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Review: HTC 8X
Prasad Naik
March 11, 2013
First Published: 16:44 IST(11/3/2013)
Last Updated: 12:06 IST(12/3/2013)

HTC and Microsoft go a long way back when the company used to exclusively make smartphones running Windows Mobile. Naturally, then, when Microsoft released Windows Phone, HTC was onboard with some really neat devices at launch.



Unfortunately for Microsoft, Windows Phone 7 did not turn out to be quite the success the company had hoped it would be. Not to be deterred by the lukewarm response, they continued to iterate upon the product and released Windows Phone 8 last year. Once again, HTC was onboard at launch with two new phones, the 8X and the 8S.

Today we are going to take a look at the 8X, the company's flagship Windows Phone device.

Design

If there is one thing you can always expect from HTC, it is to produce some attractive looking devices. At times, however, the company truly outdoes itself and the 8X is one such example.

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The phone is a real work of art in the way it seamlessly marries beautiful glass that curves at the edges with a matte unibody plastic shell. The back curves gently towards the rounded edges, making it just fit like a glove in your hands. The body is remarkably thin, and the curved edges further accentuate this feeling. It's also quite light, which makes it effortless to hold or carry.

The plastic shell employs a matte finish for all the color options (only blue and black are available in India). Being a unibody design, there are no panels or covers here to open. The microSIM slot is on the side and opens with a tiny tool provided in the box. The battery obviously is non-removable and there is no microSD card slot.

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Going around the body we can see the SIM slot, power buttons and camera shutter keys on the right, power button and headphone jack on top and micro USB port on the bottom.

While the design is certainly beautiful to behold, HTC has royally messed up the ergonomics of the design, once again. The power button is ridiculously difficult to access, no matter how you hold the phone. HTC also likes to place it closer to the front edge of the phone rather than the back, which makes it harder for your index finger to access it when you're holding it.

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The button also has a terrible feedback, where it's hard to tell whether you have pressed it or not. This applies to all the other physical buttons, particularly the volume buttons, which are hopelessly bad. It's almost impossible to tell at times if your finger is on them or not simply by touch and even if it is, it's harder to use them. The camera button is a bit better but still not completely usable.

The microUSB port once again is upside down, true to HTC tradition. Every major company that uses microUSB places the shorter side on top but HTC does it the other way around, so you have to remember to reverse the cable every time you plug it in.

It's these little things that annoy you every time you use the phone and no matter how long you use it (I've been using the phone for well over a month now) you just don't get used to them. Although I appreciate that HTC spends so much time designing these beautiful phones, they shouldn't let form get in the way of function.

Display

The HTC 8X has a 4.3-inch, 1280 x 720 resolution, Super LCD. We have seen some amazing displays from HTC recently, with the One X being a prime example and the 8X is no different. Although considerably smaller than the display on the One X, the 8X display is just as good, with amazing colors, contrast and brightness and sunlight legibility.

Although HTC does not make as big deal out of the 8X's display as Nokia does with the Lumia 920, the two are very close, with the Lumia 920 edging out when it comes to the size and response time. The 8X, however, has a longer display, thanks to the standard 16:9 aspect ratio (compared to 15:9 on the Lumia 920), which means you see more information on the screen at any given time. You also don't see any black bars on the screen while watching widescreen videos.

Overall, I'm very pleased with the display on the 8X. The size could be a bit small for some but the upside to that is that it makes the phone a lot easier to hold and use with a single hand.

Hardware and Software:

The HTC 8X runs on a Qualcomm MSM8960 Snapdragon S4 SoC, with a dual-core 1.5GHz Krait CPU and Adreno 225 GPU. There is 1GB of RAM and 16GB of internal memory with no microSD card slot, even though Windows Phone 8 does support expandable memory now. This wouldn't have been an issue if HTC had provided at least 32GB of internal memory but that's not the case. It's rather laughable that the company's flagship Windows Phone device lets you have only 16GB of memory.

On the software side, the 8X comes with Windows Phone 8 with some of HTC's applications pre-installed. Let's first start with the core OS. Back when Microsoft launched Windows Phone 7 in 2010, it was a woefully incomplete product. But since it was a v1.0 product and brought some fresh new ideas to the table, it was easy to overlook that defect.

Fast forward to 2013, things are now different. If the competition was heating up in 2010, it's glowing white hot right now, which makes overlooking the issues in Windows Phone 8 all the more difficult. Yes, the platform has improved considerably over the past two and a half years but the list of annoyances is yet to go down.

There are several things that can be used as examples to highlight this point. Such as how there is no notification center where you can check all your previous notifications once they exit the screen, how hopelessly useless the Bing Maps application is, particularly in India, how there is no orientation lock for the screen, how there is no way to have different volume levels for ringtones, music player, alarm, headphones, or anything else, how the browser still makes a mess of the fonts, how the search button only opens Bing in every app, how the multitasking view shows multiple instances of the same app, such as settings or the music player, this despite there being a limitation to the number of instances you can display (8), how you can't see notification bar icons all the time or at all in fullscreen apps such as the browser, how there is no VPN support, how you can't hide your SkyDrive or Facebook photos from appearing in the Photos app once you log into your accounts, why the camera software is devoid of any useful settings and features, how you won't even get the option to send files over Bluetooth unless it is enabled in Settings first, how you can't actually manage the files on the memory card even though the support for it has been added in the OS, how there are only three display brightness settings, apart from Auto.

The list goes on and on. Sure, other platforms have their issues as well, but none of them are as severely annoying as they are on Windows Phone. Also, other platforms can get away with the issues because you get access to a ton of great apps that you can use to make up for the loss of functionality in most cases. But with Windows Phone, you can't even do that.

It's been two and a half years and the application situation remains terrible. Big name apps such as Instagram, Dropbox, Google Maps, YouTube, etc. continue to be absent from the Windows Phone Store. The apps that are present are nowhere as good as their counterparts on iOS or Android. The situation with games is similar. The few games that do manage to port over don't run as well as they do on the other two platforms (recent example being Disney's 'Where's My Water?' and 'Where's My Perry?' games that inexplicably stutter on Windows Phone).

HTC doesn't really help to improve the situation, either. Unlike Nokia that at least provides some genuinely useful apps with their Nokia phones, HTC is content with providing second-grade converter, flashlight weather apps. I say second-grade because the UI of these apps is laughably bad and completely out of touch with the rest of the Windows Phone UI.

Add all of this and the software on the 8X leaves a bad taste in the mouth. I still love a lot of things about Windows Phone, such as the wonderful UI design, the smooth animations and the integrated social networking features but in the end these are not enough to make you want to use the platform on a daily basis, especially with what the competition is offering for the same amount of money.

Performance

Being a Windows Phone, there is one thing you can expect from the 8X is super smooth performance. The UI glides through in most cases at a very high frame rate and you can actually use the term butter smooth here unlike on Android where it has to be used very lightly, even in the newer versions. The web browser, for example, despite its flaws, manages to load even heavy pages quickly and scrolls smoother than most desktop browsers I've used. This trend continues in pretty much every app.

Moving on to the multimedia performance, HTC made a big deal of the Beats Audio on the 8X, mostly because it was their first phone to have a dedicated audio amplifier built-in. The Beats Audio feature is tied to the amplifier and the latter only seems to kick in when the former is enabled.

With Beats Audio disabled, the audio output of the 8X seems on par with most smartphones out there. Enable it, however, and the volume level gets a solid kick in the rear, which is consistent regardless of the volume level. That is, to say, the increase in volume doesn't reduce at higher volume levels.

If it was just the boost in volume levels, it would have been fine, but Beats Audio also alters the sound signature, which is something I have a problem with. The equalizer setting gets altered to boost the bass and treble and drops the mid-range, forming a v-curve (if the phone actually let you see the equalizer levels). Some may be fine with this but I personally prefer the sound to be as unaltered and true to the original as possible, so the only option is to leave the Beats Audio option off and never use that much advertised amplifier at all.

The loudspeaker on the 8X is very good. It's loud and has good audio quality. HTC claims that the loudspeaker is also powered by an amplifier and in this case you don't need to enable Beats Audio to take advantage of it (rather you can't because it only works with the headphones).

The music and video playback on Windows Phone 8 remains as underwhelming as before. The music player does not support FLAC or gapless playback and the video player only plays back MP4 files, with other formats requiring conversion before playback. There is also no subtitle support or any other kind of feature other than simple playback.

Camera

The HTC 8X has an 8 megapixel camera on the back with LED flash and 1080p video recording, the last bit being an improvement over the 720p video on previous Windows Phone 7.x devices.

The camera module on the 8X seems to be identical to the One X, which isn't the greatest thing in the world. I have expressed my disappointment with the camera on the One X in the past, which often tends to produce over-sharpened images with smudged details and that carries over to the 8X as well. The f/2.0 lens does a good job in low light, capturing decent amount of light but the noise levels are often alarming.

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What makes the camera on the 8X even worse than the one on the One X is the camera software, which remains barebones even in Windows Phone 8. Sure, for most people it would be adequate but it's not as feature rich as the default camera applications on Android devices.

The front camera on the 8X is a bit interesting. HTC is using a wide-angle lens, which produces some amazingly wide shots that lets you have a small group of people easily fit into the frame even with the phone just an arm's length away.

Battery Life

The HTC 8X has an 1,800mAh Li-Ion battery. In my testing, which involved calling,using the social networking apps, both built-in as well as the official Twitter app, maps application, web browser and music playback, the phone lasted for about ten hours, which in most cases should get you through a day.

While playing back a 1080p video on a loop, the 8X lasted for about five and a half hours.

Conclusion

The HTC 8X is currently priced at around ₹34,000. The few things about the phone that really stood apart for me were the fantastic design, the brilliant display and the smooth and fluid UI.

Unfortunately, the disadvantages far outweigh the advantages. The design has some fairly annoying ergonomic issues thanks to the awkwardly designed and placed buttons. The camera performance is only average. There is only 16GB of memory. But most importantly, it's the OS which really lets the phone down. Unless you are a big fan of Windows Phone, I honestly don't see why you should opt for it over Android or iOS. HTC doesn't even go the same lengths that Nokia does to make the OS bit more usable.

And ultimately, that's where the 8X falters. Had it been running Android it would have still been easy to recommend. But for this price I'd suggest you look at the One X, if you want something from HTC.

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