HTC 8X Review
HTC does Windows Phone
Written by Damian Carvill
The 8X is the flagship Windows Phone 8 (WP8) smartphone from HTC. Without the same marketing juggernaut that backs Nokia’s own WP8 launch, it has struggled to get the same sort of coverage and visibility, but that doesn’t mean it’s not as good.
With a variety of bold colours, something that seems to go hand-in-hand with a Windows Phone lately, the HTC 8X is indeed a bold device. It’s a sleek, lightweight, modern smartphone that’s designed for people who don’t want the same handset as the rest of the crowd.
So how does it do this?
Well at the moment, any Windows Phone 8 handset is going to stand out. Its adoption is still relatively low, lagging way behind Apple and Android devices, but all that is expected to change with a wave of new WP8 handsets coming out.
The HTC 8X boasts an impressive screen, camera and processor and with Beats Audio on board, we’re looking at a genuine competitor.
From the outset, it’s clear that HTC is taking a bold approach with the 8X. Before you’ve even set eyes on it, it sits in a modest recycled cardboard box and immediately gives the impression that this is not going to be your average smartphone.
We’ve got the purple model here, I’m sorry, Californian Blue, with the phone available in a set of suitably named, bold colours including Graphite Black, Flame Red and Limelight Yellow, or ‘Steward’s Jacket Yellow’ as it perhaps should be called. These do give the HTC a bit of personality and it really does stand out in what is a crowded sea of black, rectangle phones.
In the hand, the 8X feels great. The back is made from what appears to be a matt plastic, but is actually polycarbonate, and feels smooth yet solid to hold. The back moulds seamlessly with the screen in a unibody design, which, all in all, equals a rather premium feel to the handset.
As with most HTC handsets, that there are no physical buttons on the face. Three touch sensitive buttons at the bottom take you back, to your home screen or direct to a Bing search. On the side of the handset is the volume rocker, camera button with the on/off switch on the top right of the handset. These fit seamlessly with the design of the body.
Another seamless design feature is the rear camera lens. The lens on the HTC One X protrudes somewhat that may not an issue for many, but does add a bit of bulk to the design. This has been completely eliminated from the 8X and really adds to the smooth, sleek appearance.
In fact, the back is curved, tapering in at the edges, so it almost feels slimmer than it is – its girth is greater than the S3, One X and even the iPhone 4S. Due to the clever curvature on the back, this never feels like a problem and doesn’t make it feel like a brick in any way.
Weighing in at 130g, the weight is comparable with the One X and the Samsung Galaxy S3. And while it is a slightly smaller phone, I’m guessing that the extra weight in its shell has contributed to a heftier handset.
The only limitation of this all-in-one case design is that you can’t open the back and take out, or replace, the battery. There’s also no opening to add an SD card for extra memory, and with 16GB on-board, this may prove an issue for some.
Part of the reason the phone feels so comfortable in your hand is because it’s not as big as some of the monster handsets around, I’m looking at you HTC One X and Samsung Galaxy S3. At 132mm long and 66mm wide, it’s trimmer than these beasts with the payoff being a slightly smaller 4.3-inch screen.
And it’s the screen where this phone really begins to impress.
I’ve always been a fan of HTC’s screens with the One X having one of the sharpest around in my opinion. The 8X has managed to go one step further with a staggering 342 ppi pixel density, which refers to the concentration of pixels on the phone’s display. This makes for a beautifully clear and sharp image on screen. Bear in mind that the iPhone 5 has 326 ppi and you’ll see how advanced the 8X is.
Phone Set Up
Under the hood, HTC has delivered some top of the range specs. Running with the latest dual-core 1.5GHz processor makes this a seriously quick and responsive phone. And this works very well with the Windows Phone 8 (WP8) operating system.
What makes this phone even more of an interesting proposition is that it runs with WP8 and the updated OS is a joy.
It was easy to see what Microsoft was trying to achieve with WP7 and it promised lots. However the glitches, and at times poor usability, made it feel more like a beta release, or something not quite ready for mass adoption. This has almost been completely wiped out with Windows Phone 8 and I’m finally looking at something Microsoft can be proud of.
The user interface has had an overhaul, updates have been made to the usability and this now feels like an operating system ready to take on the giants of Android and Apple.
The home screen is characterised by live tiles instead of apps. These are customisable, dynamic squares and rectangles to you and me. These are a shortcut to the app but update in real time.
You can adapt and shape your home screen as you please and rather than swiping right to left as you do with Apple or Android handsets, you scroll up and down, so never leave the screen. You can swipe right, which takes you to a long vertical list of your available apps, your ‘app drawer’, however that’s about it – everything is kept clean and simple.
You can change the size of the live tiles on your home screen and position them as you like to create a personalised jigsaw of these apps, which I really enjoyed playing around with. This, alongside the opportunity to change the overall colour of your tiles and background colour, is the primary customisations you can make to the look of the phone. No wallpapers unfortunately.
While Android is fully integrated with your Google account, WP8 uses your Microsoft account. Hotmail is the preferred email account for the Windows Phone, however Gmail, Yahoo! Mail, as well as Outlook are all supported.
There’s a reason why you’re directed to sign in with a Microsoft account and that’s so that you can take advantage of SkyDrive, which is your personal storage space in the cloud.
Pictures, documents and OneNote notebooks are all saved here, with photos taken on your 8X automatically uploading to your account. So what you do on your phone will automatically be available from your PC at home or work – no need for syncs or transfers.
For anyone making the leap to a WP8 phone for the first time, it may take a while to get used to all the features and the way that the OS works. However once you’re bedded in, you’ll have a heap of fun playing around with what makes this so different from an iPhone or Android handset.
Let’s start with gaming. You’ve got the ability to download Angry Birds or Fruit Ninja, sure, but if you’re Xbox inclined, you will have much more fun. Not only are your Xbox Live scores pumped direct to your phone, you can connect with your Xbox Live account and play games with your friends from your handset.
HTC’s impressive screen resolution and rapid processor makes game playing superb, but if that’s not your thing, Xbox Music Pass gives you access to Microsoft’s version of Spotify, or music on demand. You can stream songs and videos to your phone and with HTC’s Beats Audio on board, you’re as well supported musically as any phone on the market. A pair of standard black earbuds are included in the box, and these are more than adequate for most people.
One reason why the adoption of Windows Phone 8 has been slow is because it hasn’t had as many apps available as Google’s Play or Apple’s App store. However this is improving and while some of the smaller, more independent apps I’ve downloaded to my Android device aren’t available, all the usual suspects are. WhatsApp, Skype, Facebook, BBC, Twitter, they’re all there. Apart from Instagram, although that’s coming soon.
One feature that I loved was the maps app. Detailed, easy to use, quick to find addresses and with virtually no lag when zooming in, this is impressive stuff.
From within maps, there’s a feature that enables you to find things to see and do, places to eat and drink or shops, all in the local area to where you’re searching or located. I tested this in a place where I had some knowledge as well as an area new to me and found the recommendations to be accurate and extensive.
Everything about the maps app is easy to use and intuitive and after Apple’s map fail with the launch of iOS 6, this represents a real reason to choose WP8.
Camera & Video
The quality of camera is often at the heart of an HTC smartphone and I was particularly impressed with the quality of their flagship Android phone, the One X. So I was particularly looking forward to taking the 8X on the road.
First up the specs. Your primary camera is 8MP, which is de rigueur for flagship smartphones these days. What isn’t, however, is the 2.1MP front-facing shooter for video calling or a mirror for those of you applying lippy on the go. Most front-facing are less than 2MP, so this is generous.
Start-up is easy, simply hold down the shooter button on the side of the phone and you’re up and running. From lockdown to taking photos in super-quick time is particularly good.
Ultimately, you can judge the quality of a camera by the quality of the images it produces as well as its features and ease of use. And it’s the latter where I came a bit of a cropper. On my first run out with the camera, I pointed it at Melissa, Mobilephones.com’s game graphic designer and part-time smartphone model, and then attempted to focus by touching the screen - as I’m used to doing with other smartphones. This quickly focused but then automatically took the shot. I wasn’t prepared and the result came out as a rather hurried and subsequently blurred image.
HTC has gone to town with the ultra-wide-angled lens that adorns the 8X. It captures nearly triple the area of most other cameras! In fairness, I didn’t try it out with one of the ‘hold your camera at arm’s length and take a shot of me and all my mates in front of an awesome backdrop’ style photographs that will really demonstrate the quality of the wider lens, however taking a general snap did capture much more than your average smartphone camera.
Up close, the camera performs extremely well. The lens picks out detail and copes well with colours. The touch screen focus and shot feature that surprised me when I first used the camera wasn’t such an issue when I was taking a photo of my coffee in a more controlled, less hurried environment.
Out and about I had mixed results with my snaps. To be generous to the 8X, I think this may have been as much as me not being used to the operation of the camera as it was the camera itself. However I’m after something I can whip out while I’m out and about to take opportunistic shots. I’m not after a smartphone that requires much thought to take a photograph.
Perhaps this is because the shutter isn’t quick enough. Many of my instinctive photographs were characterised by a blur and it was only when I really set myself and framed a photograph that I got some decent results.
Having said this, even when set, the camera didn’t cope well with certain lights.
My tour of the Frankfurt Christmas Market in Birmingham was with overcast skies and dotted floodlights around the stalls and at times, the lens struggled. Lens flare was evident and picking out detail in darker areas became difficult. I couldn’t even take a photo of the famous singing moose head.
So while I felt a little deflated with the camera, I happier with the video. This records HD output (1080p at 30 frames per second) and with the 3264x2448 pixel resolution, the clarity on screen is superb. The handset picked up audio well and coped well in noisy surroundings; however shooting video doesn’t come without its flaws.
Recording a video can be started and stopped by touching the screen – similar to taking a photo. However while this is perfectly fine for taking a single still, it can be rather annoying when recording a continuous scene. In my attempts at capturing my cat doing something funny, I managed to accidently touch the screen, stopping the recording. Missing that happens-only-once moment therefore is definitely possible.
As with almost all smartphones these days, the more you use them, the quicker their batteries drain and that appears to be the case with the 8X.
I had the phone on me for a few days and had the opportunity to be frugal with it as well as go wild, to see how it would react.
Taking it off charge at 7am and then using it to send texts, emails, make a couple of calls lasting about ten minutes, take a few photos and with around 30 minutes web browsing left me with just over 60% of the battery life left by 7pm. Bearing in mind I wasn’t connected to Bluetooth, had the wifi on and also push emails, I consider that par for course these days.
A day with the phone sat largely unused meant that the battery was at 82% by the time I came to retire.
A day trip to London on the train gave a good examination of the battery’s capability. Without any music on the handset, I opted to email and browse the web for an hour on the way down. During the day, I used GPS to find my way, as well as the truly excellent maps app to find a nearby café for a coffee. As emails kept pushing through, I logged in to check them as well as reply to a few urgent ones. A couple of phone calls during the afternoon and I was back on the train ready to browse the web to see what I’d been missing.
But I was on 18% battery and mindful that a journey with the phone fighting for some sort of signal as I trundled through tunnels would send it to bed completely. Without the ability to remove the battery and replace it with a spare, battery management will become a familiar practice. But show me a monster smartphone where battery management isn’t an issue. iPhone 5 anyone?
There is a power saving mode, which I didn’t use, however this disables push emails and turns off background tasks. Not ideal but could save you if need be.