The Windows Phone 8X. Reversing a habit of putting merely a token effort into its Windows Phone range, HTC is greeting the launch of Microsoft’s eighth mobile OS with a handset that leaves no doubt about its flagship ambitions. The statement of intent that’s apparent from the look of the 8X — which immediately feels fresh, innovative and modern — is underlined by a bullish $99 price with AT&T in the US.
For an LTE-capable phone without a single blemish on its spec sheet, that represents a tremendously aggressive proposition. The big unanswered question, however, is inherent in the handset’s name — how well does Windows Phone 8 fare against the incumbent leaders of iOS and Android? Can it finally summon up enough pluses to draw people away from the comfortable and familiar into a bold new world of live tiles and flying animations? Let’s find out.
The perfect counter to anyone who tells you that innovation in mobile design has been exhausted
Making a distinctive phone these days is hard. Device manufacturers have to deal with product cycles of less than a year, a generally homogenous set of components to choose from, and the very basic prerequisite that a modern smartphone feature an all-glass front with a minimally thin back. These issues all factor into the "conveyor belt" look and feel of the common handset, and yet the Windows Phone 8X defies them all.
You’ve never seen a phone quite like this. Like the subtly concave Galaxy Nexus, the unique shape of the 8X is instantly recognizable from almost any angle. Though it measures 10.1mm thick, the tapering sides of this new handset make it feel thinner than it is. It’s as if someone took all the necessary parts for a smartphone, dropped them into a polycarbonate material, and vacuum-sealed the sides.
Some familiarities and longstanding principles of HTC design remain. There are no hard corners, every edge has been rounded down, painstakingly engineered to feel good in the hand. Think about why soap bars all end up in the same oval shape after a bit of use, and you’ll understand why HTC is so obsessive about curving every surface. In fact, the only truly flat space anywhere on this phone is the middle of its Gorilla Glass 2 display, which in itself slopes off at the edges to meet the even curvier unibody shell.
Both striking to look at and inviting to the touch
In HTC’s words, this is "the most comfortable phone you'll ever hold." I certainly find it among the most pleasing to the touch, thanks to the case’s grippy soft-touch texture and palm-fitting D-shape. Unfortunately, for all the sumptuousness of its look and initial feel, the Windows Phone 8X isn’t the most comfortable phone you’ll ever use.
The top-mounted power button is a particular annoyance. It sits flush with its surroundings and the area you need to press to activate it is about a millimeter thick. The volume rocker and camera key on the right are more generously proportioned, but they too are almost recessed into the phone's side. The 8X is also unusually tall for a 4.3-inch device, matching the dimensions of the 4.7-inch HTC One X and LG Optimus G while giving you less usable screen real estate. That’s a downer in itself, but more importantly, it means you’re negotiating the same handset height as with those seemingly less ergonomic devices — in my case, that resulted in a lot of fumbling and pressing of the volume rocker while trying to reach the power key. Mounting a beefier power button on the side, as Samsung, LG and Nokia have been doing, would have improved handling greatly.
Light leakage through the Micro USB port was a problem with some of our review devices, but not all. The thing that was consistent about all the Micro USB jacks, however, was a sharp edge around the opening. It won't cause any harm, but feels rough to the touch on the occasions that you do come in contact with it.
While the display and the wraparound case of the Windows Phone 8X flow seamlessly into one another, they do clash aesthetically: the typical high sheen of the glossy screen feels mismatched with the ultra-matte finish of the sides and back, particularly on the black model. More irksome for aesthetes will be the fact that the red version of the 8X uses no less than three different shades of the color: one for the case itself, a second hue on the strip around the camera, and a third for its physical buttons. And, in a final offense against design gurus, HTC misdescribes the purple variant of this phone as "California Blue." Trifling, perhaps, but it’s mildly disappointing to see the company’s attention to detail slip just as it’s applying the finishing touches.
The 8X makes the Lumia 900 feel thoroughly outdated
Nokia may have been first to use single-piece polycarbonate cases, but its Lumia 900 immediately feels dated when held alongside HTC's latest. The 8X is lighter, thinner, and just flat out better looking. High on design, uniqueness, and style, the Windows Phone 8X matches the overall ethos of WP8 very well — it’s clean, simplified, and, at least from the front, square enough to complement those minimalist live tiles. You won’t find a user-replaceable battery or a microSD card slot, and you’ll need a pin to access the Micro SIM slot, but this is one occasion where I can’t begrudge those compromises.
921,600 pixels of gorgeous
The 8X’s display is a tale of sequels, with a Super LCD 2 panel laminated to a curved Gorilla Glass 2 screen. Optical lamination simply means that there’s no gap between the glass and the image-generating electronics behind it, making pictures on the 8X appear to float right on top of its surface. The resulting sensation is one of visceral connection with your device — by pushing the display forward, HTC is pulling the evidence of technology back.
While the Taiwanese phone maker is by no means the only one to do this — Apple’s iPhones and Nokia’s Lumia line are famous exponents of the same technique — the total combination of the phone’s rounded shape, the curvature of the glass, and excellent viewing angles makes the 8X display feel stunningly organic. The only thing detracting from this sense of utter seamlessness is the handset’s black levels, which are not as deep as the best I’ve seen. LG’s Optimus G beats the 8X among other LCD panels, while AMOLED displays obviously offer the finest contrast thanks to the fact they completely switch off portions of the screen that aren’t displaying any color. Being able to show black, as opposed to a really dark gray, matters more with Windows Phone than other operating systems because of its minimalist, black-dominated UI.
Windows Phone has been crying out for a resolution upgrade and the 8X delivers
The above notwithstanding, the net effect of this new display on the Windows Phone user experience is one of dramatic improvement. Microsoft’s operating system has been crying out for a resolution upgrade for a while now and the move to 1280 x 720 screens with this new generation of WP8 devices is a most welcome one. Everything is now crisper and more detailed, particularly when you jump into the web browser or review your photos. Additionally, with a pixel density of 342ppi, you can be assured that the only way you’ll see the actual dots on this display is through a magnifying glass or a macro lens. I tried and failed.
HTC does have one software issue to address with respect to the Windows Phone 8X’s display and that’s its auto-brightness. Allowing the phone to determine its own brightness leads to a distracting series of jumps between intensity levels while the ambient lighting is being calculated. It’s an unsightly flaw, but you can always use the manual control to sidestep it until HTC rolls out a fix. You won’t need to adjust it too often, as the only time you’ll have to resort to the max brightness setting will be when stepping outdoors and into the sunshine. Even then, the Windows Phone 8X acquits itself well, remaining legible under intense sunlight.
Battery life, reception and audio
The Windows Phone 8X has the same dual-core Snapdragon S4 processor powered by the same 1800mAh battery as its AT&T and HTC sibling, the One X. Both come with LTE, so whatever differences you find in their endurance will be down to the smaller screen size of the new handset and the variance in power efficiency between Android and Windows Phone. The latter has traditionally been friendlier to the battery.
Above average in most respects
I didn’t get to test the LTE version of the 8X, mostly because my local market of the UK is only just getting its feet wet in the great big pond of 4G mobile broadband, so my experience relates specifically to the HSPA+ variant. A typical example of a day with the 8X saw me unplugging the fully-charged phone from the power outlet at 7AM one day and finding myself with 30-ish percent of charge left at 8AM the next morning. This is with Gmail sync and Mehdoh (Twitter client) toast notifications enabled, but not much in the way of intensive use. When I took the handset out to collect sample photos and video for this review, it chewed through roughly half the battery’s charge in a four-hour period. So the summary of the Windows Phone 8X’s battery life is little different from that of most recent smartphones: the more you use the display and the CPU, the closer you’ll need to be to a power outlet. Most people are unlikely to have to fret about recharging more than once a day.
Data speeds and voice reception were unremarkable — the 3G bars stayed resolutely in place, I didn’t lose signal in any locations I wasn’t supposed to, and the 8X quickly recognized Wi-Fi hotspots at London underground stations while I travelled on the tube. Call clarity was consistently trouble-free, whether using the earpiece or the loudspeaker on the back. The rear speaker grille is drilled into the bottom of the phone, in the same fashion as it was on HTC’s One X and One S, and delivers a similarly punchy output.
Sitting just above the loudspeaker is that familiar B logo signifying that this is a Beats Audio-enhanced phone. What that means in terms of electronics is a special Beats amplifier, powering both the rear and 3.5mm audio outputs, plus increased voltage to the headphone jack to provide sufficient power to drive the more demanding types of headphones.
Beats Audio, the 21st century's New Coke
Though these hardware upgrades are nice, I’ve never been a fan of the actual Beats Audio processing and that hasn’t changed one iota with the new Windows Phone 8X. Beats is best analogized to New Coke: your first taste of it may feel more alive and vibrant than the original, but over the long run, the experience starts to grate and you long to return to the unexaggerated sound. Fortunately, that option is just a couple of swipes away inside the 8X’s settings menu.
The ImageSense chip makes its Windows Phone debut, while the front camera goes wide-angle
My immediate worry upon seeing the streamlined look of the Windows Phone 8X was that the camera would be compromised by the phone’s tapered design. I need not have fretted. The 8-megapixel backside-illuminated sensor is nestled into the center of the 8X (the phone’s thickest section), comes with a wide-aperture f/2.0 lens, and also includes HTC’s dedicated ImageChip processor, which made its debut on the One series of Android handsets. The end result is consistently good image quality. It’s not excellent, you will notice lost details as you approach full resolution, but it gives little cause for complaint for a phone camera. Look to Nokia’s Lumia 920 if you’re keen to combine Windows Phone 8 with the best possible camera, but if your needs are humbler, the Windows Phone 8X will satisfy them quite competently.
Backside illumination helps the 8X’s camera perform well in low-light conditions and I also liked its performance when dealing with closer subjects in macro photos. You should be wary of how you use the LED flash, however, as that has a tendency to whitewash anything remotely close to the 8X and is best reserved for subjects that are a few feet away.
Video recording with the Windows Phone 8X was the thing that impressed me most about its camera. Even when shooting at the maximum 1080p resolution, there’s zero motion blur between frames. As traffic whizzes by in the sample video above, each frame is rendered faithfully and accurately, allowing you to pause and easily read finer details like the "John Mower" insignia on the white van crossing Oxford Street or the major stops along the route of the 390 bus. The autofocus had to hunt for the right distance a few of times during my testing, mostly when subjects were moving around, but it’s generally reliable. Certainly more so than I’ve seen from Samsung’s Galaxy S III and Galaxy Note II cameras.
There are two more noteworthy features to the Windows Phone 8X’s imaging capabilities: one’s an old favorite, the other a totally unique novelty. The all-new addition is an 88-degree field of view on the front-facing camera, which allows you to capture more in the frame when shooting — it’s a change designed specifically to help fit as many people as possible into the picture when taking group portraits or conducting a video call. Disappointingly, the usual low image quality that plagues front-facing cameras is still very much apparent with the 8X, turning this into yet another neat marketing gimmick instead of a legitimate new feature. Though the front-facing camera can shoot 1080p video as well, the quality is lousy and there’s plenty of motion blur to spoil what little utility you can get out of it.
On a happier note, the old stalwart of the 8X’s camera is its software suite, which Microsoft nailed right out of the gate with its Windows Phone 7 OS reboot. A quick press of the dedicated camera key sends you straight into the app, any photos you capture slide off to the left and can be immediately reviewed with a simple swipe, and all the interface elements are large, readable and accessible. Operation is now even quicker with the upgraded processor on the Windows Phone 8X, which just encourages you to use and experiment more with the camera than you might otherwise do.
The best changes in Windows Phone 8 might take some time to be felt
Windows Phone 8 represents the biggest set of changes to Microsoft’s mobile operating system since, predictably enough, version 7.0 launched two years ago. It builds on its predecessor’s introduction of Live Tiles — a hybrid between static icons and live-information widgets — by making them resizable, and peppers in a suite of additional nips, tucks, and enhancements behind the scenes. For our in-depth review of what’s new and what’s worthwhile in the new OS, I urge you to read the full breakdown penned by Chris Ziegler and Dieter Bohn.
Like every other Windows Phone, HTC’s 8X is a faithful recreation of Microsoft’s original vision, adding in only a few superficial extras. Its unique features are the aforementioned Beats Audio, the former HTC Hub (now retitled "HTC" and providing you news, weather and stock price updates), and a Photo Enhancer app that brings the image filters available on the One series over to Windows Phone. Throw in a couple of ringtones and some HTC lock screen wallpapers and you’ve got the entirety of HTC’s software input with this device. Having often criticized the company’s Sense skin on Android, I’m actually quite happy about this development, though HTC is undeniably behind Nokia with respect to adding value — its Finnish competitor has a full suite of Nokia apps and is actively pursuing exclusive deals as popular new apps arrive on Windows Phone, setting its Lumia line apart.
The newly reconfigurable homescreen makes WP8 far more versatile
So how does the Windows Phone part of Windows Phone 8X feel? Well, the first thing to say is that switching between iOS and Android, the two most prevalent mobile platforms at the moment, is significantly easier than making the leap to Windows Phone. Apple and Google’s operating systems function along the same lines and employ very similar metaphors.
In striking out to create its own take on what a smartphone should feel and act like, Microsoft has created a different paradigm for organizing your workflow and apps. "Different" need not mean "worse," however, and in fact, for a lot of people Windows Phone may prove to be better. As the controversial Smoked by Windows Phone promotion demonstrated, updating your social feeds with a WP device is a legitimately frictionless affair — and now that you have Facebook integration built into the OS, using Facebook chat alongside SMS, Messenger, and all your other communications options is a cinch too.
Though I’ve never been a voracious Facebook user, I’m excited to see the seamless way Microsoft has built it into its services. I can carry on a Facebook conversation through Windows Phone, in the Outlook.com web client, or on both at the same. It’s the effortlessness of the whole process that really appeals, plus I consider the overhaul of the Outlook website a real advantage for Microsoft. Together with the SkyDrive web interface, it gives the Redmond company two of the best examples of web apps done right: both looking and functioning beautifully. Just take a look at the not-yet-updated Hotmail Calendar to appreciate how much of a leap Microsoft’s web services have taken over the past summer.
Microsoft has, therefore, enhanced the Windows Phone ecosystem before it’s even brought WP8 out to the market. You can also be more optimistic about developer involvement in the future as the new operating system provides access to native development, DirectX, and easy porting of apps between WP8 and Windows 8. Now that Windows 8 is available at retail, those square UI tiles should gain widespread acceptance as well, as people start getting accustomed to the new PC operating system. Finally, Microsoft’s persistent effort to unify its mobile, desktop and home console offerings through the integration of services like Xbox Music and Skype should ensure WP8’s capabilities keep expanding over the coming months.
The future is rich on potential, but the present state of Windows Phone’s app ecosystem remains dire. Critical apps like Dropbox (probably the first piece of software I install on any device) are missing, and in their absence the Windows Phone Store is populated by blatant imposters that deceive users and reduce trust in the platform. A perfect example is Speedtest.net — the third result when searching for an official app brings up an opportunist scammer’s brazen ripoff, replete with the original app icon. Microsoft’s failure to attract the big names, at least to this point, combined with this failure to police its app store puts a real dampener on excitement for the rest of its OS. Oh, and if you were thinking I could test data speeds on the 8X with the Speedtest.net web client, it requires Adobe’s Flash Player, which Internet Explorer 10 doesn’t support (and even if it did, I’d rather live a Flash-free mobile life). For me, that just underlines the importance of native mobile apps — Microsoft can’t create everything by itself, it needs to get real app developers on board and fast.
There remains a big void where an app ecosystem should be
The other thing preventing a regular Android user like myself from making the leap to Windows Phone is the way the OS handles Gmail. Instead of counting unread email threads, it enumerates every unread message, and when you’re reading through those messages, you have to tap between each one rather than scroll. This becomes incredibly tedious incredibly quickly when you’re part of email conversations that hit Gmail’s 100-reply limit. Not being able to apply Gmail stars is also frustrating. Android’s elegance in handling the mail service of its maker is probably to be expected, but given Gmail’s widespread popularity, Microsoft would do well to support Google’s email service as well as it does its own.
The strong fundamentals of Windows Phone have never been in doubt: it’s got a thoroughly fluid interface, a great camera app, and perhaps the best stock keyboard from the bunch. The newly reconfigurable homescreen adds a ton of flexibility too, but it’s stuck waiting to be populated by those critical third-party apps that are required to build this out into a legitimate smartphone OS.
The Windows Phone 8X is what every new smartphone should aspire to be: a combination of the software and hardware vendor’s best work to date, topped off with some unique new additions of its own. Everything that HTC could transport from its Android One series has made the leap to the 8X — the unibody case, dual-core processor, HD screen, camera filters, and even Beats Audio — and all of Microsoft’s mobile development efforts over the past few months are represented in the brand new Windows Phone 8. Topping them off is a truly individual design that will resonate with buyers tired of the smartphone monotony that has befallen much of the market.
Though laudable in its intentions and much of its execution, the 8X falls a little short. The primary culprit is Microsoft’s chronic inability to spur a third-party app ecosystem for the Windows Phone platform. There have been significant improvements in Microsoft’s own software and services, but without the ubiquitous support that competitors iOS and Android enjoy, WP8 faces an uphill struggle in trying to uproot users from their established ecosystems. HTC has done its utmost to assist this venture on the hardware side, but it barely moves the needle when it comes to software enhancements. You get a lot for your $99 when signing up for the LTE-capable Windows Phone 8X from AT&T, but in the end, it’ll be up to Microsoft to determine whether buying into its ecosystem was an investment worth making.