Review: HTC Windows Phone 8X

HTC Windows Phone 8X
£399
htc.com/uk
Reviewer: Michael Garwood

HTC proves it’s more than just the ‘other’ Windows Phone 8 manufacturer

HTC must be one of the most hard done by phone companies in the business – no matter how good its devices prove to be, they just don’t seem to get picked up in the way Apple or Samsung products do. HTC’s first entrance in the Windows Phone 8 market proves to be one of the best handsets we’ve seen all year – combing slick design with all the features you come to expect from a high-end smartphone.

But will it be enough for the nascent platform to give it a boost, or is HTC destined to wallow in second place yet again?
Windows Phone 8 – a new dawn
Microsoft’s various iterations of its Windows Phone operating system have been praised by critics and users alike for its intuitive usability, handy features and great looks, even if the apps have been lacking.

Unfortunately Windows Phone it is nothing without a handset. After the failure of Windows Phone 7, for most of the past two years, if you wanted any Windows Phone handsets you had only one option, Nokia – a firm which has struggled to reestablish itself a serious player in the smartphone space since the launch of the the iPhone.

Despite Nokia producing some great devices with its Lumia range – sales have been poor and Windows Phone remains largely anonymous. With the launch of Windows Phone 8 – as well as Windows 8 for PC – (which link to each other much as Apple iOS and MacOS do) that could all be about to change.

Enter HTC; a firm that despite introducing the world to Android with its ‘G1′ handset back in 2008, has spent the past few years feeding off the scraps left over by Samsung who dominates the Android smartphone market. The firm has made the effort to show its support for Microsoft by naming its first Windows Phone 8 device – ‘Windows Phone 8X by HTC’ – definitely placing it at the top of many a Google search.

Sexy, but fragile
The 8X comes in a number of colour variants which fit the bright and exuberant theme of Windows including California Blue’, ‘Flame Red’, ‘Limelight Yellow’ and ‘Graphite Black’. Like most modern smartphones the 8X is built as a single solid unit, so this means no interchangeable covers or replacement batteries.

The device is not particularly large – sitting somewhere between the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S3 at 132.35 x 66.2mm. It is very curvaceous, and at just 10.6mm in width and with a weight of just 130g its fits comfortably in your hand – big or small, and so appeals to any sex. The Nokia Lumia 920 (reviewed on page 42) definitely can’t make this claim.

The phone’s body is also made from a tough polycarbonate shell, which gives it a nice expensive look and feel. By comparison, Samsung’s Galaxy S3 feels plasticky, cheap and nasty.

Unfortunately this material is also easily marked, and within a few short days of use it had lost its new phone lustre. A protective case is highly recommended.

For those unfamiliar with Windows Phone 8, the front of HTC’s 8X has three touch sensitive buttons on the face, the Windows Logo (home/main menu button), a left pointing arrow (back a screen) and magnifying glass for instant web search.

The phone’s power button is on the top of the device and is quite heavily receded – it really needs a hard push to turn the device on and off – a minor annoyance. Like the Nokia Lumia 920, the volume and camera buttons run down the right had side of the device.

A class leading screen
In the modern smartphone market it is all too common to find a serious compromise between looks and functionality. Excluding a few minor niggles – the HTC 8X holds up on both fronts pretty well.

The screen is fantastic – and, if you want to compare – leaves the likes of Apple iPhone 5 and Nokia 920 in it wake. It’s has a nice 4.3-inch720x1280 ‘super LCD 2′ screen which gives it a huge 342 pixels per inch (PPI) density – much higher than the iPhone 5′s 326PPI or the Lumia 920′s 332PPI. The colours are incredibly sharp and solid – even when zoomed. Windows Phone 8 is all about bright tiles with ‘in your face’ colours throughout its menus, and the 8X makes it all look stunning.

It is also protected with Gorilla Glass 2, so you don’t need to worry too much about screen scratches and cracks. The phone also copes extremely well with sunlight glare – put simply, there was none.

There’s also a bit of grunt behind this screen – the 8X uses Qualcomm’s excellent SnapDragon S4 dual core processor (running at 1.5GHz) with 1GB of RAM – the same as its Nokia Lumia 920 rival. It passed with flying colours anything that was thrown at it.

This made the Windows Phone experience particularly impressive. At no stage did I experience any slowdown, even when running several apps (and downloading several more in the background). I never saw any frustrating ‘spinning ball’ loading screens on this device.

The device also includes a reasonable 1,800mAh battery, and it does a decent job, generally lasting an entire day as its rivals do. Nothing exceptional, but not a weakness either.

A very Microsoft version of the web…
I do have a few negative comments regarding web browsing on Windows Phone. There are already some criticisms being levelled concerning how it struggles to render and display some web pages properly. This is something I am yet to experience – on the HTC 8X everything loads as you would expect and text renders to fit the page with ease.

However, the ‘Bing’ search engine may not please everyone. The results aren’t as good as Google’s (who’s are?) – and does take a bit of getting used to interface wise. Results are displayed as a very simplified list with white lettering and a black background – a world away from Google Chrome and Safari on mobile. Images can be displayed by sliding through the different menu ‘pages’ or tabs (Windows Phone 7 users will be familiar with this) across the top of the screen. There is also a ‘Local’ option, displaying results within your immediate geographic area – this actually works pretty well.

But if you really can’t bear to use Bing the more familiar Google search engine can be downloaded via the Microsoft app store – no sign of Google Chrome yet though.

Plentiful bells and whistles
Now, those that consider themselves to be old hands from the Windows Phone 7 era will have recognised a number of small – but not insignificant – updates on Windows Phone 8.

One of the notable updates is the inclusion of Microsoft Wallet which allows you save your bank details for secure online payments on the device. This is designed to match up with Apple’s Passbook, Google Wallet and other rivals.

Its a simple proposition: simply store your credit or debit cards, loyalty cards and digital coupons in one place. This can then be used with the phones NFC chip which allows you to pay for physical goods simply by holding the device against a wireless reader. These are already rolling out in supermarkets and pharmacies nationwide, so this phone is future proofed well.

The phone, as you would expect includes built in GPS – which works superbly in conjunction with the phone’s numerous location based applications such as ‘Local Scout’, which provides information and reviews on nearby eateries and attractions.

I particularly enjoyed using Nokia’s own Maps, which is superior to Microsoft’s own Bing Maps. The beauty Nokia Maps is that the maps are actually downloaded to the device – for use offline and to also reduce the lengthy delays in waiting the page to load when on cellular networks or wi-fi.

Other great features include the ‘Kids Corner’ app which limits the functionality of the device to protect children, such as when web browsing and downloading pictures.

Despite all these Nokia and Microsoft software and app additions, loyal HTC fans will find that its Android wrap around ‘HTC Sense’ suite of apps does not appear on the device, which is a disappointment. HTC does have its own downloadable applications within the app store but they are far from impressive. At the time of writing there were apps covering the weather, stock prices and a shortcuts to news sites such as CNN and Yahoo alongside a basic currency converter.

Windows Phone 8 becoming known as the photographer’s choice?
As readers will note from our Lumia 920 review, the cameras on Windows Phone 8 devices are proving to be a standout characteristic.

The 2.1-MP front facing camera uses an ‘ultra wide angle’ lens which helps to cram more family members in frame next time you’re attempting to group Skype, or simply for photos or videos.

The main camera offers 8MP, and includes autofocus, LED flash, a BSI sensor and solid face recognition. Autofocus performs brilliantly on the device – picking up small details such as lettering clearly. You can either push the camera button, or simply tap the screen to shoot.

But it’s the crafty design and layout of the camera buttons which help the 8X stand out. When taking a picture in landscape, the capture button rests perfectly beneath your right hand index finger – far less awkward than say the iPhone 5 where you have to use your thumb to click the screen. The zoom button also fits comfortably under your left hand index finger.

All this helps to keep the images still and that is vitally important to this device as the results can be very hit and miss. If you have a stable arm and the subject is still, the results look fantastic. If not and you’re attempting to capture something on the move – the results are often blurred and you’ll be hitting delete soon after. While this is hardly uncommon on smartphone cameras, the fact that this is much less pronounced on the Nokia Lumia 920 suggests that HTC has some way to go.

Videos are captured in HD running at 1080p and 30fps (both front and back) and the results are decent. Video capturing in the dark can be enhanced further by activating the ‘lamp’ function in its menu – which creates a kind of Blair Witch project effect. Its a love or hate proposition.

However, if you’re going to be making lots of movies there is a problem – the HTC 8X has very little onboard memory, limiting its appeal as a multimedia device. You will need to regularly back up to your hard drive, or utilise cloud services regularly.

Storage woes
The phone includes 16GB internally – there are no other options currently available. Whilst this may be adequate for low level users, it can’t be increased as there are no expandable memory slots on the device. This is probably the 8X’s biggest down fall and may put off heavy media and data users.

This is one area that certainly gives Nokia’s 32GB 920 the edge – even most mid-range Androids now offer 32GB MicroSD slots. It wouldn’t surprise me if HTC was to release a bigger capacity model in future.

It is a rather unusual move by HTC, especially given its music focus through its Dr. Dre ‘Beats Audio’ collaboration – a dedicated amp built in to the phone to enhance the music and sound experience.

It basically forces users to buy into either Microsoft’s cloud services (7GB free, upgradable), or other online audio/movie stores such as Spotify to stream media. In an app store marketplace that still can’t match Apple and Android for choice, its a risky call.

Skydrive allows you store your pictures online rather than directly on the phone. The same as you would on Facebook. Customers will need to have a Microsoft Account (formerly called Windows Live ID) or sign up to access his however.

Whilst cloud storage is the future, it may a step too far for some at present who aren’t so tech savvy – or buying a first smartphone. A lot of apps also won’t allow you to play song offline, a pain for anyone travelling on the underground. These kind of cloud features also rely too heavily on the UK’s ropey 3G reception, and the 8X is not compatible with EE’s 4G network (see our feature on page 28).

To conclude, anyone who hasn’t used Windows Phone before, and especially those that haven’t had much experience on a smartphone can do a lot worse. I’m confident in saying its the most simple OS available for new users. Most of those that struggle with Microsoft’s interface are more struggling with its differences from Android and iOS – which are far more commonplace.

Operating systems are fast becoming the key factor in customer sales, and my opinion Windows Phone has nothing to fear. The OS is more than a match for anything currently available and handsets like the HTC 8X present it well as it attempts to soak up some market share. The app store and other software will be vital to determining the HTC Windows Phone 8X’s success, but this is an excellent first attempt.

My main fear is surrounding the price – at £400 it isn’t cheap, certainly not any cheaper than its already well established rivals. This price point means it will be targeted towards contract mostly, and thus Apple and Samsung. Time will tell.

Plus
+Great body and interface design
+Dual core Snapdragon processor gives great performance
+Stunning screen
+Arguably the simplest to use smartphone available

Minus
-Lack of expandable memory
-Case is susceptible to scratching
-Lack of apps and HTC Sense
-No 4G in the UK

Performance – 4 Stars

Features – 3 Stars

Usability – 4 Stars

Design – 5 Stars

Overall – 4 Stars

Verdict
HTC has a history of building well designed handsets at all ends of the market – and the HTC X8 is no exception. The excellent integration of Windows Phone 8 is an eye catcher, and makes it a credible alternative for those wanting something different.

Tech Specs
Dimensions
– 132.4 x 66.2 x 10.1 mm (5.21 x 2.61 x 0.40 in)
Weight – 130g
OS – Windows Phone 8
Screen – 4.3-inch S-LCD2 capacitive touchscreen, 16M colours (with Gorilla Glass 2)
Resolution – 720 x 1280 pixels at 342PPI
CPU – Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 dual core at 1.5Ghz.
GPU – Adreno 225
Memory – 1GB RAM
Storage – 16GB not expandable
Camera – 8 MP, autofocus, LED flash.
Video – 1920×1080 at 30fps, continuous autofocus, video light.
Wireless – Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, dual-band, Bluetooth 3.1
Cellular – 2G, 3G, HSPA+ (3.5G) – no 4G LTE for UK version.
Ports – Microsim, 3.5mm audio jack, Micro-USB 2.0
Battery – Li-Ion 1800mAh