Headlining a new, simpler, HTC is the HTC One X. It leads the charge of a trio of handsets in the HTC One series and brings with it specs that are impossible to ignore. It is, perhaps, a defining phone for 2012, one of the first to arrive that offers everything this year is about.
But does the HTC One X do enough to satisfy those who have become a little weary of the HTC way? Has Sense 4 evolved enough to accommodate everything that Android offers, without the feeling that HTC is squashing the OS under its heel? We've been living with HTC One X to bring you a full and thorough review.
HTC has made no bones about how important design is. It has been one of the foremost principles in the creation of its most recent phones, something that Scott Croyle, VP of design at HTC's design agency, recently outlined to us.
Separating designer and marketing speak from reality is of course important. The good news is that the contours of the One X make it a comfortable and secure phone to hold. The chassis - although naturally large, thanks to the huge display- feels secure in the hand and that comes down to the polycarbonate body and some clever lines.
The curve of the back makes the One X sit nicely in the hand, while the angular lines - which wouldn't look out of place on a BMW - provide grip points within the recesses of your digits. That said, there is no avoiding the fact that the One X is a massive phone, and that will be an issue for those with smaller hands, just like the HTC Sensation XL before it.
The One X measures 134.36 x 69.9 x 8.9mm and although large, it's nice that HTC has put some effort into making this phone slim. As such, it doesn't bulge in your pocket. It also weighs only 130g, which is surprisingly light. Lighter, indeed, than the Sensation XL and XE.
We like the way the body meets the screen. The sharp contrast between the white of the case and the black of the screen bezel is clean and minimalist. But there is no battery access, no microSD card slot, nothing. All you have is a small tray for the micro-SIM card. It's very different in that sense from previous HTC devices, where you've been able to remove the entire back of the phone to access the innards.
The result is a seamless design. It's futuristic, with micro drilled holes, rather than recessed grills, for the speakers, and a matte finish on the rear which stays mercifully free of fingerprints. We were concerned that the white version of the phone might become grubby, but having been put through its paces, it's still looking as good as new.
Hardware and controls
Launching as an Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich device, the HTC One X has three touch controls across the bottom of the display.
There is a standby/power button on the top along with the 3.5mm headphone jack, the volume rocker sits on the right-hand side and the left offers the Micro-USB - which also supports MHL if you want to use it as an HDMI output. That's it for physical controls and connections, resulting in a clean and minimalist arrangement.
Under the skin things are much more comprehensive. Sitting at the core of the HTC One X is the new Nvidia Tegra 3 quad-core chipset. This is clocked at 1.5GHz and backed by 1GB RAM. There is 32GB of internal memory but, as mentioned, no opportunity to expand local storage, which is too bad for those that want to move an existing card loaded with content on to the device.
But that appears to be the new trend in Android. What was once one of the benefits of the platform has been stripped away; while we find it annoying that top-tier Android smartphones are losing this convenient option, it isn't a huge problem, it just means you need to put in the time initially loading your device with content and accept that your limit might be slightly lower than previously.
Elsewhere the One X benefits from the normal wireless connectivity, but you'll find that Bluetooth 4 is enhanced with apt-X for higher quality Bluetooth audio (with compatible devices) and NFC is packed in too, so you'll be able to use Android Beam and Wi-Fi Direct functions.
The display of the HTC One X is stunning. Measuring 4.7-inches on the diagonal, it's one of the largest around, before you get to the slightly unmanageable size of a device like the Samsung Galaxy Note.
It also gets the HD tag, with a resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels. That gives it a pixel density of 312ppi. The high resolution means that fonts are sharper, fine details resolve better and everything - from the app icons to the menus - looks better than lesser devices.
The sheer size adds to the impact of this great display. It's not the first big device from HTC, but the resolution adds the missing piece to the puzzle that the Sensation XL and the Titan lacked.
But it isn't just the resolution that we like in the One X. HTC has worked to reduce the air gap between the physical display and the surface you touch. This has also been a trend of late, something that Sony Ericsson did remarkably well with on the Xperia Arc, and it looks wonderful here too.
The colours produced by the Super LCD display are impressive and there is enough brightness to stay usable in bright sunshine. We found the automatic brightness coped well, adjusting with enough gusto to keep things comfortably visible.
The result is that the One X makes other devices look average. Set alongside something like the Sensation XE, which is impressive in its own right, the One X looks like a real step forward.
HTC Sense 4 meets Android 4
The HTC One X launches with Ice Cream Sandwich as its operating system, making it among the first new devices to do so. It might seem a small point, but in a world where the slightest delay in updating draws criticism from customers, it gets HTC off to the right start.
Of course, HTC has never just let Android be Android, so you'll find it heavily customised with Sense 4. This is the latest version of Sense, incorporating much of what has rolled into Sense 3.7 (which you can read about in detail here). The aim, HTC maintains, is to make sure that it doesn't take anything away from native Android with the changes it makes.
Landing on the home page, that much is obvious. It is a cleaner, more dynamic, arrangement than previous HTC devices, washing away the restrictive launcher and obsession with "personalising" everything. Ironically, the new Sense can be personalised to a greater degree than previously, thanks to the new layout.
A central apps tray icon is flanked by spaces on each side into which you can drop shortcuts. These also accept folders, so rather than dropping icons on your home screen you can just create a folder in the launch bar. It's nice, tidy, convenient, but also common across most new Android devices.
But behind this upfront easing of HTC Sense, you'll find that it tinkers on just about every level as it always has. Visually, much of Android 4's character has gone. You rarely catch a glance of the blue Tron-esque look of native Ice Cream Sandwich, so although this is a lighter touch, it's instantly recognisable as HTC Sense, with all its widgets and features.
The first startup of the device invites you to sign in to a huge number of preinstalled and linked services - Facebook, Twitter, Evernote, Dropbox, SkyDrive and so on. HTC has done a deal with Dropbox giving you an additional 23GB of storage when you sign in, although this lasts only for 24 months, presumably until you get your next HTC device.
With all this signing in, you'll find these services ready to roll on the device, along with a fair amount more. One of the nice features is being able to search for apps within the apps tray, returning instant results as you type. If you love apps, you'll love this feature for routing out that obscure program you can't find.
The lock screen offers a wide range of features, with the convenient unlock options. Unlike previous versions of Sense you don’t get to choose the apps you can unlock to. Instead it takes the launch bar shortcuts and offers you those. So if you have a folder, you unlock directly to that folder.
You also get music controls from the lock screen, as well access to the notification bar. As previously, the notification bar is richly populated, although you don't get recent apps offered here any more, because Ice Cream Sandwich brings with it the recent apps button and a new approach to multitasking.
HTC Sense 4 tweaks this too. In Honeycomb and native Ice Cream Sandwich, the recent apps view presents thumbnails that will scroll up and down the page vertically. HTC Sense 4 turns this into larger screen grabs that scroll horizontally. It's six of one and half a dozen of the other: the HTC approach perhaps looks better, but the native Android approach fits more on the display, so is arguably faster to use.
Returning to notifications, Sense 4 still gives you a rich notifications area. This is also accessible from the lock screen, so you can instantly see missed calls or messages and unlock the phone to take direct action. You get a convenient Settings button, so you can quickly access the menu. Gone is the slightly fiddly dual-tabbed notifications area of previous versions of Sense, making things not only tidier, but faster to access.
Sense 4 generally sticks to Android 4 app-control conventions. Obviously the menu button has now gone, so settings are accessed via the in-app button, usually depicted with three dots. HTC has put in the effort to conform to this, so you'll find the menu in the top right-hand corner in Sense's modified apps, giving a nice level of consistency across the experience.
There is still one thing we really don't like though, and that's HTC's insistence on pushing its "Locations" over Google Maps. Once you have addresses in your contacts or calendars, this will link through to maps, but the default is HTC's own service, which is lacklustre, to say the least.
Fortunately there is an app to fix that for you and a quick download of Select Other Map for HTC will fix the problem.
With all the screen space available, it might come as a surprise that in general use you don't get more space on the screen. One thing you'll quickly notice is that the homepage will take only as many icons as previous devices like the Sensation XE, and that's 16. This is because the screen is divided into spaces and these spaces are now larger, as are the app icons.
The other thing you'll notice is that the keyboard is now massive, with an added run of cursor keys across the bottom. As a result, you get to see less of the webpage or message you're writing than you might expect. Install a third-party keyboard, like SwiftKey X (pictured above), and you'll get a little more space back again.
We have no problem typing on smaller keyboards and we didn't find that making it larger improved the experience. At least you have plentiful choices from the Play Store, or HTC's swipe input that you can also enable.
The browser has also had some tweaking. You get Flash support which can be toggled in the options, as well as the desktop view option that's standard in Ice Cream Sandwich. You also get a neat "read" option, that strips everything out apart from the text, so you can read without images or adverts. It doesn't work on all pages (and we can't figure out why) but giving the space and the fine rendering of detail, we're not sure if you'll use it.
Browsing is slick and fast and we found that Flash content was handled well, but the limit of six tabs maximum at any one time is a little restrictive.
We've touched on the music player and this is an area where HTC has made a few more changes. The music player is richly featured and enhanced by Beats Audio. Connect your headphones and you'll get the option to disable Beats, but we'd recommend you leave it on, because it sounds fantastic.
The Beats enhancement, however, cannot be adjusted; you can't tailor the effect to your liking and it’s noticeably bass heavy. One of the launch claims of the new One series is that Beats Audio is device wide, so you benefit whether you're watching BBC iPlayer or listening to Spotify. In some cases, the Beats icon will appear on the notifications bar so you know this is true, but this isn't the case for some apps, like BBC iPlayer, so it's difficult to discern whether Beats is doing anything or not. However, we had no complaints about the audio quality, whatever we were doing.
One of the other neat changes to music in Sense 4 is that Music is now a hub, rather than a single app. Open up music and you'll get access to local music files as well as other music services. We installed Spotify and found it was automatically added, but you can also add your own app shortcuts manually. This means you can drop the music shortcut on a home page and in one click you are through to all your music options, which is really smart.
The music hub also gives you a list of recently played tracks, with the option to queue or create playlists. You can access media servers here too, it's a nice convenient approach to handling all your music in one place.
Previously Sense was rather messy in dealing with network content, with a number of different access routes and apps which essentially all did the same thing. Now things are slightly more simplified, with the option to access "media servers" from within Gallery or Music via the in-app menu.
Within the Gallery, the dropdown menu offers access to all your different services, so you can navigate through to view friends' albums as well as your own from the Gallery. Accessing your media server offers up file/folder navigation, finally arriving at thumbnails, which is fast enough. You don't get the option to save locally from network sources, however.
Although we had no problems getting network music and photos to play, the One X resolutely refused to play almost all video. We suspect this is a problem either with our review device or a software bug, as older HTC devices will play these videos with no problems.
However, video content looks fantastic when it does play.
HTC has included the option to share content from its phones for a while, but now it's introduced a gesture-based "throw" feature. Assuming you have the HTC Media Link HD, you'll be able to swipe your One X to mirror on your TV. Unfortunately we didn't have this accessory to test, so we can't comment on how well it performs, apart from the demo we've seen previously.
However, the three-finger swipe will also work with Bluetooth. Swipe a music track and it will offer to throw it to a connected Bluetooth device. We fired our music over to the Creative ZiiSound T6 system, which also supports the apt-X codec, with great results. It's worth noting that when the One X is playing through its own external speaker it won't engage Beats Audio, but when you connect to a Bluetooth device it does.
You also get Watch in the mix if you want to buy your movies from HTC, although there are many othr options, including Google itself, if that's what you're after. The impressive thing, although little is unique to HTC, is that all this media action (aside from the Media Link HD) comes straight out of the box. The experience is cleaner than before so we have less to complain about.
HTC put the camera at the top of the pile when it announced the One X, but so did every other manufacturer. With an 8-megapixel sensor on the back, the One X has an updated and much simpler camera interface making it faster and easier to take stills or video, with both buttons on offer all the time.
The camera is very fast to capture your photos in normal conditions. Focusing is fast in daylight and often you'll find the camera is focused and ready as you line up your shot, rather than having to wait for the thing to find a focal point after pressing a button. Touch focusing means you can pick any point to focus on if things aren't quite right. Face detection also works really well, meaning faces are usually in focus when you take the shot.
Continuous capture is offered by holding the on-screen button. This will then present you with the shots to select the best one to save. It's ideal for those moments when something exciting is happening and you don't want to miss the action: people jumping into a pool, animals doing stupid things, an attempt at a ridiculous stunt, etc.
But be warned. The rapid shutter style clicking it makes as it fires off shots doesn't actually correlate to an image being captured: the sound effects make it sound like it's capturing faster than it actually is.
Also, we'd much rather a persistent green focal point acknowledgement so you know where it is focused. Although you can usually see which subject is in focus, as you don't get the "press and hold" to focus option, there can be a slight feeling that you're not always in control: in this sense, it is trumped by the Sony Xperia S in the camera department.
Generally speaking the results are very good in daylight conditions. Our test shots were perhaps a little pink, probably down to some saturation tweaking in the phone as the JPEG is being produced. You can alter the saturation manually, which may make faces look more natural. It's worst in low light when flesh tones can look a little too red - never a great look.
Low light is still a problem, slowing down focusing and, even when the LED flash fires, there is a lot of noise marring detail. But that's true of all phones, so we can't be too critical. We still refute claims that this will replace a compact camera, but you'll get some cracking shots from the One X.
Full HD video capture, at 30fps, garners some nice results. However, we also found this had something of a pinky tinge. The audio capture from our samples wasn't fantastic, but it was in fairly difficult conditions. Focusing in video is good however, adapting as the scene changes, but also with the option to touch focus if things aren't quite right.
You can also capture stills while shooting video, which is a clever option and one made possible thanks to HTC's inclusion of both buttons rather than a fiddly slider.
There is an HDR option which does work, but as it takes two shots and combines them, you need to keep the phone perfectly steady and have no movement, or you'll get a lot of ghosting.
There is a front-facing camera for video calling, although we found the quality wasn't great and again it suffered from over-saturation - exactly the sort of thing you don't want when video calling indoors - and stills don't come out well either.
Finally on the camera, we like that there's a camera link directly from the Gallery and we also like the capture option from the video player - so if you want to grab a still of a movie, you simply hit the button.
Performance, calling, battery
So far we've said little about the actual performance of the One X. Sure, it does a lot, but does it do it well? In a word, yes. This is a silky smooth Android experience, the power of the One X and the improvements in Android and Sense 4 make this an excellent smartphone experience. Many new devices demonstrate some stability problems, but we've found the HTC One X to be pretty much free of problems.
It's easy to forget that this is also a phone, but happily we can report that we experienced no problems with calls during our time with the phone. Callers come across loud and clear and we didn't experience any problems with reception.
But with all this power and a huge screen, you'd expect the battery to be the area where the phone critically fails. The 1800mAh cell might not be the largest when set alongside rivals from Motorola, but it performs pretty well in reality. It saw us through a long working day with plenty of calls and data use, along with typical use of the camera and some HD video capture, offering around 13 hours of use.
If you work it hard, play a lot of games on your commute, constantly listen to music or make lots of calls, you'll see the battery fall away, but it's better than we expected. On light days, we've had no battery worries at all, but you'll still be charging every night.
With the HTC One X we were prepared not to be disappointed, but that isn't the case. HTC's attention to detail in design has created a device that looks great as well as being practical to use. Yes, it's large, but it works as a large device and the display is fantastic.
We had also prepared ourselves to find that HTC Sense was too oppressive. Yes, HTC has played with Android at every level and there may be some things you don't like, but it does now feel like a lighter touch. It's definitely HTC, but we've spent more time appreciating the additions, rather than berating the flaws.
There's also plenty we haven't touched on - the convenient HTC Car interface, the movie editor, the integrated address book experience.
Yet, this isn't a perfect phone. We found the camera was oversaturated by default and could do some things better, the keyboard takes up too much space with little benefit, Google Maps is shunned for Locations and media streaming from a network didn't want to work. But these aren't insurmountable problems, easily fixed with tweaks or third-party apps (and we're sure HTC will fix the media streaming problem).
The HTC One X is an excellent and fitting flagship handset. It's a great smartphone to live with: a cleaner, fresher HTC experience, packed into a device with the power to impress and a design that will turn heads.
UPDATE: Since writing this review, HTC has announced the HTC One X+, a slightly upgraded version of this phone, you can read all about it on our HTC One X+ homepage.