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The big One: HTC’s 5.9 inch One Max reviewed

By Leigh D. Stark | 4:48 pm 29/11/2013

If the look and feel of the aluminium HTC One grabbed you earlier in the year, but you like your phones big — and we mean really big — HTC now has an option in the 5.9 inch One Max. We know it’s bigger, but is it as good as the One?

Features

A bigger HTC One? It’s possible, and that’s close to what HTC have engineered in the One Max, a phone that adopts a bigger screen, but otherwise similar parts.

The screen is the noticeable change, so we’ll start there on the features and specs, and in this handset, HTC has made the screen measure 5.9 inches, supporting the same Full HD 1920×1080 resolution as its HTC One brother. With this combination of specifications, the screen shows a pixel clarity of 373 pixels per inch, which puts it 50 above Apple’s Retina-grade found in the iPhone 5S.

Under that screen, HTC has provided many of the same components that one can find in the HTC One, including the processor, which is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 quad-core clocked at 1.7GHz, paired with 2GB RAM, the Adreno 320 graphics chip, and 16GB storage, though the latter of these can be upgraded with the included microSD slot.

Google’s Android 4.3 runs here, with HTC’s Sense overlay running atop it, now in version 5.5.

Connections are pretty much just like the HTC One, with 4G LTE, WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, DLNA, Bluetooth 4.0, Near-Field Communication (NFC), microUSB for charging and data transfer, GPS, and even the infrared port which sits at the top of the unit.

Cameras seem to be important on phones these days, and the One Max is no different, taking on the same cameras from the original One from earlier in the year.

That means the rear camera is a 4 megapixel module using the “Ultrapixel” concept with bigger pixel sizes and support for HTC’s Zoe application which takes multiple images quickly and allows you to remove objects from scenes, while the front camera is a 2.1 megapixel shooter with a slightly wider angle lens. Both cameras have the capability to shoot Full HD 1080p video.

A square fingerprint scanner (it’s actually a squircle) sits underneath the rear camera on the back of the handset.

The casing of the phone still features an abundance of aluminium — again, just like the One — though in this model, HTC has taken a similar approach to what it did in the One Mini, adopting a plastic band on the outside rim.

There’s also a new part of the design, with a switch on the side that looks like it should be a mute or lock switch, but instead springs open the metal back, which is removable on the One Max, a first for this year’s One series. With the back off, you’ll find the microSIM slot and microSD slot, too, though the battery rated for 3300mAh (1000 more than the One) is not removable.

Buttons on this handset are a little different to previous One models, likely due to the massive size of the handset. Rather than position the power button up top, HTC has moved this to the right edge, sitting just below the volume rocker. All other buttons on the handset are soft buttons, and there are only two of those, with the back button and home button sitting on the front just under the screen, flanking a HTC logo.

The back also features some form of circular charge port similar to the charging method HTC implemented on the Rhyme with its dock, though we’ve yet to hear of a dock being made for the One Max.

Performance

HTC’s One has been a popular little handset with reviewers, incorporating the same processor as what can be found in the Samsung Galaxy S4 so it’s nice and speedy, but using a screen with more pixels packed in, and a body made of aluminium that feels great in the hands.

When we reviewed it, we were impressed, but the 4.7 inch size isn’t for everyone, and with tablet-sized phones out there like the Samsung Galaxy Note series and Huawei’s Ascend Mate, there are obviously people keen for a bigger phone.

Enter HTC’s One Max, a device that is literally a bigger HTC One.

We’ll start with the look and feel, and rather than just enlarge and blow up a HTC One, the design of the Max is closer to that of HTC One Mini, a handset which offers much of the tech and design of the One, but in a smaller body. Like that handset, the Max features an aluminium front and back that is appealing to the eyes, but contained within a ring of white plastic, holding it together like a skeleton framework.

While we prefer the design of the original One — the all aluminium look — this shift is still pleasing to the eye, and quite comfortable to hold, with the shiny plastic edge more a page out of the book of last year’s One, and is still as hard and sturdy as ever.

That said, this is a very heavy handset, but we’ll get to that later.

People with bigger hands will likely find this handset comfortable, but it’s not a small device, it’s not a light device, and if you’re worried about your pants falling down from all the weight inside them and you still want this phone, buy a belt, because it’s likely to be the anchor for your pant leg.

Using the One Max is just like using most other Android handsets, and with HTC’s Sense 5.5, the experience is beginning to feel tighter than it has on past HTC handsets.

For starters, you can unlock the screen into either the home screen or one of four programs of your choice, with these coming from the icons you change on the shortcut dock.

Yes, you can change the icons in the shortcut dock, something Samsung still seems to struggle with in its Australian smartphones.

Multiple homescreens are supported, too, just like on other Android devices, and HTC’s BlinkFeed is here too, but now can be turned off, which is a great thing because not everyone needs it.

For those caught unaware, BlinkFeed is HTC’s answer to a built-in version of the news and social network reading information system that is Flipboard, and it will scan your connected social networks, calendar, image gallery, TV guide, and topics from websites HTC selects (which means your favourite site may not be there) and display them in a grid like fashion very similar to Flipboard.

While Sense 5.5 brings some neat changes to BlinkFeed such as the better social network integration, you’re still limited to the selection of topics and services based on what the providers of the technology want, and that can be quite limiting. For instance, we wanted to receive news articles from The Age and The Guardian, but BlinkFeed’s only choices for us consisted of AAP, CNN, NYFP, and News Limited.

This lack of control for your news feed was a problem we cited with the original One, and while HTC has made some improvements, it’s unfortunate to see this issue still present on the One Max.

Performance wise, the phone is practically identical to what the One was like, with similar benchmarks, and likewise similar performance across whatever you do.

There’s virtually no lag or slowdowns as you jump across from app to app, and it’s a speedy handset altogether.

Multitasking works exactly the way it would on the other HTC handsets (double tap the home button), and some of the other features that were spread across the system work just as well too, such as the very loud BoomSound dual-front speakers which are even louder on this handset than on previous models, and the infrared port up top which lets you control your TV and even take programming information from remotes when the TV brand isn’t supported.

Mobile connection performance is more or less the same, producing high 4G speeds across town, and generally responding as well as some of the other phones we’ve had in here.

Likewise, the battery was very, very impressive, and with a full 1000mAh than its little brother, the One Max is able to get two full days of performance, and that was while surfing the web, listening to music, making calls, watching videos, testing the fingerprint scanner, taking photos, emailing, and generally using the handset.

Those of you who are heavy users will likely see a day of life, but the rest of us who use the phone frequently but not every waking second will see two, so that’s impressive.

The screen is great, too. Bright, sharp, and viewable from all angles. It’s not quite the mind blowing 469 pixel per inch monster that HTC used in the One, but it’s still excellent here, and it makes social networking, websites, and watching videos much easier as you view them on a lovely screen.

HTC’s repositioning of the power button is also good too, and with a 5.9 inch device, it’s much easier to switch the smartphone on and off by just gripping the handset, rather than forcing you to stretch your fingers all the way to the top.

But basically, the HTC One Max is just a big One, and nothing more.

HTC One Max with a 5.9 inch screen on the left, HTC One with a 4.7 inch screen on the right.

Actually, that’s not quite true. There is something more, and that’s the weight, which is very noticeable, and makes it one of the heaviest phones you’re ever likely to try and throw in your pocket.

In fact, HTC’s One Max has a slightly bigger screen than the Note 3, no pen, and yet weighs almost 50 grams heavier. At 217 grams, we’re approaching the weight of some small tablets, which doesn’t bode well for pockets or hand bags.

Make no mistake, this is a heavy phone. It’s a well built-phone, sure, and the aluminium and plastic body really feel sturdy, but it is very heavy.

We’re not impressed by the location of the back removal switch, and we’re pretty sure HTC could have implemented this in a better way.

To remove the back, you have to pull down on a switch location on the top of the left-hand side.

The strange thing is, this location is more commonly associated with the mute and lock switch on the iPhone than a back removal system. Looking at it first hand, we thought it would mute the phone, but no, it just releases a catch on the back to remove the metal back.

This seems to us as a silly decision, especially when people — yes, we asked some — seem to think this switch controls a function of the phone, like lowering the volume all the way or locking the device.

Apple has done a good job of making this element known as the lock or mute switch, and so it seems rather silly for HTC to come in and redefine this element, especially on such a big phone.

If you’re used to the lock switch on an iPhone and you come into the HTC One Max, you’ll have to retrain yourself into not hitting the switch on the side, as all it will do each time is spring that rear cover open, which may not be what you intended to begin with.

HTC’s fingerprint scanner also comes with some flaws. Two, to be exact.

The first is its location, and sitting directly under the camera lens might look good from a design point of view, but from a usability one, it’s just insanely stupid. To use the HTC One Max fingerprint scanner, you have to wipe your finger over the scanner, and since you’re generally doing it while you’re staring at the massive screen of the phone, that means doing it by touch.

With such a big size on the phone, however, you almost always inadvertently rub your greasy finger all over the camera lens and then the fingerprint scanner, or constantly touch the camera lens when you’re trying to touch the scanner.

It’s all a bit messy, and grubby, and if you try to take a picture afterwards, expect to need to wipe down that camera lens.

There’s also the problem of the fingerprint scanner, which in theory, is a good idea. Just like how it works on the Apple iPhone 5S, HTC has engineered the HTC One Max so that you can unlock the phone with your fingerprint. You can’t buy things from the Google Play Store like you can on the iPhone, but you can pair different fingers with shortcuts for different apps so they load when you unlock using that finger.

Just not in the dark. For any of these things.

We set up our One Max for the fingerprint lock, and while it worked most of the time pretty easily in daylight, it struggled at night and in darker places and just refused to work.

You scan your finger in a place with less light and the phone just won’t see it. You scan your finger again and it doesn’t see it. You do it again and again and again, and eventually the software just gives up and asks you to type in a long password — more than a couple of digits, we tried — that it had you enter when you setup the damn fingerprint system.

We have to ask: if you can’t unlock your phone with your fingerprint in darkness and are forced to sit there entering a long string of characters just to wake it and check what’s going on, what the hell is the point?

This incredible uselessness in darkness means you can’t use the fingerprint technology in a darkened movie theatre, walking the streets at night, or even — as we discovered — sitting in bed with the bedside lamp on.

All up, it’s best if you just don’t use the fingerprint scanner, because while daylight works a treat, night is just one giant wad of “why did I bother to turn this on.”

HTC’s choice of camera seems like a bit of an under-achiever now as well. On the HTC One, the Ultrapixel was a standout device, and even though it was only technically 4 megapixels, its ability to replace details in the scene quickly, as well as its low-light shooting capability made it among the best of the camera modules in any device.

But that was in April. It’s the end of November now, and we don’t expect HTC to just recycle its camera technology for a flagship phablet. Rather, the company should be improving on it, releasing a better Ultrapixel camera for a bigger device.

That hasn’t been what’s happened, though. HTC One Max owners will still get the excellent camera out of the HTC One, and it’s a top camera even if its megapixels aren’t remarkably high, but it’s obviously not the camera module it could have been.

Conclusion

While the idea of a bigger One makes a lot of sense, especially to those who prefer bigger screens, HTC’s implementation of it leaves us wanting.

It’s almost as if the company took a half-hearted approach, literally recreating the HTC One but in a bigger form. While that means the One Max is essentially as good as the One, it doesn’t come off this way, mostly because it’s the end of the year, and it feels more like the company has recycled technology and added a bigger battery and screen, rather than throw in new stuff that makes it more competitive with other devices currently being released.

Take the 5.7 inch Samsung Galaxy Note 3, which has as good a battery life, is almost as big, and yet come with a Snapdragon 800 processor, which offers much more performance than the Snapdragon 600 processor used in this handset.

And that 4 megapixel Ultrapixel camera is nice, but half a year later, HTC could surely put something better in, offering more value to those deciding to jump to such a big and heavy phone.

That’s the problem with the One Max: while it’s still a good device, it’s nowhere near as good as it could be, and generally just feels like yesterday’s phone recycled into a big phone.

If you loved the HTC One but wanted it bigger, that’s exactly what the One Max offers, with just as much speed, loud sound, and one of the most sturdy constructions you’re ever likely to see.

But it’s not the best it could have been, and if you consider this, we’d advise you to shop around to find the perfect device that fits your hands and needs.

 

Price (RRP)

$816; Available on plans from Telstra;

Pros & Cons

Product Pros

Solid aluminium body with plastic edging; Power button placement is good; Excellent battery life; BoomSound speakers are very loud; Supports microSD; HTC Sense 5.5 is an improvement on the past generation, and you can now turn off BlinkFeed;

Product Cons

Heavy; Fingerprint scanner is in a silly location; The fingerprint scanner has severe problems running in darker environments; Ultrapixel camera hasn't improved at all; Back removal switch is in a silly place, and resembles more a mute or lock button; Processor isn't quite on the same level as competing premium phablets;

Ratings

Overall

Features

Value for money

Performance

Ease of Use

Design

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