HTC 8XT review: a midrange phone in flagship clothing
The last Windows Phone to make an appearance on Sprint retail shelves was also the company’s first – and it also hailed from HTC. The Arrive, a side-sliding QWERTY smartphone that made up part of the original Windows Phone 7 rollout back in 2011, has for the past two-and-a-half years represented Sprint’s only modern Microsoft offering – a sad state of affairs for fans of Live Tiles on America’s third-largest network. So the HTC 8XT, with its modern build, BoomSound speakers, and up-to-date Windows Phone 8 operating system, is a sight for sore eyes. It’s bound to be an improvement over the Arrive in almost every way – but is that enough to justify its evocative high-end branding, or should this phone have been called the “8ST” instead? Let’s find out.
Videos · Specs/Hardware · UI · Camera · Performance
Specs & Hardware
In terms of the spec sheet, the 8XT definitely resembles HTC’s earlier, less-impressive 8S more than the flagship 8X. A colored accent stripe highlights the capacitive keys at the bottom of the device, which sit below a 4.3-inch LCD screen that’s not gonna turn any heads with its WVGA (800×480) resolution. The display’s pixel density of 216 ppi isn’t the worst around – but it definitely isn’t crisp enough to hold up next to the higher-resolution screens of the 8X or Lumia 1020 – and its colors really wash out at certain angles.
The display’s ho-hum nature is doubly disappointing, because the hardware surrounding it actually gives off a fairly high-end vibe. The soft-touch paint job feels incredibly smooth and comfortable in the hand, and while the California Blue paint job makes it seem somewhat toylike in photos, in person it looks terrific. The curved back cover nests nicely in the palm, the phone’s 9.9mm thickness a perfect match for its 140g mass. HTC’s branding is minimal and perfectly set off by the phone’s design, the buttons are where we expect them to be, and the camera bezel, though a little alien-looking, bears an attractive metallic finish. The phone pulls off the “beautiful-but-durable” combination very well; it’s no wonder HTC has received its share of design awards for its mobile hardware.
Down in engineering, things are a little more commonplace: powering everything is a dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 (MSM8930) running at 1.4GHz and helped along by a gig of RAM and a paltry 8GB of storage – only 4.9 of which is available to the user on first boot.
Thankfully, there’s MicroSD expansion here for media, but the same can’t be said for the non-removable 1800mAh lithium-polymer battery, which is embedded below the sliding back cover. Otherwise, it’s a pretty tame cocktail of Bluetooth 4.0, Wifi a/b/g/n, NFC, and radios for Sprint’s 3G CDMA and 1900MHz 4G LTE; there’s nothing terribly special about this phone’s spec load.
Here’s where we normally follow that up by reminding you that Windows Phone is a very consistent and responsive platform, no matter what specs it’s running on. Well, that is indeed normally true – but not, sadly, on the 8XT. Frankly, this phone has some significant performance issues.
To begin with, doing anything while there’s a music-streaming app playing in the background is a virtual guarantee of lag and stutter. Try streaming anything from Pandora or Spotify over cellular, even over LTE, and then spend a few minutes in Twitter, or the People hub. Not only will the audio start breaking up, with pops and clicks as though it’s an old AM radio, but the phone’s UI slows to a crawl, too, with animations grinding to a skittering halt and keypresses not always logging correctly. This seems to happen irrespective of what media app you’re using, whether over headphones or speakers, whether Beats is enabled or not. Sometimes it happens when you’re not even playing music at all: the phone will just bog down for no apparent reason, only to then go on behaving normally for a few minutes more before doing it again.
While that’s the most serious issue, it’s sadly not the only one: we’ve also run into problems on phone calls. We’ll save you the jump down to Test Notes and just tell you here that phone call performance is only so-so to begin with, on both sides: callers said we sounded just okay, and to us, people came through a bit muffled. But that’s not the issue: the problem is that the 8XT periodically, for no reason, turns the screen on while you’re talking, causing your cheek to trigger the speakerphone or conference call toggles, or even hit the end-call key.
If these sound like the kind of issues found on a defective phone, we thought so too – we asked HTC for a replacement demo unit and to the company’s credit, it immediately sent one over. We also decided to hold this review while we tested the device over a longer span of time (which also gave us the breathing room we needed to cover the Moto X and LG G2).
Unfortunately, the new phone pretty quickly started displaying the same exact set of symptoms. Thinking we were suffering from the wrath of a poorly coded third-party app, we restored the device to factory settings and installed only a handful of quality apps. The lag and stutter disappeared for a few days, but then ultimately returned. It seems pretty clear the 8XT’s software (which is the production release packing the new GDR2 update) is rather undercooked in some areas.
Commenters in various 8XT threads across the web are divided on this matter; it appears some devices out there work well, while others display some of the exact problems we’re reporting. It’s quite possible these issues are confined to a few bad production batches, of course, but that’s not exactly reassuring. From our perspective, this device is very much in need of some software refinement. We reached out to HTC for comment, but the company could give us no official word on when it will update the 8XT.
It’s possible (though this is pure speculation on our part) that some of those bugs are coming from HTC’s heavier-than-usual customization of Windows Phone. If so, that’s a shame, because some of the company’s modifications to the platform are actually quite welcome. The camera overhaul is one of them.
This isn’t a hardware story: the 8XT packs a fairly typical backside-illuminated CMOS sensor (8MP, 1.4um pixel size, F2.0) around back. Rather, it’s the software that makes the phone’s shooter stand out from the Windows Phone pack.
The viewfinder is essentially a “Windows-ification” of HTC’s awesome viewfinder from the One, with many customization options: filters, granular sliders, and special shooting modes like HDR are here, replete with indicators telling you what mode you’re shooting in (take notes, Microsoft).
Though it’s becoming typical on high-end smartphones, we’d be remiss not to mention HTC’s time-saving persistent double-shutter keys for stills and video. That quick-draw video trigger helped us capture this bit of footage of a rapidly-passing train, something we wouldn’t have been quick enough to snag had we been using the standard Windows Phone viewfinder:
The video itself is quite nice, and the still-image results aren’t bad, either. Colors are typically nice and rich, and with enough light the camera can deliver some pretty fine results outdoors, especially if you make use of the various shooting modes available – and maybe fiddle with a filter or two here and there, just for fun:
Indoors, pictures are a little less impressive, sometimes overexposed, with edges a little blurrier and colors a little more washed-out. A deluxe-edition camera this is not, but for the typical smartphone shooter it should do fine:
Finally, the front-facing camera (a 1.6mp unit) is as usual nothing to write home about:
The 8XT performed well in terms of reception, keeping pace with the Sprint HTC One as we darted to and fro between suburban Greater Boston and rural New York State over the course of a few weeks. Throughput was pretty inconsistent on LTE, jumping from download highs in the low-20Mbps range around midnight to comparatively-sluggish 2Mbps speeds around rush hour, and everywhere in between. Again, voice calls were unremarkable – when we weren’t busy accidentally hanging up on people with our cheek, that is.
One of the halo features of the 8XT is BoomSound, HTC’s forward-firing speakers paired with Beats Audio. It’s the first time such a combination has ever been seen on Windows Phone, and it works brilliantly. Sound is loud and clear, with quite a bit of bass and almost no distortion even at maximum volume. If the screen were a bit bigger, this would be the perfect phone to take in a movie on Netflix – and even as it is, it’s a very enjoyable viewing experience thanks to those speakers.
Audio performance over the included earbuds is quite nice, as well – including FM radio listening, which we found surprisingly static-free.
Just keep an eye on your battery when you’re blasting that media, though: the lower-capacity pack does indeed result in a pretty spare run-time. With heavy use, we managed to exhaust the power pack in quite a bit less than a day. That’s backed up by the benchmarks: at an endurance time of only 01:55:38, the phone scored lower in the WPBench exhaustion test than other devices like the Lumia 1020 (03:17:00), Lumia 920 (02:30:00), and even the Lumia 820 (02:11:00). You probably don’t want to leave home without a charger if you’re going to be taking the 8XT on a day-long trek.
The Windows Phone ecosystem has been growing steadily, and we were happy to see Nokia’s HERE suite, which is a huge value-add as HTC has yet to match Nokia’s custom titles in volume or in usefulness. That said, HTC’s custom Windows Phone hub adds some nice flair to the homescreen and provides a convenient shortcut to news, weather, and stocks, in addition to an instant visual differentiation from other Windows Phones. Also nice to see: the data-metering and rationing app Data Sense, which we miss on our AT&T Lumia 1020. Of course there’s the usual Sprint bloatware here too, which you’ll probably want to uninstall considering its poor showing in Windows Store reviews.
+ Attractive hardware design
+ BoomSound lives up to its name
+ Third-party ecosystem improving
+ Camera viewfinder more useful than stock
+ Micro SD expansion
– Stuttery, unreliable UI
– Unremarkable screen, camera hardware
– Battery life sub-par
Pricing and Availability
If you’re looking to “amplify your world,” the 8XT is available via Sprint for the regular retail price of $399.99, or $99.99 on a two-year contract with the Now Network. You can have any color you want, as long as it’s California Blue. It’s a shame HTC ditched that Moto X-like customization it had planned for the phone, as that could have gone a long way toward making up for some of the device’s flaws.
We want to like the 8XT as much as any other midrange Windows Phone – we really do. Its hardware is beautiful, its camera software is fun, and its BoomSound implementation is even better than the One’s. But its software just doesn’t measure up. Now, is the 8XT the first phone we’ve encountered with a laggy or buggy UI? Absolutely not. But as we said on the most recent Pocketnow Weekly podcast, we’ve come to expect a minimum standard from Windows Phone; if nothing else, you can usually count on phones running the platform to be snappy and reliable, regardless of their specs. So the 8XT’s failure to deliver in that area is jarring.
Can you live with the 8XT in its current form? Probably, if you don’t listen to much music and don’t mind occasionally putting your calls on speakerphone by accident. But those are sacrifices you shouldn’t have to make in 2013, especially on Sprint’s first new Windows Phone in over two years. A software update would fix all of this -and we hope it does- but we have no way of knowing when HTC will get around to that. If it happens, we’ll do our best to circle back and report on the improvements.
If you’re considering many carriers, there are plenty of other, better Windows Phones out there that deliver a much more polished experience than the 8XT does. But if you’re sticking with Sprint and dead-set on getting yourself a Windows Phone, this device is one of only two choices available to you (Samsung’s ATIV S Neo goes on sale this Friday). We won’t be sure whether the 8XT is the better of the two options until we review Samsung’s offering, but without some software refinement it’s not looking good. And we’ve gotta be honest: considering HTC’s track record for quality, that’s pretty disappointing.