A downside to the incredible variety of Android smartphones is that, well, there's an incredible variety of Android smartphones. Many are all but indistinguishable from each other.
Now the Taiwan-based manufacturer HTC has come up with a phone that cuts through the clutter. It's called the One X and it's a beaut.
While the One X was announced months ago, Apple managed to delay it in US Customs while it sued HTC for patent infringement. Now the phone is finally arriving in AT&T stores, while a sister model, the EVO 4G LTE, is going on sale from Sprint; a slightly downscale version, the One S, is available from Deutsche Telekom's T-Mobile. (Apple, meanwhile, yesterday sought a new order to bar the phones.)
I've been using the One X for a couple of weeks. Whatever the merits of Apple's complaint, the HTC measures up well even against the mighty iPhone 4S. At 4.59 ounces and .36 inches thick, it's lighter and thinner, while sporting a 4.7-inch screen considerably larger than the iPhone's, at 3.5 inches.
The One X costs $200 on a two-year contract for a model with 16 gigabytes of storage, the same as the comparable iPhone. But it runs on AT&T's 4G LTE data network, which is far faster than the plain old "4G" network the Apple runs on. In San Francisco I regularly recorded download speeds in excess of 20 megabits per second, three to five times faster than the 4S.
The tradeoff is that LTE uses more power, and the One X's battery is no match for the iPhone's. (Like the iPhone's, it isn't user-replaceable.) Still, HTC has engineered the One X to minimize the drain. It has a less power-intensive dual-core processor from Qualcomm in place of the quad-core Nvidia chip used in non-U.S. versions, and aggressive settings to shut down features not in use. As a result, I was usually able to get through a full day of normal use.
The One X is physically distinctive, thanks to its lightweight matte-finish polycarbonate body. My white test model proved something of a smudge magnet, but usually wiped clean with little effort. It doesn't feel as nice in the hand as an iPhone, but it grew on me over time.
Also separating the One X from the pack is HTC's proprietary interface, called Sense, which is layered over Google's Android 4.0 operating system. I haven't been a huge fan of Sense, which on previous phones often seemed to be locked in a struggle with Android over which would control the user experience. The new version is altogether calmer and smoother.
The larger screen positions the One X as entertainment- centric. My results were good though not great on that score.
The screen is capable of displaying 720p high-definition video and on the spec sheet approaches Apple's vaunted Retina Display. In actual use, it fell a little short. White backgrounds had a slightly grayish tint, though colors were rich and vivid.
And while Netflix movies streamed flawlessly, even over LTE, my attempts to use Hulu Plus yielded an error message that "video playback on this device is not currently supported."
The sound was better, thanks to processing technology from Beats Audio, which HTC now controls. The feature can be turned on and off from within the One's music player; I used it mostly while streaming tunes from Spotify, where it tended to provide a fuller bottom to the sound without overwhelming the track.
The One X has front- and rear-facing cameras. While there's no dedicated shutter button for the latter, it matches the iPhone 4S with its ability to shoot 1080p high-definition video and an eight-megapixel sensor for stills. I particularly enjoyed the burst mode that let me fire off shot after shot -- one more reason to leave my camera at home. But I found my photos themselves, while good, to be not quite up to iPhone standards of clarity and color.
With the iPhone's edge in number and quality of apps, best- of-breed camera and screen and the iTunes Store, Apple has little reason to fear any single phone. Still, there's good reason why it's paying attention to the One X. It's as capable and pleasurable as any Android device out there.
Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.