We take an in-depth look at the HTC 8X, one of the first phones running Microsoft's Windows Phone 8 platform
We've spent some time with HTC's 8X, one of the first Windows Phone 8 devices out of the gate. Read on to find out what we think of it.
HTC has had a reputation for above average build quality with its smartphones for some time now, but the company’s capability for crafting exteriors went up a few notches recently.
The 8X, as the premium model in the range, has a polycarbonate unibody, but this time things are a little different: the most immediately noticeable thing is its starkly rectangular silhouette, although it does have slightly rounded corners to soften the look slightly.
The 8X does come in black (Graphite Black, to be precise) butthere's also some bolder choices including California Blue, Flame Red and, lastly, Limelight Yellow, which from press shots looks a bit luminous and sickly for our tastes.
As with the One range, HTC has embedded a shiny black panel in the front of the handset which the touch display and capacitive controls sit inside.
This has the effect of narrowing the unibody’s bezel and makes the phone look very sharp, though, as with the One range we expect this effect is lost if you choose the black option.
Our review model was the blue variant, so the contrast caused everything to pop nicely.
Rotating the phone at any angle and you’ll come across extremely thin edges and a back panel which curves upwards in a gentle slope to form a D-shape cross-section.
These design features have a number of ramifications.
But, before we get into that, it’s important to clarify that the external build is brilliant – HTC has treated the polycarbonate with a light coat of soft-touch rubberised material.
It’s extremely robust and well-made and feels fantastic in the hand, but it’s also very light at only 130g which, combined with the svelte profile, means at times you’ll barely notice it in your pocket.
We also haven’t encountered a phone for some time which draws-in onlookers quite like this one.
There are few downsides, and they weren't significant enough to be a deal-breaker for us, but are still worth bearing in mind if you’re considering an HTC 8X as your next phone.
The thin-edges do look sharp at around 5mm thick. However, at the phone’s thickest point – the centre of the arc of that D-shape cross-section we mentioned – it’s 10.1mm thick.
The combined effect of this is a phone which doesn’t sit well in the hand: it’s fiddly and you’re never sure of your grip on it.
It’s also made worse by the shape of the back panel which always ensures there’s a gap between it and your palm.
These factors make one-handed use very tricky indeed as you end up losing most of your thumb dexterity for operating the touch-display.
Another slight foible is the power button, which is annoyingly at the top of the device (we prefer them to be on the side as it’s easily accessible with either hand), fits a bit too flush (making it difficult to find by touch) and depresses too softly.
Despite these complaints we still think HTC has done a sterling job here and the 8X is a truly excellent piece of kit on the outside.
The 8X’s display is nothing short of spectacular – it’s a 4.3-inch SLCD2 multitouch capacitive screen with a 1280x720 pixel resolution, Corning Gorilla Glass reinforcement and a pixel density of 342 pixels-per-inch (ppi).
That pixel density is higher than the iPhone’s Retina display and produces incredibly sharp visuals.
The clarity of the SLCD2 is great and text in particular is perfectly clear.
Brightness, colour depth and contrast are all excellent and nowhere is this more apparent than on the Windows Phone 8 Start screen with its multicolour live tiles, black background (although you can change this to white) and white text.
One particular point worth making is that the auto-brightness functionality is better here than we’ve seen on most phones, it’s less obvious than elsewhere and doesn’t dull the display over-zealously.
Reflections and smudges are about the only complaints we’d level and here it’s no worse than most other premium devices on the market.
Overall the HTC 8X has one of the better displays currently available.
Hardware and Software
Despite the all-round number changes the hardware and software scenario is similar to what it was on Windows Phone 7 devices, in the sense that it’s a well-optimised software platform paired with a fast and efficient processor setup.
Consequently, while it may be a dual core device, it’s not all about the ‘power’.
What the shift to dual core does enable, however, is much better app load times and multitasking than we’ve seen on Windows Phone before.
Inside the HTC 8X is a Qualcomm S4 (Series 4) Snapdragon Plus MSM8960 dual core processor clocked at 1.5GHz with 1GB of dual-channel RAM, 28 nanometre (nm) semiconductor technology and an Adreno 225 graphics processing unit (GPU).
By itself, that setup doesn’t particularly distinguish the 8X from similarly-specced Android devices or the rest of the premium Windows Phone 8 crop.
Qualcomm’s low-nanometre semiconductors also pay off here as the handset doesn’t get overly warm from intensive use and certainly not enough to have a negative impact on performance.
Best of all, unlike Windows Phone 7 devices, the vast majority of apps load rapidly (the one exception we found was Facebook) and multitasking is very fluid indeed.
Even apps which are slower to load, such as Facebook, are quick to switch over to in the multitasking menu once their initial load is out the way – this used to be a real problem on Windows Phone 7, so kudos to Microsoft for correcting it.
Interface transitions, touch responsiveness and animations are as slick as they ever were.
While the multitasking is improved it’s not perfect, despite the capabilities of multiple cores Microsoft has elected not to include dormant apps being active with push notifications in the background.
This means that while the People Hub will update with your social networking feeds, annoyingly a dormant Facebook or Twitter app won’t .
The only reasoning we can think for this is the idea that the People Hub and Live Tiles offer push notifications instead, but still, Live Tiles are only so useful and it would’ve been nice to have some background app activity.
Additionally, while flicking between apps is certainly enhanced, the whole approach to multitasking isn’t as refined as Google’s recent offerings.
There’s no ability at all to close recent or hibernating apps from the carousel, let alone something as intuitive as a swipe-to-close function.
In short, Windows Phone 8 has not knocked Android off its perch when it comes to multitasking.
In terms of the presentation and feel of the platform, Windows Phone 8 is absolutely glorious.
The Modern UI is extremely good-looking, particularly in the design of many official apps which have fully embraced the interface, such as Twitter, and those co-developed by Microsoft such as YouTube and Facebook.
The Live Tile interface is better than ever and the ability to customise the size of each tile might seem insignificant but it really makes a big difference when it comes to making the phone your own. You've also got a wider choice of colours and can put a picture on the lock screen.
The issue of apps is perhaps one of the touchiest subjects with Microsoft’s mobile platforms.
The company maintains it’s taking a ‘quality over quantity’ approach but we find that claim questionable on both counts.
While it’s certainly true that there are more apps now than there were when Windows Phone 7 launched it’s still not the most vibrant ecosystem around and many big name apps are missing.
For example, Tumblr is a very popular web-service and has apps on both Android and iOS, but at present the only Tumblr apps available are limited third-party quick fixes with a whiff of ‘bedroom coder’ about them.
And that’s the other dimension we hinted at – there are some premium games and apps which stand head-and-shoulders above what you’ll find on any other platform, but there’s a lot of half-hearted rubbish to wade through too and the ratio isn’t skewed the right way at the moment.
Certainly the rubbish is there on Android and iOS, but with these you do get that sense that when a big-name app comes out it’ll find its way onto both platforms by default. Importantly, that’s not the feeling you get with Windows Phone 8 after spending some time browsing its pages.
Perhaps in time that will change, it is, admittedly, a very chicken or egg scenario and we’d hope that eventually Windows Phone 8 would become the third ‘default’ system for developers as it is otherwise very compelling to use.
That said, the built-in apps are pretty amazing.
Microsot’s Bing search, mapping and location services are all incredibly accurate, useful and present you with all the information you could possible need about whatever you’re looking for in Windows Phone’s nice paginated style.
The Maps app in particular is pin-point accurate when it comes to finding your location and much more precise than Google Maps on Android phones. There are turn-by-turn directions but there's no voice, unfortunately.
Internet Explorer also stands out as something of a gem with super-fast browsing, a minimalist and non-intrusive interface, tabbed functionality and the ability to pin webpages to the Start screen as a Live Tile.
The People Hub is as good as we remember it – it is unquestionably one of the best social networking and communication aggregation suites ever to grace a phone.
Changes are minimal, which we’ll interpret as Microsoft saying: ‘it it ‘ain’t broke’.
There is the addition of ‘Rooms’ as a separate category from ‘Groups’, the difference being that Rooms have sharing content at the centre – they’re private groups which allow you to share calendars, photos and group chats (amongst other things) with a selection of contacts.
Microsoft’s clearly aimed this at the family unit but we can see it having wider applications as well.
Lastly, on the subject of Windows Phone, special mention must be made of the touch-keyboard, which is right on the money.
One of the arguments we often hear in favour of Android is that you can switch out the keyboard – here , the thought won’t even enter your head.
It’s fast, smooth and accurate, while the word-prediction is both perceptive and non-intrusive: it’s there if you want it but it’s easy to get along by ignoring it too.
The 8X has 16GB of internal storage, which in our experience should be adequate for most users, though for a premium flagship device could be considered a bit on the low side. A full 32GB would’ve been better.
Disappointingly there’s also no MicroSD card capability, which is a shame considering Microsoft specifically added the capability to Windows Phone 8.
For connectivity you’ve got MicroUSB (positioned in the best place: at the base of the device), Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC, GPS and a 3.5mm audio jack (with Beats Audio).
The handset takes a MicroSIM but, for our forward-looking readers, you may be disappointed to hear there’s no 4G capability, despite the Qualcomm chip.
HTC is fast establishing itself as one of the go-to companies for premium camera-phone setups and the 8X is representative of this fact.
It sports an 8-megapixel primary camera with a back-illuminated sensor (BSI), LED flash and an f/2.0 aperture. Video capture is 1080p HD while a 2-megapixel front-facing secondary can also capture 1080p for video and video calls.
The wide aperture and BSI sensor means this setup can take in a lot of light, so photos are generally better than average.
However, there’s no stabilisation, something Nokia, Samsung and Apple have all realised is essential for helping the average user get superior quality images.
Here, you’re very much flying without assistance.
The result is that if you’re a bit of a photography guru and know a lot about how to take a good snap you’ll churn out excellent photos most of the time.
If, however, you don’t dabble very often and/or have a bit of a shaky hand you’ll get the occasional diamond amidst a lot of acceptable but generally average-looking pictures. With video it’s much the same story.
The battery is a 1800mAh Lithium-ion setup and offers distinctly average phone life which is neither particularly better or worse than the majority of handsets on the market. It’ll need a daily charge, essentially. There is a power saver mode which helps things a little.
The HTC 8X is the first Windows Phone 8 handset, that is, the first ‘second-generation’ Windows Phone, that this reviewer has had hands-on time with. The stakes are therefore high.
We were very impressed with Windows Phone 7, but it did feel like it was lacking in one or two areas, so our anticipation for Windows Phone 8 has been quite pronounced to say the very least and we were hoping it would build substantially on the foundations laid by its predecessor.
The HTC 8X is quite a marvel. It is every bit the premium smartphone with its neatly contoured outer shell, top-grade build quality and crystal clear display. We love it.
To be honest though, all HTC had to really do was focus on the external build and hardware and it’s knocked that ball well-and-truly out of the park.
The real make-or-break element, however, is the Windows Phone 8 operating system and that’s very much in Microsoft’s court.
There were precisely three points which caused us to move back from Windows Phone 7 to Android: the app ecosystem, the multitasking and the customisation.
In our view, Microsoft has more or less knocked off two out of the three problems (though there are still some small gripes with the multitasking).
As it stands, it is an extremely compelling platform which can entice you in very easily. The interface is wonderful and the improvements which leverage the processing power to bring better running speeds for apps, multitasking and so on are significant.
We wanted to love it, in many ways we do love it, but under the surface there’s one overarching problem and that is the app ecosystem. It’s relatively immature, which means the apps choice isn’t as diverse as it could be.
And herein lies our conclusion, then: Windows Phone 8 is a fine platform if you want a smartphone for the way you’ll interact with it, but if the number of things you’ll actually do with it are relatively limited.
Case in point, despite the wealth of apps available on Google Play, this writer’s Android phone only ends up being used for a few specific things these days: web browsing, YouTube videos, email, Tumblr, Twitter, instant-messaging, texts, phone calls, notes, some light calendar stuff, weather reports, eBooks, navigation, social networking and as a watch/alarm clock.
That’s literally it.
Aside from a satisfactory Tumblr experience all of this can be done on Windows Phone 8, as can music and video streaming and a bit of gaming.
Which means, Windows Phone 8 is at a point where we could happily make the switch and probably not look back.
The HTC 8X is an excellent vessel for Microsoft’s experience and that bit of extra refinement really has made all the difference.