HTC Windows Phone 8S – best in show

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HTC’s latest device for Windows Phone has a striking build, easy-to-use software and a small form factor, and it’s the most convincing argument yet to try Microsoft’s new OS – if only it had a front-facing camera

We don’t want to imagine the scenes at Nokia HQ when the HTC Windows Phone 8X and 8S were revealed: getting the nod from Microsoft to put the OS in the name was a blessing the Finns would not have expected to see bestowed on HTC.

Perhaps more worrying for Nokia though is this: both the bigger Windows Phone 8X and newly released, mid-range 8S, are every bit the strong competitors to its Lumia line of smartphones that their names suggest.

The four-inch Windows Phone 8-powered 8S is a delight to use, and is a first for a phone running Microsoft’s new operating system, not the size of a large breeze block either. Against the chunky Lumia 820, we’d pick it in a heartbeat.

Compact and sporty
Nokia turned heads with its pillow-like Lumia 800 Windows Phone last year, and we’d say that the 8S is the best looking Windows Phone since. Nokia’s new Windows Phone 8 devices, the 920 and 820, are as large as a coffee table tome, and Samsung’s first WP8 phone looks to tip that end of the scales too.

But the 8S is compact. It’s svelte – much more so than its 10.3mm deep profile suggests. That’s down to the curved back, which makes it seem much thinner, but also gives it a polished feel: the bright, two-shade colouring and smooth matte plastic, unbroken but for the HTC logo, really feel new.

Smaller IS better
The design fits the OS perfectly, too. Whereas you never know what you’ll find Android popping up in next, the straight lines and vivid colour schemes exactly match the live tiles on Windows Phone. But above all, the 480×800 screen feels like the perfect fit: yes, it’s not as sharp as the HD screen on the 8X, Lumia 920 or any top new Android, nor are the viewing angles quite as wide. But it’s the right size for anyone sick of gigantic screens, and as much as we like the Samsung Galaxy Note 2s of this world, oversized Androids aren’t for everyone: an iPhone 5 size for half the price is never a bad thing.

On paper, a removable panel but no removable battery is though: it sounds like the worst of both worlds, but isn’t in practice. The bottom part that prises off to reveal the micro SD card slot and micro SIM slot sits flush with the rest of the phone: if it wasn’t for the colour scheme, it would look like a unibody device. Battery life too isn’t a problem: WP8 doesn’t drain the 1,700mAh, and we got through a day and a half of solid use with email, social networking and the odd call.

Performance-wise, it flies – and on just a dual-core 1GHz processor and 512MB of RAM. That should come as no surprise, of course: Windows Phone has always done lots with low specs, but no sign of slowdown is something that should always be celebrated.

There’s just one real hardware problem: like the Lumia 800 before it, the 8S has no front-facing camera. That means no video calls, or at least ones where you can see the other participant at the same time, a pity given Skype’s availability on Windows Phone 8. The plain five-megapixel sensor is no PureView camera for that matter either, though for the price we can’t complain: this isn’t a rival to the steroid-fuelled Lumia 920, and it can still shoot smooth 720p video.

Windows Phone 8 still a cinch…
We love the core of Windows Phone 8: it retains much of the ease of use of Windows Phone 7, with a much more customisable start screen that lets you create icons of three different sizes in a grid. Navigation is easy: just swipe to the right to see all your apps, swipe back again. Congratulations, you now know how to use Windows Phone.

Microsoft Office and SkyDrive stash your documents in the cloud, and the People hub lets you see Facebook, Twitter and even LinkedIn updates all at once. And under the hood Windows Phone has seen huge changes which should make it much easier for developers to bring their apps to the platform.

…but not without problems
Windows Phone 8 itself is the source of most, if not all of the problems with the 8S, and it’s going to keep being the root of every Windows Phone’s problems, at least until the next big update.

Big issues like the dearth of apps, the lack of a notification tray to match those on both iOS and Android, and a web browser that does a terrible job of handling websites optimised for other mobiles are the most felt. But it’s the little things Microsoft refuses to fix, update after update, that really start to bug.

Why won’t the People hub download updates in the background? Why is switching tabs in Internet Explorer such a laborious process? Why doesn’t the search button let you search within the app you’re in? And why on earth does opening an app from the home screen relaunch it, when going through the multi-tasking screen (hold the back button) brings you back to the state it was in? That’s just confusing. And stupid.

One area where HTC has slipped up however is with exclusive software. Given Microsoft’s strict constraints about what manufacturers can do to the OS itself, this is often the only way they can stand out. And on the Windows Phone 8S, there’s just not enough.

HTC’s apps are disappointing
Outside of the core WP8 experience, all you get is a “photo enhancer” app, which lets you bung vintage filters on snaps, and HTC’s own pointless hub, which lets you see the weather forecast, news updates and, for some bizarre reason, stock updates. This last inclusion has become something of a signature for HTC, though we’re not sure why: it’s got its Windows Phone audience entirely wrong with it. You also get Beats Audio processing, but without the 8X’s more powerful amplification chip, it doesn’t do much to your music that we could discern.

In fact, some of HTC’s previous Windows Phone services are gone. We won’t miss Locations, but HTC Watch’s absence will be sorely felt, especially as there’s still no way to rent movies and TV shows on Windows Phone otherwise – a glaring oversight given the availability of movies on Xbox 360.

The potential deal-breaker though is mapping. Nokia’s exclusive Nokia Drive app for Lumia is a reason to stop and consider one of its far chunkier Windows Phones: free offline maps for the entire world with turn-by-turn directions that even surpass the Navigation service Google has built into Android. Of course, if you don’t have a car, the point is moot.

And even if you do, you might want to consider the Windows Phone 8S. It’s the perfectly priced, perfectly sized introduction to smartphones, for people who couldn’t care less about tech and think cloud services are to do with the weather forecast. It won’t win over iPhone and Android loyalists, but at least it looks good striking its own pose.

Even if it won’t convince iPhone and Android users, that still leaves plenty more people in the market to tempt. The only thing the 8S needs to worry about? Nokia’s Lumia 620 is on the way with a similar size, design and low price – and free satnav too. Watch this space.

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