I'll level with you. I'm an early Windows phone adopter - and I'm talking early - as in the Samsung SCH-i760 that I bought the day it was released back in 2007. I had a total love/hate relationship with that phone. It was better than a Blackberry and it totally integrated itself into my Windows (XP) life. You still needed a stylus for most interaction, but at the time it combined my mobile and my PDA (remember those) into one device, and that was pretty awesome.
However, shortly thereafter, the iPhone came out and made the i760 look like the Newton. I suffered the snarky comments from all my Apple fanboy friends until my next phone, the HTC Google G1. And even though It was the same kind of love/hate relationship until Android 2.3 in 2010, I never took a serious look at a Windows phone again.
In 2011, I reviewed the Windows Phone 7 powered HTC Trophy, and found that while it was the first "real" entry into the mobile universe for Microsoft (Kin?), it was woefully behind both Android and iOS. Microsoft was selling Windows 7 phones with the promise of a sort of Life Device - a phone that integrates your personal, social, work, and communications all in one place. That concept was there with Windows 7 mobile, germinating, but nowhere near realized.
I say this without hesitation: The HTC Windows Phone 8X definitely starts delivering on that promise.
Let's start with the phone itself - and note, I'll do a follow-up review that dives even deeper into the Windows Phone 8 OS, as there's just too much to talk about. Update: That Windows Phone 8 review is here.
Can a phone get by on how it feels? Because the HTC 8X is outstanding to hold and use. It's the largest phone to date that I've felt comfortable using with one hand.
This is possible, in part, because the Windows Phone 8 OS makes great use of vertical orientation. I can pack a lot of apps and widgets into the Tiles on a single home screen and just scroll vertically through them. Something so simple (and so obvious, as this is how apps, browsers, and everything else works) makes a huge difference in how you hold the device. The apps screen also has a vertical scroll, and scrolling is so smooth that it has yet to become tedious to fly through a couple dozen apps to get to what I want.
The 8X is tall (5.2 in.), thin (2.6 in.), slightly curved in the back, but mostly quite flat (0.4 in.). The soft polycarbonate back has almost a suede feel to it, which makes it smooth but gives it grip.
The damn thing is a joy to use.
The screen is very good, a 4.3-inch Super LCD 2 with 1,280x720 HD-pixel resolution. It's not quite on par with the Droid DNA's full 1080p, which is the best I've seen so far, but it's very close, suffering only slightly in bright light.
You've got three buttons at the bottom of the 8X: Back, Home, and Search -- which defaults to bing, not a device search. The Back button is smart, but sometimes I wind up going back across apps without knowing I was asking for that. A hold-press on the Back button gives you recent-apps. A hold-press on Home gives you TellMe, which sounds a lot like Siri, but is very limited and had a hard time understanding me.
Windows Phone 8 (In Short)
Windows Phone 8 extends the theory of Life Device and gets it right in practice on the 8X in a lot of ways. I can follow my Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn feeds as well as manage my contacts in a section called People. I can also keep up with my own social notifications in another section called Me
This is where Windows Phone 8 stands out, personalization and integration without customization, exposing every bit of feature out of my social/mobile universe.
Of course everything is integrated with Hotmail, Sky Drive, and Office. This is where the real battle is going to be fought, up in the cloud, versus Gmail, Google Drive, and Google Docs. Not that it shows on the surface, in fact, Windows synced with my Gmail calendar and contacts quite nicely. At the same time, Windows wanted me to integrate everything, including social feeds like Twitter, with my Microsoft account (which I never, ever use outside of the XBox) before I could integrate them with the device.
And I never thought I'd say this about a Microsoft product, but I was disappointed by the lack of customization available to me, like, I want to sync my email over the last 30 days and do that every 5 minutes from 8:00 to 5:00. Nope. Can't. I've heard similar griping about the lack of user interface customization in particular, but I chalk the limits up to the Life Device thing. If you're going to integrate that much functionality, you have to limit it elsewhere or things will start breaking pretty quickly.
You still have to use IE, but it's not nearly as awful as it used to be.
OK. Done with the gushing. Here's the million-dollar question. Is Windows going to have a legitimate app store?
The Windows Phone store, at one time built pretty much on Xbox Live gaming, now looks like a real app store, with everything from social stuff to Netflix and ESPN Scorecenter and Skype. But YouTube was just a mobile version of the YouTube site disguised as an app. Not cool.
The store is also nowhere near the depth of Android or Apple. So Windows Phone 8 is in this weird period where you get some of what you need, but not everything, and that sort of reminds me of the Android app store in the 2.x days.
It's hit and miss - I got ScoreMobile, I couldn't get HootSuite. No Instagram, no Runkeeper, no Google+, no Spotify. No free Angry Birds, yes paid Angry Birds.
This is going to be an issue. But if the 8X is any indication of some initial success of Windows Phone 8, it shouldn't be long before the app developers come rushing in without being strongarmed and/or incentivized by Microsoft. Right?
The truth is, you never know. The Blackberry will make some additional noise soon, and the app development arena will then have doubled to four different OSs to optimize for, plus tablets. It remains to be seen, but if you can't get the apps you want, all bets are off.
The 8X Experience
The HTC Windows Phone 8X is fast, packing a 1.5 Mhz Snapdragon S4, it breezed through every task I gave it and never appeared choppy or slow. Battery life was also not an issue. I got through entire days on medium use. On a heavy use day, about 2 hours of calls, some video, a bunch of testing, and a lot of social, I squeaked through the day but had to charge by about 8:00 p.m. The battery, like a lot of them these days, is not removable.
You get 16MB of storage, which is becoming the norm for these cloud-phones, and no SD card. It has what is now HTC performance-phone-standard Beats audio, NFC, Bluetooth, and everything else you'd expect. Its $100 from Verizon, also available for AT&T and T-Mobile.
The 8MP camera on the 8X is above average - not as hit-or-miss as the DNA but not as good, picture for picture, as the iPhone. Action shots? Difficult. And it's pretty much take what you get on colors and softness. When it takes a good photo, it's great, but you have to take a few to get there. This is exactly what I found with the HTC Droid DNA, only less so with the 8X, so I'm not shocked.
Using the camera, however, is pretty cool. When you tap on something on the screen, it not only focuses, but it takes a picture automatically. Again, little thing, nice touch. Also the dedicated camera button on the 8X, exactly where a camera button should be when you're in landscape mode, should be standard on every phone.
There's a 2MP camera in front for your video calling needs. The video camera was also very good, even in somewhat lower light, and a snap to use. Streaming video and gaming were on par with what you'd expect from a performance phone.
Call quality was excellent, and the speakerphone is one of the best I've heard on an HTC phone in a long time. It's not perfect, but I can definitely use it like a would my landline phone.
The keyboard is excellent. I typed about half of this review on the 8X and totally dug the accuracy of the keyboard and the autocorrect.
Overall, the HTC Windows Phone 8X is a surprisingly awesome entry into the mobile phone universe and Windows Phone 8, minus some lack-of-customization drawbacks, pretty much lives up to the hype. If you're not locked into Android or Apple, or if you are locked into Office/Hotmail, then you seriously couldn't do much better than this phone as your mobile option. By the end of the week, I found myself wanting to pick it up and play around with it, especially to check in on my social circles. If that's not the description of a Life Device, then I'm not sure what is.
Now the apps just need to catch up. If you want to take a gamble on that happening, then there's enough available now to get by on. Is it going to happen? Who knows. It's chicken and egg. The more people using Windows phones, the more apps will get developed. The good news is the 8X is finally a Windows Phone that people will want to use.