I've used a (blue) 8X as my main device prior to today's unveiling, so here's my first thoughts ahead of my full review!
The 8X hardware is gorgeous, truly gorgeous. Internally, the 8X uses an unusual manufacturing technique which stacks the components in such a way that allows the device to have it's unique curve on the back, as well as having a completely flush fitting camera. Manufactured from HTC's now near signature polycarbonate with a soft touch finish (similar to that used on the new One X+), the 8X feels fantastic in the hand.
Specs wise, the 8X ticks the right boxes too. The screen is a 720P 4.3" (that's 341 PPI) unit, one that I know a lot of people would really love to see in a HTC Android handset. The CPU is a dual core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 with 1GB RAM. Connectivity comes via quad band GSM / quad band HSPA together with 802.11 a/b/g/n WiFi, Bluetooth 3.1 and NFC.
The rear camera is a 8 megapixel camera with auto focus, LED flash and BSI sensor (for better low-light captures), F2.0 aperture and 28mm lens. 1080p video recording is present and the whole thing is driven by a dedicated 'HTC ImageChip', as seen in the One X / S. The front camera is uniquely a 2.1 megapixel ultra-wide-angle component with F2.0 aperture which also offers 1080p front camera video recording. A 2 stage dedicated camera hardware button IS present (praise be)!
The device's svelte 132.35 x 66.2 x 10.12 mm body fits in an 1800 mAh battery, thanks again to it's innovative component stacking which allows HTC to place the battery behind the screen rather than just inside the back case.
There is no microSD slot on the 8X (despite Windows Phone 8 supporting it) so the 16GB onboard storage is your limit. The SIM slot takes a MicroSIM.
The phone features Beats audio... but this is not the Beats audio you've previously heard. More on that later.
My device is California Blue... having seen them all my preferred hue is Limelight Yellow... but the blue really looks great in the flesh too. What is really great about the device is that's it's not recycled Android hardware - HTC have done something completely different, giving their Windows Phones their own identity. Take note Samsung - this is how it's done.
The 'Windows Phone 8X by HTC' is a Windows Phone 8 signature device... so you're getting Microsoft's latest and greatest on board of course.
While my roots are no question in Windows Mobile, my experiences with Windows Phone have been pretty few and far between over the past few years. I tried to love it when it launched, I really did... but it didn't really work for me. I genuinely approached Windows Phone 8 with an open mind, unsure as to whether i'd like it or not but, well, I have to say... it's actually pretty great.
Windows Phone 8 has some pretty significant changes over it's predecessor - as well as 'under the hood' changes like the migration to a shared Windows core (which will hopefully bring significant benefits in the app space as well) there are a plethora of changes in the core OS, including
- Windows Phone's signature 'Live Tiles' are now available in 3 different sizes allowing users to make more effective use of their valuable 'home screen' real estate and Live Apps also support new types of animations.
- The lock screen is enhanced with the ability to display images or information from installed apps or services directly on the lock screen.
- Kid's Corner allows you to set up a 'sandbox' on your phone with only user specified applications / features available for peace of mind when handing your phone over to your child. Pretty cool.
- Skype and other VOIP services are deeply integrated withing Windows Phone 8, integrating with the people hub and also with the messaging app in the case of Skype.
- The People Hub itself has had an overhaul, with groups now syncing to your Hotmail / Outlook.com account and a new 'Rooms' feature to allow group chat as well as other group tools such as a shared calendar / photo and video library / notepad.
- The Photo Hub and Camera add pinch and zoom in the viewfinder, custom 'lenses' that integrate directly into the viewfinder, editing tools for crop / rotate / fix, microSD photo storage support (not on the 8X of course) and the ability to share images via Bluetooth or WiFi with Windows 8 PCs / tablets. Video can now be shared via MMS or via NFC tap+send.
- Music and Video has had an extensive overhaul. Xbox Music Store / Music Pass support brings support for direct from cloud playback as well as storage on microSD. New apps for both PC and Mac make it easier to sync your already owned music to your device.
- The Games Hub gets a big upgrade for version 8, with improved notifications, support for in-game purchases (ugh), vastly improved developer tools for enabled Windows game ports and a Xbox Smartglass app to enable your Windows Phone 8 devices as a perfect Xbox companion.
- The Windows Phone Store has had a lot of work on improved app discovery, both in the form of recommendations and by searching. Purchases can be made using Credit card, PayPal, a Microsoft gift card, or via carrier billing to your phone bill. Cloud backup allows you to automatically restore any apps you previously had installed.
- Can anyone do mobile wallet right? Now it's Microsoft's turn to have a go. The new Wallet application provides a single place to store debit / credit / loyalty and membership cards in one place with NFC payment support (tied in to your carrier SIM).
- Office and OneNote have been updated as you'd expect with a host of additional features.
- E-mail now has a dark inbox view (particularly useful for OLED devices, easier access to attachments and voice-to-text message composition.
- Threads are enhanced in the Messaging application. More media types can now be shared via MMS, including your location.
- Windows Phone 8 includes Internet Explorer 10 which has a huge number of improvements, not least that it is up to seven times faster than the Windows Phone 7.5 version!
- There's no danger of an iOS like Maps debacle on Windows Phone 8 - Microsoft are using Nokia's map technology with high quality map data available for over 180 countries. Features such as offline maps, traffic data, aerial views etc. are included and turn-by-turn directions apps can integrate directly into the core maps app.
- Cloud sync / backup / restore is included, with the ability to remote wipe your device should it be stolen.
There's a lot in Windows Phone 8.
So that's some of the new stuff that's in... what's it like to use? Nice, real nice.
Windows Phone has always performed better than you'd expect on lesser hardware and with the very highly respected Dual Core 1.5GHz S4 chip driving the 8X the thing flies. Everything is silky, silky smooth to an extent that you've never seen. The device flies, delivering Windows Phone 8's transitions and animations without skipping a beat. Everything looks incredible on that 4.3" 720P screen with text in particular rendered with impressive sharpness. It's extremely impressive.
Where Windows Phone of old fell apart a little bit for me was the overall cohesion of the experience when you started to use it. Everything felt a little bit disjointed, like something was missing. I can't put my finger on exactly what it is in version 8 that's changed that but by really using it in anger i've enjoyed it. Everything is very different to the Android world, sure, but that's not always a bad thing... and once you get your head around the different paradigms used in Windows Phone, you'll find things suddenly drop into place and start making sense.
One other feature i'd like to mention before the full review is the camera. Of course, having a proper camera button is great (as is the ability to wake the device straight into the viewfinder by pressing it) and with the HTC ImageChip driving the experience, pictures are taken super-fast and look great. I couldn't find a One-series-alike burst mode which was a little disappointing. The wide angle front camera works well, taking probably the best images i've seen yet from a front facing shooter.
The 8X has Beats. Meh. BUT... don't skip this paragraph yet! The 8X has Beats with a class-leading 2.5V additional amplifier.BUT... there's more! The 8X has Beats with a class-leading 2.5V additional amplifier and Xbox Music. The sound quality on this thing is amazing, delivering by FAR the best audio i've ever heard from a mobile device. It sounds pretty good through the built in speaker but when you plug in a set of quality earphones it will blow your mind. Coupled with Xbox Music's huge catalogue of music that - to my ear - seem to be very high quality indeed, the 8X may well become the device of choice for music lovers.
Apps, apps, apps!
And so to what remains for many Windows Phone's achilles heel. The Windows Phone Store has certainly filled out from the early days and I could generally speaking find most of the apps I use every day as either free or as paid apps. It did seem to me that apps were a little more pricey on Windows Phone and also more likely to be paid rather than free than i'm used to but, to be honest, the big question with apps isn't about what's there already (although it's certainly helpful if you can find what you need there today), it's more about what happens next. Can Microsoft's big Windows 8 / RT push drive significant growth in the Windows Phone Store? I don't know the answer to that... but I really hope it can.
Should you buy one?
I've really grown rather fond of the Windows Phone 8X by HTC already. Once again HTC have delivered stunning hardware (although, once again, microSD expansion is conspicuous by it's absence) with truly innovative features and this time round, the Windows Phone operating system has no question the best chance it's ever had of succeeding. There's no denying that if you've invested heavily in one of the competing ecosystems then making the switch could be a tough choice, but now more than ever, I feel it's worth giving Windows Phone a try. HTC and Microsoft really have delivered something special... I look forward to spending more time with it.
The full review is coming up... if you have any questions, fire away!
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