review Boasting the killer combination of a large 4.7″ screen, the latest Ice Cream Sandwich version of Google’s Android platform, HTC’s trademark build quality and most of all, support for Telstra’s 4G network, on paper the HTC One XL looks to be Australia’s new top dog in the smartphone market. But how does the One XL perform in practice? Read on to find out.
Over the past two years, we’ve become increasingly big fans of HTC’s design philosophy. The Taiwanese consumer electronics giant got our attention with the strong build quality of the original Desire, introduced in Australia in April 2010, and since that point its offerings have only gotten stronger and stronger when it comes to their design; from the Desire range to the Incredible S, to the Sensation line-up and now its new One series, HTC’s build quality continues to impress, and the One XL represents the pinnacle so far of that process.
The One XL is one of the larger models in HTC’s line-up so far; with a 4.7″ touchscreen, this is no small phone. If you hold the One XL next to iPhone 4 or 4S, the difference between the current generation of Android and Apple thinking makes itself very apparent. The major Android manufacturers — Samsung and HTC — have shifted much of their top-range line-up to a 4.7″ or 4.8″ screen size. In comparison, the 3.5″ screen of Apple’s iPhone 4/4S range feels cramped and a bit too small.
In some Android models, such as the quickly thrown together HTC Velocity 4G (which has a 4.5″ touchscreen), this screen size feels too big. It means the phone doesn’t necessarily sit comfortably in your hand or pocket, and it can be tough for users with small hands to reach all of the available screen real estate. However, in the One XL, this problem has been minimalised by great design.
The phone’s extremely thin design — it’s only 8.9mm thick — and its light weight at 129 grams (despite its much smaller size, the iPhone 4S is heavier at 140 grams) means that the One XL sits easily in the user’s hand. In addition, the size of the touchscreen is reduced as an issue by the fact that it extends almost to the edge of the smartphone’s casing, meaning there is very little excess real estate on the ever so slightly curved front of the phone.
In addition, the materials of the One XL are stellar. The back and surrounding case of the handset are composed of very dark grey (or white, if you have the white model; we reviewed the black one) matte plastic, which just feels wonderful on the hands. The word ‘graphite’ comes to mind when we think of the material. It’s just lovely to fondle, and anyone we handed the phone to remarked on how much they loved the material.
The end result is a phone which just feels great in the hands. It’s light, with lovely curved edges and a thin style which makes it feel like a hand tablet from the future, rather than a device with its legacy in the traditional mobile phone world. We encourage you to get into a Telstra store to test it out for yourself; pictures don’t do it justice. This is one phone which you will not want to put down. You will want to put it in your pocket and walk away with it. It’s just that great.
The rest of the One XL’s design is largely as you would expect. There are volume buttons on the right hand side, a micro-USB port for charging and PC synching on the left, and a power button and 3.5mm headphone jack on the top. There are quite small but lovely looking speaker grills on the top front and bottom back, labelled with HTC’s Beats Audio partnership and the camera and flash are also on the back. There’s also a small and surreptitious front-facing camera. All of this has become quite standard for HTC over the past several years, and if you’ve used a HTC Android phone before you’ll feel 100 percent at home.
If you’re looking to buy a new phone, there are three key features which you’ll want to be aware of when it comes to the HTC One XL.
The first and most important is 4G connectivity to Telstra’s Next G network (currently the only 4G mobile network in Australia). That network currently reaches across 1,000 or so base stations across major slices of all of Australia’s capital cities, and offers typical download speeds ranging from 2Mbps to 40Mbps and typical upload speeds from 1Mbps to 10Mbps — as compared with the 1.1Mbps to 20Mbps available on the 3G portions of Telstra’s Next G network in most non-4G areas.
Currently, the One XL is one of only three Android-based smartphones which offer access to Telstra’s 4G network, the other being the HTC Velocity 4G and Samsung Galaxy S II 4G. While the Velocity 4G is a decent model, it’s pretty much been superseded by the One XL in many way (especially with respect to its design), and we wouldn’t recommend the Velocity 4G as an option now that the One XL is available. Similarly, the Galaxy S II 4G is a great phone, but it’s last year’s model, while the One XL is much more up to date. So basically if you want to access 4G speeds (and why wouldn’t you?), and you want an Android phone, the One XL clearly your best option at this point.
Secondly, the One XL is unlike most of last year’s and even many of this year’s Android smartphones in that it runs the latest version of Google’s Android platform, Ice Cream Sandwich. Again, as with access to 4G speeds, we can’t recommend this feature enough.
With a huge amount of speed, user interface and feature improvements, Ice Cream Sandwich is the Android platform to be on at the moment. You can find a full list of features here, but suffice it to say that it’s worth it. You wouldn’t want to buy a new Android phone in mid-2012 without Ice Cream Sandwich; your phone will rapidly get left behind. HTC has also built a variety of additional features on top of Ice Cream Sandwich on the One XL with its Sense 4 platform. We don’t agree with all of the modifications and tend to prefer vanilla Android (hello, CyanogenMod), but in general the version of Ice Cream Sandwich on the One XL is still stellar.
Lastly, you’ll want to know about the One XL’s camera. While it’s not as high-end a model as the one on its sister phone, the Windows Phone 7-based Titan 4G (which has a 16 megapixel camera), the One XL’s 8 megapixel model is still top of the range.
Most of the other features which the One XL boasts are pretty standard for a high-end smartphone in mid-2012, although in general they’re supersized, in line with the One XL’s top-end status. 32GB of internal storage, 1GB of RAM, a Near-Field Communications (NFC) chip for mobile payments, Bluetooth 4.0, 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, DLNA for wireless streaming, 1080p video recording, a 1.3 megapixel front camera with flash and auto-focus, a 4.7″ touchscreen using Gorilla Glass at 1280×720 resolution and a 1,800 mAh battery. One standout is the One XL’s support for Beats Audio technology which HTC has licensed and which is aimed at providing a superior audio experience with the One XL.
No doubt many readers of this article will raise the fact that the One XL does not feature a NVIDIA Tegra 3 quad-core CPU as its One X sibling does. This is because of the need to support 4G connectivity on the same board; the One XL instead runs a dual-core Snapdragon S4 CPU at 1.5GHz.
One of the most important aspect of the One XL’s performance is how fast it accesses Telstra’s 4G network, and in this area the smartphone shines.
We tested the One XL using the Android Speedtest.net in a variety of areas throughout Sydney’s central business district and surrounding suburbs on a wet rainy night, and found some amazing results. In more sparsely populated areas such as on the Anzac Parade bus between Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs and the city, the One XL pulled down data at up to 38Mbps, and often above 35Mbps, and uploaded data usually around 25Mbps.
In the CBD, speeds slowed a bit as congestion took its toll, but again download speeds up to 35Mbps were not uncommon, with speeds between 20Mbps and 30Mbps the norm and upload speeds usually between 15Mbps and 25Mbps.
In a more practical sense, using anything related to the Internet on the One XL was just blindingly fast. Loading any website tended to be a matter of a couple of seconds, rather than the between five and ten seconds we’re used to with on normal 3G smartphones, and downloading high-definition streaming media via sources such as YouTube was instantaneous.
In addition, the fact that we were using Telstra’s 4G network seemed to eliminate the congestion headaches which we’ve been seeing with the telco’s 3G network in the CBD. On the night we tested the HTC One XL on Telstra’s 4G network, we often pulled out our 3G Apple iPhone 4 to see how it performed in the same locations. In general its performance was OK, but there were still slowdowns in some areas; areas where the HTC One XL kept on delivering incredible performance after incredible performance. Outside the Sydney CBD our 3G Apple iPhone 4’s performance always reverts to normal as the congestion eases in suburban areas.
The message from this review couldn’t be clearer: If you want to avoid mobile network congestion in Australia’s central business districts, switch to 4G through Telstra. You won’t regret it. And right now, the HTC One XL is likely the best device to switch with, unless you want to wait for the next iPhone or you’re happy with Windows Phone 7.
Other aspects of the One XL’s performance were also exemplary. The model’s lack of a quad-core CPU didn’t appear to have any impact on the device’s software performance, adding to our increasing belief that processing power is gradually fading as a differentiating factor in mobile phones. The One XL’s Android operating system was very, very fast and had no problem keeping up with anything we threw at it.
Its touchscreen is large, vivid and eye-catching, and the way it and the touch-sensitive dedicated buttons interacts with the users’ fingertips was simply delightful, reflecting the fact that hardware and software synthesis on the Android platform has come a long way over the past two years. Apple’s iOS platform currently appears positively utilitarian beside the constantly flowing and changing HTC Sense interface, with its delightful backgrounds and vivid colours.
The One XL’s camera is also fantastic.
We took a variety of shots using the 8 megapixel camera in both low light and well-lit conditions, and had trouble faulting the shots it took. It focused well, the flash worked well, and in general, as with stablemate the Titan 4G, which we tested on the same night this is the sort of camera which will lead you to stop using dedicated digital cameras for 90 percent of your shots. For us, in 2012, it’s generally now our camera phone plus a digital SLR when needed, and we suspect many people will feel the same way.
For comparison’s sake, we took these three shots on a rainy night this week in Sydney’s CBD. The first was taken with the Titan 4G, the second with the HTC One XL, and the third with an iPhone 4 we had sitting around. If you get up close, you’ll see that the iPhone 4, now several years old, has a bit less fidelity than the newer phones. The Titan 4G shoots a bit warmer than the HTC One XL, and the One XL seems to have a bit more light bleed from bright lights such as traffic lights, but they both seem to take excellent shots, and quality-wise, we didn’t see a lot of difference between the eight megapixel camera of the One XL and the 16 megapixel camera of the Titan 4G. Both, however, beat the iPhone 4’s camera. The iPhone 4S has an upgraded model which gives both a run for their money, however — we didn’t have one with us on the day.
Shot taken with HTC Titan 4G:
Shot taken with HTC One XL:
Shot taken with Apple iPhone 4:
Lastly, battery life. With a high-powered CPU, a graphically intense operating system and, most of all, 4G access, the One XL’s battery life is not fantastic. This particularly shows when you’re accessing Telstra’s 4G network.
However, in general, you can expect to get at least a day and usually between a day and a half and two days out of the One XL. We recommend you switch off as many Android background apps as possible and pull down data when you need it instead of having it pushed to you. If you keep the limitations of the device in mind, you’ll be quite satisfied with it. Just don’t expect to go much beyond two days with the One XL … we found it dead on our desk a couple of times over the week we had it with us, and we weren’t actively using the phone for all of that time.
All of this is a fairly common for an Android or Windows Phone 7 smartphone in mid-2012. We still think Apple’s customised CPU hardware gives it an edge on its rivals in this area, and we’d like to see some battery life innovation out of Samsung and HTC over the next few years. But given the sheer power which the One XL throws at the user, you need to expect some compromises. Battery life is the most obvious one — but it’s still definitely within acceptable boundaries, and most people won’t find it a problem. Hell, if you’re the sort of person who wants to be a 4G early adopter, you’re likely going to be near a power point most of the time anyway ;)
Right now, in June 2012, the One XL is clearly the best smartphone available in Australia. With absolutely stellar design and build quality, a fantastic implementation of Ice Cream Sandwich, an incredible touchscreen which begs you to play with it constantly, a great camera and most of all, access to Telstra’s revolutionary 4G mobile network, this is the best of the best right now, beating out even Samsung’s Galaxy S III and giving Apple enthusiasts a strong reason to stop waiting for Cupertino’s next iPhone and jump into the Android market right now.
Several of my friends have already bought a HTC One XL with Telstra, and I’m strongly considering buying one too. It won’t be cheap — I’ll being paying at least $65 a month on a plan through Telstra — but then brilliance never is, and paired with Telstra’s 4G network, the One XL is nothing short of brilliant. We can’t recommend it highly enough. Stop dipping your toe into the 4G water. Finally, Australia has a top-end smartphone to go with Telstra’s world-beating 4G network, and now is the time to jump right in.
Image credit: HTC