HTC One Max deep-dive review: With this phone, size matters

The HTC One Max has a gorgeous 5.9-in. display and outstanding speakers -- but be ready to deal with some serious smartphone bulk.

The new HTC One Max Android smartphone has a gorgeous 5.9-in. display and outstanding speakers -- but be ready to deal with some serious smartphone bulk.

What's the difference between a tablet and a phone? As smartphones get bigger and bigger, it's becoming increasingly difficult to tell.

There's no better example of the blurring of these form-factor lines than the HTC One Max, a newly launched device that makes other plus-sized smartphones seem svelte in comparison. The One Max, available now on Sprint for $250 and on Verizon Wireless for $300, could easily be mistaken for a small tablet -- albeit one that you carry around all day and use to make calls.

HTC One Max

As Samsung's Galaxy Note line has demonstrated, there's consumer demand for such oversized mobile devices. So does the HTC One Max deliver?

I've been living with the phone for the past week to find out.

Body and display

First things first: Just how big is the HTC One Max? The device measures 3.2 x 6.5 x 0.41 in. and 7.7 oz. That's larger, thicker and noticeably heavier than Samsung's Galaxy Note 3, which is 3.1 x 6.0 x 0.33 in. and 5.9 oz. For perspective, the regular HTC One -- the One Max's smaller sibling and a device that's already relatively large for a standard-sized smartphone -- is 2.7 x 5.4 x 0.37 in. and 5.0 oz.

Not surprisingly, given those dimensions, the One Max is rather awkward to hold -- too big to grasp comfortably in one hand and not quite big enough to spread across two -- and unpleasant (or even impossible, depending on your pant preferences) to store in a pocket. The same could be said for any plus-sized phone, of course, but the One Max's extra heft makes it even more extreme.

Instead of thinking of it as a large phone, you almost have to think of the One Max as a small tablet that also happens to have phone functionality. Ultimately, only you can decide if that's the kind of device you want to lug around all day; I'd strongly suggest heading into a physical store and spending some time holding one before making that decision.

As with a tablet, the benefit of the bulk is the screen that accompanies it -- and that's one area where the One Max shines. The phone has a beautiful 5.9-in., 1080p LCD display -- a notch up in size from the 5.7-in. AMOLED screen on the Note 3. The large panel is nice when you're watching a video or browsing the Web; having that much space to view content really does enhance the experience.

Size aside, the Max's screen is bright with brilliant true-to-life colors, crisp text and excellent visibility both indoors and out. It packs fewer pixels per inch than the regular One -- 373ppi compared to 486ppi on the smaller device. But at this level of quality, such a difference is nearly impossible to detect; the Max's display is a treat for the eyes and one of the device's most compelling qualities.

Like the regular One, the Max's display is flanked by dual front-facing speakers that put most smartphone speakers to shame. Audio played from the Max is loud and full-sounding; it lacks the tinny, hollow quality other phones produce. When combined with the superb screen, multimedia consumption on the device is a delight.

The top speaker grille holds a small LED light to alert you to missed calls, text messages and other notifications.

Build, buttons and ports

The build style on the One Max is a bit different than what you might expect: While the Max bears a distinct family resemblance to the HTC One, the phone lacks the premium aluminum unibody design for which its smaller sibling is frequently praised. Instead, the Max has metal panels interspersed with plastic elements -- namely a prominent matte plastic trim that surrounds its display and extends onto its outer edges.

A removable metal panel, meanwhile, takes up most of the phone's back; sliding a small button on the left side of the device releases the panel and lets you pull it off the phone. Curiously, all you can access inside is a SIM card slot and a micro-SD slot; there is no removable battery.

On the review unit I have, the panel doesn't fit snugly into the phone's frame when it's attached; there's a subtle but noticeable area along its right side where the seam isn't smooth and you can feel its edge protruding. This is a flaw I've seen other reviewers and early adopters note as well. HTC tells me the panel should fit into the frame securely, with the metal edge sitting well beneath the plastic border, so I'll remain optimistic it's merely a quality-control issue with some of the early production units.

Following the unusual setup introduced with the HTC One, the Max's face is home to two capacitive navigation buttons: a Back key at the far left and a Home key at the far right. The configuration is tolerable -- it's certainly less vexing than the nonstandard approaches used by some other Android manufacturers -- but as I noted when reviewing the regular One, it creates awkward usage scenarios and is far from ideal. The setup omits the core Android app-switching button, for instance, and the capacitive nature of the keys causes some apps to place an obtrusive black bar on the screen in order to display a legacy Menu icon.

HTC does a decent job at providing workarounds to help make the setup passable, but it's hard not to wonder why the company didn't just stick with a standard Android button configuration and avoid the issues altogether.

The One Max has a volume rocker and power button on its right side. The top of the phone, meanwhile, holds a 3.5mm headphone jack and an IR blaster for controlling TVs and other electronics. A standard micro-USB port lives on the device's bottom edge; it doubles as an HDMI out-port with the aid of an MHL adapter.

Last but not least is an element new to the One Max: a fingerprint scanner along the top-middle area of its rear panel. (Fingerprint scanners are getting popular; note Apple's Touch ID system introduced with the iPhone 5S.) Once you set it up, the scanner lets you unlock the phone by sliding your finger along its surface; you can also set up different fingers to unlock the phone to specific apps.

The technology itself is impressive: The scanner has consistently recognized my finger on the first try and has yet to grant access to any unauthorized appendage. That said, I suspect most users will play around with it a few times and then never use it again, as it's novel but not terribly practical in its implementation. You have to first press the phone's power button to activate the scanner and then adjust your hand to try to find the right place on the back of the device to swipe. The process is difficult to do with one hand and gets frustrating fast; after a while, I found that entering a password is just much easier to do.

Under the hood

With its 1.7GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 processor and 2GB of RAM, the HTC One Max is every bit as snappy as you'd expect: The phone flies through app loading, multitasking and Web browsing. Swiping through home screens is smooth as can be and system animations execute without any lag or jerkiness. When it comes to performance, the One Max is at the top of its game.

Another area where the phone excels is battery life: The Max packs a 3300mAh battery that's more than capable of getting you through an entire day -- and then some. Even with heavy use, I've yet to run the battery down within a single morning to night period.

One day, I had five hours of screen-on time -- a mix of scattered Web browsing, video and audio streaming, social media use and phone calls -- and still had 25% of the battery left after 13 hours off the charger. Another day, I had three and a half hours of screen-on time and the battery was still over 50% full after nearly nine hours off the charger. That's impressive.

The One Max ships with 32GB of internal space, about 24GB of which is actually available to you after you factor in the operating system and various preinstalled applications. The phone's micro-SD card slot allows you to add up to 64GB of additional external space. The Max also includes a two-year subscription for 65GB of cloud-based Google Drive storage.

The One Max supports near-field communication (NFC) for contact-free payments and data exchanges. It does not, however, support wireless charging.

As for connectivity, the Max can provide LTE data through either Sprint or Verizon, depending on which carrier's version you buy. In the case of Sprint, LTE is presently available only in a few cities; if you aren't in one of those locations, you'll be stuck using poky 3G-level speeds.

I've been testing the Sprint version of the phone and am not in an area that has Sprint LTE, so for me, data speeds have been pretty dismal and service has generally been hit and miss. Voice calls have been A-OK, though; those with whom I've spoken have sounded loud and clear and have reported my voice sounding distortion-free as well.

Cameras

HTC's One Max features the same basic "UltraPixel" camera setup introduced with the original One. In short, the camera uses fewer but larger megapixels than most modern smartphones -- four megapixels, to be precise. HTC says the approach allows the camera to capture 300% more light than what you'd get with a typical smartphone shooter; the end result, according to the company, is a phone that provides better performance for the types of photos most people take.

The HTC One Max's camera operates well in low lighting conditions.

In reality, it isn't quite so simple. The One Max does excel in low-light photography; it's able to capture sharp-looking detail in dim conditions where other phones fail to detect much of anything. In brighter daylight environments, however, the phone's images often look a little washed out and overexposed. There's also a noticeable amount of noise and loss of detail in some images, especially when you view them zoomed in at their full resolution.

That brings us to the other downside of HTC's low-megapixel setup: With only four megapixels at play, the largest image you can capture is 2688 x 1520. Many of the phone's photos look fine enough for casual online sharing, but if you want to zoom into a particular area of an image or crop it in any way, the low size ceiling becomes painfully apparent.

Unlike the regular One, the One Max doesn't include optical image stabilization. I didn't notice a heck of a lot of difference in photos, but when it comes to videos, the Max's phone is less forgiving of a shaky hand.

On the plus side, the Max's camera interface is simple and intuitive to use. It has virtually no shutter lag -- photos are taken almost instantly when you press the shutter button -- and it's easy to capture rapid-fire burst-style shots: You just hold down the shutter button and the phone snaps a series of consecutive photos, then gives you the option to save only the best image of the bunch.

The Max includes all the other camera-based bells and whistles seen on this year's previous HTC products, including Zoe -- a mode in which the phone records 20 still images and three seconds of 1080p video every time you tap the shutter button.

With its video-oriented nature, Zoe gives you a more natural selection of snapshots from which to choose instead of a single frozen moment in time; it also allows you to use special editing features to create animated GIFs, "erase" a moving object from the background or combine multiple shots to get a single image in which everyone is smiling.

It's a nice touch, though with its unconventional approach and ambiguous-sounding name, I question how many users will actually take the time to explore it and make it part of their routine.

The Max also automatically compiles images and videos into Video Highlights, which are short clips that showcase related content with visual effects and music. Video Highlights seemed interesting when the original One launched, but the recent arrival of Google's similar and more versatile cloud-based service takes much of the wind out of the feature's sails.

In addition to its main camera, the One Max has a 2.1-megapixel front-facing camera for video chatting and selfies.

The software

The One Max runs HTC's custom Sense 5.5 software, which is based on Google's Android 4.3 Jelly Bean operating system. HTC tells me the phone will be upgraded to the newer Android 4.4 KitKat OS, but there's no definite timeframe for that rollout.

The software is largely the same as what we've seen on other recent HTC smartphones, so I'll refer you to the "Software" section of my One review for a detailed look at what it's like to use.

In general, I'll say this: HTC's software isn't bad -- it's far more usable than many other manufacturers' takes on Android -- but the company is guilty of making arbitrary user interface changes that add no value and in some cases actually detract from the user experience. The process of adding a shortcut from the app drawer onto the home screen has been unnecessarily complicated, for instance, and the phone's app-switching interface -- which is accessible only via an unnatural double-tap of the Home button -- is visually overwhelming compared to the base Android design.

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