HTC One VX review AT&T's latest midrange smartphone is worth a closer look

A basic grade school education teaches us that two is better than one, but it doesn't always work the same way when you add letters to phone names. In the case of HTC, the mid-range One VX is more of an average: it seems to take various aspects of the One X, One S and One V and jumbles them together into a $50 AT&T device (on contract). But does that mean this 4.5-inch qHD smartphone and its middle-of-the-road components offer an average experience? Not necessarily. Stay tuned below as we learn if the whole phone is greater than the sum of its parts.

HTC One VX overview

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HTC

HTC One VX

Pros

  • Beautiful, slim design
  • Affordable price
  • Polycarbonate build
  • Solid performance

Cons

  • Comes with older software
  • Camera needs some work
Summary

The One VX may not be perfect, but it offers a sleek design and good performance. It's currently our favorite mid-range Android smartphone on AT&T.

Hardware

DNP HTC One VX review AT&T's latest midrange smartphone is worth a closer look

It's no secret that phone makers pull out all of their snazzy design ideas for high-end flagship products, but we've been pleasantly surprised to see that many manufacturers aren't simply maintaining the status quo when it comes to budget devices either. HTC's mantra -- much of its sense of purpose -- circles around the design of its products, and the VX is no exception to that rule. Much like the One X and One S earlier this year, its entire body is made of polycarbonate; as a result, buyers can not only feel proud flashing it around in public, they can go about the daily grind feeling confident that their phone will make it through the long haul. As we handled the device, we were left with just one concern: we noticed some creaking and flexing when applying pressure to the back, top and bottom. Most of this likely has something to do with the removable back cover, but it still gives us pause.

Measuring in at 133.5 x 67.6 x 9.19mm (5.22 x 2.66 x 0.36 inches), the phone is quite comfortable to hold. It's pretty thin considering its budget status, and the tapered edges on the top and bottom provide us with a firm and steady grip. It's also incredibly light, hitting the scales at 4.4 ounces (124.7g).

The front features a 4.5-inch qHD display with a VGA front-facing camera, LED notification light and earpiece up above and HTC's standard trio of soft keys (back, home and recent apps/menu) underneath. The edge of the entire setup is prominently lined with a gray rim, which also comprises the top part of the phone's back side. Unfortunately, this particular setup ends up making the front of the phone look cheaper than it should.

DNP HTC One VX review AT&T's latest midrange smartphone is worth a closer look

The VX doesn't offer a unibody design like some of its brethren, but HTC still tries to keep the visual interruptions to a minimum. You'll see a power button and 3.5mm headphone jack on the top, a volume rocker on the right and micro-USB charging port on the bottom. The buttons are kept nearly flush with the chassis, protruding ever so slightly so you can push them without too much effort. It's a little better than the design method used on the Droid DNA, where the power button is completely flush and quite difficult to press, though the buttons here still gave us trouble from time to time.

Unlike some of its premium stablemates, the VX utilizes a removable back cover that provides access to the phone's micro-SIM and microSD card slots. That means the battery can be removed as well, right? Wrong. The 1,800mAh battery is embedded and isn't going anywhere unless you express aspirations to be the next iFixit employee. We reached out to HTC for more information on how the phone was designed, and were told that the battery actually rests below the board and behind the display, taking up nearly the entire horizontal space of the VX. If this sounds familiar to you, it's because the VX uses the same pyramid-like structure as the Windows Phone 8X and Droid DNA. Essentially, the reason for the back cover is to tuck away the micro-SIM and microSD slots and minimize the clutter on the outside of the phone.

Granted, a non-removable battery won't be a dealbreaker for most. We doubt very many power users will be calling this handset their daily driver, and thus won't need to swap batteries on a regular basis. Still, it's worth discussing in case this is a crucial factor for you when choosing your next phone.

DNP HTC One VX review AT&T's latest midrange smartphone is worth a closer look

The back of the VX offers a rather minimalistic feel, with the 5-megapixel, rear-facing camera and LED flash on top, HTC logo smack-dab in the center and speaker grille down below just underneath the Beats Audio branding.

The screen is of the 4.5-inch, qHD (960 x 540), SLCD variety, which translates into a pixel density of 245 ppi. Since it uses a standard RGB matrix, you won't have to concern yourself with the ugly jagged icons and texts that tend to accompany PenTile screens. Despite this reviewer's fondness for 720p / 1080p displays, the VX didn't disappoint; instead of wishing we were using a One X+ or Droid DNA, we found ourselves enjoying the experience without the burden of blemishes or pixelation. Movies played at a surprisingly high quality. Viewing angles were incredibly good and outdoor visibility wasn't much of a problem at all.

When it comes to the airwaves that make your connection to the outside world possible, the VX sports dual-band LTE (bands 4 and 17), tri-band HSPA+ / UMTS (850/1900/2100) and quad-band GSM / EDGE (850/900/1800/1900). It also takes advantage of dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n, WiFi Direct, Bluetooth 4.0 and NFC. The VX is also compatible with HTC's Media Link HD and comes with 8GB internal storage -- plus the ability to add 32GB of extra space via microSD.

Software

DNP HTC One VX review AT&T's latest midrange smartphone is worth a closer look

HTC is busily pushing Android 4.1 (Jelly Bean) to most of the devices in its portfolio, so it comes as a disappointment -- though perhaps not a surprise -- that the One VX bears the previous iteration of Google's mobile OS, known as Ice Cream Sandwich. The company promises that an update to the next version will be available "shortly after launch," but AT&T could easily interpret that term differently than the rest of the human population.

Since it's an AT&T Android device, you can expect the usual eyeful of preloaded apps, such as AT&T Code Scanner, FamilyMap, Locker, Navigator, Ready2Go, YPMobile, myAT&T, AT&T Live TV, Messages and more. None of the services can be uninstalled, but most of them can at least be disabled (YPMobile being the exception).

Just as we've seen on other phones within the One series, the recent apps button can be used alternatively as a menu key; long presses are also supported so you can use the soft key for both functions.

The VX also offers the Skyfire-powered browser bar, a stock internet browser extension that's currently being flaunted on other AT&T devices like the One X+, LG Escape and Optimus G. The bar, which runs along the bottom of the screen, features shortcuts to bookmarks, social sharing tools, apps related to the current URL and offers. It shows up by default and can either be minimized with a downward swipe or disabled completely in the settings menu. While it probably sounded like a great idea on the project manager's whiteboard, we found it to be of very little beneficial use since most features can be accessed just as easily through the browser menu without the nuisance of limited screen space.

Camera

DNP HTC One VX review AT&T's latest midrange smartphone is worth a closer look

Phones that offer 8MP or 13MP cameras tend to drift toward the premium side of the quality spectrum, so it's not too hard to swallow the fact that the One VX utilizes a 5MP ImageSense camera. Naturally, megapixel count is the least of our concerns -- we're much more interested in the fact that it's backside-illuminated (BSI), has an f/2.2 aperture and records up to 1080p video. It also offers a few nice settings like HDR, ISO, white balance, macro mode and panorama.

Of course, most of these settings work exactly as advertised, and each image taken in direct sunlight is decently detailed (however, we noticed that a few were overexposed, and purple flare crept into some daylight shots). Unfortunately, white balance typically shifted toward the yellow and the dynamic range was pretty limited. Low-light shots weren't as good as we've seen on devices like the One X+, and they're much noisier than we'd like.

HTC One VX camera samples

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The video performance isn't that much better, either. The motion was typically pretty smooth, but any clips we shot away from direct sunlight were filled with noise. Finally, the least enjoyable part of the experience was the audio. Sounds in the front delivered inconsistent results at best, ranging from muffled to overbearing and occasionally reaching our expectations; our voice behind the phone, however, was consistently muffled and never came through crystal clear.

Performance and battery life

DNP HTC One VX review AT&T's latest midrange smartphone is worth a closer look

The One VX has a 1.2GHz dual-core Snapdragon S4 Plus MSM8930 processor paired with an Adreno 305 GPU and 1GB RAM. This is the first time we've had the chance to review a device with this particular 28nm chipset, which was intended as a lower-cost option for LTE phones. Though it may be a brand-new wafer, its status as a dual-core S4 Plus gives us pretty high expectations and indeed, it didn't disappoint. For its intended price range, this thing is incredibly speedy. Let's first walk through the obligatory benchmarks:

HTC One VX LG Escape Motorola Atrix HD
Quadrant v2 5,242 5,026 5,231
Vellamo 2.0 1,268 1,461 1,374
AnTuTu 3.0 10,552 N/A N/A
SunSpider 0.9.1 (ms) 1,504 1,598 1,570
GLBenchmark 2.5 Egypt 1080p Offscreen (fps) 12 11 13
CF-Bench 7,423 8,112 8,525
SunSpider: lower scores are better. Atrix HD was benchmarked on Android 4.1.

As you can see, it's right in line with other inexpensive AT&T devices and pretty much what we'd expect from an S4 Plus. Granted, it'll get even better once it gets updated to Jelly Bean, but we were happy with our overall experience. Using the internet and playing games were more than satisfactory and the touchscreen was quite responsive. The only concern we had was in the occasional lag when navigating the home screen and app menu, but that primarily occurred when animations were turned on; flipping that switch off largely fixed the problem. Let's put it this way: for a smartphone in its respective pricing tier, the VX offers better-than-expected performance.

DNP HTC One VX review AT&T's latest midrange smartphone is worth a closer look

The 1,800mAh power cell yields above-average battery life. Our standard endurance test, which consists of playing a video on an endless loop at 50 percent brightness (in addition to a few other usual settings), resulted in a decent six hours and 20 minutes of life before shutting off. In real-world usage, however, we used the VX for a full week and a half and rarely needed a charge before bedtime. Moderate users can plan on getting through a full day without a problem, and those who use their phone nonstop should find their device hitting at least 10 hours. Again, this isn't amazing when compared to giants like the Galaxy Note II or RAZR Maxx HD, but it's not expected to be anywhere close in comparison, given the difference in size.

We didn't have any problems with connectivity. GPS locked our location in less than 10 seconds, LTE speeds hovered around 25 Mbps with occasional bursts up to 35 Mbps, Bluetooth and WiFi remained strong and we didn't experience any dropped calls or static. Unsurprisingly, the VX employs Beats Audio as its sound profile of choice, which means you'll get a heckuva lot of bass. Beats haters can still turn off the feature, but audio performance just isn't great without hunting around for a third-party EQ solution. We were blown away by the headset volume, which was so loud we rarely needed to bump the level up past 75 percent; the external speakers were average, though this is one area that suffers from the inclusion of Beats, as a ton of detail and clarity is left out of the music.

Pricing and comparison

DNP HTC One VX review AT&T's latest midrange smartphone is worth a closer look

At $50 with a two-year commitment, the One VX is positioned as a mid-range smartphone but is priced low enough that folks on a budget can still afford it. The LG Escape also fits right in this territory and offers a lot of comparable specs, but you're getting a smaller screen (4.3 inches) and less internal storage (4GB). If you choose the VX, however, you're also sacrificing battery size (2,150mAh on the Escape) and a better front-facing camera (1.3MP). Both devices are solid choices and will fit you well, but we have a slight preference for the VX over the Escape.

Wrap-up

HTC One VX review AT&T's latest midrange smartphone is worth a closer look

With an seemingly endless stream of new phones ready to hit us in the face at CES next week and MWC next month, a mid-ranger like the One VX will probably fade from our memory pretty quickly. Aside from the attractive back and solid performance, it's a forgettable device. But for someone who's seeking a simple and reliable smartphone at a reasonable cost, HTC's latest offering is the best AT&T device in its price range.

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HTC One VX review: AT&T's latest mid-range smartphone is worth a closer look