HTC One X review

It's been a difficult year for HTC. After several successful quarters, things have started looking less rosy in recent months with the company facing stiff competition and suffering from apparent brand dilution -- the results of launching too many handsets with forgettable names, making too many compromises for the carriers, continuing to rely on Sense, and lacking an iconic flagship to take on Samsung's mighty Galaxy S II. We knew something important was coming for Mobile World Congress after HTC timidly revealed the Titan II at CES -- after all, the company has a long history of innovation.

A few days before flying to Barcelona and after being sworn to secrecy, we were quietly whisked into a San Francisco conference room with clear instructions: no pictures or video. There, in the middle of the table, was a white phone that instantly caught our eye -- the HTC One X. To write that we came away impressed after briefly using it is a massive understatement. This was obviously a halo device made for geeks like us, something designed to take on the Galaxy Nexuses of the world, something with the mother of all spec sheets, something running Ice Cream Sandwich with a significantly thinner and lighter version of Sense. Better yet, there were two other handsets with the same impeccable attention to detail -- the One S and the One V. HTC was finally showing some vision again with strong branding, gorgeous design and a polished user experience. While first impressions go a long way, there's a lot to be learned about a product by living with it for a few days. So is the One X truly HTC's comeback device? Are we still delighted? Is this the Engadget phone? Hit the break for our full review.

HTC One X review

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HTC

HTC One X

Pros

  • Looks and feels stunning
  • Most gorgeous display
  • Fantastic camera
  • Incredibly quick and smooth
  • Sense 4 UI is thin and light

Cons

  • Battery life not as good as the One S
Summary

Buying an HTC One X is a lot like getting a unicorn: it's wild, fast, white, beautiful, expensive and fickle. Still, it gives even the mighty Galaxy Nexus a run for its money.

Hardware

HTC went back to the drawing board. While many of its products from 2011 blended together in an amorphous, Sensation-esque blur, the company's drawn a line in the sand -- this is its flagship and it's a beauty. The phone is housed in a polycarbonate unibody that's matte on the back and glossy at the sides. This polycarbonate material means the body shouldn't interfere with the phone's signal, while incidental scratches will reveal yet more brilliant white. Some considered contours along the body of the phone mean that despite its 8.9mm (0.35 inch) profile -- and a 4.7-inch display -- it always felt safe in our grasp. Although its size may be borderline for some people's palms, it's nowhere near as monstrous as the Galaxy Note. Compared to the likes of the Rezound and Sensation, it's also around 30 grams (1.1 ounces) lighter -- presumably due to the new materials being put to use on HTC's great white hope.

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Touring the body, the device is refreshingly unencumbered by complications -- the earpiece speaker is even integrated into the polycarbonate shell. The staple volume rocker is a white bar on the right side, while the micro-SIM tray is now hewn into the unibody (you'll need a metal pin to access it at the top of the back). On the left edge there's the MHL-capable micro-USB port, while the headphone socket and power button are both found on the top. Again, HTC's placement of this key, which also wakes the screen, makes less sense than if it was placed along the right edge, but the buttons are solid and responsive, coated in the same polycarbonate white as the unit -- no easily-chipped silver paint. The camera noticeably protrudes from the center of the phone, accented by a metallic circle -- this is a phone that's proud of its camera and we've dedicated a section to this below. There's also a five-pin connector along the right side, ready for those inevitable docks and in-car holsters.

HTC One X vs. HTC Sensation XL... fight!

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The speaker grill, made from 84 individually-drilled holes, belts out plenty of noise. If you're looking to use it to broadcast your music, you'll want to have the device face down -- a built-in Sense feature does exactly that when you flip the device over during calls. It still suffers from the same lack of bass found in most phones, although the One X is one of HTC's first devices to bring Beats Audio enhancements across all apps, removing one of our complaints with the tie-up. If you're looking for more detail on this Beats Audio offering, check the write-up we gave it in our Sensation XE review. Behind the polycarbonate gloss, the phone arrives with 32GB of memory, with 26GB of this accessible to the user. This is further augmented by a new Dropbox deal offering an extra 25GB to anyone that registers a device from the One series. It's all running on NVIDIA's quad-core (plus one) Tegra 3, clocked at 1.5GHz and different from its incoming LTE variant set to arrive with Qualcomm's dual-core 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4. The processor is teamed up with 1GB of RAM, while HTC's joined the NFC party, adding Android Beam functionality -- where ICS apps allow it. We were able to ping some email addresses and websites between the One X and the Galaxy Nexus.

Display

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The One X's 720p display under a USB microscope at about 230x magnification.

The One X matches the Rezound's 720p resolution, but houses it in a new Super LCD 2 panel and gifts it with 4.7 inches to play with, which translates to a pixel density of 316ppi. At this resolution, it embarrasses the rest of its similarly-sized cousins (e.g., the 4.7-inch HTC Sensation XL) when compared side by side. And while we're not sure whether it's the pseudo-concave design of the display, that drops ever-so slightly on both edges or the thinner Gorilla Glass, the high definition pixel matrix seems to skim across the face of the phone -- viewing angles are great, especially if the brightness is cranked up. Super AMOLED Plus aficionados, this is what your rival looks like. On the non-PenTile One X, colors seemed more natural and the whites were whiter than on AMOLED devices like the Galaxy Nexus. When outdoors, we had to max out brightness, but once we did, the screen was both navigable and readable.

Camera

There are two basic ways manufacturers implement cameras on higher-end phones. One approach is to build a no-compromise imaging-centric device geared towards photography buffs, as popularized by Nokia with the N8 and the recently announced 808 PureView. The alternative is to take a competent shooter and make it simple and bulletproof for anyone to enjoy, something Apple and (to a lesser extent) Samsung have achieved with the iPhone 4S and Galaxy S II (and derivatives). While HTC has aimed -- and mostly succeeded -- at pleasing both the shutterbug and the layperson with handsets like the myTouch 4G Slide, Amaze 4G and upcoming Titan II, it has usually favored the ease-of-use approach. The One X continues this trend by delivering one of the best all-round imaging experiences we've come across without sacrificing quality -- thanks to an 8-megapixel backside-illuminated sensor, an incredibly wide aperture f/2.0 autofocus lens (vs. f/2.2 on the Amaze 4G, f/2.4 on the iPhone 4S, f/2.65 on the Galaxy S II and f/2.8 on the N8) and an extra processor called the ImageChip. It's also the quickest cameraphone we've ever reviewed, the 0.7-second startup time and 0.2-second delay between shots beating even the speedy Galaxy Nexus. A single LED flash capable of five different intensity levels completes the package. While the hardware is generally state-of-the-art, there are a few omissions that prevent this shooter from hitting the bull's eye. Most disappointing is the lack of a dedicated two-stage camera button -- we'll make do without the mechanical shutter, xenon flash and autofocus-assist light common to devices like the N8, but we'll take a proper mechanical shutter key over a basic on-screen button anytime. We're also concerned with the long-term durability of the glass covering the optics which is exposed to fingerprints and scratches by protruding from the phone's body.

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Just like the rest of the One X, the camera specs only tell half of the story. The software -- called ImageSense, naturally -- plays a big part in the handset's imaging mojo. It packs serious processing chops and supports a smorgasbord of features like real-time filters, HDR, panorama, burst and slow-motion video (to name a few). Instead of unraveling every minute UI detail, let's focus (pardon the pun) on the shooter's functionality. First, there's no more distinction between photo and video modes -- you're welcome to take still or moving pictures anytime by tapping the appropriate on-screen shutter key. This means you're able to capture 8-megapixel widescreen images (3264 x 1840 pixels) while recording video! Better yet, it's even possible to grab HD frames (1920 x 1088 pixels) from an existing video during playback. Second, there's a full set of Instagram-like filters -- including tweakable vignette and depth of field effects -- which can be applied to photos in real-time or after the fact. Both the camera and gallery apps provide a plethora of adjustments available before shooting and later while editing, such as contrast, saturation and sharpness. There's also an array of manual settings to chose from, such as exposure level, white balance and ISO. We have a few niggles though -- conspicuously absent is any kind metering option (center-weighted, spot or average) and while touch-to-focus also offers some control over EV there's no way to lock focus and exposure before reframing. Most shooters enable this either by half pressing the dedicated two-stage camera button (N8), tapping and holding any part of the viewfinder until the lock indicator appears (iPhone 4S) or -- our favorite for lack of a proper mechanical shutter key -- tapping and holding the on-screen camera button (Galaxy S II). Hopefully this is something HTC can fix in a future update.

HTC One X sample shots

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Now let's talk about image quality. We pitted the One X against the current cream of the crop -- the N8, Amaze 4G, iPhone 4S and Galaxy Note (which uses the same module as the Galaxy S II) plus Canon's S95 compact point-and-shoot. The camera landed somewhere in the middle of this star-studded pack, marginally beating the Galaxy Note and iPhone 4S while almost matching the Amaze 4G. Sure, it's not in the same league as the N8 (which rivals the S95 in some cases), but this is one stellar camera, especially when you consider that HTC is not positioning this phone as an imaging-centric device like the Amaze 4G. Low-light performance is particularly impressive thanks to the fast f/2.0 lens and backside-illuminated sensor, which combine to gather a huge amount of light. HDR night shots are truly magical -- no mushrooms required. Still, the software relies on a little too much noise reduction in extreme low-light which results in a noticeable loss of detail, and since there's no assist light, the autofocus often struggles in the dark and requires a few touch-to-focus attempts before getting a lock. Pictures taken in most conditions look fantastic, but looking closely we're longing for a sensor with a wider dynamic range and higher quality lens (yes, the N8's Carl Zeiss optics are hard to beat).

Yes, the proof is in the pudding -- people who care little about aperture and shutter settings will take great photos with the One X.

While color balance is generally top-notch we noticed some issues with the white balance being off at times right after launching the camera -- it rights itself after a few seconds, but it's a problem if you're trying to catch that fleeting moment. Metering is usually accurate, but the lack of exposure lock means that in some instances (like sunsets) we resorted to fiddling with the EV to avoid washing out parts of the shot. Of course, we're being picky here and none of this takes into account ease-of-use, which rivals the experience on the iPhone 4S (and beats it, in terms of speed). Yes, the proof is in the pudding -- people who care little about aperture and shutter settings will take great photos with the One X. The One X captures 1080p video at a silky smooth 30fps with continuous autofocus and stereo audio. Results mostly look sharp and sound clear -- we noticed some faint video compression artifacts (bitrate is 10Mbps) and the automatic gain control reacted a little too quickly to wind noise, but this is nothing to be concerned about in most situations. In contrast with how quickly the camera handles stills, there's about a four-second (!) delay between tapping the on-screen video capture button and the actual start of the recording which means you're likely to miss some firsts if you're not prepared. There's one more neat trick worth mentioning, and that's slow motion. Yes, this shooter is able to record 480p widescreen video (768 x 432 pixels, to be exact) at 60fps for playback at about 24fps -- check out our sample video below.

Performance and battery life

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Quad-core phones have arrived. While we've already seen the NVIDIA tech on one of our favorite Android tablets, the One X is our first Tegra 3 smartphone to arrive for testing and it doesn't disappoint. We tried to push the hardware as much as we could and it handled nearly all of our tasks effortlessly. GTA3 loaded effortlessly -- and was fast. Even task-switching couldn't sink the phone, although it does pause to think when you jump between heavier tasks like video and gaming. Browser performance is a revelation too. We couldn't spot any tiling issues as we scrolled at high-speed through the front page of Engadget -- none -- pictures were there before we even got to them. This triumphant real-world performance is backed up by some understandably jaw-dropping benchmark scores, besting even the Transformer Prime in Quadrant and Vellamo performance tests and thrashing the Galaxy Note -- our previous smartphone heavy-lifter -- across the board.

HTC One X HTC One S ASUS Transformer Prime Galaxy Note (int'l)
Quadrant (v2) 4,906 5,053 4,018 3,854
Linpack single-thread (MFLOPS) 48.54 103.88 43.35 64.3
Linpack multi-thread (MFLOPS) 150.54 222.22 67.05 95.66
NenaMark2 (fps) 47.6 61.0 46.07 32.8
NenaMark1 (fps) 59.5 60.8 60.07 56.6
Vellamo 1,617 2,452 953 901
SunSpider 9.1 (ms, lower numbers are better) 1,772.5 1,742.5 1,861 2,902

While an AT&T-branded One X is set to arrive carrying LTE (and a SnapDragon S4), this global model features both quad-band EDGE and HSPA+ 42Mbps (2100 / 1900 / 900 / 850MHz). Speed tests on AT&T in the US reached about 6Mbps down and 1.2 Mbps up on HSPA+, and Three and O2 in the UK averaged around 2.2Mbps down and just under 1Mbps up on HSPA. Call quality is good, with the noise-cancelling second mic helping to focus on the voice, although some background static remained on our test calls on several networks. Battery life, however, looks likely to pay the price for this. With brightness set to 50 percent, WiFi on but not connected, the One X's 1,800mAh juicepack managed six hours of continuous video playback -- that's two hours short of its sibling, the One S. Obviously, this sort of activity is likely to use the phone's multiple cores, but we found that Tegra 3's 4-PLUS-1 setup still continues to slurp the battery on very light use -- we didn't notice that extra companion core taking any sort of burden off the phone's power consumption. Checking our battery status, it seems like HTC's Super LCD 2 screen -- perhaps unsurprisingly-- was also to blame for a life span that didn't last a full workday. Update: To clarify, we got 12-plus hours of moderate use out of the One X (that's checking, email and social networks, making a few calls, sending some messages, taking a few pictures, downloading a few apps); your mileage will vary. Keep in mind there are differences between the One X and One S beyond the processor, such as like the radio chipset and the display (4.7-inch vs. 4.3, 720p vs qHD, LCD vs. AMOLED).

Software

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The latest version of HTC's proprietary skin, Sense 4, comes on top of Android 4.0.3. But this isn't your father's old version of Sense. In fact, it's a much more refreshing take on a skin that used to be incredibly bogged down by nonsense animations and unnecessary UI elements. Is it stock Ice Cream Sandwich? No, not by a long shot. But what you'll get with the One X's user experience is a pleasant mix of ICS and Sense, both halves somehow finding a way to live together in harmony. That's not to say Sense 4 is a complete and perfect Android skin. But it does a much better job figuring out the spirit of stock Android and truly striving to emulate the OS, instead of throwing Google's designs and inspiration out the window. HTC's goal was to make the new Sense much lighter and less burdensome to the rest of the platform, and we'd say it has largely succeeded. There is so much to discuss in the new Sense that our overview of it became too large to include with the rest of our impressions on the One X. To get the full scoop complete with screenshots and video, visit our incredibly comprehensive Sense 4 review.

Wrap-up

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There's absolutely no doubt that the One X is a masterpiece of an Android device: it obliterates pretty much all of its competitors by giving even the mighty Galaxy Nexus a run for its money. HTC's really crafted something special here, with a brilliant combination of branding, industrial design and user experience. This handset looks and feels stunning, with top-notch materials and build quality, the most gorgeous display we've ever stared at on a phone, a fantastic camera that's fast and easy to use and a laundry list of every possible spec under the sun. Sense 4 is thin and light enough to enhance -- not detract from -- stock Ice Cream Sandwich. Pinch us, 'cause frankly, we're smitten.

Ultimately, buying a One X is a lot like getting a unicorn -- it's wild, fast, white, beautiful, expensive and fickle.

Still it's not all rainbows and glitter. While it's incredibly quick and smooth in actual use, we're surprised that the quad-core Tegra 3 in the One X performed slightly worse in our benchmarks than the dual-core Snapdragon S4 in the One S. Battery life is by far our biggest concern and we really hope that HTC addresses this head-on with future software updates. It'll be interesting to see how its LTE equipped twin (which is also Snapdragon S4-based) fares in those areas when it launches in the next few weeks -- let's just hope AT&T keeps the firmware as unadulterated as possible. Ultimately, buying a One X is a lot like getting a unicorn -- it's wild, fast, white, beautiful, expensive and fickle. Time will tell if dressage school tames this power hungry beast. Mat Smith, Brad Molen and Richard Lai contributed to this review.

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