Review

HTC's new flagship phone is pretty, fast and hungry

From Saturday's Globe and Mail (included correction)

Its 4.7-inch Super IPS high-definition LCD2 screen seems enormous next to most other phones, but is contrasted by the unit’s seductively slender 8.9-millimetre girth and 130-gram weight. You expect it to feel much heavier and bigger than it really does. (Handout, HTC)

HTC is in need of a win. The Taiwanese handset maker has been beaten down over the past couple of quarters by Korean rival Samsung, whose Galaxy handsets running Google’s Android operating system have pummelled all competitors. (According to a report late last month from market research firm Raymond James, Samsung is the only mobile manufacturer besides Apple currently turning a profit on its smartphone business.)

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That win might come in the form of the HTC One series and, specifically, the company’s flagship HTC One X, which is not only a match for Samsung’s industry-leading Galaxy phones, but in some ways superior.

At least for now.

The HTC One X has a huge-screen and is wafer-thin, ultra-light and satisfyingly powerful. It is designed to run on super-speedy LTE networks and is pretty much exactly what one expects in a manufacturer’s signature handset.

Its 4.7-inch Super IPS high-definition LCD2 screen seems enormous next to most other phones, but is contrasted by the unit’s seductively slender 8.9-millimetre girth and 130-gram weight. You expect it to feel much heavier and bigger than it really does. And while its dimensions make it no fast friend to form-fitting pants, it slips just fine in the pockets of looser casual trousers. So long as you don’t try to stuff it into a pair of skinny jeans you should be just fine.

If I had a beef with its style, it’s simply that I didn’t care for the matte white unibody covering on my test unit. I found it picked up dirt and fingerprints a little too easily. I suspect the matte black model to be the more practical choice, though I’ve not seen it in person.

However, the real draw for many won’t be the One X’s industrial design, but instead its 1.5-gigahertz Snapdragon S4 processor. This thing flies. It takes just a little more than 10 seconds to boot up from a cold start, and

flipping through home screens and menus is as gratifyingly instantaneous as any mobile device I’ve tested.

This top-of-the-line processor is a boon to nearly everything you do on the One X, from e-mail and Web browsing to working with video and snapping pictures. Indeed, you’ll be hard pressed to find a camera phone with a speedier shutter – at least 10 shots per second in auto mode – or quicker post-processing (it takes just a second or two to apply a lovely, worthwhile HDR effect).

Gaming is where many users are likely to realize the most dramatic benefits of HTC’s hardware. It’s going to take a while for developers to really exploit the One X, but current games like Madfinger’s Shadowgun zip along

splendidly, even during busy, chaotic, effects-laden sequences. Indeed, games on HTC’s crown jewel phone may eventually give even the prettiest titles found on PlayStation Vita – the current champion of mobile game graphics – a good run for their money.

Not a gamer or a photographer? Don’t worry; there’s still a lot to like about the One X.

It runs the latest edition of Google’s Android OS, Ice Cream Sandwich, which means it comes with plenty of fancy features, both novel and practical. I had fun tinkering with face unlock security, made frequent use of an excellent notifications system that makes sorting through multiple incoming messages and notifications a snap. I found myself looking for excuses to use the robust, desktop-like Web browser, which allows you to block those pesky mobile sites (who needs ’em when you’re using a gorgeous 4.7-inch screen?) with the tap of a button.

Sitting atop ICS is the latest version of HTC’s acclaimed Android skin, Sense, and it remains among the more appealing third-party overlays. It still has its quirky flourishes – such as the illusion that home screens sit on the sides of a virtual heptahedron as you flip through them – but there’s more to it than simple frills.

For starters, it offers a smartly designed lock screen that lets you zip into mail, messages, the phone dialer, or camera mode with a single deft swipe. The keyboard is enhanced, too, with agreeably oversized buttons and dedicated directional keys. The enter and backspace buttons are a little too close to each other (I prematurely entered a few usernames and passwords while intending to key back and make corrections), but there’s little else to complain about.

It also comes with plenty of useful apps and widgets pre-installed, including official Twitter and Facebook clients and a car mode that handily enlarges the phone, maps, music and radio buttons (all only to be touched when stopped, of course).

Best of all might be baked-in Dropbox functionality. HTC One X users are bestowed 25-gigabytes of free space with the popular Web-based storage company, and you can even have all photos and videos captured with the phone auto-magically stored in the cloud by tapping just one button during setup.

Dropbox could prove more handy than you first imagine, especially since there’s no option to augment the One X’s existing 32-gigabytes of onboard storage. That slick unibody design is broken only by a power button, volume rocker, mic jack and micro-USB port (which can double as a video output with an HDMI adapter). There’s no memory card slot, which means you may find yourself forced into a game of multimedia musical chairs, continuously dumping older games, videos, music and photos to make space for newer content.

Another thing worth noting about the one-piece chassis is that there’s no way to access the 1,800 mAh battery. You’re stuck with it for the life of your phone unless you send the unit in for professional servicing.

Speaking of the battery, my anecdotal tests suggest it will easily last through an average day of e-mail checking, web-browsing and casual app usage. However, start running videos and games at maximum brightness for significant stretches and that big, pretty screen and powerful processor will drain the battery quicker than a sweaty actor can suck back soda in a soft drink commercial. You’ll likely need to power up well before bedtime.

But one can find things to grumble about with any phone. Fact is, the One X is one of the best Android handsets around right now in most ways that count. I suspect HTC might just have the hit it needs.

However, even if the One X takes off there are still some clouds on the horizon. As HTC was dropping its fancy new phones onto store shelves late last month, Samsung was busy wooing future buyers with the announcement of the Samsung Galaxy S III, a quad-core monster with a 4.8-inch Super AMOLED screen. It’s set to arrive in a matter of weeks alongside a massive marketing push tied to the Summer Olympics in London.

Sometimes a hard working handset giant just can’t catch a break.

The HTC One X is, for now, available in Canada only through Rogers for $574.99 on a month-to-month plan. Subsidized three-year contracts lower the price to $169.99.

Editor's Note: The HTC One X uses a Snapdragon S4 processor. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story.