HTC’s fourth-quarter refresh of the One X is good, but is it good enough to keep you from waiting for the next tier of hardware?
When first holding an HTC One X+ (or any One device, for that matter) in your hand, it's hard to believe that the company has had such abysmal sales figures the past several quaters. It arguably has one of the best screens on the market, paired with an upgraded Tegra 3 processor and bumped up internal storage of 64GB. On top of all that, the device is downright gorgeous. It really does seem like it checks all the boxes.
The One X+ seems every bit a capable high-end device as its competition, much the same way as the original One X from earlier this year. Should it be considered as your next device? Read on and you may have a better idea if it's the right choice for you.
Some of the best hardware on the market, period. Design and screen are top-notch, backed up by a fast Tegra 3 processor and 64GB of unpartitioned storage. Camera produces great results with time and proper lighting, and acceptable ones in low light.
Whether you enjoy the visual flare or not, Sense is a bit bloated and maybe over-designed at this point in the game. AT&T really piles on the bloatware apps. LTE is blazingly fast if you have it in your area, but the price is paid in battery life.
Inside this review
For the most part, you’re looking at the same hardware specs here as the original One X. We’ve got the same beautiful 4.7-inch 720x1280 SuperLCD2 display up front, 8 megapixel BSI camera around back, 1GB of RAM and sealed polycarbonate shell holding it all together. Under the hood, HTC has taken the original One X and bumped things up in two notable spots -- processor and storage.
Instead of the Snapdragon S4 found in the original One X for AT&T, HTC has gone back to the Tegra 3 that was offered in the international version of the original. It’s an AP37 (the newer, faster unit) clocked at 1.7ghz -- it’s a worthy processor for this device. On the storage front, HTC has taken out all the stops and gone straight to 64GB of internal storage. There’s no SDcard here, and that’s just how it should be. It means that the One X+ has no partitions, and you have full access to every bit of storage -- except what's being used by the OS -- for any file type you want.
The One X+ feels as good as it looks, and to my eyes -- and hands -- that’s pretty darn great. Starting on the front of the device, you’re greeted by a drilled speaker grill -- with a fancy LED hidden in one hole -- at the top of the device with a front-facing camera to the right of it and AT&T logo underneath. The glass covering the screen is rounded off the edges gracefully, making it feel fantastic when swiping in from the bezels. The bottom of the screen is accented with three capacitive keys -- back, home and multitasking.
You’ll find the left side of the device has just a micro-USB port near the top of the side, and a volume rocker directly opposite it on the right. The bottom is clean, save for a pinhole microphone. The top of the One X+ is the busiest, and you’ll find a headphone jack, Micro SIM slot, power button and a secondary pinhole mic on it. The SIM is removed with a small tool (aka paperclip) like so many devices today, and seals up nicely as well. The best way to describe the button layout on the One X+ is “suboptimal at best.” No matter how you design it, a top-mounted power button just isn’t going to work on a device this large anymore. Also, the volume keys -- while nicely placed -- are almost impossible to reliably activate because they are so flush with the side of the phone. It makes me wonder if anyone at HTC actually tried to use the phone for an extended period of time before finalizing the design.
The back of the device is a smooth, single piece of black polycarbonate with a bit of a “soft touch” feel to it. The edges are all round, save for flattened spots on the sides and a recessed HTC logo in the middle of the back. The camera pod is raised up a few millimeters from the case, but the lens itself is recessed lower than the lip of the pod to save it from scratches when it sits on a table. There’s a single LED flash flanking the lens on the right side. Below the aforementioned HTC logo, you’ll find a small gray Beats logo and another finely drilled set of holes for the rear speaker. There are five “pogo pins” on the back for wireless charging docks.
One quick thing I find important to note is that there is only a single AT&T logo on the phone, and it’s the small one at the top of the device. I applaud HTC here for keeping the device nearly unscathed by carrier silkscreens, in a time where Verizon is completely bastardizing its devices.
I just can’t say enough good things about the hardware and design on the One X+. Quips about the button placement aside, the hardware is downright fantastic. The One X+ has a design that makes you not care about the physical dimensions of the device, because all that matters is how it fits in your palm and feels when you use it. There's often a tradeoff in design between beauty and ergonomics, and HTC has walked that line nicely with this device.
The solid polycarbonate construction and finely milled edges around the screen and buttons will make you shudder to think of going back to chintzy plastic handsets of other manufacturers. You’re going to really feel like you got what you paid for when you chose to get a high-end device like this.
Oh my, what a display.
You’ll read and hear a lot about HTC’s recent smartphone displays, but you really can’t appreciate it fully until you use one. The Super LCD2 panel really is an industry-leading screen that other manufacturers should be striving to beat (or even match.) The display is bright and crisp, with pixels that for all intents and purposes are invisible to the naked eye. It'd take a microscope to find jagged edges here.
The blacks aren't completely black, as is the one major downfall of LCD panels, but the color reproduction and brightness are so good I'm able to completely overlook that. The viewing angles are superb -- images don't distort or change colors even at angles that you'd never use the phone at. I have to give some credit for that to the laminated display, which puts the glass directly onto the screen, meaning there's no perceptible "gap" between the two.
This really is the best screen out there today.
You’ll find every expected radio in the device -- including but not limited to GPS, Bluetooth, accelerometer, gyroscope, compass and NFC. I’m also happy to report that unlike Samsung, HTC seems to have not messed around with Android Beam, the stock implementation of NFC. Putting the One X+ back-to-back with my Galaxy Nexus I was able to send pictures, contacts, apps, locations -- anything I could find -- between the devices. Annoyingly, there's a huge NFC status bar icon whenever you have NFC enabled. It seems unnecessary to have it there permanently considering you're likely to have NFC on 100-percent of the time.
The one radio issue I found with the One X+ is its handling of Wifi during sleep. Alex reported similar findings in both his One X and One X+ reviews, and I'm sad to say that the same issues are here as well. After an indeterminate amount of time with the screen off, the Wifi on the device will turn off also. This happens regardless of the Wifi sleep policy setting, and is quite annoying because not only is the device missing out on push notifications, but it's also using more data if it switches over to the mobile network when you're not expecting it to.
The One X+ runs on AT&T’s LTE network, which in my experiences feels almost unnaturally fast. Living in the suburbs of Seattle, I regularly saw 30 Mbps or higher download, and 15 Mbps or higher upload everywhere I went. Even in Seattle, right in the heart of downtown or inside high-rise buildings, I would see the same speeds as I would in the less populated areas. AT&T seems to have seriously over-engineered its network in this area (Seattle / Tacoma) because the speeds are pretty remarkable.
A nice perk of AT&T’s LTE implementation is that the step down from and up to LTE is completely seamless to the user. In areas where LTE coverage hasn’t perfectly rolled out -- like the rural suburbs -- you’ll often switch between “4G” (HSPA+) and “4G LTE” without even noticing. I’ll take a drop from LTE to HSPA+ over LTE to EVDO (as on Verizon and Sprint) any day of the week. Going from 30Mbps (LTE) to 8Mbps (HSPA+) isn’t as noticeable as you’d think, especially when it doesn’t take 30 seconds or more to make the transition.
I’m still not completely sold on the necessity of LTE on a phone while we live in a world of extremely expensive (and capped) data plans, but if you’ve come to terms with how much it’s going to cost you to own an LTE device and use large amounts of data, then you should be happy that the networks are available. And as I’ll discuss next, your wallet isn’t the only thing that will take a hit because you have an LTE device...
The One X+ bumps its battery size to 2100 mAh -- from 1800 -- but in my time with it I was still struggling to make a full day of normal usage. With my light usage I was able to push upwards of 12 hours before looking for an outlet, but with heavier use I saw closer 10 hours. I can compare this directly to my Galaxy Nexus (GSM) where 15 hours (3 hours screen-on) is normal, and I can push past 20 hours if I’m on Wifi. Even with the aggressive battery saving features in Sense, I still didn’t feel completely comfortable with how quickly the battery drained. At some point its really hard to understand why devices pack in so many features and specs when you can’t use it away from a wall charger for more than half a day.
Even with HTC's "power saver" mode turned on, which throttles back the processor, reduces the screen brightness, turns off vibration and turns of data when the screen is off (if you choose,) I saw no notable improvement in battery life. I appreciate that the option is there, but the fact that it is a persistent notification whether you've turned it on or not shows how self-conscious the device is about its battery drain. If you're going to pester me about the Power Saver mode 24/7, you might as well just make that the default setting and get rid of the notification. Users need to be able to make their own decisions about how to manage their devices, not be pestered every time they check their notifications to worry about their battery drain.
The combination of LTE data and the power draw of the screen really makes this device's battery life subpar overall. It’s late 2012, and we’re still faced with the tradeoff of battery life for LTE speeds.
Our own Alex Dobie gave a great walkthrough of HTC's implementation of Jelly Bean 4.1.1 and Sense 4+ on the One X+ available in Europe, and the software is nearly identical on the AT&T version:
This is the part of the review where the complete and utter praise starts to slow down a bit. I realize that software is such a personal choice -- there really is no "perfect" set of features -- but I just can't get into Sense. I think HTC deserves praise for being unapologetic about its design, creating software that feels holistically like "Sense," but that doesn't mean I have to like it. The best way to describe it is this: I've never been using stock Jelly Bean and said "you know what this could use? Random sweeping animations."
Unlike years past, HTC has some real competition in the form of stock Android since Ice Cream Sandwich was released. The manufacturer's latest hardware is absolutely top-notch, and I think a device this great deserves software just as high of quality -- and that isn't Sense 4+.
Launcher and interface
The Sense 4+ launcher is much the same as previous versions of Sense, but with quite a bit of the extra fluff taken out of it. Make no mistake though, this isn't anywhere near the stock Android launcher. Folders show a small grid of four icons, and open up horizontally. You still access widgets and customizations from a long-press on the homescreen -- a la Gingerbread -- but the dock is now a fixed 5-slot setup. The 4 apps of your choosing in the dock are now also accessible from the lockscreen by dragging them into the unlock ring, which is a handy feature. The app drawer is horizontally paginated, and categorized into 3 tabs at the bottom -- all, frequent and downloads. From the Menu key you can sort different ways as well as hide apps you can't uninstall.
HTC's continued reliance on hardware capacitive navigation buttons causes some issues with navigation when compared to the on-screen variety offered on Nexus (and some Motorola) devices. To access Google Now, a long-press on the Home button is in order, and the multitasking button now serves double duty.The most common setup will likely be a single press of the button for Multitasking, and a long press for Menu. If you prefer, you can change the actions in settings to reverse the short- and long-press actions, or have it give you a software Menu key when applicable.
Speaking of Multitasking, I have to put HTC's implementation in the "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" category. Instead of simply overlaying small previews of apps on the current homescreen, you're taken into a separate interface to view your most recent apps in a diagonal card-like view. The cards are difficult to scroll accurately, and the extra time spent going in and out of Multitasking really defeats the purpose of having a fast app switching interface.
The One X+ Is a shining example of how much carrier bloatware can fit onto one device. At first boot, I went through and disabled 8 different AT&T apps, from “AT&T Code Scanner” to “YPmobile”, and hid another 7 in the app drawer that couldn’t be disabled. It is absolutely baffling to me that on such high end devices we’re still subject to this useless software.
On the HTC side, Sense is loaded up with its own set of apps with questionable usability. You’ll see Facebook and Twitter pre-loaded, along with a whole host of others such as HTC Watch, Notes and Task Manager. Most of these are generally useful -- unlike AT&T's apps -- but don't really need to be included on every handset. Much like the AT&T apps, most of these can't be uninstalled.
It’s a blessing that Android 4.x has implemented the disabling of pre-installed apps, and that there are launchers that can hide the rest, but that’s still no excuse for loading so much trash on our devices. These apps have a place, and it is in the Google Play store where willing users can download them at their own discretion.
Performance and usability
While using the device daily, I very rarely found anything that would result in hiccups or stutters. It does say something about the heft of Sense when you can actually find something that does give the system a big of lag though. Leaving apps and quickly interacting with the homscreen will sometimes lead to jarring stutters. The new Tegra processor really screams when you're playing Tegra-optimized games, but it still does just as well with "regular" apps and games as well.
As we saw on the original One X, HTC is still doing some pretty aggressive killing of apps in the background to free up RAM. This of course helps with smoothness in the launcher but has the side effect of causing many apps to reload, even though they've only been closed for a short amount of time. In a quest for free RAM, HTC has generally ruined the idea of Android multitasking. My Galaxy Nexus can handle multiple apps with 1GB RAM, there's no reason why this device can't as well. I would almost be able to forgive it if there was no lag to be found on the device, but as I note above this just isn't the case. It seems like a lose-lose proposition.
With the combination of a high quality 8MP BSI (Backside Illuminated) sensor and extra ImageSense chip, the One X+ is capable of extremely nice photos. I say "capable" because just like any other camera (phone or otherwise), just pointing it at a subject and pressing the shutter isn't always going to give you mind-blowing results. Generally though, the results of random snapshots are acceptable, and you rarely get a picture that's so bad you'll have to retake it. The camera struggles a bit with focusing in low-light, as would be expected for a sensor so small, but I'd venture to say it performs better than other phones in similar conditions. Shots don't turn out grainy, but rather just blurry because of missed focus. In great lighting, the camera performs phenomenally. Even in auto mode, shots were crisp and clear in these situations.
An HDR (High Dynamic Range) mode is included, and it works, but it can often over-process and saturate pictures. I'm a fan of HDR when it's subtle, but many of the HDR photos I took turned out too overblown. Panorama is included here as well, and works about the same as stock Android 4.x -- with all of the same issues. The panoramas captured quickly, but fell victim to the same stitching and blur problems I see on other devices running stock Jelly Bean.
A great feature of the camera is the "continuous shooting" mode, which lets you just hold down the shutter as long as you want, capturing 20 photos sequentially by default. You're then given a filmstrip view of the pictures where you can select the best shot and delete the rest. It works fantastically with the fast shutter speed, and you get shots you may not otherwise have held onto.
The camera auto-focuses quickly, but unfortunately you can't long-press the shutter key to lock focus and exposure. Instead, you're stuck tapping the screen to focus. At first I assumed that if you turned off continuous shooting that you'd be able to use the shutter key to focus, but that turned out not to be the case. This is the one part of the camera app that could use some re-working.
The camera interface is as good as you'd ever want on a phone, with common image adjustments such as ISO, exposure and white balance at the ready. There are also quick toggles to different shooting scenes under the settings menu (but I wouldn't recommend them.) You can shoot pictures or video without changing modes -- a nice touch -- as well as take pictures while shooting video.
The One X+ shoots video at 1080P, and offers digital image stabilization -- which is on by default. The video looks pretty good, but digital stabilization can only do so much. Rest the phone on something and the results will improve dramatically over free-handing it.
The front-facing camera works as well as it should for those occasional self portraits. By default, the shutter is tied to a 2 second timer, which is nice to help with positioning the phone for a blur-free shot.
HTC includes a standard charging brick and USB cable in the box, both of which look like every other HTC power brick and USB cable the company has ever shipped. It may just be my devices, but the cable seemed to fit extremely snugly into USB sockets. Several times it took 2 hands -- one to brace the device and one to pull the cable -- to safely remove it from computers and wall sockets.
Also included in the box is a really nice metal SIM tray removal tool, which you’ll promptly lose in a couch cushion somewhere and find 3 years later.
There's no denying that HTC is eating every other manufacturer's lunch on hardware with the One X+. Unfortunately, the software setup on the device can be off-putting to some, and it really doesn't do the wonderful hardware justice. I sound like a broken record saying this about every device, but the One X+ would downright be a better choice if it were running the same software as a Nexus. I could easily consider this is as my secondary device simply from the standpoint of the hardware, data speeds and camera performance, but the one part of the phone I interact with the most -- the software -- keeps it in the second-place spot to even my Galaxy Nexus.
If Sense is your cup of tea, then there really is no better choice for a smartphone on AT&T right now. The HTC One X+ checks all of the boxes on hardware, performance and specs -- and looks damn good doing it. That's something the other manufacturers just haven't figured out yet.