If you're a loyal Sprint customer long hoping for a Windows Phone 8 handset, the good news is that your wait is over. The bad news is that the HTC 8XT isn't quite the answer to your dreams. Though its sleek and attractive design shows many of the traits we've come to expect from both HTC and Microsoft's OS, the display resolution could use a serious bump. Likewise, while it supports Sprint's (growing) LTE network and takes sharp and colorful images, internal performance was slow and call quality wasn't completely reliable.
The result is a device that makes you more prone to notice Windows Phone 8's flaws -- like its mediocre app selection -- than the positive attributes that the operating system brings. At $99.99 it is reasonably priced, but Sprint has better smartphone options available if you don’t have your heart set on Windows. The LG Optimus G, for example, takes great photos too, has a faster processor, and runs more apps thanks to Android’s more robust software selection, and it's free if you're a new Sprint customer.
If the HTC 8XT looks familiar that’s because it’s practically a splitting image of the HTC Windows Phone 8X which debuted on AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon last year. While it’s a bit of a design redux, in some respects that’s a good thing. The 8XT shares the sleek lines, slim profile, and rounded edges of the 8X which helped that device really stand out from the crowd. The phone comes in a similar blue hue as well, though the 8XT sports a two-tone light and dark blue paint job as opposed to the 8X’s uniform color scheme.
Measuring 5.2 inches tall by 2.6 inches wide and just 0.39 inch thick, the 8XT has roughly the same physical footprint too. That said, the 8XT weighs a heavier 4.9 ounces compared with the 8X’s 4 ounce heft. Even so, the gadget is compact enough to slide into tight pockets and other cramped locations easily. I also found the phone’s gently curved back comfortable to grip.
On front of the 8XT is a 4.3-inch LCD with a WXGA resolution (800x480 pixels). That’s far below the sharpness of more expensive phones with full HD resolutions (1,920x720). Still, while it won’t exactly blow your socks off, the screen is bright enough and colors are sufficiently vivid so as not to detract from video, text, and other mobile content.
HTC also claims that the 8XT features its BoomSound audio technology which first appeared on its HTC One flagship. In a nutshell, there are two front-firing stereo speakers each equipped with their own amp. The goal is to boost the volume of music, video, and other audio.
I admit I was skeptical that a phone this trim could belt out pleasing sound. After firing up a few test tracks, however, my doubts quickly evaporated. The 8XT played music very loudly, with almost as much volume as my HTC One test unit in fact. I did notice though that the 8XT had a tendency to distort at maximum volume on tracks that gave the One no trouble.
Above the display is the 8XT’s 1.6MP front camera for self portraits and video chat. Running along the bottom of the screen are typical Windows Phone controls for Back, Start, and Search. There are no physical keys on the 8XT’s left edge but you’ll find a thin volume rocker and dedicated camera button on the right side. As with the 8X, these keys lie extremely flush with the phone’s surface almost to a fault. I found them very tricky to locate and push blindly especially when holding the device sideways in landscape orientation.
Up top sits a 3.5 mm headphone jack and a trim power key. Around back is the 8MP main camera and LED flash. They’re both housed in a metallic circle too, which is one difference from the Windows Phone 8X which has no such design element.
While the 8XT’s 1,800 mAh battery is embedded, you can remove the back cover to get at the SIM card and micro SD card slots. It’s a welcome departure from the 8X which uses a completely sealed chassis.
OS and apps
Running Windows Phone 8, the HTC 8XT uses Microsofts much-touted “Live Tile” UI where square and rectangular application tiles actively twinkle with alerts and other data in real time. Living on the vertically scrolling homescreen, you can also move tiles around, resize them, or delete them to suit your tastes.
I have to say that while Windows Phone 8 certainly brought much needed improvements over its previous software iteration, its layout, capabilities, and dare I say basic philosophy still feel misguided. Perhaps it’s a result of Android’s fresh tweaks to Jelly Bean (4.2 and 4.3), wizbang extras of Samsung TouchWiz and slickness of HTC Sense 5, and upcoming iOS7. Whatever the reason, WP8 just seems a bit flat and otherwise uninspiring.
Additionally, all the graphical eye candy as you flip through menus and open apps looks excessive at best. At worst it causes delays as you wait for text to complete rotating with fancy 3D flair.
In the HTC 8XT’s defense though, it can tackle all your basic smartphone chores such as tapping into personal and corporate email and Gmail accounts. It also runs versions of many popular mobile apps such as Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and Netflix. You can peruse the Windows Phone 8 store to search for more titles.
Of course Microsoft’s roster of mobile software is less developed than Apple’s and Google’s so finding your favorite iOS or Android app might be an issue. For instance WP8 still lacks apps for Instagram and Flipboard though staples such as TuneIn Radio and Evernote have made a home here.
If you’re into new fitness gadgets like the Jawbone Up, and Fitbit Flex though you’re out of luck. There’s no Google Drive either but Microsoft’s SkyDrive application lets users push and retrieve photos and other files to and from secure online servers.
Sprint couldn’t resist adding its own apps and services into the mix. On board the 8XT are shortcuts for the carrier’s Sprint Music Plus and Sprint TV and Movies storefronts, There’s a Scout program for GPS navigation too, but it costs an additional $4.99 per month for the full version.
Equipped with an 8 megapixel camera and LED flash, the HTC 8XT comes with the standard Windows Phone camera app which pretty is spartan. Thankfully the HTC Camera application that’s also pre-loaded shores up the basic app’s missing features. It offers multiple color filters plus a burst mode to snap multiple shots in a row. The software has an HDR mode for coaxing more detail out of shadows and a panorama mode to snag horizontal vistas.
You can also adjust ISO settings manually as well as select whether you want to snap widescreen, regular, or square images. One issue I find annoying though is that the sharpness options are listed in five values ranging from “Lowest” to “Highest” -- not what I call exact resolution figures.
The HTC 8XT does capture photos quickly, in less than a second, and is nimble enough to grab images of fidgety subjects. Indoors the phone took well exposed shots of our still life, too, that had plenty of detail and accurate colors.
Outdoors and under strong sunlight the 8XT also did a good job of grabbing images that were both crisp and had bright colors. I was also impressed by the HDR mode that fired off pictures in rapid succession, a processor-heavy task that tends to trip up some handsets. There was slight ghosting and a double image or two of moving objects but it's an issue that confounds even the best phone HDR systems.
Powered by a 1.4GHz dual-core Qualcomm processor, the HTC 8XT’s core components are strictly midrange. Even so I didn’t notice any major hiccups or snags. Still, as I said before, sometimes I felt impatient while the phone churned through its graphically intensive UI. Likewise, peppy isn’t an adjective I’d use to describe the device’s handling since the 8XT never behaved in a fashion I’d call snappy.
Battery life on the 8XT, similar to my experience with other Windows 8 handsets, was satisfyingly long. Through the device uses a relatively low-capacity 1,800 mAh battery, I could easily go for 24 hours without recharging.
I tested the HTC 8XT on Sprint’s CDMA network in New York and the call quality I experienced was mixed. Callers described my voice as flat and robotic which immediately gave away that I spoke from a cellular phone. On the other hand they could easily understand what I said and didn’t detect any distracting pops, clips, or static in the background.
To my ears callers sounded clear, if not very loud, (even at the highest volume setting). Calls I placed through the speakerphone didn’t pack much volume either, odd given the phone’s powerful stereo speakers.HTC 8XT call quality sample Listen now:
In New York where I tested the HTC 8XT, Sprint hasn’t officially rolled out its advanced 4G LTE network. That said I was able to sniff out a few locations where the handset displayed a “4G” logo in its status area. My results however were disappointingly slow and strictly in the 3G camp. Average download speeds clocked in at low 1.6Mbps but I recorded readings all over the map (ranging from 2.96 Mbps to zilch). Upload throughput was a little more stable, and just as unimpressive, coming in at an average of 0.6Mbps.
Hopefully these results aren't indicative of Sprint's future LTE performance in my neck of the woods. Other Windows Phone 8 devices fared much better and faster. Connected to AT&T's 4G LTE infrastructure, the Nokia Lumia 1020 for instance reached a blistering peak of 38Mbps down while the HTC 8X (also on AT&T LTE) sucked down data in the high teens (Mbps).
When it’s all said and done, the HTC 8XT is a capable and compact smartphone able to tackle all the basics. The speakers are great and its camera is a trooper too, snapping images quickly and with pleasing quality. I just wish that Sprint and HTC put more oomph behind the carrier's first Windows Phone. Yes, it's slim and sexy, but it lacks the power and features of many Nokia Lumia phones and the sharp display of the HTC 8X.
If you really want a Windows Phone, then it will serve you well. But if you're open to your OS choices, even older smartphones such as the LG Optimus G running late model Jelly Bean (Android 4.1) look fresher and more exciting. Its 13MP camera shoots excellent photos and its quad-core processor is more nimble. Current Sprint customers will have to shell out an additional $50 to get it (for a total price of $149), but I think that's it worth the investment (new customers, as I said, can event get it for free). Heck, I’d also recommend the Samsung Galaxy S3 (also $149.99) over the HTC 8XT which is a better value despite its age.