HTC stole a march on Nokia when they announced their Windows Phone devices to compliment the launch of Windows Phone 8 calling them the signature devices. We at MoDaCo have already given our impressions of the HTC Windows Phone 8X, a beast of a device, the HTC flagship for the new Microsoft built operating system. But now we can also pass verdict on the budget end of HTC's offering, the HTC Windows Phone 8S.
What we have here is of the smallest and cheapest Windows Phone 8 device currently on the market. This is also, arguably, a very stylish phone with its contrasting colour schemes and sculpted yet curved body.
Lets start by looking at the basic specs:
- 4" 16M-color S-LCD, 480 x 800 pixel resolution
- Scratch resistant Gorilla Glass 2 display
- 5 megapixel autofocus camera with LED flash, 720p@30fps video recording
- Windows Phone 8 OS
- 1GHz dual-core Krait CPU, Adreno 305 GPU, Qualcomm S4 chipset, 512MB of RAM
- Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, dual-band
- GPS receiver with A-GPS and GLONASS support
- 4GB of inbuilt storage, microSD card slot
- Active noise cancellation with a dedicated mic
- Built-in accelerometer and proximity sensor
- Standard 3.5 mm audio jack
- microUSB port
- Bluetooth v3.0 with A2DP and EDR, file transfers
- Beats audio enhancements
There are 2 important departures from most other current Windows Phone 8 devices in the spec sheet, the first being only 512Mb of RAM and the second, the small 4Gb of internal storage. The former of these shortcomings should hopefully not prove too much of an issue, Windows Phone 7 ran well in half that amount of RAM again. The internal storage could be a concern though - read on to find out more.
I am a massive fan of the design language HTC are using for their Windows Phones. I particularly like the way the sides taper to give the device a slimmer profile than you expect whilst also making the phone easier to pick up. The mixture of sharp lines with curved corners does make this phone stand out and as seems the norm for Windows Phones, there are a range of bright and interesting colours to choose from.
What I have here is the blue colour which has a lighter blue contrasting strip at the bottom housing the standard capacitive buttons. The rest of the device is finished in a dark blue that looks very classy. The speaker and camera lens are surrounded by a thin, lighter blue plastic strip which is the one part of the design I am not so keen on. I think the Domino black is the nicest looking of the 8S colours, but this blue device is really nice as well.
On both of their Windows Phone devices, HTC have made all the buttons of a plastic with an almost identical colour to the rest of the body and they have made the buttons almost totally flush with the main body. This is quite an unusual touch and one I thought worked poorly on the larger 8X, particularly where the power button was concerned. The 8S pulls off this trick a little more successfully due to it's size, but I am still not a fan of flush buttons even if they do add to the overall visual appeal. I also wish HTC would put the power button on the side, having it up top meant that the 8X was very awkward to switch on for me, and on the 8S it is only just about acceptable.
The body is made of a soft touch polycarbonate plastic. It is different to the covering used on the 8X and even softer to the touch, but I really like the feel of it. However, it is a major fingerprint magnet which is a shame.
Lets have a quick spin around the device:
The front is dominated by the 4" WVGA touchscreen but also has the 3 standard Windows Phone buttons - back, home and search - at the bottom. These are well positioned and work well with a slight but noticeable vibration when they are touched. The speaker grille is surrounded by a light blue plastic above the HTC logo.
The left side of the device is completely free of any controls, but the right side as pictured here has the volume control and two stage camera button. The buttons are very flush to the body of the device.
The bottom just houses the standard microUSB port although here it is upside down.
The top is where you will find the power button and the standard 3.5mm headphone socket.
The back of the 8S looks great with the micro drilled holes for the speaker, the simple Beats logo, the embossed HTC logo and the camera and flash - both of which are very slightly depressed inside the case for a tiny bit of protection.
HTC have endowed the 8S with a 4" 800x480 WVGA screen using their Super-LCD technology and covered in Gorilla Glass. I have found on most recent mid range devices that the screens are really much better than you think they will be. The same is true here. It can be a bit dim at times but in general I actually think it is a good screen. It obviously doesn't come close to the quality on offer from the 720p Super-LCD 2 screen on the 8X but then this device is nearly half the price. Text is sharp and the brightness is plenty sufficient. In direct sunlight the screen does struggle a little, but then again what screen doesn't? Blacks are not all that deep which is a shame, especially on Windows Phone, but this really is a decent screen apart from how reflective it is.
Like all Windows Phone 8 devices, the HTC 8S runs a stock version of the operating system. My device came with a later software build than that of the 8X and the Nokia devices I have used recently and it includes the ability to keep WiFi connected even with the screen off - a long desired feature. It also includes a feature allowing you to reject an incoming call and send a text back in one go. The HTC 8X and Lumia are now receiving this build over the air.
I will come clean straight away - I am a massive fan of Windows Phone. In many ways I prefer it to Android and I certainly think it is slicker and easier to use than Google's best. Windows Phone is made up of a home screen full of live tiles. These tiles can show you live information and can flip over, appearing to have two sides to the tile. With Windows Phone 8, live tiles can be one of three sizes, generally under the control of the user, though some apps only allow you to use two of the three sizes. This ability gives a surprising range of flexibility of how to organise your home screen.
Windows Phone has excellent built in apps. The people app in particular is a highlight, combining all your contacts drawn in from any connected accounts, on your SIM card and any social networks you sign into from your phone and showing you updates for each contact in a neat and clear way. Social networking support for Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook is completely built in to the operating system and works really well allowing you to easily see your updates on each network, post new updates and interact with your contacts. The mail app is minimalist but excellent, providing a threaded email view and a combined inbox all under your control.
HTC haven't added very much to the Windows Phone ecosystem at this time. There are a few apps, but nothing even approaching that which Nokia provide. There is of course the Windows Phone Store which now has in excess of 100,000 apps to offer. Those which are well written and designed are a true pleasure to use. Rowi for Twitter is a highlight for me as is Nextgen Reader and the Skydrive app. There are now apps for most use cases you can think of, however, many apps are not as high quality as their equivalent Android offerings. Where an official app will exist for Android and iOS, on Windows Phone, you will have to make do with a third party app - for example, Pocket. That said, the app situation is improving and I don't think it is any longer fair to say that there are too few good apps to make this a viable platform.
There are many more detailed reviews of Windows Phone and particularly Windows Phone 8 out there which will cover a lot more of what Microsoft has to offer here. But I will get back to focusing on the 8S.
Probably the best thing about Windows Phone is the way it feels. Windows Phone 7 on all devices I tried as well as Windows Phone 8 on the much more powerful HTC 8X are super fast, very slick and offer a lag free experience. The HTC 8S is almost there but just falls short. I don't think this is a memory issue but is actually down to the fact that HTC have opted to use a less powerful processor, a dual core 1GHz unit compared to the 1.5GHz example found in the 8X.
There is never any lag in the animations but apps can take a moment to load, even going into the settings menu can take a moment. Both of these delays are long enough to get a loading indicator, something I had never seen on Windows Phone before. The 8X also never has this problem. It is possible that the software can be optimised to remove these delays and if it is possible, I hope Microsoft and HTC take those steps. But I should stress here that we are talking about very minor delays that do not get in the way of using the device much at all. Compared to a mid-low end Android device, the HTC 8S is significantly faster.
The size of the 8S makes this device a pleasure to use, especially one handed. It is very comfortable and I could easily reach all the controls and all four corners of the screen without any stretching or repositioning of the device in my hand. The buttons can be hard to find as they are fitted flush to the body work but they operate well with decent feedback. The touch sensitivity of the screen is excellent and I never had any issues there. The capacitive buttons under the screen are good and the vibration feedback consistent.
The smaller amount of memory in the 8S is only noticeable if trying to switch between 2 heavy games where I found that the game in the background would not fast resume as there was not enough memory for it. Undoubtedly Windows Phone 8 has a larger memory footprint than Windows Phone 7, but this is a very minor issue in general. Playing an intensive game and fast switching to email, Facebook or other lighter weight apps worked exactly as expected.
Now the real rub. 4Gb of internal storage is simply not sufficient for a device in this price range. The space once formatted is only 3.6Gb and around 1.5Gb is available to the user. This space has to store all apps, app data, emails and email attachments, text messages, contact information and some other system files. You can add an SD-Card to extend this storage but that is only available for pictures and videos taken with the device camera app as well as music. I managed to fill the 4Gb of supplied storage to the point where apps would no longer install in just 3 days. I had around 35 apps installed from the Store including a couple of games. I also had about 250Mb of podcasts downloaded. As apps can only store data on the internal storage, downloading those podcasts in a podcast app meant they had to live in that internal storage space. The same is true for map data for the navigation app I use. Normally I would cache the whole of the UK but that is hundreds of megabytes and impractical on this device. Yes, it is possible to live with 4Gb of storage, but until Microsoft allow apps or app data to be installed to teh SD-Card, I wouldn't want to. Why HTC didn't include 8Gb of storage is beyond me as that would be sufficient for almost all users and would befit the more mid range price of the 8S.
The camera on the 8S is a very basic 5 megapixel unit. Frankly, it is a bit poor but in good light, reasonable images can be captured. Pictures in low light are very noisy indeed. Video is fairly basic with lots of artefacts, but nothing less than I would expect at this price point. One oddity (that is far too common sadly!) is that the camera is set to take pictures at a widescreen 4 megapixels out of the box and needs to be set to take 5 megapixel images manually.
Pressing the camera button launches the camera app but it does take a good few seconds. The viewfinder is slow to track your movements and this is not the phone to use to quickly catch a shot at a seconds notice. I found that saving images to my sdcard took a lot longer than saving them to internal storage. Enough time to be really annoying. This may be a factor of me using a class 2 card, but still, this is worse than I would expect.
Here are a couple of outdoor shots and one indoor shot I took with the 8S camera. The outdoor shots are decently well detailed for this type of camera, but the indoor shot, under bright led lights, is very noisy. It is worth noting that the camera took about 3-4 seconds to take and process the indoor shot. Click on the images for a larger view.
Video recording at 720p is basic at best. There is no image stabilisation and the autofocus seems to move around a little too aggressively for me with the shifting focus being very annoying.
HTC have equipped the 8S with Beats audio. Unlike its bigger brother, the 8X, we don't get an amplified external speaker here. Sound quality through headphones is acceptable and the Beats enhancements do make a small difference. I found the external speaker very quiet and of poor quality. So the same as almost all other phones then.
A 1700mAH battery does not sound like anything special but I got very decent performance from it. For my average use, the 8S could easily last me a day and a half. This is about the same as I get from the average Android device but still a little short of my Motorola RAZR i. Nonetheless, I consider this phone to have good battery life
I have very mixed feelings about the HTC 8S. On the one hand this might have been the best Windows Phone 8 device there is. It is one of the most reasonably proportioned and well balanced phones, a pleasure to use one handed and slick and fast enough in general. Certainly this is a much more sensibly sized phone than the Nokia Lumia 920 and 820 both of which are tanks comparatively! The 8S is a really nice weight with a decent screen and a good battery. On the flip side, the 8S has a poor camera, and is hamstrung by its low level of internal storage. If you want to play the richer more graphically intense games available in the store, you will struggle for space despite the 8S being more than capable of running such games.
If you have your heart set on a Windows Phone device and you want something at the lower end, I recommend looking at the Nokia Lumia 620 which has a 3.8" WVGA screen with a 5 megapixel camera and 8Gb of storage. Yes, the battery is a fair bit smaller, but it is worth paying in battery life for the ability to install pretty much all the apps you would ever want from the store without running out of space. And to really rub salt into HTC's wounds, the Lumia 620 is still cheaper than the 8S off contract despite the prices on the 8S softening in the first quarter of this year.
Having used a Lumia 620 quite extensively, I can say that the screen is superior, with better performance in bright sunlight and is more responsive, though it is obviously a little smaller. The camera is slightly more capable than the one the 8S and the battery is not as bad as it sounds on paper yet remains some way behind the 8S. The 8S feels significantly more premium and has far superior audio. Despite this, the Lumia 620 is one of the best budget phones I have ever come across, and the Nokia software additions to Windows Phone only makes it more compelling. But the 8S is not far behind.
If you have the money to spend, then the HTC 8X is a far superior offering with a fantastic screen, good camera, decent battery and 16Gb of non-expandable storage. But check you can live with the button layout!
If you are not concerned about camera quality and don't want to install hundreds of apps, the 8S is a great device. It has a seriously premium design and build with a decent screen and a lovely form factor. But for me, HTC have fallen short of the mark with the beautiful but flawed Windows Phone 8S.