HTC unveiled their new flagship smartphone today. The HTC One (not to be confused with the One X, One V, or One VX – good luck on that) appears to raise the bar yet again for Android phones. With a 1080p display, all-metal encasing, and an entirely re-skinned HTC Sense on top of Android Jelly Bean, the One looks set to battle with Samsung’s upcoming Galaxy S4 for dominance of the non-Nexus, highly commoditized Android market.
The One’s industrial design is sleek if uninspired, if such a thing is even possible. With chamfered edges and a preference for metal over glass and/or plastic, the One draws more than a few lessons from the iPhone 5. The Beats Audio branding and new speaker setup give it some cool hardware flair.
But I’m more concerned about how HTC has approached software with the One, more specifically how it has integrated Jelly Bean with its new hardware. If the iPhonesque body weren’t enough of a hint, then the software experience evines that HTC is really trying to create a non-Android Android flagship device. The word “Android” itself wasn’t mentioned, and instead HTC trumpeted the “New Sense,” the fifth version of its Android skin. Particular attention was given to New Sense features like a new hub/live feed called BlinkFeed and a default dock of Gingerbread-esque icons backed up by two capacitive buttons: home and back, with the multitasking key strangely axed.
The tiles in BlinkFeed may recall Windows 8 or Flipboard, but they’re really closest in spirit to the Android 4.2x Google Currents Daydream – a “Daydream” is the screensaver-like feature that is by default activated when you charge your Nexus device without firsts hitting the power button. The Currents Daydream creates a beautiful cascade of stories from your Currents subscriptions, and lets you tap stories as they go by to open them individually in the Currents app. My take is that this feature is cool, but not the type of huge “wow” innovation that market stragglers really need in order to overtake their betters.
But let’s get back to that business about capacitive buttons in particular. The lack of a multitasking key is baffling – if there’s one thing that Android unequivocally does better than iOS or Windows Phone, it’s multitasking. HTC has opted to hide multitasking behind a double-tap of the home button. Meanwhile, Google Now, one of the hallmark features of Jelly Bean, is buried beneath a long-tap of the home button. John Gruber astutely notes that both long-tap-for-voice and double-tap-to-multitask are iPhone hallmarks, and I think that they feed the narrative of HTC trying to make a non-Android Android blockbuster. But I think that they are depriving users of some of the best features of Jelly Bean.
During a Twitter exchange with The Verge’s Chris Ziegler, another person and I agreed that we basically had forsworn most non-Nexus Android devices. But I think it’s not just because we want timely updates (something that HTC has struggled with, as evinced by the HTC Thunderbolt only now getting ICS); it’s because Google has gotten astonishingly good at design, such that the stock Android experience has far outstripped what any OEM can do with their custom skins.
HTC thrived back when Sense filled in the gaping holes in Android 1.x and even 2.x, when it was barely a proper OS and need real character. We may be getting to the point at which Google is so confident in its design chops, and so intent on selling things directly to customers via a long-touch retail experience, that its stock Holo vision of Android becomes more and more distanced from whatever the likes of HTC and Samsung want to do with their flagships. They’ll either have to diverge from Google’s brand to keep their own brands alive, or adopt Google’s Nexus-like take on Android for the sake of unity (the latter doesn’t seem commercially viable at this point, however).
-The ScreenGrab Team
For a few weeks now, I have been using an ARM Samsung Chromebook as my primary PC. Initially, I was skeptical that it could fulfill all of my needs. After all, it’s a $250 machine made of plastic and equipped with Google’s minimalist Chrome OS. But its overall capability has surprised me, and it has given me what I feel like is a glimpse of a truly futuristic casual computing experience.
Chrome OS is exactly what it sounds like – an operating system based on Google’s popular Chrome browser. Technically, it’s a Linux distribution that features only one native app, the titular browser which is integrated with a file manager and a media players. All of its “apps,” downloaded from the Chrome Web Store, run in the browser as Web applications.
Google has guided its OEM partners in the design of Chromebook and Chromebox devices, but until this year both parties struggled to create a cohesive software/hardware experience. Older Chromebooks were either test-grade machines or Intel-based power hogs whose old school internals seemed ill-fitted to their quirky software. This new Samsung device hits a sweet spot, however. It’s too bad that the term “Zenbook” is used to market an Asus ultrabook, since this Chromebook is the most Zen laptop I have ever used. It runs on a low-power ARM chip related to the Exynos line of processors that power the Galaxy Note II and the Nexus 10. It runs completely silently, emits no heat, has no fan (Apple III-era Steve Jobs would be proud) and barely has a hard drive in the form of its modest 16GB SSD. But it does one thing extremely well – access the Internet.
Samsung obviously made a huge number of compromises so that they could ship such a cheap PC. They made the right ones, by ditching Intel, massive hard drives, glossy/touch screens and metal (the chassis is plastic). At the same time, the Chromebook makes the most of its shoestring budget. The plastic chassis is painted to look like aluminum, an imitation that it pulls off nicely, especially from a distance. The redeemable offer for two years of free extra Google Drive storage (100 GB) similarly makes up for its slight onboard storage. The mobile ARM chip (which at one point confused Yahoo! into thinking I was accessing the site from a phone) doesn’t scream like an Ivy Bridge processor, but it keeps the whole package completely silent and cool.
Most importantly, this sleek Chromebook highlights something that many users feel but perhaps do not mention aloud: that their laptops are increasingly just doorstops whenever they aren’t connected to the Internet. The latest release of OS X is so iCloud-intensive so as to discourage almost any offline work – even its iWork suite boasts, as its killer feature, its ability to keep documents in iCloud. Similarly, Windows 8 provides Metro/Modern UI-optimized apps thru its new app store only. Rather than keep on with the illusion of a somewhat-usable offline device that nevertheless should be connected to the Internet, Chrome OS simply surrenders to the Internet, running all of its functionality thru the browser. It’s simple, honest, fast and surprisingly robust, and it will change your life.
Word is that Google itself is working on a touchscreen Chromebook, which would further integrate mobile sensibilities into the laptop PC space. This convergence has long seemed inevitable, and we’ve seen steps in that direction, even if some of them have seemed odd, such as Apple’s introduction of skeuomorphic iOS mainstays like Notes and Game Center to the Mac. Google’s seemingly niche, hobbylike Chromebook project may never be a smash success, but I think it achieves an important end. Specifically, it succeeds in radically reinventing the laptop even after 30 years of iterative change, and it demonstrates that, with a few tweaks, “mobile” devices can operate much like vastly improved and simplified versions of the productivity devices we’ve been using for decades.
-The ScreenGrab Team