Microsoft's cross-device change of tack with Windows 8 and the Metro/Modern interface has captured a lot of attention. The design and UX teams have done a great job coming up with a look and feel that works and looks great on tablets, desktops, and laptops of all shapes and sizes. And with their latest venture into the smartphone market, they've partnered with HTC, who have extended the Metro look and feel into the physical form factor of the flagship 8x.
There's no question about it — this thing is slick. Its about the nicest handling phone I've yet encountered; as comfortable in the hand as it is good looking and smooth in operation. . . Seriously, on design and usability Microsoft seems to gave leapfrogged all of Apple's recent efforts, and the HTC packaging of the experience extends the interface nicely.
Looking for something work oriented? Office 2013 is baked right in, with surprisingly full-featured mobile apps that'll let you catch up on office action (or pretend you're doing so) from wherever you are. There are some downsides to the Windows Phone experience — Google is somewhat less than interested in developing apps or providing services for the platform; popular services like Dropbox still lack official apps — but for those interested in a comfortable, smooth performing device with the nicest interface out there that integrates well with Windows-centric work and home computing lives, it probably makes sense. Also, for those of you with small children, the Kids Corner feature (which lets you set up a separate home screen with locked, limited app access for when the little ones demand your phone) might be enough of a selling point.
But you can find out about that sort of thing elsewhere. What about its entertainment potential?
When setting up your 8x you'll do so using your Xbox Live account — and your music and video purchasing and streaming will, if the current state of Windows 8 apps is any indication, be done via the Xbox store. That means access to Microsoft's large library of streaming music (somewhere around 18 million titles), movies, and games, as well as being onboard with a company of sufficient corporate muscle to keep those licensing deals in place — but it means another new streaming service subscription (though if you're already using an Xbox 360 as your home entertainment hub, you might find this welcome). You'll be depending on Xbox Music, in particular, given that popular services like Spotify and Pandora have yet to roll out Windows 8 apps. If you are interested in music discovery features, Xbox Music offers their own Pandora-like Smart DJ, which generates effective related content, though it doesn't surprise as often as the curated Slacker Radio — which you will find on Windows Phone 8, and that may be enough to tide you over if you don't feel like signing on with Xbox Music once you've finished your 30-day free trial)
As Geoff Morrison has pointed out repeatedly with regard to tablets, it's content access that matters, and that goes double for the new devices with less (and more locked down) storage capacity, whose designers expect you to stream or rent from the company store. The onboard storage — 16 GB — is smaller than I'd like, and there's no provision for microSD cards. Power users will likely be annoyed, though there's the option of carrying around a wireless NAS like the Kingston Wi-Drive for additional space.
Mac users are going to find that they can't just hook up the 8x to their desktop machines to copy stuff over as if it were a drive — it's not accessible as mass storage on the Mac. You've got to download and install the Windows Phone app from the App Store, which annoyed me somewhat at first, but it seems like everybody's going in this direction these days (HTC has HTC Sync Manager, Samsung has Kies, Apple has that iTunes thing. . .) so it's not anything to lose sleep over. And hey, this is a Windows phone, after all.
But enough complaining. There's a lot of great stuff here.
The music player's about the most beautiful mobile interface I've yet seen — far slicker than anything Android or iOS has to offer at this point (and frankly, the same can be said for most of the OS). Make sure you have your album art up to date; the lovely scrolling displays here do it justice better than about any mobile application to date.
HTC's ongoing partnership with Beats means the ubiquitous Beats Audio subroutine and its associated (and fairly substantial) gain boost and EQ settings are present; if you own a pair of Beats headphones the phone will auto-detect them on connection and apply a preselected EQ profile to "enhance" their performance; effects with other headphones are somewhat unpredictable. The results aren't always unwelcome — a bit of bass and presence boost — but I preferred playback with the routine switched off (which is easy enough to do). As I've said with relation to other HTC phones, I'd much prefer to see user programmable EQ, which would be more applicable to the wide range of headphones and speakers that people use these days. Someday, I hope…
But software EQ aside, HTC's also been improving their audio hardware, and the 8x includes an improved headphone amp, supplying greater voltage to the 1/8-inch output. It's a feature we got pretty excited about when we were first informed of its existence — really one of the big selling points of the handset for S+V readers, we'd thought here at the office.
In practice, the 8x drove various pairs of portable headphones to similar levels, well before running out of headroom — Like the Galaxy Note II, the 8x had plenty of juice to push typical portable headphones, from the various sets of custom in-ear monitors we've been examining lately to the V-Moda M-100 and M-80, and various models in the UrbanEars and Logitech UE lineups. It's got enough oomph to drive the relatively inefficient HiFiMan HE-500 or Audeze LCD-3, but it can't do so with any sort of authority unless you have Beats Audio switched on — which, if you have headphones like that, you likely won't want to do. But if you don't mind the Beats sound, you'll certainly have plenty of volume on tap for whatever headphones you're likely to be carrying around with you.
Basically the increased voltage may not be a real game changer that'll obsolete portable headphone amplifiers, but it means at least you won't find yourself stuck with deciding between a just-slightly too-quiet 9/10ths and a spongy dimed-out setting on the volume control. It's nice to see handset manufacturers beginning to get serious about this stuff.
As was the case with the Droid DNA, storage is locked down and therefore not expandable — as with the Droid DNA and other recent HTC flagships like the one series, there's only 16 GB of memory onboard — not a ton of room for music.
One place where Windows Phone (and the 8x) might come in particularly handy is the living room (the territory that Microsoft this past year declared its intention to dominate — and where the company continues to accelerate its efforts) If you're already invested in the Xbox Live ecosystem and do your media consumption and/or console gaming on the Xbox 360, you'll be glad to see an Xbox Smart Glass app available for the 8x — this means you can use your phone as both second-screen and remote when you're on the same network. It's not quite as fleshed out as the Wii U's dedicated touchscreen controller (and indeed, your Windows Phone can't be used as a full-fledged controller), more a slimmed-down, minimal take on the Xbox Dashboard, but its second-screen functionality does seem to fill a niche a lot of might be interested in — tightly integrated background information on supported films and Xbox Music content; probably an actual improvement on just surfing on one's own while watching or listening.
Your interest in the 8x probably comes down to your interest in the Microsoft universe, and in particular the ever-expanding Xbox portion of it. If you're an Xbox 360 or Window desktop user and you're looking for a truly beautiful phone experience, and you don't demand a lot of onboard storage for a personal music collection, you probably owe the 8x a look — it'll fit right into your living room; and when you're on the go you can take your services with you. For those dependent on services and apps from other manufacturers, I don't see the 8x making a terribly compelling argument for switching over from Android or iOS.