HTC One X Smartphone REVIEW

4 stars

$999

Here’s a top-notch Droid from HTC with one or two caveats

APPLE’S IPHONE HAS been my phone of choice for close to two years now, and even though I use the old 3GS model, it’s been an incredibly effective tool in all its guises – phone, camera, music player, games platform, entertainment centre, travel aid and productivity device. I work and play in the Apple ecosystem – iPod Classic, iPod Shuffle, iPhone, MacBook Pro and iTunes. As far as integration goes, it’s tough (if not impossible) to beat the way all these devices work together, which will keep me locked into being an iPhone user for the foreseeable future.

However, I’m still a technology junkie at heart, so I keep my eyes on what else is out there in smartphone land. While I wouldn’t use a Blackberry again for love or money, and anything running Windows Phone leaves me ice-cold, I’m always keen to try the latest in Android powered phones to see if the “slavish copy” (as Steve Jobs called Android) has gotten closer to being the all-singing, all-dancing device it could be with Google’s deep pockets and creativity behind it.

HTC’s One X is the hero product in the HTC stable and as such, it should be a highly developed state-of-the-art device. It really is an impressive looking phone, exceedingly slim and attractive in its white and black finish and boasting a crisp 4.7-inch (1,280 x 720) screen, which incidentally is about as big as a smartphone should be, Samsung Galaxy Note notwithstanding. Any bigger and the phone becomes unmanageable as a single-handed device, with the One X proving to be a fraction unwieldy even for my decently sized paws. The screen really is superb, the resolution, pixel density and viewing angle make it a pleasure to stare at for long periods of time, and it’s big enough to make for a genuinely viable multimedia-viewing platform.

The white finish is a durable and remarkably scratch-resistant plastic, which makes sense on a phone this slim – it would be a shame to place it in a bulky case, so I suspect most users will apply a stick-on screen guard instead and let the body deal with any abuse. The One X will look pristine far longer than any gloss finish would, that’s for sure. There are three flush front-mounted backlit buttons, including one that switches between open apps in a 3D display style, which looks great. The body doesn’t have too many controls or switches to mar its lines but the one thing that’s notably missing in action is a MicroSD card slot – while the 32Gb of onboard storage sounds like a lot, it’s not a big ask for HTC to depart from the restrictive Apple system and give users the option to add extra removable storage as needed. The phone does come with a free Dropbox account with 25Gb of storage, so stashing heaps of stuff online is easy enough, but that’s not quite the same as being able to load 60Gb of music and movies onto the phone.

Battery life seemed to be about average for a fully featured smartphone with a screen this big; in other words, standby time was good but the battery went bye-bye in a hurry when the ‘phone was used hard with 3G, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connections plus a lot of screen and processor activity. Expect to charge it once a day in heavy use, but that’s par for the course.

The One X features a Quad core processor and runs Android 4.0 with HTC’s Sense 4 overlay, so the phone is speedy in use and is running a very clean looking, customisable and capable operating system. Android certainly is stable; I tried hard to overload and crash the One X while I had it, but despite heavy multitasking and almost malicious back-and-forth app switching, I only had one crash in hundreds of hours of use. Most of the Android apps I used were also very stable. The phone never feels laggy and the touchscreen is sensitive enough to register every press, so the user isn’t left waiting for things to happen, which makes for an enjoyable experience. When you consider how many hours of daily use a phone as versatile as the One X could get, that’s a very good thing indeed.

As a media device, the One X does a superb job, thanks not least of all to that big screen. The music player is quick to load, responsive in use and user-friendly but not as simple as Apple’s iOS version. The built-in speakers aren’t too bad, a bit tinny at the top end but tolerable, while the headphone output had no trouble driving any of the earphones or headphones I tried, and sounded sufficiently meaty and solid, not thin and feeble like some phones.

There’s a Beats Audio logo on the back of the phone, which is meant to signify the presence of an audio enhancement. Whenever music or video is playing, you have the option to turn it on. Don’t bother. It seems to be little more than a loudness button with delusions of grandeur – ‘80s Mega-Bass Walkman on steroids if you like – best suited for making really cheap earphones sound more fulsome. On a decent set of ‘phones, it added a fair amount of weight but did nothing for clarity and on a really revealing set of ‘phones (Sony’s new four driver XBA-4 model as reviewed here), the Beats Audio option muddied the entire midrange while fattening the bottom end far more than it needed to.

Something worth mentioning is that there’s still no dedicated audio dock functionality, but this failing isn’t unique to HTC. You’d think that by now, Google would have promulgated the specifications for a proper audio port with a universal fit and a direct digital output to take on the Apple dock market. Samsung’s high-end iPod speaker docks will also accept the USB port on the newer Galaxy phones but as far as an Android standard goes, nothing doing. Is the theory perhaps that Android users can’t appreciate good sound or real convenience, so a 3.5mm to 3.5mm cable will do the job? I can’t see that to be the case but perhaps Google doesn’t believe in collecting fees for a range of “Made for Android” docks (yeah right). Or the problem might be that the plethora of Android models made by the different manufacturers puts Google in the position of being a cat herder, unable to corral all those ornery critters? Either way, it should be resolved post haste.

The One X’s camera is well implemented up to a point. It’s very quick to start up, has lots of functionality including high speed continuous shooting, extremely quick focus, a wide selection of filters and access to heaps of different settings, but there are just too many pixels on that tiny sensor – the phone makers are still enamored by Megapixels (get over it ASAP please – sharp is good, blurry is bad, okay?) The image quality is reasonable at best, but it’s noticeably grainy and the photos aren’t as sharp as they could be, say if there was a five MP sensor in there instead of an eight MP model. The flash is bright enough to be of real use and its output is well controlled. So as a camera phone the One X is close to anything currently out there, but HTC has missed the chance to break new ground by combining that excellent functionality and all the features with some all-important class leading image quality. The video quality is good though, with the ability to grab still images while shooting or even while playing back video files if you notice a particularly charming frame.

There are heaps of Apps preloaded on the phone, and most of them do exactly what they’re there to do. There are stacks of Apps for Android now; the platform is definitely not a poor sibling to Apple’s in this regard (as it once was). Gaming is fabulous on the One X – with a big, bright screen and a fast processor; games load fast and play smoothly. They’re best experienced with earphones though; the onboard speaker can’t really match the vigour of the graphics. Google integration is very good as expected, with the various Google bits and pieces seamlessly talking to each other, so mapping, Gmail access and contacts are well managed. There’s also an excellent car mode that transforms the look and feel of the One X to suit the in-car environment, with bigger icons and a simplified look and feel.

HTC’s One X proved to be an extremely competent phone over a lengthy review period. While an iPhone is still my personal choice for the reasons outlined in the introduction, I can see how someone who’s not neck-deep in Apple gear would be entirely happy with this phone. It’s a looker and it’s versatile, flexible and fast with features aplenty. If the camera was as good as the rest of the phone, this would be close to being a killer product; if the battery life was magically improved and a universal digital-capable audio dock could be fitted, then it would be a killer product, end of story. As it stands, it’s certainly a compelling choice at the top end of the smartphone segment. ASHLEY KRAMER

The HTC One X is available from all three mobile providers.

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