The other day I wandered into an AT&T and a Verizon store. I wasn't in the market for a phone, I was just killing time. (It's what nerds do!)
Within a couple of minutes in each store, I was actually overwhelmed by the choice of Android devices. There were more than ten Android phones -- yes, I counted -- displayed in each store. And while my life's work is knowing about each of them, it was hard even for me to tell them apart.
And that's the major challenge facing manufacturers of Android phones these days: It's nearly impossible to stand out in the sea of Android phones lining store walls.
HTC, however, has a new formula with its new HTC One line, which currently includes the $199 One X for AT&T and the HTC One S for T-Mobile. Both phones have incredible displays, great cameras, and a slightly redesigned version of Android 4.0 software.
So are they good enough to stand out in the crowd? It sure looks like it.
It's not exactly rocket science to focus on the screen, considering that's the main part of the phone users interact with. HTC has managed to come out with brilliant new screens.
Describing the screens on these phones is hard to do, but here goes: colors look incredibly crisp and vivid, and blacks are especially deep. The One X's Super LCD 4.7-display (slightly larger than the One S) has a higher 1280 x 720-resolution, so text looks even crisper. But blues and greens on the One S' Super AMOLED display look slightly more vibrant.
Hands down, these are the nicest screens on any Android smartphone on the market today. And while it's nerdy to admit, I just kept bringing up bright images and video just to stare at them.
The hardware manufacturing quality of the phones matches the top-notch screen quality. Both have very sturdy aluminum backs and are comfortable to hold. The One X's larger screen gives it a bigger footprint, which might be too wide for some. I preferred the One S's smaller size, but then you have to sacrifice the slightly crisper screen. Everything's a compromise!
The two both have identical 8-megapixel cameras with HTC's Image Sense Technology, which is a mix of hardware and software enhancements. The result is some very clear, well-lit images. The camera and the LED flash really shine in low-light situations. Image quality is impressive in its own right, but the camera software offers more than many other phones. The "zero shutter lag" feature lets you snap photos very quickly and you can capture photos while recording video. Both phones also have front-facing 1.3-megapixel cameras, fine for the random teeth or makeup check.
On the back of both phones you'll notice some Beats branding. (Yes, the same Beats as in those headphones from Dr. Dre.) Last year, HTC teamed up with the audio company, but it hasn't proved to be more than a gimmick. While the speaker phone on the phone is good, it's not superb by any means. And playing back music sounded decent, but the phone isn't going to replace an external speaker or even your laptop's speakers. (Check out the Big Jambox if you're looking for a great speaker, by the way.)
That would be the general hardware, but how is the software? Is it any different from the loads of phones that run Google's Android operating system these days? That's where HTC sets itself apart again. While the phones do run the latest version of Android -- Android 4.0, which is also known as Ice Cream Sandwich -- HTC has made a number of nice additions. Not only has it added some nice widgets, including the main weather widget, but it added some nice animations and polish. I particularly like what they did with the open or recent apps list; a 3-D carousel of your open apps appears and you can swipe upwards to close them. Those changes go a bit deeper too -- the camera app has some extra features, like the ability to add Instagram-like filters to photos, and some more editing capabilities.
Even better, navigating that software is really smooth, thanks to the dual-core 1.5GHz Snapdragon processor in both phones. For some reason the AT&T One X doesn't have a quad-core processor like the European version, but I really didn't miss those extra cores -- apps open quickly, web browsing is smooth, and handling multiple applications is no hurdle for the phone.
The One S and the One X are very, very similar phones; save for the size and design differences, they are pretty hard to tell apart. And interestingly, their biggest difference is not on HTC's end, but on the carriers they are available on. The One X is available for AT&T and runs on AT&T's brand new LTE network. That by nature makes the phone one of the fastest on the market; websites, like ABC News' non-mobile site, popped up in less than 10 seconds, and video streamed over YouTube without pauses or much buffering.
However, the HTC One S from T-Mobile cannot claim the same prowess. While T-Mobile's HSPA+ network is called "4G," it isn't as fast as AT&T's fresh network. It's not slow by any means, but it isn't as fast.
But there is a benefit to the T-Mobile's One S -- the battery lasts a bit longer on a charge. Both phones lasted a full workday with a good amount of use and email coming in very regularly, but the One S had 35 percent left at day's end.
Both phones also worked well as phones. Phone calls were clear around New York City, though my cheek hit the screen on the HTC One X a few times, touching the "end call" button with unfortunate results.
You'll notice I haven't really complained about much in this review, and that's mostly because there isn't much to complain about here. Both the One S and the One X are very well-rounded smartphones. They have beautiful screens, great cameras, and smooth and attractive software. The One X does have faster data speeds and a higher resolution display, but the One S fits better in one's hand.
But those differences aside, $199 with a two-year contract at either T-Mobile or AT&T buys you the best Android phone in the sea competitors. And that should make walking into a T-Mobile or AT&T store a lot more fun, even if you're not looking to buy a new phone.