With an impressive body and interface design, superb performance and a stunning 4.3-inch screen, the simple-to-use 8X smartphone proves HTC is more than just the ‘other’ Windows Phone 8 manufacturer
The various iterations of Microsoft’s Windows Phone OS have been praised for their intuitive usability, handy features and great looks, even if the apps have been lacking.
Unfortunately, though, Windows Phone is nothing without a handset. After the failure of Windows Phone 7, for most of the past two years if you wanted a Windows Phone handset you had only one option, Nokia – a firm which has struggled to re-establish itself as a serious player in the smartphone space since the launch of 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 links to the mobile version much as Apple iOS does to Mac OS – 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, which 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. And why not?
Sexy, but fragile
The 8X comes in a number of colour variants which fit the bright and exuberant theme of Windows. These include ‘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 replaceable batteries.
The device is not particularly large – sitting somewhere between the iPhone 5 and Samsung Galaxy S III in terms of size at 132.35 x 66.2mm. It is very curvaceous, and at just 10.6mm in width and with a weight of just 130g it fits comfortably in big or small hands, and so should appeal to both sexes. The Nokia Lumia 920 definitely can’t make this claim.
The phone’s body is also made from a tough polycarbonate shell, which gives it an expensive look and feel. By comparison, Samsung’s Galaxy S III feels plasticky, cheap and nasty.
Unfortunately this material is also easily marked, and within a few short days of use it had lost its lustre. A protective case is therefore highly recommended.
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 leaves those on the likes of the Apple iPhone 5 and the Nokia 920 firmly in its wake. The impressive 4.3-inch, 720 x 1,280 ‘super LCD 2’ display 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 and the screen is also protected with Gorilla Glass 2, so you don’t need to worry too much about 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 the Nokia Lumia 920. It handled anything that was thrown at it with flying colours.
This processor speed 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 – and neither did I see any frustrating ‘spinning ball’ loading screens.
The device also includes a reasonable 1,800mAh battery and it does a decent but hardly exceptional job, generally lasting an entire day as its rivals do.
Microsoft’s version of the web
It’s impossible to be entirely positive about web browsing on Windows Phone. Criticism is already being levelled at the way the OS struggles to render and display some web pages properly. This is something I have yet to experience as on the
HTC 8X everything loads as you would expect and text renders to fit the page without any problems.
However, the Bing search engine may not please everyone. The results aren’t as good as Google’s – whose are? – and the interface does take a bit of getting used to. Results are displayed as a very simple 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.
If you really cannot bear to use Bing, however, Google’s more familiar search engine is available to download from the Microsoft app store – there is no sign of Google Chrome in the store yet, though.
Plentiful bells and whistles
The phone, as you would expect, includes built-in GPS. This works superbly in conjunction with the handset’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 Maps apps, which is superior to Microsoft’s Bing Maps. The beauty of Nokia Maps is that the maps are actually downloaded to the device for use offline and also to reduce the time you have to wait for 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 browsing the internet and downloading pictures.
Despite all these Nokia and Microsoft software and app additions, loyal HTC fans will find that the firm’s wraparound Android ‘HTC Sense’ suite of apps does not appear on the device, which is a disappointment. HTC does have its own downloadable applications in the app store but they are far from impressive.
The photographer’s choice?
The cameras on Windows Phone 8 devices are proving to be a standout characteristic.
The 2.1MP front-facing camera uses an ‘ultra wide-angle’ lens which helps to cram more family members in frame in photos or videos or next time you’re attempting to group Skype.
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 to stand out. When taking a picture in landscape, the capture button rests perfectly beneath your right 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 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. 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 the phone’s menu, which creates a kind of Blair Witch Project effect. It’s a love or hate proposition.
However, if you’re going to capture lots of movies there is a problem – the HTC 8X has very little on-board memory, limiting its appeal as a multimedia device. As a result, you will need to back up to your hard drive often or utilise cloud services regularly.
The phone includes 16GB internally and can’t be increased as there are no expandable memory slots on the device. This is probably the 8X’s biggest downfall and may put off heavy media and data users. It is a rather unusual move by HTC, especially given its music focus through its Dr Dre Beats Audio collaboration – a dedicated amp built into the phone to enhance the music and sound experience.
It basically forces users to buy into either Microsoft’s cloud services (7GB free, upgradeable) or other online audio or movie stores such as Spotify to stream media. A step too far for some.
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 it’s the most simple OS available for new users. Most of those that struggle with Microsoft’s interface are wrestling more with its differences from Android and iOS, which are far more commonplace.
Operating systems are fast becoming the key factor in customer sales, and in my opinion Windows Phone has nothing to fear. The OS is more than a match for anything currently available and handsets such as 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 regards 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 at contract mostly, and thus Apple and Samsung. Time will tell.