TechReview: HTC 8X Windows Phone
When my friends found out I have ditched my Samsung Galaxy S3 for an HTC, they thought I have gone mad. When they found out it was a Windows Phone, they slowly backed away from me before they ran, arms flailing in the air. But they came back; the HTC 8X proved to be too irresistible.
Read on for the review and check the Storify feed for my experience as I have used it. Unfortunately I couldn’t pit it against the Lumia 920, so for the sake of camera comparison I will pit it against my Galaxy S3.
“WOW” is the first word that came to mind when I first held the phone (don’t forget I am coming from the S3 — a phone not particularly known for its wonderful build quality). It’s almost impossible to not be impressed by the phone.
I have the black version, which I personally found to be the most elegant. The other colours I saw in the electronics shops were a bit too “pastel” for my liking, and the ear speaker grill on the coloured phones were a bit overwhelming against the black front. The Lumia 920 sports braver colours which are not overpowering as they only frame the front. Regardless, the HTC 8X feels good in the hand. The back side feels like rubbery-velvet material — while it isn’t textured, it is as though you’re holding a phone covered in fine cloth. The front is entirely covered by beautiful Gorilla Glass, and other than an unusually wide ear speaker grill, the only other noticeable feature is the oddly shaped front camera, which I will come to in a bit.
The best feature of the phone design though is the size: it is just perfect at 4.3 inches. While I eventually got used to the S3, I needed two hands to type; the iPhone is just small, and with the new design it feels odd. The HTC 8X is in this sweet spot range of phone sizes which makes it comfortable for one hand or two hand typing. The device features absolutely no hard edges; everything about the phone is curved, making it an engineering marvel since there is even less room to pack in the tech wizardry than a phone which utilises real estate afforded by angles.
How beautiful is the phone, really? Almost everyone who saw it with me had to ask which phone I was carrying and had to hold it and marvel at its beauty. It really is a work of art.
That said, my only gripe about the phone design is that the power button is at the top — and given that it does not protrude, it’s a bit hard to press, making index finger manoeuvring a bit of an exercise and habit. It would have been better had the power button been on either side of the phone: the phone’s right side (your left) has plenty of room for it.
There have been a few reviews that criticised the camera as not being good, or even subpar; other reviews praised it. The phone’s camera is a crucial part of my purchase decision so I had to test out the phone for myself in how I go on with my phone photography to be able to tell. As a quick summary, it can produce some stellar shots as well as terrible ones; you need to learn how the camera works, so it isn’t as “easy” as an iPhone’s.
The camera works a little bit different than ones on phones I have used, like iPhone and several Android devices. The phone immediately tries to autofocus, and to be honest it does a very decent job in guessing what you’re trying to focus on. For standard image of streets, it’s fairly consistent. When it comes to macro focus, though, I was truly surprised with how good it was, often on par with the S3 and sometimes *just* beating it. The sharpness on the S3 was a bit better, though.
The problem arises when you attempt changing the focus by tapping — something taken for granted on other phones. It calculates the exposure from that point and captures the image immediately. So you might end up going through a few shots as you try to get the focus on the point of interest before you capture “the” shot.
A way to circumvent this issue, which I haven’t seen people talk about, is that the camera shutter button works like a DSLR shutter button — you can half press to lock the focus, and then recompose the frame before pressing it all the way to read the exposure and take the shot. I found it to be a neat and efficient feature that photographers would appreciate.
The camera app provides less configurations than the S3 but way more than an iPhone: you can edit levels of saturation, sharpness, contrast, exposure, ISO, white balance, face detection, and resolution / aspect ratio. The auto white balance on the camera defaults to be a bit on the cooler side of white. There is also an issue with the white balance calculation in that you may run into instances where it is a bit too sensitive, making two consecutive shots to be of completely different tones by simply tilting the phone a hair up or down, as in the two images below. It does not happen often, but you can run into it more often than not on an overcast day.
Below are some comparison shots between the HTC 8X and the S3.
The macro photos are just BEAUTIFUL. I put it head to head with the S3 — which has amazing macro capabilities — and to be honest I loved the macro on the HTC 8X. Tap-to-focus is of course easier on the S3, but if you breathe in for a couple of seconds and let the HTC autofocus, you are likely to be pleased with the results. Below are some macro on the HTC 8X.
There is no night mode on the HTC 8X like there is in the Galaxy S3, so it was a bit of a bummer for me. I don’t know how it will fare against the Lumia 920 but I am sure the latter will do better as it is the talk of the century. That said, the photos did come out very decent, if a bit smudgy. Nothing for print, for sure, but good enough for phone, Facebook, and email.
Finally, the front camera sports an odd wide-angle lens. At first, it was awkward to use, but soon the awesomeness of having such a lens on the front made me wonder why no one has thought of that before. You can cram in a lot of people and scenery in the shot, elevating duckface photos to a new dimension.
So to summarise, you need to put in some effort into learning the limitations and capabilities of the camera. Welcome to photography.
The Windows 8 Experience
The most troubling issue of anyone thinking of buying the phone is the Windows Phone platform itself. To be honest, this was my first exposure to the operating system, so I had zero expectations other than that apps I use are either non-existent or look plain weird.
Honestly, though, while the OS has a long way to go, I was pleasantly surprised.
Now before I go on, let me explain how I use the phone. I decided to ditch iOS because I did not want a phone with screen after screen of apps and games on it; I’ve got the iPad for that and the iOS works great there, with my apps and games on a big, beautiful tablet. My switch to android a few years ago was driven primarily by customisation and usability; I don’t need to open several apps to save a photo and upload it or email it to someone — not to mention the ability to email something other than photos, and other limitations set by Apple’s sandboxing.
Having used the android platform for a few years. I have seen it grown into a platform that (for mobile) surpasses iOS in terms of functionality, yet the “feel” of both iOS and android has become similar thanks to almost identical designs of almost all applications. Windows Phone throws all of those out of the window, giving a truly unique visual element to all applications, which is truly sexy in my opinion. The OS itself is absolutely slick, modern, and sexy. There is more swiping than tapping, and going from menu to another by swiping is truly a delight. The size of the HTC makes it extra comfortable, and Windows looks crisp on the screen. I can’t believe I am saying this but this made me like Windows again (as a note, the only reason I use a Windows PC is for gaming).
The primary apps I use are Facebook, twitter, and WhatsApp, all of which are on the phone. There are several photo editing apps which I also installed, like Fhotoroom, Lomogram, and Picture Perfect. I found my favourite weather app, The Weather Network, as well as my travel apps: Skyscanner, Kayak, and TripAdvisor. Though there is no Google Chrome, the app MetroG does your search using Google instead of Bing while maintaining the Windows Phone look and experience, but opens the links in IE — which actually is not a bad browser but is far from Chrome (some websites will have odd rendering on it). I use MetroTube for YouTube and MetroPaper for my Pocket app. Gtasks Plus takes care of my Google Tasks, and gMaps is a very good Google Maps app (though does not use vector graphics, but does the job very well, including directions, traffic, and other map overlays). For Dropbox I use BoxShot until the official app is released. Other apps I have on my iPad and have removed from the android phone, so given my approach to mobile devices it does the job, but could do better of course. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem; developers won’t develop apps on a platform with few users, and users won’t use a platform with little development on it. I hope Microsoft pushes for changes.
Meanwhile, I absolutely love “People”, a built-in feature of the Windows Phone which aggregates your contacts’ feeds from their social networks even if you don’t have the apps of the social networks installed. You can browse their Facebook photos and check your email conversations from there without opening any other app. You can reply to tweets, post tweets, post images to twitter and Facebook and check-in into locations without installing or opening any app. The integration is great, and should your phonebook get too cluttered, you can choose to filter out networks without removing integration. Another thing I liked a lot is sharing: it isn’t as thorough as android’s but way better than iOS; I can share a photo across a few apps I have installed, for instance, and not limited to just Facebook, twitter, and email/SMS. Heck, I can even share to WhatsApp.
Another surprise was syncing: plugging in the phone to my computer opened up a sync window that even reads iTunes playlists and music, which was great. First boot takes a while as it has to scan and index all photos and music on your computer (it can take half an hour), but after that it takes a few seconds to get everything going.
Honestly, I am absolutely in love with the OS. It has a fresh look which is completely different from the other major mobile platforms and the apps have a different look, feel, and user experience. For some, it might not work, particularly if you’re on instagram (I am not). There are many apps which are not present on the OS that can be deal-breakers, but for me (for now) it works fine.
There is one thing I have to say, though: the battery is the biggest drawback of the phone. I have had bad experienced with my Galaxy S2 when I had it, and the HTC 8X took me back to those days. If you’re a moderate to heave user like me, it’ll die in around 6 hours. The max I got out of it was a working day (9 hours) and the battery saver mode kicked it up to 10 hours, but throughout the past two weeks I will recharge the phone at around 3 PM every day and then at night. If I knew I will be out late at night, I would carry with me the battery power pack I used while I was on my trip in Nepal to power the S3 when I was in remote areas.
The HTC 8X is a beautiful phone. It’s sexy, slim, light, perfect size, and elegant. The OS is fast, unique, and a delight to use. Apps are lacking depending on what you’re looking for, but it does the job for me. The battery is the biggest drawback, so you need to be close to chargers and make sure it’s on full battery if you’re going out. The camera will be frustrating at first, but you’ll be satisfied when you get the hang of it. Overall, though, I personally found it comfortable and great to use, but the battery will be a constant nuisance.