The HTC Windows Phone 8S is compact and well designed smartphone that offers good value for money.
Design & display
The HTC Windows Phone 8S is just as vibrant and colourful as the flagship 8X, but the design is slightly different. HTC has used similar polycarbonate materials but unlike the 8X the shell of the 8S isn't a single unibody block. It uses a two tone design with the bottom piece of the phone coated in a different colour to the rest. In our opinion it's one of the best looking Windows Phone 8 devices on the market right now and immediately distinctive. The Windows Phone 8S is available in Domino, Fiesta Red, Atlantic Blue and High-Rise Gray colour variants. Like the 8X, each model has a matching Windows Phone 8 interface theme to suit.
In addition to looking the goods, the Windows Phone 8S is also functional and has good ergonomics. The back has a rubberised feel that gives it a good grip and makes it tough to accidentally slip out of your hands. The curved, smooth edges give the phone a premium feel and the tapered edges make the phone feel much slimmer than it really is. The gloss bezel surrounding the display also contrasts nicely with the different coloured bottom, which houses the back, home and search capacitive buttons.
The smaller size of the 8S means it weighs a very light 113g and the 4in display makes the phone easier to use single-handedly than the larger 8X. The button placement is also perfect — the top mounted power/lock screen button sits towards the right, while the volume rocker on the right side is easy to access both left and right handed. Like all Windows Phones, a dedicated camera button also sits on the right side, towards the bottom.
There are a few downsides to the design. The 8S' battery isn't removable and therefore isn't replaceable and the bottom cover that hides the SIM card and microSD card slots is quite difficult to remove. We also found that dust quickly builds up in the slight gap between the screen and the edge. It's not a huge issue but quickly detracts from the look and feel after just a few days of use.
The HTC Windows Phone 8S has a 4in screen with a resolution of 800x480 pixels. This gives it a pixel density of 233ppi, which is significantly and predictably lower than more expensive rivals. While the phone can't display the same super sharp text as flagship models, it does a reasonably good job at rendering readable text when zoomed in. The display also has reasonable viewing angles, but we found brightness a little low and sunlight legibility fairly poor.
Software & performance
The HTC Windows Phone 8S runs the latest version of Microsoft's Windows Phone platform, Windows Phone 8. Despite being a mid-range device, the 8S is a fast and slick smartphone. The consistent performance of the Windows Phone platform, regardless of price tag or hardware, means that the 8S is a great option for users on a budget. While the flagship 8X is slightly faster, the difference won't be too noticeable to a casual user.
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 8S 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.
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 8S 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 on a mid-range device.
Features of the Windows Phone 8 OS are fairly standard on the HTC Windows Phone 8S. It includes all of the standard benefits including a home screen interface with support for small, medium and large live tiles, 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. There's also 7GB of free SkyDrive Storage for free and the built-in Microsoft Office app.
The biggest issue with the HTC Windows Phone 8S 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. It's an issue that we suspect will prevent most average consumers switching from iOS or Android to a Windows Phone. The situation should improve in the coming months, but whether it will be enough is still up for debate.
Camera & battery life
The HTC Windows Phone 8S comes with a fairly poor 5-megapixel camera with single-LED flash. We found most of our images suffered from excessive image noise and poor colour reproduction. Video recording, at a maximum of 720p resolution, is also below average. It's hard to capture a video without blur, even if you have a steady hand.
What's even worse than the Windows Phone 8S' rear camera is the fact it has no front-facing camera at all. This is virtually a basic feature of most smartphones, so its exclusion here is somewhat of a mystery. Though we suspect many users won't be bothered by its absence, the low price and colourful nature of the 8S seems to be targeting younger users. The same kind of users who would make use of a front-facing camera.
The HTC Windows Phone 8S includes Beats Audio qualities, which noticeably enhances bass and works across all applications. However, unlike some other HTC Android devices, the 8S doesn't come bundled with a pair of Beats-branded headphones. There's only 4GB of internal memory, so you'll definitely need a microSD card slot if you plan to store any data on the phone.
The HTC Windows Phone 8S has reasonable battery life. With moderate use we managed to push a full day out of the 1700mAh battery and we suspect most users should be able to achieve the same. The lack of 4G and a smaller screen no doubt help contribute to a phone that shouldn't need to be charged every few hours.
The HTC Windows Phone 8S is available through Telstra as a pre-paid handset for $279 or through various Optus post-paid plans.