HTC's Windows Phone 8X review: Fast, bright and sleek

HTC's well-designed smartphone is one of the first to use Microsoft's new Windows Phone 8 mobile OS.

If you're looking for a well-designed phone that really shows off Windows Phone 8, you'd do well to consider the Windows Phone 8X by HTC. This sleek device wraps the newest version of Microsoft's smartphone operating system in a nifty and svelte piece of hardware.

The phone sports a 4.3-in., 1280 x 720 Super LCD 2 screen with a 341ppi resolution, protected by Gorilla Glass 2. The display's colors are crisp and bright.

The HTC Windows Phone 8X has a rounded body made of a stylish, soft matte polycarbonate that feels pleasing in the hand. At 4.5 oz., it is smaller and lighter than the 6.4-oz. Windows Phone 8-based Nokia Lumia 920, with the Lumia 920 having a slightly larger 4.5-in. screen.

I found the HTC Windows Phone 8X's performance to be outstanding, with no delays in launching apps or changing screens, and no lags or slowdowns when listening to music or watching video. That's likely due in part to the phone's 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm S4 processor with 1GB of RAM. Previous versions of Windows Phone supported only single processors and still tended to be zippy. With dual cores, Windows 8 on this phone is even faster.

However, there is a hardware downside. The phone comes with either 8GB or 16GB of storage and no expansion slots, so if you're a media hound and needs lots of room, you could run into trouble.

The phone's simple, straightforward design is marred by physical buttons that are almost impossible to locate -- and even when you figure out where they are, they're still hard to use. The power button, for example, is on the top right of the phone, but it's small, rectangular and so tight against the body of the phone that you have to look extremely closely to find it. I even had a hard time locating it by touch when I ran my hand along the top of the phone.

The camera and volume buttons on the right side of the phone have similar problems. There is also a micro USB plug for charging and connecting at the bottom.

The Windows Phone 8X works with LTE as well as global HSPA+ networks; it offers Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 3.0, GPS and NFC (which, as I'll explain in a bit, Windows Phone 8 makes nice use of).

The 8-megapixel camera with 1080p video recording capabilities is serviceable, but I wasn't impressed with the quality of the photos; the colors looked somewhat washed out.

What's new in Windows Phone 8

The hardware tells only part of the story. The biggest news about the HTC Windows Phone 8X is Windows Phone 8, Microsoft's latest iteration of its smartphone operating system.

As with Windows Phone 7, Windows Phone 8 has a tile-focused interface sporting "live" tiles that show constantly changing information, such as social media updates or new mail messages. Windows 8 tweaks that tiled interface. For example, you can now choose from three different tile sizes. In addition, the Lock screen can display notifications from apps or services and lets you choose which to display, much like you can in the PC and tablet versions of Windows 8.

Parents will welcome the new Kid's Corner, which lets parents create a separate account for their kids -- it can be customized to only allow access to specific apps, videos, music and games.

The People Hub has been beefed up; it's now easier to see all of your contacts and friends from multiple services in a single location. And if you have an NFC-enabled device (like the HTC Windows Phone 8X), you can exchange contacts with another NFC-enabled Windows 8 phone simply by tapping them together.

The new Wallet in Windows 8 is also NFC-enabled, which means you can use it to pay for goods and services by tapping an NFC-enabled point-of-sale device -- not that there are many of them around yet. (The Wallet, as its name implies, is a digital wallet that stores credit cards, debit cards, loyalty cards and so on.)

Windows Phone 8 also includes a new Office hub, which gives access to Microsoft Office apps and documents. It improves slightly on the previous version of Office by including new viewing modes for documents and support for reading charts in Excel. OneNote has also been improved, including the ability to send photos to it.

The Windows 8 ecosystem

In Microsoft's worldview, no Windows 8 device is an island, and using the HTC Windows Phone 8X in concert with a Windows 8 PC shows that off.

At a Glance

Windows Phone 8X

HTCPrice: $99.99 (8GB), $199.99 (16GB) with two-year contract from AT&T, T-Mobile or Verizon Wireless (availability/price may vary depending on supplier). No-contract version: $499.99 (8GB), $549.99 (16GB)Pros: Slick design, excellent performance, good screen,syncs and works well with the Windows 8 ecosystemCons: Limited storage with no expansion capacity; so-so camera; lackluster voice-control capabilities; no voice-guided turn-by-turn GPS

When I signed in with my Microsoft ID, the phone automatically populated with photos, social networking information, documents and more from my Windows 8 PC. Changes made on the phone were synced back to the PC as well. It even grabbed information about my home wireless network, including my name and password, and automatically connected me to it without asking. All this happened so seamlessly that I didn't even realize I was connected to my Wi-Fi network until I checked. (If you don't want to sync automatically, you can change your settings on your Windows PC.)

And when I launched the OneNote app for the first time, the phone automatically synced my OneNote notebooks from SkyDrive to the phone. So if you use other Windows 8 devices, you'll find that a Windows Phone 8 device -- such as the HTC Windows Phone 8X can truly become an extension of your work and computing life.

Nothing's perfect, of course, and I did find a few flaws. For example, Windows Phone 8's voice search and control capabilities don't come close to rivaling iOS's Siri or Android's Google Now feature. In addition, it doesn't offer voice-guided turn-by-turn GPS navigation.

Bottom line

The HTC Windows Phone 8X is a slick, beautifully designed phone that shows off the new Windows Phone 8 software well, especially if you buy into the Windows 8 ecosystem of devices. It's fast and has a beautiful screen, although you may be put off by the limited storage.

If you've already got a Windows Phone 7 device, you'll find the HTC Windows Phone 8X a worthy upgrade. For existing iPhone and Android device users, it's a harder call. It comes down to whether you want the information-rich interface of Windows 8, or the app-centric approach of Android and the iPhone. However, if you think you're ready to switch to Windows Phone 8 from iOS or Android, you'll find the HTC Windows Phone 8X a solid bet.

See more Computerworld Windows 8 launch coverage including news, reviews and blogs.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

See more by Preston Gralla on Computerworld.com.

Read more about windows phone in Computerworld's Windows Phone Topic Center.

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