HTC One mini review: Full of panache, but surprisingly puny

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At a Glance
  • HTC One mini

The HTC One mini is a master illusionist. Sitting next to the original HTC One—the halo phone that seeds the mini with its industrial design DNA—the two handsets don’t look all that different in size.

But now power on both phones. Start playing with them in your hands. Suddenly the mini transforms into something much smaller than you anticipated. Its display looks puny compared to the screen of its DNA donor. And the mini feels palpably smaller than the original One when you cradle it in your palm.

Indeed, the mini might look like a slightly smaller version of the original One, but once you begin using the phone—and digging into its spec sheet—you find HTC made numerous compromises to shave $100 off the price of the flagship original. The mini isn’t a bad phone by any means. But beyond looking so much like the One, it’s really a different beast entirely.

image: mike homnick
It's difficult to tell the mini from the original big boy unless they're lined up, side by side. Here's a cheat: Look for the mini's white plastic chamfered edges.

A downgraded display

In terms of raw dimensions, the original HTC One is just 0.2-inch wider and taller than the One mini, and its depth is exactly the same. But where the One feels a bit unwieldy during one-handed thumb swipes, the mini is surprisingly more comfortable to use. Who knew shaving off one-fifth of an inch on the top and bottom (and half an ounce overall) could have such a positive impact on ergonomics.

Unfortunately, HTC’s adventures in downsizing also include a downgraded display. Where the One includes a 4.7-inch screen, the mini knocks down the size to 4.3 inches. Resolution also drops from 1920-by-1080 to 1280-by-720. Pixel-for-pixel, both displays look great: The mini’s colors are a bit less saturated, but its screen still offers a better-than-Retina-quality pixel density of 341 pixels per inch.

However, when you’re reading text on the mini, or playing a game with tiny UI elements, you’ll miss the generous proportions of the larger One’s display. Of course, striking that perfect balance between screen real estate and ergonomics is always a challenge, but just be aware that the mini's display experience feels markedly cramped relative to what you'll get in the full-sized One, Motorola's Moto X (4.7 inches) and Samsung's Galaxy S4 (5 inches). Text can be a challenge to read, and you'll often find yourself reaching for a tablet—a concession we have to make much less frequently with today's marquee handsets.

image: mike homnick
Can you notice a difference in the chamfered edges? The original One uses aluminum.

Both One models include HTC’s trademark front-facing speaker grilles, along with the same machined aluminum rear chassis. But where the big-boy One has chamfered aluminum edges, the mini opts for plastic edges instead. Do overall aesthetics suffer? No, not really. And while the mini might sport more plastic that the full-size One, HTC's build quality remains excellent. The mini doesn't feel like a cheap, slimy, plastic phone. Nor does it bend or flex during aggresive manhandling.

I applaud HTC's decision to split the volume rocker into two separate buttons. The new buttons lack the discernible click-action of the bigger model’s rocker, but now it’s easier to tell whether you’re increasing or decreasing volume by feel alone.

Each speaker grille on the mini has 64 fewer sound holes than what you’ll find on each grille of the original One. The change makes sense given the mini’s BoomSound speakers aren’t as loud or full-sounding as the speakers of the larger model. They still sound above average in the big scheme of smartphone audio, but they don’t match the larger One’s excellent audio quality in music playback and speakerphone calls.

Calculated compromises

Start digging into the mini’s guts, and you’ll find so many component changes, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any similarities between the two phones save superficial aesthetics.

image: mike homnick
With less powerful BoomSound speakers, the grille on the mini doesn't need so many open holes. Also notice the placement of the green notifications LED. On the larger One, it's located at the far left of the grille.

The mini includes a 1.4GHz dual-core Snapdragon 400 processor and 1GB of RAM, while the original One boasts a 1.7GHz quad-core processor, and 2GB of RAM. The mini’s processing engine is much less powerful, but I generally found real-world, experiential performance to be similar, give or take a few anomalies, in low-intensity tasks.

For example: A number of times I found Chrome browser redraws to be laggy on the mini (a problem I’ve never experienced with the original One) but the BuzzFeed app, on the other hand, was more responsive on the smaller phone. This was all during single-tasking situations, however.

Performance during multi-tasking exposed the mini's silicon deficits. While the phone's basic UI is smooth and zippy without any background processes running, it's not as responsive when, say, downloading a 500MB video. Browser performance—which is already a question mark—also proved glitchier during multitasking. And multitasking aside, I noticed some dropped frames in HD video playback.

image: mike homnick
The mini retains HTC's machined aluminum rear chassis, which held up to extreme torquing during torture testing.

The upshot is that the mini has a drivetrain that's not up to the challenge of modern smartphone duties. You'll be fine just as long as you don't ask it to do too much, but it's definitely not ready for whatever software requirements Android developers will be writing for in one or two years.

Compared to its big brother, the mini also suffers in terms of storage (16GB versus either 32GB or 64GB) and battery capacity (1800mAh versus 2300mAh). Neither phone supports removable storage or quick battery replacement like the Samsung Galaxy S4. There's just about 11GB of available storage, which is an incredibly stingy amount for any modern mobile device, so be prepared to make some painful choices, or offload as much content as possible to the cloud.

As for battery life, it feels similar to the use times I've experienced with the full-size One (which is my full-time phone). I easily made it through an 18-hour day, just as long as I didn't indulge in any lengthy Candy Crush Saga marathons or video-watching sessions.

If only Quick Settings were available in the original One model's window shade.

Both the mini and full-size One include HTC’s 4-megapixel UltraPixel camera, which is designed to excel in low-light situations. You get the same basic sensor, and the same HTC software package, but the mini version of this rear-facing camera lacks optical image stabilization, or OIS.

The lack of OIS could potentially degrade image quality in low-light situations, but nothing about the mini's image caputure, in dark conditions or otherwise, suggested the camera was underperforming relative to the full-size One. That said, neither camera will save the day in truly dim environments. It's a phone camera, not a miracle worker, but that's okay with me. As long as it can shoot Instagram photos and corgi videos, that’s all the world really needs.

HTC also ditched NFC and IR blaster support in the mini version of the One. I haven’t used NFC on a smartphone since the time I set up a Nexus Q, and I can’t imagine why anyone would ever want to use a smartphone as a remote control. Still, more and more peripherals (think headsets and printers) depend on NFC for pairing, so just be aware that the mini can't accomodate these devices—let alone any mobile payment system that depends on NFC.

Unfortunately, HTC still includes Blinkfeed in its Sense 5 interface wrapper, so you’re stuck with HTC’s vision of social/news aggregation whether you like it or not. The mini does, however, come with the 4.2.2 version of Android, while the original One is still saddled with 4.1.2. This version, along with a slightly updated version of Sense 5, grants you the awesome Quick Settings menu that's directly accessible via the notifications shade. It’s a feature that makes me jealous every time I pull down the shade on my full-size One.

Bottom line

The HTC One mini is a respectable phone when compared against the broad continuum of what's available today, from freebie smartphones to $200 (on contract) elite models. But it's not a great phone—it's just a pretty piece of hardware that fits nicely in the hand, but features a smallish screen in an age when any display smaller than 4.5 inches feels too small.

HTC cut a lot of corners to hit its $100 price tag, and while it's nice to see build quality remains excellent, I can't recommend just 11GB of usuable storage and underpowered silicon when just another C-note can elevate you to current state-of-the-art performance.

Buy the mini because you love HTC’s Sense UI, or the company’s unique take on hardware design. Or because you just want a solid but not superlative $100 phone that's not the iPhone 5c. Beyond these benefits, the mini doesn’t have much to offer.

This story, "HTC One mini review: Full of panache, but surprisingly puny" was originally published by TechHive.

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At a Glance
  • HTC One mini

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