HTC One Mini 2 Review: Premium Looks for Smaller Pockets

As soon as the flagship HTC One M8 was revealed back in March it seemed inevitable that HTC would follow it up with a smaller, more affordable miniature version. With the HTC One Mini 2 now revealed, that's turned out to be only half true — it may look like the M8 but, as its name suggests, this handset has just as much in common with last year's initial HTC One Mini.

What Is It?

A HTC One M8 that's been popped into too hot a wash and came out shrunken down — and missing a few headline features too. Though it's sporting a design that would make some premium handsets green with envy, the internals here are a bit more prosaic — underneath a 4.5-inch 720p display sits a quad-core 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 processor (backed by 1GB of RAM), while on the rear is a standard 13MP camera sensor. The UltraPixel camera tech that has so far been a defining point of HTC's One series isn't present, and while the Sense 6.0 UI reskin of Android 4.4.2 is here, it drops a few features that correspond to other missing M8 hardware points.

Who Is It For?

People that liked the exterior design of the HTC One M8 but either a) didn't have big enough hands to stretch across its 5-inch screen, or b) didn't have pockets deep enough to house the cash needed to buy it. It is NOT however for anyone expecting to find the M8's premium smartphone experience in a miniaturised package, and it's not for anyone whose cheeks bloom red with embarrassment when struggling to spit out such an awkward name. "It's a HTC One Mini 2". I mean, seriously?

HTC One Mini 2 Review: Premium Looks for Smaller Pockets

Design

Squint, and the HTC One Mini 2 looks a dead ringer for the One M8. It's smaller than this year's flagship, but not drastically so — it may have "Mini" in its name, but with its 4.5-inch display this is still a phone bigger than an iPhone and many mid- or low-range Android phones. Measuring precisely 137.43 x 65.04 x 10.6 mm, it's actually thicker than the 9.35mm M8, even if its overall smaller frame makes the One Mini 2 lighter at 137 grams. As the original HTC One Mini had only a 4.3-inch display, the One Mini 2 is, as you'd expect, larger and heavier all round than its miniature predecessor. It's still much more comfortable to hold than the 5-inch M8 though — however great the flagship is, it's still a rather unwieldy size.

HTC One Mini 2 Review: Premium Looks for Smaller Pockets

A brushed aluminium finish (available in gold, silver and grey shades) gives the curved-back of the HTC One Mini 2 a really lovely feel and aligns it with the premium look of the M8, right down to the piping running horizontally around the rear. But unlike the M8's full-aluminium unibody, the One Mini 2 uses plastics in the edging of its construction — thin on the sides and expanding towards the top and bottom ends. It's subtle (a complementary "very dark grey" to the aluminum back of my review unit's "gunmetal grey"), but it's a point of compromise over the flagship edition. A sturdy silver volume rocker (which I'm informed will match the same grey shade as the rest of the handset in subsequent production runs) sits on the right next to a microSD card slot, with a nanoSIM tray sitting on the left hand side. The HTC One Mini 2 only comes in one storage size — 16GB — but can take microSD cards up to a capacity of 128GB.

HTC One Mini 2 Review: Premium Looks for Smaller Pockets

While the top edge of the M8 housed an IR zapper for controlling your home cinema products, this has been dropped in the One Mini 2. Up top instead sits a plastic power button and headphone jack. The loss of the TV-controlling feature won't be the cause of many tears I'd imagine, being something of a novelty, but it is a shame considering how comprehensively integrated it and its accompanying app were in the M8. A single 13MP camera sensor sits flush with the rear casing (no Duo Camera here), while around the front there's a 5MP camera for your selfie shots.

HTC One Mini 2 Review: Premium Looks for Smaller Pockets

Flip the phone over and HTC's BoomSound speakers once again make an appearance, sitting at the top and bottom ends of the phone, facing forwards. And again, just as it was with the M8, there's a black strip along the bottom edge of the display that serves no obvious purpose other than to house the HTC logo. It's likely present here to give the engineers a little more room underneath within which to fit all the internal components.

It's an undeniably attractive phone. Put it (or the M8 for that matter) next to last year's HTC One or HTC One Mini and the ageing phones look positively ancient — incredible considering how last year's models bowled us all over upon their release. Aesthetically, the compromises made to shrink down the device are only slight. It's only once you start using the phone that the gap between it and the M8 widens.

Using It

I've always been a fan of HTC's Sense UI — for my money it's the best of the big manufacturer's Android re-workings. Building on a base of Android 4.4.2, the HTC One Mini 2 has Sense 6 installed — the best version of the company's skin to date, and worth a look even if you're a die-hard vanilla Android fan. Its pastel shades, typography and widgets are attractive and its additions are neither unwelcome nor an undue strain on the system.

The main point of differentiation from stock Android is the inclusion of BlinkFeed, a news and social networking aggregator that acts as a sixth homescreen, with an option to set it as the default one. If not set as the default, it's accessed by swiping in from the left of your main homescreen. Displayed in a vertically-scrolling, tile-like grid, it jams together posts from your Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn and Instagram contacts, alongside news stories. Unlike a standard RSS reader, you don't have free reign over which website sources are compiled here, and instead you have to pick from HTC's pre-determined range. Thankfully it's a generous selection of top-quality sites, and BlinkFeed is able to sensibly make suggestions on which ones to read based on your Facebook and Google+ likes. An offline reading option is also available.

That aside, it will all feel very familiar to users of stock Android. Software touchscreen Back and Home buttons and a Recent Apps multitasking button sit under a static array of four shortcut buttons. These can be assigned as you see fit, but are set as default as the camera app, web browser, messages and phone dialler. When unlocking the phone, dragging these icons up launches them quickly, while pulling the central lock icon unlocks the phone. Facial recognition, pattern recognition and pin number security options are also available. You can also instantly jump to the Google Now feature by long-pressing on the Home button and dragging upwards to launch it from anywhere on the phone, including the lock screen.

Once unlocked you'll find sitting between the four shortcuts a button to bring you to a vertically scrolling app drawer. Here you'll find any apps pre-installed on the phone (which is thankfully relatively free of bloat) plus anything you nab from the Google Play app store. It can be arranged in anyway you like, automatically sorted alphabetically or by most recently used apps, and can be searched too.

Long-pressing on any app icon in the drawer or blank homescreen space lets you customise any of as many as five homescreens. Apps can be arranged as you please by dragging them around, or placed into folders to make the most efficient use of the space. Widgets too can be added in this way, offering at-a-glance information direct from the homescreens. Pinching a homescreen gives you a quick overview of all of them at once, and is a great way to quickly set up homescreens as you'd like. BlinkFeed can be removed, though the space it leaves behind can't be used as another standard homescreen.

Slide down from the top of any screen and you can access your notifications, each of which can be dismissed with a swipe. A button in the top-right corner of the notifications view gives you speedy access to connectivity and battery-preserving settings such as screen brightness. Even this grid of quick-settings can be customised so that only the options you need are present. As you can see, Sense 6 gives you myriad options with which to arrange your device just to your liking.

The 1.2GHz quad-core processor handles itself respectably, and I was surprised to see the One Mini 2 quite capably taking on graphically-intense gaming apps like Dead Effect and GTA: Vice City without too much strain (GTA had some of its optional bells and whistles dialled back, admittedly). It was swapping between apps where the limitations of the Snapdragon 400 processor and 1GB of RAM became apparent though, with a notable pause present when moving from one app to the next once a handful were running in the background. Swiping through digital magazines had a similar effect, with the handset stuttering as it scrolled across pictures or swiped through pages. It's definitely a smoother overall experience than with the dual-core One Mini, but it's not blisteringly fast either — especially when placed side-by-side with the M8.

The HTC One Mini 2's 720p display isn't bad. OK, it's not as sharp or bright as the HTC One M8's 1080p display, and the size jump from the One Mini's 4.3-inch display to the 4.5-inch 720p screen used here means those pixels are less densely packed, making it slightly fuzzier than its predecessor. But it's a good size with accurate colours and wide viewing angles, perfect for sharing with a pal on a train. You'll be able to read long articles or books with ease, and it holds its own in bright sunlight too.

As a phone (because it still makes calls, of course), the HTC One Mini 2 is great — I experienced only one dropped call during my testing, in an area where sometimes I can't pick up any signal at all on my iPhone. Call quality is clear and loud too, a relief after having spent the last few months trying to strain my ears to hear calls on the iPhone 5. HTC's Sense UI has always been excellent at managing contacts, and it continues in that tradition here, pulling in details and relevant profile pictures from Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and your Google account to quickly populate the phone with your pals' and acquaintances' numbers and addresses.

Camera

HTC One Mini 2 Review: Premium Looks for Smaller Pockets

After wowing us with its Duo Camera on the HTC One M8, it's disappointing to see HTC revert back to a single rear sensor for the Mini One 2. That's hardly unexpected, considering the premium such a feature would add to what's designed as a more budget-friendly phone, but a shame nonetheless. Perhaps more interesting however is the decision to ditch HTC's UltraPixel system, in favour of a standard 13MP sensor. Depending on your stance on the UltraPixel system, that may or may not be a good thing (you can read all about the tech here), but it does leave the phone with a very different imaging system to its predecessors.

Other cuts include optical image stabilisation and the dual-tone flash, pulled back here to a regular LED flash. With the Duo Camera gone, you're also losing the cool depth-shifting post-processing bokeh effects and associated filters. 360 panorama shots also get downgraded to a sweep panorama option.

That's not to say that the photos the HTC One Mini 2 can capture are bad. They're just different from what you get from the UltraPixel models. For starters they are bigger, giving you 4224 x 2368 images (compared to the M8's 2688 x 1520) that are more suitable for cropping. Images captured are a little cooler too than the bold shots captured by an UltraPixel, which depending on your taste may be preferable too. However, it pales in comparison in low light shooting scenarios (not helped here at all by the single flash array), which often leads to less detailed shots.

You're given extensive control over how to set up your shots thanks to a generous selection of manual controls in HTC's own camera app. Everything from exposure to white balance to ISO level can be manually set, alongside a significant selection of Scene options. There's even an option to adjust the "Make Up" level for portrait shots, giving you silky-smooth, doll-like skin without the need to dive into Photoshop, as well as a wide range of Instagram-like filters. All these options can then be collated and saved as custom settings for you to quickly access later on. As for capturing methods, there are options to use the volume button to trigger the shutter, or a smile, while the 5MP front-facing camera has a selfie countdown timer. Throw in a 20-shot burst mode and you're left with a comprehensive offering.

The Zoe Camera app/gallery combo returns once again too, and is basically identical to its previous iterations. It lets you capture a short video clip along with your still photos. These then can automatically combine in the gallery to create Rocky-like montage clips, giving you a lively view that's not dissimilar to the newspapers in the Harry Potter movies.

Full HD video capture isn't bad either, and is backed by all the aforementioned manual controls as well as an optional focus lock. Clips can look a little shaky without a steady hand, but the produced videos are crisp and nicely coloured, performing and adapting particularly well when moving from one lighting condition to another mid-shot.

This Is Weird

But whatever way you cut it, the decision to drop the UltraPixel camera is a strange one. It's been central to the messaging of HTC's One series since the unveiling of the original HTC One, and the technology certainly has its benefits. While a Duo Camera may have been a tall order to expect from a more budget-friendly handset, the UltraPixel's complete omission is unexpected. If it could make its way into the original One Mini, why not here too? It would give some synergy to the line at the very least. It almost comes as an admission from HTC that a standard sensor is still "good enough", undoing the marketing work it's done with the other handsets, and acts as another lost point of differentiation against its mid-range rivals. It'd be interesting to know if any cost or supply chain issues have influenced the decision. But then again I'm speaking as a tech enthusiast — Joe Bloggs walking into a mobile store will see that 13MP compared to 4MP UltraPixels and assume that the former is greater than the latter, whether that's rightly or wrongly. In the numbers game, a standard sensor is an easier sell.

Tragic Flaw

What, other than the name? While the camera change has its pros and cons, it's a real shame to see that the Motion Launch gesture controls from the M8 had to be dropped. A number of motion tracking sensors have been cut from the One Mini 2 in order to keep costs down, which means that there are no longer tap-to-wake or swipe-to-launch app gestures. It also means that Fitbit fitness tracking integration is lost, as is support for any potential small-scale Dot View cover cases. While the HTC One Mini 2 won't need these features to be competitive against rivals in the price bracket it's aiming at, I sorely missed them nonetheless.

Test Notes

  • Even in smaller housing, the BoomSound speakers continue to impress. Though the stereo separation is unavoidably reduced due to the more compact frame, they sound richly detailed. They're not loud enough for a party, but they make movie viewing pleasant without the need for headphones. And while I'd never recommend being "That Guy at the Back of the Bus" blasting out tunes from a phone, it'd be far more palatable if the yoofs were doing so with speakers like these.
  • HTC's partnership with Google Drive continues with the HTC One Mini 2, meaning that anyone who picks up the phone can enjoy 50GB of cloud storage free for two years. With the One Mini 2 only coming in a 16GB configuration, it'll take the strain off the internal storage space while you hunt down a microSD card.
  • If your mobile is as much a toy for your kids as it is a vital communications device for you, you'll be pleased to hear that the HTC One Mini 2 sees the return of Sense 6's "Kid Mode". It locks them into their own separate space on the phone, keeping them from accessing the web, your emails or contacts or...sensitive pictures. It comes complete with a bunch of audio books and drawing tools, as well as a video messaging app whose recipients are determined by you. Age-appropriate gaming apps you have installed elsewhere can also be found here too, though my experience with the Kid Mode has seen it glitch at times, giving access briefly to other functions of the phone. Keep that in mind before letting your kids run wild with it.
  • More an Android issue than a Sense or HTC one, but facial recognition unlock still hates people that wear glasses. If you set up the security system, either commit to glueing your glasses to your face for all eternity, or never wear them again — it won't let you have it both ways.
  • That horrible clicking sound that occurs when flicking between photo capture modes returns from the M8. I'm used to it now, having played around with the flagship device long enough, but upon first hearing it you'd be forgiven for thinking something was going wrong with your speakers.
  • It gets hot, too. Run any intensive apps and you'll feel that aluminium backing get rather toasty. Not dangerously so, but those internals are obviously being pushed quite hard.
  • 4G LTE mobile download speeds are supported.
  • The 2,100mAh battery saw me beyond what I would consider an average day's worth of usage, consisting of a few lengthy calls, plenty of web browsing and email accessing, and some video and music streaming. That's not half bad and paired with the phone's "Extreme Power Saver" mode (turning off all non-vital functions), you'll easily squeeze even longer out of it. It's not quite as impressive as the One M8's 2,600mAh battery though — despite the One Mini 2's smaller screen size — which on conservative use would easily stretch to two days.
  • There's a little bit of cleaning up needed in some points of the interface — while it all runs smoothly enough, I noticed that turning on the Extreme Power Saving option still gave a warning that the "Pedometer" was being turned off too. It's a reference to fitness tracking features found in the flagship M8, missing from the One Mini 2. If you've got your conspiracy theory hat on, you could see that as a suggestion that perhaps the One Mini 2 was once going to more closely mirror the feature set of the M8. But it's more likely that someone simply didn't do their job thoroughly when preparing Sense 6 for the smaller device.

Should You Buy It?

That's a matter of where your expectations sit. If you were hoping for HTC to "do a Sony" by shrinking down the M8 and keeping the top-flight specs, just as Sony miniaturised its Xperia Z1 for the sublime Xperia Z1 Compact, you're out of luck. It may look like the M8 on the outside, but under the hood its considerably less exciting. That said, though pricing isn't yet confirmed, I'd be shocked to see the HTC One Mini 2 priced more expensively than the Z1 Compact, so you'll be getting what you pay for in that respect I would imagine.

But as an upgrade from the HTC One Mini (as the naming convention chosen by HTC suggests it should be seen as) it's a total success — the original One Mini's design looks archaic by comparison, and the responsive One Mini 2 is a step up at basically every point of the spec sheet.

What's set to be interesting however is if phone shops continue to stock the original HTC One (AKA, the M7). Its contract price could drop considerably — dropping to where I'd expect to see the HTC One Mini 2 enter at. With its 1080p display, speedy processor, Sense 6 UI upgrade and UltraPixel camera, it may be worth considering alongside the One Mini 2 — providing last year's industrial design doesn't put you off.

HTC One Mini 2 Specs

Price: TBC
Processor: Quad-core 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 400
Screen: 4.5-inch 1280 x 720
Memory: 1GB RAM
Storage: 16GB, with microSD expansion supported
Camera: 13MP rear camera, 5MP front camera, 1080p video
OS: Android 4.4.2 with HTC Sense 6.0 UI skin
Battery: 2,100mAh


HTC One Mini 2 Review: Premium Looks for Smaller Pockets

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