Wednesday, January 30, 2013

HTC Windows Phone 8X review

It hasn't been a good 2012 for HTC. The Taiwanese mobile phone manufacturer started the year fine, announcing a new range of One series flagship phones at MWC, including the One X, one of my favourite smartphones of last year. They promised to streamline their products and not dilute the brand name. Such promises did not last long as they went back into their bowl of alphabet soup to dish out devices after devices with no real differentiation. Count them: Desire C, V, VC, VT, X, SV, U, One SU, SC, ST, X+, VX, SV. Phew.

Thankfully, HTC were much more restrained when it came to releasing their first Windows Phone 8 devices. Two smartphones were announced, the high-end 8X and mid-range 8S, both which adhered to Microsoft's strict chassis guidelines. Nonetheless, the two features unique design and more importantly, for me at least, a coherent naming scheme. The HTC Windows Phone 8X is what I will be reviewing here, and it is a wonderful thing.

  • Qualcomm Snapdragon MSM8960 SoC with dual core 1.5 Ghz Krait and Adreno 225 GPU
  • 1GB RAM and 16GB built-in flash storage (no expansion slot)
  • 4.3" Super LCD2 capacitive touchscreen with 720 x 1280 resolution (342 ppi)
  • Quad band GSM and 3G (LTE on select models)
  • 42 Mbps DC-HSDPA and 5.76 Mbps HSUPA
  • 8 Megapixel autofocus camera with single LED flash and 1080p30 video recording
  • 2.1 Megapixel front camera with 1080p30 video recording
  • Bluetooth 3.1 and WiFi 802.11a/b/g/n
  • GPS receiver with A-GPS, GLONASS
  • NFC and microUSB
  • Available in black, red, blue and yellow
  • 1800mAh battery (none user replaceable)
The 8X features a brand new polycarbonate unibody design by HTC, something they very rarely do. It is refreshing to see a HTC device with a very none-HTC look. Despite the design not setting my heart fluttering as their One X did, it grew on me. And thanks to the tapered edges, it feels great in my palm. The colour scheme is not exactly my cup of tea, particularly the decision to have the ear piece coloured. Either way, like the Nokia Lumia 920, the 8X is available in a wide range of colours. The choice of rubber'ised matte finish is certainly unique and is one that makes me happy. Finally, a flagship that isn't glossy.
With a resolution of 720x1280, the 4.3" Super LCD2 display offers a pixel density of 342 ppi and is immensely sharp. I am honestly surprised by the size of the display. With the trend moving towards 4.7" and 5" displays, it takes a lot of guts by HTC to release a flagship Windows Phone 8 smartphone with a now relatively small 4.3" screen. While I am no fan of the 16:9 aspect ratio chose here, it does have it advantages - namely, it makes the phone narrower, and thus easier to hold. Unfortunately, while the Super LCD2 display technology used is the same as the One X - the contrast ratio and level of blacks is noticeably less. It is still a great display, but I consider it a downgrade compared to even the iPhone 4/4S and Lumia 920.

With a thickness of 10.1mm, the 8X is considerd thick by today's standard, but thanks to the the tapered edges, it actually feels rather slim. It also also considerably lighter than the Lumia 920 (130g vs 185g). But despite its lightness and choice of material, the 8X is solidly build. Sadly, HTC has only managed to squeeze in a 1800mAh battery, small by today's standard. For example the RAZR MAXX, which features similar dimensions to the 8X, contains a massive 3300mAh battery. The battery is adequate enough for day to day use for regular users, but falters the moment it comes under the microscope of a power or social-heavy user. I regularly have top up the battery mid way through a typical day.
The 3.5mm headphone jack resides on the top next to the oddly placed power button (which should really sit on the side of the device). On the right you will find the volume rocker, micro SIM card slot and two lever camera shutter button. For the micro SIM card slot, HTC followed the dreadful iPhone'ish design - in that you will need a small pin to access the cover. The micro USB lies on the bottom of the device, and in typical HTC fashion, is faced backwards against all common sense. The left side of the 8X is clean of clutter.

Each of the hardware keys provides sufficient feedback, with only the power button providing issues due to its placement on the top of the device - hardly a convenient location. Like all Windows Phone devices, the volume rocker will not only allows one to change the volume, it also pops up the music control from anywhere within the OS. This is a key Windows Phone 8 feature brought over by Windows Phone 8. Down on the bottom of the display lies the typical Back, Home and Search hardware keys. These are sadly not as sensitive as I hoped for.
On the back you will find the 8 Megapixel autofocus camera with a wide angle 28mm (35mm equavalent) lens and a single LED flash. The camera supports both 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios, as well as up to 1080p video recording. HTC's previous One X has impressed me on the imaging department, but do not expect similar image quality here. It is still decent enough, but would hardly impress any pixel peepers. The front facing camera is a 2.1 Megapixel variety, which is hardly impressive. However, HTC has paired the camera with an ultra wide angle lens - meaning you can easily get 4-5 of your friends in the same picture or video call.

Like all Windows Phone 8 devices, powering the HTC 8X is Qualcomm's incredible Snapdragon S4 SoC. This comes with a pair of ARM Cortex A9 crushing next generation Krait clocked at 1.5 GHz and Adreno 225 GPU 3D hardware accelerator. While relatively outdated by today’s quad core standard, the Snapdragon MSM8960 is still an decent performer, especially when paired with a very efficient Windows Phone 8 operating system and 1GB RAM. The upgrade in processing technology over the previous Snapdragon S2 SoC is evident - apps launch faster and you will rarely encounter any form of lag. 16GB of fast NAND storage is included. After formatting, this amount to only 12GB - a ridiculous amount considering the 8X lacks any means of expandable storage either through USB on the Go or expansion card.
The Snapdragon S4 SoC offers an impressive array of wireless connectivity and features including quad band GSM, quad band 3G, plus support for the latest DC-HSPA+ up to 42.4 Mbps. While this doesn't make the 8X a world phone, it is still good enough. A LTE version is also available in selected markets. In addition, the 8X also supports Bluetooth 3.1, A-GPS with GLONASS support, accelerometer and NFC. Call quality from either the ear piece or loudspeaker is great. In addition to standard GSM calls, Skype is also available and while it isn't perfect, it is a welcome addition. I just wish it was integrated into the OS rather than being a standalone separate app.

Powering the 8X is Microsoft’s latest Windows Phone 8. Windows Phone platform has always torn me, in that sense that I love the UI and UX, but I am also frustrated by the continued ignorance of the platform by major third party developers. When I was using a Windows Phone 7 smartphone as my daily driver for the first half of last year, I always had to rely on a second Android device, where I can access apps that has not been ported to Windows Phone yet. The same applies with the HTC 8X, and before that, the Lumia 920. But regardless or not if your favourite app is available, Windows Phone 8 is fast and fluid, and naturally easy to use and understand. Where Android and iPhone appears to be stuck in the 2000s, here is an OS which UI is forward thinking and modern.
Windows Phone 8 adds a host of features both beneath and on the UI level. These includes the ability to run native applications (Windows Phone 7 previously were only able to run Silverlight apps), a new more complex but versatile homescreen (which I did not initially like, but have grown to tolerate) and shared kernel with Windows 8. This means, in theory at least, Windows 8 RT apps can be easily ported to Windows Phone 8. Windows Phone 8 a good improvement over Windows Phone 7.5 Mango and adds plenty of features that we've been asking for. IE10 mobile is one of the best browser I have used on a mobile device yet, only betrayed by the lack of Flash plug-in.

On a whole, the stylish and usable Swiss style Metro UI design language has more or less been retained. HTC has not done anything to ruin the pure Windows Phone 8 experience, which is something I wish all Android manufacturers (including HTC!) would learn from. If the core experience is good enough, leave it alone! For big clock HTC fans, HTC has included a neat resizeable widget that simulates their HTC Sense Android big clock UI - only it is actually better looking here. There really isn't many apps that HTC has included, both theirs as well as third party apps, but anything missing can easily be downloaded via the Marketplace.
Like Windows Phone 7, Windows Phone 8 is built around the People hub where contacts and social updates come together. Contacts are pulled from Facebook, Gmail, Twitter and LinkedIn and can be linked together. Everything from Facebook wall updates, phone calls, e-mails, twitter status updates etc. can be found revolved around the People hub. You can also view any historical text exchanges, e-mails or phone calls between you and any contacts.

The integration with social networks goes beyond status updates and e-mails. The Pictures hub allows one to view their Facebook albums, in addition to those stored on the phone. As long as there is a good network connection the transition is seamless, almost to the point where you would believe the images are stored locally on the device itself. You can also pin contacts to the sub-pictures people hub and even as a Live Tile. This gives users an easy access to all public pictures of the person in question, privacy setting dependent of course.
App numbers are growing but the platform is still missing big hitters like Instagram and Spotify. On the gaming side of things, while I am not a fan of playing traditional console games like GTA III on a smartphone, it is still a headline hitter and Microsoft's inability to at least convince Rockstar to port the title to Windows Phone 8 has me worried if they are committed enough. Windows 8 has certainly taken much of Microsoft's attention lately, but I wish they start remembering that they have a smartphone side project. Like where's Halo, Microsoft? After all, this is an Xbox connected device.

Consumers who have adapted Windows 8 will find themselves at home with Windows Phone 8, where as those who are still used to Windows 7-era UI will probably prefer Android. You do get value added apps like Microsoft Office, which is still the best office suite I have used on a mobile device. However beware of a critical issue regarding incompatible Windows Phone 7 apps such as Spotify and the best damn mobile game of last year, DoDonPachi Maximum, both of which are curiously missing from the Windows Phone 8 marketplace. 
Since it was released, the HTC 8X has received a number of updates. Upon receiving the device two weeks ago, my 8X have already received no less than six over the air updates. Some of these are minor updates, like keyboard definitions. Still, I was pleased to find that one of the update was Windows Phone 8 Portico, a minor but important update similar to Windows Phone 7 NoDo two year ago. This update introduces SMS drafts, SMS call reject and more importantly, keep WiFi alive feature (persistent WiFi when the screen times out) plus a handful of undocumented fixes.

With the sim-free version available for £380 in Britain, the HTC Windows Phone 8X is good to honest, a great value for money smartphone for those looking for something a bit different than your average Android or iPhone. The design coupled with Windows Phone 8's intuitive UI proves a great pairing, but it isn't for anyone. The pricier but also heavier Nokia Lumia 920 will tempt power users with its larger 32GB storage, Qi wireless charging and PureView camera, but there is no shame in choosing the HTC 8X. Thanks to its lower cost and mobility, the 8X is a great Windows Phone 8 alternative.

+ Great design and build quality
+ Great performance
+ Ultra wide angle front camera
+ Decent pricing
- Average none-removable battery
- None expandable storage
- Lack of key apps such as Spotify

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