The Windows Phone 8X by HTC offers excellent performance and an attractive design but the lack of expandable memory, some annoying ergonomics and the limited Windows Phone app ecosystem are significant downsides.
Note: The HTC Windows Phone 8X we reviewed is a grey import model supplied by online store MobiCity. We'll update this review with any necessary changes when we get our hands on a local review unit.
HTC has clearly put a huge amount of focus on the design of Windows Phone 8X and the end result is one of the most distinctive looking phones on the market. In a world of boring, black slabs, the Windows Phone 8X stands out for all the right reasons. Its vibrant colour options and curved, clean lines immediately set it aside from most other smartphones on the market.
HTC's design team says the 8X is what they would imagine a Windows Phone 8 Live Tile to look like if it jumped out of the screen and morphed into a phone. Well, not exactly, but you get the picture. The 8X's flat, glossy screen contrasts nicely with the polycarbonate shell and you can immediately tell this phone has been designed specifically for the Windows Phone platform. The device comes in California Blue, Graphite Black, Flame Red and Limelight Yellow colour variants and each model has a matching Windows Phone 8 interface theme to suit. The combined look is bold, distinctive and attractive, though we remain convinced that our 'California Blue' review unit is more purple than blue.
HTC says the edges of the Windows Phone 8X have been sculpted to fit comfortably in a users hand and said it worked hard to produce a phone without bumps or protrusions. At 10.1mm thick and weighing 130g, the 8X isn't the thinnest or lightest smartphone on the market, but it defies the specifications sheet to look and feel svelte. The matte surface hides fingerprints well, too, and the grippy nature of the finish means the phone doesn't easily slip out of your grasp.
While the design of the HTC Windows Phone 8X is attractive, there are some ergonomic issues. Firstly, the device is almost the same height as the Nokia Lumia 920 and the Samsung Galaxy S III yet it has a smaller 4.3in screen. The tall, rectangular shape makes the 8X easy to hold with one hand, but it's hard to reach the very top of the screen with your thumb when navigating through the phone.
Secondly, the physical buttons on the 8X are completely flush with the body. While this adds to the look, it also creates some questionable ergonomics. The edges of the phone are smooth and rounded, but the corners are sharp and dig into your fingers when held. We also found the corners uncomfortably dug into our ear when we were holding the phone up to talk.
The biggest annoyance, however, is the power button. Due to the tall design of the 8X, it's very uncomfortable to press when you're holding the phone with one hand. We also found that we accidentally bumped the volume buttons on the right side whenever we moved our hand to lock the screen. The camera button, too, is flush with the body of the phone and offers poor tactility. It makes capturing steady photos an issue.
The HTC Windows Phone 8X comes with a 4.3in super LCD2 display with a 720p resolution of 1280x720. It's one of the brightest and most vibrant displays we've used on a smartphone. HTC says the screen has been designed to sit closer to the actual glass on the front, creating the illusion that its contents are almost floating on the surface. We've seen this before on a number of previous devices, but the combination of HTC's physical design and the vibrant Windows Phone 8 OS makes it a standout here.
The Windows Phone 8X's screen has a pixel density of 342ppi — that's higher than Apple's iPhone 5, the Lumia 920 and the Samsung Galaxy S III. It displays crisp, clear text with no visible aberrations, offers outstanding viewing angles and has bright, vibrant colours. Our only complaint is the black levels, which aren't as deep black as we'd have liked.
One downside to the HTC Windows Phone 8X's design is the lack of expandable memory. While we can understand the fact that a card slot would have spoilt the clean lines and shape of the phone, we would have appreciated more internal memory. The 8X only comes with 16GB of storage, with 14.56GB available to store apps and files on.
Software and performance
The HTC Windows Phone 8X is one of the first devices to run the latest version of Microsoft's Windows Phone platform, Windows Phone 8. The first thing you'll notice is speed: the 8X is a fast and slick smartphone. We didn't experience any lag whatsoever when flipping between apps, scrolling through long lists or opening apps like the camera. Basic day-to-day tasks on the Windows Phone 8X are smooth and responsive. Scrolling, especially in the Internet Explorer browser, is smoother and faster than most Android phones we've used. All in all the combination of the Windows Phone 8 OS and the 8X's hardware makes for a speedy and efficient device.
Windows Phone 8 devices all feature a similar interface, so the major difference between models is any extra software that the manufacturer includes. The HTC Windows Phone 8X comes with the easily forgettable "HTC Hub", providing basic weather, stocks and news information. There's also a Flashlight, a Photo Enhancer and a Converter app preloaded.
The most useful HTC addition, however, lies at the bottom of the settings menu. Attentive phone settings consists of three options that utilise internal sensors like the gyroscope and the accelerometer. The settings will lower the ring volume when you pick up the phone, increase the ring volume while the 8X is in your pocket or bag and enable you to flip over the phone to mute the ringer during an incoming call. These aren't new features (they've been available on many HTC Android devices in the past) but it's good to see them included here.
The biggest new addition to Windows Phone 8 itself is a new home screen interface with support for small, medium and large live tiles. There's also more colour customisation options (including matching colours for the 8X hardware), built-in Skype integration, a revamped backup system that now includes the ability to backup SMS messages, a 'Kid's Corner' function where only pre-selected apps can be accessed and the expansion of the People Hub with a new 'Rooms' feature that shares lists, calendars and photos.
The Windows Phone 8 ecosystem has some excellent core features. All users receive 7GB of SkyDrive Storage for free. The built-in, free Microsoft Office app handles Word and Excel documents with ease and is without a doubt the best office client on any mobile platform we've seen. The Xbox Music service, too, is decent value at $11.99 per month or $119.90 per year for unlimited music streaming. We did find it odd, though, that the Windows Phone 8 platform can't open a basic .wav file, such as the voicemail message service used in many workplaces.
The default Maps application on Windows Phone 8 is accurate and far more comprehensive than Apple Maps on the iPhone 5. It doesn't offer a native turn-by-turn navigation feature like Android phones, but Nokia's Drive app will eventually add that feature when it becomes available for non-Lumia devices at a later, unannounced date.
The biggest issue with the HTC Windows Phone 8X and more importantly the Windows Phone OS itself, though, is the lack of popular third-party apps. A visit to the Microsoft Store will quickly tell you all you need to know but many apps we use on a daily basis on iOS and Android simply aren't available on Windows Phone.
It's not simply about the number of apps here, but the number of important apps that have become popular on smartphones. A few examples include Dropbox, Pocket, Instagram, Spotify, Pinterest, Pulse News and Flipboard. These apps and many more may eventually come to the platform, but they're not available right now. It's an issue that we suspect will prevent most average consumers switching from iOS or Android to a Windows Phone.
Further, the Windows Phone services available, such as Xbox Music, strongly appeal to those who are already ingrained in the Microsoft ecosystem. If you've got an Xbox, use a Windows 8 PC and have a Windows Phone 8 device like the HTC 8X, for example, these services are a great option. For everyone else, like those who might use a Mac, an iPad or an Android tablet, the incentive to use these services is significantly diminished. A good example is already established services like Dropbox and Spotify that this author uses daily. Neither are available (yet) on the Windows Phone platform yet they're readily usable on an iPhone or an Android device. To switch to the Windows Phone platform requires a compromise that many everyday consumers may not appreciate.
Camera and battery life
The HTC Windows Phone 8X comes with an 8-megapixel camera with single-LED flash and it captures good quality pictures. We particularly noted excellent macro performance, with the autofocus working well to provide decent quality close up images. There's some prevalent image noise in most photos and the colour reproduction is less than stellar. We also found that the flash washed out most images in low-light. The 8X records excellent quality, full HD video that's generally free of blur provided you have a steady hand.
The front camera is perhaps the most interesting feature of the HTC Windows Phone 8X. The 2.1-megapixel lens has an ultra-wide angle 88 degree lens that captures almost triple the area of most other front-facing smartphone cameras. We found it worked well for front-facing video calls through Skype, especially if you're using the phone to keep in contact with family. However, the quality of both still images and video through the front-camera are disappointing.
The HTC Windows Phone 8X includes Beats Audio qualities, which noticeably enhances bass and works across all applications. However, unlike some other HTC Android devices, the 8X doesn't come bundled with a pair of Beats-branded headphones.
The HTC Windows Phone 8X we reviewed is a 3G-only model, but the Australian model will support the 1800MHz 4G networks used Down Under when it launches in "early December". Telstra and Vodafone will initially sell the Windows Phone 8X at launch.
The HTC Windows Phone 8X has reasonable, but not outstanding battery life. With moderate use we managed to push almost a full day out of the 1800mAh battery, but heavy users will likely have to recharge before the end of the day. We did notice that the Windows Phone 8X seems power efficient when in standby mode with the screen locked, but the display uses plenty of power when its on.
The HTC Windows Phone 8X will be available in December through Telstra and Vodafone and will retail for $696. You can also purchase the Windows Phone 8X through online store MobiCity, who supplied our review unit.