The HTC One X “Real-User” review, Part One: Initial impressions, Design/build quality, Screen and Benchmarks

, posted: 2-May-2012 10:45

Firstly I’d like to open with a big thank you to Geekzone, Telecom NZ, and HTC for making me a part of this blog. I’d also like to thank the Geekzone members who put forward my name in the selection process, it’s humbling to know I have your confidence.

Initial impressions 
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting to be wowed by the HTC One X in my initial impression. Don’t get me wrong, I really like HTC’s design language, after all I’ve been a fan since the venerable HTC Touch Pro. It’s just that their design language tends to be a bit more staid, less likely to grab hold of you than some of the designs coming out of other stables.


The One X is one arrestingly pretty phone

It took me quite by surprise when I did actually lay eyes on it. This is one beautiful phone. Actually holding it and using it briefly at the HTC launch event only heightened the most favourable initial impression of had of any phone since my HD2 and Sony Xperia X1. The things informing that impression are a combination of the design and materials, which takes a little more time to break down, so let’s get into that now.


The volume rocker, slightly annoyingly placed in my use

Design  
In terms of the hardware tour, the front of the device is of course dominated by the 4.7inch SLCD-2 screen. HTC have done a great job in minimizing the bezel in all directions in order to keep the footprint of the device quite manageable despite the screen. There is an earpiece grill at the top, accompanied by the usual light and proximity sensors, while the bottom eschews Google’s direction to forego off-screen buttons and instead sports a trio of capacitive buttons for Back, Home and Recent Apps respectively. Hiding behind the grill is the multicoloured notification LED.

The edges of the device are relatively Spartan. The top of the device sports the power button, the 3.5mm audio plug, and the micro-SIM slot (the small hole visible in the picture below looks like a microphone might dwell there, but it’s for the small tool that ejects the micro-SIM tray). The right hand side has only the volume rocker, whereas the left is home only to the micro USB port used for charging, computer connection, and HDMI out via MHL. The bottom of the device is devoid of ports or buttons of any kind. The rear of the device has the 8mp camera and LED flash, speaker grill, and the pogo-pins for connections to docking type devices.



Naturally there are a few criticisms one could level at the design of the phone.

The first is the slightly protruding camera module. When resting flat it contacts the surface the phone is lying on, and one can’t help but wonder how soon scratches might become an issue here. I was not reassured by one of the HTC employees at the launch event saying that his was already scratched (he did hasten to assure that pictures didn’t seem affected by that).

The second are the placements of the volume rocker and micro USB port. Usually volume rockers occupy the upper left hand side of the device, meaning that they are quite safe from accidental activation when holding the device in the palm of the left hand (for right-hand dominant people at any rate). So on that count it’s slightly unorthodox placement here is mildly annoying (hey, lefties may love it!), but additionally it’s also long and positioned quite far down the device’s edge, and the combination of the two factors means I accidentally activate it with annoying frequency. No doubt there is a bit of a learning curve to come to grips with here, I’ve got two years of Samsung-induced muscle memory to unlearn after all, but even bearing that in mind the arrangement here doesn’t seem optimal. 

I presume the placement of the volume rocker is dictated by the necessity to shoehorn bucketloads of technology into the 8.9mm thick unibody casing, and by the same token I suspect the placement of the micro USB port is also a victim to the need for a trim waistline.

HTC’s choice to have off-screen capacitive buttons is another aspect of the design that deserves mention, but there is some crossover into a discussion of Sense and the UI there, so I’ll leave my grumbling about that till another review piece.

Naturally a dedicated hardware camera shutter key is lacking, the absence of which has become the norm for most manufacturers. I used to lament this a lot, and while I would still very much like to have one I’ve grown fairly accustomed to not having one now. Expectations are key I suppose.

(Aside: I note that the Sprint version of the One X possesses a hardware camera key, I have a few gripes to make about that too, and again I will come to that in due course)

 
The micro USB/MHL connection, the only thing adorning the devices left hand side

Build quality and ergonomics
I want to start out here by drawing a distinction between build materials and build quality. The two terms tend to be thrown about like synonyms, but they're not. It's possible to have one without the other.

The Galaxy S II and HTC Sensation are two examples that spring to mind to make the point. The Galaxy S II build materials are disappointing plastics, like we see here with the Note, but it's durable. There are no moving parts or creaks, and as we saw recently on YouTube, it holds up to drops and knocks better than an iPhone 4S which is made from much nicer materials. In other words its build quality is good.

Contrast this with the HTC Sensation, which is made from great materials with metal and high quality soft-touch plastics, but has a more suspect build quality with the 'sleeve' design causing creaks, dust accumulation under the screen, and volume rockers that break (of course not every Sensation is afflicted by these, but it's sporadic failure rate is higher than I've observed from other high-end handsets). Now obviously I want a handset with both, but if it's a matter of choosing I'll take build quality, thank you very much.

What kind of handset is the HTC One X? It’s a member of what I count a small fraternity of phones that have both quality materials and excellent build quality.


The slightly protruding camera, virtually the only design element of the exterior that clunks just a little

The one-piece polycarbonate body is strong and feels awesome in the hand, giving it a lovely and slightly grippy soft touch texture, but also ensures that the phone is light. In the past I’ve tended to prefer slightly heavier phones for the impression of quality that endows, but as phones move up into sizes past 4.5inches I’m valuing the comfort of holding a lighter hand more than the (sometimes) false impression of quality that a heavier phone might give.

Although I discuss the display characteristics of the screen a little further down, it deserves a special mention here too. It’s a special design where the screen is laminated onto the glass, diminishing the thickness of the screen. It’s covering layer of Corning’s Gorilla Glass 2, which gently slopes to seamlessly meet the bezel at the screens edge, has the best tactile feel to it of any handset I’ve ever had my paws on. I find hard to describe just how nice it feels when your fingers glide off the curved edge of the screen, but suffice to say that like me you might catch yourself finding excuses to swipe the entire width of the screen quite often.

Although it seems slightly counter-intuitive, the very thin phones that are presently all the rage often sport less than ideal ergonomics. The Samsung Galaxy S II is a good example of this. It’s wide, thin, and full of hard angles at it’s edges, all of which can equate to a phone that’s uncomfortable to hold and use for more than brief sessions. How can you improve the ergonomics? Add extra girth, weight and curves via the official extended battery. Fortunately in the case of the One X, the curves of the polycarbonate body fit nicely in the hand, which is very welcome in a handset of this size and thickness.

Anyways, let me conclude describing the physical attributes of the device, before I rave on forever: it’s awesome. The aesthetics, design and materials meld to a level that is rarely attained.

The Screen

 
You can see it doesn’t quite attain AMOLED levels of inky blacks, but how well does it stack up overall, and should you still be swayed by a tick in the AMOLED column of the spec sheet when weighing up your next smartphone purchase?

I have to admit I came to this section of the review with some bias in tow. I fully expected to walk away still secure in the knowledge that Super AMOLED screens rule the roost for screen tech. The inky blacks, the excessive, eye-popping contrast - you either love it or loath it. I love it. In fact I love it so much, that given the choice of two fairly equal handsets I ‘d chose the AMOLED screened one. Every time. Now I’d read that the One X has an awesome SLCD-2 screen, but given my bias my question heading in wasn’t “Is SCLD-2 better than AMOLED?”, it was “Is it good enough that AMOLED is no longer such a massive differentiator between devices for me?”

The answer surprised me.

Well, firstly, is it good enough to stand up to AMOLED screens such that I could bear to buy an SLCD-2 equipped phone instead? Yes. Unequivocally and unreservedly, yes. Now that’s pretty big, in and of itself, considering the slant I had before I even got the phone. You remember, the slant that made me not expect to even have to frame the question “Is it better than AMOLED?”. It became apparent very quickly that the SLCD-2 screen of the One X demanded that question be answered. The shocking twist that nobody saw coming, least of all myself? The answer to that question is yes.

Let that sink in a minute.

If you read between the lines, that’s  as good as saying the One X has the best screen to ever grace a mobile. Let me go on the record now, as a previously unashamed AMOLED fanboy, and state that explicitly: the HTC One X has the best mobile screen I’ve ever seen.

Obviously so momentous a statement needs must be qualified. So let’s break that down a little into the following areas: pixel density and sub-pixel matrix, contrast, blacks, whites, colour accuracy, viewing angles, brightness and sunlight usability, and deal with each in turn.


While it’s hard to truly represent the difference in a photograph of the screen, I think you can still see very pleasing levels of contrast in the One X’s SCLD-2 screen in comparison to the Note’s AMOLED offering.

Pixel density – the 4.7inch 1280x720p SLCD-2 panel sports a pixel density of around 312 pixels per inch. Furthermore, it sports a “full” subpixel matrix, unlike AMOLED screens of the non-+ variety, which use a pentile matrix that carries a reduced number of coloured subpixels for each pixel. What all that technobabble means is pixels that are invisible to the naked eye, lovely pin sharp images and text as far as the eye can see. You’ll see some other handsets boasting higher PPI counts, but once you’ve crossed the threshold where you can no longer see pixels anyway, I just can’t see any rational advantage in that.

Contrast, blacks, whites, colour accuracy – these are all fairly related. Let me keep it brief, black levels aside, SLCD-2 bests AMOLED in each of these display characteristics. As a long time user of AMOLED screens I have to say that increased colour accuracy, particularly in terms of white tone, really won me over.


Another difficult thing to represent fairly in photos – a comparison of the white tone. The overly blue tone of the AMOLED screen is clearly evident compared to the much more pleasing and natural whites of the One X

The viewing angles don’t disappoint either. While I’d perhaps give AMOLED a slight edge in this area, it’s a rather spurious advantage, since I presume most of us don’t view our phones at 160 degree angles particularly often.

Finally, let’s turn our attention to the usability of the screen outdoors. This is a pretty important screen characteristic, and one of the most common ones I get asked about any device I review. Previously sunlight legibility has tended to be one of the areas where LCD screens fall over, but happily SLCD-2 is above all of that. It’s performance outdoors in direct sunlight is roughly on a par with AMOLED, and perhaps even edging it out ever so slightly.

In summary, the screen is marvelous. Believe the hype.



 
The SLCD-2 screen of the HTC One X above, the Super AMOLED screen of the Galaxy Note below.

Speed and synthetic benchmarks
If you read any major review of a new handset you’ll see a section on benchmarks, and obviously this review is no different. Before you eagerly scroll down to see the One X’s scores, I just want to take a brief moment to pour some cold water on your benchmark lust.

You see, for all that benchmarks can give you a helpful pointer about a devices performance, they don’t really tell you a thing about what buyers really want to know about a smartphones performance. What people really want to know is how fluid is the handset in general navigation of the UI and apps, and in particular under the sorts of multitasking loads that might arise from regular use.  For example, will it grind to a halt when I’m listening to music while browsing, and then need to use the camera ASAP to capture the image of Yoda in my espresso’s crema before it dissipates?

In order to talk to how the One X performs overall, I’m going to divide this section into two pieces, the first to show off the One X’s (considerable) benchmark prowess, and the second to comment on how it is in use.

So, without further preamble, here are the benchmarks:

CF-Bench
CF-Bench is one of a number of general benchmarking tools for Android, and in my experience one of the best in terms of generalizability to actual use. The One X flexes it’s quad-core muscle here, with the Tegra 3 doubling the scores from last years best Android handset the Galaxy S II. 



Antutu
Antutu is another one of the very highly regarded general benchmarks, measuring a wide variety of activities from CPU calculations, write and read operations, and of course graphics power. The One X scores a whopping 10, 238. To contextualize that a little: most of the present crop of high end Android phones, regardless of their respective SoCs, score around the 6000 mark.



Vellamo
Vellamo is a browser benchmark software made by Qualcomm. The One X absolutely carves this benchmark up, besting the similarly Tegra 3-powered ASUS Transformer Prime tablet by a couple of hundred points and generating the highest score I’ve yet seen on a stock device.





Browsermark
Browsermark is an in-browser benchmarking tool, and as such is OS-agnostic – it’ll run on most anything with a browser. You can feel free to compare results in Browsermark to you iOS and WP7 toting friends. As you can see, the One X manages a good score here. It gets bested by several of the Android tablets, including the Tegra 3 Transformer Prime, but ranks highly in the phone stakes. Crucially, it bests the iPhone 4S by about 10,000. I say crucially, because you know you want to rub that in your iPhone-using workmate’s nose while you huddle around the water cooler oogling your new One X. While you’re at it make sure to point out that the One X is pushing 1.5x as many pixels as the iPhone en route to generating that score.



Nenamark 2
Nenamark 2 is one of the better graphics benchmarks available for Android, being one of the few that is demanding enough to max out current GPUs (graphics processing units). The Tegra 3 scores quite well here, able to push the graphics demo through at 47.4 frames per second. If “quite well” doesn’t sound like that enthused, it’s because the nearly year old Mali-400 GPU present in the Galaxy SII and Note  offers nearly identical performance, and several other GPUs in high-end Android devices for 2012 offer even higher performance. I doubt that will actually matter to most buyers though, since the Tegra 3 GPU won’t have any trouble running the most intensive games presently available, and (rightly or wrongly) Nvidia will make sure that lots of the best games get optimized for their devices.



Quadrant
I must admit that I tend to leave Quadrant off my own reviews, it’s really a rather poor benchmark and one of the least generalizable to actual use. That said, it’s something people always tend to ask about, and is another area where the One X is not short on bragging rights, so here it is (for whatever it’s worth):



Actual use
So we’ve covered the fact that the One X benchmarks pretty well. Time for the real nitty gritty; does that bear any relationship to actual use?

Happily I can report that it does.

This is easily the smoothest Android phone I’ve yet the pleasure of using, and I’ve used a few. While you could certainly speculate that a big part of that is merely down to ICS hardware acceleration throughout the launcher, it’s definitely more than that. While I have seen tiny traces of lag, for example when restoring 60 apps and backing out of the Play Store, it’s much less in evidence  in terms of magnitude and frequency here than in any other ICS handset. I’d go so far as to say it attains those mythical iPhone levels of smoothness that are so often touted.

Summary 
I know most of you just skipped straight down to this section, didn’t you? You’d like all of that above compressed into a few sound bites for easy digestion, wouldn’t you? OK then.
  • In terms of aesthetics, ergonomics, build materials and quality the One X is something special. It’s rather hard to put into words exactly what it is about the whole package that is so great, it just has that je ne sais quoimost other handsets lack (please note the considered restraint employed there to avoid using the phrase X-factor). Suffice to say that it is a complete package that precious few handsets live up to.
  • The One X has the best screen ever to grace a mobile. You could be forgiven for thinking the reviews of the One X to date were dealing in hyperbole with all the superlatives they’ve thrown at it, well they’re not. It really is that good.
  • In terms of synthetic benchmarks the One X is awesome, as one might expect from a quad-core device with a gigabyte of RAM…
  • …but the even better news is that actual daily usage lives up to the promise of the benchmark scores. If you want smoothness and fluidity that won’t show you up next to an iPhone user this is the handset to get.
It occurs to me as I conclude this piece that it totally sounds like a paid advertisement for HTC. Obviously no phone is perfect, and like all others the One X has faults (and I’ll get to those in due course). It’s just a consequence of the divisions in the review that this part is so uniformly positive. Next up we’ll look at the One X’s media chops, something HTC is crowing about in this Beats-endowed handset. Does it live up to their marketing? We’ll soon see…

About the author

My name is Murray Winiata. When I'm not on my own time I work as a medical doctor in General Practice, and when I am on my own time I'm a dad, blogger, obsessive home barista, audio enthusiast and guitarist.  Online I'm probably better known by my handle "NZtechfreak" via my participation in many online forums including, but not limited to, Geekzone, XDA-Developers, AndroidForums and Head-Fi. Previously I've blogged for Clove Technologies in the UK, and more recently at my own blog AndroidNZ.net. Like most smartphone owners I'm fully social-media'd up, and you can find me on Twitter, YouTube, Google+ and Facebook. If you've got burning questions about the HTC One X you'd like me to try and answer, or you want my up-to-the-minute impressions and experiences with the One X, then Twitter would be the best channel to tune in to. Besides that, I'm always available here at Geekzone, which remains one of the best little corners of the internet (even in spite of my membership!). Naturally I'm thrilled to have been chosen to blog about the HTC One X here at the TelecomTech blog, and plan to bring my trademark objectivity to the fray once again. Catch you here again soon!




Other related posts:
HTC One X: Bring on the Games!
You've got mail
HTC One X Movie Editor






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