to be much easier to hold and use with one hand.
So again, we come back to who this device is for. If you want "one device to rule them all," then it, along with the Galaxy Note 3, is worth considering. If that isn't you, then you're going to run into a lot of compromises here. Probably too many.
The flip side
The other side of that compromise, however, is the One max's screen. We're looking at the same 1080p resolution from the standard HTC One, only stretched out to 5.9 inches. It's enormous, bright, and very sharp. It's also the single biggest reason to consider this phablet.
If you don't mind hoisting a gigantic slab of metal every time you check your messages or make a call, then that screen rewards you for your valor. It's a much bigger window into your apps, games, and movies than most other smartphones, or even phablets, give you. I enjoyed having a device with such a huge canvas waiting in my pocket while on the go. It's about the closest you'll get to a pocketable tablet.
To put the One max's screen in perspective, it gives you 68 percent as much screen area as small tablets like the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire. That's a significant difference, but considering those slates aren't meant to be pocketed or used as a phone, it isn't too far off.
Looking in the other direction, the Max's screen gives you seven percent more real estate than its biggest phablet rival, the Galaxy Note 3. Its screen is also 39 percent bigger than the Galaxy S4's, 58 percent bigger than the standard HTC One's, and a whopping 117 percent bigger than the iPhone 5s/5c.
What you sacrifice in the phone's overall footprint, you gain in its beautiful, gargantuan display. That might be the story of phablets as a whole, but it's most definitely the story of the One max.
The One max also has a fingerprint scanner in tow. Sound familiar? The goal here is the same as the Touch ID sensor in the iPhone 5s: a passcode-locked phone that you can unlock with your fingerprint. But there are a few key differences. First, rather than resting your finger on the sensor like on Apple's phone, you have to slide your finger across it. Second, it sits on the back of the One max, instead of below the screen on the iPhone. You can also use the fingerprint scanner to launch specific apps (which finger you use determines which app launches).
Those differences combine to make the Max's scanner much less convenient than Apple's. The iPhone's Touch ID takes something you already did anyway, touching your phone's home button to wake it up, and only slightly modifies that process. With the Max, you have to reach your finger around the back of a slab of aluminum, blindly and awkwardly fumbling around until you can stroke your finger across the right spot.
This awkward process is compounded by the fact that the scanner sits just below the Max's rear camera. I often found myself sliding my finger over the camera, wondering why the phone wasn't unlocking. Oh yes, that would be because I'm swiping my fingertip across a camera lens.
The One max's fingerprint scanner isn't all bad. You can simply choose not to use it, and be none the worse for wear. And if you can live with the blind finger-stroking, it should recognize your print most of the time. It gives you passcode security, with slightly less hassle than entering a long passcode.
Otherwise the One max is more or less the One's much larger doppelgänger. Same quad core Snapdragon 600 processor, same zippy all-around performance. Same 4-megapixel rear "Ultrapixel" camera, with Zoes in tow (though optical image stablization is left out this time). Beats Audio bids us adieu, but you still have the One's loud and terrific front-facing "BoomSound" speakers. We've covered all of this before, but if you want a refresher on any of these features, you can hit up our HTC One review or our in-depth comparison of it to the Galaxy S4.
The One max runs Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, with the new HTC Sense 5.5 UI on top. Not a lot has changed from the Sense 5 that shipped with the HTC One. My favorite new feature is the ability to remove BlinkFeed from the home screen. HTC's persistent Flipboard-like feed reader features some improvements, like the ability to add RSS feeds, read articles later, and customize your feeds based on the sources you follow with your Facebook account. I already use other apps for news feeds, though, so I'm happy that the new Sense lets me give BlinkFeed the boot.
The Max's battery life is very good. In our standard test, where we stream video over Wi-Fi with brightness set at 75 percent, it lasted five hours and 43 min. That's better than the five hours that the Galaxy Note 3 lasted in the same test. Uptimes are even less of a concern with the One max, and it should easily last a full day with typical use.
The One mobile device?
We don't like to rubber stamp our reviews with a broad "you should buy this" or "you shouldn't buy this." Everyone has different tastes and priorities, and we like to take that into account. I personally wouldn't use the One max as my main smartphone. But then again, I like owning both a smartphone and tablet at the same time, so I'm not really this device's target audience.
But if I were to throw the whole multi-device thing out the window? Then I think the One max would be near the top of my list, alongside the Galaxy Note 3. The Note differentiates itself a bit by giving you stylus input and some stylus-based software. They combine to help justify the Note's humongous screen. If those Samsung features aren't your cup of tea, though, then the One max gives you a seven percent bigger screen, a more authentic body (aluminum vs. fake leather), and the best-sounding smartphone speakers we've used.
So the One max can be an excellent device ... for a certain audience. We often say a product isn't for everyone, but we really mean it with the Max. It's going to be way too big for the majority of customers. But if you're on the hunt for a smartphone/tablet hybrid, then we think it's a viable candidate for your phablet dollars.
For more on the One max and the Galaxy Note 3, you can check out our features/specs comparison of the two phablets.
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