The ideal Windows Phone: HTC 8X Review

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HTC Windows Phone 8X review 

The good: The HTC Windows Phone 8X's edgy design joins forces with a top-of-the-line processor, LTE speeds, and great call quality.

The bad: This phone's 8-megapixel camera took a few poor pictures, the buttons are too flush, and the OS lacks some key apps.

The bottom line: With top specs and a striking design, HTC's Windows Phone 8X makes a smart choice for anyone ready to dive into the Windows Phone OS.

When you see it in person, there's no question that the HTC Windows Phone 8X is a premier smartphone on any platform. That it happens to run Windows Phone 8 signals a shift in the luster and credibility of Microsoft's mobile future. It has the processing power, the LTE speeds, and the camera quality to stand on its own. And you know what? The tailored handset makes the Windows Phone 8 OS look goooood.

The 8X also inherits its operating system's edgy interface, NFC sharing, and built-in integration with Microsoft Office 2013.

Yet the Windows Phone 8X isn't without its flaws. The camera isn't quite as consistently good as other top smartphone shooters, and missing or underdeveloped apps in Microsoft's mobile OS may turn some people off. When it comes to such a tight battle between top phones -- be they Windows, Android, or iOS -- small details like those could make the difference between getting bought and getting shelved.

While tests are still under way for the Nokia Lumia 920, (and yes, I'll update this review when that other verdict is in), the 8X is the smaller, lighter phone of the two, and the one that's available on more carriers: AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon, starting at $199.

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Design and build
While simply designed, the 8X's slim, sleek face and squared corners immediately draw you in. On the front, the screen offers deep black bezels and peeks of the phone's color: black, red, a chartreusey yellow, and my favorite, "California Blue." The face may be all business, but the back and sides of the unibody 8X are definitely "casual Friday."

The phone feels good in the hand thanks to the soft-touch finish on the curved back, a design that HTC refers to as "pillowy." It slides into my pockets easily and doesn't take up too much room. I usually used my back pocket to tote it around short distances. I handed the phone around the office to men and women with all shapes and sizes of hands and pockets. The majority found the phone comfortable to hold and carry, with one exception, who didn't like the feel and worried that the corners would bore holes in his pockets.

The 8X stands 5.2 inches tall by 2.6 inches wide by 0.4 inch thick. Its 4.6-ounce weight didn't bother me, but it tips the heavier side of the scale that will make the iPhone 5's 4-ounce weight feel featherlight.

Live tiles, Web sites, and photos look great on the 8X's 4.3-inch Super LCD 2 display with its HD 1,280x720-pixel resolution (that's 342ppi, if you're wondering). One little flaw with the screen if you're picking: if you press down hard on the edge of the screen, you'll see a flash of light from squishing the LCD; most people won't be affected, let alone even notice.

Below the display, three capacitive buttons navigate you back, home, and to the Bing search tool. Press and hold on the Start button to also launch the TellMe voice actions app. The same motion applied to the back button brings you to the task-switching pane.

Above the display there's a 2-megapixel front-facing camera. On the back, you'll see the 8-megapixel lens and LED flash. The left spine is bare, but up top are the 3.5mm headset jack and power button. Volume control and the physical camera shutter live on the right. My one complaint is that in one review unit, the volume rocker is so flush with the side, you control it more by faith than by feel while on a call. I had to keep lifting the phone from my ear to get the volume just right. Part of the volume rocker stuck out a skosh more in another review unit, so I could adjust volume by feel, but buttons were still extremely low-profile.

The charging action happens from the Micro-USB port on the bottom. Because it's a unibody device, you'll need to use a small "pin" tool to open the 8X's SIM tray, and the embedded battery isn't removable.

OS and apps
HTC is flying the Windows Phone 8 flag so enthusiastically, it even added Microsoft's OS to its smartphone's name. The OS update brings so many new features, we had to give it its ownWindows Phone 8 review.

Microsoft keeps its OS pretty locked in, so there aren't too many variations that a phone-maker like HTC can apply. I do especially like the lock screen option that shows a Windows-ized version of HTC's Android weather widget. HTC also added its own signature shade to the theme colors, and offers up some of its own apps in a special section of the store.

HTC Windows Phone 8X back

Beats Audio pumps up the volume

AT&T's contribution plays out in app preloads. There's AT&T CodeScanner, AT&T FamilyMap, AT&T Navigator, AT&T Radio, and AT&T U-Verse Live TV. In addition to the usual app fare -- like the calculator, camera, Office 2013 suite, and Wallet -- there's also HTC's flashlight, a converter (for temperature, currency, time zones, and more), and a photo enhancer.

Beats Audio is HTC's premier offering, adding enhanced audio that you can turn on or off when you plug in your headphones. I have some pretty nice headphones that make most songs sound good, but the boost was immediate and the difference pretty apparent. For starters, Beats piled on several decibels, so that songs sounded loud on a level-3 volume setting out of 30. Audio also seemed to sound richer with Beats, even after I increased the volume of the conventional mode.

Eight is clearly a lucky number for HTC. Guess how many devices its hot spot supports. Yep, eight.

Cameras
When it's good, the Windows Phone 8X's backside illuminated camera is very good, hitting the sweet spot in detail, color accuracy, and sharp edges. Other times it completely misses the mark, producing images that seem soft for no apparent reason. Did I make sure I focused? Yes. Did I hold still until the photo snapped? Yes again. You always figure that a smartphone camera will make some mistakes here and there, but the more consistent the good images, the better.

HTC Windows Phone camera settings.

The HTC Windows Phone 8X's camera defaults to 6 megapixels, even though it takes up to 8

I'm still trying to figure out where the 8X falls. There's no doubt that some outdoor pictures are sharp enough to slap on a mug and send to your mother for her birthday. Other photos, especially those taken indoors in artificial lighting, make you wonder what HTC is playing at. Of course, lighting is everything, and continuous focus might help eliminate user error where touch-focus leaves more gaps for mistakes.

The 8X does justice to this photo of a Keith Haring statue on a sunny day

One thing I'll mention is that although the 8X has an 8-megapixel camera, it defaults to 6 megapixels. That's a bit confusing if you're trying to get the highest-resolution image possible, but a lot of people won't find that they need 8 megapixels of information, especially if they're just sending a friend an e-mail or uploading to Facebook to share a laugh or event. Most photos these days aren't long-term investments you want to keep for posterity.

Also taken outside in full sunlight, the 8X choked on these flowers

So what can it do? There are four special effects (like sepia and grayscale); resolution options that span 8 megapixels to a VGA resolution; and white-balance presets. You can set exposure, saturation, contrast, and sharpness (my photos stayed on the middle "normal" default, but there are also two higher settings). You can also control ISO settings. There aren't a lot of effects like funny faces or anything, but in the future, you'll be able to use Windows Phone 8's third-party lenses to jazz up some of your scenes.

I didn't have terrific luck with the 8X's 2-megapixel front-facing camera, but then again, most front-facing cameras aren't designed to take your next glamor shot. Photos were OK and color balance was fine on faces, but I got a lot of discoloration and noise in the bottom third of my self-portrait.

Don't these tiny cupcakes look good? The artificial lighting didn't help the 8X's rendering here.

The 8X takes nice 1080p HD video at a frame rate of 30 frames per second. Volume was predictably higher on me than on my subjects, but video looked smooth and crisp when I held the camera still. When moving it, there was some blur while it grabbed onto a focus point, just like other similar cameras. Colors were about right, but the camera did continually adjust from yellow indoor lighting to cooler, bluer outdoor lighting as I walked from the interior of the office to the window.

Like the camera, videos get a range of effects, resolution, and white-balance options, plus adjustments for contrast, saturation, and sharpness. I shot on the default mode, "normal," but you can also go higher or lower.

 

The Windows Phone 8X has 16GB of internal storage, and 7GB of free Microsoft Skydrive storage.

Performance
4G LTE was alive and well on the Windows Phone 8X, generally reaching the high teens for download speeds in San Francisco, with upload speeds in the lower digits. I tested on two apps: Free Speed Test and MySpeed Test. Unfortunately, the latter app seemed to swap uplink and downlink speeds, but the numbers are correct even if the presentation isn't.

Battery life was strong on the 8X's 1,800mAh lithium ion slab, and tests will continue here in the CNET labs. The 8X has 1GB RAM system memory. Its digital SAR measures 0.78 watt per kilogram.

Call quality
I tested the Windows Phone 8X in San Francisco using AT&T's network (GSM 850/900/1800/1900 MHz; LTE 1700/2100). Call quality was very good. Volume was nice and high at a medium level, with no noise or interruptions. My caller's voice sounded warm, rich, and fairly natural. There was a little flaw when he spoke, making him sound slightly lispy and thick, but we were able to talk for a long time without the device getting in the way.

On his end, my testing partner called the phone very premium, from a calling perspective (he didn't know which one I was using until the end). When analyzing the call, he said I sounded slightly unnatural, but loud, clear, noise-free, and excellent.

HTC Windows Phone 8X call quality sample Listen now:

I tested the speakerphone by holding the phone at waist level. On my end, volume immediately dropped, and my test partner sounded slightly more distant. There was a little defect in voice quality that didn't sound like it had before, and there was a little natural echo. Overall, though, I thought it was a serviceable speakerphone experience, especially since there wasn't background noise, distortion, or strong echo.

My test partner also noted the normal amounts of echo, but deemed volume levels good and voices piping in clear.

How does it compare with the Nokia Lumia 920?
I'm still testing the Nokia Lumia 920, the HTC Windows Phone 8X's biggest Windows Phone competition, at least if you're on AT&T. While I'll have an updated point-by-point comparisoncoming soon, I can point out a few differences now.

HTC Windows Phone 8X (blue) versus Nokia Lumia 920.

The HTC Windows Phone 8X (blue) is thinner and much lighter than the Nokia Lumia 920.

First, the 8X is more contoured and lighter than the Lumia 920; the latter is quite heavy and a solid brick of a phone, and the 8X is easier to pick up and pocket. Yet the Lumia 920 has the advantage of wireless charging from the get-go. There are rumors that Verizon's version of the 8X will get it, too, but if the capability is built into the unibody phone, HTC hasn't turned it on yet.

The Lumia 920's screen is very slightly larger, and its higher-resolution camera has image stabilization (a full camera test is forthcoming). It also has double the storage capacity -- 32GB versus the 8X's 16GB -- and there are custom apps like Nokia Music, Nokia City Lens (augmented reality), and Nokia Maps.

If AT&T is out of the question, the choice is easy since the 8X is coming to Verizon and T-Mobile as well. For AT&T customers, the decision could come down to size and weight, since the phone's designs are so different and since many other specs are so similar: LTE, 8-megapixel camera, identical processor, and large, HD screen.

Should you buy it?

The HTC Windows Phone 8X's sexy hardware makes Microsoft's OS look extra cool, and its three-carrier attack will push it into the spotlight. HTC has carefully crafted the 8X's hardware, giving it an immersive screen, a fast processor, and a fair amount of internal storage. The variable camera could be another decision point between the 8X and, say, the iPhone 5's camera; however, I was very pleased with the 8X's best shots.

Ultimately, the phone can only be as strong as its OS, and as a result, you have to live with Windows Phone 8 OS itself. The OS looks sharp and is fun to use, but its continued lack of some crucial apps at launch will hold it back for some people. Rest assured that those will come, especially as more people use Windows Phone. But if the thought of not having an official Reddit app, or CNET app for that matter, makes you cringe, then the 8X absorbs that demerit.

I happen to like Windows Phone, and find that the available apps and Internet mostly let me do what I want. I enjoy the easy transition to Microsoft Office documents, the OS' look and feel, and the new NFC features. I also happen to really like the 8X's smooth lines, manageable footprint, and bright colors. I do wish the camera had been a little more consistent in my tests, but taken altogether, I wouldn't hesitate to buy this phone.

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