HTC One X vs One S: which phone is The One for you?
Jet Li starred in a 2001 movie called "The One." In it, his character traveled to parallel universes and grew stronger as he killed alternate versions of himself. This continued on until there was only one other copy left, with the movie culminating in an epic battle between the two. We won't spoil the ending, but we were reminded of this movie when thinking about the One X and the One S: both are incredibly powerful phones that we'd be proud to use as our daily drivers, but the vast majority of us are only able to choose one One. (The One V is also a possible option but for the purposes of this feature we're laser-focused on HTC's two higher-end models.)

How can we make a sound decision? The two phones are considered premium devices with top-notch components and relatively few flaws. The major difference, however, is going to be the price. Naturally, the cost will vary depending on where you live and which carrier you choose, but make no mistake: the S is going to be less expensive. Is it worth spending the extra money to go with the top-shelf model, or will the little guy be plenty? Now that the two devices are officially on sale in Europe, it's time to pick a side. We can't decide for you, but our goal is to present each phone's pros and cons, going round by round. Which one is right for you? Read on to find out.
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HTC One X vs. One S... fight!


Hardware

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Particularly since they were released in tandem, it's obvious these two phones share more than a little DNA. The One X is not only high-end, it's swinging for the fences in its attempt to be the best smartphone money can buy. But the One S is by no means a weakling; in fact, HTC is positioning both handsets as premium devices, though it considers the X to be the more lavish of the two.

So let's get the basics out of the way, because these details alone may be enough to cement your decision. First, the X sports a 4.7-inch display, compared with a 4.3-inch one on the S. While such a gargantuan screen would have been met with skepticism a year ago, 4.7 inches is about par for the course in 2012 (if you need proof, look no further than the popular 5.3-inch Samsung Galaxy Note and 4.65-inch Galaxy Nexus). Then again, the success of competing devices means little when your hands are small.

Thanks to some wise design decisions, like that thin, concave form shape, the X actually feels perfectly at home in-hand, so much so that even a certain phone reviewer with medium-sized hands can hold it without any difficulty. That said, the S is noticeably more compact and easier to grip, so if 4.7 inches of real estate is just a little too much for you, you've already found your winner.

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Another bit that could potentially make or break your decision is the matter of available storage space: the One X carries 32GB of internal memory (AT&T's version will only come with 16GB), while its sibling's storage is capped at 16GB. More importantly, neither device has expandable storage. Since the vast majority of Android phones let you add external memory via a microSD slot, this wasn't a commonplace issue with Android phones until just a few months ago. What we're seeing now, however, is a shift in phone design; manufacturers are much more concerned with keeping their devices thin and sleek, and the microSD card slot is on the chopping block. We believe the popularity of the cloud is also partly to blame for this change of heart. Indeed, knowing that its decision to kill the microSD would cheese off a few hardcore fans, HTC is trying to sweeten the pot with free 25GB of Dropbox storage. But if you're on a capped data plan, good luck trying this out without incurring some steep overage charges.

As for industrial design, HTC didn't skimp on build quality. The debate about which one is the most durable will likely rage on for a long time, but suffice to say they're worthy opponents: in one corner you have the One X's high impact-resisting polycarbonate, and in the other sits the One S's aircraft-grade aluminum shell, which has been treated through micro-arc oxidation, in which the metal is zapped with 10,000 volts of electricity to become five times stronger. And though we're not certain which material is ultimately more resilient, we'd be very surprised to learn there's much of a difference; both have a reassuring solidity about them. And in case it's the front of the phones you're worried about, fear not -- they're both coated in Gorilla Glass.

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The X and S are both thin, coming in at 8.9mm and 7.8mm, respectively. They're also light: 4.59 ounces (130g) for the X and 4.22 ounces (120g) for the S. And though the X is technically thicker and heavier, it's a marginal difference that feels commensurate with its larger screen and sprawling dimensions.

If you're a fan of Near Field Communication, you'll have no choice but to go with the One X, as this feature is completely absent on the One S. Additionally, Sense 4 includes support for Android Beam and Google Wallet. Of course, though, whether you can actually use Wallet depends on several factors, such as whether or not your carrier actually allows its use on their network.

Another key difference is the type of processor used. The One X is the first phone with NVIDIA's quad-core Tegra 3 chip, offering four cores running at 1.5GHz and an additional "PLUS-1" core that functions at reduced clock speeds in an effort to preserve battery life. The S, meanwhile, is powered by a 1.5GHz dual-core 28nm Snapdragon S4 chip. It doesn't sound as good given that it has half the cores, but as you'll see in the performance section, it's not the number of cores that's important; it's how efficiently each one is used.

Now we'll turn to the radios. For the international versions, you can expect to find quadband GSM / EDGE (that's 850 / 900 / 1900 / 2100), which means you'll have no problem getting at least some kind of signal as you travel the world. When the need for speed is pressing, you'll find one more UMTS / HSPA + band on the X. Specifically, you'll be able to enjoy 850 / 900 / 1900 / 2100, while the S sports all but the 1900MHz radio. T-Mobile AWS (US only) isn't included on either device, so you're stuck with enjoying either blazing-fast 2G downloads or waiting a few weeks for T-Mo's One S to arrive with 900 / 1700 / 2100MHz bands. AT&T users, you should look over your coverage with a fine-tooth comb before you pull the trigger -- if most of your time is spent in a 1900MHz zone, it won't be wise to go with the One S.

Crave more nitty gritty details? We've compiled a handy spec sheet showing off what each phone's packing. As we see it, both devices can talk the talk and walk the walk, but the X just happens to have a tad more spring in its step than its smaller sibling.

HTC One X HTC One S
Dimensions 5.29 x 2.75 x 0.35 inches
(134.4 x 69.9 x 8.9mm)
5.15 x 2.56 x 0.31 inches
(130.9 x 65 x 7.8 mm)
Weight 4.59 oz (130g) 4.22 oz (120g)
Screen size 4.7 inches 4.3 inches
Screen resolution 1280 x 720 HD (312ppi) 960 x 540 qHD (256ppi)
Screen type S-LCD 2 Super AMOLED
Battery 1,800mAh 1,650mAh
Internal storage 32GB 16GB
External storage None None
Rear camera 8MP, f/2.0 8 MP, f/2.0
Front-facing camera 1.3MP VGA
Video capture 1080p HD 1080p
NFC Yes No
Radios Quadband GSM / EDGE; HSPA+ 850 / 900 / 1900 / 2100 Quadband GSM / EDGE; HSPA+ 850 / 900 / 2100
Network speeds DC HSPA+ 42Mbps DC HSPA+ 42Mbps
Bluetooth 4.0 4.0
RAM 1GB DDR2 1GB DDR2
MHL Yes Yes
WiFi a/b/g/n (dual-band) a/b/g/n (dual-band)

Winner: One X

Display

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After viewing the gorgeous non-PenTile 720p HD display on the One X for a few days, we realized just how difficult it was to revert to the S's qHD Super AMOLED panel. Let's put it this way: it's nearly the same screen as on the Droid RAZR, which comes as a tremendous disappointment to us. While we admit that the colors on the AMOLED display are a bit more saturated, that's all it has going for it. The pixelation is still easily noticeable -- in fact, it was the very first thing that stood out when we turned the S on for the first time. In contrast, the X's S-LCD 2 is definitely one of the nicest screens you can get right now, and there's no doubt it trumps the One S.

That said, this might not play a critical role in your decision if you're stepping up from a phone with a lower-res display. If that's the case, the qHD resolution might well suit you fine, especially if it means spending less on the phone hardware. But we'll warn you not to spend much time playing around with the X. Once you go 720p, it's hard to go back.

Winner: One X

Performance

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It's a debate techies have been having for months. Which is better: NVIDIA's Tegra 3 or Qualcomm's Snapdragon S4? The One series gives us the first real idea of how both processors work on high-end smartphones, and the good news is that both handsets are amazing. Absolutely incredible. With very few exceptions, you'll be completely giddy using either device as your daily driver, as both the One X and One S offer some of the most buttery smooth performance we've had the privilege to experience on a smartphone.

Okay, but which one is better? From what we could tell in real-life usage, the two are neck-and-neck; the quad-core Tegra 3 doesn't offer any substantially significant improvement over the dual-core Snapdragon S4. Sure, the more cores the merrier, but there's certainly more to the performance of the processor than a simple number. We meant serious business in searching for a definitive answer to this puzzling query -- well, as definitive as we can actually get with benchmark scores -- and performed 17 tests. The true comparison of the two chipsets will come when we get our hands on AT&T's version of the One X, because it features nearly the same specs as its global counterpart but uses an S4 instead of Tegra 3. For now, though, this is the closest we'll get.

Here's what we found:

HTC One X HTC One S
Quadrant 4,906 5,053
Linpack (multi-thread) 150.54 222.22
NenaMark2 (fps) 47.6 61.0
Neocore 58.2 60.1
Vellamo 1,617 2,452
SunSpider 9.1 (ms, lower is better) 1,772.5 1,742.5
Moonbat (ms, lower is better) 2,676 2,751
GLBenchmark 2.1 Egypt 51fps 60fps
GL Benchmark 2.1 Pro 54fps 61fps
GL Benchmark Egypt offscreen 63fps 57fps
GL Benchmark Pro offscreen 89fps 98fps
AndEBench (Native / Java) 9,223 / 279 5,866 / 189
AnTuTu 11,030 7,067
SmartBench 2012 (Productivity) 4,731 3,028
SmartBench 2012 (Gaming) 2,632 3,383
HTML5 test 364 343
CF-Bench (Overall) 13,233 9,547

Of the 17 tests shown here, 10 came out in favor of the S. But let's break down some of the benchmarks. Of the four that measure browser performance, the two phones split evenly. One of the tests the S won was Vellamo, a Qualcomm-made tool, so take that score with a grain of salt. Still, a swing of 840 is rather sizable, even if there's a possibility the S may have had a slight home-court advantage.

We were able to get a good glimpse of GPU performance by using GLBenchmark, a suite of 28 various tests that measure the phones' OpenGL ES 2.0 (and GLBenchmark 1.0, in the case of the Pro scores). Of the 28, the X nabbed one and tied with the S in another. With that said, the single test in which the S was bested was the Egypt offscreen benchmark, which renders both loads at the same resolution of 720p.

Quadrant, which seems to be the gold standard of benchmark tests, also gave the S a slight advantage. Take into consideration, though, the fact that this test is run at the device's native resolution, which typically lends to a better score for lower-res displays. How much of an effect this has on the overall score is hard to say.

There were a handful of tests that the X won by a country mile. AndEBench, AnTuTu and CF-Bench, for example, are all multi-threaded tests that played up Tegra 3's strengths. The X creamed the S in productivity in SmartBench 2012 but fell short in gaming, which could be explained by the difference in resolution. The S won decisively in Linpack and Nenamark 2, but some of its other victories were thanks to slim margins.

The S conquered more benchmarks, but the tests favoring the X were essentially no-contest affairs. Can we crown a champion yet? We want to, but it's not going to happen right now, not with so many outlying variables (e.g., screen size and resolution). Both are remarkably powerful and our experience using both was nothing short of mind-blowing. To put it another way, it's kind of like trying to compare Magic Johnson with Larry Bird: both were legendary players in their day, one not necessarily better than the other, considering their various strengths and weaknesses. (Lakers and Celtics fans, just go with this analogy, okay?). It's the same with Tegra 3 and Snapdragon S4; both are champions in the league, and until AT&T's version of the One X comes out to play ball, this game will just have to go into overtime.

Winner: Neither

Battery life

There's one design choice we didn't mention earlier, and it's enough of a doozy that it could potentially swing your decision: neither phone has a user-accessible battery. Sure, both handsets are thinner as a result, but we imagine there will be more than a handful of power users who would happily accept a little extra heft if it meant they could swap in a larger juicepack. And let's face it: with the amount of normal use we're getting out of our phones these days, who isn't turning into a power user?

When it comes to runtime, the advantage clearly goes to the One S. But before we get into specific results, there are few variables to consider: first, the X comes with a 1,800mAh pack compared to the S's 1,650, but it also needs to service a larger, higher-res LCD display -- a big potential drain on any phone's battery life.
HTC One X HTC One S
Video rundown time 6 hours 8.5 hours
Regular-use time 12.5 hours 13.5 hours

As you can see, the screen in this case does indeed has an impact on runtime. In our standard video rundown test, which consists of looping movies with the brightness fixed at 50 percent brightness, the S led the X by two and a half hours. Still, the S only lasted marginally longer with regular use, which included checking email, web browsing, Twitter, Facebook, downloading apps, some light photo / video recording and other miscellany. When we left both phones on standby, only occasionally checking email, taking a photo or placing a call, the One X actually outlasted the S.

This simply confirmed to us what we already knew: the continually backlit LCD display and larger screen size are going to be a significant drain on the battery, especially compared to the AMOLED display on the S. But another aspect that didn't get a lot of love in this department was graphics performance. In fact, after pushing the Tegra 3's GPU through the full gamut of GLBenchmark tests for 20 minutes, the X's battery slipped 17 percent. And how did the S do when faced with the same task? It only experienced a nine percent drop.

Naturally this is going to be a concern to hardcore gamers, but casual smartphone users won't feel the heat quite as much. Getting 12.5 hours in normal use, as our tests indicated, should get you through the better part of a full day, but you may need to plug in your new beauty just after dinnertime. The One S wins a slight advantage in overall battery life, but the chasm between the two sets of scores isn't as wide as you might think.

Winner: One S

Camera

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HTC has been putting a lot of marketing muscle behind its ImageSense technology, and we put its performance through its paces in our review of the One X. Its quick start-up time, machine gun-like continuous shooting and ability to record stills and video simultaneously help make the experience a delightful one. But how different are the cameras on these two phones?

The One S is technically a lower-end device than the X, so it must have a cheaper camera, right? Well, not when it comes to the main, rear-facing camera or its video capture capabilities. Let's break it down: both phones use the same 8-megapixel sensor in back and offer all of the essential components to make ImageSense work as well as it does. Video capture is set at 1080p in both cases. The only difference is the front-facing camera. You'll notice the X delivers a 1.3-megapixel sensor with 720p HD video capture, but the designers in Taiwan weren't as charitable to the S, which makes do with a VGA cam and video capture fixed at 640 x 480 resolution.

But not all is roses and sunshine for the One S when looking at some of the images. Taking shots side-by-side, it's clear that the S produces images that are just a smidgeon overexposed when compared to the One X. Keep in mind that this doesn't mean the photos are worthless junk -- they still turn out great, but the bigger brother is just a tad better in this department. At least, for now. It's highly likely that this slight variation in the cameras' performance is software-related, since every other component is identical between the two devices. We're hoping this will be easily fixed in a future update, but it's important to note for the time being.

Winner: One X

Firmware

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With so many factors to consider, there's at least one that won't have any bearing on your decision: the firmware. Both devices come loaded with Sense 4, the latest version of HTC's custom Android skin running atop Ice Cream Sandwich, and it's virtually identical on both devices, the only exceptions being hardware-related (no Android Beam on the S, for instance). As for the question of whether or not the new Sense is right for you, we'll steer you to our extensive review. Suffice to say, though, if you have your heart set on an HTC device, you won't have a choice when it comes to out-of-the-box firmware.

Winner: Neither

Carriers

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If you live in the US, your experience with either phone might vary depending on which carrier you choose. For instance, as mentioned earlier, both phones will work on AT&T's HSPA+ / UMTS / EDGE networks, though the S will only get the latter in 850MHz coverage. T-Mobile users, on the other hand, are left with only EDGE speeds since neither One offers the requisite AWS radios.

That's for the unbranded global models. However, three of the four major carriers in the US will get a new HTC device to call its own, and each will be "optimized" to work on its respective network: AT&T will stock the LTE version of the One X, which adds in 700 / AWS LTE bands, reduces the storage to 16GB and uses a 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 MSM8960 chipset. T-Mobile opted for the One S with AWS included, to ensure its customers can enjoy 42Mbps HSPA+. Sprint will feature the EVO 4G LTE, a device that's similar to the AT&T One X internally but brings a few radical design choices (read: a kickstand) and bows to a few other carrier whims. Verizon hasn't announced anything, though an Incredible 4G has been rumored for quite some time, and it's uncertain as to whether or not Big Red will decide to offer any additional selections from HTC this spring or summer.

Wrap-up


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Have you chosen a team yet? These two offer a unique litany of temptations: the One X with the more convincing spec sheet and the One S with slightly better battery life. We know this might not be what you want to hear, but we think it's safe to say you can't go wrong either way. It really comes down to whether or not each phone fits comfortably in your hand and gives you the combination of features you want. (It wouldn't hurt if it fell inside your price range, too.) Heck, perhaps it even convinced you to wait for the mystical Samsung Galaxy S III. Regardless of what you choose, we hope our guide has soothed your troubled soul somewhat.

Mat Smith and Myriam Joire contributed to this post.