Review: The HTC One X on AT&T

It takes a lot to impress me with new hardware. Each new phone is an incremental gain on its competitors, and on the phone which came before it. I believe we are now entering the age of “The Infrastructure” where services, network, support, software, and ecosystem are more important than any one hardware revision.

However, when a company executes a well organized change of direction, and delivers a unique experience while laying the groundwork for future releases, that one new phone will make me stand and take notice.

I really didn’t think HTC was capable of making a phone like the One X.

At the beginning of the year, HTC started making noise about streamlining their product lineup. Companies routinely make announcements about “re-organization;” but as consumers, we rarely see the benefit of such measures.

The Android environment has become something of a zoo lately. Even within individual companies, phones were being released every other month in an effort to attain (or retain) the king of the hill crown. This quickly led to resentment from consumers, whose purchases were rendered “obsolete” weeks (or sometimes days) after they’d been locked into a contract. It also has exacerbated Android’s current support woes, as each manufacturer has dozens of phones to support with each new update.

Behold the fruits of streamlining.

At once a phone which follows in a great tradition of build quality, but which now finally displays a design aesthetic worthy of praise. It’s an organic evolution of everything I’ve liked about previous HTC handsets, but which strikes an impression I normally reserve for companies like Nokia.

You’re probably familiar with the specs: 4.7” 720P Super IPS LCD2 covered in Gorilla Glass, Dual core Qualcomm Krait CPU clocked at 1.5GHz paired with an Adreno 220 GPU, 8MP rear camera (with 1080p video) and 1.3MP front camera (with 720p video), 16GB of onboard storage with 1GB of RAM, quad band GSM radios with support for AT&T LTE, the USB port is MHL to support HDMI out, 1800mAh Li-Po (non-replaceable) battery, and lastly, NFC is on board too.

Let’s start with the build. The One X is lean and light, but evenly balanced. The entire body is a one piece polycarbonate shell similar to the manufacturing process used on the Lumia 900. There are almost no seams on the device, with the only breaks coming from the buttons and the SIM tray. This provides the phone a very high-quality matte finish, and the soft grip texture is welcome since I’ve got pretty sweaty hands.

Unlike previous HTC devices (which have felt like bricks to me), the One X has graceful tapers which remind me of the Galaxy Nexus, helping the device feel smaller in the hand than its size would normally indicate. It’s still tricky to use one-handed, but it doesn’t feel as unwieldy as square-ish, large screened devices feel. The low weight of the device was surprising. I felt like I was going to fling the phone the first time I picked it up, but it took very little time to get used to. Kinda nice using a phone which doesn’t feel like a lead weight in the hand or in the pocket.

The phone is big. Just look how it makes this totally regular sized hamburger look just like a mini slider hamburger…

This is the best screen on a mobile device to date. If you’ve read any of my previous reviews, you know how much I love AMOLED screens; but the LCD2 takes the crown. Contrast and saturation are phenomenal. You don’t quite have the same “pools of ink” blacks that you get with AMOLED, but the display is eye-searingly bright. This is one of the easiest displays to read outdoors that I’ve ever used. I hear the reason for this is the minimal gap between the outer glass and panel–and I’d be inclined to agree. Images on this screen seem to float on top of the glass, and the viewing angles are incredible.

This phone is the final nail in the coffin for lower resolution displays on premier handsets. 720P is now the standard for “high end.” Yes iPhone. I’m looking at you.

To go along with a fabulous screen, HTC has also radically improved their camera. This is one of the best mobile shooters I’ve ever used. It’s as responsive as the camera on the Galaxy Nexus, with an almost zero-lag shutter, but it doesn’t feel as squirrely and the output is much better.

Low-light photography is the best I’ve seen yet in a phone. Noise reduction will smear some of the fine-level detail, but in ambient mood lighting, I was still able to freeze slow movement and take crisp shots of stationary objects.

I have a minor gripe as the default settings are WAY over-saturated; reds are always a dead giveaway, but thankfully the app allows you to adjust jpeg output. Also, exposure settings are a little overly reactive. Framing a shot with a bright sky in the background will probably lead to underexposing your subject without adjusting the camera app’s settings.

Also improved is video output. HTC lists video stabilization as a feature, and I believe it. Using two hands to shoot, video was free of the rolling shutter jerkiness I see on other cameras. Detail is crisp thanks to the high bit rate the camera exports. My gripe about exposure is echoed here however. If a bright sky is in your shot, your subject will be underexposed. Let’s take a quick trolley ride around The Grove in Los Angeles…

Performance is exceptional.

My concerns regarding the dual core processor are gone. The Krait CPU Qualcomm has delivered is phenomenal, and easily goes toe to toe with the performance you’d find in Tegra 3. It’s just no comparison to any previous phone CPU. Compared directly to the Galaxy Nexus, you’ll rarely see any of the interface stutters that creep up while sliding through homescreens or opening the app drawer, and the One X phone boots in about two thirds the time, putting it hot on the heels of Windows Phone handsets.

Sense is on board, and is integrated into every aspect of the phone’s operation. Even multi-tasking strays from the Holo-UI method found on the Nexus, to more of a sliding panels version you’d see on Windows Phone or WebOS. All of the menus are far more colorful. Everything about the phone is a little softer, a little friendlier, a little more helpful. I don’t like manufacturer skins, but at least there is some beneficial functionality; and thankfully, Krait is powerful enough to keep Sense from degrading phone performance (a common complaint with Sense on older Android handsets).

Happily, this performance improvement doesn’t come at the cost of battery life. Even though it’s got the same sized battery as the Nexus, I was able to make it further into my day before getting battery warnings while doing MORE with my phone. This is the first phone where I’ve activated auto photo and file uploading on DropBox (thanks to HTC, the One X comes with 25GB of free storage on DropBox for two years), and it still outlasted my Nexus without this feature enabled.

This is the first phone with a “normal” sized battery I’ve used which gave me better run time than an iPhone 4S. No small feat considering the LTE radio and larger screen. You won’t find better battery life on Android outside of a Droid RAZR MAXX which packs a 60% larger battery.

I do have to levy another minor gripe about the non-removable battery, however. Battery life is great now, but a year into your contract, that battery capacity will start to degrade. My favorite way to “refresh” an older phone is to swap in a new battery around a year, and battery life always improves significantly. You wont be able to do that with these new uni-body devices. That’s kind of a bummer.

Call quality is above average, but won’t set any records. Ear piece and speakerphone are louder than the Nexus, but nowhere near as loud and clear as the speakers on the Lumia. Noise reduction seems to be on board. While calling in busy public areas, people receiving the call had no complaints, and that’s good enough for me.

This phone is also technically a revision of the One X, and as such is actually billed the “One XL,” the L standing for LTE. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by AT&T’s roll out in LA. Compared to my Sprint WiMAX phones, I’m consistently getting twice the download speed. No small feat considering how green (meaning young, not eco-conscioius) AT&T’s LTE network actually is. Even against big daddy Verizon, I’m able to count on two thirds the download speed of a network which has had significantly more time to mature. Spikes of up to 30Mbps, or about twice the speed of my home cable connection.

So this is it.

Another phone in a proud chain of “Best Android Handsets Ever.”

This one is a little different though. This BAHE gets bonus points for also heralding the rise of a new HTC. An HTC which took a frank look at its problems in the smart phone market, made adjustments, and delivered something refreshing. What remains to be seen is how long HTC will be able to retain the BAHE crown; but it’s fair to say they’ve set the mark very high.

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