Katherine Boehret

In Race to Beat iPhone, One Android Weighs In

Android phones have an identity problem: Few people know one model from another. There are exceptions to the rule, including Samsung’s Galaxy line, which managed to bring a phone of the same name to all four major carriers, and Verizon’s Droid, which has been a hit. The rest have been a hodgepodge of model names like Desire, Hero, Tattoo, Thunderbolt, Magic, Inspire and Sensation.

Now HTC, the company known for its stylish hardware and Sense user interface, is trying to bring some uniformity to Android phones with its $200 One models. Starting Wednesday, T-Mobile’s One S will be available, and AT&T’s One X will follow on May 6. On May 7, Sprint will take pre-orders for its EVO 4G LTE, and though it lacks the One name, this is nearly a twin of the One X. Verizon so far isn’t joining the party; a spokeswoman would only say the carrier’s next phone wouldn’t be part of the One series.

I’ve tested T-Mobile’s One S for the past week, and it will likely meet the needs of T-Mobile loyalists who long for the iPhone. Its battery life easily got me through each day, and its camera rivals—and even bests—certain photos captured on the iPhone 4S.

DSOLUTION

The HTC One S is the thinnest, lightest HTC One and it’s the thinnest phone HTC has ever made. It’s thinner and lighter than the iPhone.

The One S is the thinnest, lightest HTC One in the bunch and it’s the thinnest phone HTC has ever made. At 4.2 ounces and 0.30-inch thick, it’s even thinner and lighter than the iPhone, which weighs 4.9 ounces and is 0.37-inch thick. The 4.3-inch screen of the HTC One S is large, but manageable, while the AT&T and Sprint models’ 4.7-inch screens may scare people away.

The big downside to the phone is its network. T-Mobile only offers two flavors of HSPA+, which is far slower than speeds on fast LTE networks like Verizon or AT&T. In downtown Washington, D.C., my average download speed with the T-Mobile One S was just over 3 megabits per second, and upload speeds were about 1 megabit per second. When I tested the phone’s speeds on a trip to Boston, the results were even slower.

In one of the optimal locations in Washington that T-Mobile suggested I visit for testing, I averaged 6.8 mbps in download speeds and 5.9 mbps in uploads.

For comparison, Verizon’s 4G LTE gets zippy download speeds of 13 to 14 megabits per second, faster than some home Wi-Fi networks, and its LTE is now available in 230 markets. AT&T’s LTE is available in 35 markets. Sprint won’t switch its network over to LTE until later this year, so its HTC EVO phone is limited to 3G speeds. T-Mobile has no plans to launch an LTE network this year, and its One S will only operate on the HSPA+ network.

The AT&T HTC One X and Sprint HTC EVO look alike and weigh 4.6 ounces and 4.7 ounces, respectively. Sprint’s phone has two distinguishing physical features the AT&T model lacks: a kickstand, which cleverly tucks into the back of the phone when not in use, and a dedicated camera button.

All HTC One models run the newest version of the Android operating system, called Ice Cream Sandwich. They also have a good quality Beats audio system built in, which works through the phone’s speakers or any headphones. HTC’s Sense interface adds some polish to Android, and this version of Sense is more toned down to blend with Android compared with past HTC phones.

While setting up the T-Mobile One S, I was prompted to create accounts or log into existing accounts for Dropbox, SkyDrive and Evernote, which are all integrated into the phone for seamless sharing.

The One’s camera is a real draw. Its software is deceptively simple, only displaying the buttons or options that are needed at any given moment. Want to use burst mode to take several photos in a row? Hold down the shutter button and listen as a super fast shutter snaps away. A feature called Best Shot appears after a burst and will automatically select the best photo in a burst group before deleting all of the others.

Want to take a still photo while capturing a video? Tap the shutter button, which smartly remains on the screen while video footage is shot. A camera setting can automatically save all images to Dropbox, where One owners get 25 gigabytes of free storage for two years.

I took several photos on the T-Mobile One S and then captured the same photo on the iPhone 4S—the gold standard for smartphone cameras. Though the iPhone did a bit better in a couple of photos, like capturing more detail in the foreground of a sunset, I was drawn to the colors and quality captured on the HTC One. After a week, I found myself reaching for it more than the iPhone.

I used the phone for email, texting, social networking and, yes, even phone calls. Its super-thin design took a little getting used to, but I became familiar with it after a few days.

T-Mobile’s HTC One S is an elegant, fully loaded phone with well-designed features. If you don’t mind the network’s slower speeds, it’s a great find. If you prefer faster speeds, another carrier’s One model might be a better fit.

Write to Katherine Boehret at katie.boehret@wsj.com


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