The Mobile World Congress in Barcelona is the prime hunting ground for gadget hounds looking for the next big thing in phone design. Many of the high-end, iPhone-style handsets look alike and have similar capabilities. I tested a number of them to see if any could stand out from the crowd.
Many of the new smartphones on display this week were me-too devices that conformed to the de-facto hardware standard of 4-inch-plus touchscreen and slim industrial slab design popularised by the iPhone, the Android-based Samsung Galaxy family and, more recently, the BlackBerry Z10.
My favourite exception is the HTC One, which is curvier and less slabby. It was actually launched 10 days ago in New York, but with HTC heavily promoting the device at Mobile World Congress, I had the opportunity to spend some quality time with it this week.
The device will be one of the best designed and highest-performing smartphones on the market when it goes on sale next month. The HTC One has a high-performance processor that allows you to browse and download content faster than before, and a high-resolution HD display. All of this is packed into a very manageable-sized device: its 4.7 inch screen is set in a sleek and solid metal case that is extremely comfortable to hold.
It comes with a pair of front-facing audio speakers, which I sadly found rather disappointing. But it also has a much more impressive Beats Audio feature called BoomSound that makes music sound great through headphones.
I also like HTC’s totally reworked HTC Sense user interface. It has features such as BlinkFeed, which automatically displays on the phone’s home screen any updates from contacts or from HTC’s 14,000 external content partners, including social media companies, blogs, news sources and video. The HTC One is expected to go on sale in the US for $200 and £100 in the UK, if bought as part of a mobile phone contract.
Rivals to the HTC One include LG’s Optimus G Pro, Huawei’s Ascend P2 and Sony’s Xperia Z.
All of these run the latest version of the Android operating system, are equipped with big touchscreens, fast processors and high-capacity batteries – an increasingly important feature as the large screens and advanced processors consume more power than before.
All have individual features designed to differentiate them in a crowded market.
For example, the Ascend P2 boasts that it can download data to the phone at 150 Mbps – faster than many people’s home broadband – assuming you can find a mobile network that offers those speeds.
However, I don’t much like the look of the rather unsophisticated user interface or the uninspiring design of the case. The P2’s processor is slower than its rivals and overall, although the handset is designed to be the flagship of Huawei’s expanding smartphone fleet, it feels as though corners have been cut to reduce costs.
The Optimus G Pro in contrast feels well-built and its HD display, with a resolution of 1920×1080 pixels, is stunning. The G Pro also comes with a battery that has about 30 per cent more capacity than most of its rivals.
However, with its 5.5-inch screen, it is debatable whether this is still a phone or in the “phablet” family with Samsung’s popular Galaxy Note II. Some buyers may feel this is just a bit too large to hold comfortably in one hand despite being a tad narrower than the Note II.
Sony’s gorgeous Xperia Z, launched in January but only now on sale in select markets, would be my second choice after HTC’s One.
It was on display in Barcelona alongside Sony’s third generation Xperia Tablet Z, a model of understated industrial design that makes use of technologies from the Japanese electronics group’s television, camera, and audio divisions to deliver perhaps the best 10-inch Android tablet yet.
Not all phones displayed in Barcelona were high-end. A number of companies are targeting first-time phone buyers with simple features and low prices. My favourite was the Alcatel One Touch Fire which, like its direct rival, the ZTE Open, runs the new open-source Mozilla Firefox operating system. The Fire, which has a modest but serviceable 3.5 inch touchscreen, a basic, 1Ghz processor and 3.2Mp camera, felt a bit slow during my brief test. Others have reported software bugs but hopefully these will be fixed by the time the handset launches in the middle of this year. The price is expected to be less than $100.