HTC Windows Phone 8X - review
(Guardian Web Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) It is a mere 130g of polycarbonate and glass encasing a miniature computer, but on this smartphone's slim shoulders rest the future of two companies. Its manufacturer HTC is hoping the top-of-the-range Windows Phone 8X, and its lower-priced sibling, the 8S, will reverse its recent sales tailspin, while Microsoft hopes HTC's efforts will convince a new generation of customers that Windows Phone is a genuine alternative to Android and Apple in mobile computing.
So far the signs are good. HTC's sales rose 23% month on month in November, having been flat or down for six straight months. The numbers are not split out by model, but the improvement must be in part due to Windows Phones. If the trend continues into Christmas and the Chinese New Year, the Taiwanese manufacturer will be breathing a sigh of relief.
HTC began as a maker of Windows Mobile phones, before finding greater success building smartphones using Google's Android. It continued to support Windows, helping with the arrival of Microsoft's first true smartphone software, Windows Phone 7, but HTC's efforts were minimal. Those handsets had little to please the eye and used basic processors, cameras and screens.
Lately, faced with Samsung's technological leaps and massive marketing budgets, HTC has failed to gain traction with new Android launches. So it has cast its eyes back to Microsoft HQ in Redmond, Washington again. The result is the Windows Phone 8 range, released in November.
At first glance, HTC has thrown the kitchen sink at the task. The 8X is packed with much of the best technology developed for its top Android phones, and its hardware is a leap forward in design terms.
Its main Windows rival, Nokia's Lumia 920, is only available on the EE 4G network in the UK, leaving the rest of the field free for HTC. For those who are willing to try an alternative to Apple and Android – an admittedly small group at the moment – the 8X is the high end handset to consider.
In keeping with the brightly coloured "live tiles" of the Windows interface, the 8X comes in red, violet and acid yellow as well as the traditional black. HTC has taken a few pointers from Nokia with the casing. Like Nokia's Lumia range, the 8S is carved from a single shell of polycarbonate (a synthetic resin) with a matt finish. It takes a lot to dent or scratch this curved-cornered case. Unlike the iPhone 5, which seems to attract gashes like a magnet attracts iron filings, there is no need for the design purist's nightmare of a rubber case for these handsets.
The phone is light at 130g (iPhone 5: 112g; Samsung Galaxy S3: 133g; Nokia Lumia 820: 160g; Lumia 920: 185g), and cushion-shaped, with a fattish 10.1mm bulge at the back housing the battery, tapering to thinner edges.
The top edge holds a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, a small hole for a secondary mic, and the power/lock key. The right hand side houses a micro-sim tray with pin release hole, a volume rocker, and a camera button. The primary mic and power socket are at the bottom, and the left hand side is free of clutter.
One grumble: the buttons are so flush with the casing they are difficult to locate by touch – and once found they are hard to press.
Made of black gorilla glass with curved edges, the screen is absolutely top of the range. The resolution beats the iPhone 5, at 341 pixels per inch versus 326 for the Apple phone. At 4.3inch on the diagonal, it is wider than the iPhone 5 and a little longer too, but not as glaring large as the Nokia Lumia 920.
As an extra sweetener, the handset comes with Dr Dre's Beats Audio technology, essentially an extra amplifier in the headphone jack which can crank up to 2.5V, compared to the usual 0.5V, and more than enough to pump up the volume on a large set of headphones.
The 8X uses Qualcomm's Snapdragon dual core 1.5Ghz processor with 1GB of RAM. This is a step up from the single core processor in HTC's Windows Phone 7 models, and puts it on a par with the top smartphones. With a few exceptions such as the Huawei Ascend, which has a headline-grabbing quad-core processor, most manufacturers (including Apple) are content with dual core for now.
Standard-issue rather than bleeding-edge, the 8X's camera leaves a little to be desired compared to rival models and even HTC's flagship phone. At 8 megapixels, it's on a par with the iPhone 5, but behind the Lumia 920, which sports 8.7MP and a range of Nokia photo-editing software which puts most other phones in the shade.
Unlike HTC's Android One X, the 8X does not have the 30 shots per second burst mode, nor the panorama feature.
Before pointing and shooting, the shutter speed, colour and resolution are all adjustable. The Bing lens, named after Microsoft's search engine, can scan barcodes and QR codes, as well as book, CD and DVD numbers and then call up information on the items.
For those who want more features, the only option is do it yourself. The camera screen links through to a range of recommended apps. One does Time Lapse, another uploads your citizen journalist photos to CNN.
The video camera resolution is excellent, recording in 1080p, which is good enough to view on a television set, and considered the standard for high definition today.
The 8S supports 4G in the US, but not in the UK, so don't buy it on a two-year contract if you are hoping to be able to make the most of 4G wireless when it becomes available on all the main networks in May/June next year.
However, the 8S does support the fastest version of 3G, called HSPA+, in the bands used by each one of the British networks. While they wait to catch up with EE (which was the first to launch 4G in the UK), Three, Vodafone and 02 are all investing in the latest 3G technology, which can connect to the internet as fast as the average home broadband service and – outside of smartphone rush hours – copes with even the most data hungry tasks like watching live video.
Whereas Windows Phone 7 was a revolution, Windows Phone 8 is a solid evolution. Microsoft has found an interface it thinks will catch on and is improving it. The standout feature are the live tiles, which replace the static icons that represent apps on Android and iOS. In design terms they are a bang-up-to-date digital-era feature. The best ones show live information from the sources they represent – photos stream from friends' feeds, the calendared meeting you are meant to be in.
WP 8 now lets you choose from three sizes of tiles, so by pinning different ones in different sizes you can create a personalised, dynamic home screen.
Another improvement is the Kid's Corner. This is a roped-off area which contains only apps you want your offspring (or friends) to play with, and can be accessed with a right-to-left swipe from the lock screen, meaning there is no need for them to enter more personal sensitive parts of your phone.
The range and quality of apps however is still disappointing. There may be thousands available, but some of the best are missing or are a little out of date. None of the BBC iPlayers are there, Instagram is absent, the Twitter and Facebook versions are bare bones compared to those on Android and iOS, and the eBay app, which still uses the old company logo, has been over-customised to the WP8 look.
The calendar, which should be one of the most accommodating features to use, is anything but. The WP8 house style of white script on a black background looks great when navigating screens with large writing, but hurts the eyes when reading small print calendar entries, and the information is only available by day or by month (the latter too small to be readable) with no weekly appointments view.
Maps are both a joy and a disappointment. Produced using Nokia's excellent mapping service, they zoom in to satellite view and even show live traffic updates. The turn-by-turn navigation comes from Nokia – part of its move to monetise the Navteq maps company it bought.
Prices and conclusion
While the live tiles interface may be struggling to find its raison d'etre in Windows 8, Microsoft's traditional stomping ground of the personal computer, it is absolutely made for smartphones. Windows Phone 8 is among the easiest, most instinctive and visually entertaining mobile operating systems to use. I have found its new phone setup to be the simplest and fastest of the three operating systems, particularly when it comes to things like installing company email. It deserves a place as the third ecosystem. (Sorry, RIM.)
A big UK marketing campaign, with advertising and product placement for Nokia Lumia handsets around prime time TV shows like Homeland should help familiarise users with the look of WP8; HTC will benefit indirectly.
Prices are a little more appealing than Nokia's too. The 8X is available on PAYG from Carphone Warehouse from £380. Its opposite number at Nokia, the Lumia 920, is only on sale through EE in the UK.
The more basic Lumia 820, equivalent to the 8S, costs £350 on PAYG, making HTC's top-end Windows Phone device is just £30 more expensive than the more basic new model from Nokia.
Overall The 8S is a worthy Windows Phone torchbearer.
(c) 2012 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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