Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/6692/from-mango-to-apollo-the-htc-windows-phone-8x-on-the-daily



Introduction

While almost all of the AnandTech editors are using Android or iOS smartphones as their daily driver due to the relative maturity of those platforms (and oftentimes bleeding edge hardware within), Brian learned I'd been using the Windows Phone 7.5-equipped Dell Venue Pro as my daily driver for almost a year. 2-year contract plans in the United States amount to highway robbery, but a no contract deal from T-Mobile is actually very reasonable. As someone attracted to Windows Phone's UI and someone who preferred the physical keyboard, the Venue Pro turned out to be a perfect fit.

Unfortunately, time has revealed Windows Phone 7 for what it was: a transitional offering that was practically end-of-life when it left the gate. Windows Phone 8 is Microsoft's real long haul darling, and when Brian discovered I was looking to replace my Venue Pro with something more robust, he asked HTC to send me their flagship Windows Phone 8 handset, the Windows Phone 8X. He's already run performance and battery tests, but we haven't really talked about what Windows Phone offers that Android and iOS don't, and how effective it can be as a daily driver. That changes today.

Android and iOS have both shown tremendous advancement and increased polish over their lives, but I had very good reasons for avoiding either. Whenever you buy an Apple product there's a very real concern about vendor lock-in, and since I don't run any Macs at home, that means having to suffer with the continually buggy Windows version of iTunes to manage an iPhone. The iPhone also isn't readily available on T-Mobile, currently one of the only vendors offering a reasonable no contract plan rate. Verizon's prepaid service starts at $80 for a smartphone, $20 more than T-Mobile and a paltry $20 less than their contract plan. AT&T is no better, asking $5 more than T-Mobile for a 1GB cap instead of 2GB.

What about Android? Android's main problem and uphill battle has been and continues to be fragmentation. With few exceptions, most of the vendors who add their own UI over the existing Android UI only wind up mucking up something that was mostly fine in the first place. Samsung, HTC, and LG aren't software companies, but they try to act like it. I'm also not personally fond of even the stock interface of Android, which is a bit too busy for my taste.

As a matter of personal preference, I went with Windows Phone 7.5 in the Dell Venue Pro, and then 8 with the HTC Windows Phone 8X. Metro Modern UI is mostly absurd in a basic desktop or notebook environment, but on a small touchscreen with limited real estate it makes a lot of sense. Microsoft's user experience is very clean and very snappy, but using WP7.5 as a daily driver did admittedly leave some things to be desired. The Venue Pro itself is a gorgeous smartphone, but the camera (and software) is awful, and the app ecosystem has been bare for some time. Room for improvement definitely existed.

This review is going to be a bit more editorial in nature than we usually do, detailing the experience of using Windows Phone 7.5 regularly, what Windows Phone 8 brings to the table that corrects WP7.5's flaws, and talking about what's still missing from the Windows Phone experience. But before that, a few words about the HTC Windows Phone 8X.



The HTC Windows Phone 8X

Brian already gave the HTC Windows Phone 8X a good once over here; today I'm fortunate to offer a slightly more detailed analysis beyond the existing performance metrics. The WP8X is essentially competing with the Nokia Lumia 920 as the flagship phone for Windows Phone 8, and while the Lumia 920 has benefited from a combination of Nokia's close relationship with Microsoft and Nokia's own remarkably useful app suite, it's tempting to give the slight edge to the HTC.

On paper the Lumia 920 is the more robust device, offering greater storage capacity (32GB instead of the WP8X's 16GB), better camera quality, and a slightly higher resolution IPS display. I've copied Brian's chart from his preview below to give you a better idea of specifications, adding information about the Lumia 920 in place of the Samsung Galaxy Note 2.

Physical Comparison
  Apple iPhone 5 Samsung Galaxy S 3 (USA) Nokia Lumia 920 HTC 8X (International)
Height 123.8 mm (4.87") 136.6 mm (5.38" ) 130.3 mm (5.13") 132.35 mm (5.21")
Width 58.6 mm (2.31") 70.6 mm (2.78") 70.8 mm (2.79") 66.2 mm (2.61")
Depth 7.6 mm (0.30") 8.6 mm (0.34") 10.7 mm (0.42") 10.12 mm (0.4")
Weight 112 g (3.95 oz) 133 g (4.7 oz) 185 g (6.53 oz) 130 g (4.59 oz)
CPU 1.3 GHz Apple A6 (Dual Core Apple Swift) 1.5 GHz MSM8960 (Dual Core Krait) 1.5 GHz Qualcomm MSM8960 (Dual Core Krait) 1.5 GHz Qualcomm MSM8260A (Dual Core Krait)
GPU PowerVR SGX 543MP3 Adreno 225 Adreno 225 Adreno 225
RAM 1 GB LPDDR2 2 GB LPDDR2 1 GB LPDDR2 1 GB LPDDR2
NAND 16, 32, or 64 GB integrated 16/32 GB NAND with up to 64 GB microSDXC 32 GB NAND 16 GB NAND
Camera 8 MP with LED Flash + 1.2MP front facing 8 MP with LED Flash + 1.9 MP front facing 8.7 MP with dual LED Flash + 1.3 MP front facing 8 MP with ImageChip, LED Flash + 2.1 MP front facing
Screen 4" 1136 x 960 LED backlit LCD 4.8" 1280x720 HD SAMOLED 4.5" 1280 x 768 IPS 4.3" 1280 x 720 SLCD2
Battery Internal 5.45 Whr Removable 7.98 Whr Removable 7.4 Whr Internal 6.8 Whr

The Lumia 920 has a lot going for it, but it's also a bigger, heavier phone with a slightly reduced pixel density compared to the 8X's. Internally these employ basically the same silicon; the MSM8960 and MSM8260A are the same chip with different basebands available. I will say I would have appreciated the additional storage space of the Lumia 920; 16GB is rough to live on when twenty bucks and a pair of tweezers could turn the Dell Venue Pro into a 32GB smartphone. It does bear mentioning that the 8X hasn't had the rocky launch that the Lumia 920 had.

As for the HTC Windows Phone 8X itself? The blue polycarbonate shell is beautiful without being ostentatious, and though the black levels of the display make me long for AMOLED again, the high pixel density results in incredibly sharp images. I feel like button placement could be slightly better, as I often accidentally squeeze the volume rocker while trying to press the power/lock button. I've also found the automatic brightness setting to often be a shade too dim, though ironically the phone's rear-facing camera is remarkably adept at handling low light.

Interestingly, though the 8X has a slightly lower resolution display than the Lumia 920, the change in aspect from 15:9 to 16:9 has ameliorated one of my minor complaints about the Dell Venue Pro and Windows Phone: the extra space at the top of the display stemming from the slightly taller aspect means you can still access the notification pane in applications designed for the 15:9 ratio.



The Windows Phone Interface

When Microsoft came up with the Metro Modern UI design language, their goal was essentially to streamline and simplify the interface as much as humanly possible. For me at least, this was a huge draw towards the platform (though I benefitted from arriving to the smartphone race late.) The Modern UI was designed to run in portrait mode, and it takes tremendous advantage of the increased vertical space.

If you're unfamiliar with it, Windows Phone 8's interface involves two basic screens: the start page which features live tiles, and an application list. For WP8, Microsoft has gone from having two live tile sizes to three, and while I feel like it clutters the interface, it's ultimately much more productive. The tiles both launch applications and, depending on which applications they link to, can also provide useful information, essentially combining desktop widgets with shortcuts into a single useful "button." The tiles also tend to blend together in a much neater and more orderly fashion than widgets and icons do in iOS or Android, and they're very easy to rearrange and resize. Microsoft won't let you personalize your background (only your lock screen), but you can get a lot of mileage out of customizing the start page exactly.

Meanwhile, the application list has amusingly been the standout feature of Windows Phone every time I've shown it to anyone: it's just that sensible. If you swipe left from the start menu, the application list is exactly what it sounds like: a vertical list of the apps installed on the phone, alphabetized. Icon on the left, name on the right. Once you reach a critical mass of apps, the letters of the alphabet pop up above each set of apps that start with that letter; you can tap the letter to bring up the alphabet, then tap the first letter of the app you want to find. Or, you can scroll up or down to it. Either way, to me at least, this is a very intuitive way of keeping the phone organized.

Finally, holding your finger on anything you're interested in brings up a menu that allows you to modify it. Uninstalling apps is as easy as choosing "uninstall app." "Pin to Start Menu" does exactly what it says. On the start menu itself, all of the tiles start floating, allowing you to rearrange them. You can resize them by tapping the arrow on the bottom right corner of the tile.

When you do use applications that employ the Modern UI design language, screens remain exceptionally clean. Since you're restricted to customization between having white text on a black background or black text on a white background and can only choose which accent color you want the tiles and highlights to use, the interface remains crisp and easy to understand.

Ultimately, between Windows Phone 7.5 and Windows Phone 8, the only immediately visible major interface change is the addition of the quarter-sized live tile on the start menu. You can add additional notifications to the lock screen and choose a single application to get a full text readout, but I felt like the one notification type seriously missing from the WP7.5 lock screen was a toast notification for whatever games I was playing with friends (i.e. WordFeud). Despite being able to assign a "games" icon to the lock screen, there's still no toast notification for any of the games I play. On the flipside, pinning the games I play regularly to the start menu allows the live tiles to indicate to me whenever it's my turn, so at least there's some way to know.



Essentials: The Phone

While the actual telephone part of a modern cell phone isn't necessarily the most important part anymore, it's worth noting that Microsoft has actually changed the interface here a little bit. In Windows Phone 7.5, the number keys were sizable and easy to use, but if you're in a call, the number keys switch to being half-height instead. This is one of those places where I feel like having big number keys that you can mash your idiot fists on is actually more useful, and I was sad to see it change.

That said, failing anything else, the clean Modern UI produces a very functional and easy to use phone.

Essentials: Contacts

I've been spectacularly bullish on the contact management of Windows Phone 7.5 and now 8. Windows Phone does a wicked job of integrating contacts across multiple different platforms, and it does it in a way that feels intuitive and makes migrating between phones much easier than it has been in the past.

If you've been an Android user, you'll be pleased to note that Windows Phone easily imports all of your Google contacts without a fuss. But Windows Phone can also pull contacts from Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Hotmail, Yahoo, and Outlook.com, and it integrates them all into your contact list. If you have one person in multiple places, you can easily link their different networking profiles under a single heading; typically their photo winds up being whatever they're using in Facebook, which trumps whatever you've assigned before under your Microsoft account or under Google.

With 8, though, you can also group people under...well...Groups, oddly enough. On that tab there's also the Rooms functionality, which allows individuals within a Rooms group to share photos and calendars. It can work with other platforms, but it strikes me as the kind of feature that's too parasitic to really justify itself. Groups, on the other hand, allows you to assign individuals to specific groups and thus allow you to only see the social networking feeds of the people you've assigned to those groups.

Where I think Microsoft could stand to simplify the interface a bit more, though, is by integrating the "Me" section with the "People" (contacts) section. People handles your contact list, your Groups, and your social networking feeds, while "Me" shows you your own social networking feed, gives you the option of posting something to the social networks you've entered into the phone, and lists notifications of who's tweeted you or replied to one of your posts on Facebook.

Essentials: Messaging

The Messaging section has gone completely unchanged from Windows Phone 7. There are two pages here: one for text messaging, and one for online chat services. Unfortunately, the "Online" pane really only supports Facebook chat or MSN Messenger; support for additional protocols would be appreciated tremendously. Really this should be closer to a multi-protocol desktop application like Trillian.

The text messaging threads are easy enough to navigate, though. If you receive a text from a number you haven't assigned to a contact, it's also easy to tap the number and add it either to an existing contact or to a new contact entry.



Essentials: Browser

As Brian mentioned before, the browser experience on Windows Phone 8 is improved largely under the hood. Windows Phone 8 enjoys the Trident 6.0 engine shared by Internet Explorer 10 on the desktop and even identifies itself as IE10. It's smooth and gets the job done, but actually feels too stripped down. I've come to accept that if I want Flash on a mobile platform I need to be running Android, but tab management is sorely lacking.

That isn't to say that you can't actually have multiple tabs open, but the only way you can get a shortcut to the tabs you have open without having to bring up the drop menu on the bottom of the display is to swap out the stop/reload button for it. So while the browser in Windows Phone 8 is very functional and snappy, it's extremely easy to outright forget which tabs you've left open in the first place. This was a problem in 7, and it persists here.

Again, though, performance is definitely up from 7, and compatibility as well. I've found IE10 in WP8 to be a noticeable improvement in practice.

Essentials: E-Mail

I've heard complaints of the e-mail app in Windows Phone 7 (and 7.5 and now 8) as being too stripped down, but I've never actually felt it was particularly oversimplified. I have three different e-mail boxes that I need regular access to: my personal e-mail, my Gmail, and my AnandTech e-mail. You can choose to have each mailbox store all of your e-mail from that box from the past week, from the past month, or just plain all of it. My AnandTech e-mail box is a nightmarish abyss of spam and clutter that I've done a horrible job curating, so that gets set to "past week."

What's evident is that the app is still designed as a way to check your e-mail in a pinch, not as a way to actually do your e-mail bookkeeping and keep up on all your correspondence. Unfortunately, the lack of a robust app ecosystem keeps power users from finding a more comprehensive e-mail management solution (much as it keeps power users from finding an alternative browser to IE10), so if just having e-mail threads organized by subject line and middling multi-mail selection and management isn't adequate for you, you're stuck.

Essentials: Calendar

Just as the People hub brings all of your contacts from all of your disparate social networking accounts under a single unifying banner, so the Calendar does with your events and calendars. The Calendar app is also essentially unchanged from Windows Phone 7: a single calendar aggregates your Google calendar with events from Facebook.

The complaint I've heard registered about Calendar is that it only allows for a single calendar, while Google allows you to have multiples. If you need multiple calendars to keep organized (for example, one with birthdays, one with tasks, one with meetings, and so on), this is probably going to be a dealbreaker. Note also that by default Calendar will integrate Facebook events you've been invited to but not actually responded to; this is something you can toggle off, but I'm confused as to why it's on in the first place.

Meanwhile, assuming you have it set to be the single text readout on the lock screen, the lock screen itself will tell you what, where, and when your next Calendar entry is.



Essentials: Search

One of the places where Windows Phone 8 has done an excellent job of moving forward is the "Search" function. As one of the three buttons mandated on the bottom of the actual phone, this should've been a more robust feature in Windows Phone 7 and 7.5, but I never used it on the Dell Venue Pro. It was easier for me to just type whatever I wanted to search for in the browser window.

In 8, though, things are a bit different. Now there are multiple pages under Search; in addition to conventional web search results, there's a page for News, a page for Movie Showtimes, Local Videos, Local Deals, and Local Events. This feels much more robust. On top of that, whatever you enter into the search bar will provide you with a list of web links for whatever you've searched for, along with local, media, and shopping results. Compare that to the less powerful Search function in WP7.5, which only produced local and image results alongside web.

I couldn't tell you exactly why, but I just find myself using Search far more in WP8 than I did in WP7.5. It feels like a more useful tool and less like a trojan horse for Bing.

Essentials: GPS Navigation

While it's still not the catastrophe that Apple Maps was on release, Bing Maps continues to be a sore spot for Windows Phone. The map quality itself is fine, and Microsoft has worked with Nokia to integrate vector maps, but the actual navigation leaves a lot to be desired. Simply put: Bing Maps doesn't provide turn-by-turn navigation. This was something I found myself missing intensely from my time with Android, as Google's navigation is frankly excellent. With the default Bing Maps, you have to tap the display to get the next direction instead of it just simply being read to you as you approach it.

All isn't entirely lost, though. Until recently, users of Nokia-based Windows Phones had access to Nokia Drive for turn-by-turn navigation, but as of the 23rd, anyone using a handset based on Windows Phone 8 now has access to a beta version of Nokia Drive for free. This finally adds the turn-by-turn navigation that Bing Maps was so desperately lacking, and to me this offers a legitimate solution to a baked-in feature that competing phones sporting Android and iOS have been enjoying for a long time now.

Essentials: Camera

The camera app on Windows Phone 7.5, or at least with the Dell Venue Pro, was frankly mediocre at best and downright terrible at worst. As someone who enjoys foisting pictures of his cat to the internet, the Venue Pro was an exercise in frustration. White balance was never accurate, detail was poor, and image stabilization was nonexistent.

If you switch to Windows Phone 8, though, you'll definitely see a benefit. Windows Phone 8 enjoys more detailed controls for the camera, face detection, and Lenses functionality (the default Bing lens allows you to scan barcodes and text and use it to search online.) On top of that, you benefit from the advances that have gone into smartphone camera hardware in general. The WP8 camera is more responsive, easier to use, and produces far superior point and shoot photos than the Dell Venue Pro did.



Migrating from Windows Phone 7.5

If you're one of the precious few people who invested in Windows Phone 7 and 7.5 like I did, Windows Phone 8 is going to feel pretty lackluster initially, if not even capable of engendering a mild feeling of resentment. Windows Phone 7 was a rough draft and a product with no real future the moment it left Microsoft, and they knew it. If you're a Blizzard fan you're probably used to being treated like a free beta tester, but for the rest of us, the relatively barren app ecosystem, entry level operating system, outdated hardware, and lack of support even from Microsoft undoubtedly felt disappointing.

With all that griping said, though, you couldn't really deny that Microsoft had produced a very polished experience. More than anything, Windows Phone 7 was stable. While Android and iOS can suffer from apps becoming increasingly bloated (leaving some handsets nigh unusable), WP7 was able to make even its fairly outdated hardware at least feel snappy. Any problems I had with the Dell Venue Pro were because of the Dell Venue Pro, and not its operating system.

Switch to Windows Phone 8 and things change a little bit. The expanded hardware support means we get phones like the HTC Windows Phone 8X that are remarkably fast, fully-featured pieces of kit; multiple reviews of the 8X, ironically enough, wanted an Android version of it. With the lackluster hardware support of WP7 out of the equation, WP8 feels snappier still and remains an incredibly responsive operating system. If you liked how smooth WP7 felt, you'll love WP8.

The problem is that it's not quite as stable as WP7 was, and that's due chiefly to app compatibility. While I haven't had any major problems with the hardware or even most of the software I've run on it, Zynga's bloated code nightmare Words with Friends has caused my handset to either hang or reset multiple times. I would expect users running older WP7 and 7.5-based applications to have a mostly trouble free experience (and certainly worlds better than Android), but there are still hiccups here and there.

As for actually making the jump from 7.5 to 8, since the UI is almost exactly the same, it's incredibly easy to switch. Everything is where you left it, it's just now there's more of it. The quarter-sized live tiles are a welcome addition, the faster hardware is a major improvement, and probably best of all, Microsoft is starting to really throw their weight behind the OS and its app ecosystem. Third party apps exist to handle a lot of what you're looking for, and they do it reasonably well, but I'm really looking forward to an official Pandora app. Nokia making Drive available for all WP8 handsets is also a major boon. While Apple Maps turn-by-turn navigation was likely to lead you to the family from The Hills Have Eyes, at least you didn't have to look at or tap the display to get there.

Managing your Windows Phone from your computer has also gotten dramatically easier. You no longer use the Zune software (putting one of the last nails in Zune's coffin) for WP8; instead, the Windows Phone (helped by its new NT-based kernel), after a Windows Update, can basically be navigated to as conventional storage. That means you can simply drag and drop music, video, photos, documents, and even ringtones directly into their respective folders straight from Windows Explorer. It's a huge usability improvement. If you'd still rather use a dedicated application to handle it, you can download one from Microsoft, but this is a tremendous improvement over having to fuss with Zune.



What's Missing

While Windows Phone 8 keeps everything you loved about Windows Phone 7 and 7.5, we're still unfortunately dealing with the same chicken and egg problems that WP7 had in terms of apps. When I started using the Dell Venue Pro, it was pretty clear I'd at least lost a few things switching over from the Android-based LG Optimus V. The lack of good turn-by-turn navigation (and no clear recommendation on a replacement for WP7), no official Pandora app (when even BlackBerry had one), no alternative browsers, and a lot of social games that were available for iOS and Android. The Dell Venue Pro wasn't even able to operate as a Wi-Fi hotspot.

Over time, some of these problems have been ameliorated. Just about all modern smartphones can function as a Wi-Fi hotspot now (the HTC 8X included, of course.) The recently added Nokia Drive+ Beta still needs traffic information, but at least we have useful turn-by-turn navigation now. Third party apps have been mostly available to pick up the slack for missing services, and Microsoft's increased push with WP8 seems to be gradually yielding fruit. Zynga may have produced crappy ports for WP8, but at least they're there now.

Gaming itself does seem to continue to be a sore spot for Windows Phone, though. Users get a handful of high profile titles (I was surprised Final Fantasy was available), but nothing as high rent as the games available in Tegra Zone for Android. Nobody's going to be playing Grand Theft Auto III on their Windows Phone anytime soon, but they can if they get an iPhone or Android phone. EA has thrown us a bone here and there and heaven help you, you can get your Angry Birds fix, but unless you're happy with just games like Wordament (like I am), this may not be the platform for you.

Frankly, the problem is that while I feel like Microsoft has done an excellent job of trying to tap into existing ecosystems, they're nonetheless having to build their own from the ground up. Android and iOS are both mature with a lot of software and services to their credit, but Microsoft's had a very hard time getting and keeping all of its different services under the same roof. This past year they've been heavily condensing their branding, doing away with Live and Zune and folding entertainment features squarely under the Xbox banner, but the damage is done.

Microsoft may be wearing the prettiest dress, but they're still late to the party and there's a lot of catch-up to do. I think they can do it, because this is Microsoft we're talking about, but those of us willing to either migrate over to Windows Phone 8 or just jump in as our first serious smartphone investment are unfortunately going to have the unenviable task of providing the chicken that will hopefully start laying app-flavored eggs.



Conclusion

Despite the moderate shortcomings of Microsoft's platform, due at least substantially to its relative youth, I can't help but continue to be bullish on Windows Phone. It's still very clearly an also-ran despite the sometimes brilliant innovations and design at its core, but it also suffers from having to build its brand essentially from the ground up. I'm not entirely convinced this is the platform for gamers or serious power users, and I think the fact that I'm the only AnandTech editor using Windows Phone as their daily driver is telling.

I absolutely think Windows Phone is one of the best options, if not the best option, for the average consumer that wants a fairly robust smartphone, though. That's only further solidified by the additions in WP8. Of all the people I've shown WP8 to, only one has actually disliked it. For most users, Microsoft has effectively out-Apple'd Apple in producing an experience that's easy to use and easy to understand. For me, personally, WP7.5 and now WP8 aren't just adequate for my daily use, they're perfect for it. The social media integration in Windows Phone is absolutely fantastic, and the operating system is a joy to use.

With WP8, Microsoft has also brought the hardware up to where it needs to be. The HTC Windows Phone 8X isn't some bargain basement phone; this is a modern handset with a dual-core SoC from Qualcomm, a reasonably fast GPU, a healthy amount of memory, a beautiful 720p display, and overall excellent industrial design. It has all the modern bells and whistles but LTE (available on the MSM8960 version), including front and rear-facing cameras (complete with Skype support), dual band Wi-Fi, and an NFC radio.

Two problems face Microsoft at this point. I feel like the Windows Phone experience is solid enough that it can sell itself just by getting the phones into peoples hands, so long as they're willing to keep an open mind and not immediately just think "oh, well it's not an iPhone" or "oh, well it's not Android." That's a tough thing to do, but those "swing state voters" are out there in great enough abundance to make a difference.

The other problem is the lack of a solid app ecosystem, and this is something that looks to be improving by the day. Microsoft is throwing a lot more weight behind WP8 than they did behind WP7 because they need it to be successful, and while I think gaming may be a reoccurring problem, popular services are liable to start appearing on the platform with greater and greater frequency.

Ultimately I would recommend both Windows Phone 8 and the HTC Windows Phone 8X without hesitation to the vast majority of users. Users stuck in Apple's ecosystem might have a hard time migrating, but Google users will only have to sacrifice some of their apps; Microsoft has done a lot to integrate outside services and streamline them with their own. If you're already on Windows Phone 7.5, I'm sorry you got hosed, but this is a worthwhile jump to make and a much safer one. Windows Phone 7 was Microsoft getting their foot in the door, but 8 is the chosen one. You'll get a better phone, a better operating system, better support, and a better collection of apps available.

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