Six months on from the One X, a turbo-charged successor arrives
After a tumultuous year, HTC needs to score some big wins this holiday season. Many critics, including ourselves, have been full of praise for its HTC One series, led by the venerable One X. But every passing quarter seems to bring depressingly familiar news for the Taiwanese manufacturer -- record sales and profits for Android rival Samsung, and tumbling revenues for HTC.
On the Windows Phone side, the HTC 8X -- a great handset by any standard -- looks set to make a big impact in the coming weeks. But what of Android? Well, as the year draws to a close, HTC is hoping to put the One series back in the spotlight with a revamped high-end offering, the One X+. On paper it’s a tantalizing proposition -- one of our favorite early 2012 phones re-imagined in a soft touch polycarbonate shell, with a larger battery, a faster CPU and Android 4.1 Jelly Bean out of the box.
But as HTC knows, specs alone have never been enough to guarantee a device’s success. Today the One X+ is but a drop in a sea of quad-core, 720p Androids, The high-end mobile space is a lot more crowded than it was back in March, when we reviewed the original One X.
And speaking of that device, what does the One X+ mean for those who’ve already invested in the HTC One series?
Answers to all these questions, and many more, are waiting in our full review of the HTC One X+. Read on.
The One X+ offers superlative build quality, capacious storage, a gorgeous screen and Jelly Bean out of the box. HTC Sense continues to shine as one of the more attractive and visually cohesive Android UIs. Photo quality is every bit as good as the original One X, and gaming performance benefits from the faster Tegra 3 CPU.
Battery life, though improved, remains far from ideal. Wifi software bugs from the One X remain. On-contract availability is limited to O2, and SIM-free prices are high. There’s no European LTE option at present.
For all intents and purposes, it’s still an HTC One X we’re dealing with here. The hardware improvements are welcome, but offer questionable value compared to the original One X, which is now heavily discounted online. In addition, the software refinements in Sense 4+ will be making their way to the older handsets shortly. With limited on-contract availability and strong competition from elsewhere, the One X+ won’t be a runaway success. But if you want the best HTC Android phone around, and don’t mind paying a pretty penny to get it, this is the one for you.
Inside this review
Externally, the One X+ is the spitting image of its predecessor -- just like the original, it packs a 4.7-inch screen encased in a polycarbonate shell. The texture of the outer casing has changed dramatically, though. It’s now finished with a soft touch coating as opposed to plain old polycarbonate -- that is to say very fancy plastic versus regular fancy plastic. The glossy trim around the edge of the device is also gone, resulting in a consistent texture all the way around the phone. The different -- we’d argue improved -- finish gives a grippier, slightly rubberized feel, and makes it less obvious that the One X+ is essentially a lump of polycarbonate with a screen bolted to the front. The One X+ every bit as ergonomic as the earlier One X models, and in our opinion the new soft touch chassis actually improves things in this area.
A look around the hardware reveals some more cosmetic differences -- red accents adorn the three capacitive buttons, as well as the rear camera lens, and there’s a new, shinier HTC logo on the rear. Given that the device is almost pitch black, a little color here and there is welcome. In particular, the darkened front and red buttons give the face of the phone a bolder aesthetic.
Despite the external changes, button and ports remain in the same places as before -- volume along the right, microUSB on the left, and a headphone jack and microSIM tray up top besides the power button. (And yes, it can still be problematic to press this on your first try.)
The One X+'s internals have undergone a more comprehensive overhaul. The phone is powered by a 1.7GHz quad-core NVIDIA Tegra 3 CPU -- the newer, more efficient AP37 chip -- with 1GB of RAM and a whopping 64GB of internal storage. That’s double what the original (international) One X offered, and so much that the lack of removable storage becomes a non-issue in our opinion. The battery capacity, too, sees a bump up to 2100mAh, from the original’s 1800mAh unit.
With the exception of its snazzy red trim, the rear camera assembly remains unchanged from the One X -- it’s an 8MP unit with an f/2.0 lens and BSI sensor, paired with HTC’s ImageChip/ImageSense technology. The front-facing camera has undergone some minor upgrades, though. It’s now a 1.6MP shooter, and has the ability to use the ImageChip just like the rear camera. There have also been some software improvements specific to the front-facing camera, which we’ll get to later in the review.
Elsewhere, the rear speaker has been upgraded with a built-in amplifier, which results in clearer, less tinny playback.
Then there’s the screen -- and what a screen it is. It hasn’t changed since we last saw it on the One X, but it didn’t really need to. HTC’s optically-laminated 720p SuperLCD2 panel remains among the best on any smartphone. It’s bright, and crisp, with near-perfect viewing angles, flawless daylight visibility and colors that are vivid without being oversaturated. The only downside here is the amount of battery power it’s prone to guzzling -- even with a larger battery on-board, extended periods of screen-on time will quickly take their toll on your available juice. The One X+'s larger battery does make battery drain less of an issue this time around.
In the UK, the One X+ ships with 3G/HSPA connectivity, including support for 42Mbps DC-HSDPA downloads. Despite its touted dual-cell capabilities, we found that the One X+ tended to max out at around 10Mbps down and 3Mbps up, compared to the maximum of 19 down and 5 up we’ve on handsets like the Xperia T. That’s probably going to be fast enough for most users, but it’s something to bear in mind if you want the very highest HSPA data speeds available. In Europe, the One X+ is sold without 4G support, though in the U.S. it’ll run on AT&T’s LTE network. For the purposes of this review, we’ll be talking about our experiences using the One X+ on Three UK’s DC-HSDPA network.
Although the One X+ doesn’t support the fancy new HD Voice standard, calls came through loud and clear without any distortion. We found that signal strength was comparable to other leading smartphones, and we experienced no “death grip” issues during normal use. On the Wifi side, you’ve got 802.11 a/b/g/n connectivity, including support for 2.4 and 5GHz networks.
Additionally, the phone boasts full USB host support, including the ability to connect mass storage and input device. It’s a niche feature, but for those who want to plug in memory sticks, mice or keyboards through USB OTG, you’ll find the One X+ fully functional in this area. Of course, you'll need the correct cable to be able to plug stuff into the phone, but in our experience, the One X+'s USB host features worked just as well as any other phone's.
So we’re looking at minor changes across the board, but in spite of all the fancy hardware under the hood, the one hardware improvement we’ve been enjoying the most is the new soft touch chassis. It gives the phone a classy, luxurious feel, much like its Windows Phone counterpart, the 8X.
Unfortunately, one of our pet peeves with earlier HTC One phones has reared its head again in the One X+ -- after a certain amount of time sleeping, the phone would lose all data connections, leaving us without any Wifi or cellular data to use with background tasks. Worse still, it does so silently without any notification, only to re-establish its connections once powered on. HTC has already resolved this issue on the One X and One S, so a fix should be coming for the One X+ too, but we were disappointed to find that niggles like this remain on the newer handset.
HTC One X+ specs
Battery life was a major concern for the original Tegra 3-powered One X (not to be confused with the S4-toting AT&T One X). And with a more efficient CPU onboard, coupled with a larger-capacity battery, you’d expect an improvement in longevity.
We found the One X+ managed to go longer between charges than its predecessor, but the difference wasn’t as striking as we’d expected. It’s still possible to deplete the battery in around six hours of heavy use, and if you’re relying on mobile data with lots of screen-on time, you might want to think about a mid-day charge.
As our usage patterns normalized, we found we were getting through the day with a reasonable amount of juice remaining. A typical day of mostly Wifi-connected usage would leave us with a little under 50 percent remaining in the can. With lighter use, we'd manage up to 18 hours on a single charge, thanks to the phone's efficiency while asleep with the screen off.
So it’s an improvement in battery performance, but an improvement from unacceptable to adequate. We'd still feel a little uneasy about gaming or tethering on the One X+ for extended periods.
The HTC One X+ runs Android 4.1.1 and the latest version of the HTC Sense UI, dubbed Sense 4+. Superficially, not a whole lot has changed since Sense 4 made its debut back in the spring. It's still one of the more attractive Android UIs, on account of HTC's consistent design language, and the fact that the manufacturer has designed around Android, rather than on top of it.
We've been over HTC Sense before in exhaustive detail, in our reviews of the One X and One S, not to mention our full guide to Sense 4. So here we're going to concentrate on what's new in Sense 4+. For those unfamiliar with HTC's user interface, you can expect pretty, full-featured software across the board, including excellent camera, calendar and email apps and 25GB of free Dropbox space.
For the full picture, you'll want to head on over to our definitive Sense 4 guide, which covers HTC's UI in great depth.
Being based on Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, the One X+ gains a substantial performance improvement thanks to Android's "Project Butter" enhancements , resulting in noticeably smoother screen transitions and touch responses. Performance is also helped along by the phone's faster CPU, with the One X+ pushing ahead of other Tegra 3-powered handsets in demanding games like Need for Speed: Most Wanted.
Jelly Bean also brings the new Google Search app with the "Google Now" predictive search feature, which can be activated by long-pressing the home key. There's a redesigned notification area too, complete with expandable notifications, and HTC hasn't strayed too far from stock Jelly Bean in its notification setup -- the whole area is kept pretty clean and clear, without any extraneous buttons or sliders.
Well... almost. There's a "power saver" bar which persists at all times, allowing you to switch between regular and low-power modes. While features like this are usually a good idea, having this bar present at all times in the notification area is not. It's easy to ignore, but we'd prefer a way to disable it entirely. Ideally, we don't want to worry about power management. At the very least, we don't need a constant reminder up there with our notifications.
Beats Audio software enhancements are included in the One X+, and unlike earlier versions of Sense, there are just two settings for the bass-boosting, volume-enhancing feature this time around -- on, and off. As ever, Beats kicks into action when you're using headphones with any multimedia app, and it works flawlessly with streaming services like YouTube and Google Play Music, as well as the built-in HTC music player. Beats isn't everyone's cup of tea, but we'd urge you to at least give it a fair shot. You might want to use your own headphones with the One X+, though, as the earphones provided with the device are pretty basic.
Several of the bundled HTC apps have undergone some minor changes in Sense 4+, adding new features beyond the basics of stock Android. The gallery app, for instance, can now display photos from Dropbox, Facebook, Picasa and other locations, in addition to locally-stored pictures. And when you’re viewing photos on your phone, you can choose to browse based on folder, or event, and Sense will automatically catalog your stuff depending on how and where it’s taken. Collections of photos can also be viewed on a world map, allowing you to keep track of exactly where you were when you took particular shots.
There's a new, redesigned HTC Watch application too, giving One X+ owners access to HTC's TV and movie library, along with handy links to other streaming apps like YouTube, ESPN and Eurosport. HTC Watch 2.0 looks prettier, thanks to its new image-centric design, however it struggles to offer the breadth of titles available through Google Play Movies. That said, TV content is available outside of the U.S., which is more than can be said for Google's service at the time of writing. Price-wise, HTC Watch tracks Google Play pretty closely -- in the UK, you'll pay around £4 for a rental and £10 to purchase recent titles.
The One X+ also includes the new HTC "Best Deals" app, which for the moment is exclusive to Europe. This is a Groupon-like service that shows you various kinds of money-saving deals based on your location. Of course, how useful this is to you will depend on the deals currently on offer, as well as where you live and your own individual tastes. For what it's worth, Best Deals came up with a few dozen deals in our local area across various categories. If this sounds too much like bloatware for your liking, it's possible to disable it under Settings > Apps.
HTC’s revamped the setup procedure in Sense 4+, with the new service called “Get Started." This allows you to add apps, accounts and personal data to your device via the web, and you can even do this before you buy your phone, if you want. Once you’ve got the device in hand, you can then pull all your settings, apps and other stuff down from HTC’s servers using your Sense account. The whole procedure worked well for us, and could offer some relief from the tedium of entering countless usernames and passwords on a virtual keyboard.
We've walked through HTC's "Get Started" service in more detail in this blog post.
The rear camera is the same setup found on the original One X -- there’s a 8MP BSI (backside illuminated) sensor behind a 28mm f/2.0 lens, backed up by HTC’s ImageChip tech. Stills captured on the One X+ look every bit as good as the original -- that’s to say they’re placed towards the high end of what you can expect from a cellphone camera. Shots are captured almost instantly using the on-screen controls, and the shutter button can be held down to launch into fast-capture mode, which can take up to 20 shots in quick succession.
Generally speaking, images tend to be sharp and clear, and the dynamic range was superior to what we’ve seen from many Samsung phone cameras, though at small cost in overall brightness and vividness. In addition, we’ve achieved some excellent macro shots on the One X+, particularly outdoors. Low-light performance is decent too, although you’ll need to hold the phone very still for best results. Usefully, there’s a dedicated night mode that helps out a little in this area.
Other camera features include a familiar array of real-time filters, ISO and exposure options, as well as HDR and panorama modes -- all stuff we’re acquainted with from earlier HTC One phones. We were slightly disappointed that there wasn’t an easier way to access some of the more commonly-used settings, like scenes and focus modes, as there’s certainly plenty of visual real estate for another on-screen button. Regardless, HTC’s camera app is among the best on any Android phone, and we can’t argue with the images it allowed us to capture.
The front-facing camera, has undergone some improvements in the One X+, being bumped up to a 1.6MP sensor and gaining the ability to use the built-in ImageChip. There’s also a helpful countdown timer when shooting self portraits, allowing you plenty of time to get into your best duckface pose.
Similarly, HTC has a new feature it calls “sightseeing mode” in Sense 4+. This allows you to lock the screen while in the camera app, and jump back into it upon unlock, bypassing the lock screen entirely. It’s a great way to avoid unnecessary clicks and taps if you’re out and about shooting photos.
Video performance, too, is about equal to that of the One X, allowing recording at 1080p resolution with up to 30 frames per second. A quick note on video, though -- we experienced some software issues with low bit rates and over-compression of video on our One X+ running pre-release software. However, after testing video recording on a second One X+ running finalized software, we're confident this problem has been solved in the final firmware.
So it's pretty much smooth sailing with video on the One X+ -- 1080p footage recorded on retail units looks about as good as output from the original One X. The usual array of video features is supported, including the ability to capture stills and video simultaneously.
HTC One X+ hackability
If you buy a carrier-unlocked One X+, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to crack it open via HTC’s bootloader unlock site at HTCDev.com. After unlocking, you’ll be able to flash a recovery image and get started with custom ROMs, if you’re into that sort of thing.
The hardware similarities between the One X and One X+ should make the porting of ROMs relatively easy. Though as with any new handset, eager ROM flashers may need to wait a few weeks for the pace of development to pick up. In the meantime, at least you’ll be running Jelly Bean-based stock software.
Overall, the One X+ is a worthy successor to HTC’s earlier flagship, though one that arrives at a tricky time for the Taiwanese company. OG One X owners might be disappointed to see refreshed hardware arriving so soon, although we’d argue that there’s no killer feature of the One X+ to justify an upgrade from a One X. In the Android world, the imminent launch of the much cheaper, but similarly spec’d Nexus 4 may tempt buyers away from the One X+. In fact, the Nexus 4 may be the One X+’s greatest adversary in some territories, as the Nexus’ SIM-free starting price comes in at less than half that of the One X+.
Elsewhere, the newly-launched iPhone 5 and Windows Phone 8 will have a larger slice of the consumer mindshare in the weeks ahead. (Though as the manufacturer of WP8’s signature handset, HTC doesn’t necessarily lose out if phone buyers opt for the latter.)
None of that changes the fact that the One X+ is a really great phone, and one that checks just about every box for us, excelling in areas of performance, build quality, display quality and camera capabilities. It has the Samsung Galaxy S3 conclusively beaten in just about every area -- though remember that the S3 is now a half a year old.
In spite of the Wifi bugs we've mentioned in this review, the One X+ offers an consistent, attractive user experience. While some may disagree, we still have a soft spot for HTC Sense, and Sense 4+ adds some useful new features without mixing things up too much.
But let’s not lose perspective. For all intents and purposes, it’s still an HTC One X we’re dealing with here. The hardware improvements are welcome, but offer questionable value compared to the original One X, which is now heavily discounted online. In addition, the software refinements in Sense 4+ will be making their way to the older handsets shortly. With limited on-contract availability and strong competition from elsewhere, the One X+ won’t be a runaway success. But if you want the best HTC Android phone around, and don’t mind paying a pretty penny to get it, this is the one for you.
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