Size matters. The past year has seen mobile phone sizes creep up, following greater demand for large-screen web browsing, large-screen gaming, and big, powerful batteries. But human hand sizes haven't grown in response. Enter the sleek, palm-friendly HTC 8X: A now-rare, high-end smartphone that can actually fit in your hand with its modest 4.3in screen. While the 8X isn't the most powerful Windows Phone 8 – that prize goes to the Nokia Lumia 920 – it's likely to be the best balanced, with the right combination of high-end features, usable size, and it’s priced at £400 sim-free.
HTC calls the 8X design the "pyramid," because the phone's internal components are stacked, well, like a pyramid. The phone tapers at the edges and bulges slightly in the middle. But it isn't truly round on the back – it sits stably on a table. Most of the body is a high-grade, comfortable-to-touch soft matte polycarbonate plastic.
In terms of colours, the 8X comes in black, flame red, dark blue and a greenish-yellow that I've been calling chartreuse to differentiate it from Nokia's purer yellow. The yellow makes your eyes water. The blue, though, is subtler and more professional than Nokia's loud, glossy finishes.
At 65 x 10 x 132mm (WxDxH) and 130 grams, the 8X is actually a smidge taller than the Lumia 920, but it's much narrower and 55 grams lighter, which is what you really notice. Compared with the Samsung Galaxy S III, it's shorter and narrower but slightly thicker. I actually prefer my phones even a little smaller than this – the HTC One S, as I've said a bunch of times, is my ideal – but the size of this phone won't appal any fan of 4in and 4.3in screen devices.
Front and centre, there's a tight 4.3in, 1,280 x 720 Super LCD 2 screen covered by Gorilla Glass on the front. At 341 pixels per inch, it's the highest-density screen available today. The screen looks sharp and bright until you see the Lumia 920's ClearBlack IPS LCD panel, which makes the 8X look washed out. The Power, Volume, and Camera buttons are slight missteps; they're very subtle and a bit hard to find without looking.
The 1,800mAh battery is slightly smaller than the Lumia 920's 2,000mAh cell, but the Lumia 920's bigger 4.5in screen uses more power. On talk time, the 8X lasted 8 hours and 28 minutes, about 90 minutes less than the 920. But we were able to get 4 hours and 50 minutes of YouTube streaming with the screen at the highest brightness, almost an hour longer than the 920.
The HTC handset’s call quality was acceptable, but not extraordinary. The earpiece and speakerphone are both a bit quiet, which is surprising considering how powerful the phone's Beats-powered headphone amp is.
The phone had no problem pairing with a Plantronics Voyager Legend Bluetooth headset and triggering Microsoft's voice commands from the headset. The voice command software, however, really leaves something to be desired. It dials the phone just fine, but freeform queries like "how's the weather?" result in web searches rather than returning usable results.
Sadly, the 8X doesn’t support LTE in the UK, so there’ll be no super-speedy surfing on the EE network as with the Lumia 920. It does support HSPA+ 42 though (or 3.5G, if you will). The handset also supports 2.4GHz and 5GHz 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 3.0, GPS, and NFC.
Performance and apps
For the full details on the software, read our review of Windows Phone 8. The difference in performance between new Windows Phone 8 devices is more about the included apps, and here Nokia has an edge, bundling more extra bits. While you do get Nokia Maps on board the HTC 8X, you don’t get Drive and turn-by-turn directions, which is a downer (though it is allegedly coming).
Nokia also seems to be working to grab exclusive games, utilities, and apps for kids. HTC's only meaningful contribution to the platform is the HTC Hub, an app which shows the time, weather, and stock prices. It can also beam weather information to your home screen.
Multimedia and camera
Let's take a moment to discuss Beats Audio, especially when combined with the 8X's 2.5V amplifier and a solid pair of headphones.
The audio on this phone is a military-grade, non-lethal weapon. You know those cars where they replace the whole back seat with a giant speaker? That. It's not just super bass, although yes, I did play Nicki Minaj's "Super Bass" on it, which is an experience like getting a deep-tissue massage of the brain. The much-vaunted amplifier improves sound quality overall, and I found voices richer and instruments easier to separate on 256kbps MP3 tracks than on the Lumia 920 or even the HTC One S, which also integrates Beats Audio. It's safe to say the 8X sets a new bar for music quality on a mobile phone.
1080p HD video playback is just fine, there’s nothing really to report there. Also, there is no apparent way to hook the 8X up to a TV for video out.
The 8-megapixel camera isn't bad, but I'm surprised HTC didn't throw in some of the advances found in its Android phones. On the HTC One Series phones, when you hold down the shutter button, it goes click-click-click like the beginning of Duran Duran's "Girls on Film" and then lets you pick the best shot from the burst. Not here; it's one shot per focus, which essentially means one per second at best. Overall, shots are sharp enough that I suspect there's a sharpening filter involved, but colours are bloodless and pale when compared with the Lumia 920.
The camcorder takes smooth 1080p videos at 30 frames per second (fps) outdoors, but frame rates drop precipitously in low light, and the camera develops pulsing focus problems. Interestingly, those 15 fps, low-light videos come out brighter than videos shot with the Lumia 920, but they're more jittery and have poorer focus. The 920 has a better camcorder overall.
The front camera, on the other hand, is a standout. You don't often see a 2-megapixel front camera, and this one has a noticeably wider view than the competition. You can see more of what's going on around you. Click the photo button and it counts down 3, 2, 1, like a photo booth, letting you prepare yourself for your shot, another nice touch. All of these positive elements lead me to overlook the camera's problems with exposure range – unlike the Lumia 920, the 8X completely blows out bright backgrounds.
One final note – sadly there's no memory card slot here.
Windows Phone is an elegant, attractive OS which integrates very well with Windows 8 and is positively terrific for social networking. The major downside is that while you'll be able to find apps you like, you probably won't be able to find the same apps your friends with iOS or Android phones have.
Comparing the 8X to the Lumia 920, the Nokia phone has a better camera and display, a louder speakerphone, and Nokia Drive on board, along with other app extras. Where the 8X wins is with music and Beats Audio, but most of all its portability.
The Lumia 920 is a brick that weighs you down. The 8X slips easily into any pocket, and the 4.3in screen is a bit more usable with a single hand than the 920's 4.5in panel. That said, size and weight are very personal preferences, so we don't let them affect our ratings. I derided the original Samsung Galaxy Note based on its size, which was clearly an error.
I like the HTC 8X enough that I am planning on carrying it around as my primary phone for a while. For me, it's the best balance of Windows Phone power and usable size. If size doesn't matter to you, the Lumia 920 is an even better experience, but for me personally, it's just too much junk in my trunk.
Manufacturer and Device
HTC Windows Phone 8X
1280 x 720 Super LCD 2 capacitive touchscreen
Windows Phone 8
Battery Life (As Tested)
8 hours 28 minutes
Qualcomm Snapdragon S4