If you’re a regular around these parts, you’ll already be well-acquainted with HTC’s latest beast, the One X. You’ve seen our pre-release coverage from MWC, read Phil’s definitive review and checked out our guide to Sense 4. The verdict seems clear -- the HTC One X is a hell of a device, and without a doubt the most impressive smartphone of 2012 so far.
But a phone worthy of this kind of praise deserves a second look, and so I’ve been spending the past few days getting to know the Vodafone UK version of the One X. Instead of re-hashing our existing coverage, I’m going to take an in-depth look at six of the phone’s most important characteristics, and offer a few thoughts of my own. Think of it as more a commentary than a review.
Join us after the break for a second opinion on the HTC One X.
Build quality - a near-perfect balance
The One X continues HTC’s tradition of outstanding build quality in its flagship phones. It’s constructed of polycarbonate rather than aluminum -- so it’s plastic, but it’s plastic done right. Visually, the One X is an evolution of earlier HTC designs, and it’s probably best described as a thinner, lighter, sexier version of the Sensation. I also feel like it’s channeling a bit of last year’s Sony Xperia Arc S, which sported a similarly striking white chassis and a zero-air-gap display (more on that later).
The One X feels like a suitably futuristic piece of kit, and part of that’s down to the weight -- it’s unnaturally light. See, the fact that it's plastic affords it the freedom to be lighter and thinner (and it helps wireless reception, too). It doesn't boast the tank-like durability of the Titan, HTC's leading Windows phone, but it feels well-built, and offers a near-perfect balance of durability, aesthetics and weight. Part of that’s down to the fact that there’s no removable storage, removable battery or even a battery door. The only part of the phone that you can take out is the microSIM tray, with everything else being contained within the phone’s gorgeous matte shell. For some, the lack of removable gubbins will be a dealbreaker. For my part, I’m just fine with it.
We’ve been over specs before. I’m sure we’re all aware by now that the One X is plenty fast, with a quad-core chip and a full gigabyte of RAM.
The HD screen to ruin other HD screens
HTC didn't make too much noise about the One X's screen at MWC, but for me it's a stand-out feature, and you'll see why the moment you first lay eyes upon it. Many manufacturers have their pet display technologies -- Samsung has SuperAMOLED, Sony has its Reality Displays and LG has IPS. And honestly, the One X’s SuperLCD 2 smokes them all. At 1280x720, it matches the pixel density of other high-end 4.7-inchers, with flawless viewing angles and outstanding color quality. And it does so without the trademark over-saturation of many AMOLED panels. (Or any pentile matrix issues that gets kids so riled up these days.)
HTC’s also worked to reduce the air gap between the LCD and the glass surface. This is something we’ve seen before on Sony phones like the Xperia Arc and Xperia S, and it goes a long way towards improving image clarity.
On the flipside, the screen is a battery guzzler, and based on my reading of the phone’s battery stats, it’s that, rather than the quad-core CPU, that’s causing some of the early battery issues we’ve been hearing about. So the One X's display offers unmatched quality, albeit at the cost of battery life, and we’ll explore that some more later in this article.
Just four months ago we were singing the praises of the Galaxy Nexus's 720p SuperAMOLED panel, and today, the HTC One X's SuperLCD 2 raises the bar even further into the stratosphere. Make no mistake, the One X will ruin other screens for you. (And that’s a good thing, unless yours is a review unit you have to eventually give back.)
Finally, a great camera from HTC
Let's be honest, HTC failed to achieve much beyond mediocrity with its 2011 phone cameras. The Sensation's 8MP shooter, though competent enough outdoors on a bright day, failed to pass muster in low light. Later in the year HTC introduced cameras with backside illumination tech, like the Sensation XL, but the results were more adequate than they were impressive. And the less said about the EVO 3D's dual 5MP setup, the better.
The One X’s 8MP BSI camera is a solid performer, but it doesn’t quite dethrone Sony’s Xperia S, with its ludicrous 12MP EXMOR R sensor. HTC has made strides forward with its camera software, though, which makes taking pictures on the One X quick, easy and painless. Stills are captured almost instantaneously, and the continuous capture mode makes shooting multiple images in quick succession a breeze. Photos taken on the One X look good from a distance, though up-close you’ll see some graininess and artefacting, even in perfectly-lit shots. For better or worse, it’s clear that there’s some pretty aggressive post-processing and noise reduction going on.
While the One X handles low-light still shots well enough, video recording in less-than-perfect lighting remains HTC’s achilles heel. At 720p or higher in darker conditions, the frame rate is cut back to a dismal 19 fps. It’s a depressingly familiar story for anyone who’s used HTC phone cameras over the past couple of years, and means it means the One X’s video camera is less versatile than much of the competition.
As a whole, though, the One X’s camera is a massive step forward for HTC, and in my opinion the camera’s speed and ease of use outweigh any concerns about over-processing of images.
Check out some sample shots at the end of this article.
In defense of HTC Sense
HTC’s new Sense 4 is attractive, responsive and useful. Whereas version 3 was all about piling on extra functionality, Sense 4 is a much leaner beast, both visually and functionally. Sense 4 has its own distinct identity and design language, but it manages to wear its own colors without completely jettisoning what Google’s built into ICS. Where Google has cool greys, whites and cyans in stock Android, HTC has warm greens, yellows and oranges. Sense’s gratuitous use of 3D effects and embossed on-screen elements has also been pared back, thankfully. And the explosive orgy of primary colors that was Sense 3 has made way for something more stylish and professional in version 4. Performance, too, has been given a welcome boost -- partly due to the quad-core chip powering the One X, and partly thanks to software optimizations by Google and HTC. Though there's no influx of new bundled apps or functionality in Sense 4, the visual changes and hundreds of smaller tweaks and improvements make it a worthy update.
Despite this, Sense often finds itself on the receiving end of zealotic hatred from some in the tech world, who consider anything but vanilla Android on an Android phone to be blasphemy. A key misconception here, for some reviewers as well as regular smartphone nerds, is the idea that because an Android phone runs a custom UX and not stock ICS, that's automatically bad -- a point for the negatives column by default. To take that view is to suggest that it's impossible to improve in any way upon what Google's designers and engineers have created. Legitimate criticism is all well and good (and Sense, like all other software, has its quirks and issues), but it's silly to dismiss HTC's software out of hand because of what it isn't. If you want a phone with vanilla Android, well, go buy that phone that runs vanilla Android.
My biggest software gripe with the One X has nothing to do with Sense per se, but instead concerns its use of software buttons. The phone itself uses physical capacitive buttons in the standard three-key setup for ICS -- back, home and task switcher. Most of the time, that's just fine, but what if you run into an app that needs the legacy menu button? Well, you can't magically create another physical button on the fly, so instead you lose a chunk of your screen. A portion of that gorgeous 720p display is requisitioned to make way for an on-screen menu button that sits there, waiting for you to press it. This happens in any app that isn't properly optimized for ICS, and even a few Google apps get a bit confused with the way HTC's handled its buttons. It'll become less of an issue as apps update to support ICS's three-key setup, but in the meantime it's a minor annoyance, particularly in full-screen apps like games.
Regardless, even if you hated the old Sense, at least give its latest incarnation the benefit of the doubt -- I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.
Beats Audio - a confused message
If you asked HTC what Beats Audio was last year, they’d tell you it was a combination of hardware and software designed to improve audio quality. In addition to software enhancements (built-in bass boosting and EQ tweaks), phones like the Sensation XL and Rezound shipped with urBeats earphones, which HTC would tell you were far superior to the usual cheap earphones included with most smartphones. At the Sensation XL launch event, Beats co-founder Jimmy Iovine even derided the tiny proportion of the average smartphone’s manufacturing budget that went on audio equipment.
The hardware side of that equation has been upset somewhat in the One X. There are no Beats earphones included as standard (though we understand some carriers will offer them as part of a promotion). The earphones that are included are very much the entry-level HTC earphones of old, the same bog-standard ones HTC seemed to be swearing off last year.
The software side of Beats is alive and well, though, and these Beats enhancements can now be used with any music player -- good news for users of Spotify, Google Play Music and similar streaming services. We've been over Beats extensively in our reviews of the Sensation XL and Rezound, and it's pretty much the same on the One X. There's nothing in the Beats software enhancements that'll make up for crappy hardware, but with decent in-ear earphones you should notice a substantial boost in bass and clarity with Beats enhancements enabled. If you have Beats hardware of your own, you'll be pleased to see you can now select specific Beats profiles for a number of products, including urBeats/iBeats, Beats Solo and Beats Pro.
Battery life remains a concern
The One X retail units that are shipping in Europe right now come with firmware version 1.26, the same version I've got on my review unit. This gives me around 10 hours of moderate to heavy use, which is on the very edge of what I’d consider acceptable, or even usable, from a modern smartphone.
But wait! There's reportedly a new firmware version, v1.27, coming soon to fix problems with battery life and some occasional rendering anomalies. Unfortunately, though, at the time of writing this update has yet to arrive, despite the fact that the One X is now on sale across Europe. So that's an issue.
But it's an issue I'm confident HTC will fix in the very near future. In fact some people, including our own Phil Nickinson, already have the update, and have confirmed it remedies many of these battery woes. Right now he's getting 14 hours or so on a single charge, which is much more palatable. In the meantime, though, the the battery situation for early adopters remains pretty grim. When updated firmware arrives, we'll update this section to reflect any improvements in battery life.
So should I buy one?
I've tried to focus on both positives and negatives in this little commentary, but here's the honest truth -- I'm smitten with the One X, and once that battery fix OTA rolls out, I'm pretty sure it'll be the best Android phone money can buy. Above all, the One X demonstrates that HTC can listen to its consumer base and turn user feedback into better products. It also proves that the oldest Android manufacturer around hasn't lost its touch in the fiercely competitive smartphone landscape of 2012.
Welcome back, HTC. We can't wait to see where you take things from here.
Download a zip containing full-sized versions of these shots here.