HTC Windows Phone 8X review: What a Windows phone should be

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The Good The HTC Windows Phone 8X's edgy design joins forces with a top-of-the-line processor, LTE speeds, and great call quality.

The Bad This phone's 8-megapixel camera took a few poor pictures, the buttons are too flush, and the OS lacks some key apps.

The Bottom Line With top specs and a striking design, HTC's Windows Phone 8X makes a smart choice for anyone ready to dive into the Windows Phone OS.

8.3 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 8
  • Performance 8

When you see it in person, there's no question that the HTC Windows Phone 8X is a premier smartphone on any platform. That it happens to run Windows Phone 8 signals a shift in the luster and credibility of Microsoft's mobile future. It has the processing power, the LTE speeds, and the camera quality to stand on its own. And you know what? The tailored handset makes the Windows Phone 8 OS look goooood.

The 8X also inherits its operating system's edgy interface, NFC sharing, and built-in integration with Microsoft Office 2013.

Yet the Windows Phone 8X isn't without its flaws. The camera isn't quite as consistently good as other top smartphone shooters (it isn't as good as the Nokia Lumia 920, for one.) Missing or underdeveloped apps in Microsoft's mobile OS may also turn some people off. When it comes to such a tight battle between top phones -- be they Windows, Android, or iOS -- small details like those could make the difference between getting bought and getting shelved.

If you're choosing between the 8X and the Lumia 920, the 8X is the smaller, lighter phone of the two, and the one that's available on more carriers: AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon. It starts at $199.

Editor's Note: After spending more time with the device, I reduced the performance score from to reflect the results of a three-way camera shootout against the Lumia 920 and the iPhone 5.

Design and build
While simply designed, the 8X's slim, sleek face and squared corners immediately draw you in. On the front, the screen offers deep black bezels and peeks of the phone's color: black, red, "Highlighter Yellow," and my favorite, "California Blue." The face may be all business, but the back and sides of the unibody 8X definitely channel a casual Friday vibe.

The phone feels good in the hand thanks to the soft-touch finish on the curved back, a design that HTC refers to as "pillowy." It slides into my pockets easily and doesn't take up too much room. I usually used my back pocket to tote it around short distances. I handed the phone around the office to men and women with all shapes and sizes of hands and pockets. The majority found the phone comfortable to hold and carry, with one exception, who didn't like the feel and worried that the corners would bore holes in his pockets.

HTC Windows Phone 8X
Of the HTC Windows Phone 8X's four colors, this blue is my favorite. Josh Miller/CNET

The 8X stands 5.2 inches tall by 2.6 inches wide by 0.4 inch thick. Its 4.6-ounce weight didn't bother me, but it tips the heavier side of the scale that will make the iPhone 5's 4-ounce weight feel featherlight.

Live tiles, Web sites, and photos look great on the 8X's 4.3-inch Super LCD 2 display with its HD 1,280x720-pixel resolution (that's 342ppi, if you're wondering). One little flaw with the screen if you're picking: if you press down hard on the edge of the screen, you'll see a flash of light from squishing the LCD; most people won't be affected, let alone even notice.

Below the display, three capacitive buttons navigate you back, home, and to the Bing search tool. Press and hold on the Start button to also launch the TellMe voice actions app. The same motion applied to the back button brings you to the task-switching pane.

Above the display there's a 2-megapixel front-facing camera. On the back, you'll see the 8-megapixel lens and LED flash. The left spine is bare, but up top are the 3.5mm headset jack and power button. Volume control and the physical camera shutter live on the right. My one complaint is that in one review unit, the volume rocker is so flush with the side, you control it more by faith than by feel while on a call. I had to keep lifting the phone from my ear to get the volume just right. Part of the volume rocker stuck out a skosh more in another review unit, so I could adjust volume by feel, but buttons were still extremely low-profile.

The charging action happens from the Micro-USB port on the bottom. Because it's a unibody device, you'll need to use a small "pin" tool to open the 8X's SIM tray, and the embedded battery isn't removable.

OS and apps
HTC is flying the Windows Phone 8 flag so enthusiastically, it even added Microsoft's OS to its smartphone's name. The OS update brings so many new features, we had to give it its own Windows Phone 8 review.

Microsoft keeps its OS pretty locked in, so there aren't too many variations that a phone-maker like HTC can apply. I do especially like the lock screen option that shows a Windows-ized version of HTC's Android weather widget. HTC also added its own signature shade to the theme colors, and offers up some of its own apps in a special section of the stor, including a photo editor.

HTC Windows Phone 8X back
Beats Audio pumps up the volume. Josh Miller/CNET

AT&T's contribution plays out in app preloads. There's AT&T CodeScanner, AT&T FamilyMap, AT&T Navigator, AT&T Radio, and AT&T U-Verse Live TV. In addition to the usual app fare -- like the calculator, camera, Office 2013 suite, and Wallet -- there's also HTC's flashlight, a converter (for temperature, currency, time zones, and more), and a photo enhancer.

Beats Audio is HTC's premier offering, adding enhanced audio that you can turn on or off when you plug in your headphones. I have some pretty nice headphones that make most songs sound good, but the boost was immediate and the difference pretty apparent. For starters, Beats piled on several decibels, so that songs sounded loud on a level-3 volume setting out of 30. Audio also seemed to sound richer with Beats, even after I increased the volume of the conventional mode.

Eight is clearly a lucky number for HTC. Guess how many devices its hot spot supports. Yep, eight.

When it's good, the Windows Phone 8X's backside illuminated camera is very good, hitting the sweet spot in detail, color accuracy, and sharp edges. Other times it completely misses the mark, producing images that seem soft for no apparent reason. Did I make sure I focused? Yes. Did I hold still until the photo snapped? Yes again. You always figure that a smartphone camera will make some mistakes here and there, but the more consistent the good images, the better.

HTC Windows Phone camera settings.
The HTC Windows Phone 8X's camera defaults to 6 megapixels, even though it takes up to 8. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

In my three-way camera shootout, the 8X is all over the map. There's no doubt that some outdoor pictures are sharp enough to slap on a mug and send to your mother for her birthday. Other photos, especially those taken indoors in artificial lighting, make you wonder what HTC is playing at. Of course, lighting is everything, and continuous focus might help eliminate user error where touch-focus leaves more gaps for mistakes.

The 8X does justice to this photo of a Keith Haring statue on a sunny day. (Click to enlarge.) Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

One thing I'll mention is that although the 8X has an 8-megapixel camera, it defaults to 6 megapixels. That's a bit confusing if you're trying to get the highest-resolution image possible, but a lot of people won't find that they need 8 megapixels of information, especially if they're just sending a friend an e-mail or uploading to Facebook to share a laugh or event. Most photos these days aren't long-term investments you want to keep for posterity.

Also taken outside in full sunlight, the 8X choked on these flowers. (Click to enlarge.) Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

So what can it do? There are four special effects (like sepia and grayscale); resolution options that span 8 megapixels to a VGA resolution; and white-balance presets. You can set exposure, saturation, contrast, and sharpness (my photos stayed on the middle "normal" default, but there are also two higher settings). You can also control ISO settings. There aren't a lot of effects like funny faces or anything, but in the future, you'll be able to use Windows Phone 8's third-party lenses to jazz up some of your scenes.

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