HTC One mini 2 review: A worthy new addition to the premium One clan
HTC created what was undoubtedly one of the best smartphones of last year with the original One. That was later followed up by the One mini, which was surprising in the sense that the handset maker hadn’t before attempted a slimmed-down, scaled-back version of any of its flagship devices. HTC’s nemesis Samsung established this trend when it launched the Galaxy S III mini, and it inspired many discussions about the ethics of slapping the name of top-tier handsets onto lesser devices. (Sony obviously made an executive decision to avoid the “mini” epithet for its Xperia Z1 Compact, which is actually just a smaller, but equally specced version of the flagship Z1.)
The ethical issue is more or less moot now we know what to expect from a smartphone donning the mini title. HTC did a good job of translating many of the premium elements that made the One such a stand-out device in the smaller, cheaper package of the 2013 One mini, making it an attractive option in its own right (cheeky branding or not). Now, HTC has its new darling, the One (M8), and a shot at making another respectable variant with the One mini 2 due to launch next month. Clunky name aside, the mini 2 gives a striking first impression thanks to its M8-like, mainly aluminum casing. Beyond that, has HTC done enough to make the mini 2 a worthy companion to the M8, or are we dealing with a poor, albeit glamorous imitation?
It may be called the One mini 2, but there isn’t really anything “mini” about it. Pretty close in size to the OG One, the mini 2 is by no means dwarfed by the M8, although it is noticeably shorter. (On that subject, I’m not sold on how the M8 is proportioned, specifically the length.) Similarities aren’t surprising, of course — the device is supposed to look like the M8, after all, and thankfully it’s very hard to tell the difference when shown one after the other. There’s no secondary camera on the back of the mini 2; the flash is a different shape; and the secondary mic has moved. But otherwise you’ve got that same gorgeous, brushed aluminum with polycarbonate seams that consumes much of the rear, and some of the sides of the handset. There is a slight decline in engineering tolerance compared with the M8, however. Look very closely and you’ll see the odd, thin gap between polycarbonate and metal, or that the nano-SIM tray doesn’t sit as flush to the body as it could do, for instance. I have the gray version of the device, but the mini 2 will also come in silver and gold options, just like the M8.
On the new M8, brushed metal makes up 90 percent of the chassis. That’s scaled back to 70 percent on the mini 2, which is still healthy coverage and the same amount of metal cladding as on the original One (M7). The rim of polycarbonate that marries the back to the two panels above and below the display, and the Gorilla Glass 3 sheet covering it, is a subtle matte black that keeps attention focused on the more premium material — the white plastic used on the M7 and first One mini was far more conspicuous. The volume rocker and microSD tray on the right side are within the aluminum panel’s boundaries and made of metal themselves. The same is true for the nano-SIM tray on the left-hand edge, although I’m confused as to why HTC chose that format for the mini 2 and M8. It’s not a very common one among Android devices, meaning potential buyers will either need a new SIM or risk damaging their current one via mutilation, which just seems unnecessary.
On top of the device, we have the headphone jack and plastic power button, with the micro-USB port on the bottom edge. HTC’s trademark BoomSound stereo speakers sandwich the display, and a multicolored notification LED is hidden within the top grille, while the primary mic is concealed in the lower. On the top metal panel, too, sits a pair of sensors and the front-facing camera. There’s a reasonable bezel surrounding the 720p display, though not an unattractive amount. The difference between the M8 and One mini 2 compared with last year’s models is the absence of Android soft keys, which are now found on-screen when the phones are in use.
The One mini 2, like the bigger M8, is quite simply a stunning device that screams “premium.” It’s light enough, but solid and sturdy at 137 grams (just over 4.8 ounces), and the curved back contours to the palm nicely. The mini 2 is small enough to be easily usable in one hand while not feeling cramped, and there’s no one thing you can point out and say that HTC has really skimped on in creating this smaller handset. The design and brushed-metal exterior are among the main reasons I can see people being drawn to the device, and I’m glad to see HTC taking the same philosophy of limited compromise it did with the first One mini.
In the same way that the M8 has a slightly larger display than the previous One, the mini 2 also bumps the screen size up to 4.5 inches from 4.3 inches on the first mini. The resolution has stayed the same at 720p, which is still plenty of pixels despite a drop from 341 to 326 ppi. At these sizes, I defy anyone to point out meaningful differences in acuity. HTC’s stuck with its Super LCD2 technology for the mini 2, and there isn’t much to complain about. Colors are lucid, and the black and white ends of the spectrum are just as good. You can crank the brightness up to retina-singeing levels, although glare does have a slightly negative impact on sunlight readability. The auto-brightness setting responds well to the environment and even overcompensates on occasion. Viewing angles are also superb, with glare being the only problem past 45 degrees.
If you’re prone to the odd YouTube binge, or tend to use your daily commute to catch up on some TV, then you can do much worse than the One mini 2. The size of the display doesn’t lend itself to extended viewing sessions necessarily, but the 720p resolution means crisp, HD content plays without any annoying letterboxing. Paired with the stereo BoomSound speakers, the One mini 2 is a satisfactory mobile media player for when you don’t have a bigger screen to watch or better audio setup to listen to.
You get the best of both worlds right out of the box on the One mini 2 — as long as you like HTC’s Sense 6 UI running over Android 4.4.2 KitKat, that is. You can check out our deep dive on Sense 6 in the M8 review, but it’s worth noting that not all the tweaks available on that device have made their way onto its miniature counterpart. The new gesture-unlocking feature called Motion Launch isn’t available on the mini 2, and the Zoe camera app isn’t yet compatible, despite being pre-installed on the handset. HTC tells us you’ll be able to use it sometime this summer when it’s “absolutely ready.” Fortunately, Zoe’s neat multimedia collage feature is accessible through the gallery app.
Otherwise, you get the same Sense 6 experience as on the M8. Special features include the new Do Not Disturb mode, an improved version of BlinkFeed, and an Extreme Power Saving Mode that extends battery life by letting you use only the phone’s basic functions. I can’t say what carriers will do with the mini 2 when they get their hands on it, but my review unit is almost entirely devoid of bloatware. All of Google’s services come pre-loaded, as you’d expect — you get 50GB of free Drive storage, too — as well as some of HTC’s software for basic product support and enabling kid or car modes. The only things you might want to remove, but can’t, are Polaris Office 5, KeyVPN and a stock-tracking app, but I can see how that trio might be useful for business types.
If you’re new to HTC’s Sense skin, the main departure from stock Android is visual in nature. It’s actually my favorite flavor of manufacturer skin because it’s clean and light, and thus has minimal impact on performance despite being heavily customized. The thin font style Sense employs looks great on the mini 2′s display thanks to its 326 ppi, and it marries well with the handset’s tight, premium design. Sense is also pretty self-explanatory and user-friendly — the quick-settings menu specifically. The one gripe I have with HTC on the software front isn’t anything to do with the mini 2 itself, but with the fact that you’re forced to use HTC Sync Manager if you want to interact with the handset via your PC. I understand that some users might find direct access to the phone’s and SD card’s file systems intimidating, but Sync Manager’s interface is clunky and the whole experience is reminiscent of the nightmare that is iDevice file management through iTunes. Luckily, there’s a tab within the program that lets you browse folders as normal, but in its current state, I wouldn’t use any of its other functions.
One of the key differentiators the M8 has over its predecessor is the fancy Duo Camera setup. While the main UltraPixel camera remains largely unchanged, the secondary depth sensor quite literally adds another dimension to the photography experience. None of those swanky after effects is available on the One mini 2, which only has a single rear camera, but HTC hasn’t skimped on imaging. For starters, the M8′s front-facing, 5-megapixel BSI sensor camera with f/2.0 lens has made a direct transition over to the mini 2. So, if you’re into those close-up selfies, prepare to see every blemish and pore (before applying the appropriate flattering filter and putting it up on the Instagrams, of course).
The rear-facing 13MP camera with BSI sensor and f/2.2 lens is no slouch either, but for seemingly every megapixel, I have a corresponding gripe with performance. Don’t get me wrong: In good conditions, you can get some lovely detailed shots out of the thing — it is 13 megapixels of data, after all. You’ve got an exhaustive amount of settings to tweak within the camera interface if you so wish (and you might want to in order to get the best out of it), from scene modes to white balance to filters and more. However, I’m of the mindset that a smartphone camera, especially one of this caliber, should be simple to use and best left on auto.
Even in good conditions, images can occasionally be washed out and lacking in color depth. HDR mode rarely works as intended, although it’s more reliable in the macro range (which is very good, by the way). I didn’t expect the camera’s low-light performance to be as robust as the M8′s UltraPixel camera, but I still would have wanted a little more from the mini 2′s BSI sensor. Shutter lag and shutter speed were my biggest issues with the camera, as there’s a noticeable delay between hitting the shutter key and the picture being processed. Pepper the situation with artificial or limited lighting, and it can get much worse. Any movement within the frame can result in frustratingly blurry images.
The autofocus isn’t as bad, but is still mighty erratic. Sometimes it’s quick and accurate; other times it’s skittish, and once it completely refused to work in a nighttime situation, rendering me unable to take a picture. Generally, as the amount of natural light deteriorated, so would the focus performance. The time it takes for the camera to turn a picture around, especially an HDR shot, isn’t really up to scratch. I don’t know whether that’s because the processor needs an extra second to deal with 13 megapixels’ worth of data, the camera app is not properly optimized for the hardware or the camera module itself was chosen for the spec sheet rather than performance. I’d have much preferred HTC chose something like an 8-megapixel camera that’s truly capable.
Video recording at 1080p is a little better, given there are fewer variables involved. Audio and picture quality are both pretty awesome in sunny conditions, with faltering autofocus and grainy video being the norm when there’s little light available. There are also slow-motion and high-speed (60 fps) modes if there’s a particular scene you think requires more than standard video. Remember, even though the spec sheet reads 13 megapixels, don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s a great smartphone camera. Much like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.
Performance and battery life
A quick look at the One mini 2′s spec sheet shows it’s half the beast the M8 is, with a 1.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 400 SoC paired with 1GB of RAM. That might not seem like an acceptable upgrade over last year’s mini, either, which had a 1.4GHz dual-core version of the same processor. I can see why some might begrudge paying over £350 for a handset with the same internal arrangement as the much cheaper Moto G (and incoming LTE variant), or the UK-only EE Kestrel. Having reviewed both of these devices, however, I’m under the impression you really don’t need more expensive, more powerful hardware in the vast majority of circumstances. You’ve also got a hearty 16GB of internal storage to play around with (roughly five gigs are reserved for the Android ROM), which can be supplemented by microSD cards of up to a whopping 128GB.
What’s the point of any more horsepower when you can already play an online multiplayer game of Asphalt 8: Airborne on the highest graphics setting, steam ’round the tracks in Real Racing 3 at flawless frame rates or burn through your opponent’s net in NBA Jam without a stutter? There isn’t one, in my opinion. The mini 2′s excellent gaming performance should give you the hint that cycling through the home screen carousel or app drawer, jumping into non-resource-hungry programs and all the other mundane tasks you use a phone for the majority of the time are quick and fluid too. As you’d imagine, web browsing (in Chrome) draws similar praise.
HTC’s One mini 2 is decked out with all the mod cons: Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, GPS, dual-band WiFi and LTE. These components have been around long enough that they should be easy to get right, and yet I have to raise a small complaint about GPS performance. It’s sometimes very slow to home in on my location, or casts a wide margin of error when it thinks it’s tracked me down. I just wasn’t expecting to have much to say about such a standard feature. The LTE chip works as you’d expect, and in my local South London area, download speeds topped out at 65 Mbps and upload speeds reached 19.5 Mbps on O2′s 4G network, so you know it’s capable of handling those kinds of speeds if the closest cell tower is capable of supplying them. HTC’s BoomSound technology definitely gives audio a rich, well-defined quality you can hear is missing when the setting is switched off, but, as I feel with most smartphones, it’s lacking slightly in the bass range when piping music through headphones. I actually thought bass was better serviced when the mini 2′s front stereo speaker setup was employed, and whichever way you’re consuming music, you won’t be left wanting for more volume.
In our standard battery-rundown test, the One mini 2 ran out of juice after looping video for around six hours and 40 minutes, although the phone didn’t actually have cell reception at the time, and was pulling data down using WiFi. That may have skewed the result slightly, but it’s not particularly impressive for the average-sized, 2,100mAh battery. I found that in day-to-day use, however, the mini 2 held up well. I’d be hesitant to say you could get a full two days out of it, even with relatively modest use, but under normal conditions — some light gaming, a few pictures, a little browsing and email reading — it’ll get you through a full day with ease. There are also the two power-saving modes to keep battery drain to a minimum if you find yourself in a pinch without access to a charger.
We’ve yet to see HTC’s archrival Samsung announce a miniature variant of the Galaxy S5, which would be the mini 2′s obvious nemesis. Until that happens, if indeed it does, the Galaxy S4 mini and last year’s One mini are probably its closest rivals. The One mini 2 will be launching across Europe and Asia sometime during June, and HTC tells us the price for an unlocked, SIM-free handset will be between £360 and £370 in the UK. The original mini retails for about £100 less, and the S4 mini is slightly cheaper than that again. I’d say, then, that £360-ish is a fair price given the mini 2′s improvements in hardware and design.
If general performance is what you want most out of your phone, then the impending Moto G with LTE is worth a mention, seeing as it also has a 720p display with the same processor/RAM combination as the One mini 2. And it will be cheap in comparison — at £149 in the UK ($219 in the US). Who knows what kind of fight the cheaper M8 Ace might put up against the mini 2, but I feel the biggest competition HTC’s new handset has is with the phone it’s based on. Or rather, the mini 2 is serious competition for the M8. The new One retails for around £520 unlocked in the UK, so for those who want the same premium materials in a smaller form factor, or are willing to lose a few of the M8′s bells and whistles for the sake of a discount, then the mini 2 is a valid option.
From a hardware perspective, Sony’s Xperia Z1 Compact is a very compelling alternative. It’s available for £380 unlocked and dominates the One mini 2 in pretty much every area of the spec sheet. The main thing the mini 2 has over Sony’s shrunken (but not retooled) offering is the premium finish. In the end, choosing a smartphone should be based on personal preference rather than just numbers, as you’ll probably be spending at least a year using it every day. There’s no word on a North American release of the One mini 2 just yet, but I don’t see why HTC would skip such a large region. Depending on new releases that may occur before it lands in NA, and what the pricing works out to be (the mini 2 is over $600 when converted, but such figures are usually highly inaccurate), it may end up being less competitive in that market.
I’m still stuck on one question when I think about the mini 2: Is it worth the money? It’s significantly cheaper than the M8, but I’m not sure price accounts for all the compromises. I primarily love the look and feel of the device, and HTC did an excellent job of recreating much of the M8′s appeal. The display marries a good resolution with a quality panel, and although the internal hardware has taken a hit in the shrinking process, it’s still remarkably capable and provides enough performance for most apps and features. Even if you’re not a fan of skinned Android builds, Sense 6 is one of the best, and the mini 2 is as up-to-date as it gets with 4.4.2 KitKat right out of the gate.
The 13-megapixel camera looks good on paper, but performance is erratic and often disappointing, so potential buyers need to bear that in mind. Realistically, you’re going to buy the One mini 2 if you like the look of the One mini 2. It’s also a viable proposition for those who either don’t want to shell out for the M8 or weren’t down with the form factor. You’re paying for the brand and brushed-metal design over any stand-out component or feature, and in that case, the price might be acceptable at £150 less than the M8 demands. I’m much more interested in seeing what carriers can do to that price when it actually launches, and I imagine when subsidies begin to kick in, the answer to the question I’m still pondering will be “Yes.”
Edgar Alvarez contributed to this review.