I was browsing at a local Microsoft store, and I noticed that they were selling the HTC 8X unlocked for $250. I double checked Microsoft’s online store, and surely it sells them for the same price. Why was I interested? Windows Phone phones have never been sold unlocked in the US, other than the overpriced bundle that Microsoft did for the Lumia 800. So this was quite a surprise.
I really like the packaging of the 8X. It feels cheap, but the design is fresh from the typical carton box. $250 is not cheap, but it’s not bad either. The HTC 8X was HTC’s flagship Windows Phone 8 in 2012. When people talk about cheap WP8 phone, the first thing that comes up usually is the Nokia Lumia 520/521. In the US, the Lumia 520 is available as a no-contract GoPhone from AT&T (521 from T-Mobile) at $99. It’s good for the price, but it is cheap for a reason. If you go to any retail store with the 520/521 demo unit, you will immediately notice the washed out WVGA screen. It just doesn’t look good. Storage is only 8GB, and RAM is only 512MB, something that can be an issue with some apps. Also, despite being sold as a no-contract phone, it is carrier locked.
The HTC 8X costs more than double the Lumia 520, but it is a better equipped phone. It has higher res SLCD 720p screen with Gorilla Glass, which is a lot better screen than the Lumia 520. The 8X has 1GB RAM and 16GB storage. The processor is faster too, but Windows Phone 8 is smooth enough on both devices. The 8X does support LTE on AT&T and T-Mobile. Today, these specs are nothing compared to Android phones, but considering your options, it is the only Windows Phone 8 that is sold unlocked straight from Microsoft.
Build quality wise, the HTC 8X is a beautiful phone. It uses that soft rubbery plastic for its body. I am confident enough that the phone will survive daily usage without a case (in contrast to phones like the iPhone and Nexus 4). Microsoft only sells one color of the 8X, blue. It’s more like bluish purple.
At the top right is the power/sleep/wake button, and on the right side, there are the volume rocker on the upper section and the camera shutter button on the lower section. The arrangement can be somewhat annoying as I always end up pressing the volume rocker when I want to wake up the phone. Holding down the camera shutter button will fire up the camera app, even while the phone is locked.
I am always amazed how people fumbling around to silent their phones when they rang during a meeting or quiet situations. Apple solved the problem easily by putting a hardware mute switch on the iPhone, so you can mute your iPhone whenever. Android is a bit unintuitive, where you have to hold down the power button to have a dialog box pop up offering the option to silent the phone. Some phones like the HTC One makes things even harder as you don’t have access to that dialog box when the phone is locked. Windows Phone also takes two steps. First, you have to press the volume rocker button to trigger the volume control on the top bar on the screen. There, there is an icon on the right to toggle silent/vibrate mode. To me, it is not as simple as the iPhone, but I guess it is more intuitive than Android.
The lock screen itself is simple and pretty readable (and Hime is pretty too. ^_^). To obtain a screen shot, you push and hold the power button, and tap the Windows capacitive button. There is no way to show battery percentage on the OS without the help of 3rd party apps. Limited notifications are shown on the bottom, but you can only allow 5 apps to show things there. Interestingly enough, I find that messages from your friend on Facebook won’t trigger a notification here, despite allowing Facebook app to do so in settings. This is one of my gripes with Windows Phone. Unlike iOS and Android, there is no central place to handle notifications. You are left with limited icons on the lock screen (that are dismissed once you unlocked the phone), and hunting down each apps having a notification badge (assuming you put those apps’ tiles on your home screen).
My previous experience with Windows Phone was with the Lumia 710, a Windows Phone 7 phone that was abandoned by Microsoft and T-Mobile from receiving the 7.8 update. One of my major complaints was the tiles, as they are merely oversized icon shortcuts. Considering their size, it limits the amount of stuff you want to see on your home screen at one time. Windows Phone 8 fixed this by allowing smaller icon sizes, so you can have a lot more shortcuts on the home screen.
As you can see, on the main home screen, you only have your tiles on a solid background (can be white or black). Your wallpaper only shows up on the lock screen. This imo limits the “personalization” of the phone, with only limited colors to choose from for the tiles. Even then, notice that not all apps will conform to the system’s tile color, not even Microsoft’s own apps.
Shortcuts to quick settings like switching wifi or airplane mode are not available by default. You have to get 3rd party apps. This is what concerning. When I was perusing the WP app store for live tile apps that provides shortcuts to system functions, a lot of them are very sketchy, where the apps require permission for your identity from the phone and whatnot. Heck, even many battery widgets (that show charge percentage on the tile) require those permissions. Not cool in my book. This is typical of sketchy Android apps, and I was expecting Microsoft to do a better job. Worse, none of those battery indicators actually work. Apple has solved this by baking those features into iOS7 via control center. Hopefully Microsoft would do something similar.
Getting your stuff into Windows Phone is pretty simple, especially if you use Hotmail/Outlook. Just login to your Hotmail account and everything will be there, including Facebook contacts if you link your Facebook account with your Hotmail account. Your Xbox avatar will also appear on the Xbox app if you have the same login for your Xbox. Setting up other services is pretty straight forward too, including Gmail, Yahoo Mail, etc. The problem is on social media. Facebook and Twitter have native apps, but if you are on Google Plus, forget it. In fact, Google only made ONE app for Windows Phone, which is just a Google search screen. It’s pathetic. If you are a heavy user of Google services, you may want to step back and get an Android phone/iPhone instead.
The sad app situation doesn’t stop there. Dropbox, a popular cloud syncing app, does not even have a native app on WP. Now this might be acceptable if Windows Phone is new to the market. It’s not. Microsoft really needs to work harder in attracting developers. The absence of Google apps already put a huge dent on the platform. If you are a Microsoft user, you are fine. Many services, like maps, are taken care of by bing.
The lack of many native apps from their original developers, like Google, creates a huge amount of fake apps. This is a huge problem on Android, and I was surprised that WP is having the same issue. Simply search for Facebook and you will find plenty of “Facebook app” that is made by some unknown developer. Same thing with Google apps. Worse, these fake apps are using the real logos from Facebook/Google, and their descriptions are making them sound like they are the real apps. Lay users can unknowingly download these fake apps and have bad user experience with them, condemning the platform even more.
On the Mac, Microsoft creates a Windows Phone app (previously called Windows Phone Connector) to sync photos and music from iPhoto and iTunes. Pretty straight forward and basic. Alas, there’s no way to create a full backup on the desktop now (I think it used to be able to do that). Instead, backup is created in the cloud on your Skydrive account.
Yes, there is Office, or Office super lite to be more precise. People seems to be bragging about Office on Windows Phone, but I can’t see one who would want to use it. Maybe Excel, but Word is practically useless as it rewraps your whole document to the phone’s margin. This makes it extremely difficult to think how it would look normally when editing a document.
The camera app on the 8X is a stock one, and you don’t have access to those exclusive Nokia only apps. Some lenses are still there though. The 8MP camera is not too bad. It has pretty wide aperture, f2.0. Looking at the quality briefly, I say it’s above the Nexus 4, but does not quite match the Nexus 5 or the iPhone 5.
The shutter button makes taking pictures a bit more like a conventional camera, but you cannot focus on certain areas by touching the screen by default. That’s really annoying, kinda beats the advantage of having a touch screen. The only way to do this that I know of is to set the camera to automatically take a picture upon touch, where you can touch an area, the camera focuses to that area, and takes a picture. I find it annoying as I am used to the flexibility on iOS’ and HTC One’s camera apps.
One big paradigm shift that Microsoft did on Windows Phone is the shift from apps into hubs. The idea is instead of checking Facebook app or Twitter app individually, you simply go to the People hub that will aggregate all the updates from the various sources (mail, messages, Facebook postings, tweets, etc).This is a neat idea. I can group select contacts, pin the group as a live tile, and I can observe a live tile showing some recent messages from those group right on my home screen. This is great in filtering your social media contents to just the stuff from your friends, for example. Of course, that is assuming that you only use those social media that are connected to the people hub. Like I mentioned above, Google Plus is a no go. Some apps are not even updated to fully support this. Example is the flickr app, where the app itself still says that it is for Windows Phone 7. Yeah, many apps are fairly old, abandoned by the developers. It is sad as I actually like the concept of hubs.
The bad news doesn’t stop there. HTC is not doing so hot right now. Although the 8X received GDR 3 update, it’s clear that HTC is focusing on Android with the One lineup. The possibility of the 8X getting Windows Phone 8.1 is pretty slim. Worse, Microsoft itself is not going to release 8.1 till next year, leaving 2013 for iOS and Android to shine with iOS7 and KitKat. Samsung, the other WP OEM, clearly has abandoned Windows Phone too. Nokia, the sole survivor, sold its mobile hardware division to Microsoft. Oh, and Microsoft itself reflects its desire to not have three version of Windows. Considering the regular Windows is the bigger brother, this means Windows Phone will get the boot. One can clearly see this is coming when Microsoft did Windows RT instead of transforming Windows Phone into a tablet OS. Why have two OSes on ARM? The future is definitely bleak for Windows Phone.
Thus I returned my HTC 8X. 🙂 To be honest, I kinda like the phone itself. It’s pretty and whatnot, but there’s no point in investing on a dead-end platform. Oh, and Motorola is now selling the 16GB Moto G for just $199 unlocked. $250 has turned from okay to expensive when $200 can buy me a very decent phone on a platform that is more fully featured. For Windows Phone, I’m going to say wait for Microsoft to release their Surface branded phone, or their own branded phone. It’s clear that the OEMs are jumping off the boat, so buying a WP device from HTC/Samsung means you are buying a device with potentially no support. Considering the history of Microsoft ditching the Lumia 710 from 7.8 update, I can see 8.1 being pushed to only the high end Lumias, and then everything will be abandoned in favor of new devices running the WinRT hybrid.
Windows Phone, second round, and still failed to hook me. I’m keeping my money on iOS and Android in the meantime.