HTC One Max Review: In Depth

NB: HTC provided a pre-production unit for this review. It’s extremely close to the finished product, but the fact remains that the device we’re reviewing is different from the retail version. We would ask that you take that into account as you read this review.

Samsung may be dominating the large phone market thanks to the Galaxy Note series, but other manufacturers are starting to turn in some interesting products. HTC is the latest to try with the HTC One Max. As many people have already pointed out, it’s essentially an enlarged version of the standard HTC One with a few tweaks. How well does that work in practice?

The One, supersized

Imagine an HTC One image in Photoshop. Now enlarge it by 20% or so. Modify the design by taking some minor cues from the HTC One Mini. Add an ugly fingerprint scanner. Congratulations! You just designed the HTC One Max.

Snark aside, this really is just a big HTC One. That’s great in some respects: the fantastic aluminium finish makes a return, as do the BoomSound speakers. It certainly looks nicer than the Galaxy Note 3, but it’s nowhere near as understated as the Xperia Z Ultra.

The screen is also fantastic. It’s 1080p, just like the One, but much larger at 5.9-inches. Colours are bang on the money, the panel is quite bright (although not as bright as the Note 3), and viewing angles are excellent. The Note 3’s display has deeper blacks and better sunlight visibility, but the One Max’s screen is much nicer to behold in day-to-day use. It feels more natural, and there aren’t any weird uniformity or smearing issues.

Not big boned, just boned

In other areas, HTC has clearly taken a step back. The speakers grills aren’t aligned properly; the fingerprint scanner – while not quite as terrible as pictures suggest – breaks the design language; and worst of all, build quality has taken a clear hit.

For whatever reason, HTC decided to go with a removable back cover. A small switch on the side will pop the cover off, revealing the microSIM and microSD card slots underneath. Great! What’s not great is when you try to put the cover back on, as it’s really not all that easy to put into place. Certain points require a lot of force to snap in, and when you do eventually seal the back, you’ll notice that it never really fully closes.

The top right hand corner on our unit, for instance, is loose, as illustrated above. It’s very slight, but you can push on the metal and see clearly flexing. It’s the same story towards the center top and bottom too. Since there are no pegs in place, they don’t snap into place, leaving extremely small gaps. They require close inspection to spot, but it’s still disappointing. Maybe it’s simply an issue with our pre-retail version.

Specs always matter

Specs alone don’t determine how capable a device is, but it’s silly to still think they don’t matter at all, as the One Max proves. The Snapdragon 600 SoC is mostly OK for everyday tasks. You can swipe through HTC’s interface with ease, and everything is very smooth. Games run great too.

But as you use the phone more to more in your daily life – especially after coming from an iPhone, or an Android handset with a Snapdragon 800 chip – you’ll start to notice the delays. Chrome will stutter a little bit more than it should, as will Twitter and other apps. Sometimes things take just a second too long to happen.

The camera isn’t as good as the standard original One either. HTC has removed optical image stabilisation (why?), resulting in generally shakier pictures and diminished low-light performance. It’s still a more than capable camera for everyday use, but it’s just not as reliable as the vanilla One. Apple, LG, and Nokia are all doing great things with their cameras at this point too, so I really hope HTC brings performance up to snuff in next year’s lineup.

At least the 3,300mAh battery lasts forever. I’d put it on par with the Note 3 – you’ll easily be able to get one and a half days, and maybe even two if you’re a lighter user. Even with heavy usage, you’ll get through a standard day without any problems.

Verify me

HTC Sense 5.5 may have an additional number and a few neat tricks up its sleeve like enhanced Zoe Highlights and BlinkFeed, but for the most part, the experience remains unchanged – which is a good thing. That said, HTC has integrated a fingerprint scanner on the HTC One Max, and according added a new facet to the UI.

HTC’s fingerprint scanner sounds great in theory: you can automatically launch into specific apps when the phone reads your digits, and you can use any finger. Awesome! Except it’s not. Let’s run through the typical process of trying to use it.

First, you don’t hold your finger on the scanner, you swipe it down. OK, sure. You start fumbling your finger around the rear, desperately trying to find the sweet spot. Was that it? Nope, that was the camera. Now you have a smeary lenses. OK, now you’ve found the right spot, but it’s too late. The display turned off, so you missed your unlock window. A quick thumb of the power button lights up the display, and finally you swipe the right spot. Except your swipe wasn’t recognized. Care to try again?

Sometimes the scanner works without issue. Launching straight into, say, a Twitter client, or Gmail, is great. It’s not great when the success rate is this low. In fact, it’s bad.

Should I buy it?

No. As much as I love the whacky idea of a large One, there are too many questionable decisions. Yes, BoomSound is better on the Max, and yes, it has strong design elements, especially when compared to the Note 3. But the specs, the build quality issues, the camera, the botched fingerprint scanner… it all adds up. It’s not good enough. It’s a missed opportunity.

The Max is also expensive: Clove and Unlocked Mobiles want £590 and £585 respectively for an unlocked unit. You can find a vanilla One for around £400 at this point, and the 2013 Nexus 7 is already seeing nice discounts. Buying those two devices is a better bet. For roughly the same price, you’ll get the unadulterated HTC design and a good phone, as well as a great tablet for when you need a larger screen. If you want just one device to use at all times, though, then the Note 3 is a better choice.

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