Having attended Microsoft’s big Windows Phone 8 announcement event at the end of October, I was excited to see what the company had in stock for its new mobile OS. I had previously reviewed the Samsung Focus 2, which used Windows Phone 7.5 – essentially a prelude to WP8 that shared a similar look but had nowhere near the same amount of features that the new OS offers. Needless to say, Microsoft introduced among others, two flagship smartphones – the HTC 8X and Nokia Lumia 920. Fortunately for us, Microsoft was able to provide an HTC 8X for us to take through its paces and what we’ve discovered is that the 8X is one helluva phone, with a very cool OS to boot.
First, we’ll delve a little bit into the OS itself, before running down the device’s overall performance. For starters, we have the Live Tiles, which is the big hook to WP8 and Windows 8 for that matter. The Live Tiles allow users to pin just about anything to the home screen; from a favorite contact, useful app, calendar, mobile game and more. The size of these tiles can be adjusted to your liking as well as the color scheme, for a real personal touch. What makes the tiles really stand out however is in the namesake “Live Tiles”. Whether it’s a tile for the weather, social app, or news widget, you’ll get updated content, be it recent Tweets, up-to-the-minute stocks, sport scores, etc. Real-time information can even be displayed right from the lock screen, including the ability to have a slideshow of your photo gallery or the Bing photo of the day; a really cool feature.
The device also lets you use Near Field Communication (NFC) and “Wallet”, which lets you make payments using NFC. One feature I particularly liked is the new Kids Corner. This new feature allows you to tweak the phone’s presentation to allow your kids to only use certain apps. So if you want to pass the phone over to a child to play a game, you can disable the ability to make calls, send texts, etc. This feature even lets you create a specialized Start screen, which is pretty cool. You can also use Rooms, another exclusive WP8 feature that lets you connect and share things with a select group of friends and family.
So getting back to the device itself, the HTC 8X is easily one of the most visually appealing smartphones I’ve ever laid eyes on. It has a soft matte finish on the back that comes in a variety of colors. The one I received was blue, which to me is the nicest one of the bunch, though many will surely like the lime green one too. The back of the phone also features a nice brushed aluminum HTC logo as well as the camera, LED light and speakerphone, matched by the Beats Audio, which I’ll get into in a minute.
The front LCD 2 screen uses Corning Gorilla Glass 2, which is sturdy, clear and resistant to scratches. I also noticed that due to the screen’s lamination, the phone is still very usable even in high light situations, sporting high contrast, a bright image and excellent clarity. With 341ppi (pixels per inch), the screen is 4.3 inches with 720p resolution (1280 x 720).
Without question, one of the better features of the 8X is its 8-megapixel camera, which has auto focus, an LED flash, and more importantly a BSI sensor, which improves image clarity in low light. (You can see a few of the outdoor images in the photo gallery that were taken on two dark, cloudy days, which highlights the sensor’s ability to improve the clarity.) With an f/2.0 aperture, the lens is 28-mm, which allows for a much wider image capture than most phones. HTC also throws in dedicated HTC ImageChip, for sharper images, fast focus and clear photos. For videos, the camera can take full 1080p video, while the front-facing camera can do the same. Photos come out nice enough, with the front-facing camera taking 2.1-megapixel shots.
The phone also stands out in the audio department thanks to the Beats Audio built-in amp that adds a little extra punch and crispness to music when listening through any pair of headphones. Comparing the same tracks to competing smartphones, I certainly noticed a difference in the audio quality when using the 8X. The OS also allows for the use of Xbox Music, which is a great way to get some tunes, though you can connect the device to a Windows computer to upload your own tracks.
With the use of a Qualcomm S4 1.5Ghz dual-core processor, the HTC 8X is notably fast, whether it’s opening up or running apps, sliding through images, playing games or watching movies (which look very nice, as demonstrated by playing back recorded video or using Netflix.) The phone comes with 16GB of internal memory though strangely enough, there is no micro-SD slot for expansion, which is a bit of a letdown, especially when you consider than photo taking and video recording is highly encouraged and can take up quite a bit of space; not to mention that some of that space is used for the OS, so you actually get a little bit less than 16GB of usable space. Fortunately you can at least use Skydrive to upload content to the cloud if you need to get rid of photos, videos or documents (the addition of Office to WP8 is also a nice touch). The device also features 1GB of RAM and hosts a micro-SIM, whi offering network support for GSM/ GPRS/ EDGE/ CDMA and HSPA/ WCDMA/ LTE.
The phone includes a 3.5mm stereo audio port, offers Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n support at both 2.4 and 5 Ghz and uses a micro USB port for syncing and charging the battery. The battery itself has a 1,800 mAh capacity which provided a little over 8 hours of talk time.
My only real issue with the phone is really more on the OS side of things. The Windows Phone 8 marketplace is still pretty lean, missing some key apps like Pandora, Instagram and a solid, free GPS. Fortunately Pandora is coming next year and the company plans on offering the paid version free for a year, as a sort of “sorry we’re late to the WP8 party”, so that’s good to hear. Some of the better known apps such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Foursquare, to name a few, do run very well and I actually like more than the iOS versions, more so due to their interface.
With Windows Phone 8 obviously in its infancy, it’s great to see the OS have a flagship device (one of two) that is both sexy, well-built and one that performs extremely well. A lack of app-offerings aside, the HTC 8X is a viable smartphone contender that deserves consideration for anyone looking to upgrade their phone. Available for Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T, you can find it for $99 (8GB) or $199 (16GB) with a 2-year contract.
Final Score: 4 out of 5