Windows Phone 8 has landed and it’s done so in style thanks to the likes of HTC and Nokia. Two brands who’s master craftsmanship of plastic is nothing short of mind-blowing. Case and point is the first Windows Phone 8 handset we’ve gotten our hands on, the HTC 8X. Not so Lumia like in the flesh, this exquisitely designed 4.3-inch WinPho is a dual-core device rocking 16GB of memory and beats audio profiles a la Android HTC’s of late. Solid specs across the board suggest the HTC 8X won't be resting on its quite frankly sensational design, but lets see how the smartphone fares a week into usage.
HTC 8X - Design
Corners, curves, contrast; the HTC 8X is phone to own if you’re all about aesthetics. Contoured to perfection, it creates flat lines across its fascia, tapering masterfully along the sides and pulling focus around the back, curving ergonomically and cushioning itself into the crease of the palm with intention and poise.
The reasonable size and unimposing design mean it should be comfortable to hold for most people, helped along by fantastic weighting and easy to reach buttons. On the subject, the top side houses a power button while the right side is where you’ll find the volume rocker and physical two-stage camera button. Ports include a 3.5mm headphone jack up top and a micro USB port at the bottom. The backside houses the camera, flash and micro-drilled holes as well as the insignias - HTC and Beats Audio.
Available in red, yellow, blue and black, there’s little left to say beyond 5 out of 5, at least in terms of design. How about the rest of the phone?
HTC 8X - Screen
Moving onto the screen and the 720p resolution coupled with a 4.3-inch size means the 8X packs pixel density bettering that of the iPhone 5. While on paper it’s akin to the Sony Xperia S, the panel is richer in the flesh with stronger colours and viewing angles. Suffice to say with that resolution it’s incredibly sharp so text looks perfect and the live tiles are showcased better than ever before. It isn’t flawless with some other panels producing better colour integrity across viewing angles and deeper blacks, though we doubt it will give you any cause for complaint.
HTC 8X - User Interface
Windows Phone 8 is making it’s grand entrance on the 8X and frankly we’re a bit disappointed that it’s the gorgeous hardware that’s stolen the show and not the brand spanking new OS.
There are plenty of changes under the hood in Windows Phone 8, not least of all the fact that development for Windows Phone 8 apps and Windows 8 apps will be unified thanks to a ‘shared core’ and the OS now support oodles more hardware options than Windows Phone 7.5 - but the average consumer probably won’t be aware of the majority of this.
What is immediately obvious is the homescreen. It gives you the option to have three different sizes of tiles - small, medium and large. The arrow indicating where your apps list is has also been ditched, taking full advantage of the 8X’s gorgeous screen and giving the lovely live tiles all the screen space they deserve.
The lock screen can also be customised in Windows Phone 8, pulling in information from either Facebook, your calendar, email, messaging or your phone. The lock screen image can still be changed and the phone unlocked with a simple swipe up.
There’s a wallet app which takes advantage of the on board NFC, giving the option to incorporate Oyster and debit cards, though this didn’t work at this early stage in the platform’s life, turning the payment cards into little more than in-phone payment means for music and apps.
A highpoint comes in the form of Maps on Windows Phone 8. Powered by Navteq, the mapping system behind Nokia maps, it’s considerably more robust than Apples new iOS maps for example and even trumps good old Google maps in many areas. Our favourite feature is offline caching, enabling you to download an entire country through a quick dip into the settings. Bing maps be gone - this is one smart move on the part of Microsoft.
HTC have also included their hubs app, pulling in stocks information as well as news and weather, though this is unchanged from that found on Mango phones. Also unchanged are HTC’s other apps, Photo Enhancer, Flashlight, Converter and Connection setup, making their own customisations to the UI something of a disappointment.
While this might sound somewhat damning, it’s only reflective of our high hopes for the evolution of Windows Phone. The OS is rife with potential thanks to its flow, ease of use and Windows 8 tie-in. With the latest iteration though, it's clear that Windows Phone is not keeping up with Android in terms of UI growth. That said, with iOS hitting even more of an innovation standstill in iOS 6, WinPho8 is still the third player to watch out for, especially when showcased on phones like the beautiful HTC 8X.
HTC 8X - Camera and Multimedia
An 8-megapixel BSI sensor with f/2 lens suggests the HTC 8X to be capable of shots akin to the HTC One X and the like. This isn’t the case unfortunately with the Windows Phone camera curse rearing its ugly head once more.
While we would have loved to see an in-built shortcut to the camera from the lock screen, the 8X camera can be accessed from any state with a long press of the shutter key. The UI is slightly dated which isn’t the best start, lacking HDR or panorama as found on rival platforms, photo taking just isn’t as versatile. With Google even going so far as to include filters in Android 4.2’s camera UI, the sooner we see third party camera interfaces on Windows Phone 8 the better, unless of course Windows Phone 8.1 is round the corner.
Moving onto the 8X’s picture quality though and things pick up a bit. Daytime shots look good. Detail is fair for an 8-megapixel shooter and images are quick to take. Colour is for the most part accurate and the touch to take / focus works well, though is a bit hit and miss when it comes to macro. We would have loved the option to set focus with touch but not actually take the shot, but alas, it’s no where in sight.
Drop the lights and images don’t look great with extremely prevalent grain, though admittedly very little blur. You’ll see from all the night shots just what we mean. We were initially scratching our heads as to why this was the case given the f/2 lens and HTC's imaging credentials, however a quick peek into the Exif data reveals the 8X seems to ramp up the ISO to max (1200) far too readily. Manually overriding ISO to 800 in Windows Phone 8’s camera settings should improve noise handling no end and thanks to the wide open lens won't introduce camera blur for most.
Video does a good job for a phone costing £400 offline. Shot at full HD it looks smooth, sharp and packs continuous auto focus. It’s a shame this can’t be triggered into action by a screen tap as with the HTC Androids, though this is a small grievance. Night video is a little grainy and takes a noticeable amount of time to adjust for exposure changes. Quality is is perfectly watchable on the 8X and exportable to YouTube or an HD display.
With its gorgeous display, one area the HTC 8X and indeed Window Phone 8 really does come up good is video playback. With the option to drag and drop video files onto the device, treating it as a mass storage device, gone is the middle man - aka Zune for all your media consumption. The rich codec support means the DIVX encoded files we used all worked to perfection. For music, there’s the Xbox Music Store, which replaces the Zune hub and comes complete with 30-day access to try out the unlimited service for free. This turns your Windows Phone into a Spotify-esque music player, offering offline playback, a great selection of content and a very attractive UI.
Despite its Xbox credentials, gaming is the area Windows Phone 8 seems to be trailing behind the other mobile OSs. A couple of industry standards such as Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja aside, and the most compelling Windows Phone game still seems to be Kinectimals. The 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm S4 chip therefore seems ever so slightly squandered in this respect - something we hope time will rectify.
HTC 8X - Storage and connectivity
With 16GB of memory inside the beautifully designed unibody, it’s little wonder given the scultpted shape of the 8X that there’s no removable memory. That only 11GB is user-available means we would have liked to see a higher capacity 8X available, especially given the ease with which media can now be transfered onto Windows Phone 8 handsets.
In terms of connections, the 8X has the lot to offer, especially for our friends across the pond. Offering LTE in the US, it hasn’t been confirmed for Everything Everywhere in the UK, so won’t deliver 4G on arrival here. In saying that, it does bring with it DC-HSPA, the next best thing if you’re on Three or Vodafone. The phone also offers NFC and the usual suspects such as 3G, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and a GPS.
Web browsing is powered along by Internet Explorer 10 and brings with it a very smooth experience. The Snapdragon S4 is a renowned web performer and the gorgeous, sharp display conveys text to perfection.
HTC 8X - Performance and battery
If we can say one thing Microsoft have nailed with Windows Phone 8 it’s stability. We used the HTC 8X a lot. No stutter, no force closes, crashes or anything even suggesting the experience wasn’t silky smooth from top to toe. The UI looked incredible on single-core chipsets so it’s little wonder dual-core processors make short work of the whole experience.
Call quality on the HTC 8X is phenomenal and we found the loudspeaker offered enough oomph for day to day use. With good reception and no dropped calls, it’s clearly a good phone as well as a good smartphone.
Ending on another high and the 1800mAh battery will see you through a day and then some, even if you use the handset a fair bit as we did.
HTC 8X - Conclusion
This is a review of two parts. On the one hand there’s Windows Phone 8, a new OS with plenty of enhancements, though many too subtle for the consumer to see on launch. WinPho has always been a pleasure to use, it still is and the under the hood changes should result in a richer ecosystem down the line. That said, if this is the rate of growth for the OS, we’re slightly concerned when comparing it to the competition, namely Android.
On another more primary level though, this is an HTC 8X review and here’s what we think of the handset: Design, stunning. Screen, pin-sharp. Camera, decent. Connectivity options, ample. Performance, buttery. Battery, brilliant. Value for money? Yes. At £400 you’d be hard pressed to find a smoother, more refined offering. Windows Phone 8 delivers a gorgeous UI and while it might lack some of the bells and whistles of Android, it’s simpler, just as cost effective and thanks to the HTC 8X, more compelling than ever.