Windows Phone 8S by HTC review

With the HTC 8X taking the top spot of HTC's Windows Phone 8 collection, the HTC 8S - or Windows Phone 8S by HTC, as it’s officially known - sits a step or two down from the top. It's an entry-level Windows Phone and comes at entry-level prices. 

It's part of that relatively exclusive club, offering the latest software from Microsoft, promising a simpler approach to smartphones, a people-centric experience, with less time faffing and more time being productive.

But can the HTC 8S stand up against the devices from Nokia, which add more on the software side, and will this relatively low-spec device give you a Windows Phone experience to savour? And will it stand up against the sort of experience you'll get from the abundance of affordable Androids?

Design

The Windows Phone 8S by HTC is a good-looking phone. The two-tone colour scheme, pairing blues, might not be for everyone, but we like the slim profile, the light weight and the tactile finish.

It's a compact handset, thanks to that 4-inch display, with dimensions of 120.5 x 63 x 10.28 and weighing only 113g. At that size, it nestles nicely into your hand, so it's easy to grip and slips easily into any pocket or bag.

The build quality is good, it feels solid enough, but perhaps loses out on some of the quirks that Nokia offers, such as changeable covers, for example. Instead, the HTC 8S is a sealed unit, with only the bottom of the phone popping off to reveal slots for the micro SIM and microSD cards.

The phone exhibits the hallmarks of HTC design, with micro-drilled speaker holes at the bottom rear of the phone along with HTC and Beats Audio branding. The soft curve of the rear makes it look at little like the iPod touch fourth-gen, with a simple elegance to the lines, making this a phone we can't help but admire.

Hardware and display

Marking this out as an entry-level phone, however, are the hardware specs. Sitting at the core of the HTC 8S is a 1GHz dual-core Qualcomm S4 chipset, with 512MB of RAM. That’s a little on the low side for a modern Windows Phone, the result being that it noticeably lacks the snap of the top devices. 

Equally you get only 4GB of internal storage but, as mentioned, you can expand this with microSD, so it's worth picking up a high-capacity card too to remove your storage woes.

The display is a 4-inch Super LCD with a pixel resolution of 800 x 480. That was the resolution of the first run of Windows Phone 7 handsets and doesn't compete visually with some of the sharper displays out there. But Windows Phone's big bold tiles mean that resolution isn't a huge priority in many daily tasks.

Where it does become more limiting is in things like webpages, where you'll have to zoom regularly to resolve fine detail on pages. The text isn't as sharp as those 720p displays that are on the top handsets.

But the colours are nice and strong; blacks could be deeper and the whites brighter, but otherwise viewing angles are good and there's plenty of brightness on offer to remain visible outdoors.

We had no problems with reception on the HTC 8S, the call quality was great with no concerns reported from callers and plenty of volume on offer. We found the battery performance to be good too, the 1700mAh getting us through a typical day without the worry of going flat. Of course, this depends on your usage.

Windows Phone 8, with a dab of HTC

Unlike Android, Windows Phone is designed to be very much a uniform user experience across devices. Manufacturers can add to what Microsoft offers and for HTC that means you get access to an HTC app with weather, stocks and a news feed, with corresponding live tile. 

You also get a Photo Enhancer, lifted straight from the HTC Android experience, that will let you add effects to an existing photo, but that's all - although Windows Phone 8 has it's own physical photo-editing options, such as crop, rotate and auto correct.

We've reviewed Windows Phone 8 in detail previously, so we've not going to repeat all the details here, but it's well worth reading our full Windows Phone 8 review if you're new to Microsoft's mobile platform. 

READ: Windows Phone 8 review 

Where iOS on the iPhone takes a rather static approach, with its grid, or folders, of icons, and Android gives you customisation galore, Windows Phone is distinctly different. The live tiles give you an at-a-glance user interface on your homepage, so you can see what's going on quickly and easily, very much as you can with Android's widgets. 

It's big, bold and interesting, a playful take on an OS that was once very business oriented. But although we're now dealing with a user experience that is much simpler and immediate - ideal for consumers - many of those core Microsoft experiences provide the backbone of this mobile offering.

Not only have you got great integration to Office, with SkyDrive across the device, but with the birth of Windows 8, there's also  a feeling that Microsoft's ecosystem is now more universal and attractive. The phone gives you some of the experiences you'll take from the Xbox, with branding like Xbox Music swinging in to reinforce the message. 

The result is an OS that feels more complete within its own universe. It might not match everything that Google offers through Android, or Apple offers through iTunes, but there's a refreshing elegance to a lot of what's available. The app design on Windows Phone 8, for example, often visually trumps that of Android and iOS.

If we've one gripe, it's that the search button is a Bing button, rather than context sensitive as Android's was/is. It means that whenever you want to search you have to us the in-app searching. It's a minor point and simply one of preference.

Apps, however, are something of a contentious point on Windows Phone 8. It's difficult to read a review of a Windows Phone 8 device without finding some criticism of the app offering. That's not entirely unjustified, as apps are very much a core part of a modern smartphone and there's a noticeable disparity between iPhone and Android and Windows Phone 8.

READ: Nokia Lumia 820 review

But the reality is that this comes down to personal preference. If you're looking for the latest releases, or the same apps on this platform as you might have enjoyed elsewhere, then you're likely to hit a bump in the road.

We're not slamming the offering as there's a lot here: big name apps like Amazon, eBay, Netflix and social networks all get a look in, but you won't find Spotify, BBC iPlayer or ITV player, or WhatsApp (WhatsApp has now been made available). Of course, whether this matters to you is down to what you use your phone for. 

If you're interested in Windows Phone 8, it's the Microsoft experience, the simplicity and the refreshing interface that should be your draw. If you want the latest and greatest apps, then step with caution.

As we've said, the experience on the HTC 8S is much as you'll find elsewhere on WP8, but lacking the snap of more powerful devices. There's a little too much time spent waiting for things to happen, like apps to resume, but that's to be expected with this hardware configuration.

Cameras

There's no front-facing camera on the HTC 8S and the rear camera has a 5-megapixel sensor with LED flash. There's a dedicated camera button, common to all Windows Phone handsets, which will launch into the camera.

The camera's performance isn't a strength of the HTC 8S. It gives reasonable results in good light, but as soon as the light drops, images are marred by noise. There are now some good low-light performers - especially with those phones from Nokia - but even the slightest hint of gloom seems too much for the 8S.

Video capture tops out at 720p and again suffers in low light, however, it does a least have reasonably quick continuous autofocus, which should help keep your subject sharp as you film it. 

Beats Audio

Around the back of the Windows Phone 8S by HTC is the Beats logo, indicating that Beats enhancement is on board. Connect your headphones and Beats will fire up. The HTC 8S sounds great with a decent set of headphones, with a nice bassy delivery of your Xbox, or other, music.

The external speaker on the rear of the phone offers plenty of volume, although we found it distorted as we turned the volume up high. It gets muffled when you place the phone on it's back on a desk, but face-down it's pretty good. 

Verdict

The Windows Phone 8S by HTC comes in as an affordable handset for those wanting the Windows Phone experience on a budget. The quirky user experience is delivered here much as it is elsewhere but we can't help feeling, thanks to the specs of the phone, that the 8S isn't too far removed from the previous run of Windows Phone devices.

What you don't get is the additional software that Nokia is pouring into its handsets to boost the offering. There is no company doing more to own the Windows Phone space, with this handset falling somewhere close to the Nokia 620, which you might want to consider as an alternative.

The HTC 8S is a nice little handset. It's dependable without being groundbreaking, so while it might not get your pulse racing, it'll keep you in touch.