Certain products have a way of evoking an unmistakable sense of apprehension. The good kind. The kind that manifests in a knot of anticipation and a grin of unabashed expectation. A cellphone that could possibly embody the pinnacle of its technology is certainly one such candidate.
Ever since their first Android phone back in 2009, HTC has repeatedly pushed the envelope on every front of mobile technology–from faster processors to higher-resolution screens to award-winning designs. Of course, their February announcement of their latest and greatest–simply christened the ‘One’ series–was highly anticipated. After spending a little under a week with the One X–their flagship phone–I’m impressed at how far miniaturization and ubiquitous communications technologies have progressed.
While unboxing and powering on the phone, I noted that it is absolutely beautiful. It portrays an understated design sensibility marked by clean lines, ever-so-gentle curves, and absolutely impeccable fit and finish. I received a matt white review device characterized by its enormous 4.7-inch screen, four touch buttons beneath it and an 8 megapixel camera on the back that is encased in slightly puckered molding. The shell of the phone is composed of polycarbonate making it very tough while keeping weight at a minimum, although I did note the lack of heft that only a metal encased phone provides. But from the moment I beheld the sheer sharpness and vividness of the splash screen, it was apparent that this was not your regular high-end phone with a good display–this was breathtaking. The 1280×720 screen–packing 312 pixels per inch–makes for visuals that rival high-quality magazine print. Based on IPS LCD technology (which delivers better brightness, contrast and colors even at extreme viewing angles) the display was stunning, with nicely saturated colors. Try as I did to squint or eyeball the display up close, it wasn’t possible to even see discernible dots on the screen–the sharpness is that close to realism.
The first time the phone started it stepped through the initial configuration process screens and incorporated several wizards along the way–from inserting the MicroSIM card to importing data from other phones over Bluetooth. The phone runs the latest version of Android: v4, or Ice Cream Sandwich. If you’ve used an Android phone, you’d be familiar with the lay of the land–icons on the home screen can be dragged and dropped across other screens, widgets can be added–the interface can be configured quite extensively. The One X uses HTC’s new Sense 4.0 user interface, which features nifty visual bells and whistles. Swipe left and right and the interface carousels smoothly with elements like the weather widget sporting a subtle 3D effect while rotating. My overall experience using the interface was largely pleasant and intuitive, but I did encounter a few stray instances of stuttering. For example, there was noticeable jerkiness while swiping through the interface after enabling the ‘Lava flow’ live wallpaper that creates a neat animation akin to a lava lamp running in the background. I had to disable this live wallpaper and use a static photo to use the phone smoothly. I’d attribute this to a software issue, because the phone itself proved to be a processing powerhouse in other areas.
Regarding processing, at the heart of this phone beats a 1.5 GHz quad-core processor running in tandem with a 12-core graphics chip. To see what all of this horsepower could do, I fired up a particularly demanding game called Frontline Commando–a graphically intensive third-person war shooter that is known to bring phones to their knees. Suffice to say that I was sufficiently blow away with visuals and on-screen gameplay like I’ve never seen on a phone before. Animation was smooth even in the action-packed sequences. I also put the phone through another battery of applications that need fast processing–recording and playing back HD videos. I loaded a variety of 1080p Full HD videos encompassing several file formats, all of which played smoothly and with razor-sharp clarity. Recording HD video was no different–see the sample clip at the end of the review. In the applications where it mattered, it was evident all those processing cores were being put to good use indeed.
While prior versions of HTC’s Sense user interface generally comprised aspects like the interface layout and screen transitions, the mainstay of the latest avatar of Sense used in the One X is the multimedia capabilities: the camera and audio playback experience have been especially beefed up. The 8 megapixel camera is arguably one of the most advanced you can find on a cellphone today. First of all it is fast–0.7 seconds to startup and just 0.2 seconds to focus, so it’s easy to capture fleeting photo ops. It features an f/2.0 lens which means you can capture sharp pictures even in low light. Particularly impressive are the ten camera modes. For example, the Panorama mode simply needs you to pan the phone across a scene while it automatically takes photos at relevant points and stitches them together. Then there’s the HDR mode that enables you to capture scenes with very bright and dark areas in the same frame. The camera also has smile detection, and is particularly effective in the group photo mode, where it automatically captures a photo the instant everyone is smiling and has their eyes open! In addition, there are 16 photographic filters to choose, ranging from Depth of Field, to Distortion to Vignetting and Vintage effects. Click the images below for full-resolution samples. Video recording is also coupled with useful features like digital anti-shake, slow motion video, and the ability to simultaneously take photos while shooting video.
Audio is the other area of focus. This phone incorporates Beats Audio–a set of features that eases access to your music while enabling special audio processing capabilities that supposedly bump up fidelity. The audio application is integrated well into the Sense interface, complete with animated album art, online radio and SoundHound support, along with several preset audio equalizers. However there is no way to create and save custom bass/treble or equalizer presets. Either way, I found a Beats Audio setting that delivered pleasingly clean bass, well-defined mid ranges and crisp highs for my music. Your mileage may vary though.
I’m accustomed to reading eBooks on my phone and use Aldiko Book Reader as my preferred book reading and cataloging application. The phone’s high-density screen made for very enjoyable reading–text appeared pleasingly sharp, which made it easy to read for extended stretches. I also used Pulse News and Dolphin Browser HD for reading news feeds and browsing the Web respectively. After many hours, it was clear the large screen and the snappy performance lent a perfect platform to take in text- and image-based content on the go.
On the connectivity front, this phone incorporates several fledgling technologies. There’s NFC (Near Field Communication) that can potentially be used for a variety of upcoming applications like using your phone to make payments, or getting information wirelessly–all you need to do is touch your phone to another NFC-capable device or product. The phone also supports Bluetooth 4.0–the latest evolution of the popular wireless communication standard that consumes lesser power while upping transfer speeds (a 6MB MP3 song would take under 2 seconds to copy.)
Like most other HTC phones I’ve used, battery life was middling at best–after 11.5 hours of uptime from a full charge, the battery indicated 11%. During this time I had Wi-Fi on continuously, and spent a total of about three hours watching video clips, playing games, surfing the web, using Google Maps, viewing pictures and listening to music. So if you leave the house with a fully charged One X, you’ll most likely need to recharge it at the end of the day if you’re a regular user of the phone’s features. In the interest of full disclosure, being unable to use my regular SIM card with the phone prevented me from using its cellular features. So these battery numbers would be lower still after factoring in regular voice calls and messaging.
Several days of using the One X left me sufficiently impressed. However I did encounter a few areas where this phone fell short of expectation. While in the gallery, for example, I wasn’t able to two-finger pinch-zoom and pan the photo simultaneously, though this action did work in other applications like Google Maps. This downside was unique to the Gallery app itself though. While setting up the phone with my Wireless network I learned there was no way to define a static IP address. This could be a minor annoyance if you plan to use your phone in a place that requires you to make such a setting to access the Internet over Wi-Fi. On the usability front, the sheer size of the phone made it almost impossible to use with one hand using just the thumb; the base of the thumb often touched the edge of the screen, invariably launching an application or causing the screen to carousel! There were also a couple of instances–especially after using a memory-intensive application–that the phone displayed the ‘Loading.’ message for up to ten seconds before returning to the home screen. This is something I didn’t expect of a powerful phone with 1GB of RAM. Also, if you’re upgrading from a phone that is over a year old, there’s every chance you’ll need to exchange your current SIM card for the smaller MicroSIM standard this phone uses. I learned this wasn’t much of an issue though–Vodafone, for example, said it was a free exchange and takes a couple of hours to activate a new MicroSIM card. Finally, the absence of a memory expansion slot might be an issue to power users who require more than its 32GB of built-in storage.
Minor shortcomings aside, the HTC One X showcases bleeding-edge technologies that come together in an elegant and very well-crafted device. Its undoubtedly gorgeous display and best-of-class processing hit the spot for applications that are graphically intensive. The latest HTC Sense 4.0 is noticeably lighter and snappier, and the new networking technologies will keep you armed and ready when the time comes. I’m reckoning many of its minor shortcomings can be addressed through a software update, so there’s every reason to call this phone the king of the hill. As is wont with smartphone launches these days, expect plenty of hot-on-the-heels competition from Samsung et al. But for now the HTC One X is the reigning Bugatti Veyron of smartphones–seriously powerful, but likely to run out of juice faster than you expect.
Sample media: Click the thumbnails below to view the full resolution images from this phone.