HTC 8X and Windows Phone 8: first impressions

My new phone arrived today: a blue HTC 8X, running Windows Phone 8. As a huge Windows Phone fan put off by several persistent issues in Windows Phone 7.x, I’m basically giving this platform another shot, and in this day and age such a second chance doesn’t come cheap: the 8X is 539 EUR, after all. Here’s a few quick first impressions after less than a day of use.

The hardware of the 8X is nothing short of stunning in every way. I have become increasingly disillusioned by the sad state of hardware design in both the Android and iOS world, so I’m very happy both Nokia and HTC are treating their Windows Phone devices as all-bets-are-off design studies. Odd shapes, crazy colours – it’s all here. There’s no mistaking the 8X or the 920 for anything but a Windows Phone device.

Luckily, this seems to go beyond skin deep. The 8X feels incredibly sturdy, and the softness of the plastic – machined from a single block, including the front ear piece – makes it very comfortable to hold. The tapered edges play a huge role here too, masking it fit neatly in my hand. Most phones tend to feel slippery, but the 8X fits nicely.

There’s some weird issues with the hardware, too, though. Just like on one of its spiritual predecessors – the HTC HD7 – the power button is hard to press. The power, volume, and camera buttons also feel a bit flimsy, like they’re about to fall off. This is kind of strange for an otherwise solid piece of hardware, and on top of that, you’d think HTC had figured out by now how to make a decent button.

Of course, these are all just first impressions. Only time will tell how the hardware holds up over time.

The display is 4.3″, which I personally find the right size for a phone. There’s no logical reasoning behind this or anything, it’s just a preference. It’s a S-LCD2 with a 720×1280 resolution, which amounts to 342 ppi. I don’t know anything about what makes a good display, and unlike larger sites which can just line up all the latest phones and compare them, I can only make uninformed judgments about it. To my eyes, the display looks incredible; sharp, vivid, and bright. I can’t make out any individual pixels, and for a text-heavy interface like Metro that’s a godsend.

The display also seems to ‘float’ above the actual device, which is something that you see more and more these days. It’s a neat effect that doesn’t significantly alter the user experience, but does fit the Metro UI pretty well.

Speaking of Metro – Windows Phone 8 appears to be a massive step up from its predecessor. Everything is fast, and when I say everything, I truly mean everything. Loading applications, scrolling through the UI, networking – it’s all faster and more fluid. This is what Windows Phone should’ve been like from the get-go, and it’s fascinating to realise that going from Windows CE to Windows NT is the root cause for these substantial performance improvements.

The option to make smaller homescreen tiles is very welcome, as it makes everything more compact and easier to navigate. Sadly, some tiles’ notification counters still refuse to reset themselves, and so I’m still stuck with a Facebook tile that shows 8 notifications even though I’ve checked them all hours ago. Very infuriating.

The newer and higher resolutions Windows Phone 8 supports leads to an issue with applications that haven’t been updated to support them yet: black bars. Yes, they are noticable, and yes, they are annoying. Windows Phone clearly isn’t number one in most developers’ minds, so very few applications have been updated by this point. Be prepared to deal with them for a long while to come.

Speaking of applications, it’s still somewhat of a weak spot on Windows Phone. The selection is clearly a lot more limited than on competing platforms, and coming from Android it’s quite noticable not only how few applications there are, but also how iOS-like limited they are compared to Android’s more versatile nature. Not a surprise for us in the know, of course, but I find that this important fact gets overlooked in virtually every Android/iOS/Windows Phone review out there.

So far, there are two things I really miss in Windows Phone 8: a notification center, and wifi connection when sleeping. The former is being worked on, which is great news. The second feature, which is also coming in an update, requires a bit more explanation. Windows Phone shuts down wifi when the device locks, meaning it has to reconnect every time you unlike the phone, which usually takes just long enough to be annoying.

All in all, I’m quite satisfied so far. I’ve always liked Windows Phone, and it seems that with version 8 it has finally grown up. Perfect it is not – but really, what is – but it makes huge strides to catch up with the competition. This is all great news for those of us who aren’t looking forward to an Android-dominated market.


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