Well, the answers to those questions in order are: a phone, HTC and now. Now that the HTC First is out, the questions change. The first and most important issue is whether or not the phone is actually any good. For the answer, read on.
HTC phones are generally known for above average build quality, and while the HTC First may not be up to the standards set by the company’s new flagship, the HTC One, it still has a solid build. The phone has a grippy, rubberized feel, like the One X or One X+, but even less slippery. The fit is generally good, and all the buttons (even the top-mounted power button) are easy to reach.
When it comes to style, a lot of it likely depends on color, because the phone itself doesn’t have a particularly eye-catching build. Our review unit was a bright red, but the First is also available in white, black and blue. While the phone doesn’t feel bulky, it isn’t very slim, especially when compared with other recent HTC phones.
Unlike a lot of phones in the same price range as the HTC First, the display is actually very good. While it may not be a 400+ ppi 1080p display, the resolution of 1280 x 720 and pixel density of 342 are very nice. Even looking closely, it’s difficult to impossible to notice any pixelation.
Aside from the resolution and pixel density, the display also has very nice color representation. Unlike the oversaturated displays we see from some other manufacturers, the HTC First has a nice balance of color. Black levels are fairly deep, brightness is good and even the viewing angles are above average, especially in this class. If we had to pick one negative, it would be that the display can be very hard to see in bright sunlight, but this is an issue with a lot of phones.
While the specs are generally similar to a lot of other mid-range phones, the chipset is actually a newer Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 instead of the S4 we’re used to seeing, so we were wondering how performance would be affected.
We started testing with our usual AnTuTu benchmarks: a total of 10 runs, taken at different times. When all was said and done, the final average score was 11,514, with scores ranging from around 10,800 to 11,700. This is fairly close to what we expected looking at the clock speeds and other hardware, so it seems that the newer Snapdragon chipset doesn’t change performance too drastically.
Up next was Epic Citadel. First, we ran the app in benchmark mode set to High Quality and achieved an average framerate of 54.4 FPS. In High Performance mode, the average framerate was 55.1 FPS, so the difference was far from drastic. For relatively modest hardware pushing a 720p resolution, this isn’t bad at all.
Real world performance held up to the standards set by the benchmarks for the most part, depending on what was running. Facebook is still sluggish on any Android phone, but aside from that, apps launched quickly, scrolling was smooth and the gamers we tested (namely Subway Surfers) performed well.
When it comes to software, we have good news, then bad news, and then more good news. First, the HTC First runs Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean. Consider that the first piece of good news. Now you probably saw this coming, but the bad news is that in place of a custom launcher or skin, instead, the HTC First runs Facebook home.
Now, our Joe Hindy has already reviewed Facebook Home, so I’m not going to go too in-depth here. Joe already summed up the experience in his review with the following quote: “At the end of the day, most people probably won’t like Facebook Home.” Yep.
Here’s the second bit of good news: once you turn off Facebook Home, which is easily done in the settings for the app, the HTC First runs an almost entirely untouched stock version of Jelly Bean. For something that can currently be picked up for $99, that may be enough to sell a few phones right there. No, it’s not a Nexus–namely, it’s hard to say how often updates will be pushed out–but it’s a nice way to get easy access to stock Jelly Bean.
While that is a major plus, it also points out a major weak point of the HTC First: it doesn’t offer a very cohesive out of the box experience. Say what you will about HTC Sense or TouchWiz, but at least they offer a consistent UI. In using the HTC First, it was very easy to tell whether any aspect of the phone was Facebook Home, Jelly Bean or insert random app here.
While it’s not exactly the highest compliment we can offer, we can say that the camera in the HTC First is definitely above average when it comes to mid-range phones. In proper lighting, you will definitely be able to take a decent photo. Colors are reproduced well, sharpness is fairly good for a 5 MP shooter, and contrast is decent.
Unfortunately, when you try to take a photo in any low-light situation, the camera takes a turn for the bad. While the built-in LED flash tries to help, it’s about as useful as making up for bland cooking by dumping a ton of salt on top of the dish. Yes, it’s different, but it’s still not good.
The rear-facing camera offers 1080p video capture, but it isn’t among the best we’ve seen, even in a mid-range phone. Partially due to the lightness of the phone, video tends to be shaky, and it suffers from the same low-light problems as still photos.
The 2,000 mAh battery is a little on the unpredictable side, but it generally performs fairly well. HTC claims 14 hours of talk time. We find that the talk time manufacturers quote often matches up with how long the phone can hold up under moderate use, and in this case the HTC First meets or exceeds that figure.
Somewhat strangely, certain tasks drain the battery much faster. During my initial testing and benchmarking, I noted a fairly quick drop in battery, going from 100% to 60% very quickly. This worried me, but I didn’t notice similar behavior at any other point during the rest of my time reviewing the First.
Unfortunately, the battery isn’t removeable. For a lot of people, this shouldn’t be a big deal, but it’s worth noting if you like to carry a spare or were planning on looking for an extended battery.
Basically, if you’re the type of person who thinks that Facebook is the most important part of the internet or, well, anything, the HTC First might be worth a look. For the rest of us, it’s more difficult. The fact that the First runs stock Jelly Bean makes it very attractive to those of us who like our Android as pure as possible, but it’s not exactly like you’re getting a Nexus.
What do you think of the HTC First? Questions or concerns? Ask away in the comments below.