I've spent the last several days testing and playing with one of the first flagship Windows Phone 8 devices that will hit the market in the coming days. It's called the HTC Windows Phone 8X and, while we only had access to the international version, it will eventually land on Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile in the United States.This is a huge launch, not only for HTC which struggled during the third quarter of this year, but for Microsoft. The company currently only has a small slice of the overall smartphone operating system market, and it hopes to change that with Windows Phone 8 and with brand new devices such as the HTC Windows Phone 8X, Windows Phone 8S, the Samsung ATIV S and Nokia's Lumia 920 and Lumia 820 devices.Let's get on to the full review now.
HTC Windows Phone 8X Video Review
I had the pleasure of seeing HTC's new Windows Phone 8 smartphones several times before my review unit arrived. The 8X is the company's high-end model and is equipped with several noteworthy features, including a 4.3-inch Gorilla Glass 2 display with a 720p HD resolution, a dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 processor clocked at 1.5GHz – the fastest processor we've ever seen in a Windows Phone device – 16GB of storage, 1GB of RAM, support for HSPA networks, NFC, an 8-megapixel camera, a front-facing 2.1 megapixel camera with a wide-angle lens and Beats Audio.
HTC completely redesigned the way it typically builds a smartphone with the 8X, and the amount of detail the company put forth is immediately noticeable. The 8X's battery has been aligned just behind the phone's display, which allows the company to squeeze in a bigger battery without adding too much thickness. Unfortunately, however, the minimalist design also means you can't remove the battery or add additional storage using a microSD card slot.The 4.3-inch screen is bright enough, but it also definitely doesn't have the deep blacks that you find on Samsung's AMOLED displays or even the Retina Display on the iPhone 5. The black colors actually look gray next to my Note II and my iPhone 5, and I'm guessing it's a backlighting issue. This was a bit annoying while watching movies or videos, but it's not a deal breaker. I found the 8X was super easy to view under bright sunlight, one scenario where AMOLED screens tend to struggle.I received a matte black review unit that, while certainly attractive, lacks the popping hues of HTC's other options. The company will also launch the phone in a bright neon yellow color, red and in a purple/blue hue.The 8X is extremely comfortable to hold and grip, thanks to the soft rubber finish that wraps around the entire body. Its design is truly a work of art; the fattest part is in the back middle and the sides slowly taper down to sharp, slightly rounded corners. It's easy to tap any icon with your thumb, since the screen isn't overly big at 4.3-inches, and the microSIM, 3.5mm headphone jack, volume buttons and power button are all easy to reach and well built, despite being nearly hidden on the phone's borders. This allows the device to look like one complete, almost seamless body.
The front of the phone is dominated by the aforementioned Gorilla Glass 2 display. There's a speaker grill just above HTC's logo, the 2.1-megapixel front-facing camera on the top-left of the face and the standard Windows Phone menu buttons, too.
If you've held an iPhone you know that Apple pays attention to every detail of the device. The Windows Phone 8X is an example of HTC's own example of excellent design. I prefer the metal materials of the iPhone 5 to the rubber and plastic on the Windows Phone 8X, but the colors, unique body and rock sturdy build are all praiseworthy features of the 8X.
The 8X is extremely comfortable to hold and grip, thanks to the soft rubber finish that wraps around the entire body. Its design is truly a work of art
Windows Phone 8 is Microsoft's next generation mobile operating system. The company has been talking about it all year and it's a good step up past what Windows Phone 7, and subsequent updates, offer. Still, you're still using Windows Phone, so you don't have much more to learn if you already know how to make your way through the OS.There are a lot of noticeable new features, such as a new chat system, NFC support, the ability to resize your home screen icons and more. Microsoft will discuss this in much more detail today, which we'll also be covering live. I love every change that has been made. Everything that has been added is a step forward for the operating system, not backwards.
For example, I love that there are now three different sizes for each live tile on the home screen. You can now store four apps in the same space occupied by a single one in Windows Phone 7. I've tweaked my home screen so that the weather and clock are at the top, Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare and SMS are lined up just below it, followed by several other apps. In Windows Phone 7, those four social apps would have taken up a large part of the immediately viewable space on the home screen. Now, in the same area, I have 15 accessible applications where I might have only had access to 7 before. Live tiles can also take greater advantage of applications; the large CNN app can span across the whole screen with breaking news and images, for example.
Likewise, the lock screen has been revamped with support for third-party applications. I have mine display the latest photos from my Facebook feed, for example, and it also shows alerts from the social network. It expands beyond social networks, GroupOn is supported, too.
Still, the Windows Phone "Store" as it's called now, is lacking. Microsoft has announced partnerships with major app developers but there are still a lot of noteworthy apps missing from the 120,000 that are available. The game selection is super limited, for example, and Instagram is still a glaring omission. Worse, several applications still only display in the old, lower resolution supported by Windows Phone 7. That means there's a small black bar at the top of the screen for any apps that haven't been updated with support for Windows Phone 8.
But Microsoft is adding other incredible new features that Windows Phone 8 users can take advantage of. Windows Phone 7 offered a "people" app where you could create groups of specific people you wanted to follow. Now, it has expanded the people application with a new "rooms" feature. I couldn't use it because I only have one Windows Phone 8 device, but it allows groups or families to chat with one another, share and edit a calendar, post photos and notes and even the ability to broadcast your location. Again, I can't tell how great this works in execution – Microsoft said it allows other platforms to take advantage of the capabilities, but I couldn't get it to work properly with an iPhone or another Android device. Still, the UI is great and the idea is incredible.
The keyboard is just as easy as ever to type on and remains one of my favorite experiences out there. Microsoft added emoji to its keyboard now, so you can start sending out the cute little icons that are available to Android/iOS users, too.
Parents will dig this new feature: Kid's Corner allows you to create a separate, locked, home screen for your kids. You can hold down any app and give it permission to appear in kids corner, and easily activate it by launching the application. The name is perfect for the feature: it can be used to listen to music that you've chosen for your kids, use specific kid-friendly apps and more. It works really well and you can exit it by hitting the power button.
Microsoft killed off Zune on Windows Phone and now simply refers to its multimedia stores as Xbox music, Xbox games and Xbox video. That's fine by me; the experience is largely similar to what Zune offered before. You can sign up for a monthly plan and download unlimited music, or buy tracks and albums individually.
The Beats Audio integration is fantastic. Music sounds crisp and is, as usual, loaded with bass. I preferred using the Windows Phone 8X for tunes over the iPhone 5, especially with an Xbox subscription plan, since I was able to store any album I wanted locally. There's also the option of Spotify on both platforms. My only gripe is that Beats Audio is buried within the settings menu and you have to turn it off/on manually when headphones are plugged in.
Xbox Smartglass, which launched last week for Windows Phone, allows you to control your Xbox directly from your smartphone. We've had this ability before, but Smartglass also allows the phone to act as another screen for some games. Unfortunately, the titles are so limited at this point that I didn't play any of them. I can say for certain, however, that Smartglass works really well so far and I was able to control my Xbox and playback all of my content on my HDTV with ease.
SkyDrive is Microsoft's cloud storage solution and it integrates with Windows Phone 8 in several ways. It offers 7GB of free storage. You can store and access your Office documents, including PowerPoint (read only), Excel, Word and OneNote docs, as well as your photos, all from Windows Phone. It's seamless, too – photos and anything created with those aforementioned products can be automatically sent to Microsoft's SkyDrive servers so that you can access them on your PC or other mobile devices.
NFC support is also included in Windows Phone 8, but there's not much that you can do with it just yet. All I was able to do was turn it on and see that know that it can be used to share media with other Windows devices. Unfortunately, however, the 8X is the only Windows Phone 8 device I have so I can't test this much further.
Microsoft's wallet application is a cool idea but it, so far, isn't very useful. You can store your various shopping and travel cards, or even your credit and debit card information, so that it's all in one safe place. But it's super buggy right now. I tried to store my Delta card but it kept saving my information under the name of some bank I've never heard of and with a card number I don't own. I assume this will be worked out in the near future, but for now I have no need to use Wallet at all.
Ultimately, there's a ton to talk about with Windows Phone 8 and we'll continue to visit the platform as it matures in the coming weeks and months.
HTC included the same camera technology used in its One X smartphone in the Windows Phone 8X. There's an 8-megapixel shooter on the back with a single LED flash that can record 1080p video and shoot high-res photos. Unfortunately, and I swore this was a feature before, you can't shoot in rapid fire (the way you can on the One X, anyway) and it takes about a second to focus and snap a photo.
I also found that the 8-megapixel camera on the iPhone 5 took better photos most of the time, especially in low-light situations. There was much more noticeable noise on the 8X and street lights had a large, over saturated-looking glow around them. The iPhone 5 images taken in the same scenario were sharper and much more accurate. That's not to say it isn't a fine shooter, I just prefer the iPhone 5 camera.
The front-facing camera is an entire different story. HTC included an 88-degree wide-angle lens, which means you can fit more into the shot than on any other camera. It's only a 2.1-megapixel shooter, but it's still super impressive. I love that I was able to take a picture of my fiancé and I on the street and include a lot of our block in the background; the iPhone 5, by comparison, cut off most of the background. This would be great if you're at the Grand Canyon, for example, and want to fit more of the horizon into the photo. Or with a group of friends out on the town and want to squeeze in as many people as possible. While the iPhone 5 might fit 3 friends into a group shot from its front-facing camera, the 8X should be able to fit far more –even just at an arm's length away. It's super fun to use and very impressive.
HD video was satisfactory but, again, I preferred the iPhone 5 camera to the video camera on the 8X. The video shot with my iPhone was clearer and more fluid than the same video shot with the 8X.
While the iPhone 5 might fit 3 friends into a group shot from its front-facing camera, the 8X should be able to fit far more –even just at an arm's length away. It's super fun to use and very impressive.
Call Quality / Data / Battery Life
I tested a European version of the Windows Phone 8X, which means I couldn't use it to surf on 4G LTE networks here in the United States. U.S. versions of the phone will add that support – on Verizon and AT&T anyway. Still, the phone automatically found my SIM card and applied the right settings to cruise on AT&T's 3G network. Call quality was excellent. I didn't experience any dropped calls, which is a rarity for AT&T in New York City. Data felt satisfactory and in-line with my experience with other 3G smartphones. 4G LTE support will make the Windows Phone 8X just a bit sweeter.
The 1,800mAh battery got me through a full day of use when I simply used the phone to check email and social networks. However, when I used it to watch several episodes of Workaholics, I found I was able to drain the device in just a few hours. I was secretly hoping these devices would be able to last more than a day, but that wasn't the case during my experience.
The 1,800mAh battery got me through a full day of use when I simply used the phone to check email and social networks.
By all means, the Windows Phone 8X is the best Windows Phone 8 device I've ever used at length. But that's also because it's the first one I've come across. Nokia and Samsung also have compelling devices coming down the pipeline.
The experience isn't all that much different than before. It's just much faster and you can customize it a bit more. That's fine, however, because I already love Windows Phone and think it's a compelling and attractive third platform with iOS and Android. It's just missing a few compelling apps and games at this point, but I have no doubt Microsoft will continue to deliver on that front soon.
I showed the Windows Phone 8X to a few people, including my fiancé, who absolutely loved the phone's design. It's thin, powerful and attractive. The colors at launch from HTC are also unlike any smartphone in recent memory, which is a total win for HTC on store shelves. Seriously, try going into a store and not picking up a neon yellow smartphone just to look at it.
There's no doubt the Windows Phone 8X is a win for HTC. It's a stellar device that does everything I expect from a Windows Phone, and more, and it gives me a ton of confidence for the future of Windows Phone overall.
I showed the Windows Phone 8X to a few people, including my fiancé, who absolutely loved the phone's design. … Seriously, try going into a store and not picking up a neon yellow smartphone just to look at it.