• Design
  • Display
  • Performance
  • Software
  • Battery Life

I’ll be honest: when HTC announced the Windows Phone 8X, I wasn’t sure what to think. The company was late to the Windows Phone 8 announcement party, following the 32GB-and-microSD-card-equipped Samsung ATIV S and the feature-packed Nokia Lumia 920. The 8X looked like a great device, but I wasn’t sure if it was worth going with it over the competition. But after spending a few weeks with the device, my opinion has been completely changed. Is the Windows Phone 8X worth picking up? Almost certainly, but with a few caveats. Read on to find out.

Quick Specs

One of the first Windows Phone 8 handsets, the Windows Phone 8X by HTC takes advantage of the operating system’s new hardware capabilities to provide a 4.3-inch 720p HD Gorilla Glass 2 Super LCD 2 display with 341ppi, a Qualcomm S4 MSM8960 1.5GHz dual-core processor, NFC, and more.

The 132.35 x 66.2 x 10.12mm, 130g device also includes 1GB of RAM, 8GB or 16GB of storage, microUSB and microSIM, a 1800mAh battery, and Beats Audio technology. A proximity sensor, ambient light sensor, digital compass, G-Sensor, 3.5mm audio jack, Bluetooth 2.1 + EDR, and WiFi 802.11a/b/g/n with support for both 2.4GHz and 5GHz are also included.

The 8MP front- and 2.1MP back-facing cameras are also quite good, thanks to the dedicated HTC ImageChip, and they include a f/2.0 aperture and 1080p HD video recording.

Packaging

In the interest of full disclosure, HTC and AT&T sponsored Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8 launch event and gave everyone in attendance a free Windows Phone 8X pre-production unit and a month of service with all of the bells and whistles. As a result, the packaging is not quite final, and the box included a message asking us to “please forgive any wet paint.”

That being said, the phone came in a standard white-and-orange AT&T box with Windows Phone 8X by HTC branding. It’s fairly run-of-the-mill, and I’d like to see AT&T improve the aesthetic appeal of its packaging at some point. Inside the box were the standard help and legal documents, a microUSB cable, a wall adapter, and the device itself. Disappointingly, ear buds were not included.

Hardware

The Windows Phone 8X by HTC is, quite frankly, arguably the best-looking smartphone on the market. I received the California Blue model, which some people believe looks more like purple than blue. I’ve never cared much for colored phones, preferring black or silver, but it does look pretty nice.

The device is made of out a unibody polycarbonate shell with curves everywhere. You’d be hard pressed to find an edge that hasn’t been smoothed over, despite the phone’s rectangular appearance. The end result is a device that feels oh so good in your hand. This cannot be overstated. Once you pick up the device, you won’t want to put it down. It’s one of the 8X’s most compelling features.

It also looks and feels shockingly thin, despite the relatively large 4.3-inch screen. This, of course, is due in large part to the curved back, which gives the device a thinner profile. The downside of this, however, is that the device doesn’t have room for a microSD card slot.

The 8X is locked to 8GB or 16GB of storage, which initially turned me off from the device. But to my surprise, the amount of storage hasn’t been much of an issue. This is due in large part to the new features included in Xbox Music, which syncs your cloud music collection to all of the devices you own, from Windows 8/RT PCs like the Surface to Xbox 360 and Windows Phone 8. As a result, I only use the 16GB to store music not available on the Xbox Music Store, podcasts, apps/games, and photos (which can now be automatically uploaded to SkyDrive at full resolution). Granted, listening to most of my music requires an active data connection, but I can always temporarily download music for when I’m on an airplane, etc.

Like all Windows Phones, the 8X features three system buttons on the front of the device: Back, Start, and Search. The haptic feedback is perfectly tuned to provide a response that’s neither too intense nor too light. The front-facing camera can be found on the top-left, and a colored strip for the speaker is the only break in the Corning Gorilla Glass 2.

The sole light on the device is located behind the speaker strip. It shines bright red when the battery is low or charging, and green when it’s plugged in with a full charge. It feels somewhat superfluous and almost takes away from the simplicity of the phone’s design. Thankfully, it isn’t always on. Another oddity is the Start button which, if you put it up to your ear, makes a faint ticking sound – as well as the sound of the haptic feedback – whenever it is pressed.

The microUSB port can be found on the bottom of the device, as is now standard with all Windows Phone 8 handsets. This will be very handy in the long run, since accessory makers will be able to plan for this configuration. Annoyingly, the headphone jack is on the top, so you end up with cables coming out of both ends if you try to listen to music while charging the device, like in the car.

The biggest issue with the Windows Phone 8X, however, is the design of the hardware buttons. The power button on the top can be difficult to reach due to the device’s height, and the fact that it’s almost flush with the shell makes it hard to press. This is the single most annoying aspect about the 8X, since I often have to press the power button two or three times before I get the desired effect. The button works great if you press it at the correct angle, but if you’re slightly off it’s a pain in the neck. The volume rocker has the opposite problem, and I’ve found myself accidentally adjusting the volume on occasion. Thankfully, the camera button isn’t plagued by either of these issues.

The back of the device looks great too. The primary camera and flash sit almost flush with the backing, and the holes for the speaker are almost impossible to feel. The front doesn’t feature any branding, so on the back you’ll find logos for HTC (set slightly into the surface), Beats Audio, and AT&T.

Hardware button issues aside, the hardware build quality is excellent. Even the sound of the speakers is great, which is not something I could say about other devices. The 8X is easily the best phone you’ll ever hold in your hand.

Screen

The Windows Phone 8X by HTC sports a 4.3-inch Super LCD 2 display fashioned out of Corning Gorilla Glass 2. It runs at a resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels, which is new for Windows Phone, and has an impressive 341 pixels per inch. The iPhone 5, by comparison, has a slightly smaller resolution and 326ppi.

Visually, the screen is excellent. The large display and improved resolution beautifully show off the new live tiles in Windows Phone 8, and the deep blacks look very nice. Direct sunlight can make it slightly difficult to see the screen, but it wasn’t too terrible. The most noticeable visual artifacts can be found on some of the live tiles for older apps, which weren’t originally designed for the higher resolution and thus have some slight blurring.

The Windows Phone 8 UI is as smooth as butter, and the screen matches the OS in responsiveness.

Software

The Windows Phone 8X by HTC runs – you guessed it – Microsoft’s brand new Windows Phone 8 OS. This review will touch upon some of my favorite features in Windows Phone 8, but stay tuned for our full review of the OS for the complete story. With the exception of a few exclusive apps and settings, most of the Windows Phone 8 OS is identical no matter which device you go with.

In addition to the previously mentioned live tiles and Xbox Music, Windows Phone 8 includes new VoIP integration, Kid’s Corner, Wallet, Rooms, tap and send, a live lock screen, customizable lock screen notifications, camera lenses, and much more. Xbox Games, Office (including OneNote, which has been split off from the rest of Office), Internet Explorer, Maps, and many other apps have received a nice update as well. Two of my favorite, somewhat overlooked features, however, are Word Flow and the fact that groups are now synced with Outlook.com.

HTC thinks that Beats Audio is a big enough feature that it deserves a logo on the back of the device, but I’m not so sure. The technology is certainly nice for boosting the volume, but it seemed to introduce a slight hiss and didn’t noticeably improve the audio quality. As a result, I’ve kept it off most of the time. Your mileage, however, may vary.

The 8X also includes three optional attentive phone features: quiet ring on pickup, loud ring in pocket or purse, and flip to mute ringer. Personally, I turned off the first two, but left the third enabled.

Coming from the Nokia Lumia 920, HTC’s selection of device-specific apps is, quite frankly, pathetic (although AT&T’s is even worse). There are just five apps in HTC’s stable: HTC Hub, Connection Setup, Flashlight, Photo Enhancer, and Converter. These apps aren’t particularly terrible, but they’re nothing special either. Compare this to the 30 apps (and rising) in Nokia’s collection, many of which are must-have apps like Nokia Drive and fantastic games like Mirror’s Edge.

There is one bright spot, however. Nokia has provided its Nokia Drive app to “other Windows Phone 8 partners,” but it’ll be up to the other manufacturers to release the app. So there’s a good chance that we’ll see Nokia Drive arrive on HTC’s Windows Phones in the near future. I certainly hope that happens, as it’s one of the Windows Phone 8X’s few drawbacks.

Performance

Windows Phone 8 runs incredibly fast on the 8X, showing off the operating system’s speed and fluidity. I’ve seen some people complain about random restarts, but I haven’t experienced them personally. Nevertheless, Microsoft has promised to look into the issue, which might be related to Beats Audio.

The phone’s performance particularly shines when opening up existing apps. Load times for apps are considerably faster than on Windows Phone 7.x. It’s so fast, in fact, that some developers like the guys behind the Twitter app Rowi have completely removed the splash screen since it took longer to load than the actual app.

My only complaint about the performance is the startup time, which seems to have increased since Windows Phone 7.x. My Nokia Lumia 900 managed to completely load the entire OS before the HTC logo even disappeared. By the time it was all said and done, the 8X took nearly twice as long to turn on than the Lumia 900. The same can be said about shutdown times. It’s still fast enough that it’s not a huge deal, but it was certainly noticeable and disappointing.

Phone Calls

Smartphones obviously have the word “phone” in their name, but that feature is increasingly being used less and less. Thankfully, HTC hasn’t skimped on the call quality. The 8X is easily the best-sounding phone I’ve ever used, with the caller’s voice coming through crystal clear.

One of the coolest features in Windows Phone 8 is the new APIs provided for VoIP apps. This allows apps like Skype to integrate themselves into the phone as if they came built into the OS. This manifests itself in both the People Hub and incoming calls. Skype contacts, for example, now appear in the People Hub and are automatically linked with existing contacts on Hotmail/Outlook.com, Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, etc. This allows you to pull up a contact card, tap the Skype option below “call mobile” and “text + chat,” and instantly start chatting using the service’s IM, voice, or video capabilities. Conversely, VoIP apps can now run in the background in a power-friendly fashion. When someone attempts to call you over Skype, their photo will appear just like a regular phone call, along with options to either answer or ignore. Frankly, I’m surprised that the carriers even allowed Microsoft to do this.

Connectivity

AT&T finally lit up its 4G LTE network in my area a few months ago, giving me great speeds on my Nokia Lumia 920. The Windows Phone 8X by HTC, by all accounts, seems to be even faster. Granted, that could be due to the beefed-up hardware and improved rendering engine in Internet Explorer 10 Mobile. Xbox Music streaming now starts almost instantly, and I never once experienced connection difficulties with cellular or WiFi.

The 8X is one of the few devices available on just about every major carrier, including AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile. As a result, it supports a number of network bands, including GSM, GPRS, EDGE, CDMA, HSPA, WCDMA, and LTE. Obviously, a device purchased from AT&T won’t work on Verizon’s network and vice versa, but it’s nice to know that you won’t be prevented from picking up an 8X due to your carrier. However, that doesn’t mean that carriers don’t have some exclusive features, particularly wireless charging on Verizon and a Limelight Yellow color option on AT&T.

Camera

HTC received much acclaim for its dedicated ImageChip on the HTC One line of smartphones, and now the HTC ImageChip has come to Windows Phone. The camera quality is stunning, in most cases. In fact, I daresay that it’s the best smartphone camera I’ve ever used.

In addition to the HTC ImageChip, both the 2.1MP front-facing camera and the 8MP back-facing camera have an f/2.0 aperture and support 1080p HD video recording. The former also has an ultra-wide angle lens for group photos, while the latter has a 28mm lens, auto focus, LED flash, BSI sensor, and stereo sound. In using the camera, I’ve been very impressed by the speed and quality of the shots, even while moving at high speeds.

Of course, the camera isn’t perfect. It’s not quite as good in low lighting, and while most shots are remarkably stable, a few came out somewhat shaky. Check out the gallery below for a number of sample shots.

Battery Life

Battery life on the Windows Phone 8X by HTC has been quite good. The 1800mAh battery has always managed to get me through the day with plenty of power left to spare, but it really depends on your usage. Obviously, a lot of videos, movies, and web browsing will drain the non-removable battery faster than usual, as will having NFC enabled. Like Bluetooth, I don’t get a lot of everyday use out of NFC, so I generally leave both disabled unless they’re needed.

While I haven’t done any definitive tests on battery life, I’ve been satisfied by how the 8X has performed. I seem to get, on average, a minimum of eight hours of music listening and regular use, if not more.

Conclusion

Before the Windows Phone 8X by HTC was released, I was kind of leaning toward the Nokia Lumia 920 for the sheer amount of bells and whistles that Finland managed to pack in or the Samsung ATIV S for its massive screen and upgradeable storage. But after just a few hours with the Windows Phone 8X, I knew it would be incredibly difficult to give it up. I love this device so much that I’m almost willing to go without Nokia Drive and the exclusive suite of Nokia apps, as fantastic as they are. That’s why the possibility of getting Nokia Drive on other devices is so exciting. If and when that happens, I’ll be able to recommend the 8X without any reservations whatsoever.

HTC’s new top-of-the-line Windows Phone isn’t perfect – those hardware buttons are annoying and it would be nice if there were more than 16GB of storage – but these are minor quibbles. Although it is very unfortunate that the price difference between the 8GB and 16GB models is so large. The Windows Phone 8X looks beautiful, but you have to hold it in your hands to truly experience how great it is. Once you do, it’ll be very difficult to go back to your old smartphone. Trust me.

You can purchase a Windows Phone 8X by HTC in 8GB and 16GB varieties for $99.99 and $199.99, respectively, from AT&T.