Review: The HTC Windows Phone 8X is everything a flagship phone should be
At a Glance
HTC Windows Phone 8X
The 8X is a stellar piece of hardware, with a beautiful user interface, but the lack of storage (and apps) may be hard for some users to get over.
HTC’s flagship Windows Phone 8 handset, the Windows Phone 8X, is easy to love with its bright, popping colors, sleek, curved angles, and snappy new operating system. It’s everything a smartphone should be. The 8X, which should hit U.S. shelves sometime this month through carriers AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile, is the first handset we’ve seen running the new Windows Phone 8 operating system. With a clean design, well thought-out features, and solid performance, the 8X deserves a chance to win you over to Windows Phone.
The Windows Phone 8X immediately made a great impression. The polycarbonate unibody comes in four bright shades inspired by the vibrant Live Tiles of Windows Phone 8: Graphite Black, Flame Red, Limelight Yellow, and California Blue. The handset has subtle curved edges and a soft-touch back that make it remarkably comfortable to hold in your hand. At 5.21 inches tall, 2.6 inches across, and 0.39 inches thick, it’s similarly sized to both the Lumia 920, Nokia’s flagship Windows Phone, as well as HTC’s own One X, however, at just 4.5 ounces, it’s one of the most lightweight handsets on the market.
The top of the handset houses the power button, 3.5mm headphone jack, and a secondary microphone, while the volume rocker, camera button, and microSIM card input all run along the right side. The primary microphone and micro-USB input are located on the bottom of the handset. All of the physical buttons are made from anodized aluminum, in a similar shade to the handset itself, and are set flush to the body of the phone—which made it occasionally difficult to press them deeply enough to register. I also found myself often inadvertently changing the volume, as the rockers are located right where my fingers rest when gripping the phone.
The 8X takes full advantage of Windows Phone 8’s upgraded hardware requirements. With a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm S4 processor and 1GB of RAM, Windows Phone 8 is (finally) cooking with fire and it shows. The 8X responded instantly to commands and had no difficulty playing videos or streaming music. Likewise, I had no difficulties during my gameplay, nor while running any apps: no stutters, shut downs, or crashes. Less impressive is the 8X’s 16GB storage, with no options for expansion, and battery life. Our battery tests showed that the 8X (running on AT&T's network) lasted only six hours and twenty-two minutes on a charge, while the Verizon and T-Mobile versions did slightly better at six hours twenty-nine minutes and six hours thirty-three minutes respectively. Comparatively, our lab tests of the iPhone 5, showed that handset was capable of running for eight hours twenty-one minutes.
The super LCD 2 touchscreen display, a 4.3-inch slab of Gorilla Glass 2, has a 720p HD resolution that produces sharp colors and stunningly detailed images. Working with roughly 331ppi, the 8X has a display comparable to the One X, or the very popular Samsung Galaxy S III. Watching videos is a treat, not a chore, as is flipping through photos, which have a warmer hue than those viewed on an iPhone 4S. The display also did well in bright light, where I could easily view apps and photos while in sunlight—something I consistently have serious difficulty doing on my iPhone 4S.
The touchscreen is highly responsive; I didn't notice delays or lags when navigating through the menus or launching apps. The keyboard retains the look and feel of the one found on Windows Phone 7 handsets. In very little time, I was typing emails and messages quickly, however, there were a few occasions when I accidentally hit the wrong character. There isn’t a ton of space between letters.
Windows Phone 8 represents a major overhaul on the software side. Microsoft has heavily stressed the customization and ecosystem of Windows Phone 8 and has rolled out several features that expand those functionalities, starting with the ability to resize Live Tiles, which really does help to make the home screen feel more friendly, manageable, and personal. Other upgrades include the extension of Groups to include Rooms, which gather groups of contacts into one place on your handset and enables you to share photos, notes, and calendar information with everyone in that group. A Kids Corner provides a separate screen of preapproved apps for kids to enjoy. Windows Phone 8 also brings with it NFC functionality, Skype integration, “lenses” for third-party camera features, and Data Sense, which allows you to keep track of how much data you’re using. (Data Sense requires carrier support, so I was unable to test it at this time.)
Because Windows Phone 8 shares kernels with both the desktop and tablet clients, there are also apps for Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Windows Phone 8 can sync documents to SkyDrive, Microsoft's cloud storage service, which makes it easy for users to share documents. Windows Phone 8 users can still link their smartphone to their Xbox 360 console, and link their user accounts, as well as use Xbox SmartGlass to add controls or showcase additional information. Music and movie lovers can sync their handsets to Xbox Music and Xbox Video services respectively.
I tested the AT&T version of the 8X, which also offers a barrage of AT&T entertainment offerings like AT&T U-Verse Live TV and AT&T Radio. U-Verse Live TV didn’t stream fast enough the first time I tried it, resulting in a lot of gaps and pauses while the video loaded. Although I had better luck on a second try, I did notice the back of the phone became very warm during extended periods of video watching. I listened to AT&T Radio, although you should understand that this service will eat data like a hungry, hungry hippo. The radio on the 8X produced very clear—and very loud—sound, even with Beats Audio turned off. Beats Audio, which is enabled only for headphone listening, provides an additional level of deep bass and crisp tones to music. Listening to music with Beats Audio on made songs louder, lyrics cleaner, and songs sound fuller.
Another huge boon for Windows Phone 8 fans is Microsoft's plan to have 46 of the top 50 apps available within the coming months. That's good news, as one of the places where Windows Phone has lagged is in the app ecosystem. That being said, the apps optimized to work with Windows Phone 8 provide additional features. For example, you can set up Facebook to display the lock screen, so it’s the first thing you see when your phone powers up.
While the Windows Phone 8 UI has been well received by critics, consumers haven’t really given it a chance yet. Now that Windows Phone is integrated into a wider ecosystem, it will likely attract more interest. In my experience with the 8X, I’d say it’s absolutely worth a look. From the Rooms functionality, to the Live Tiles, to Office documents, to Kids Corner, Windows Phone offers a lot that no one else has.
Setting up email and social media accounts was as easy as logging in, although I did have some trouble adding a third Gmail account. (Windows Phone 8 could use better Google integration.) Using Internet Explorer and Bing as the browser and search engine didn’t bother me as much as I would have anticipated; both are serviceable and gave appropriate and accurate search results as well as quick-loading webpages. In our tests, the 8X did well on multiple tests that timed Web browsing. Windows Phone 8 can now also pin webpages to your home screen, as well as perform searches within the webpage.
HTC includes its weather/stocks/news widget, which is fairly unobtrusive if you don’t like it and handy for up-to-date info if you do. Maps come via Nokia’s technology, which means you gain the ability to download maps for offline use. Maps also has the Scout feature embedded, so you can pull up a list of nearby restaurants, stores, or events, something that is still missing from iOS 6. The only downside? In order to access any turn-by-turn navigation, you’ll have to exit Maps and go to the GPS app powered by AT&T Navigator and TeleNav.
The call quality on the 8X is also stellar and provided clear reception both inside and outdoors on a busy San Francisco street, where I had no problems hearing the person on the other end of the line. No matter where I called, I had flawless call quality across the board, due, no doubt, to the 8X’s whip-fast LTE network.
While the camera on the 8X isn’t as decked out as the one that Nokia is touting on its Lumia 920, it’s no slouch. The main camera features 8 megapixels, an LED flash, a BSI sensor for better images in low light, an F-2.0 aperture, 28mm lens, 1080p video recording, and a dedicated HTC ImageChip to provide the camera with additional processing power. The 8X also has a 2.1 megapixel front-facing camera which is capable of ultra-wide angles, and also has F-2.0 aperture, 1080p video recording, and the ImageChip.
In addition, Windows Phone 8 for the first time supports downloadable third-party photo editing apps called Lenses, although at the moment only two are available. There’s also an included Photo Enhancer app that will apply one of 15 filters to a photo, as well as “Bing Vision,” which uses Bing to identify the object in a photo. The camera can also be used to capture QR codes via AT&T’s Code Scanner feature.
Photos I took with the 8X were clear, detailed, and bright. The flash was effective, and colors were all bright and accurate. Some images seemed a bit grainy, mostly in areas that were solid blocks of color, but otherwise I encountered no problems. Both still photos and video were easy to take. You can control the shutter via the camera button or the touchscreen, and you can access the camera roll simply by swiping left.
So, can the HTC Windows Phone 8X make an impact? Well, if spectacular design, awesome hardware, and a snappy operating system can’t, then the smartphone market is doomed to being a two-party system. I think the 8X stands a chance. Everyone I know who has picked it up has marveled about the UI, the display, and the hardware.
To its credit, Windows Phone 8 is an entirely different experience than an Apple handset—something that may please users who are no longer happy with the offerings from the Cupertino giant. However, like every other Windows Phone 8 handset, the 8X will suffer if the app ecosystem stalls out, something Microsoft seems ready to address. While the 8X has some drawbacks—only 16GB of storage, no notification center—it also has many advantages, including displaying social media updates on one screen and running legit Office programs. With the 8X, the hardware has finally arrived, and with Windows Phone 8, the software is finally closing the gaps. All it needs now is users. The 8X is a breath of fresh air for smartphone users.