By Michael Fisher | May 2, 2012 1:00 AM
Shoppers perusing AT&T’s website in search of a smartphone will find a slew of options, numbering 36 devices in all. Of these, a surprising 21 are Android phones. I say “surprising” because AT&T has never been known for their compelling Android lineup. Maybe it’s a side effect of years of iPhone exclusivity; maybe it’s the lack of a unified brand image like Verizon’s DROID campaign. Or maybe it’s because, with a few exceptions like the Galaxy Note, AT&T’s never had a truly unique Android phone to showcase.
With its gorgeous display, unique materials, and a design guaranteed to earn a second look on retail shelves, the AT&T version of the HTC One X looks to change all that. Is it an impressive enough device to shore up HTC’s faded brand, while also giving AT&T’s Android stable a needed shot in the arm? Let’s find out.
It’s so nice to see manufacturers focusing on beautiful hardware design again. HTC used to be awesome at this: they really turned heads with the unique design language of the original Evo and Incredible devices in 2010. Last year, though, saw them fall into a pattern of releasing endless variations of the same uninspired slab.
The One is none of that. It’s an absolutely stunning device. The edges of the 4.7″ display disappear almost completely into the surrounding black bezel, whose rounded corners suggest the look of an old-timey CRT television when off. The glass covering the screen blends into the phone’s casing to create what HTC calls the “infinity display.” Even the AT&T logo up top is subtle and appropriately sized.
Surrounding that display is a polycarbonate casing with lines that suggest it was carved from a bar of soap. It’s rounded when viewed from the front, but looking at the phone from the side reveals a glossy, beveled edge running along the centerline. It sweeps up slightly at top and bottom, recalling the curved design of the Galaxy Nexus. Here, though, the juxtaposition of sharp edges and gentle curves creates something much more special.
Around back, it’s pretty obvious where HTC wants your attention “focused” (har, har): the eight megapixel camera’s already-large lens is surrounded by a huge silver collar, with a tiny LED flash placed along the perimeter like some kind of orbiting electron. To say it’s prominent would be an understatement; it looks twenty times bigger than its 1.3MP companion around front. Below that, dead-center of the casing, is the traditional HTC logo, whose rounded font plays nice with the One X’s shape. Further down are the five pogo connectors for a dock accessory, some Beats branding (sigh), and the grill for the speakerphone. Because the 1800mAh battery is not removable, there’s no seam to break the clean lines of the casing.
Finally, along the sides are the usual suspects: a headphone jack, noise-canceling mic, and micro-SIM slot adorn the top edge, alongside a power/standby button that’s often a bit hard to reach for my average-sized hand. The right side hosts only a volume rocker; there’s no dedicated camera key, which is a shame. The left side of the phone sports a micro-USB connector and nothing else; the primary microphone is along the bottom edge, where you’d expect it.
All right, spec-heads, hold on to your butts.
Where the international version sports a quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 CPU with 32GB of onboard storage, the AT&T version scales it back a bit. Under the hood of Big Blue’s unit is a Qualcomm Snapdragon dual-core MSM 8960 CPU instead, and the amount of onboard storage has been reduced to 16GB.
The reason for the discrepancy is this: AT&T is marketing the HTC One XL as the One X in the United States. That’s not a crazy conspiracy; it’s just a fairly typical (if confusing) branding decision on AT&T’s part, and it’s old news. What matters is how different it makes the experience.
For my money, the answer can be summed up in two parts: the lack of quad-core wasn’t noticeable to me, but the reduced storage size was.
Speaking of cores, let’s go ahead and get these benchmark scores out of the way, shall we? Here’s how the AT&T One X stacked up against its global sibling (whose scores appear in parentheses where available):
Quadrant Standard: 5037 (4524)
AnTuTu Benchmark: 6602 (N/A)
Linpack: 175.694 MFLOP, 0.96 seconds (51.65 MFLOP, 1.62 Seconds)
So we’ve established that I’m not missing the beefier processor. Storage is another story, though, and being forced to live with 16 gigs stung. Bad. I didn’t even realize I was working with such a small drive until I tried to sync my music library. The sync went fine, but the minute I tried saving an Evernote memo, the One X informed me that I’d blown through all my available memory. And I’m not a power-listener or DJ; my music library contains fewer than 2000 tracks.
Advocates of the cloud will say that local storage is a thing of the past, that I should be streaming instead of storing my music. I agree that that’s probably the future, but it’s not the present especially when you’re a daily subway rider like I am, where coverage is still too poor to support unbroken streams. Local storage is still important, and on a phone with no removable memory, packaging only 16GB is inexcusable. Especially when your marketing copy calls it a “superphone.” Hold on to your iPod if you buy this device: you’ll still need it.
The rest of the phone’s hardware is largely identical to the global version’s, and as it’s been well-covered by Brandon’s review, I won’t duplicate his work here. I’ll only say that the massive HD SLCD display deserves every bit of praise it’s been getting. It’s the best display I’ve ever used on a smartphone, bar none.
The New HTC Sense
We’ve discussed the new version of Sense elsewhere on Pocketnow, but as it’s a recently-introduced skin which will be unfamiliar to some users, I thought it worthwhile to offer some thoughts on how it feels on the One X.
Some of that continues to ring true for HTC’s new version of Sense, 4.0, but it’s all been toned down quite a bit. Even though it still touches almost every part of Android, it’s much lighter than its predecessors. AT&T told me that HTC’s aim with this latest iteration of Sense was to add features it thought would be useful, but to leave intact as much as possible about what’s great in stock Android ICS. And in large part, they’ve succeeded.
One of the bright points of the new Sense is the multitasking view, which borrows heavily from webOS. Say what you will about “deadOS;” its UI is emulated by many other platforms for a very good reason. In HTC’s derivation, a row of angled cards contains recently used apps, which can be swiped through and discarded (but, sadly, not closed) by a skyward flick of the finger. A nice touch: if you jump to the switcher from within an app, it will automatically slide you back to the second-most-recently-used app in your list. While it displays fewer cards at a time than the stock ICS implementation, it’s prettier and fits better into the Sense aesthetic. It’s also more intuitive to flick a card upward to remove it, rather than sliding it sideways as in stock Android. Most importantly, the entire experience is fluid and responsive, which makes it many times more valuable than the laggy task switcher on my Galaxy Nexus.
There are still some vestigial elements of “bad Sense” that remain, and coming from a stock Android device, they’re annoying. Its roots as a finger-friendly skin for older, clumsier mobile OSes like Windows Mobile are still evident in apps like the browser, where huge ugly bars and comically oversized buttons dominate the view in landscape mode. The persistent Google search bar along the top of every home screen has been trashed, eliminating the consistency that Duarte and company strove for when designing Ice Cream Sandwich. The options menu that pops up on a long-press of the power button has had its Silent Mode toggle inexplicably removed, which makes silencing the ringer a real pain if you’re listening to music on headphones.
Worst of all, though, is the One X’s virtual keyboard. I carried the original HTC Evo for about eight months, and in all that time, I was never able to warm up to the Sense keyboard. Nothing about it was intuitive or accurate. Sadly, that holds true on the One X today. Visually, it’s stunning: the layout is huge, its oversized buttons inviting and seemingly a cake walk for even the biggest of the sausage thumbs. But even after “calibration,” I couldn’t get close to the accuracy I achieved on the smaller stock ICS keyboard. Momentum-killing long-presses are needed to access almost any useful punctuation, and the haptic feedback tends to lag behind even if you’re able to work up any kind of speed. The autocorrect is good, but doesn’t suggest words as quickly or effectively as the stock ICS version. Sometimes the big HTC cursor keys are offered for fine text manipulation, but not if an app requires a menu key; that inconsistency is annoying.
Skins aren’t always a picnic, but if I’m going to be forced to use one, I want the new Sense. It strikes the right balance of utility and beauty, while remaining lightweight enough to stay out of Android’s way (most of the time). And it’s really gorgeous on this display.
It’s an accepted fact: nearly every carrier forces bloatware on their phones: those prepackaged applications that do nothing but take up space in your app launcher and in your device’s memory. AT&T has historically been a particularly egregious offender, and this time is no different: out of the box, the One X is loaded with no fewer than eight custom applications courtesy of the carrier:
AT&T U-Verse Live TV
AT&T Code Scanner
In addition, HTC has pre-loaded a bunch of apps:
HTC’s Movie Maker is a good example of “positive bloatware.” It’s built into Sense, and it provides a useful and fun service that would otherwise necessitate an app hunt. It’s no iMovie -it’s actually pretty bare-bones- but it’s still fun for whipping up a quick “here’s what I’ve been up to!” video for family and friends. It’s a shame that it only exports in 720p, as it would be nice to showcase that 1080p camera’s resolution.
Useful or not, it’s unfortunate that carriers persist in forcing this kind of software on users, and it’s especially frustrating on a device like the One X. Partly because it’s a device deserving of flagship status that should make it exempt from such common interference, and partly because of its anemic onboard memory. Ice Cream Sandwich allows users to “disable” apps they don’t want shown, but because these carrier-loaded applications can’t be deleted without some trickery, the memory they occupy remains unusable. That’s just hostile, and it’s a great example of AT&T missing the point when it comes to respecting their users’ rights to do what they want with the device they paid for.
But that’s par for the course for a carrier that doesn’t allow users to select which network they’re using.
There are many reasons why users should be given the flexibility of choosing which network they’re connecting to. In the case of AT&T devices, phones can choose either a 2G EDGE network, a
faux-g3G HSPA network, or a 4G LTE network – but the user is left out of the decision process. That’s fine most of the time, but there are occasions when it’d be nice to be able to manually force the phone to 3G or EDGE, such as in cases where battery life is a concern.
You know what, though? I’m so high on AT&T’s awesome LTE network speeds, I don’t even care.
Even voice calls have been largely successful; as most people who’ve used their service will acknowledge, that’s saying a lot for AT&T. I’ve only had one dropped call in the time I’ve had the device, and callers have said that I sound “very clear.” Coverage has been almost universally excellent. Granted, that’s to be expected in a major metro area, but it’s still commendable given AT&T’s track record of network challenges.
“Authentic Sound. Amazing Camera.”
Another thing that’s become trendy to say in tech circles is that Beats Audio is just a fancy equalizer with memorable branding. I think that’s become trendy because it’s accurate: turning Beats on in the One X’s settings made the sound coming from my earbuds a little louder and a little heavier on bass, but I wasn’t transported to a new dimension of audio bliss.
That said, I did appreciate the “Beats boost” when I was in a noisy environment, like the subway system or on a busy street. The extra volume helped me stay “in the zone” and did a good job of keeping the extraneous noise out. And I’m glad HTC has enabled Beats to function in all audio modes, rather than just the stock media player, as was the situation on the Rezound.
Is that worth the extra branding on the phone and the constant Beats commercial in your notification bar? Probably not, but it’s a feature that’s at least nice to have.
For its primary shooter, the One X features a backside-illuminated 8MP camera with an /2.0 lens, auto-focus, and the LED flash mentioned above. I found its performance to be astoundingly good, until I exported the shots to my computer and found that it was just average. The One X’s screen has a tendency to make even mediocre photos “pop,” and that effect is definitely present when viewing shots from the phone’s own camera.
That said, the camera is mediocre in the way I prefer: rather than erring on the side of washed-out blandness in a quest for accurate color reproduction, the One X tends to over-saturate images. That makes it harder to correct them later, sure, but it also leads to images that are quite striking when viewed on the phone. However, the camera doesn’t do well with brightly-lit subjects, tending to overexpose them, and its low-light performance isn’t great.
Its real strength is in its software; integrating still and video modes into a single viewfinder was a stroke of genius on HTC’s part, and the burst-mode multi-shot is a great feature for photographing a group of people who can’t all seem to smile at the same time.
Click on a thumbnail to view the full size image.
I put the AT&T One X through its paces during my time with it, pretty aggressively taxing the battery, and I found its performance to be about average. It definitely manages power better than many Android phones I’ve encountered, lasting longer on an 1800mAh battery than my Galaxy Nexus ever has on its 2100mAh extended pack — but we’re not talking RAZR MAXX numbers here.
On my first continuous battery drain test, I took the device off the charger at 5pm. LTE coverage was present the entire day, but I spent two hours in an area with poor coverage. Brightness was set to low. WiFi was on and a live wallpaper was running. I put the device through twenty minutes of Google Navigation and a two-hour continuous WiFi music sync, with the brightness turned to high. I then watched Netflix for about one hour. The device finally powered off at 2:25am.
Under those conditions, 9.5 hours isn’t bad, especially considering the 720p display. The AT&T One X should last an average user a full day, but I recommend heavy users carry the AC adapter or a portable battery charger.
With the One X, HTC has taken a different route, crafting a truly elegant piece of hardware out of unique, high-quality materials and loading it with software that, while not perfect, is certainly among the best out there. Those imperfections are very real; the inability to escape Sense’s remaining heavy-handed touches, the awful keyboard, and the paltry 16GB of storage have all cost the One X a perfect score.
But when it comes down to it, if I were shopping for an Android smartphone on AT&T, I’d be hard pressed to pick something else. HTC has created something very special here, something that stands out from the crowd and which, to me, deserves the “flagship” appellation more than any other Android device on America’s number-two carrier. This one’s going to be hard to give back.
Final Score: 4/5