HTC Windows Phone 8X review

In search of a much-needed hit, HTC allies itself with another mobile underdog

Review
HTC Windows Phone 8X review

If ever there was a smartphone that screams “underdog,” the HTC Windows Phone 8X is that phone. In a handset market dominated by Apple (AAPL) and Samsung (005930), HTC (2498) stumbled badly in late 2011 and has yet to regain it footing. And in a platform war dominated by Google (GOOG) and Apple, Microsoft’s (MSFT) Windows Phone now enters its third year on the market with little to show for it. This perpetually emerging mobile OS has received critical acclaim since its debut in 2010, but recent figures from market research firm IDC suggest Windows Phone hasn’t even captured 5% of the global smartphone market.

Yes, it seems like a match made in heaven. Well, perhaps not in heaven, but it’s a perfect match nevertheless. HTC makes gorgeous, rock solid hardware that is underappreciated and often lost in the sea of rival smartphones. Microsoft put together a stunning mobile operating system that is definitely improved with this latest update, but it continues to struggle while Android and iOS adoption soar skyward.

Nokia got into bed with Microsoft last year and stole much of the attention surrounding the Windows Phone platform, but HTC is still a premier Windows Phone partner with some great-looking handsets in the works. Among them is the flagship Windows Phone 8X, and I spent the last few days testing the unique device to see if this underdog can compete in the big leagues.

The Inside

At its core, Windows Phone 8 is all about change. Microsoft ruffled a lot of feathers when it unveiled the new OS and revealed that earlier Windows Phone-powered smartphones could not be upgraded to Windows Phone 8. Of course, Microsoft is no stranger to ruffling feathers lately. While there will be a separate update for Windows Phone 7 and 7.5 devices that adds some new features, Windows Phone 8 has a new kernel that it shares with Windows 8 and therefore older phones will soon hit a wall.

Here are just a few of the new features in Windows Phone 8 that drew my attention on the Windows Phone 8X:

  • New shared code. Windows Phone 8 shares a kernel and other  code with Windows 8, and this could lead to some awesome integration. Developers also should have an easier time porting apps and games between platforms — to quote Microsoft’s Joe Belfiore, “We’re going to see some freaking killer games this year.”
  • New home screen. The tiles that are spread across Windows Phone’s home screen can now be resized. Some apps have three size options — a wide rectangle that spans end-to-end, a standard square and a 1/4-sized square — but most apps have the latter two options. Earlier versions of Windows Phone can only fit six full tiles and two half-tiles on the home screen before scrolling — at the moment, I have 19 tiles fully visible on my 8X home screen without having to scroll.
  • New theme colors. Options are good, and Windows Phone now has 20 different theme colors that can be placed over either a black or white background.
  • Enhanced camera software. The new Windows Phone 8 camera supports a few new features including lenses, which I couldn’t test because there aren’t any available in the marketplace aside from a boring “photo strip” demo, and Bing vision, which lets users take a photo of an object and then search Bing to identify it.
  • High-resolution display support. Windows Phone 8 thankfully now supports 1,280 x 768 and 1,280 x 720-pixel displays. While we’re about to see a some 1080p smartphones hit the market, the advantage will be far greater on paper than it will be in reality.
  • Internet Explorer 10. The new IE has a plenty of new features but one in particular stands out in my mind: It’s much, much faster.
  • More control over notifications. Like Windows 8 and Windows RT, Windows Phone 8 now gives users the ability to control which apps display notifications on the lock screen.
  • NFC. Some day, NFC be useful in the U.S. so it’s nice to have some future-proofing. Windows Phone now ships with an NFC-enabled Wallet app that can “store your coupons, credit cards, memberships and more.” It’s similar to offerings available on other platforms, but right now it’s pretty much just clutter and it will continue to be clutter until the technology is adopted across dozens of industries. There isn’t a single person in the U.S. who has been able to ditch his or her wallet and replace it with a smartphone-based option on any platform, and there won’t be for years to come.

Windows Phone 8 is a marked improvement compared to earlier versions of the OS in other ways as well. For one thing, it now supports multi-core processors whereas earlier Microsoft-powered phones were stuck with single-core chipsets. HTC’s Windows Phone 8X utilizes a dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 clocked at 1.5GHz. It also sports 1GB of RAM and the international variant I tested had 16GB of internal storage. The Windows Phone 8X does not support removable memory cards.

Where connectivity is concerned, the 8X covers a lot of bases. The version I tested included quad-band GSM and quad-band HSPA/WCDMA, and the version built for U.S. carriers will include LTE compatibility. A standard 1/8-inch headphone jack, Bluetooth 3.1, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, GPS, a microUSB port and NFC capabilities are packed in this phone’s thin case as well.

Also found in the Windows Phone 8X is Beats Audio tuning, of which I am a huge fan; HTC’s ImageChip, which provides dedicated processing power to the cameras; and a 1,800 mAh battery that seems undersized compared to the monster power plants packed into modern Android phones, but I easily got more than a day of usage per change with the 8X.

The Outside

When it comes to hardware, HTC has always been among the best in my book — and the Windows Phone 8X is no different.

Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. The 8X is indeed different. While it certainly is yet another example of HTC’s design prowess, it is very different compared to most slab-style smartphones and it is different from other HTC phones as well.

The face of the HTC Windows Phone 8X is mostly Gorilla Glass 2, which covers the 4.3-inch Super LCD 2 display. This panel is gorgeous. With 720p HD resolution, vivid colors and excellent contrast, HTC has once again shown that its liquid crystal displays can go toe-to-toe with AMOLED panels any day of the week.

Above the screen is a color-matched ear speaker cover with a 2.1-megapixel front-facing camera capable of capturing 1080p video off to the left. It also sports an ultra-wide-angle lens with an F2.0 aperture and is powered by HTC’s dedicated ImageChip. Beneath the display sits Windows Phone’s three capacitive buttons, consisting of a home button flanked by a back button to the left and a search button to the right.

The thin right edge of the Windows Phone 8X is home to a microSIM card slot, a volume rocker and a dedicated camera button, while the left edge of the phone is bare. The bottom of the phone holds a microUSB port and the primary microphone, and the top has a secondary mic for noise cancellation, a power/lock button and an 1/8-inch audio jack.

Beyond HTC and Beats branding, the back of the 8X features a loudspeaker near the bottom and a camera lens and LED flash near the top. This 8-megapixel camera features an F2.0 aperture, a 28-millimeter lens and a BSI sensor for improved low-light image capture capabilities. It is also powered by a dedicated ImageChip like HTC’s One-series smartphones. I found that the 8X takes very crisp, clear photos with good color reproduction in adequate lighting, and above-average photos in low-light situations.

While the photo quality of images captured by the 8X trounces those taken on rival devices from the likes of Samsung or LG, it doesn’t quite measure up to Apple’s iPhone 5 camera. And while I haven’t yet had a chance to thoroughly test the camera on Nokia’s upcoming Lumia 920, every indication suggests Nokia’s new PureView camera will be a tough one to top.

Overall, the Windows Phone 8X measures 132.35 x 66.2 x 10.12 millimeters, though it feels far thinner than 10 millimeters due to its terrific tapered design.

The Upside

From the moment I powered on HTC’s Windows Phone 8X for the first time, the performance improvements compared to earlier Windows Phones were obvious.

Windows Phone 8 itself offers better performance compared to its predecessors, and the difference is made more clear thanks to multi-core processor support and other factors. Navigating Windows Phone’s UI and the various stock apps on the 8X is remarkably fluid, and transition animations are faster than they were before so everything feels faster as a result. Scrolling is far smoother than it was in the past and even more importantly, apps tend to refresh with new data much faster than they did in earlier versions of Windows Phone.

This is a huge deal for me. The painfully long wait as apps opened and struggled to refresh with new data pulled down over cellular or even Wi-Fi connections was often unbearable on older Microsoft-powered smartphones. On the 8X, apps refresh with new data just about as fast as they do on modern high-end Android devices.

But not everyone was invited to the party. Simply put, third-party apps are still dragging Windows Phone down in many ways and performance is one of them.

Windows Phone 8’s speed and data call improvements are immediately enjoyed by well-made third-party software. Examples include Wonder Reader, my Google Reader client of choice, and the speedy Twitter app MeTweets. These applications are refreshed and ready to go mere moments after opening — even without being updated and optimized for Windows Phone 8 — while the many poorly made apps in Microsoft’s app store continue to crawl along and spoil the experience.

The other huge check mark in the plus column for the 8X is its build quality.

HTC always shines when it comes to hardware and while the Windows Phone 8X is a departure from other recent HTC phones, it is no exception to the rule. Aside from the smooth glass covering the front of the handset, the rest of the device is a soft-touch plastic with a great rubbery feel. Unlike smooth plastic, aluminum or glass smartphones, the rubber-like finish helps the phone sit securely in the user’s hands while typing. The 8X is also very solid, with no rattles or creaks to be found.

The design of the Windows Phone 8X is fantastic as well. The phone sits perfectly in the hand and the user’s thumb can reach every corner the 4.3-inch display comfortably with minimal shifting required. And while the device is a bit thick on paper by today’s standards at 10.2 millimeters, that number is very deceptive due to the phone’s tapered design. The 8X is indeed just over 10 millimeters thick at the center of the case, but the sides, top and bottom taper to a fraction of that thickness and the result is a design that is contoured perfectly to the hand.

Last but certainly not least, Windows Phone — and by extension, the HTC Windows Phone 8X — is built for productivity.

The mobilized version of Microsoft Outlook has been my favorite mobile email client since the first time I picked up a Windows Phone, and it is even better now thanks to a few tweaks and the significant performance improvements brought about by Windows Phone 8.

The minimal, text-heavy user interface found across Windows Phone is fantastic for some types of applications and positively awful for others. For an email client, it’s perfect. I find most Android email clients to be overcomplicated, while Apple’s Mail app in iOS has several performance issues and is missing some essential functionality. Windows Phone’s mail app is very well-balanced, providing users with a logical layout and a feature-rich experience that also manages to stay simple.

Mailboxes can be linked or separated and the inbox is the home view. Want to see only your unread messages? Swipe to the left. Want to see only messages marked urgent? Swipe to the right. The Windows Phone email client also supports flagging and folders of course, and you can even configure out-of-office responses on Exchange accounts right from inside the app’s settings.

Beyond email, Windows Phone also offers the best Office experience I have ever seen on a smartphone. Again, the experience is simple and smart, stripping away the clutter of third-party iOS and Android solutions and retaining only widely used core functions. Windows Phone 8 also includes enhanced SkyDrive support, and I love having instant access to Excel and Word files created on my computer.

The Downside

It’s the same old story… apps.

High-quality Windows Phone apps are still incredibly scarce compared to the leading mobile platforms and momentum is not in Microsoft’s favor. It has been more than two and a half years since “Windows Phone Series 7″ was first announced and more than two years since the first round of devices launched. And still, apps are a huge issue.

For one thing, the platform is missing hundreds of popular apps that have been available on other platforms for quite some time. For another, many popular developers that do decide to bring their apps over to Windows Phone have done a very poor job, either due to inexperience with the platform and available tools, limitations and performance issues in Windows Phone itself, or a combination of both.

Users can’t switch from Android or iOS to Windows Phone if they don’t have access to their favorite apps. And users won’t switch if the apps they do have access to don’t perform well.

Microsoft announced on Monday that Windows Phone will have 46 of the top 50 apps from other platforms soon after Windows Phone launches. “That’s huge for us,” Windows Phone boss Joe Belfiore said while on stage during the company’s press conference. That’s a nice start indeed, but it is also very vague and it’s certainly no guarantee that the apps will perform well, or that other big titles and future hits will appear on Windows Phone in a timely fashion.

Compounding matters is the simple fact that the odds are not in Windows Phone’s favor. Two years, tons of marketing dollars, free flagship phones, free Xbox consoles with the purchase of a Windows Phone… none of it has made a real dent at this point. It’s not easy for a potential buyer to choose a Windows Phone device when everyone he or she knows owns either an iPhone or an Android-powered handset. And beyond that, salespeople at carrier stores seem to only push Microsoft’s mobile platform when they’re forced to by corporate directives.

The Bottom Line

At the end of the day Windows Phone 8 is a tough sell just like Windows Phone 7.5, which was a tough sell just like Windows Phone 7. It’s not for lack of trying, and it certainly doesn’t speak to the quality of the software or the devices that carry it. HTC’s Windows Phone 8X is a gorgeous, elegant smartphone with a unique design and solid performance.

The sad truth is that there is still no compelling argument for Windows Phone over one of the market leaders.

The optimist in me wants to tell you that can change. The app situation will improve now that Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 share code, the third-party app performance situation will improve now that Windows Phone has a new core and new options for developers, and the visibility situation will improve now that Microsoft and Nokia are both dumping serious dollars into marketing. But the pessimist in me isn’t quite convinced. There are still too many ifs.

Compounding matters is the fact that as it stands today, there is no real differentiation that presents clear and important advantages over the competition. Nothing jumps out as a significant benefit over Android and the iPhone. Sure there are things Windows Phone has that its rivals do not, but they are not a big enough draw to really sway buyers.

And that’s where we stand with the HTC Windows Phone 8X.

If you’re willing to make do with Windows Phone in its current state and play the waiting game, I wholeheartedly recommend the Windows Phone 8X. This phone is awesome. The hardware is outstanding and the operating system is unique and smooth. But there are unavoidable compromises you’ll have to make in jumping over to the Windows Phone camp and now, more than two years since the platform first launched, people still seem unwilling to make those compromises.

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