HTC's second Windows Phone 8 device follows the same design as its bigger brother, the 8X, with a unique look and feel that's separate to the company's Android devices. It's another big bet on Windows Phone 8 for HTC and one that the company hopes will appeal to the masses as Microsoft continues its push to get Windows Phone devices into consumer's hands.
The 8S nixes a 720p display for a smaller 4-inch screen and just 4GB of storage, but it adds microSD support to help make up for the lack of free space. A curved back, solid build quality, and lightweight chassis makes this an interesting option for smartphone shoppers, but is it all form over function with this low cost handset or is HTC's 8S Windows Phone a bargain this holiday season? Read on to find out.
Hardware / design
Hardware / design
The best looking Windows Phone 8 device right now
HTC's 8S is a beautiful handset, and is the best looking of all Windows Phone 8 devices right now. As much as the 8X was a new design approach for the company's line of Windows Phones, HTC has replicated a similar look here with the 8S. HTC’s Windows Phones used to be uninspired versions of its Android designs, but the new approach focuses on a colorful look and feel. The 8S is similar to the 8X with its tapered back, vibrant colors, and button / camera arrangement, but yet it feels distinctly different. At about four ounces (113 grams) it's super lightweight, but not in a way that feels plasticky or cheap. At 10.3mm thick it’s imperceptibly chunkier than the 8X, but the weight makes it feel smaller anyway. The polycarbonate body provides a soft touch without the typical creaking you'd experience with a fully plastic device.
The front of the device features the usual Windows Phone capacitive hardware buttons, but HTC has decided to color the 8S in a way that it looks like the bottom part of the device has been dipped into a paint pot. It's an interesting effect that provides two tones of color and it certainly makes the handset stand out, especially since HTC offers the 8S in Domino, Fiesta Red, Atlantic Blue, and High-Rise Gray color arrangements. The speaker grill at the front of the device also includes the dipped color to match perfectly.
Extremely lightweight with a 4-inch display that's suited for one handed use
Button arrangements are fairly standard here. There's a power button up top alongside the 3.5mm headphone jack, with volume and camera buttons on the right-hand side. The left-hand side is bare, making it easy for right-handed users to thumb most of the buttons required. Having used HTC's 8X, I'm happy to report that the power button on the 8S feels a lot better: there's noticeable feedback when it's pressed down despite it being virtually flush with the handset's edge. At the rear of the device there's a 5-megapixel camera and LED flash and a speaker at the bottom.
HTC has opted to support the Micro USB standard, adding the port at the bottom of the 8S. Entry points to the Micro SIM and microSD slots are also available at the bottom, underneath the colored cover. At first glance you'd assume the cover just snaps off, but it's not as simple as that. I spent five minutes trying to work out how to remove the bottom cover before realizing you had to pry it off using a fingernail from the front. It's a little tricky at first, but it's not something you'll need to do regularly unless you swap your microSD card around. Unfortunately, even though you can remove the cover there’s no removable battery here.
Compared to the Lumia 820, the 8S feels extremely lightweight. There’s not a huge difference in thickness, but the 4-inch display makes it easier to handle on a daily basis. I prefer the look and feel over the Lumia 820, but it’s harder to compare to the 8X. HTC’s 8X includes a bigger display and higher resolution and two cameras that are vastly superior. It’s hard to recommend the 8S over the 8X, unless you’re looking for a light phone with a great design.
WVGA resolution is a disappointing part of the 8S
While HTC's 8X has a 4.3-inch 720p Super LCD2 display, the company opted to give the 8S a 4-inch Super LCD with 480 x 800 resolution. Like Nokia with the Lumia 820, it’s a price consideration, and given the larger gap in this case it's more understandable here. A ridge at the sides of the display makes it slightly uncomfortable to swipe in from the right and left, but it's not noticeable enough to be a daily issue.
Since Windows Phone 8 supports 720p resolutions, HTC's choice to opt for the WVGA one is a little disappointing, but I found viewing angles are very good and the brightness is adequate even in direct sunlight. Unlike the Lumia 820, the 8S won't work with gloves, and on occasion I found that the 8S doesn't always register normal touch inputs either. At first I discounted this as my own mistake, but after a few days of use it was clear there are some issues here. Most of the problems in this area appeared to surface themselves during navigation when you’re swiping around the UI, rather than direct taps on the screen to launch apps etc. It's not frequent, but you do notice it and it can be frustrating if you're trying to navigate quickly.
The display doesn't seem abnormally attracted to fingerprints, but I did find that dust tends to gather in the separation point between the polycarbonate body and the display. Unlike my 8X, the 8S didn't pick up any scratches during the first few days of testing. Overall it feels like a display that will take the usual wear and tear without creaking or flexing. It's not curved, but it fits in with the overall look well.
The choice of a WVGA resolution here means that Windows Phone 7 apps run full screen on the HTC 8S. This is different from the 8X, running at 720p, which adds a black band to the top of unoptimized apps in Windows Phone 8. This isn't a major pain point either way, but it's worth noting if you're interested in using Windows Phone's existing app selection.
HTC's camera offering on the 8S is fairly weak. Although Microsoft has provided a way for developers and OEMs to extend the camera functionally through Lenses apps, HTC hasn't opted to bundle any with the 8S. Nokia's support in this area is far superior, but when you start to look at the camera hardware on the 8S you understand why HTC didn't invest much time here. There's no front-facing camera on the 8S, which immediately rules out Skype video calling and any type of self photo capture. This disappointed me as it's a feature which is almost standard on smartphones these days, and HTC's wide-angle lens on the 8X forward facing camera is excellent.
A lack of a foward facing cam and pictures that have an Instagram-like haze
As it stands, HTC's 8S includes a 5-megapixel rear camera that isn't particularly notable. I found the results were fairly noisy. Low light performance is reasonable, but some images have an odd haze on them that's more akin to an Instagram filter than anything else. The 8S shoots at 4 megapixels (2592 x 1556) by default, but you can bump this up to 2592 x 1944 in the settings. Alongside resolution settings, there are also options to control white balance, exposure, contrast, saturation, sharpness, ISO, and face detection. An effects menu provides grayscale, negative, sepia, and solarize filters, but other than that it's a fairly standard affair.
On the video side, the 8S doesn't capture 1080p video, but it can at least manage 720p. The results are what you'd expect from a smartphone: the audio pickup isn't particularly great, especially when you're in environments that include music from speakers. The continuous focus works well, but there's no option to disable it in the settings. There doesn’t appear to be any attempt to stabilize the footage, so things will be a little shaky if you're walking along or recording from a car.
Software / performance
Familiar Windows Phone 8 software and features, despite running the latest update
HTC's 8S runs Windows Phone 8, but the handset maker hasn't really put much effort into building additional apps for the OS. A special HTC section in the Windows Phone Store has just six apps, including a flashlight, a connection setup tool, and a "make more space" app that provides storage information. A built-in HTC app provides access to weather, stocks, and news, but the most useful part is the large Live Tile it installs to provide local time and weather on your Start Screen. HTC has included Beats support on the 8S, but the app is limited to just On or Off options, without any greater control over the output.
Windows Phone 8 performance and features are fairly standard on the 8S, which makes entry level devices very enticing. HTC is shipping this particular device with a more recent software version of the OS. Noticeable changes include an option to keep the Wi-Fi on after the screen times out, SMS drafts, and the ability to reject calls with a text message. This update has started rolling out to the 8X too and will be available to other devices in a future update, but it's a handy option to ensure you're always using the Wi-Fi connection instead of cellular data, and it's arguably one that Microsoft should have shipped as standard in Windows Phone.
There's some performance issues that HTC and Microsoft need to address here
On the performance side the 8S includes a dual-core 1GHz S4 processor. It’s not quite the 1.5GHz one found in the 8X, Lumia 820, and Lumia 920, but it appears to perform well. I did, however, notice some performance oddities on the 8S. Occasionally, the Windows Phone UI would freeze at an animation and then jump back into life a few seconds later. I noticed this several times during daily use and I can’t help but feel it might be associated with the same touch response issues I had with the screen. I didn’t notice any issues in apps and it wasn’t frequent enough to be a major issue for me, but it’s clearly something that HTC or Microsoft need to address going forward.
On the Windows Phone 8 side it's still early days, but the Store isn't showing any signs of quality app improvements just yet. The default Twitter and Facebook apps still lack the polish of iOS and Android counterparts and the same level of game support is absent right now. There are encouraging signs this will change over the course of the next six months, but for now it's hard to recommend Windows Phone if you're an app addict. There's a lot of things to love about Windows Phone, but the apps are holding the platform back.
Battery life / call quality
HTC's 8S includes a non-removable 1,700 mAh battery. This is fairly average on a device of this size, and I found the battery life was on par with what you'd expect from a Windows Phone. During my own testing the 8S lasted around a day with a mix of surfing, calling, and texting around London. Unlike other Windows Phone 8 handsets, the 8S does not include wireless charging, so you'll be hanging on to a Micro USB charger for a while yet. The port at the bottom isn't tricky to use at all either and I found that, unlike the 8X, no light bleeds out from the screen through the Micro USB port.
Call quality was fairly good on the 8S. I never experienced a dropped call during my testing and recipients of calls could hear me clearly. The output from the earpiece is more than enough too and the loudspeaker is good for calls. I had some issues connecting to my home Wi-Fi network without a SIM in the 8S, as it simply wouldn’t find the access point, but connecting to other access points worked fine and tethering to other devices worked too.
No major issues to report
HTC has done a great job with the 8S aesthetically. I've tested a variety of Windows Phone 8 devices recently and this is easily the best looking of the bunch. The lightweight frame makes this especially appealing, and a 4-inch display is a sweet spot for one handed use on this device as well as making it generally comfortable to use. The two-tone color scheme is a unique and welcomed twist to this particular device and it's something I'd like to see on other HTC devices in the future. HTC has now proved it can make some great looking Windows Phone 8 devices.
Unfortunately, this beautiful body is let down behind the brains of the operation. A lack of forward facing camera will be disappointing for those wishing to capture photos on this device, as will the existing 5-megapixel rear shooter. Coupled with such a small amount of storage space, these specifications make the 8S more disappointing than at first glance. There are also some odd touch / performance issues here that HTC and Microsoft will need to address as soon as possible.
Although it has its faults, the price of the 8S makes this device particularly compelling to those considering a budget smartphone this holiday season. Disappointingly, the 8S is "not currently planned" for the US market according to HTC. In the UK it's available in contract form or as a pay as you go device for just £180 ($290). Similarly priced phones include Samsung’s Galaxy Ace 2, HTC’s Desire X, and Sony’s Xperia P. At this price it's easy for me to recommend this as a device for people who don’t need much from their phone, but want the functionality of a smartphone. If you're after a decent camera phone, though, then there's plenty of other options out there and HTC's 8X would serve you well. The apps might be lacking on Windows Phone, but it’s a solid OS for those that don’t care about them and the 8S is a great companion in that sense.