What's in a name? For HTC, a moniker like Windows Phone 8X shows that the company very much wants the world to think of its device as the flagship product for Microsoft's new OS. Offering a very sleek and colorful design, Beats Audio and a camera that can capture more of your friends at once, the 8X ($99 for 8GB, $199 for 16GB) is gunning to be the Windows Phone of the season. Find out if this device has what it takes to not only tear you away from Android and the iPhone, but also beat the feature-packed Lumia 920.
Taking inspiration from the colorful home screen of Microsoft's new smartphone operating system, the HTC Windows Phone 8X strongly resembles a stretched oucoolt tile. We love how the blue soft-touch rear panel gently surrounds the 4.3-inch black display. You can also order the 8X in a bolder Limelight yellow.
On the front, a 2.1-megapixel camera sits in the top right corner, next to a blue speaker bar, which stands out on the glossy obsidian surface. Capacitive buttons (Back, Start and Search) are located along the bottom.
Instead of tagging the front of the device with excessive labeling, HTC places all insignias (HTC, Beats and AT&T) on the rear panel, a nice touch. Here also is an 8-MP camera, flash and a speaker.
Along the top edge of the 8X are a power button and headphone jack. A volume rocker and dedicated camera button are located on the right, along with a pullout tray for the SIM card. The microUSB slot is tucked away at the bottom of the handset.
The 8X's slim 5.21 x 2.6 x 0.39-inch frame slid easily into our pants pocket. It's also fairly light at 4.6 ounces. By comparison, the 6.5-ounce Nokia Lumia 920 is on the chunky side, wider and thicker at 5.1 x 2.8 x 0.42-inches. To be fair, the Lumia 920 has a slightly bigger display and a PureView camera that takes up more internal real estate.
The 4.3-inch Super LCD 2 display on the HTC 8X has a resolution of 1280 x 720 (341 ppi), which made maps, images and Web pages look great. A high-quality video of "The Hobbit" streamed from YouTube showed deep blacks and bright, vivid colors. Also, viewing angles were excellent. We could tilt the phone at extreme angles and still see the dwarves on-screen.
The 8X's 300 lux brightness was a hair shy of the 301 lux average. The Nokia 920 was only slightly brighter, at 310 lux. When we viewed the "Skyfall" trailer on the 8X and Lumia 920 side by side, the Lumia 920's screen offered better contrast and deeper black levels.
Considering that HTC owns Beats Audio, it's only natural that this technology is included in the 8X. Beats is only activated when headphones are connected to the phone. Unlike Beats headphones, this app boosts both mid- and lower tones, but evenly, for a richer sound. When we listened to "Body and Soul" on our Monster DiamondTears headphones, Anita Baker's sultry vocals smoldered. The piano and bass were full-bodied and warm like a well-aged Bordeaux.
Pressing the physical volume controls displays a little drop-down window that lets you advance, rewind or pause tracks. At its largest, the Music + Video Live Tile shows a picture of the artist, as well as his or her name scrolling horizontally and vertically. It would be a better use of this tile if you could actually control tracks.
The rear-facing speaker on the 8X kicked out somewhat loud, but tinny sound. It was good for making phone calls via speakerphone, but you wouldn't want to use it to listen to music for extended periods.
Windows Phone 8
People who aren't too keen on Android or iOS will want to check out the new Windows Phone 8 OS. Live Tiles are the keystone on which the operating system rests. We're big fans of the visually appealing, customizable tiles. The resizable, sometimes animated tiles are a welcome improvement over the static presentations of both iOS and Android.
There are lots of tiles users can pin to their Start screen, including people, apps, websites, photo albums, music albums, notes, directions and more. Live Tiles can now be resized to one of three sizes. Just long-press to make a tile smaller or as large as rectangle that stretches across the screen.
Where Windows 8's Modern UI is designed for landscape navigation, Windows Phone 8 was designed with one-handed, portrait-mode use in mind. The main screens, as well as some Microsoft apps (People, Music + Videos, and Games, to name a few) only work in portrait mode. Fortunately, others that potentially involve a lot of typing (such as email and messaging) can rotate to landscape mode.
As attractive as Windows Phone 8 is, it could be easier to use. For instance, you need to press the top of the screen to see your battery life and signal strength. And while it's easy to switch apps, it takes more steps than we'd like to close them.
People Hub: Groups and Rooms
The People hub aggregates your various contacts from Email, Facebook, LinkedIn, Skype and Twitter. Of course, if you're connected to all those networks, that can mean a lot of new information all at once. Two features, Groups and Rooms, let you contextualize and sort all this data. As its name suggests, Groups let you group selected contacts (say, Family or Favorites); opening that group then shows only updates and photos from those individuals.
Similar to the workgroups in Microsoft Office, Rooms lets you set up a virtual network with selected contacts to privately share photos, calendars and send messages. Inviting someone to a room was as easy as selecting them from our contacts list. From there, sharing photos, notes and sending messages was a simple matter. We can see this being a very helpful tool for both families and employees alike. We'd like to see Rooms migrate to Windows 8 as well.
As mentioned, if you link all of these social networks, your Contact List can quickly become epic in length. Fortunately, you can choose which contacts to display.
Have some content that you'd rather the kids not see? Windows Phone now sports a kid-proofing feature called Kid's Corner. Once activated in the Settings menu, adults can choose which videos, music and images are child-friendly. This content is accessed by flicking the lockscreen to the left. The rest of the content is locked by a password chosen by the user.
Although there are third-party apps for Android phone that go further than Kid's Corner, Windows Phone 8 does more for parents out of the box than Google or Apple.
The Windows Phone Store features more than 120,000 apps and continues to grow. We were able to find popular third-party apps such as CNN, Netflix, IMDb and Evernote. However, Windows Phone has a long way to go before its apps store can compete with the massive catalogs of Android and iOS.
AT&T also makes its presence felt with its usual cast of carrierware. The HTC Windows Phone 8X comes preinstalled with AT&T FamilyMap, Code Scanner, Navigator, Radio, U-verse Live TV and myAT&T. Thankfully, you can remove these apps.
HTC offers an HTC app store and an HTC-branded hub with weather, stock and news updates from CNN and Yahoo. There's also Photo Enhancer, a photo filter app reminiscent of Instagram, and Converter, which can convert most common forms of measurement.
Although the 8X has its own Maps app, we prefer Nokia Maps, which offered more details and has separate views for satellite, public transit and traffic routes. We also liked the clean presentation of Nokia's Drive app that provided easy to follow turn-by-turn navigation. (Nokia Drive is slated to become available to all Windows Phones, but there's no ETA.)
Third-party apps include YouTube and YPmobile.
Word Flow Keyboard
The on-screen keyboard on the 8X looks much the same as on previous versions of Microsoft's mobile OS. In portrait mode, the small rectangular keys were relatively easy to type on, as were their squarish landscape-mode counterparts. A new addition is the keyboard's predictive feature, which helped correct our spelling as we typed. We wish there was an option for haptic feedback, especially considering the three buttons below the screen gently buzz when pressed.
The HTC Windows Phone 8X has a NFC chip, which let us share photos, websites, contacts and other content by touching the phone to another NFC-enabled device. Tap & Share -- the name HTC gives to this feature -- can also be used to pair the phone to other devices.
The process has a few more steps than we would like. In order to share a photo, you have to open it, press the three dots on the screen to access settings and select Tap+Send from the Share menu options. With Android devices, it's much simpler; simply tap on the image while the two devices are touching.
The HTC Windows Phone 8X's 1.5-GHz dual-core Qualcomm S4 CPU and 1GB of RAM delivered zippy app launches and tile navigation. On the Benchmark Free app, the 8X notched the top score of 7.9 on every test. That adds up to a cumulative score of 47.4, tying the Nokia Lumia 920, which also has a 1.5-GHz dual-core Qualcomm S4 CPU.
We also ran the WPBench app, which measures CPU, data and GPU performance. The 8X scored 233.97, compared with 226.75 for the Lumia 920.
With the screens on the Lumia 920 and the HTC 8X turned off, we pressed the camera button on both simultaneously. Both sprung to life in the same amount of time, about 2 seconds. They were also equally responsive when opening the People app.
Web Browsing and 4G LTE
AT&T continues to deliver fast speeds over its 4G LTE network. On Speedtest.net, we saw an average download speed of 13.7 Mbps and upload speeds of 6.9 Mbps. When we started browsing the Web, the mobile versions of NYTimes.com, CNN.com and ESPN.com loaded in 2.3, 3.1 and 4.4 seconds. The desktop version of Laptopmag.com loaded in a snappy 7.8 seconds.
The new Skype app for Windows Phone 8 has all the video chatting and instant messaging you've come to expect, but now it's integrated with Microsoft's new OS. The app remains on in the background -- even when the phone is locked -- so that WP8 owners can potentially use Skype as their primary means of making voice calls. Of course, it remains to be seen if individual carriers will allow this functionality. Additionally, Skype contacts added all of our contacts to the People hub.
Over AT&T's LTE network, there was a noticeable amount of pixelation on both ends of our video chat. However, audio was crisp. In landscape mode, the 8X's wide-angle lens allowed us to fit an additional person in the shot. However, it did not rotate the image in our caller's feed.
The 8X's rear-facing 8-MP camera impressed at almost every turn. In side-by-side shots with the Lumia 920, we saw sharper details with colors that popped off the display. A photo we took of three fall bouquets had richer yellows, reds and oranges on the 8X. However, we did notice that the Lumia delivered warmer tones.
Still, the Lumia is the hands-down winner in low-light settings. It was literally night and day, as we could barely make out our toys in the 8X shot. The 920 took advantage of what little light there was, allowing for a colorful, albeit somewhat fuzzy image.
Thanks to HTC's dedicated ImageChip, the 8X's camera snapped photos in less than a second after pressing the shutter. After you take a shot, we could share it with others via messaging, our various email accounts, Facebook, OneNote, SkyDrive or Twitter. Editing options on the phone let us perform a quick fix, crop or rotate. If you want to make heavier adjustments, an Apps link let us easily open the photo in the photo-editing programs installed on the phone.
Within the photo app, pressing the icon that has two arrows facing in opposite directions lets you access Lenses, a fun feature that adds various filters to the camera. (Think Instagram, but there's a lot more potential as developers catch on.) Some lenses--such as CamWow--are frivolous, adding fun-house effects and such, but others such as CNN iReport let you upload video straight to CNN.
You can activate the camera from the lock screen merely by holding the shutter button for two seconds. You can also take photos without unlocking the phone, but doing so only gives you the ability to view (and delete) the photos you just took.
The front-facing 2.1-MP camera also took fairly good shots. While images captured in a slightly dim room were on the grainy side, colors were generally accurate. We liked the 88-degree wide-angle lens on the front, which is optimized for taking self-portraits. We could more easily fit more people in the frame than on the iPhone 5.
Battery Life and Call Quality
To test the HTC 8X's battery life, we used the Peacekeeper battery test from Futuremark on medium brightness, as Windows Phone does not support our Web surfing rundown test. (Peacekeeper's test does run in the browser.) On this test, the 8X lasted 4 hours and 4 minutes, which is behind both the 8X for T-Mobile (4:43) and the Nokia Lumia 810 for that carrier (5:13). The 8X for AT&T likely had a shorter runtime because its 4G LTE radio uses more power than the HSPA+ chip inside the T-Mobile Windows Phones.
Test calls made to relatives in New Jersey and North Carolina came through loud and clear on both ends. There was no static or echoing when we switched over to speakerphone.
The HTC Windows Phone 8X is sturdy, sexy and svelte, and, like Microsoft's OS itself, clearly differentiated from Android and iOS devices. We especially like the 8X's fast back camera and wide-angle front camera. This handset's biggest limitations are the comparatively small size of the Windows Store and its relatively short battery life.
If you don't mind its extra bulk, the $99 Nokia Lumia 920 for AT&T is our top Windows Phone pick. It offers a superior 4.5-inch screen and exclusive goodies like wireless charging and Nokia Music and Nokia Drive. You also get 32GB of storage for $99, versus 8GB for the $99 8X. You'll need to step up to $199 to get 16GB. But if you want to travel lighter, the slim and light HTC Windows Phone 8X is a very good choice.