It's not a good time to be HTC today. The company is betting big on VR (with the Vive) and the company's focus on its hero products, its smartphone seems to be gradually fading away. In fact, it did not have much to offer after the launch of the One A9, which was released late last year until recently, there was the 'Big Bang', an explosion of smartphones at a recent launch in India.
The same event also saw the launch of the much-awaited HTC 10, a flagship smartphone, that basically stole the show with its specifications and price. And among the models that were launched on the same day was also the HTC One X9, whose specifications and price were dwarfed by the 10. I have been using the smartphone for about a week now. While the price and hardware makes for an over-priced smartphone on paper, there are a few things that it does get right.
Build and Design: 8.5/10
This mid-range smartphone looks like a premium flagship. It is in fact, one of the only or few mid-rangers that would pass off as a premium flagship device. And it borrows plenty from last year's One A9 (the under-powered flagship). If you have used a One A9 or even held the smartphone for a while, you will notice some similarities.
It begins with the silk-like finish of the metal. We are not sure what HTC calls it, but while it does feel slippery, it easily puts every single flagship available in the market right now, to shame. While its slippery, I also noticed how it felt soft like it had a transparent coating of rubber on it, which made for a very premium feel. I noticed something similar on the older A9. This smartphone's back seems to be buffed to perfection.
The overall rounded appearance added to the premium look and feel and felt comfortable in the hand no matter which way you hold the X9. The phone is a bit on the heavier side weighing in at good 170 grams. The only plastic bits, on metal back are fine antenna inserts and the caps that cover the SIM card and micro SD card slots (on either side). In case you were wondering, they all sit independently, there is no hybrid SIM rubbish out here, which is a much appreciated move. Aside from that there is the chromed finished insert on the back that holds the camera module and the dual tone LED flash.
While the smartphone is available in Topaz Gold, Carbon Grey and Silver, I preferred the Carbon Grey finish but could not help but notice how HTC managed to squeeze in a chromed lipping around the display, which added to the premium look without looking tacky.
Moving to the front face, we have a black bezel with a 2.5D glass screen that gelled well with the rounded appearance of the device. The glass makes for a seamless feel and combined with the chromed lipping, it adds to the premium look. Hidden at the top and bottom edges of that display are sizeable slits for HTC BoomSound speakers, which is currently the only one to feature them in a front-facing setup in the mid to premium range.
On the front, we get a 5.5-inch Full HD Super LCD display, which sadly isn't an IPS one (more on this later).
As I mentioned earlier, at first glance, the hardware specifications of the HTC One X9 on paper do look a bit primitive. While it packs in a new-age MediaTek chipset in the form of the Helio X10, we would have preferred something a lot more powerful in here considering that price tag. Still then, it does pack in 3GB RAM and 32GB of internal storage and it also accepts microSD cards of up to 2TB in capacity (along with flex storage).
There is a 13MP camera setup on the back that features, 1.12 μm pixels, Auto-focus, a BSI sensor, Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS), an f/2.0 aperture and 27.9mm focal length (74.8 degree wide-angle) packaged with a dual tone LED flash. The front facing unit is a 5MP one that features 1.12 μm pixels, fixed-focus, BSI sensor, f/2.8 aperture and 33.7mm focal length (65 degree wide-angle).
Coming to the connectivity options, we have the tried and tested microUSB 2.0 port, Bluetooth v4.2, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac (2.4 and 5 GHz), DLNA and Miracast support as well. Powering all of the above is a 3000mAh battery that comes with fast charging (5V/1.5A).
While I was impressed by the quality of the metal back, this was not really the case with One X9's display.
The display which is a Super LCD unit of Full HD resolution was indeed one of the sore points about the smartphone. To begin with it is not an IPS display, which means viewing angles although accurate by colour looked too dim even with the brightness cranked up to the max setting.
Images, icons and text looked crisp and pixellation-free, but it's the brightness levels that seemed a bit too low for a smartphone priced this high. While the cloudy and overcast monsoon weather did not prove to be a problem for the display's brightness, on sunny days it was not as bright as we expected it to be. Add to this the blue tint, that was really annoying and would not go away no matter how much we tweaked the Colour Temperature in the Display Settings.
While the 2.5D glass was not exactly smudge proof, it was easy to wipe them off. The display is not bad by any standards, it's just that at this price tag we expected better and buyers will feel the same way.
HTC's Sense UI has evolved with the times, it is now lighter than before and does not intrude as much as it used to. Overall, the experience was pretty good. The software did not appear to bog down the hardware either with apps and games opening up as expected. There were no slow downs and HTC seems to used the 3GB of RAM very well, delivering a super smooth UI which did not stutter or lag.
HTC has a great theme store built-in with access to big selection of themes, while the best ones were designed by HTC, there were plenty of selections by other contributors as well. Themes itself are divided into two types. You have the Classic layout themes and the Freestyle layout themes. Classic themes are the standard stuff or format that we have grown used to on Android smartphones. You get the same elements like icons with badge counts for notifications all laid down in a grid format.
With Freestyle themes, things change a bit. Instead of a grid layout of icons, you now get elements you can play around with. These elements could be characters or objects from the theme, that you can move around and place anywhere on the homescreen as you wish to. Your standard Settings icon can look like a cloud from the theme or even a deer wandering in a forest theme. Moreover, side scrolling through your home screen shows a parallax scrolling effect which is visual delight if not practical enough for every day use. Still then, it is a fresh take as HTC has themes available in both formats on its theme store.
With base version at Android 6.0 Marshmallow, we had few complaints and HTC seems to have implemented most of its features like Google Now on Tap as well.
With a MediaTek Helio X10 chipset inside, we really did not expect the X9 to be a gaming powerhouse. Where we did expect it to deliver was on battery life, but more on that later. With the X10 chipset clocked at 1.95 GHz, the chipset was not under-powered by any means but neither was it breathtakingly powerful. It is more of an average performer and while it ran most games without a hiccup, it did warm up a bit. Our Fluke Thermometer gun showed readings of about 38 degrees centigrade when stressed (Asphalt 8 with Max settings), which is really not that bad when you consider that it has a metal body.
Most of the games ran fairly smooth with hiccups in some that were not optimised for the smartphone (Asphalt Nitro for example, threw up a warning).
Call performance was on par and the voice quality was clear at both ends. With the placement of two front facing speakers now no longer available on the flagship HTC 10 model, the X9 is the only other one to deliver it; and it did so pretty well. The audio from both speakers was loud enough, clear and made for an immersive audio experience not just for music but for gaming as well. BoomSound is also coupled with Dolby, where the same was manufactured under license from Dolby Laboratories; so this is no gimmick. More importantly, it is impressive how HTC managed the same especially when you consider that this smartphone is just 7.9mm thick; especially at this price tag. HTC has also bundled a pair of slick looking earphones which are of the in ear type. They fit well, and deliver the intended audio quality, which was well balanced.
Glance through the camera specifications and you will notice plenty of features that HTC managed to pack into the One X9. The 13MP camera may not sound like much, but it features a bright f/2.0 aperture lens. Combine that with OIS and a BSI sensor and you should get some pretty good photographs.
I managed to get some pretty sharp looking images from the HTC One X9. In daylight scenarios, the X9 performed pretty well. The autofocus was really quick and the same can be said about the shot-to-shot and image capture times. The colours were balanced and the exposure in control. The HDR mode did not go overboard and managed to get the best bits of all the exposures. Thanks to OIS there was minimum blur as well.
Switch to dim lighting or low light scenarios and things get a bit tricky. The X9 managed to get some impressive shots, thanks to the OIS but the luminance noise creeped in and almost ruined some of the photographs. I had better luck with the Pro (manual) mode where I could manually control the ISO and shutter speeds and the results were really impressive. The OIS helps and I managed to get some impressive light trails with minimal noise. The manual focus also helped by a great deal and allowed me to isolate the subject from the rest of the background.
Recording videos was a fun experience and the smartphone will let you record video in slow motion, Hyperlapse, Full HD and even 4K. The framerates in the standard video recording modes kept up although I missed a 60fps Full HD mode.
All-in-all the shooting experience was better than I had expected from an HTC smartphone, but is nowhere close to what you can get from a similarly priced OnePlus 3 handset.
HTC managed to squeeze in a 3000mAh battery inside a 7.9mm body which is in a way, an achievement in itself. Still then, the battery times does stand up for itself. With a two email accounts on sync, WhatsApp, Telegram, Slack, some gaming and clicking about 10 odd photographs, the X9 got me through a whole day of use after unplugging it at 7AM.
The phone needed to be plugged in by about 11PM which is good enough. Our standard PC Mark for Android work battery life test told us a different story giving about 7 hours on continuous usage. Overall, the A53 cores inside the MediaTek Helio X10 along with a Full HD display and a 3000mAh battery make for a good combination. And all of this is without enabling HTC's Power Saver mode that would have added a few more hours of usage.
Verdict and Price in India
The HTC One X9 is indeed a great smartphone. It packs in one of the better cameras that we have seen from HTC so far and currently the only one in the company's premium range to feature BoomSound with a dual front-facing speaker setup. What shines through however is the quality and premium looks of the device, even though it belongs to the mid-range.
While many will argue that premium looks do come at a premium price. Times have changed and powerful hardware is now commonplace in the Rs 24,000 to Rs 30,000 bracket. With that said, as much as I liked using the One X9, its direct competitor (in terms of pricing) the OnePlus 3, makes me want to look the other way.
The OnePlus 3 offers a faster processor, better camera, double the RAM, double the internal storage and also comes in an all-metal body with no plastic bits. It may not look as graceful as the One X9, but there's little to argue about which smartphone offers better value for money here. Beyond the OnePlus 3, we have the Sony Xperia XA Ultra priced at Rs 29,990 which offers a better camera, breathtaking display, but a more mid-range MediaTek P10 chipset. Other Chinese manufacturers include Xiaomi Mi 5 (Rs 24,999) and the Oppo F1 Plus (Rs 25,998). Among the oldies there's the Nexus 5X and the Samsung Galaxy S6 (Rs 33,000+) as well.
With that said, it is hard to recommend the HTC One X9, unless you are a hardcore HTC fan who would not look at any other brand; for everyone else there's a wide variety of better options out there.