Tuesday, December 4, 2012

HTC Desire X: Is it time to fall in love again?


HTC - the maker of universally loved devices. The maker of universally hated devices. Loved because of their design, build, and software; hated for their battery life and instability. They are a paradox.

Initially HTC started out as an outsourced manufacturer for brands like Compaq. In 2006 they started with their own devices. Instantly becoming legendary among hardcore geeks, HTC were known for their class leading Windows Mobile based devices.

Then Android came. HTC were the ones who came up with the first Android based phone, the T-Mobile G-1. For two years HTC ruled the roost as far as Android was concerned. Sets like Hero and Desire firmly established them as the top player in Android in 2010. Following Desire's success, HTC built devices like Evo, Desire HD, Incredible, and others.

Fast forward to 2012, and HTC are about to finish their second consecutive bad calendar year. Their market share has eroded. What happened? One word: Samsung. Relative unknown in the Android world in the beginning of 2010 (and HTC's heyday), Samsung unleashed the Galaxy S upon the world and suddenly things changed. Previous Samsung Galaxy offerings had been poor cousins to their HTC counterparts, but Galaxy S, with its industry-leading processor, display and software, stole the show from under everyone's noses. Suddenly Samsung had a bestseller on their hands.

And then, Galaxy phones started popping up every time you looked. Samsung easily ruled the high end with Galaxy S, and device that was priced more affordably compared to HTC's offerings yet was superior in most respects, and they started littering every price point with a Galaxy set. HTC, being a smaller, more specialist manufacturer, struggled to keep up. They ultimately came up with Desire HD, which was termed a successor to the Desire, but had mostly the same internals and just a larger display. Later, in direct competition with Samsung's Galaxy S2, HTC launched the Sensation and their troubles deepened.

For the first time, a flagship HTC product had nothing special to write home about. Its dual core processor was inferior to that in Galaxy S2, its build quality was suspect and the battery life was horrendous. Its display, while boasting a qHD resolution, was no match for S2's non-PenTile super AMOLED.

Fast forward to 2012, and HTC unveiled a radical restructuring of its product line. The One line, comprising One X, One S and One V, was correctly heralded as a return to form. One X, in particular, boasted a quad core processor, and a unique polycarbonate body, coupled to exquisite design. At the time HTC's intent was to stick to a simplified product line. However, for some reason, the One line did not generate quite the sales it was expected to, and HTC defaulted to their modus operandi of releasing new phones every now and then, often overlapping each other. Thus, the Desire name was revived.

Which, in a rather long-winded manner, brings us to my current phone, the Desire X.

In a nutshell, Desire X lands squarely in the midrange. It has a dual-core 1 GHz processor, a respectable 768 MB of RAM, a 4-inch screen with 800x480 resolution, 4 GB built in memory and a card slot. Nothing extraordinary, then.

In reality, the phone grows on you. Take the screen; on paper it is a very ordinary piece of kit. In usage, though, its brilliant - its quite sharp, so much so that a friend mistook it for a retina display. The colours are brilliant, especially the whites. It has to be seen to be believed, the first time you turn on this phone, the screen hits you as something similar to iPhone's Retina.

The hardware is extremely well designed in true HTC fashion, with what is merely a pleasant sensation at first sight turning to pure love by the second day of usage. The plastics used are extremely pleasant to handle, the construction is bullet proof and very pleasant to hold. Fit and finish is top notch, in fact far superior to anything offered by Samsung. One added bonus is that the bottom row of capacitive buttons follows the proper Google convention, with back, home and multitasking options. The missing menu button appears in the apps themselves rather than cluttering up the fascia.

Everything just works. The buttons are pleasant to use, the battery cover is easy to remove, the screen is easily reachable by one hand at all times. It is a solid, solid outing by HTC and it will impress anyone no matter what phone they use. (Except for iSheep, to whom nothing exists but iPhone).

I am not a great fan of HTC Sense, but I must admit that the latest version seems particularly elegant and grown up - in fact, short of pure AOSP Android, Sense is perhaps the best looking skin by any manufacturer. The lock screen, with its iconic metal ring, is a good place to start. You have a clock and four shortcuts on the bottom. You pull away the ring to get to the home screen, or you drag the shortcuts, or any notifications, to the ring to open that application. Simple, elegant, and fun to use every time.

The rest of the UI is mostly Android 4.0 as usual. The call, contacts and SMS apps, while sporting entirely customized interfaces, do afford a comparison to the AOSP Android apps in terms of looks, mostly black on white. The most significant implication of this is that people like me, completely in love with pure Android, can use Sense as a daily driver

A dual core processor and 768 MB of RAM make for some interesting experience on the Desire X. The phone is not super-fast, but it is CONSISTENT, meaning that you get exact same operation times every time you open an app or close it. Curiously, there is no tab for 'live wallpapers' under the customization app, meaning that HTC don't think the Desire X can handle them. However, install an alternate launcher, or launch the LWP apps separately from app drawer, and live wallpapers can be set, with mostly good results. I have yet to encounter any LWP that seriously impacts the performance of Desire X, and I am frankly at a loss as to why HTC think so lowly of a dual core 1 GHz CPU.

Most impressively, the phone performs where it matters. There is no power button lag, meaning the screen wakes up and unlocks instantly. The phone, messages and contacts apps launch instantly too. The rest is above average as well; games play well, though don't expect to get top performance out of heavy titles. That said, those heavy titles run at least well enough to be playable.

The camera is good with fast shutter speeds, though video capabilities leave much to be... desired (clever me). The one major omission is front camera, which might be a deal breaker for many in this age of free Skype video calls.

However, consider this: for Rs24k, you are getting a top-quality HTC handset with Android 4.0, dual core processor, adequate battery, card slot and a fantastic 4-inch screen. I believe this is a compromise worth making. For me, no other midrange set comes close to Desire X for sheer desirability and robust performance.

HTC are back, and it IS time to fall in love again. Let's hope they continue this trend into 2013 and before long the company will be on the rise again.