The HTC One X, the Taiwanese company’s flagship phone for 2012, has a lot riding on it. Once the poster boy for Android, HTC has for the first time in years begun to see sales drop, as Samsung roars ahead with its phenomenally successful Galaxy S line.
Its last few releases have been mere iterations, with a tweaked processor or a needlessly super-sized screen. Floundering is too harsh a way to describe it. But the mojo density inside its mobiles has definitely dropped in the last year.
The HTC One X though, promises to change that. It’s the first mainstream phone to launch with Android 4.0 onboard since the Samsung Galaxy Nexus back in November, and it’s rocking a brand new look and impressive specs. Is it the sum of its parts? Let’s take a look.
Phone designs move as fast as catwalk fashion trends, and while HTC helped pioneer the sexy unibody metal look two years ago, it’s now copying Nokia with a moulded polycarbonate casing that you can’t take apart (Like with an iPhone, you need to get busy with a paperclip to pop open the micro SIM tray) – like a Nokia Lumia 800 or Meego powered N9.
The HTC One X isn’t quite as sexy as Nokia’s creation, and it actually reminds me of the 2010 Desire HD more than a tad, but it’s a sexy material nonetheless (Particularly the white version, which unfortunately I was unable to review – take my word for it).
At 134.36 x 69.9 x 8.9 mm, it’s surprisingly wieldy for a phone with a massive 4.7-inch screen: certainly, it’s more manageable than a Galaxy Nexus will be for most users, as much as I love Samsung’s phone. It feels smaller than it is, and that’s a good thing – and despite this, the beefy 1800mAh battery keeps a charge for a day with all systems going.
The IPS 720p screen on the HTC One X however isn’t quite so impressive as Samsung’s Super AMOLED Plus panel on the Galaxy Nexus, or for that matter the pin-sharp HD screen on the Sony Xperia S. That rich contrast, typical of AMOLED displays, which borders on over-saturization, is missing, and with a black wallpaper on in the background, light still leaks in (On AMOLED screens, blacks are actually black as the individual pixel is off). But the curved glass still gives it that visceral, painted on effect that will mesmerise most customers walking into the store.
All in all, it’s a beautiful update on the aesthetic front for 2012, even if it isn’t an original one. If there’s one gripe, it’s that the navigation buttons remain capacitive keys below the display, rather than part of the screen itself. Likely, the phone was in development long before HTC got wind of Google’s decision to make the Back, Home and Multi-tasking soft keys on the Galaxy Nexus, but it stops it from attaining complete minimalism.
Sense meets Ice Cream Sandwich
Much has been made of Android skins lately, given that with stock Android 4.0, Google has finally got its design act together. Well, almost. If it has, why mess with it? Samsung’s done so for the Ice Cream Sandwich update on its Galaxy S2, and been criticised for doing so.
HTC’s struck a compromise on the HTC One X, and while it won’t appease purists, I’d say it’s struck a fine balance, without causing too much of a stir. In short, HTC has tweaked Android 4.0, but only really added to it, rather than changed it.
In goes the HTC lock screen with quick shortcuts, where there was no option to do this before (You can still have Face Unlock if you want). In goes the option to add widgets straight from the homescreen, which you annoyingly couldn’t do before.
But the beautiful Roboto font, general navigation of Android 4.0, such as the ‘…’ menu button in the corner, and its smart, scalable widgets remain.
There are only a few glaring problems with HTC’s riff on Android this time around. Firstly, the universal search button at the top of the launcher is missing. Google’s removed the requirement for a search button below the screen in Android 4.0, instead popping a search bar widget at the top of every homescreen. You can stick that back with a widget, but it’s not there by default, and the first time you try to quick search a contact or a Google term and realise it’s not there is the first time this phone will annoy you.
The other strange flaw is with HTC’s internet browser – inexplicably, the notification bar vanishes while you’re using it, an immediate reason to download the superb Chrome Beta from the Google Play store in its place.
On top of the standard suite of Android services, HTC provides a few others, some welcome, some not. As before, the HTC Watch video store is present; now that Google Videos comes as standard, it’s less essential, but it’s still worth having as an extra option when you can watch Team America for 49p. HTC Locations is on board too, complete with offline mapping, though HTC has done little to improve this on Android since it launched 18 months ago.
More positively, HTC has also massively upped its Dropbox offering. You now get 25GB of cloud storage free for two years, instead of 5GB. It’s a pretty smart solution, especially now that Dropbox auto-uploads images, backing up all your camera shots if you so choose.
Somewhat confusingly, it’s also built SkyDrive integration into Sense 4.0 as well, giving you yet another (but separate) 25GB. Still, more options the merrier, I suppose. HTC’s also included a few other third party apps on board for fun, including 7digital, but thankfully you can disable these.
Regardless of what you use however, you can prepare for speed. The quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor absolutely canes it, regularly clocking in a Quadrant Standard benchmark of over 4,700, despite the massive number of pixels it has to deal with. That Android lag is simply not here – and there’s already a smattering of games in the store ready to take advantage of Nvidia’s new hardware.
HTC’s made a huge deal about the camera on the One X, if only because its cameras have always been mediocre before. The 8MP sensor uses BSI tech in the same way Sony does on its Exmor R camera phones, promising better performance in low light, and even if the results aren’t quite as impressive as those from the Xperia S, they’re pretty damn great.
Shots, which using HTC’s new tech are processed in their RAW format first before being converted to JPEG, look crisp, with minimal noise. Your average 8MP shot takes up about 2MB of space, so the images aren’t being too compressed for file storage’s sake.
Now, my take on a smartphone’s camera quality and its relevance caused a lot of controversy in my Sony Xperia S review, but I will say this: HTC’s camera software is what really makes this. It’s really, really fast. You can take shots continuously. Best of all, you can take shots while filming video.
For my mind, I’d take superior software features like these with slightly more noisy images. But I can see that many wouldn’t: in that case, the Xperia S may still be for you.
The HTC One X has delivered on the promises HTC has made. More focus, better specs, a better experience, even if there’s still some room for improvement. HTC’s still not solved some of its issues: specifically, it’s letting some of the services it’s paid good money for go to waste. Beats Audio is just an equaliser, and only useful if you like certain genres of music. There’s no free OnLive deal (Time will tell what it does with Spotify rival MOG). HTC Watch seems to have been forgotten about.
Regardless, unless you’re a Nexus evangelist, this is to my mind the best Android phone yet made. The Sony Xperia S may have a better camera and an ever so slightly sharper screen, but that means nothing against the extra features of Android 4.0 – and there’s no sign of that update for it just yet.
The elephant in the room of course is the Samsung Galaxy S3, which may well crush the competition when it appears (The previous two certainly did), but this time, the One X might just be left standing.