Review: HTC One X and Evo 4G LTE

HTC rejuvenates itself with a new design and new approach (April 29th, 2012)

For HTC, 2011 was sometimes considered a write-off: what looked to be a promising year with an early 4G lead saw the company overwhelmed by Apple and Samsung, and even by its own at times confusing lineup with problematic phones like the Thunderbolt. The One series for 2012 is the reboot, a return to basics with an emphasis on high-end design and even stripping back the custom Sense interface layer. We'll determine in our review of the HTC One X in 4G LTE trim, and to some extent the Evo 4G LTE, whether HTC is back to being a fierce competitor for the iPhone and Galaxy roster.

Electronista Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: HTC

Price: $200 (AT&T, 2 yrs), $170 (Rogers, 3 yrs)

The Good

  • Well-balanced mix of Android 4.0 and Sense 4.0.
  • Exceptional display quality.
  • High-quality, slim build; manageable despite size.
  • Very good back camera with fast performance, useful features.
  • Better-than-usual front camera.
  • Speedy for most tasks, even in the dual-core version.
  • Above-average call quality.
  • Good battery life for an early LTE phone.
  • Affordable on-contract prices for what you get.
  • NFC and docking support.

The Bad

  • No removable battery or storage; only 16GB built-in for North America.
  • Still a bit bigger than we'd like for comfort's sake.
  • LTE possibly erratic, still cuts into battery life with heavy use.
  • Graphics still a bit slow.
  • Beats Audio mostly a gimmick.
  • May face stiff fight from Samsung.

For HTC, 2011 was sometimes considered a write-off: what looked to be a promising year with an early 4G lead saw the company overwhelmed by Apple and Samsung, and even by its own at times confusing lineup with problematic phones like the Thunderbolt. The One series for 2012 is the reboot, a return to basics with an emphasis on high-end design and even stripping back the custom Sense interface layer. We'll determine in our review of the HTC One X in 4G LTE trim, and to some extent the Evo 4G LTE, whether HTC is back to being a fierce competitor for the iPhone and Galaxy roster.

Design and the display

The challenge of taking smartphone design upscale has been striking a balance between build quality and durability. At one end is Apple's iPhone 4S, which feels jewel-like but is fragile both at the front and the back. The other extreme has a device like the Galaxy S II, which was top of its class in performance but dominated by basic (if rough-and-ready) plastic.

HTC's route is to use plastic, but to give it a premium feel. Not unlike the Nokia Lumia 800 and 900, the One X's main shell is a single piece of matte-finished polycarbonate. The effect mostly comes across as expected. It's not Apple's metal and glass, but it feels both high-quality and sturdy -- and looks particularly good in a ceramic-like white. As much as we'd still be loathe to drop it or get it dirty, there's a certain longevity that's communicated just through a quick grip.

That grip is mostly a pleasure. Although the screen at 4.7 inches is just slightly bigger than that of the 4.65-inch Samsung Galaxy Nexus, we found the One X a bit easier to hold, in part because the body tapers inwards. HTC has gone with an uncommon front design as well: the front bezel is not only flush with the body but 'spills' off to the side, both eliminating a point of friction and making it look as if the whole phone is curved. At 0.35 inches, it's just slightly thinner than the Nexus in most areas, although the camera lens bulge technically makes the One X thicker at one point and makes us worry about possible lens scratches.





Not all is perfect once it's in your hands. It's still a very big phone, and it illustrates a problem with pushing screen sizes further. Like with the Nexus, it's difficult to reach to the status bar or other elements at the top of the screen if you're trying to use the One X one-handed. The better hold does improve the situation somewhat. The wide body at once helps with and slightly hurts typing: it provides a very comfortable spacing for the keyboard, but leads to a two-thumb typing hold that's not quite as graceful as we'd like with a certain gap between the back of the phone and our fingers.

Choosing a unibody shell has its consequences, and HTC's design choices in particular magnify some of this. There is no removable storage, and with just 16GB of total space (some of it already used for the OS) in the LTE version, that could see you run out of local storage very quickly. HTC does supply 25GB of Dropbox cloud storage, and services like Google Drive or Spotify reduce the need for local space, but this is a far cry from the 32GB in Verizon's Galaxy Nexus or the 64GB of an iPhone 4S. No removable battery exists, and while we'll soon see that it's not as much of an issue, it rules out quick swaps in the middle of a long day like you can with most Android phones.

Some consolations are there for the reduced storage. NFC should be handy for an eventual wave of tag-aware goods and mobile payment systems. Right now the only official Google Wallet support will come through the One X's special variant at Sprint, the Evo 4G LTE, but the arrival of an unlocked HSPA+ Galaxy Nexus with Wallet support gives us hope that AT&T will make the system an option on the pure One X as well. We'd also point out a micro-USB port with MHL (HDMI and power) as well as a pin grid on the back for a horizontal docking port.





Most any complaint fades with one look at the display. We've seen HTC do high-quality 720p LCDs before, such as with the Raider and Vivid; even compared to those, the screen on the One X is just that much better. The newer smartphone uses a virtually gapless panel, where the LCD is virtually in direct contact with the glass above it. That leads to a bright display with a more direct sense of connection to what's happening on the screen. It reduces the amount of visible gloss as well.

HTC is clearly using an IPS (in-plane switching) panel here, and it shows in vivid colors that aren't exaggerated, as they can be on AMOLED, or flat. And while we've already mentioned that it was bright as a whole, it's almost surprisingly so next to a Galaxy Nexus or iPhone 4S, and compares well even next to a fairly bright (but poorer-color) Sony Xperia S. If you're not set on using a competing platform and at all value image quality, the One X should be on the short list.

Android 4.0 and Sense 4.0

Many Android phone builders will often harp on the importance of "differentiation:" that they absolutely have to produce their own take on the software in the belief that it will stand out and give users a reason to stay. As we've seen from nearly everyone taking this path, however, it doesn't necessarily help, whether it's bogging down the phone (Sony), doing little that actually matters (LG), or delaying OS updates by months (Samsung). HTC's "sin" has been more one of excess. By 2011 and Sense 3.0, seemingly every part of Android had been customized, often with flourishes that weren't necessary -- the infinitely and unnecessarily spinning home screen carousel being the epitome of unneeded tweaks.





Moving to Sense 4.0, then, feels like lifting the proverbial weight off the shoulders. HTC's message was that it would let Android's elements shine through and customize only where it thought it could provide an advantage. Skinning is very much visible here, but it's consistently lighter and less intrusive. Gone is the strange decision to make the Personalize and Phone buttons permanent fixtures on the home screen. HTC defers to a (somewhat cosmetically modified) stock Android 4.0 approach for the always-up icons, and it smartly linked them to the lock screen to make it very easy to determine what apps are available as quick-launch shortcuts. Even the emphasis on options for smaller widgets and fewer elaborate animations goes a long way towards conveying the more considerate attitude.

A misstep appears in multitasking: for some reason, HTC has decided to switch from the small, vertically stacked thumbnails of stock Android 4.0 to large, horizontal views. It's somewhat reminiscent of Windows Phone, and just like Microsoft's OS, it's not as useful.

Some components haven't changed, although whether or not they need to varies. Friend Stream as a full app still doesn't compare to a truly dedicated Twitter client, and the stock browser customizations are mostly for show rather than having a real impact. We still like the easy sorting in the app launcher, though, and the heavy customization of the Mail app turns it into a substantially more useful client than Google's own with easy mass-deletes and better access to folders. The music app now serves as a handy aggregating point for third-party apps, including ones that HTC doesn't explicitly draw on, such as Spotify. The Watch movie store and HTC Hub provide curated avenues for shopping for movies and apps if Google Play isn't to your taste.

Beats Audio widens in Sense 4.0, and now covers every media app, not just certain officially blessed examples. With that in mind, it's ultimately still a party trick. Across multiple genres, what it ultimately did was boost volume and bass, or things that the volume control and an EQ could manage. The sound was already good coming from our third-party in-ear headphones (none were in the box), so we'd really consider Beats an edge case addition where bass-heavy music is matched up with not quite strong enough headphones that could use the extra push.





The on-screen keyboard will be familiar to Sense users. We could generally type quickly on it, although we found ourselves producing errors a tad more often than with the official Android 4.0 keyboard. Google's keyboard doesn't have tap-and-hold shortcuts for common characters, though, so it's hard to say it's a step back.

What may be nicest is simply that HTC has cut back on how many apps it reaches and how deeply it gets involved when it feels a change is necessary. Gmail is the pure Android 4.0 app. People (contacts) does have some of HTC's handiwork visible, but you can tell it's much closer to the reference version. Our takeaway was of one of the few custom Android layers that we wouldn't mind having. Although stock Android 4.0 will get updates much faster, it now feels slightly cold next to the warmer Sense 4.0 experience.

Performance and data speeds

The One X is the first device in North America to ship with Qualcomm's new Snapdragon S4 inside (sometimes leading to it being called the One XL). This is a break from the international version: in most cases, people elsewhere will get the quad-core NVIDIA Tegra 3. On the surface, it's something of a letdown for those who wanted to boast that they had a quad-core phone.

In the real world, it doesn't matter much. The 1.5GHz S4 in the American and Canadian versions still produces a consistently quick interface. Android doesn't prioritize responsiveness as much as iOS or Windows Phone, but we're now at the point where the hardware closes that gap.



While skepticism exists about the value of benchmarks, they do appear to highlight that speed up on the One X, and in some cases show that the Tegra 3 is actually weaker in on-the-ground tests. Our Vellamo test score of 2,367 puts the S4 variant significantly above the Tegra 3 edition and even just slightly ahead of the official One XL (S4) score. Separating the JavaScript-heavy Sunspider test also produces the fastest load times we've seen, at just 1,737.5ms using the regular browser; Chrome was slower at 1,973.2ms. The iPhone 4S, a historical browsing speed champion, fights to get that close.

If there's an anchor holding the One X back, it's the graphics. The regular S4 uses Qualcomm's Adreno 225, not the roughly four times faster Adreno 320 of the Snapdragon S4 Pro. As such, the performance in gaming is only slightly better than it would have been with the Snapdragon S3, borne out by a good but unspectacular 59 frames per second in Qualcomm's own NeoCore benchmark for 3D. Games played well enough, and visibly better than on the Xperia S, but a game like Death Rally was sometimes running under 30 frames per second where it's consistently over that on an iPhone 4S. The Tegra 3 version of the One X would very likely be faster here; if you're enamored with the One X and want it for frequent gaming, it may be worth the premium for an unlocked international model to trade some raw overall performance for the faster 3D.



We'd like to tell you about LTE Internet speeds, but something was clearly wrong, either with the phone or the network, during our testing. No matter which part of Ottawa we were in, download speeds were what we'd consider good for 3G over HSPA+, not 4G using LTE. At its best, the phone would pull 6.2Mbps downstream using Ookla's Speedtest, and uploads continue to confuse the test. Entirely too frequently, the test would fail, and we noticed the signal outside of the test would periodically just quit altogether, even downtown and outdoors. Thankfully, unlike some other Android phones, there's an option to turn LTE off and use HSPA+ instead, where we got slower but much more consistent results of around 5.5Mbps down and 1Mbps up. We just wish we didn't have to exercise that option, and it's proof that having LTE for its own sake isn't good enough.

If you're on Sprint and get the Evo 4G LTE, be aware that LTE speeds (when working) should be the same, but that the drop back to EV-DO for 3G will scale the performance back considerably. It may not be until 2013 that most Sprint subscribers can assume they'll be on 4G with the new phone most of the time.

Camera apps, speed, and image quality

Camera apps on Android are very much hit-or-miss affairs. Some of them will give extensive amounts of customization over the final shot, but others are basic, and few of any stripe dare to change the top-level controls for focus and shutter that have been in camera apps for several years.

Which is why the camera app in Sense 4.0 is such a welcome break. HTC's philosophy is to put both still and moving images on an equal footing, and accordingly, there's no movie/still toggle: there are just separate buttons, so you tap to record whichever's most convenient. There's good reason for it in hardware. A new ImageSense processing chip dramatically speeds up the time taken to handle photos to make it almost insignificant, so you can snap high-resolution photos even while recording a video. In that regard, the One X is the ultimate phone for a concert, as you can record that (hopefully legal) clip of a performance for YouTube but still get the images to post on Flickr afterwards.





The rapid-fire nature of the camera plays into pure still shooting as well. Hold down the shutter button and the camera will take as many as 20 photos in the space of a few seconds, bringing up by default a Best Shot mode that lets you pick which of the group is the most relevant. Again, it's great for concerts or sports events (if you're close enough to not need zoom). Should you still only shoot one photo at a time, the instant response is akin to that of the Galaxy Nexus or iPhone 4S and encourages you to take multiple photos at a time for experimentation.

When it comes to actual image quality, the One X is mostly superb. There's still an eight-megapixel sensor, but with both backside illumination and a wider f2.0 aperture, it takes in considerably more light at a wider angle. The end results are surprisingly good performance in low light without a flash, good shallow depth of field in close-ups, and overall fast focus helped by a tap-to-focus control to help lock off-center subjects. HTC has implemented what it calls a smart flash as well. Rather than fire at full strength, it will light up at a reduced power if you're particularly close.

The end result produces images that would be regarded as top-tier even for some DSLR and mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras. Colors are vibrant, but true to the scene, and that lens bulge on the back makes sense when you see how sharp images can be. Even the front 1.3-megapixel camera is decent. With that said, there are a few caveats. We noticed that the One X was sometimes less likely to focus macros than an iPhone 4S, even using a software close-up preset. Contrast could sometimes be too high in normal shooting, as well, leaving a dark shadow underexposed. Still, the One X is one of the few phones that for many could replace a compact camera for any situation that doesn't require optical zoom -- it's that consistently good.











Like the Galaxy Nexus and an increasing number of phones across the board, the One X has a number of special shooting modes to fit certain conditions. A few of these are more to accommodate newcomers, such as a portrait mode, but a few can be particularly valuable. We most like high dynamic range (HDR) mode. Most HDR modes either have little impact or create a garish effect, but HTC's appears to be just right. As long as you keep the phone still a bit longer than usual, it will brighten up shadowed areas and tone down bright backgrounds in a way that's at once dramatic and yet truer to what your more sensitive eyes would actually see.

HTC supplies a number of art filters that replicate common tricks like vignetting, tilt-shift as well as deliberate exaggerations, such as a Lomo-like blown-out quality, vintage, or a psychedelic Solarizer. They go beyond what many social photo apps offer, but the truth is that Instagram for Android will likely take care of the effects for those that care to use them.

We noticed a slight improvement from the Low-Light mode as well. The one area with mixed blessings is the panorama mode. You can sweep like you would on a Galaxy Nexus, but rather than simply taking the motion and creating a shot from the most consistent part of the shot, it guides you towards the next whole frame it thinks it should capture. That has occasionally produced odd effects: we saw one image where there was a clear rift at one point in the panorama. Thankfully, the problem didn't manifest often.

HDR off and on (two pairings), plus a filtered shot and a panorama; click the panorama for a large version













Video is on the same high level as for static photos, and outside of low light it avoids the blurring, block artifacts, and jarring contrast transitions we're used to with smartphone cameras. You won't entirely escape the rolling shutter effect of a slight "wobble" during fast pans, but it's very usable for more than just fixed-viewpoint shots and includes image stabilization to reduce jitter. Audio isn't stellar, although it's sensitive enough to pick up on quieter details, if also some wind noise. Apart from the expected reduced performance in dim conditions, the main issue with video was some lag in the continuous autofocus.

HTC replaces the stock video editor with one of its own. Don't expect an app on the level of Apple's iMovie, with tight control over transition choices and titles. You can still apply professionally made themes that more elegantly join clips together. Its main limitation is a 720p maximum resolution, an odd choice given that the phone itself can record 1080p.







The high-speed sensor mostly helps video through a slow-motion mode. You're still made to drop down in resolution, as you often do with dedicated cameras, but it's an option that most don't even have. It's mostly for those moments when you might miss the moment a bird takes flight or a street performer manages a skilled trick.

Call quality and battery life

Voice on the One X in its AT&T and Rogers forms is mostly accomplished, helped by a loud top speaker. Unlike the flat if consistent Xperia S, the One X's sound seems to vary slightly depending on which end of the conversation you're involved with. A recipient said he liked the incoming quality more than he did for the Xperia S he'd heard just a week earlier. We found the quality on our end to be ever so slightly harsher, if still very much within the realm of high-quality calling.

Our experience with the Evo 4G LTE's voice has been limited, but it may ultimately be better. Sprint is promising "HD" quality calling that, from our quick experience, will be enough to get a clearer sound than what CDMA (and possibly HSPA) would provide.

Longevity for the One X varies wildly depending on what wireless technology you're using and what apps you're running. If you're sitting on Wi-Fi nearly all of the time and engaged in light to moderate use, it's possible to go for one to two full days. Switch to mixed use where you're on both LTE and Wi-Fi, and you'll definitely want to plug in for the day, although at 15 to 16 hours of use, that's very reasonable. In a stress test of near constant photo, video, web, and streaming audio use, we could push the phone down to four hours of life, down about an hour from a HSPA+ Galaxy Nexus. Runtimes are thus still short relative to a well-tuned HSPA+ phone or a thicker, big-battery device like the Galaxy Note, but they're considerably better than other slim LTE phones we've tried.

Wrapping up

When 2011 came to a close and 2012, all signs were that Android might be facing its first big shakeout, with HTC facing a rough fall and winter after being bruised by the iPhone 4S and carriers skewing rapidly towards Samsung. The year was proof that Android wasn't a guaranteed ticket to success, even for the company that made the originating T-Mobile G1. One year's worth of an overpopulated lineup with rushed or at times simply unnecessary devices was all it took to reverse years of gains.



Never have we seen a company adapt so quickly. Although there's no doubt the switch would have been in planning for months, HTC has gone from thick, uninspiring devices with buggy new technology and overweight software to slim, distinctive hardware that both exudes polish and a sense of very thoughtfully considered additions or subtractions. HTC has understood that "differentiation" by itself doesn't matter. The only thing that matters on any phone is making a better device, even if it means leaving Google's features intact rather than imposing your own stamp. Here, that means bolstering apps that needed improvement and providing hardware features that realize their full potential in the software, like a high-quality and very responsive camera.

Would we pick the One X or the Evo 4G LTE over their Android peers, or the iPhone? That depends entirely on what you value and how much you're prepared to pay. If you're interested in fast Android updates and having all the latest features as soon as they're available, the Galaxy Nexus (preferably in HSPA+ unlocked form) is still the go-to device. The iPhone 4S still has a slightly better camera, up to 64GB of storage, the fastest OS updates of any mobile platform, and an app ecosystem with both more apps and overall higher quality. We'd also be remiss if we overlooked the wildcard of Samsung's third-generation Galaxy S. As of this writing, the S III (or whatever it might be called) was just days away from being announced, and Samsung had already confirmed that it would bring its own quad-core chip to a phone that most would expect to also have a next-generation 720p screen and new software.

We'd still be tempted to give HTC our money after all that. There's something to be said for a smartphone with a truly distinct design and overall very well-rounded performance, whether it's the processor, camera, or the software balance. Some of this may depend on cost, although carriers have given HTC a good enough start so far. In North America, AT&T has the best deal at $200 on a two-year contract and $550 contract-free. We'd definitely pick the AT&T One X over a Galaxy Note any day. Rogers has it for $170, albeit with a long three-year contract; if you think you might switch carriers and you're not willing to swallow an early termination fee, it may be worth considering the Galaxy Nexus unlocked, which is still a reasonable $415 Canadian at third-party stores as of this writing and will give most of the technology you're looking for.



We remember when HTC was just coming out of its shell as a manufacturer of no-name, carrier-branded phones. One of our earliest reviewed phones, the original HTC Touch of nearly five years ago, was in some senses what HTC had nearly regressed to in 2011: an unwieldy device whose software was starting to hold it back. In 2012, we're glad to say that the One X and its siblings represent a phone designer, if not Android as a whole, at the top of its game with software that pushes it forward.

by Jon Fingas


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