HTC's 8X with Windows Phone 8 is a breath of fresh air (December 17th, 2012)
Product Manufacturer: HTC
Price: $30 CAD (three year contract, Rogers)
-Affordable on-contract price
-Smooth, intuitive OS
-Simple and handsome look
-NFC radio futureproofs the device
-Windows Phone 8 still needs time to mature, grow apps library
-A few bugs need working out
-No voice guidance from maps app
-Flush buttons too difficult to press
-Durability concerns of screen and plastic body
After getting a chance to briefly handle HTC's flagship Windows Phone 8-powered smartphone, the 8X, earlier this year, we now got one in for a more thorough test. The test subject was a 16GB model (an 8GB version is also available) in California Blue and is a Canadian-spec model running on Roger's 4G LTE network that promises download speeds as fast as 75Mbps under ideal conditions.
The 4.3-inch, 1280x720 display is officially of the TFT HD super LCD2 variety and we find little to fault with it. The capacitive touchscreen is covered by Corning's Gorilla Glass 2, which is a good thing as it juts out from the body around its corners and is therefore seemingly more susceptible to scratches and other damage.
The 8X, like Nokia's Lumia 920 that's considered to be the flagship Windows Phone 8 handset currently available, gets a polycarbonate body that seems soft to the touch. We wondered how the material would hold out over our near two-week time with the handset, betting it wouldn't be too well. We came away pleasently surprised, however. The fairly square corners began to lose some of the color, however, getting dark spots from rubbing up against fabric while in a pocket.
The handset feels light and thin in the hand, the latter largely thanks to its tapered edges. Its 4.6oz mass is nearly two ounces ligther than Nokia's range-topping Windows Phone 8-powered offering. Compared to the iPhone 4S we had on hand for comparison, it's slightly thicker (0.4-inch versus 0.37-inch) and lighter by about 0.45 ounces (10 grams).
The top edge houses the 3.5mm headphone jack, microphone, and power/sleep/wake button. The right edge is home to the microSIM card slot at the top edge, the volume rocker below it, and the camera launch button that doubles as a shutter when in the app. The bottom gets only the microUSB charging port, while the left side doesn't have any controls or ports all. The trouble with said buttons is that their shallow mounting means it's hard to know when they've been clicked, and making operating the phone with gloves on near impossible, touchscreen issues notwithstanding.
The rear houses the single speaker at the bottom and the eight-megapixel camera along with an LED flash at the top. The front has a color-matched speaker grille up top with the 2.1-megapixel camera sitting to the left of it. Like the HTC One S we tested earlier this year, the grill hides an LED (though it's larger here) that shines red when the phone is charging and green when its battery is full.
The bottom of the screen has what Android users should be familiar with, in the form of three touch-sensitive navigation keys. Another similarity to Android handsets is the quick contacts population and file syncing available simply by signing in with an existing Microsoft ID, including Hotmail, SkyDrive, or Xbox LIVE acounts.
Windows Phone 8 uses tiles for apps, with users able to pin them to the home screen. This is a unique way of organizing them, with users getting the choice of three sizes for each. Some oft-used apps that support the Live Tile format and can thus deliver updates without having to open the app. Live Tiles can be applied to contacts as well, with updates from said person's social networks displayed in them. These can and should be made to be the largest, spanning the width of the screen and twice the height of the smallest tile. It's a fresh look and interface, being elegantly simple and fairly intuitive to use. Long-presses open options that are specific for each app or screen. On the flipside, however, there aren't multiple home screen such as on Android and iOS devices, so adding apps results in a long, flowing, vertical list of apps that are arranged alphabetically. Favorites can be pinned to the home screen, though again users will be forced to scroll down once their app counts go up.
As for the three capacitive buttons located under the screen, the back button is self-explanatory, though it can frustrate when web browsing. If a user resumes a web browsing session, pressing the back button will take users out of the browser and back to the last screen, likely the home screen from which IE was launched. The Windows button is effectively a shortcut to the home screen, with a long-press bringing up the TellMe actions app while the looking glass opens up a Bing search page. That page also has shortcuts to a Shazam-like but native song-identification app and the camera and its Bing Lens for scanning text, Microsoft tags or QR codes.
Long-pressing the back button results in showing the current screen/tile and up to seven other apps or screens viewed last.
There are a number of preloaded HTC Apps, including Flashlight, Photo Enhancer, Converter, and the simply named HTC app that brings together weather, stock, and news data.
Microsoft brings its People Hub to the 8X in the OS that tries to collect all information from contacts, including their Facebook photos, updates, and phone numbers into one place, with flowing updates. There is also the Office Hub, updated for Windows Phone 8, adding new view options and now supporting Excel documents. OneNote Mobile is a simple document app for making shopping lists, though it can also include photos, audio, and checkboxes for checking stuff off said shopping or to-do list. Similarly, a Me hub collects all of the user's personal content from various social networks and e-mail accounts onto the tile and the app, once opened.
Despite not being able to install a Windows Phone 8 app for our Windows 7-running notebook, we were able to view the file-hosting contents of the handset and drag and drop video, music and document files onto the handset's internals storage. When a multimedia format wasn't supported (such as .avi), the software offered to try and convert it to make it playable. This took longer (as long as 15 minutes or so for a near 300MB video) but had positive results. For some other files (.mkv), the software warned us that the won't be playable on the handset but could be placed onto the storage anyhow, making the device useful as a USB stick.
Some petpeeves included the raised back and search buttons that are placed too far towards the edge of the device, leading to us interrupting movie watching by launching either the Bing search screen or going to a previous app, thus halting playback. Also, while watching in a dark room, the navigation keys never turned off, as the ambient light sensor didn't allow it. In movie mode, when most if not all of the needed navigation is done via the touchscreen, we would have liked to see them dim eventually.
The location of the speaker on the back of the device also isn't ideal when the phone is laid flat, though the design and its tapered edges prohibits having the speaker fire out of the side of the device, as an iPhone's does.
The built-in Beats Audio amp and tech only works when headphones are plugged in and doesn't enhance the listening experience for the built-in speaker. When third-party headphones (none are included) are plugged in, the built-in remote didn't work to play or pause content or adjust the volume. The inline microphone worked fine, however.
Voice recognition commands are available, though require downloading a language recognition pack. There are a number of languages avaialble, with the English pack requiring 23MB. Simple phrases like Call Mike, provided Mike is an existing contact, are quickly and easily recognized.
Battery life, on the first full charge and little actual usage as we got familiar with the device was about 21 hours (down to 10 percent of life). This was hardly representative, however, as the phone was connected to a Wi-Fi network. Running WPBench's battery/CPU stress test resulted in a run time of just under three hours (2:54.32 to be exact). More thorough use yielded a real-life run time (again to 10 percent remaining) of about 8 hours, but your mileage may vary, obviously, depending on how long the screen is on and how heavily the 4G radio is used. Microsoft gives users several options for extending battery life, including with the Battery Saver feature. When the battery gets to 20 percent, Battery Saver will stop apps from running in the background and turn off push notifications on e-mail. As the GPS sensor seems to always be on, turning that off in the settings can also result in some extra battery life.
As for other performance numbers, they were a little harder to gauge. With the SpeedTest.net app not (yet?) available for the Windows Phone 8 platform, we had to resort to a different app to test the phone's network speed.
We had one random restart while using the dvice as a hotspot (the phone supports up to eight Wi-Fi devices), and still can't tell why. Upon rebooting, the Internet Sharing mode defaulted to its off position. Switching it on again and connecting to our notebook yielded no further troubles, at least for the next 15 minutes or so we relied on the connection. The 4G LTE speeds on Rogers' network were impressive, outpacing the speed of our benchmark iPhone 4S (also on Rogers, though 3G) handily. This depended on our location, however, as the device defaulted back to HSPA+ or 3G speeds as needed. Using the Free Speed Test app, results ranged from a low and unexpected of 0.68Mbps during the download and 0.97Mbps on the upload to a high of 32.34Mbps and 10.05Mbps on the download and upload cycle, respectively. We also tried the Speed Test app, which returned slightly lower, though more consistent numbers. With it, we saw between 7.72Mbps on the download and 6.51Mbps at a 149ms latency and up to 11.05Mbps and 6.78Mbps at 143ms.
WPBench returned a CPU speed of 3890ms, data time of 5813ms, and a GPU score of 33 frames per second over 1,001 frames. These are good numbers for the dual-core chip-powered device that has a clock speed of 1.5GHz and is complemented by the Adreno 225 GPU and 1GB of RAM, marking a sure improvement over the single-core CPUs and 512MB of RAM of Windows Phone 7 handsets.
The AnTuTu benchmark (version 0.8.0 beta) resulted in a total score of 11,129, which ranks right up there with the best, including Samsung's Galaxy S III, which posted a 12,060 score.
Subjectively, we never came across an app or task that overtaxed the hardware. We did, however, wished for games that had some sharper graphics, at least in some of the Xbox-branded titles such as Earthworm Jim. What's nice about Microsoft's store is that users can try titles before they buy them, getting either a limited number of levels or functionality/features in the game. Not all titles offer such an option, however, though many of the ones we tried seem to.
While adding new e-mail accounts is easy and straightforward, with all the big players well represented. Long-pressing an e-mail brings up a list of options (including delete) or one of the virtual buttons down below the list places checkboxes beside each to check them off and delete en masse. Another option is to open the e-mail and then delete it with a dedicated virtual button. Doing so then brings users into the threaded e-mail view rather than the next message, necessitating another click, however. While an NFC radio is built-in, we never had a chance to test it out.
The eight-megapixel, f/2.0 autofocus rear camera takes decent photos and doubles for scanning text and QR codes with the Bing Lens. The text cannot be copied into a document, however, but can be either translated or used to search the web. Other lenses can allegedly be downloaded, though none yet existed when we looked. A pretty useful feature is the built-in photo editor that lets users edit the photos they've taken or ones they've downloaded. There is a crop tool, rotate option, and auto fix wand that seems to change up the colors slightly. The images are fairly crisp and true in terms of color reproduction, though the smalle lens means users need to be wary of poorly lit subjects and keep their handshake to a minimum, true with any smartphone handset. Users can either press the touchscreen or the dedicated hardware button to activate the shutter. There is no feature that allows rapid-fire shooting, however.
Curiously, the phone defaults to a six-megapixel resolution, even though the camera is rated at eight. This can be changed in the photo settings only accessible from the camera app. There are five other resolution options, down to VGA. Users also get four Effects options (Grayscale, Negative, Sepia, and Solarize) as well as White Balance, Exposure, Contrast, Saturation, Sharpness, ISO (100 to 800), and Face Detection options. All but the last two get options that range from Lowest through Normal to Highest. The Video Settings are largely the same, though the default here is 1080p.
Unfortunately, there is no guidance by voice available on the 8X, which is a curious oversight as there is voice feedback when using the voice recognition interface elsewhere. Even the maps themselves leave something to be desired with some questionable directions. The first time we typed in a destination, the phone tried to take us on the long way around our residence, circling the block rather than making a simple right turn. What's more, some local hallmarks like a big shopping mall weren't immediately found by name only. Considering Apple's recent iOS maps issues and troubles, we certainly respect that making a foolproof mapping system is rather difficult so can't blame Microsoft too much here.
Clearly, Windows Phone 8 has some ways to go before it can compete in terms of the available apps with the likes of Android and iOS devices. Even Google is taking a wait-and-see approach and not planning on releasing its Gmail or Google Drive app for Microsoft's mobile OS. The popular players are there, including Netflix, Facebook, YouTube and some others. Facebook in particular has a unique look to it, with a white background and lots of empty space. This does, however, make the photos and other content in the News Feed too small to casually view, requiring the user to either squint uncomfortably or click to blow it up. The latter option would be an acceptable one, though it's not ideal and the app itself takes relatively long to load such content.
Some of the graphics in certain apps, including YouTube, aren't very high-res, and seem to be artificially so, as the screen certainly isn't lacking in the resolution department, sporting an impressive 342ppi density.
The Bottom Line
The HTC 8X is a solid piece of hardware with an attractive price (at least in Canada, as AT&T and T-Mobile sells it for $100 on a two-year contract. Verizon commands $200 for the device). In the long-term, US buyers get the last laugh, however, as their plans are much more generous. Rogers offers four plans for the 8X on a three year contract (in order to qualify for the $30 CAD purchase price. They range from a $50 CAD per month fee for 1,000 local minutes, unlimited local calling after 6:00pm and on weekends, unlimited text, picture and video messages and 150MB of data. The top-tier plan is $95 CAD per month and includes unlimited Canada-wide long-distance calling and 5GB of data per month.
The phone's interface is unique and the device integrates nicely within the Windows ecosystem. As with most other smartphones, we found ourselves wishing for longer battery life, though the microSD port for charging makes finding more juice a fairly simple undertaking.
Everyone who tried the handset found the OS intuitive, attractive, and well-sorted, which matched our impressions as well. The flexibility of the home screen layout and the associated Live Tiles options of placement and size make the handset ultimately customizable. With the software updates that are likely to arrive over time, as well as the undoubted growth of the app store, HTC's 8X can only get better. That's a good thing, as the phone is very good at a fundamental level.