HTC 8X review
Consider November the rebirth of Windows Phone and, with that new beginning, expect an array of new phones packed with new tricks all trying to impress the money out of your pocket.
Like Android there's plenty of choice too, with HTC, Nokia, and Samsung all believing they offer the best solution for those looking to go WP8. All have their advantages, but does the HTC 8X have what it takes to be "The Windows Phone"?
The HTC 8X is a very manageable phone in terms of size. Measuring 132.35 x 66.2 x 10.12mm and weighing 130 grams, it comes with a 4.3-inch 720p HD resolution touchscreen making it bigger than the iPhone 5, but smaller than both the Samsung Galaxy S III and more importantly for Windows Phone users, the Nokia Lumia 920. Physically it's a lot smaller and lighter than the Lumia 920 and that's going to make a big difference day-to-day.
The screen is wrapped in polycarbonate; a purply blue, or black. Both finishes are matte rather than gloss and that gives a soft-touch feel to the phone's exterior as well as hiding scuffs. In the time we've been using the phone it has yet to pick up any noticeable wear. Something that can't be said for the iPhone 5, for example. Those worried about damaging their new phone will be able to get some very cool-looking mesh covers that not only offer protection, but also complement the design.
On the phone, there are the usual array of buttons on the sides that you would expect from WP8 handsets; power, volume, and camera shutter. And beneath the screen are the standard three WP8 buttons: back, home and search.
There is a headphone jack at the top and a Micro-USB socket at the bottom - it's placement dead-centre is presumably to make the phone ready for docking stations. There's also a micro SIM card slot that is accessible with a paperclip - as with the iPhone SIM caddy.
The HTC 8X is a sealed phone. There is no access to the battery, and no microSD slot either to expand the storage capabilities beyond the 16GB included, although with SkyDrive successfully baked in, many of your photos and documents will be automatically stored in the cloud.
The HTC 8X is powered by the new Qualcomm S4 1.5GHz dual-core processor. The addition of dual-core support to the operating system has made everything that little bit more zippy and it's a welcomed inclusion. The processor's performance is boosted by 1GB of RAM and these new specs put the 8X much more in line with other smartphones than the last generation of Windows Phone hardware.
There is no 4G version of the HTC 8X in the UK, although US readers will get 4G connectivity. In the UK we do get HSDPA+ support, so if your network supports it, you should find you'll be able to enjoy faster speeds than just HSDPA.
Other tech includes the obligatory GPS, Wi-Fi, proximity sensors, light sensors, accelerometer and Bluetooth.
The 8X embraces the future with NFC support, and this will allow you to tap other devices to either share information or, eventually, pay for stuff. At the moment, however, there aren't any payment apps. But Windows Phone does now support Microsoft's new Wallet feature, which should open up some cashless options soon.
Unlike the new Nokia Lumia 920, there is no wireless charging. We'd get upset about this, but we've managed this long without wireless power, so we think we can wait another generation.
Spin the phone around and there is that world-famous "b" logo that signifies Dr Dre has had his hand in the audio systems of this phone, although probably not personally. As with the company's Android phones, the 8X comes with Beats Audio to enhance the experience for those listening to music on the go. That's really handy if you are listening to your own music, to the Xbox Music service, or Spotify.
The Beats Audio support automatically turns on when you plug in a pair of headphones (Beats or not) and you can turn it off if you want, although we doubt you will. The enhancement can be easily heard and it isn't just a case of boosting the loudness. The phone actively enhances the bass of the tracks we listened to giving a more rounded - and impressive - sound.
Punctuating the back of the polycarbonate shell is an 8-megapixel camera with autofocus, LED flash, and back side illuminated (BSI) sensor, for better low-light captures. It has a wide f/2.0 aperture and 28mm lens, and is capable of shooting 1080p video recording, and, according to HTC, has a dedicated imaging chip to process everything.
Around the front is a 2.1-megapixel front camera - also with 1080p video recording and f/2.0 aperture - that also taps into the 8X's dedicated imaging chip. Most significantly though, this front camera is ultra-wide-angle, which allows you to self-shoot group shots with lots of people in, and makes Skype video calling - at least in theory - a bit more exciting.
The camera app in Windows Phone 8 has been overhauled with a number of tweaks and improvements. On a basic level the zoom bar has been replaced with a simple pinch to zoom mechanism. And you can now access the flash settings on-screen with a press of a dedicated icon.
Photo settings let you manage effects (like greyscale or sepia), resolution, white balance, exposure, contrast, saturation, sharpness, ISO, and whether or not face detection is on.
The biggest change however is the introduction of what Microsoft call "Lenses". These are third-party apps that allow you to change the effects of you shots further, or allow your camera to do things beyond taking pictures.
Bing Vision, installed by default, is a barcode reader that lets you scan QR codes, Microsoft tags, book CD and DVD barcodes. While you can have fun with others like "Photostrip" that gives you the same experience as if you were in a Passport Photo booth.
Strangely there is no panorama lens, even though the Titan II and other HTC Windows phone devices have previously included the feature.
As formerly, a quick swipe from the left reveals the last picture you've taken and HTC allows you to further enhance the image with a number of preset effects. However you can't further edit, crop, or alter the images.
Performance-wise the HTC 8X performs well when you take the time to set up the shot, but while it's quick to boot-up and get you into the camera app quickly, pressing the shutter button with an unsteady hand produces very blurry shots. Likewise the performance in low-light conditions is a lot better than we had expected, but only if you hold the phone still with a rock steady hand.
You might not think that is a problem, until you start snapping your kids.
We also noticed that the colours on the screen didn't match the colours on the final picture, with the HTC 8X screen giving us a much warmer image on-screen than the final photograph. Compared to the Samsung Galaxy S III and the iPhone 5 the colour hue was noticeably different.
Battery life is always a hard one to monitor, and what you do with your phone will depend on how the battery will last. Constantly accessing services like Twitter, and GPS, or anything that demands more of the phone will decrease the time you get. HTC has used an 1800mAh battery that is good enough to get you to the end of the day, in most cases, but not enough to get you into the following day.
Windows Phone 8 does have a battery saving feature than can automatically kick-in when the power is running low, so you have phone functionality and little else enabling you to get home, but don’t expect to be still using the 8X at 11pm and enjoying all the features.
Windows Phone 8: The OS
A new phone in this case means a new OS: Windows Phone 8 is here and you get a bunch of new tricks. We've detailed them extensively in a separate Windows Phone 8 review, however the top things to shout about are Rooms, Skype, Maps and Kid's Corner.
We loved the People Hub in Windows Phone 7 and it is even better in Windows Phone 8. New to the mix is the Together pane that houses Groups and a new feature called Rooms. Groups are virtually identical to how they were in Windows Phone 7, but now you can create and manage Groups via your Live account with the phone automatically pulling in data from there. Rooms, however, is a collected space for you to share a calendar, photos, and notes with others regardless of what phone they have, although it works better with WP8 devices of course.
READ: Windows Phone 8 review
Kids Corner is the concept that you can give your kids your phone without the worry that they are posting gibberish to Twitter or Facebook, or sending your boss rubbish.
The idea is that you access it by swiping left on the lock screen to open up your phone to a select range of apps you've allowed and only those you've allowed. That means no email access, no phone dialler, and only games, if that's what you want.
In principle it’s a great idea and it works just as you would expect, keeping your phone safe, but allowing your kids to play games, listen to music or do stuff that is safe for them.
As a standalone mobile operating system Windows Phone 8 offers some cracking features and some great usability, hampered only by the hardware that people make for it to run on.
When it comes to HTC apps, there aren't any, that's the simple truth. While Nokia seems to be doing everything it can to boost the appeal of Windows Phone 8, HTC has taken the opposite approach and added little to the experience beyond what you get in the basic operating system.
There are a handful of apps like Flashlight, Photo enhancer, and Converter, but that's it. HTC Watch has been ditched, there's no Nokia Drive, no Nokia Transport app, no imaging editing software, and then, additionally, you are also restricted even further by a number of exclusive deals Nokia has done, and continues to do, with different app developers.
For the Windows Phone platform more generally, the situation is getting better, but there are still holes. This is either because developers have yet to come to the platform, or because Nokia is doing its best to fragment the system even further with exclusive deals.
In the UK there is no Sky support, no Runkeeper support - it was on Windows Phone but it was pulled - no Sonos, no BBC iPlayer, and no Nike+ for example. Even when you do find your favourite app, the majority of the time the iPhone or Android experience is better in terms of functionality. We do honestly think that the design is very often better and cleaner on WP8, but you have to have some core apps.
Put simply, every major app or product launch Pocket-lint has been to in the last 6 months has either been iPhone, or iPhone and Android first with WP8 on the roadmap, but not confirmed.
With the launch of Windows 8 we suspect that to get better, but with key apps like Adobe Reader and Skype even now missing from WP8 (at time of writing) it's something that should be at the forefront of your mind. If you like apps, Windows Phone 8 isn't the place for you at the moment.
As a piece of hardware the HTC 8X is a lovely phone. The screen is larger than the iPhone but not as overbearing as the Samsung Galaxy S III or the Nokia Lumia 920. The polycarbonate shell gives you a lovely feeling and for us the dimensions work really well.
Disappointingly, the camera isn't as good as we'd hoped and while we're complaining, neither is the depth and breath of the app choice. As we've said, that will change over the next 6 months, but it is an issue on day one in this brave new world.
So what should you do?
If apps aren't an issue for you, the HTC 8X offers some really nice features - courtesy of Windows Phone 8. Office users will love the SkyDrive implementation; the ease of saving a Word document to the cloud to pick it up again on your computer, in Word, is lovely. As is the People hub and managing of your contacts and we do love the ability to download maps to make finding where you are going next easy, and cheap, if you're abroad.
We love the little things too, like Facebook or Bing pictures on your lock screen and "Rooms" for group work.
As a core operating system against the iPhone and Android, Windows Phone 8 is not only a breath of fresh air, but one that offers plenty of nice features that you'll want to show off to your mates over and over again.
The problem is when you get your phone out to do that, they will laugh at you for the poor camera and a lack of apps. If you can live with that, then no problem, but we suspect many won't be able to.