When the images first started flowing into the office from the HTC announcement this morning, I got really excited.
Here at Pocketnow, we like a lot of HTC’s products; AT&T’s version of the One X was the first device I ever gave the full-review treatment to, and I had lots of nice things to say about that halo Android product. But HTC isn’t exactly known for changing up the formula; as well-engineered as many of its smartphones are, they often roll off the line looking a lot like their siblings, coated in matte and semi-gloss variations on white, gray, or black.
Not so with the new Windows Phone 8X and 8S. Unveiled earlier today, HTC’s first Windows Phone 8 smartphones are a sorely-needed color injection into the formerly monochromatic landscape of HTC’s Redmond-rocking hardware, a cluster of Skittles breaking the monotony of a Mentos world.
But bringing our favorite mnemonic uncle ROY G. BIV into the equation isn’t just notable in light of HTC’s history. Let’s face it: in the small pond of Windows Phone handsets, the most colorful player has always been Nokia. The cyan polycarbonate of the Lumia 800/900 and the multicolored backs for the Lumia 710 gave us an inkling of what was to come, but not until the new Lumia family broke its cover earlier this month did the full spectrum of dazzling eye-candy reveal itself. Nokia did a good job of staking its claim on the “most colorful Windows Phone” territory relatively early. As a result, “Nokia” was the first word that leapt to mind when I first laid eyes on HTC’s new offerings.
I’m not saying one company should have a monopoly on offering color choices, or that HTC is necessarily aping its Finnish competition. But the new HTC Windows Phones do call to mind the Lumia device family, which prompts the important question: how do they stand out? What has HTC brought to bear to challenge the dominance of Microsoft’s golden-child Windows Phone hardware OEM?
HTC’s Director of Public Relations Tom Harlin helped define the company’s differentiation strategy for its new line today, telling ABC News that “what is going to set it apart is the iconic design, the amazing sound experience, and the world-class camera and the very sleek form factor” [Emphasis ours]. Let’s briefly touch on each of these points to see how HTC’s offering stands out.
Iconic Design/Form Factor
HTC said at several points during and after its announcement that the design of its new Windows Phones was inspired by the platform’s live tiles. The company’s Graham Wheeler told The Verge that “they thought about a live tile and how that would look if that was actually a physical something you hold.” I’m not sure about the 8X, which pretty much defines minimalistic from a design standpoint, but that “inspired” thinking is certainly evident on the 8S, with its contrasting-color “chin” evoking the feel of some third-party Start Screen tiles.
While the differences between the new HTC Windows Phones and their Lumia competitors are subtle, it doesn’t take too close a look to start seeing them. HTC’s phones feature the same pillowy shape we’ve grown used to seeing since the original Evo, with tapered edges for the faux-thinness we users love to be fooled by. The casing material is polycarbonate, the material we fell in love with on the One X, and the 8S and 8X are each quite portable, weighing in at 113g and 130g, respectively. That’s a far cry from the solid heft of the Lumia 920 (185g) and 820 (160g). Which side of the weight equation you favor more will of course come down to personal preference, but there’s a definite trend toward lighter devices in the market, and HTC seems well ahead in this respect.
In the size department, HTC’s new Windows Phones are about on par with Nokia’s: all of the devices come in within a few tenths of 10mm thick, and no one’s playing games with super-thin bezels or anything of that sort, though Nokia gains some customizability points with its swappable covers for the Lumia 820.
Amazing Sound Experience
HTC has dragged out the good old Beats branding for another run around the block, but this time it’s different. Not just because these are the first Windows Phone devices to offer the specialized sound-equalization feature, either; it’s backed up by some solid hardware this time around. Rather than just using software to amp up the bass and volume of audio played through headphones plugged into the device and calling it “better,” Beats on the 8X features a dedicated amplifier not just for the headphone jack, but a 2.55-volt module for the speakerphone as well. That means louder, higher-quality audio for people who listen to their phones in the shower (hooray for me!) as well as those who blast their terrible music for all to hear on the subway (boo for humanity!).
Kidding aside, this is important because it’s the first time in a while the Beats brand has enjoyed a new differentiating feature. It’s no longer just a headphone-only game, and if Brandon Miniman’s first impressions are any barometer, it sounds like this might be one of the best speakerphone experiences to hit the smartphone world yet. That’s important in a broad sense, and it’s also something Nokia can’t yet duplicate because of the exclusive nature of the HTC-Beats partnership.
World Class Camera
Optics were a big part of HTC’s push with the One series of Android smartphones, and by extension, of the company’s brand as a whole. It took pains to point out the “amazing camera” alongside the “authentic audio” of the One X, and that push looks to be continuing in its Windows Phone efforts. The 8X features HTC’s ImageChip powering the ImageSense software suite behind its BSI 8MP primary shooter, which may or may not be the same module from the One X.
We weren’t always impressed by the One X’s camera hardware, but its software brought some excellent features into the limelight, one of the first smartphone shooters to include features like burst shot, still-shots in video, and 60fps recording. We’ll have to wait and see how much customization HTC was allowed to do on Windows Phone 8′s camera software before we draw any conclusions on its worth, but fortunately that’s not the only ace the company has up its sleeve.
The 8X features something exceedingly rare in the smartphone space: a front-facing camera that an OEM actually paid some attention to. The module on the 8X is a 2.1MP shooter with an ultra-wide angle (88-degree) lens and f/2.0 aperture. That means you’ll be able to squeeze more people into the shot if you’re videoconferencing on the go – something that a camera like this might actually make not quite so horrible.
Those are some nice standout features, and on the whole they do a nice job of setting HTC apart from the crowd. Trouble is that no one really cares much about front-facing cameras, and Nokia looks to be set on dominating the Windows Phone camera space with its PureView technology (eroded though the brand may be). The optical differentiators are nice, but they look set to guarantee HTC only a spot as a second-place contender.
In short, I’m conflicted. On the one hand, HTC’s done some solid work on its new Windows Phone 8 devices, and they should definitely be taken seriously by both consumers and competitors. The new 8S and 8X offer real, unique advantages and look to be marvelous pieces of technology, with some of the best hardware design I’ve ever seen from the company. I’m actually quite excited about reviewing them -and possibly owning one- personally. But their standout features can’t be considered in a vacuum.
Despite the slow-burning nature of the Lumia line’s success, Nokia has been Microsoft’s preferred Windows Phone partner for a while now, and that shows: the company was allowed deep access to Windows Phone 7 to tweak and enhance the platform as it saw fit, and that special arrangement looks to continue in Windows Phone 8– an arrangement that HTC doesn’t share. Sure, Microsoft has thrown the vendor some bones with its exclusive naming rights and “Windows Phone 8 Signature Device” labels (whatever that means), but they’re morsels. Not quite scraps, but certainly not on-par with the love lavished on Nokia.
Ultimately, success for HTC in the Windows Phone space is going to depend on some familiar variables: which differentiators customers care about more, and which companies do the best marketing to communicate those outstanding features. As it stands now, Nokia looks to have little to worry about from its Taiwanese competitor, but in a still-immature market like the Windows Phone landscape, things can often turn on a dime. With today’s announcements, HTC has demonstrated that it’s hungry for a piece of the pie; if I were Stephen Elop, I’d be keeping a close eye on those folks.
HTC’s Tom Harlin quote source: ABC News
HTC’s Graham Wheeler quote & additional information source: The Verge
Title image, camera image source: WPCentral
Additional images: GSMArena