HTC One XL
2nd Jan 2013 | 03:00
Extra large and extra fast
Despite the fact that HTC didn't have the best year financially, it did manage to create some stellar handsets, beginning with the HTC One X early in the year.
While the HTC One joined the Samsung Galaxy S3 in promoting the benefits of a quad core processor to the specification geeks around the world, it lacked one feature that users were hungry for - 4G connectivity.
HTC's response was to release this handset, the One XL. Available exclusively through Telstra in Australia, the One XL offered practically the exact same experience as the HTC One X, but replaced HSPA connectivity with 4G, while dropping back to a dual-core processor to save battery life.
With an update to Android 4.1 Jelly Bean released for the phone just before Christmas, the One XL has also become one of the most advanced Android smartphones on the market
Combined with its sleek unibody design, which incorporates the stunning 4.7-inch 1280x720 pixel display found on the One X, this handset has stood out as a flagship for Telstra's LTE network.
Given the One XL has an identical appearance to the One X, we could almost copy and paste our review from the 3G handset here and be done with it.
Instead, we'll recap. The One XL has a sleek unibody design that is a testament's to HTC's engineering team. Despite the massive 4.7-inch screen, the phone feels comfortable in the hand.
At 129 grams, the handset is nice and light, which is about 20 grams heavier than the iPhone 5. That 20 grams makes all the difference though, as the phone feels solid, rather than underweight.
The 8.9mm thick body is stunningly thin, while the matte finish offers plenty of grip, as opposed to the slippery plastic of Samsung's Galaxy S3.
The One XL's screen is definitely a highlight of the handset, which isn't a surprise as it's the same one used in the One X. The Super IPS LCD 2 technology creates a brilliant picture that offers an abundance of colours, wide viewing angles and responsive controls.
Below the screen are the standard three Android control buttons - home, back and menu. The dedicated real estate on the device for these soft buttons - as opposed to the Xperia TX, for example - is a much more convenient solution for navigating the handset.
Because of the unibody construction, you probably shouldn't expect too much in the way of hardware versatility. There's no replaceable battery and no expandable memory to supplement the 32GB of on board storage.
In fact, connections are a pretty basic, standard affair. A single micro-USB port can be found on the handset's left side, while a volume rocker sits on the right.
On the top of the phone, a power toggle, 3.5mm headphone jack and Micro-SIM card slot have taken up residence. The Micro-SIM card slot is of the Apple variety, requiring a dedicated tool (or a paperclip) to open up.
The back of the phone is marked by the presence of an eight-megapixel camera with LED flash. The larger lens actually sticks out on the phone's back like a boil, but given the quality of photos, is a negligible design flaw.
Overall, this is a stunningly crafted handset, just like the HTC One X its design was cloned from.
Thanks to an update on Christmas Eve, the One XL is now running on Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. This includes an updated version of HTC's Sense skin to Sense 4+, allowing for better performance, and a more streamlined UI.
The update to Jelly Bean brings with it the benefits of things like Google Now, Project Butter and an improved keyboard, while HTC's own Sense software has a few performance tweaks within the camera and a new eco mode to help battery performance.
Those differences aside, the One XL still feels very much like an HTC Android device. The Sense screen offers a maximum of seven home screens which can be swiped through from left to right or right to left, with a pinch on screen pulling out to view all the available screens.
Sliding between homescreens feels lightning fast and effortless, and obviously benefits from Google's Project Butter. Despite the fact that the One XL has dropped the One X's quad-core processor for a dual-core, there's no lack of speed when it comes to navigating around the device.
The only real slow down comes when sorting through the recently used apps using the "recent apps" soft button on the device. Unlike other Android devices, HTC has its own implementation that shows an image of the app that can be scrolled through, kind of like Apple's cover flow concept.
But because it is only showing an image of the app, it takes the phone a couple of seconds to actually launch into the app once selected. It's not a long wait, but it is noticeable given the rapid response of the rest of the handset.
You can use this feature to stop running apps as well by swiping them upwards.
Like the Ice Cream Sandwich build, it's also possible to customise the "recent apps" soft button to function like the old menu button in previous Android builds, which is especially useful for legacy apps. The ability to long press the button for a different function is a clever implementation from HTC.
The notifications bar is a bland affair, with a shortcut to the settings menu, the time and date and an option to switch the new eco mode on or off. There are no shortcuts to adjust Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or mobile data in the notifications bar, with these toggles instead appearing as widgets on the home screen.
The lock screen is the same, simple ring dragging mechanism of the One X. By dragging the unlock ring over one of four customisable app icons, like your phone, text messages, email and camera. If you have any missed calls or messages, you can unlock directly to them as well.
You can also personalise the information on the lock screen so you can have immediate access to information without having to unlock the device. It's extremely convenient, but does a bit of damage to the battery life.
There's always going to be a fair amount of subjectivity when it comes to the performance and style of an Android skin, but we still think that HTC Sense is easily the most attractive and functional of the third party options.
Contacts and Calling
HTC has long had one of the strongest contacts management offerings, and the One XL is no exception. Although you may mistake that at first when you discover that there is no dedicated contacts application.
Instead, the One XL manages contacts through the dialler app. Log in to Facebook and Twitter, and the phone automatically merges and combines contacts to give you a comprehensive information card for all your contacts, including social media feeds, threaded conversations across email and messaging and high definition profile images.
It does this by offering four tabs to view for every contact - Details, Thread, Updates and Gallery. The automatic merging is fast and reliable, although like any system isn't quite perfect.
The good news is that it's incredibly simple to merge (or unmerge) contacts by pressing the Link button above each contact's picture, and you will occasionally be prompted to link multiple accounts in bulk, especially while setting up the phone.
The integration also works with LinkedIn, should you have the professional network's app installed on your device, and Google+ as well.
Like previous devices, there's also the ability to create contacts groups, which allows you to send bulk messages to particular contacts, as well as show dedicated emails from a particular group for easy access to important emails.
The dialler on the One XL is almost overwhelming at first glance. Just over half the screen is dedicated to the dialler, with the other half showing off recent calls and contacts.
Across the bottom of the screen is the standard four tab option for contacts, phone, groups and history, while a line for showing the dialled number or contact sits above the dialler, about halfway up the screen.
Conveniently, the phone lets you use the T9 lettering on the keypad to quickly type in a contact's name for rapid calling, while every contact number at the top has a shortcut to their contact card on the right hand side.
There's also a voice search shortcut key as part of the dialler, but it's about as reliable as the automatic voice recognition systems you get calling a Telco. That is to say, completely useless.
Call quality is actually nice and decent, especially when calling from Telstra to Telstra, as it takes advantage of the network's HD Voice protocol. The catch is that the person on the other end of the line needs an HD Voice compatible handset as well.
Even without HD Voice, call quality is still impressive. We had no problems hearing or being heard during our tests.
Getting your message across has long been a strength in HTC handsets, and the One XL is no exception.
There's not much to do in the way of setting up the phone for messaging. From the moment you turn the device on and sign in with your Gmail account, you're pretty much right to go.
To add non Google (or additional google) email accounts, it's simply a matter of adding in your usernames and passwords for most web-based accounts. Exchange servers may require a few more pieces of information, but it's generally something you can either work out for yourself, or have an IT department colleague sort out for you.
Sending text messages and MMS can be done directly from the contacts panel discussed on the previous page, or from the dedicated messaging app pinned to the home page.
Conversations are threaded, so you can keep track of the longer conversation, and you can easily send bulk messages to multiple contacts.
One of the new features introduced with the Jelly Bean update was an improved keyboard. It takes away the useless arrow keys, provides better spacing and is wonderfully accurate, especially for a stock keyboard option.
It still doesn't surpass the likes of Swiftkey in terms of fundamental accuracy, but you can happily type on the One XL without swearing like a sailor every time you try to type. And that applies to both portrait and landscape keyboards.
Twitter, Facebook and Google+ all come pre-installed on the One XL, all of which integrate with your contact details when you log in. HTC has also included its Friend Stream service, which combines all your social media feeds into one ugly, confusing mess.
With the rapid advancement of dedicated social networking apps, an app like Friend Stream would only be useful with a limited number of contacts being fed into it. Unfortunately, the only filters on offer refer to the type of stuff being shared via your networks.
With all that screen real estate and 4G connectivity, the One XL is practically designed for connecting to the Internet. With that in mind, it's no surprise that the phone comes pre-loaded with two browsers.
Both the standard Android Internet browser and Google Chrome are preloaded on the device. While choice is good, it also helps to set one as a default to avoid having non-stop popups asking you which one you want to use whenever you click a link.
While both apps are well serviced, our testing tended to show that Google Chrome was slightly quicker than the stock browser. Of course, when you're blistering along at 25Mbps on Telstra's 4G network, those fractions of a second differences are hardly worth mentioning.
As we've seen with previous HTC handsets like the One X+, the stock browser comes complete with a Reader mode that pulls out all the images and advertising, to make a web page easy to read. It's a similar function to what's available on Safari on the iPhone, although unlike Safari it's not as obvious - you need to find and press the square icon on the left of the url to activate it.
Scrolling around a website and zooming is natural and quick on the One XL, with text automatically resizing to make reading simple, no matter how close you zoom in.
There's also the option of saving pages to be read later offline, which is handy for commuters with unreliable reception. Pages can be shared via social networks or email via the share button in either browser's menu.
Both browsers also offer the ability to login with your Google account to give you immediate access to all your bookmarks and favourites stored on Chrome on your PC or Mac. This more than any other feature makes browsing on your mobile a somewhat enjoyable experience. Although the 4.7-inch screen does help a lot.
Of course, the best thing about browsing on the One XL is the 4G speeds from Telstra's LTE network. While the network's footprint isn't ubiquitous, it's still the largest in Australia. And the speeds on offer while browsing help make the One XL a very desirable handset.
The HTC One X's camera was considered one of the best ever on a smartphone when that camera launched earlier in 2012, so it's no surprise that the One XL's camera performs just as well. Especially given that it's the exact same camera.
On the back of the One XL is the same 8MP camera as the One X, with a 1.3MP sensor on the front for video calling and selfies.
While the One XL lacks the quad core processor, it doesn't have an adverse affect on images from the One XL. You still get the vast array of customisability and manual controls, including ISO, exposure, contrast, saturation, sharpness and white balance.
There are also modes for slow motion, HDR, face detection and image stabilisation built in. While none of them really compare with a dedicated snapper in terms of performance, they are still admirable inclusions for a smartphone.
Like the One X, there's no dedicated shutter button, instead you'll rely on the soft button at the bottom of the phone to take shots. You can select to shoot when you touch the screen to focus as well, although that mode isn't quite as reliable for getting focussed shots.
A variety of scene modes help keep things well setup - options for Portraits, landscapes, backlit subjects, night, text and macro are all available.
And for Instagrammers, HTC has also included a selection of filters to adjust and distort your photos to make them hipsterlicious. In truth, filters are almost always better when added in post processing, but kudos to HTC for including the function.
The One XL's fast shutter speed offers budding photographers a fun device to experiment with, and the Best Shot mode allows for holding down the shutter button and letting software determine the best picture. Again, it's the kind of feature that showcases just how far smartphone cameras have come in recent times.
The fact HTC has included the dedicated video button next to the photo button means you can start recording straight away, without having to swap shooting modes. You can also shoot still photos while recording 1080p video, which is a brilliant feature for parents of both children and pets.
Video quality looks amazing on the phone, but struggles a bit when placed onto a big screen. That's not to say it isn't impressive for a smartphone, but professional videographers will flinch if you try and show it off as the pinnacle of HD video recording.
Audio quality from recordings is also a bit of a let down, despite the dual microphones inside the device.
But overall, as a smartphone camera to carry around with you, the One XL is still one of the best on the market.
It's no coincidence that the 4.7-inch screen on the One XL has a 720p resolution - it's the perfect ratio for watching HD video.
Unfortunately, the One XL is just like the One X in that it lacks an expandable memory option. Given there's only 32GB on offer, it's a bit of an issue - once you've loaded the phone up with a few apps and some music, you'll rapidly run out of space for HD video.
Drag and drop will let you get your files from either a PC or Mac onto the device via an included USB cable. It's not the fastest process in the world, but it does work.
Alternatively, you can download HTC's iTunes rival, HTC Sync Manager for Windows, which lets you sync iTunes libraries en masse. It works, but just like Samsung's Kies effort, drag and drop is a much more reliable solution, especially for video.
HTC crams its Beats audio brand into almost all its smartphones these days, and the One XL is no exception. While you don't need a pair of Beats headphones to take advantage of the audio advancements, the effect is more noticeable if you do.
Not all audio fans will appreciate the difference the Beats equalising brings to music playback - boosting bass at the expense of detail in the high end. But those who like their music with thumping bass will enjoy the effect.
The music folder on the phone comes preloaded with the phone's music app, as well as TuneIn radio and a link to BigPond Music's top ten tracks. Downloading new music apps like Spotify automatically places them in the Music folder as well, which is welcome for organisation freaks.
The music app itself has a wide range of file support, including AAC, AMR, OGG, M4A, MID, MP3, WAV and WMA. Navigationg through a music collection is simple, and an included home screen widget allows you to control tunes without having to even launch the app.
For all its Sense, HTC still hasn't managed to make the process of watching videos on their devices simple. Instead of offering a dedicated video app, instead clips are stored in the Gallery app.
You are then presented with a range of video thumbnails. No file names, or descriptors. If you have a lot of videos, discerning which clip you want to watch can be an arduous task.
For movies, you can easily bypass this issue by downloading the Google Movies app. While it's designed around the rental and purchase of films from the Google Play store, it also offers a way to navigate personal videos as well, and is a vastly superior option to HTC's offering.
HTC has also bundled its HTC Watch app as an alternative for renting and purchasing movies. The interface is friendly and easy to navigate, although it requires you to setup another account to watch the films purchased or rented through the service.
With TuneIn radio pre-installed, there's a questionable need for an FM tuner on board, but the One XL provides it anyway. Scanning for stations is fairly fast, although you need the headphones plugged in to make it work.
You can save your favourite stations for quick access, and the app has a clean interface to make it easy to use, but it's far from exciting.
The Gallery app that manages video on the HTC device also manages photos, which does make a lot more sense.
Pictures can be organised by album, or "events", which is a fancy word for date. The app also includes a shortcut to Google Maps to view where pics where taken from, and another link back to the camera app.
In addition to the phone's own gallery, the Gallery menu also includes links to social photo sharing services like Facebook, Flickr, Picasa and DropBox.
Battery Life and Connectivity
Packed inside the One XL is the same 1800mAh battery as the One X. And while the Jelly Bean update brought with it a dedicated battery saving mode, it's still locked into the phone with no option for user access.
The One X's battery life was relatively disappointing, even though it was a bit smaller. A big portion of that could be put down to the quad-core processor. The One XL has ditched the quad core processor, but added the even more battery-intensive LTE connectivity.
On a day of moderate use - status updates on Facebook, some photos and video recording, and a handful of phonecalls and a spot of Fruit Ninja, the battery managed to kick on until the evening.
On days with a slightly more intensive schedule, the charger needed to be plugged in by mid afternoon for fear of being stranded without a phone.
Accessing data over LTE also had an obvious effect on battery life. Connecting to Telstra's fast network knocked the phone out fairly quickly.
It's not just LTE on board either. The One XL has 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0 and NFC built in, as well as DLNA connectivity.
That's a pretty nice lineup of acronyms and numbers, but the truth is that for the most part, you won't even use half of them.
Bluetooth 4.0, for example, is the latest standard for the wireless technology, and allows for extremely low powered transmission of data to third party devices, like the Fitbit One.
The problem is that finding Bluetooth 4.0 accessories is limited at the moment, and even Fitbit's offerings only work with the company's iOS app at the moment.
NFC is a similar technology with plenty of potential, but not a lot of practical usage. Android Beam, the wireless transmission standard that allows you to share files and apps by holding two NFC phones against eachother, doesn't work for everything.
We tried to share a trailer from the Xperia TX to the One XL with no luck, although sharing apps was simple enough.
Until NFC-enabled mobile payments take off - which could happen this year thanks to partnerships between Visa and mobile carriers - the NFC function in your phone is unlikely to get a lot of use.
But even though some of these technologies won't get used yet, it's still reassuring to know they are in there, as there's a good chance they'll become a lot more useful over the course of a 24 month mobile contract.
Maps and Apps
Preloaded on the One XL is Google's best in class Google Maps app. There's not a lot of new things to say about the navigation app, other than to reiterate that it's easily the best mapping app on the market.
Finding your location is fast, browsing around maps is fast and fluid thanks to the One XL's speedy LTE connectivity and dual core processor, and the inclusion of integrated turn-by-turn navigation essentially turns your phone into a dedicated satnav, although you'll want to make sure you have a car charger if you use the One XL this way regularly.
HTC has also included its own "Locations" navigation app, which includes a 30-day free trial for navigation, before costing you $7.49 a month or $34.99 a year.
Locations does offer a more comprehensive list of POIs, like speed cameras and ATMs, but its navigation also seems to be a little off. When navigating us from our home to the local shopping centre, it took what could only be described as the "scenic route".
If that's not enough, Telstra has partnered with Garmin to preload Garmin's Navigator app on the device as well, which includes free mapping software, and a 7-day trial for turn-by-turn directions and traffic updates.
Given the Google Maps navigation was just as reliable, and free to boot, we can't see anyone opening either of these other apps at all.
If, for some unknown reason, you aren't happy with Google's free offering - or Garmin or HTC's bundled paid ones - there are also a wide selection of mapping apps on the Play Store.
Being a Telstra-exclusive handset, there's a certain amount of telco-related bloatware preinstalled on the One XL. Largely, it's in the form of widgets, like the Telstra MyAccount tracker that keeps you updated on your monthly consumption, or the news app TelstraOne.
You can't delete the preloaded Telstra apps, although you can hide them, and they don't take up too much space on the phone's inbuilt memory.
Also pre-installed on the device are the regular, more practical Google apps like YouTube, TuneIn radio, Dropbox, Facebook, Google+ and Twitter.
Of course, the Play Store has been going from strength to strength, with hundreds of thousands of apps to choose from. The Play Store icon is set front and centre on the home screen from the get-go, so you can download your favourite apps without delay.
With a rapidly expanding 4G network, Telstra was quick to push out a device capable of showcasing everything LTE has to offer earlier this year. The One XL takes the best parts of the successful One X, and updates it to work on the 4G network.
The catch, as with all LTE phones, is battery life. While HTC dropped the quad core processor to try and keep the phone active for a longer time, the truth is that 1800mAh isn't enough juice for a phone of this power.
It's a sleek, well designed handset that feels comfortable in the hand, even though its screen is phenomenally large. The unibody design may have its detractors, but it does make for a stylish product.
With the update to Jelly Bean right before Christmas, the One XL is now one of the most relevant Android devices, in terms of software. HTC Sense 4+ makes the phone an even slicker device, easy to use and pleasant to navigate.
The camera is still something special, even though it is almost a year old now. Pictures are impressive for a smartphone, especially in ideal situations. A bevy of manual settings help make this a great option for the mobile photographer.
And then there's LTE. Honestly, who can complain about their signal when their phone can download a web page faster than the office ADSL?
Oh, that battery. The One XL keeps the same unibody shape as the One X, but that means there's no extra battery life. We'd happily sacrifice a few millimetres of thickness for an extra couple of hours worth of battery life crammed in there.
Also disappointing is the lack of a MicroSD card slot. While devices like the iPhone 5 also lack the expandable storage option, they also offer 64GB versions, which is something HTC hasn't delivered with the One XL. 32GB isn't too small, but it isn't large enough when HD movies become a part of the picture.
With a couple of small tweaks, HTC could have delivered a five star handset in the form of the One XL. Unfortunately, battery life just wasn't up to the standard it needs to be.
Still, short smartphone battery life is nothing new, so if you're keen on accessing Telstra's LTE network with a stylish device running Jelly Bean, this is easily one of the most enticing products on the market.
Sure, the 4G Samsung Galaxy S3 pips it at the post when it comes to versatility thanks to its MicroSD card slot and replaceable battery, but it also lacks HTC Sense, which is easily a much nicer experience than TouchWiz.
If LTE isn't a must-have, the One X is still a very worthwhile option though. It also struggles from battery life issues, but not to the same extent as the One XL. Either way, you're going to end up with a very nice, functional device.