The HTC 8X is the first phone to land in our hands running the brand-spanking new version of Microsoft's mobile operating system, Windows Phone 8. The new software brings support for higher screen resolutions and burlier processors to the colourful live tiles of its predecessor. But with an extremely limited app store, does it have what it takes to tackle Apple's iOS and Google's Android?
The 8X -- also known as the Windows Phone 8X by HTC -- boasts a 4.3-inch 720p display, a slim and sleek design and a 1.5GHz dual-core processor. It's available from November from £400 SIM-free.
Should I buy the HTC 8X?
The main reason to be excited about the HTC 8X isn't in the phone itself, but what lies inside it. It's the first phone we've seen running the latest version of Microsoft's mobile operating system, Windows Phone 8.
Like Windows Phone 7 before it, it's fun and easy to use and offers a bunch of neat features. Its main drawback, however, is its distinct lack of apps. While there are a few gems like Netflix and WhatsApp, there's nothing like the catalogue available on iOS and Android. If you're a serial app addict, Windows Phone 8 won't satisfy you.
The phone itself is rather sharp though. Its 4.3-inch, 720p screen is extremely bright and colourful. The 1.5GHz dual-core processor pumps out enough juice to make swiping around the tiles a nippy experience. Design-wise, the 8X's minimal aesthetic is likely to appeal to the more fashion conscious among you.
While Windows Phone 8 offers an attractive interface, it doesn't seem to do a whole lot to tempt users away from Android or iOS. The People app is certainly handy and there's a whole plethora of cool little tweaks to enjoy, but the barren app store isn't going to satisfy real smart phone lovers.
If simple software and a truckload of apps are your thing, you can pick up the iPhone 4 from £319. If you want the customisability of Android and a similarly well-stocked app store then Samsung's Galaxy S2 is a wise choice at £305 SIM-free. The 8X doesn't do much to put itself above either of these and with a higher asking price, it isn't a wise choice unless you have your heart set on buying a Windows Phone.
Design and build quality
HTC normally doesn't stray too far from its familiar design -- many of its Android devices look pretty similar. Thankfully, it's put more effort in creating something eye catching this time out.
It's still clearly from the same minds that built the beefy One X, but it borrows design tips from Nokia's Lumia range. The back panel is a matte, rounded plastic affair with gently curving corners. You'll be able to spot the HTC logo as well the the Beats 'b' at the bottom.
The front is dominated by a single piece of glass, which curves at the edges to meet the plastic casing. It's a very minimal, monolithic look, but I think it's extremely stylish. If elegant, linear lines are your thing you'll probably appreciate the 8X's look. My review model came in black, but we've previously seen it in purple which I found rather appealing -- it certainly stands out from the crowd.
The rounded design makes it extremely comfortable to hold in one hand, helped as well by its slender 9mm thickness. It's only 132mm long and 66mm wide too, making it very pocket-friendly. At 128g, it's weightier than Apple's new iPhone 5, but it's far from what you'd call heavy and at no point did I feel weighed down by it.
Around the edges you'll find a power button, camera shutter button and volume rocker, all of which I found to be easy to press, without feeling loose and plasticky. There's a 3.5mm headphone jack on the top and a micro USB port on the bottom for charging and data transfer.
You get 16GB of built-in storage, which you'll want to use carefully as there's no ability to expand the storage with a microSD card. One of the updates to Windows Phone 8 was the ability to use external storage, so it's something of a disappointment that HTC hasn't included this here. You'll need to rely on cloud-based storage for your photos and videos and use streaming services such as Netflix for movies, rather than store them locally.
The 8X's screen measures 4.3 inches on the diagonal, putting it near Samsung's Galaxy S2 in terms of screen space. It's not up there with huge beasts such as the Galaxy S3 or the whopping 5.5 inches of the Galaxy Note 2, so if you're a serial media hog, it might not be the mobile for you, but it's a good compromise between screen size and portability.
The older Windows Phone 7 software only supported screen resolutions up to 480x800 pixels, but thankfully this has been altered for Windows Phone 8. It's now capable of supporting high-definition displays, meaning the 8X is able to offer a 720p screen. Its improved resolution is immediately noticeable over the Nokia Lumia 800, with small text appearing sharper and edging on the bright squares of the Windows Phone 8 homescreen appearing much more highly defined.
The auto-brightness of the screen tended to err on the dim side slightly, but turn it off and you can ramp the brightness to a retina-searing level. I found it to be easily bright enough to use under harsh office lighting without trouble and held up very well under direct sunlight during a rare outbreak of sunshine here in autumnal London.
Colours are handled very well, making the bright homescreen tiles look extremely rich. I loaded up some high-resolution photos and videos, all of which looked great on the display. It might not be physically big enough to be your dedicated movie player, but it's certainly good enough for watching a few episodes of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers on Netflix when your train journey drags on.
Windows Phone 8 software
Windows Phone 8 replaces the older Windows Phone 7 -- which Microsoft rather unceremoniously declared that it will be ditching completely -- but brings various upgrades to the table.
In terms of outward design, there's not much that's immediately different. It's based around a homescreen full of colourful tiles that display live information such as emails or text messages. In Windows Phone 8, you're able to resize these tiles -- from dominating a whole line to taking up a small square -- letting you fit four tiles where you'd previously only be able to fit one.
Apps you don't want pinned to the front are displayed in a list when you swipe to the left. This isn't quite as elegant as the grids of apps you see on Android or iOS, as you have to scroll down a continuous line. When you install more than 45 apps the list will be separated by letter. Tapping the letter brings up all letters, letting you quickly jump to the 'T' section, for example. This method does require you to remember the names of all your apps, however. If they're not obviously titled like Twitter or Camera, you might struggle.
The design of the OS is very neat and visually quite appealing. It's easy to see it as a combination of the simplicity of iOS's interface merged with the live widget functionality of Android. It's easy to learn the tricks and swipes needed to get full use from it.
Navigation comes courtesy of three touch-sensitive buttons beneath the screen. A back arrow returns you to the previous screen, a Windows icon takes you to your homescreen and a magnifying glass icon brings up Bing search. In most apps you'll see various icons at the bottom to interact with the app. If you're not sure what they do, pressing the three dots to the right will reveal more information and other tasks you can perform.
Multi-tasking has been greatly improved in version 8. Pressing and holding on the back key will bring up thumbnails of your recent apps. Apps are paused when you leave them, so they won't need to boot from scratch when you venture back and some apps -- such as the music player or navigation tools -- can continue to run in the background.
Voice interaction has been built in too. Press and hold the home button and you can then speak commands: "Text Luke Westaway." I found it was able to understand me and find the right contact nearly every time. You can then dictate a message and say "send" to send it on its way. It's pretty good at recognising sentence structure, although its grammar wasn't always perfect and didn't capitalise the 'I' in 'I'm'.
Say "Note" before you begin speaking and you can dictate a note that will be automatically pasted into the One Note app. It's a very handy way of saving a quick memo or reminder to yourself without having to open individual apps and type it out on the keyboard.
Annoyingly, although it was able to hear my words well, it automatically starred out any bad language, and there didn't seem to be a way to turn that off. I don't really like Microsoft attempting to teach me a lesson about naughty words -- my mum does a pretty good job of that already.
You can also use it to open apps -- "Open Netflix" worked perfectly -- and search for businesses. I asked, "Where is the nearest pub?" which it sadly wasn't able to understand, instead bringing up a Bing search for the thirsty request. Saying "pubs", however, showed web results and a list of local pubs, handily highlighted on a map. By contrast, Google Now on the Nexus 7 was able to show me exactly where my nearest pub was and walking directions on how to get there.
Email and calendars are quick and easy to set up. Head into the accounts section and click your email client of choice to add that account. You can then select if you want to sync any connected contacts and calendars. I work primarily in Google apps so this was extremely helpful for me. After a couple of minutes my phone had access to all my email accounts and associated calendars. You can go into your calendar's settings to make it show events from only certain sources -- uncheck Facebook if you don't want all your friends' birthdays on show.
Typing on the screen is a hit and miss affair. The keyboard is very similar to the one you'd find on the iPhone. You only see letters normally, so you need to hit a button to reveal numbers and punctuation marks. It has predictive abilities and is able to suggest words as you're typing. While I found the words it suggested were accurate, there was a delay in suggesting them, so my typing the word was quicker than pausing to see the options, more often than not.
It's clever though, and can learn sentences you use most often, meaning you only need to type a couple of words for it suggest the next words in the chain. It'll also learn made-up words -- I found a few uses of "amazeballs" was enough to bring the word up as a suggestion when I started typing "ama" the next time. It's very similar to Android's SwiftType, but I find SwiftType is able to offer suggestions faster and is much more accurate with correcting my spelling.
Unlike Android, you aren't able to download different keyboards to use in its place. If you take your time over what you're trying to write it's perfectly usable but if, like me, you tend to bash out speedy sentences in a hurry and hit send without checking them over, expect to receive some harsh words in return about your erratic spelling and feeble grammar.
A nifty feature new for Windows Phone 8 is Kid's Corner. This app allows you to create a duplicate of your homescreen, but showing different apps, music and videos. The idea behind it is you can select child-friendly apps and music provided by that
terrifying adorable purple dinosaur.
When Kid's Corner loads, you -- or, more specifically your hyperactive 5-year-old -- will only be able to see and access the apps you've chosen. They won't be able to make calls, access the store or alter any settings without typing in your PIN.
If your children need something to keep them entertained while you're browsing fabric swatches in DFS, Kid's Corner might come in handy. Although a yo-yo is cheaper.
Maps and navigation
The maps information for Windows Phone 8 is provided by Microsoft's best bud Nokia, regardless of whether you're using a Nokia phone or not. Nokia's maps provide a wealth of information about local businesses, streets and live traffic, so it's great to see it built into all Windows Phone 8 handsets as standard.
You can view maps in either a standard map view or a satellite view. It's able to provide detailed driving instructions between two points, although the map app isn't able to give live, turn-by-turn directions. The Nokia Drive app, which provides that functionality, will apparently be available on all Windows Phones, but at the time of writing it wasn't in the store.
Local information is easily found too. Press the 'scout' button at the bottom and it will bring up details about local bars and restaurants -- together with contact details -- as well as local places of interest and shops. While I found it was able to provide a rough guide to the area with at least enough information to keep you happy for a weekend, it's not a complete list and some nearby shops and restaurants that I'm rather keen on didn't show up.
Oddly, the satellite views provided on the phone are older views than you'd see on Bing's desktop maps. I first noticed when I looked at the map of the CNET UK offices. On the desktop version, a terrifyingly huge Virgin Atlantic jumbo jet appears to be ploughing into our building, whereas on the phone, this plane is yet to arrive. Similarly, buildings nearby are still in construction on the phone but are finished on the desktop version. Although the information seems up to date, the aerial pictures aren't as current.
Google's maps, found on Android devices, certainly have more local information and using Google Now for nearby businesses is extremely easy. Between the two, Google offers more features. Windows Phone 8's offering is leaps and bounds above Apple's new maps software, which has deservedly taken a lot of heat for being rubbish.
The People hub on Windows Phone 8 aims to pull together all your friends' information and updates across all social networks into one easy to navigate place. By linking your email, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts, you can see everything you need to know about your friends from one spot, rather than jumping in and out of various apps.
When you load the app, you'll be shown your own Facebook profile picture, along with your most recent update. Below is a list of all contacts from all linked accounts for you to scroll through or -- more easily -- type in a search. Swipe to the right and you'll see recent updates from your friends' various accounts.
Tap on a contact and you'll be able to contact them by any of the channels you have linked -- you can send a tweet, an email, a Facebook post, a text or call them straight from the app. Swipe to the left and you can see their recent posts, as well as look at their Facebook photos. While this might seem an easy way for an obsessive ex to keep up to date on everything you're saying and doing, I really found it easy to use and was certainly quicker than using separate apps to contact friends.
If you have a contacts list bursting with friends and colleagues -- which I'm sure you do -- you'll want to check out the Groups tool. It lets you add contacts to named groups, allowing you to easily share information to the people held inside. I put all my happy colleagues into a group entitled 'CNET', logically enough. When I come to share a photo, send a text or an email, I can simply click the group and send the same thing simultaneously to everyone in the group at once.
You're also able to pin contacts -- and groups you've made -- to your homescreen to instantly access them without having to search through the list every time.
It's not just about your friends though, sometimes you need a bit of time to yourself, right? The me app connects with the same networks you've linked in the People app, letting you see notifications -- Facebook tags, Twitter mentions and so on -- in one place. You can also see all of your updates you've posted to your social channels, if you're narcissistic enough to want to re-read everything you've been posting.
More handy is the ability to post updates straight from the app. You can select all your linked channels, or just one if you don't want your Facebook friends to see the same gold as your Twitter followers receive. You're able to check in to locations too, although there's annoyingly no way to post photos from the app.
One of the big problems with Windows Phone 7 was its distinct lack of apps in its store. Sadly, this problem hasn't gone away in Windows Phone 8. Open the app store and browse through any of the categories and you'll notice big-name apps are few and far between -- and those that are there are hidden among a deluge of clutter.
There's a few gems of course -- Netflix is brilliant and Whats App is as handy here as it is on iOS and Android -- but there's not a lot else. Oddly, both Skype and Spotify are missing from the store, both of which are essentials on any phone hoping to take up long-term residence in my pocket. The Skype app is currently being finished off and will offer the same stripped-back, simple interface and background running as the desktop Windows 8 version.
I'm sincerely hoping that Spotify has also been removed from the app store as an update is on the way. Both Skype and Spotify are still available in the store when accessed on a Windows Phone 7 device. While WP7 devices aren't able to use apps for WP8, WP8 is able to use older apps, so it's weird these apps aren't available.
Games are also pretty scarce too. Angry Birds is available, as is Fruit Ninja, and at 79p each, there's not much price difference from their iOS counterparts. Sadly though, there's not a whole lot else. If you love getting to grips with the latest mobile games such as Real Racing 2, Windows Phone 8 isn't going to suit you.
But all is not lost. Windows Phone 8 apps share a similar foundation as apps designed for Windows 8 on desktops. Theoretically, this would make it a very simple job to bring Windows 8 apps to the phones. Although there aren't many apps in the Windows 8 Marketplace either, the operating system will soon be on all new computers, meaning developers will have a reason to bring their apps to the platform and, hopefully, to the phone as well.
For now though, the store is extremely limited and if you're an app addict you'd be better suited to Android or iOS.
Bundled with Windows Phone 8 are the mobile version of Microsoft's Office app and One Note. One Note is a simple note-taking app that syncs across all your Windows 8 devices -- think Evernote but made by Microsoft for Windows 8.
The Office app is arguably more for viewing documents than creating them. You can create Word or Excel documents, but your options for formatting are very restricted. Of course, typing out long documents is better left to proper keyboards on laptops than on phones. You can view documents sent to you though, including viewing PowerPoint presentations.
While having Office bundled on a phone might not be the sort of thing you'd brag about to your mates at the pub, it's handy for creating quick documents and checking over your files on the way to a meeting.
Power and performance
Unlike Windows Phone 7 before it, Windows Phone 8 is able to take advantage of multi-core processors. You'll therefore find a 1.5GHz dual-core chip slumbering inside the rounded shell. That's a modest improvement over offerings from last season's devices and it might seem a shame not to see a quad-core offering -- especially as Windows Phone 8 can cope with up to 64 cores.
Quad-core phones don't necessarily offer any better performance, however, as apps need to be written specifically to take advantage of the extra cores. Even on Android -- which has numerous quad-core beasts to its name -- there aren't many apps that can take full advantage. A nippy dual-core processor is able to offer a decent amount of juice without putting too much strain on your battery.
Indeed, I found the 8X had plenty of grunt, making swiping through the handsome tiles responsive and free of any visible lag. Opening menus was similarly nippy and using the multi-tasking tool to switch between running apps was satisfyingly immediate. It was also easily able to handle streaming high-definition video from Netflix. At no point did I feel the phone was struggling.
It's unlikely to be able to tackle the same demanding apps and 3D games with the same gusto as Samsung's Galaxy S3. The almost complete lack of such apps makes that something of a moot point.
On the back of the 8X you'll find an 8-megapixel camera with LED flash. I took it for a walk along the Thames with an iPhone 5 for comparison.
The results were generally quite pleasing. Image quality was fair and fine details on distant buildings were visible when I viewed the photos full-screen back at the office. The iPhone 5 has the edge in terms of clarity, but the 8X's attempts were still good.
The 8X does, however, offer very different image tones. While the iPhone 5 has a more natural image tone -- albeit sometimes bordering on the cold -- the 8X had a darker, almost purple hue to it. It's not always unpleasant and gives a warmer feel to an autumnal picture. But it isn't an accurate depiction of the scene though -- if I want to add warm tones, I'll do so in post-production.
Unlike the iPhone, however, the 8X offers the ability to tweak some of the settings. Effects such as black and white or sepia are available and you can also change white balance, exposure, contrast, saturation, sharpness and ISO speeds. The camera does a decent job on full auto mode, but it's handy to be able to tweak the settings if you want to be more creative.
It's not as fully featured as HTC's high-end Android phones though. The One X offers numerous shooting modes like burst mode, panorama and HDR -- none of which are available on the 8X. The dearth of apps in the Marketplace will be a problem for photography enthusiasts too. There's a few bits and pieces for editing your snaps, but none of the big names -- such as Instagram or Photoshop -- are yet available.
The camera is also able to shoot 1080p video, which I found to be comparable to the video on most high-end smart phones. It has a front-facing camera too for those vain self-portraits and video calling.
Overall the 8X's camera is generally acceptable and will do fine for your everyday snaps. If you want more shooting modes and access to a wider choice of editing apps, you should look to some of the high-end Android devices or the iPhone. Nokia's 'PureView' camera on the Lumia 920 promises to be something special, but we're yet to test it.
Windows Phone 8 is an attractive and fairly easy to use operating system. The live tiles are enjoyable and the People app is a fantastic way of bringing your social networks together. It doesn't offer much to truly stand out above its Android or iOS competitors, however, and with an app store that pales into insignificance next to its rivals, it's got a struggle on its hands to convince users to switch.
The HTC 8X itself offers a sleek, monolithic design with an excellent screen. It's a marked step up from last year's Windows Phone 7 handsets, but with only a dual-core chip it might not have done enough to tempt spec-hungry gadget-lovers away from quad-core Android phones.