It’s a crisp Wednesday morning, though you can’t really tell thanks to the hotel aircon blasting away. Microsoft has just spent a good hour trying to convince us that Windows Phone 8 is the second smartphone revolution.
There wasn’t much hands-on time with Microsoft’s new smartphone operating system, but HTC is piggybacking on Microsoft’s local launch to show off their shiny new Windows Phone smartphone to media.
We’re ushered from one conference room into a lift that takes us one level up into the Radisson Gautrain hotel proper where the head of HTC’s Middle East and African operations is waiting.
For us, the so-called signature device of Windows Phone 8, the Windows Phone 8X, will be our first real taste of the new version of Microsoft’s smartphone operating system.
Don’t let the name fool you though; the device is built by Taiwanese smartphone maker HTC, not Microsoft. Redmond doesn’t build it’s own smartphones… yet.
With a display measuring 4.3-inches (±110mm) along the diagonal, the HTC 8X has the smallest screen among the high-end Windows Phone 8 hopefuls.
However, considering that the device still feels large and substantial when held, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Before we got to play with the devices however, HTC’s chief of Middle East and African operations, Jon French, explained that their plan is to support the two major growth platforms in smartphones: Android and Windows Phone.
“Front-facing cameras are always an afterthought”
As he ran through the features of the device, there was a specific emphasis on the cameras of the Windows Phone 8X, which does have some stiff competition in Nokia’s Lumia 920.
What sets them apart, French told us, is that they have F2.0 lenses on both the front and rear cameras, and that the front camera boasts a wide angle lens.
“The front-facing camera is always an afterthought,” French said. However, this is not the case in the Windows Phone 8X, he said. They added a wide angle lens so more people can fit in self-shots and tried to make sure it works well in low-light.
Windows Phone 8X hands-on impressions
Some hands-on testing confirmed that the front-facing camera does take wider angle shots than devices such as the Galaxy Nexus, iPhone 4S, and HTC One X, and that it performs fairly well indoors.
HTC also opted for a design that uses sharper corners, which is in-line with the general aesthetic of Windows Phone. While the corners of the 8X aren’t quite as sharp as those on Nokia’s N9-inspired Lumia phones, they did dig into my hand when using the phone.
Others didn’t report the same issue, however, and the device is a comfortable size and weight that sits well in the hand otherwise. The back of the HTC 8X has a matte finish which not only looks and feels great, but also gives good grip compared to smooth plastic or glass.
The Taiwanese smartphone maker opted for a minimalist design that looks great while remaining functional.
Only the placement of the power/wake button along the top edge is questionable as it’s uncomfortable to reach during one-handed operation. This is a gripe that applies to HTC devices in general, however.
Unlike it’s newer Android devices, HTC has chosen a more sensible location for the micro USB port, placing it in the middle of the bottom edge of the 8X.
The volume rocker and dedicated camera button on the right side, as well as the power/wake switch are almost flush with the edges of the device so as not to spoil the minimalist aesthetic.
Our hands-on time was concluded with a quick demo of the Beats technology built into the HTC 8X.
Much has been written about whether “Beats by Dr. Dre” is a worthwhile addition or just clever marketing. While it’s well documented that Beats (at least on Android) is just equalising software, that doesn’t mean you won’t like it.
Although the time we spent playing with the feature was limited, I can say that the sound on the songs we heard was fuller on Beats headphones. On my run-of-the-mill headset with in-ear headphones I actually preferred Beats off.
Beats being toggle-able is a point worth emphasising: while HTC is marketing the feature hard, they don’t foist it on you. If you don’t like it, just don’t turn it on.
Windows Phone 8: first touch
A hands-on with our first Windows Phone 8 device wouldn’t be complete without at least a mention of Microsoft’s latest mobile OS.
From the perspective of someone familiar with the Windows Phone 7 user interface the changes are an evolution, rather than a complete overhaul.
As has been covered exhaustively, tiles now come in three sizes (small, medium, large), rather than two (medium, large), and apps have to support all three. This allows a greater level of home screen customisation.
Microsoft has also thankfully done away with the column of dead pixels on the right that housed a single arrow pointing right, indicating that you could swipe in that direction to access a menu.
For those worried that the existence of the menu might not be obvious to new users due to the arrow no longer being there, Microsoft has opted for a compromise between effective use of screen real-estate and discoverability.
Instead of having the arrow take up a whole column, it’s been moved to the bottom of the home screen and instead just takes up a row.
Overall the changes evident in the brief look at Windows Phone 8 we were afforded are welcome, and I hope a full review of the mobile OS reveals more such improvements.