The HTC One X "Real-user" review: All things photography; a day at the zoo. Bonus four-way shootout Vs the Galaxy Note, iPhone 4S and a standalone digital camera!

, posted: 23-May-2012 08:00

Woven through this piece I'm going to tell the story of a day at the zoo with photos taken exclusively from the One X. Like all good days, this one started with a home made coffee (and a nice post-processing filter courtesy of the gallery app).

Smartphones are cannibals; they consume other devices by making them obsolete. Witness for example what they’ve done to standalone alarm clocks. Their appetite hasn’t been remotely sated by that entree though, and right now they’re poised a good way along the road to gobbling the market for standalone GPS units, mp3 players, portable media players and handheld games consoles. But what about cameras?

If you believe the marketing divisions from mobile phone manufacturers, it would seem standalone cameras are on the imminent verge of going the way of the dodo too thanks to smartphones. Should you believe them?  No, no you shouldn’t. Never believe anything anybody in advertising says about anything. When it comes to advertising I’m with Bill Hick’s (if that reference has you scratching your head, YouTube has enlightenment and a bunch of laughs waiting for you). Having said that, I do actually believe it will happen in a future that is now only a few years away. If you want evidence to support that statement I will simply say “Look at some Nokia Pure View 5mp samples at full zoom”, and rest my case.

HTC are pretty keen for you to believe you should sell up your standalone and throw in your lot with the One X camera, but I guess you can probably infer how I feel about that by now. It begs the question then, if it isn’t good enough for that yet, just how good is it? Have HTC really upped their game with respect to the camera, or is the One X destined to be another forgettable imaging device in their rather long history of mediocre imaging devices?

Read on to find out!

Naturally my fiance wanted one too, a good expose for the macro mode

OK, so let’s start with the (very) good – the software that supports the 8mp camera on the One X. I really have to commend HTC on what they’ve done here, it’s a significant leap from what they’ve done before, and really puts them in the driver’s seat as far as currently available handsets go.

Let’s break it down into some bullet points, everyone loves bullet points:
  • Start-up time, shutter speed and shot-to-shot speed are superb.
  • The UI is excellent,
    • Settings are very quickly and easily accessible, something which has not always been true of their camera UIs
    • The photo and video capture buttons are both present in the viewfinder screen. I simply cannot emphasize enough how good this apparently small innovation is. Smartphone photography owes a lot to them being on your person at most times, a lot of what they capture are candid moments – brief moments in time that pass a long time before you could retrieve a “real” camera. Not having to wait those few excruciating seconds as ‘the moment’ expires in front of you while you switch modes is golden.
    • The feature set is utterly superb:
      • The ability to take still shots whilst shooting 1080p video (if I were to quibble though I’d say it’s a feature very slightly marred by the framing of the resulting shot being different than what you see in the video viewfinder).
      • Burst mode, capable of taking up to 4 shots a second (the performance deteriorates in lower light settings). As a father with a toddler I can personally attest to how great this feature is for capturing fast moving subjects at just the right moment.
      • A great set of shooting modes including panorama and high dynamic range.
      • Rich camera settings including the ability to customize ISO and White Balance parameters, face detection, smile detection and Geo-tagging (embedding your location into the photos EXIF data).
      • A range of filters available within the camera app, including not only common filters like Sepia or Negative, but also some excellent filters like depth of field.
      • The ability for some post-processing too in the form of the editing functions available in the One X Gallery application to alter things like colour temperature, or add even more filters.

Lions out basking. The cameras dynamic range is shown up here a little by the broad luminance range of the scene, but the shot is pretty pleasing overall

Stills are good on the One X, but not more than that. If that sounds like a condemnation of faint praise, well, it is and it isn’t. Photos from the One X are around the same level we saw from other manufacturers' best efforts last year. That’s not to say they’re bad by any stretch of the imagination, and in the context of HTC's historic imaging credentials that’s actually a rather impressive turnaround.

If you look at the images taken in good light closely you can see that the One X resolves a bit less detail than the Galaxy phones of last year, partly because of overly aggressive sharpening algorithms, and partly because of heavier lossy compression and the noise that generates. The images tend also to have a decreased dynamic range in comparison to the Galaxy phones. If you're not looking that closely though, and let's face it most users don't, then there really isn’t much between them outside of personal preference.

If you look at photo's in lower light the One X does better than the Galaxy phones with it's superior F/2.0 aperture, although the difference isn't as large as you'd expect -  some of the advantage is lost because of the sheer amount of noise in One X shots. I should also mention that I tended to find the One X's camera a bit hit and miss in low light, while the best shots were better than the Galaxy phones, the reproducibility of obtaining those shots wasn't as reliable.

An HDR shot, you can see it achieves a better result than we got with the lions (in fact for basically any static image in bright light on the One X I tend to use HDR mode, you can't really use it for moving subjects because the multiple exposures create ghosting, although you can create some great images by taking advantage of that too at times)

Since the hardware is superior, you have to ask why the pictures aren't showing that in as dramatic a fashion as you might expect. I think it's the image processing software myself. The reason I say that is that if you install a third party camera application from the Play Store, say Camera ZoomFX for example, and take snaps in low light you'll notice better resolution of detail. They do tend to be a little over-exposed, presumably on the basis of the third party apps not managing the backside-illuminated sensor and F/2.0 aperture quite as well, but as a proof-of-concept exercise it certainly suggests the One X sensor is capable of more than we're seeing on present firmwares.

Hopefully HTC can improve on this with future firmware updates, but for now that's how it is, and while it doesn't seem to quite be living up to its promise, it's good and most users will be satisfied.

There are some great effects in the stock camera app, this one is using the depth of field effect and was only possible because of the great shutter speed of the One X - I love how the depth of field conveys the sense of movement!

Right near the top I introduced the software side of the One X camera as “the good”, which rather intimated the fact that “the bad” would follow at some point. We’ve reached that bit. Where the stills camera really holds its own against competitors, perhaps falling the tiniest bit short of its main competitors for certain things like resolution of fine detail, the video camera is frankly disappointing in comparison.

The main problem here is that video is captured at quite a low bitrate of 10mbps, and in fact often even lower than that, resulting in a lot of lost detail. I’m at a bit of loss to explain this, since HTC have implemented better video recording with higher bitrates on a number of previous handsets, for example last year’s flagship the Sensation.

If I’m being charitable I’ll simply chalk it up to being on early firmware, and HTC will improve video capture in future iterations of One X firmwares. If I’m being less charitable I’m inclined to think this is partly due to the One X not having a memory card slot, a decision on HTC’s part that irritates me no end (all the more so for them being able to make room for a card slot in Sprint’s One X equivalent in the States).

I can almost hear the objections starting in some minds already, “But I can’t even fill the 16GB on my iPhone, how could anyone possibly need more than 32GB of storage?” and “Pshaw, I’m on the cloud baby!” I’m going to respond to those thoughts, starting with a quote. Bill Gates is famously attributed with the having said the following: “640K ought to be enough for anybody” That’s laughable in retrospect, right? So why then do so many espouse a scaled-up version of the same anachronistic sentiment now? Just because you don’t use much storage now, it doesn’t mean nobody does, and certainly doesn’t mean you won’t in the future.

More and more people are producing and consuming high definition video content, higher quality digital audio, and playing storage-intensive high quality games. People's storage requirements are increasing, and the cloud can't cover all of that (or at least certainly not at present). For example; you can't stream music when you listen to FLAC files at roughly 30MB/song, you can't stream the install files for high quality games, and at the times when you're away from home and watching video content on your phone streaming that content is also less than ideal.


After the zoo it's time for dinner, HDR creating a typically moody shot of the sky

Anyways, looking at video recorded on the One X I see file sizes that are less than 1MB/s of recorded second, whereas on the Galaxy S II I see files with 2-3MB/s of recorded second. When your users are forced to live within the confines of 25GB of available user space, I can see how you might want to compromise on video quality for the sake of minimizing storage difficulties.

As someone who came to the One X a skeptic in relation to its camera based on earlier experiences with HTC devices, it’s interesting sitting down and actually drawing my thoughts together into a conclusion. My impressions of the One X camera had a rather intriguing trajectory – things started off extremely well, then waned after some pixel-peeping at full zoom images, and then rose again as I came to fully appreciate the software and look at it more from the perspective of normal consumers (who rarely, if ever, examine their pictures at full zoom to trawl them with a fine tooth comb looking for preservation of fine detail and the like).

…so, in the end, how do I sum up the HTC One X camera?
  • The One X’s camera user interface and feature set are best in class right now.
  • As a still camera it’s good, not as good as HTC would have you believe, but certainly holding its own against the most highly regarded 8mp snappers from last year. I would hope that HTC improve the image processing software a bit though, because the sensor and F/2.0 aperture certainly seem capable of delivering more.
  • Video leaves a fair bit to be desired, but its early days and based on the experience with the Sensation I expect this will improve in future firmware revisions (how long you’ll wait for Telecom to roll those updates out is another matter of course, but that’s a rant for another day).
  • For the present, as a complete package looking at UI, features, images and video I think it probably leads the mainstream smartphone pack by a small margin (I say mainstream smartphone pack because if you include the Nokia N8 or Pure-view cameras, the One X/Galaxy S2/iPhone 4S all fall dramatically short). The big question is how long can it hold that crown in the face of upcoming challengers from Samsung and Apple?

...and the boy is off to sleep now, time for a mojito to finish the day. This striking shot was created when the flash fired in one of the HDR exposures creating the “impossible light source” effect in the mint leaves shadows. This shot isn’t so much to illustrate HDR again, but more to illustrate how the wide feature set of the One X camera can let you flex your creative muscle a bit more than you may have been accustomed to.

Four-way camera shootout, there can be only One?
For all that I've opined above, there is nothing quite like a blind camera shootout to find out which cameras really produce the best results in the eyes of users. What follows is a series of shots taken in succession under the same conditions by the following devices: a 14mp Panasonic Lumix FZ-100 standalone camera (not in the DSLR quality range, but better than your typical point and shoot), the One X, a Galaxy Note, and an iPhone 4S.

In each of the scenes being compared I've randomized the order the contestants shots appear in, the  FZ-100 images have been resized to 8mp so that you can't pick 'em for size alone, and all the EXIF data has been stripped – you'll have to trust your eyes to discern which is best! Also, all the shots are taken with automatic settings, since that is how most people use their cellphone cameras most of the time, and so has the most external validity and generalisability.

If you want to get your pixel-peep on, you can download the full resolution images from here or here Don’t feel obliged to though, the whole point of this is to get organic feedback – be as scientific or unscientific as you like in how you choose your winners!

To prevent inter-observer bias (you know, where the first person says “this one is clearly the best because of X-Y-Z”, and all subsequent viewers impressions are contaminated?) what I’d like you to do is refrain from commenting on images in the shootout for now. Instead simply rank the pictures in each of the following series of comparison shots from best to worst, and email your ratings to this temporary email address If you also want to comment on any of the pictures feel free, a bit of qualitative data never goes amiss. Next week I’ll reveal how the cameras did!

Oh, and be warned: there is some serious headphone porn coming up, if headphones are your thing you might want to consider a private viewing. Ditto the Star Wars lego.

Series One: Pitch black room







Series 2: Low light without flash








Series 3: Same scene, with flash







Series 4: Outdoors, overcast







Series 5: Indoors, fair lighting, macro headphone porn







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 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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