HTC One S review: T-Mobile's new shining star

HTC's One S sets a new standard for smartphone greatness for HTC and T-Mobile.

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For example, HTC trades the subdued blue and gray scheme of ICS for its own multicolored -- let's call it "rainbow sherbet" -- alternative. Design touches like the transparent notification pull-down introduced in ICS are gone, as are functional system elements like the streamlined People app proudly displayed at Google's ICS launch event.

HTC has replaced the condensed customization tool Google introduced in ICS with a standalone setup utility.

Added, however, are features like a customizable lock screen, which can show things like the local weather (with gorgeous fly-in animations), a list of upcoming events and missed calls or messages, or a stream of updates from connected social networks. HTC also built in an expanded home-screen customization tool, which lets you have anywhere from one to seven panels, and a handful of specialized widgets that provide everything from calculators to designer clocks for your phone's home screens.

Beyond that, HTC put its own touch on home-screen configuration by taking apart the condensed customization tool Google introduced in ICS -- wherein apps, widgets and shortcuts all exist in a single application drawer -- and instead offering a standalone setup utility, similar to what it's offered in the past. HTC also revamped Google's ICS-level multitasking tool, replacing the transparent on-screen thumbnails of recent apps with a full-screen, card-like deck of applications.

Many other parts of the Android system have been replaced with or supplemented by HTC's alternatives, including the Gallery, the music player and the system keyboard. HTC modified the system browser, too, adding a handful of on-screen options and changing the program's look.

And, of course, it wouldn't be a nonstock Android phone without the bloatware. The HTC One S has about two dozen pieces of bloatware glued into it -- everything from T-Mobile's 411 & More to Amazon, Lookout and Polaris Office. Thankfully, Ice Cream Sandwich allows you to disable and hide these types of system apps, so even if you can't fully uninstall them, you can get them out of your hair.

Last but not least, the HTC One S features Beats Audio integration, which supposedly enhances the quality of audio played from the phone. I tested it thoroughly, toggling Beats enhancements on and off and also listening to the same song on a different phone. I'll be honest: The enhancements provided by Beats are pretty darn minimal. More than anything, they sound like a slight bass boost. Maybe you need Beats headphones in order to fully appreciate them -- the One S doesn't come with any -- but as it stands, I wouldn't factor in Beats as a meaningful feature of the phone.

Bottom line

HTC's One S is a beautifully designed Android phone with an awful lot going for it. The phone is thin and light, with a modern, premium-feeling design. It has impressive performance, a phenomenal camera and great battery life to boot. The One S doesn't have the absolute best display available, but it's certainly not terrible -- and the vast majority of users will be perfectly pleased by it.

If external storage, a removable battery or NFC support are on your must-have list -- or if you're a display aficionado -- the HTC One S might not be the phone for you. Similarly, if you value a stock Android experience, HTC's deep system modifications are bound to rub you the wrong way.

Those considerations aside, though, if you want a smaller-sized phone with fantastic hardware and a great out-of-the-box user experience, the HTC One S is a tough option to beat. And if you want a top-of-the-line Android phone from T-Mobile, it's hands-down the best choice you could make in the carrier's current lineup.

The Android ecosystem is all about diversity -- and the HTC One S handily earns a spot among the platform's elite.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. You can find him on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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