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HTC 8XT review: Sprint's first Windows Phone solid, not superb

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MSRP: $99.99

The Good The HTC 8XT is trim and attractive, runs long, and takes quality pictures. It also connects to Sprint’s growing 4G LTE network and has powerful speakers.

The Bad The HTC 8XT's dual-core processor is slow and applications handle sluggishly. Its Windows Phone 8 OS has a comparatively small app selection compared to Android and iOS.

The Bottom Line Though the HTC Windows Phone 8X brings some needed OS freshness to Sprint, its sluggish processor and average display make it hard to recommend for anyone but committed Windows Phone 8 fans.

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7.0 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 7
  • Performance 6

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.

Rounded edges, compact size, and soft touch backing help the 8XT to feel comfortable. Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Controls for volume and the camera are very thin and sit almost flush with the phone's edge. Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

The 8XT's screen isn't very sharp but is colorful. Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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