I'm a fairly anti-establishment kind of guy, which is why it's difficult for me to admit that I really like Microsoft's new Windows 8. Microsoft have traditionally been the established brand on the scene and I've always had a leaning towards the underdog. But when it comes to the Windows Phone 8 and the Windows Phone 8X by HTC – the first signature phone for the new operating system – I have to admit I really, really like the whole package.
From the very first time you see it and put it into your hands, everything about the Windows Phone 8X by HTC appeals to you. The square look of the phone is designed to fit in with the 'tile' look and feel of the operating system, so from the get-go it feels as if this isn't just a phone with an operating system on it, but that you're really holding Windows in your hand. And truth be told, it never feels as if Windows or the phone ever gets in the way, something I can't say for previous iterations of Windows Phone.
The 8X feels thin, light and robust, thanks to some design brilliance where the back of it curves and is made of a kind of rubber. It slips into the pocket nicely but the rubber makes you feel that much more confident that it won't slip out easily. Sitting in the hand it feels like the right size and the buttons are placed at the right spots to make it pretty easy to use.
The 8X is one of the few phones I've ever seen that has really appealed to me in a big way from a style perspective. HTC are also releasing it in various colours. Now usually colours can make a piece of hardware look cheap, but the designers have chosen the right colours to suit the operating system and make the phone not look cheap but stylish. Unfortunately, though, we'll only see black in South Africa for now and it's up to the service providers to bring in more colours.
Some of the colours we're going to see for the Windows Phone 8X by HTC
Moving on from the design, I found the front-facing camera on the 8X to be something worth talking about. HTC have put on a 2.1MP wide-angle lens for the front-facing camera that can also record video at 1080p. This allows for more people to get into the shot – great for group shots – and also allows for more people in the video when you're making a video Skype call.
The primary 8MP camera takes great shots as well. HTC says it can take in 60 percent more light than previous iterations and when you look at a comparison you can really see the difference.
The 8X also includes Beats audio integration, which has worked well with Android – see Steve Whitford's review of the HTC One X and Beats. You can hear the difference between using Beats and a normal set of head / ear phones straight off, without fiddling with the EQ settings, so if you're one who uses their phone a lot to listen to their music it's a combination worth thinking about.
But I must admit, as an audiophile and musician I don't find it all particularly impressive – it sounds great but not amazing. If I was going to choose between buying a pair of Beats or Sennheisers, I would probably choose the latter. It seems to me that the Beats audio integration is more of a pre-set EQ setting and if you fiddle with your EQ settings in your player on your phone and you have a good set of headphones, you don't really need the whole Beats package. But it is a stylish package and you can look like Chad le Clos at the pool if you have the whole set up at least.
Beats Studio - certainly looks stylish!
Windows impresses me – for the first time
I've had a fair amount of experience with Windows throughout the decades and all of Microsoft's Windows Phone iterations. I had several Compaq PDA's in the 90's and early 2000's with Windows CE and upgraded to several HP smart phones with Windows Mobile and its many versions.
Then eventually I moved to HTC with a later version of Windows Mobile / Windows Phone (with its confused branding) and loved the phone but not so much the operating system. When you still have to use a stylus to send an SMS and navigate while your friend can just do everything with their fingers on the iPhone and look stylish doing it, you start feeling like you're definitely losing out!
Now I'm on Android and love it. But what I saw yesterday at the Windows Phone 8X launch really impressed me and I think Microsoft have finally got it.
Let's talk firstly about just the look and feel of the operating system. Microsoft have gone for something entirely different when you compare it to the iPhone and Android and quite honestly, I feel like I'm in Star Trek when I have the Windows Phone 8X in my hands. Applications being accessed through tiles (which you can resize and move around) just works. I don't actually miss not having a wallpaper background on the phone.
The idea is that information comes to you rather than you having to go looking for it. So, for example, you can make the tile for an app you use regularly quite large so that the information feeds to you straight away without you having to actually click the tile and access the application. Apps like Skype and Facebook integrate very well with contacts too, so that you can just browse your address book and keep up to date with where people are at on their social networks and if you call them on Skype the interface looks and feels the same – all that changes is that you'll see a little Skype logo in the corner.
A lot of what Windows Phone 8 does isn't new – despite the marketing and PR we're fed – but the look and feel of it is just that much slicker, in my opinion. Furthermore, there are two features which are new and I think are worth highlighting.
Calls coming in from Skype look exactly like ordinary calls, except for the logo at the top left.
Creating groups on a smart phone isn't a new idea – for example, I have a group called 'family' on my phone so I can just SMS everyone in that group at one time. But Windows Phone 8 allows you to also create rooms where you invite people in (they don't even need to be on Windows Phone 8) and in a room you can share photos, update lists, share calendars and keep up to date with each other – all in real-time.
For example, I can create a grocery list in the 'family' room and my wife and I can see it and update it in real-time, so that if she's at the mall and I'm popping into a store I can see that she just bought the milk and I don't need to worry about picking it up. If she's just taken a photo of my son I can see it appear straight away in the room – so I can keep up to date with what's going on without ever needing to access Facebook or Twitter or a myriad of other apps.
This is the difference with Rooms. I can do all the above with various apps on my Android, but Windows Phone 8 creates a central space where it's all done for you. It's clean, easy to use, and doesn't get in the way.
Rooms are a great new feature in Windows Phone 8
2. Kids Corner
From the lock screen you can scroll right and then down and the phone locks you into “Kids Corner” - an area where only selected apps can appear. To get out of it you need to lock the screen and punch in a code. So this means you could leave your phone with your kid – putting their name and a photo of them in the area – and give them access to only those apps and features you want them to access.
While Android's latest update does allow you to create profiles on the phone, I must admit that the ease-of-access to Kids Corner is brilliant and it's very easy to set up.
Kids Corner on Windows Phone 8
Microsoft's Office advantage
Microsoft is very excited about the integration of its Skydrive cloud service into Windows Phone 8 but I don't think it's really ground breaking. However, the fact that Microsoft are the creators of Office is worth mentioning. Office on Windows Phone 8 is really very nice and the integration with Skydrive works very well. It'll be interesting to see how well the phone plays with Google Drive, Dropbox and so on.
Will it eat bandwidth?
The idea of Windows Phone 8 is that it is constantly live-updating, feeding you information, keeping you up to date with your friends and so forth, keeping your Skydrive cloud up to date, and syncing with Office, without you really needing to go looking for the information. It sounds great in practice but will it eat a lot more bandwidth?
Anthony Doherty, Microsoft Operator Channel Executive, says that the phone is well within the levels of bandwidth usage we've come to expect from a smart phone.
“We've checked with the Operators and they say it fits right in with what's acceptable,” he says.
The question can only be answered by actual usage, however, so once Do Gaming receives a review unit this will be analysed.
The disappointment – SA Xbox services still behind, localised app store
I left this last, although admittedly it was one of my first concerns – how well does Windows Phone 8 work with the Xbox 360 and its services in South Africa? The answer doesn't look very promising and Microsoft's answers are very vague.
All that is really officially supported right now is Xbox Smartglass – which allows you to control your Xbox 360 through your phone, play music and so forth. But all the overseas advertising points towards the Xbox music service, which Microsoft cannot comment on right now for South Africa. Furthermore, it's unclear (Microsoft South Africa don't know yet) how I'll be able to link my Windows Phone 8X with my Xbox 360 overseas account.
Why do I have an overseas account, you might ask? Because the local Xbox 360 service is pretty useless. There are only a handful of games there – admittedly, the problem is sitting with the FPB – and it's missing many services which my overseas account gives me access to. If Microsoft want to force me to a local service then I'll be deeply disappointed.
Microsoft have stated that their app store will be localised. So FNB apps and so forth will appear on top ten lists and so on. But the idea of a localised store makes me nervous – despite how public relations want to spin it – because if the Xbox service is anything to go by, we'll never see anything near the 120,000 apps Microsoft currently claims it has in its app store.
Furthermore, whether or not my Xbox friends will appear as part of my contacts and messaging on my phone is a question Microsoft South Africa can't answer, amidst a flurry of other questions I have with how Xbox will work with all this. I'm waiting for Xbox South Africa to get hold of me on these and other questions.
I love the look, feel, speed and overall experience of the Windows Phone 8X by HTC. A lot. Much more than I ever expected. HTC are really doing well with what I'm seeing coming from them on both the Android side and now the Windows side. I really think this is a phone worth talking about.
Incidentally, HTC will also be releasing the Windows Phone 8S, which is the little brother for those who want something easier on the wallet. We'll have to see how that measures up when we get one of those.
All-in-all, even if you don't like Microsoft or Windows 8, check out the Windows Phone 8X by HTC. I believe it's really worth considering.
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