HTC is hoping people are tired of opening up their smartphones only to be met with a wall of app icons.
Recently, HTC played a starring role in the arrival of Facebook Home, the new super-app takeover of Android homescreens by the world's largest social network. After Mark Zuckerberg strutted his stuff, HTC CEO Peter Chou came on stage to show off the HTC First, a mid-range device which comes preloaded with the "people before apps" Facebook customization of Google's Android operating system.
But that isn't the only new phone interface HTC is offering up. The new HTC One is a flagship piece of hardware and it has a startscreen takeover called "BlinkFeed" that does some of the same things as Facebook Home, only this software was made by the struggling Taiwanese handset maker.
If you have Flipboard, a popular app on Android and iOS, then you already know what the newly trademarked BlinkFeed looks like… it's pretty much a clone of that interface. BlinkFeed may scroll down, instead of "turn pages" in Flipboard's skeuomorphic style, but the similar-looking tiles populate with headlines, pictures and source information for updates from Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Flickr as well as a some 1,400 content partner news sources. Sometimes it even loads HTC's own "how-to" tiles, relevant to your most recently accessed phone features. After I made my first phone call to test call quality it suggested a tip on how to set-up one-touch dialling. More such helpful hints popped up during testing, but it's something I hope will disappear after the first month of use (I've only had the phone for 5 days).
It's useful and occasionally quite attractive, although there are some bugs with the content categories (when a North American selects "football" he doesn't want soccer news) that I'm sure will improve in time. If you still like apps, it's easy to access them by scrolling sideways to hidden app pages. And of course there are more Android widgets (including Facebook Home) that you could install to change things up some more.
It's all designed to show you with pictures how big and sharp the HTC One's screen is: Like pretty much all the new Android-powered Apple competitors it is an imposing display, 4.7 inches, with 468 ppi (1080p). It performed better than my iPhone 5 in direct sunlight, and Android Jelly Bean's smartphone controls, powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 600, quad-core, 1.7GHz processor, are sharp, fluid and impressively fast. I operated entirely on the LTE wireless network during testing, and connectivity was as speedy as advertised with no noticeable service hiccups.
Funnily enough though, all the focus on the homescreen interface highlights the one hardware flaw that I suppose was an actual design decision: The lack of a physical home button or capacitive "wake-up" function on the front of the device. That tauntingly blank, black screen doesn't respond to mauling, bashing the forward-facing HTC logo or hitting the volume rocker on the side. To rouse the HTC One from sleep mode, you must depress a tiny, nearly flush, black rectangular button on the top edge of the phone. My three-year-old had no trouble figuring out how to turn it on, but most of the adults I know struggled at first.
HTC is positioning this phone's "fit and finish" as iPhone quality. The shape is impressive, the edges are thin, it's quite light for a metal and glass phone, it has a big beautiful camera lens and the screen wraps around the edges for a smooth finish. The company's sales-talking points crow about Beats audio and the double "BoomSoundTM" speakers, which do work great to fill a room with not-very-tinny music (they are just OK as phone speakers).
HTC is even more amped about the new camera sensors they claim blow away the 13 megapixel competition (they seemed fine to me, not significantly better than other cameras). The camera software is certainly whizbang, there's a system called Zoe that grabs little HD video vignettes, (much like the Vine app by Twitter, but of course Vine isn't on Android yet). As short vids they aren't much use, but you can use these multi-frame grabs to create "Always Smile" shots, by selecting the face of your subject and then scrubbing through several micro-expressions captured in that moment to find the one that's most in focus or most smiley. The camera also has some built-in filters you can apply before you take a photo, which flips the paradigm of most photo apps that apply one after the fact.
But I have to say, if you're going to go belly to belly with Apple on "finish," please recognize Cupertino would never rely on such a tiny and clumsy mechanism for accessing the phone from standby. Particularly because the screen doesn't seem to light up on its own when you have an incoming notification (you hear the sounds, but the screen remains inert). I can only imagine how hard it would be to get the thing turned on once it's wrapped in whatever silicon or rubber protective shell you'll need if you want your pricey handset to survive to the end of a three-year contract (pre-order now with Rogers, it's coming out April 19, but some lucky users have already got theirs!).
I can applaud the company for almost everything else about this phone: its implementation of Android is one of the best I've seen, the battery performs great (there is an annoying high-pitched beep when it's running low, yikes), the image sensor puts it in the ring for the battle of "best smartphone camera" and it feels like a high-quality device.
But pretty much the only thing you do with a smartphone is turn it on, do some stuff, and then put it down. After an interval you turn it on again, maybe text someone, check Facebook, put it down. And so on, dozens of times a day. Hiding the apps behind some new homescreen social feed is fine, but don't hide the button that kicks off that sequence of use each time, that just doesn't make sense.