Originally published on CE: The Magazine, June 22, 2012.
Of all the companies out there making Android phones, I have always admired HTC. Back in the days of Android 1.0 and 2.0, HTC Sense was truly a breath of fresh air. Sense brought beauty to an operating system which was sorely lacking in that department. Not only did HTC innovate with their software design, but their hardware was top notch too! I remember ogling the original HTC Hero when it was unveiled, and dropping my jaw at its stunningly beautiful successor, the HTC Legend.
Then things got a little out of control. HTC started releasing new phones left and right, at a pace that not even an Olympic sprinter could keep up with. These phones were all extremely similar, just rebranded or repackaged for a regional carrier.
Even HTC admitted that they got carried away with device launches in 2011, and they promised that 2012 would see a smaller flagship line of phones launch across the globe. I was so happy to see them fulfill this promise at Mobile World Congress this year with the launch of the “One” line; a family of three phones consisting of the low-end One V, mid-range One S, and powerhouse, top-of-the-line One X.
Today I’m taking a look at the HTC One X, the matriarch of the One family. As HTC’s flagship superphone for 2012, the One X has to stand out as “the phone to buy” in a market largely over-saturated with Android phones. So, is the One X deserving of this title? Is this the best Android phone available? Let’s find out.
Hardware & Design
The HTC One X definitely starts out strong: this is one of the most beautiful phones I have ever used. In fact, I prefer this design to both the iPhone 4S and the Lumia 900 which I reviewed last month.
The One X is constructed from a unibody polycarbonate shell that feels extremely durable. The back features a matte, soft-touch finish, while the edges are smooth and polished. The entire body of the phone is actually curved, as are the edges of the glass display, which makes the phone really comfortable to hold in hand or against your face while on a call. It has a very smooth, ergonomic feel, which I really like. It was a pleasant change from the sharp, straight edges of my daily driver, the iPhone 4S.
A gorgeous 4.7” HD Super LCD display dominates the front of the device. While the One X is a really big phone (measuring 134.8 x 69.9 mm), it doesn’t feel huge in hand. It does, however, feel pretty bulky when you slip it in your pocket. Despite it’s large footprint, the One X is very thin and lightweight, measuring just 8.9mm thick, and weighing in at just 130g. It’s a wonder that HTC managed to pack everything they did into a phone this thin and light.
Simply put, this hardware is superb! I can’t think of a single complaint to make against this design. It looks great, and it feels great. The HTC One X is definitely one of my favourite smartphones when it comes to design.
Internals & Display
Once again I’ll keep things simple: I am in love with the gorgeous 4.7” display on the One X. The display is bright, vivid, and the quality is remarkable! This is a 1280 x 720 display at 4.7” inches, putting the pixel density well within Retina territory at 312.5ppi. While the iPhone does have a higher pixel density, the difference is virtually indistinguishable. To the naked eye, the One X screen looks super crisp, and you can’t discern individual pixels. This is a killer display, definitely on par with the industry leading Retina display on the iPhone.
I also really like the added screen real estate that the 4.7” display provides. Browsing the web, reading and responding to emails, and keeping up with Twitter is really enjoyable on a large yet still pocketable display. The only downside of having such a large touchscreen is that it can be difficult to use with one hand. While I expressed similar concerns with the Lumia 900’s 4.3” display, the one-handed problem really becomes evident with the extra large 4.7” display on the One X. It’s nearly impossible to reach across the screen with just one thumb, so at times you will need to use your other hand.
One other minor complaint I have about the display is that some colours appear too bright. This is particularly evident in games like Draw Something, in which colours appear visibly more “neon” when compared to iOS. I also noticed this at times in the web browser or when viewing photos.
The One X is packing some future-proof internals. The North American LTE variant runs on a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm MSM8960 processor and 1GB of RAM. All of that adds up to a phone that screams! I didn’t notice any serious issues with performance, save for some minor lag when loading widgets on the home screens. While some may find themselves envious of the quad-core Tegra 3 found in the international variant, a 1.5GHz dual-core SoC is still cutting edge, and future-proof enough that the phone won’t feel slow anytime soon.
Internal storage is limited to 16GB, with no microSD slot for expansion. HTC has partnered with Dropbox to offer One X buyers 25GB of storage free for 1 year, which unfortunately won’t be of much help if you need extra room for apps or multimedia.
HTC is touting Beats Audio integration as a selling point for their smartphones these days, but I don’t understand why. It’s nothing more than a gimmick, offering no real enhancement to audio coming from the built-in speaker or through your own headphones. Perhaps this would prove useful if you actually have a pair of Beats headphones? I’m not enough of an audiophile to own a pair.
At the introduction of the One series, HTC touted a number of camera improvements that together they call “ImageSense”, which does present an innovative software experience for photo taking. Photo and Video buttons are integrated into the same viewfinder, so you don’t need to toggle a switch or change camera modes. Press the shutter button to take a still, or the video button to shoot video. You can even press the shutter button while shooting a video to take a still shot without interrupting your recording. ImageSense also features zero shutter lag for near instantaneous capture of still shots. The insanely fast shutter did lead to a few problems with motion blur, but most of the time worked really well.
While the camera software is top-notch, image quality isn’t a game changer. Don’t get me wrong: photo quality was good, comparable with most high-end smartphone cameras these days. Indoor shots were clear and detailed, while outdoor shots were bright and vibrant. Likewise, 720p video capture resulted in good quality video with a smooth frame rate. On the other hand, low-light shots appeared visibly grainy and discolored in spots, so you will still need to rely on the built-in flash from time to time.
Overall, the One X packs a good camera for a smartphone, but it won’t be replacing your point-and-shoot. For a closer look at the camera, check out these uncompressed test shots taken with the HTC One X.
To be honest, my experiences with Android in the past have been less than stellar. I always found the OS to be slow and filled with lag and jitter. I was worried that the One X would suffer from some of these performance deficiencies as well. I’m pleased to say that these Android performance fears were squashed by the One X.
As I mentioned before, the 1.5GHz dual-core processor inside the One X is more than capable of powering the software. Sense 4.0 was generally very fast and zippy, with almost no lag or stutter to speak of. There were a few times when I encountered some home screen lag directly after unlocking, though I suspect this was caused by the number of widgets I had running at the time.
Games run really well on the One X as well, very smooth and responsive. Unlike the Lumia 900, games feel “native” on Android, and I encountered no stutter or lag.
In terms of call quality, the One X performed admirably. The built-in earpiece produced clear, loud audio during calls, and reception on Rogers’ network was always solid. Exactly what you expect from a modern smartphone. The external speaker was a little quiet, and its placement is quite odd; it is located on the back of the device near the bottom. I found that my hand would cover the speaker when holding the phone, muffling the audio. Likewise, setting the phone down on its back covers the speaker and distorts the audio.
Battery life was good on the One X. Most of the time the phone would last through a full day of mild use, though I did notice that the battery seems to drain at a consistent pace even on standby. You’ll notice that the screenshot on the right confirms that the 720p display of the One X is a serious battery hog, topping the list by a wide margin. As with most smartphones, the One X will need to be charged every night.
Android really has come a long way since the last time I tried it; it feels a lot more polished and responsive than it used to. HTC has also taken steps to tone down Sense with this latest incarnation, Sense 4.0, which looks fairly similar to stock Android.
Ice Cream Sandwich with Sense 4.0 is very smooth and responsive, which is probably the most important thing for me. I hate encountering lag when trying to do something simple like scroll through a list or zoom into a webpage. Luckily, Android 4.0 handles all of these tasks with ease.
While previous versions of Sense were actually nicer looking than stock Android, Google stepped up their game with Ice Cream Sandwich. The role of Android skins has diminished, and luckily HTC has acknowledged that with Sense 4.0, which has been severely toned down compared to previous versions. Sense 4.0 is a very unobtrusive skin that looks like a slightly skinned version of stock ICS. The home screen dock is much better than the old Sense dock, providing 4 user customizable shortcut icons and a button to launch the app drawer. These 4 icons also appear on the lock screen, providing a convenient way to jump right into those apps. Speaking of, I really like the Sense 4.0 lock screen as well. HTC’s unlock ring is really unique, and users can also choose from a number of lock screen themes that will display weather, stocks, or even photos.
The software works well, looks nice, and there are no major problems with Sense 4.0 or Android. Though I was very impressed by the software on the One X, I do have some small complaints as well.
In some places, HTC’s Sense 4.0 skin does clash with Google’s Holo design of Ice Cream Sandwich. Google’s stock apps utilize the Holo design language, which doesn’t match HTC’s Sense aesthetic. There are aspects of the operating system that HTC has skinned for seemingly no reason. The Sense 4.0 icons look cartoony and out of place next to the default Android icons, and HTC’s re-skinned checkboxes are hard to see and difficult to press. Another needless change that HTC made with Sense 4.0 was re-skinning the Ice Cream Sandwich multitasking tray. Sense 4.0’s task switcher only shows one app on-screen at a time, and I found the horizontal scrolling awkward and sometimes difficult to land on the app you want.
A particularly sore spot for me was the Sense keyboard, which I really didn’t like. Some keys, such as the Numbers key, were oddly placed compared to other software keyboards. In iOS, stock ICS, and even Windows Phone, the Numbers key is located at the bottom left of the keyboard, but HTC put their number key at the bottom right. I also found the space bar to be too small, and I often missed it when I was typing. HTC also saw fit to include a row of navigational keys for some reason; perhaps had they removed those they could have made a larger space bar. These seemingly minor annoyances really screwed up my typing speed and productivity. Looking back, I wish I had installed a stock ICS keyboard from Google Play, which could have fixed all of these problems.
Another text-related issue came when trying to summon the text cursor or select a misspelled word to correct it, neither of which I ever figured out how to do. In iOS, if you’ve misspelled a word, you simply double-tap the word, it gets highlighted, and you can then change it. I could never figure out the proper way to do this in Sense 4.0, so most of the time I ended up frantically tapping the text area hoping a cursor or highlight would appear somewhere.
I had a very pleasant app experience with the One X. I always assumed that the iOS App Store was ahead of Google Play, but I found that be largely untrue. Browsing through Google Play, it looked very similar to the App Store, in that many of the same apps and games were present. I tried out a bunch of apps, namely social apps like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, which all worked really well. Scrolling was smooth, loading times were quick, and feature wise they are on-par with their iOS counterparts. I also quickly replaced HTC’s reskinned Android Browser with Google’s Chrome Beta, a far superior choice both in terms of usability and functionality.
The gaming experience on the One X was great as well. I played Angry Birds Space, Cut The Rope, Draw Something, and Fruit Ninja, to name a few. Games ran super smooth and felt like native games, as opposed to the emulator-like games I encountered on the Lumia 900. Though, interestingly enough, one of my favourite gaming experiences on the One X was Pokémon Yellow running on the GBC A.D. GameBoy Color emulator. That’s one thing I wish the App Store had.
As a whole, the software experience on the HTC One X was great. Everything was super smooth and responsive, which are the biggest positives in my eyes. Sense 4.0, while toned down, still goes too far in unnecessarily skinning the OS. HTC’s apps and widgets don’t match Google’s stock Ice Cream Sandwich design language, leading to a veritable mish mash of UI styles. HTC is on the right track with Sense, though, so perhaps we will see an even more refined version next year in Sense 5.0. For now, the underlaying Android experience is really good, which outweighs most of the negatives of Sense.
It isn’t hard to judge a phone that flirts so closely with perfection. The One X is packaged in a beautiful body that looks fantastic and feels great to hold. Performance-wise the phone screams, with little to no stutter or lag to report of anywhere. The cameras take decent pictures, though nothing mind-blowing. Android has really matured as an operating system, and despite being somewhat held back by Sense 4.0, most of the issues I had with the software were cosmetic, things that could easily be changed with a replacement app, keyboard, or launcher.
In short, I loved the HTC One X. To answer my own question, the One X deserves the title of “best Android phone available”. This is the one to buy. Whether you’re looking for a new Android phone specifically, or a new smartphone in general, I have no qualms about recommending the HTC One X.