2011 was not HTC's year. Despite what appeared to be a strong start at Mobile World Congress in February 2011, by the tail-end of the year HTC had seen its device sales slump and rivals like Samsung steal its innovation crown, no small shock for the company which had long been known as the Android backbone. 2012, then, sees HTC become the challenger again, and the HTC One X is the powerhouse of that attack. Packing a quadcore Tegra 3 chipset in European form, it's a big, fast answer to those who said HTC had let specifications slip. Question is, does the One X do enough to leave HTC in a solid position ahead of the Samsung Galaxy S III and the iPhone 5?
HTC has pulled out the stops with the One X, and it's a cohesive and appealing design. A combination of lightweight polycarbonate and Gorilla Glass combine - with some neat curves and join-line detailing - to make a phone that belies the scale of its display. HTC still manages to fit in an 8-megapixel main camera, a 1.3-megapixel front camera, and docking connectors for an optional cradle, along with the 4.7-inch 1280 x 720 Super LCD screen. The HTC One X addressed major complaints with pretty much the majority of HTC's industrial design of their handsets over the past couple of years.
That screen is bright and clear, and ideal for multimedia playback. Colors are clean though don't show that over-saturated artificial hue we've seen from some AMOLED panels, and the touch layer itself is responsive. Opting for plastic rather than metal has an impact on hand-feel but it's worth it: one of our big criticisms of 2011 HTC flagships was that they felt heavy and cumbersome, something we can't say of the One X.
Inside, in European form at least, is NVIDIA's 4+1 core Tegra 3 chipset along with 1GB of RAM and 32GB of storage. There's no access to the battery and no way to add extra memory; instead you get a pop-out microSIM tray and a free two-year 25GB DropBox account that's integrated with the various apps on the One X. Connectivity rises to quadband WCDMA/HSPA+ (850/900/1900//2100) but no LTE; for that we'll have to wait for AT&T's version, due later this year, which adds in 4G but uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 dual-core chipset rather than the NVIDIA quadcore of its Euro counterpart.
Otherwise it's a roll-call of the latest and greatest: WiFi a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0 complete with support for the aptX high-quality streaming stereo audio profile, DLNA and MHL-HDMI for wireless or wired HD video output (with the correct adapter, not included), a 3.5 headphones jack with Beats Audio, and NFC. The latter is currently used primarily for Android Beam, useful for firing across webpages and the like between the One X and the Galaxy Nexus, though at some point Google Wallet may make an appearance.
Finally there's the expected digital compass, g-sensor, GPS, proximity and light sensors, and gyroscope. HTC throws a compact AC adapter, a set of headphones and a USB to microUSB cable in the box with the One X.
Software and Performance
Until now, HTC devices have run on Android 2.3 Gingerbread; in fact it's only been within recent weeks that Ice Cream Sandwich has been pushed to existing users. The One Series - of which the One X is the flagship - changes all that, launching with Android 4.0 as standard, complete with HTC Sense 4.0.
The usual suite of Android apps - Gmail, the freshly renamed Play Market, Google Talk, etc. - are onboard, and HTC adds in its own Music Hub with shortcuts to TuneIn radio, local tracks and more. We were never much fans of Sense because it felt like it bogged down the system, hindering performance and chewing away precious battery life, but 4.0 changes things for the better.
HTC's custom interface started out as a desperate reskin of Windows Mobile, evolved to rub the rough edges off of early Android iterations, and gradually became a bloated, over-designed UI and app suite in more recent phones. Much of that has seen turnaround in v4.0, faster and more responsive than before and with a new batch of widgets that, though unmistakably HTC, are also useable enough to make them worth including.
Most of the alterations now seem consciously intended to speed the user-experience, rather than simply change it. Little details, like the ability to shoot photos and video simultaneously, or to quickly snap a freeze-frame during video playback for instance, along with the ease of opening an incognito tab for private browsing, right alongside the regular new-tab button. New calculator widgets pull more useful functionality direct to the homescreen, and the Evernote synchronization with the native Notes app is useful and cleanly integrated.
HTC Sense 4.0 demo
Best of all, this is a fast phone. Tegra 3 has already proved its worth in Android tablets, and the One X is little different. Apps load quickly and multitask with no lag; images open and pinch-zoom smoothly. Full HD video plays - either on the One X's display or via MHL-HDMI output - without jerking.
HTC's camera on the One X is a group effort: a new 8-megapixel backside-illuminated sensor, paired with F2.0 28mm wide-angle optics and a dedicated imaging processor. There's also a smart LED flash which is meant to adjust its brightness depending on the proximity of the subject, though we struggled to see too much of a difference.
The camera app is streamlined, with simultaneous on-screen controls for taking snapshots and shooting video. It's possible to do both at the same time, too. Up to 1080p HD video can be filmed - 720p from the front camera - with digital image stabilization and optional slow-motion.
Sample 1080p video:
HTC ONE X Sample slow motion videos:
The 1,800 mAh Li-Ion battery is non-replaceable, HTC following a trend led by its rivals and trading flexibility for benefits in design. HTC managed to slim the One X down to only 8.9mm as a result of its unibody design, but we still managed to get on an average of 7-9 hours of "regular" usage, and peaking at 12-hours and 41 minutes on less busy days.
Standby time is amazing. On a full charge we managed to squeeze out 8-hours of extremely-light usage overnight, waking up with 85-percent left over, and after which we still managed to get another 6-hours of usage. Of course, great battery life has a lot to do with NVIDIA's new Tegra 3 processor, with its 4+1 cores: four primary cores, plus a fifth core that handles low level activities such as push email in the background.
There were four key areas the One X needed to excel at, if it was to stand a chance. First there's the in-hand appeal, and the thin, lightweight phone certainly ticks that box. It's closest to "sexy" that an HTC has managed in some years, and yet it still manages to tick box two, great battery life. Pushing over ten hours on a single charge with a lot of usage is no small feat, besting phones with lesser chipsets than the One X offers.
The Tegra 3 ticks the One X's third box: awesome performance and a great user experience. The NVIDIA chipset is fast and capable, and Sense 4.0 returns HTC to its previous software form. Some users will no doubt prefer Ice Cream Sandwich untampered with, but Sense delivers a good balance of user-friendly customization without hampering speed. You may not know the difference between using a dual-core handset versus the One X until you've lived with it for about a week, and then switch back to something like the Galaxy Note, but it's noticeable.
Finally, there's the camera and multimedia, with the 8-megapixel BSI sensor, dedicated imaging chip, Beats Audio and bright, eminently watchable display earning the One X its final tick. That's four serious criteria for success that last year's HTC range failed at. It's too soon to say whether the Galaxy S III and iPhone 5 will prove the One X's undoing, but one thing is for sure: HTC has thrown down the gauntlet with its new flagship, and the One X sets the bar high.