Two premium Android smartphones eye each other off nervously before entering into the Battlemodo arena. One sells itself on its insanely high resolution screen; the other on its insanely fast camera. Only one of them can be our preferred Android superphone — which one will it be?
There's absolutely no shortage of Android handsets in the market at the moment, but in the premium space the air is a little more clear. Most vendors aren't insane enough to launch multiple true high-end models and needlessly confuse the market, instead setting up a single "hero" phone that's intended to exemplify everything that's great about the brand and design.
That's where both the Sony Xperia S and HTC One X sit, but it's not the only similarity both phones share. They're both phones that are carried by Vodafone and Optus, but not Telstra. They're both also firsts; in Sony's case this is the first "pure" Sony phone following its buyout of the joint venture with Ericsson. In HTC's case, its the first phone they've offered up with Ice Cream Sandwich and Sense 4.0.
The version of the One X that we get in Australia comes with a quad-core Tegra 3 processor, while the Xperia S is only utilising a dual-core processor. Straight victory to the HTC One X, right? Not so fast. While there are more cores present under the One X's skin, and that leads it to a commanding technical benchmark lead — for those that like such things, the Xperia S managed a score of 2967 in Quadrant, while the One X managed a score of 5034 — the functional effect on real-world day-to-day use isn't as pronounced as you might think. They're both functionally quick phones, but the One X is a touch nippier. It'll be interesting to see whether that lead is maintained once they're on the same Android platform.
It's much the same story with the display screen. On paper, this should be an easy victory to the Xperia S. Its 1280x720 4.3-inch display screen is smaller than the 1280x720 4.7-inch HTC One X, but the much higher pixel density of 342ppi on the Xperia S (higher than the iPhone 4S) should equate to sharper images. They're very good, but the perceptible difference isn't that great, and the HTC One X's screen had a more neutral colour temperature; like many with the Xperia S I noticed a slight yellowish hue to the display when held at certain angles.
In terms of physical design, there's quite a bit to both like and loathe in both handsets, but physical observations for smartphones are highly subjective and always will be; I'd strongly recommend any purchaser of either handset get some in-store hands on time with either phone before buying or signing a contract.
The One X clearly looks like an HTC phone; even without the HTC logo on it, the rounded corners are evocative of previous HTC designs, and that's a matter of whether it's to your taste or not. Strip the Sony logo off the Xperia S and you'd be hard-pressed to pick what make of phone it was — again, that's a taste thing whether that's good or bad. I quite like the stark design notes, right up to the clear bar at the base, although only aesthetically.
One thing that irked me with both phones was the way that both HTC and Sony have chosen to approach buttons — or the lack thereof. In the case of the Xperia S, a thin clear bar at the base carries the logos for the standard Android options — but they're not the actual buttons themselves. Instead, a small capacitive area above each symbol is where you've got to press. Even after a couple of weeks testing, I find myself tapping the bar when I should be tapping the area — annoying.
Equally annoying is HTC's decision to use capacitive buttons at the base of the One X's screen. This isn't a symbol location problem in the same way as the Xperia S, but an Ice Cream Sandwich one, as it makes for a somewhat jarring app experience. For some Ice Cream Sandwich apps it makes for an inconsistent experience, with menu options sometimes displayed at the base, sometimes at the top, and sometimes missing altogether, presumably because the app would work fine on a phone such as the Galaxy Nexus, where the buttons are purely a software function, but on the One X they've got nowhere logical to go.
Both the One X and Xperia S feature sealed batteries, no expandable storage and microSIMs. Obviously, expandable storage would be a plus for either phone, at least as an option, but when it comes to the microSIM slot, HTC inches ahead, simply because it uses a simple microSIM tray. Sony's opted for an entirely removable back instead, in the style of older smartphones. Once you introduce a sealed battery into a phone, though, why would you want to take the entire back off? I can't really see why Sony didn't opt for a slot or tray for the microSIM instead.
Both the One X and the Xperia S are NFC capable, even though there's a dearth of Australian NFC applications to date. That doesn't make it a worthless technology, but I'll give the nod here to the Xperia S, simply because in Australia, Sony includes two NFC tags in the box, giving you the opportunity to use NFC for profile switching; stick one in the car (as I did) and you can set the Xperia S to switch to silent with Bluetooth sync, for example.
Again, this is one of those areas that might seem like a slam dunk for the One X, which is rocking Ice Cream Sandwich, while the Xperia S toddles along on Gingerbread. There's no doubt that Ice Cream Sandwich is a sweet enticement, but the interesting thing across both phones is that both Sony and HTC seem to have learnt lessons regarding skinning Android phones. Where once you'd see heavily redesigned interfaces that gave you plenty of bonus lag, there's now a light touch that offers options rather than mandatory experiences. Sony obviously trades heavily on its in-house entertainment apps here.
HTC's Sense is similarly cut down from the Sense experiences of the past; while, like the physical design it's undeniably an HTC product, large clock icon included, it's also rather more subtle and less of a burden on the system as a whole, with more thought into making a better Android experience overall. Some of it may come down to taste — the real appeal of Android in the smartphone space is exactly how modifiable it all is — because these are both pretty snappy handsets.
The camera fight between these two phones was particularly interesting. Again, on paper the Xperia S should carry the day given Sony's particular focus on camera sensors, as well as the 12MP to 8MP gap between the handsets.
But that's only part of the story — and remember, you should never just judge a camera by its megapixel count. One of HTC's big selling points for the One X is the speed of its shutter, and the ability to take multiple photos exceedingly quickly for a smartphone. This works quite well, although you may find yourself filling up memory with additional shots if you hold the camera button on the front face down for too long. With a camera sensor this swift, that's rather easy to do. It's also quite handy to be able to shoot video and take stills at the same time.
The one thing I really didn't like about the HTC One X's camera capabilities lies in HTC's decision not to put a physical camera button on the phone itself. That means taking any shot must be done via tapping the screen, which easily introduces shudder and makes getting focus a little harder. Taking still shots side by side with the Xperia S and HTC One X I was more easily able to get satisfactory shots with the Xperia S simply due to the presence of a physical button.
Sony's camera software includes the ability to take 3D panoramas, which can then be played back through the HDMI port on the side of the phone. For whatever it's worth, Vodafone will ship the phone with an HDMI cable, but Optus apparently won't. In any case, it's not worth getting excited about, because with only a single lens, it's forced to create a simulated 3D image. For every single 3D image I tried, the results were the same, and can be summed up with the words "absolute stinking rubbish".
Still, 3D isn't the point of the phone, and while it's very close, I'll give this round to the Xperia S over the HTC One X.
HTC crams just a little more battery within the One X than Sony does with the Xperia S; 1800mAh to 1750mAh. But I'll award the crown here to the Xperia S in any case, and for one very simple reason; it's not just about the numbers on a sheet of paper, but how well they operate in real-world testing. The One X often struggled to get through a full day's testing — quite possibly a function of that larger screen and more demanding processor — while the Xperia S rarely did. Obviously this could be mitigated with a desk charger for either phone, but not with external batteries, as they're both sealed.
Both the Xperia S and HTC One X are exceptionally fine phones, but you'd expect that from a "hero" phone. As with any purchase, it'll depend on your own usage preferences, but I'll give the nod to the HTC One X; it's an exceptionally fast phone with an up-to-date operating system that, for once, isn't hobbled by vendor crapware.
Sony Xperia S
OS: Android 2.3.7 (Android 4.0 to come) Screen: 4.3-inch 720x1280 Processor: Qualcomm MSM8260 Snapdragon 1.5GHz RAM: 1GB Storage: 32GB Dimensions: 128mm x 64mm x 10.6mm Camera: 12MP rear (1080p HD video), 1.3MP front Battery: 1750mAh Weight: 144g
HTC One X
OS: Android 4.03 Screen: 4.7-inch 1280x720 Processor: Nvidia Tegra 3 quad-core 1.5GHz RAM: 1GB Storage: 32GB Dimensions: 134.4mm x 69.9mm x 8.9mm Camera: 8MP rear (1080p HD video), 1.3MP front Battery: 1800mAh Weight: 130g