Many of you know that I bought a Windows RT tablet, which my entire family (parents, child, and spouse) are all coveting – which means it's a winner – assuming the kids decide that it's cool. What you may not know is that I bought an HTC 8x this week so I can report on how things are going with this device. The short answer to that is really, really well. Since the iPhone seems to be dropping in the "cool" factor of late as it is adopted by <sarcasm> beloved groups like the TSA and NTSB </sarcasm>, I think this may represent an opportunity for Microsoft to gain a strong third place in the smartphone wars. While I've only had a couple of days with the device, I have some initial observations, for you, the benevolent gentle reader of this blog.
Basics: The device is $199 with a two year contract, or $525 out of contract. The HTC 8X supports Verizon's unbelievably fast LTE wireless connection as well as Bluetooth, 802.11n, and Near Field Communication. Unlike every phone I've had in the last 7 years or so, there is NOT any kind of expansion slot for flash memory, and there is no wired connection which allows you to connect your phone to your monitor or TV set. (While I have had devices for the last five years which supported MicroHDMI connections, I have yet to find a compelling reason as to why I would need to do this, so I'm going to declare the video connections not needed.) The strong cloud integration appears to compensate for the lack of a flash memory expansion slot, but I'll know a whole lot more in a month or two, after I've seen what streaming music from Xbox Music does to my data usage.
It's Obscenely Easy to Set Up
Really. I set up my phone in about 15 minutes, including four e-mail accounts, LastPass, LinkedIn, Twitter, and FaceBook. I even set up the "all you can eat" Xbox music subscription in this time, as well as downloaded all of the files. Really. Easy. Like your parents can handle this, and be bored doing it easy. The cool thing is that the integration between all of these services is very, very good. The information your contacts disclose to you through social networks appears in your address book, and it includes options for texting or IM'ing your friends. Very cool, very slick, and easy to use. I connected my Office 365 account by putting in my e-mail address and the associated password – and it worked from there. Very, very cool.
One option which you may not have considered is the $9.99/mo or $99.99/yr "all you can eat" music from the Xbox Music Store. I've enjoyed the subscription so far, and have enjoyed it. Being able to access it on my PC, my Windows RT Tablet, and my phone makes a big difference to me, and the ability to download DRM-protected files means that I don't have to have a good internet connection to be able to listen to some tunes.
There's More Software Than You Would Expect
I'm not going to lie to you and tell you that it has more software than the iPhone or the Android platforms, because it doesn't have that much software – HOWEVER, for what MOST people use the device for, there are plenty of apps(***). Shopping the Windows Phone App Store is more like going to CostCo rather than your gourmet grocery store – you can get what you want in a high quality item, but there's not as much selection as you have for the iPhone (think a gourmet grocery store) – but there's a solution for just about everything. The Windows Phone 8 platform has 47 of the top 50 iPhone apps, and has many of the tools you come to expect. The Google apps are third party instead of native Google apps (e.g. GMaps, G Music, etc.), but you can access all of your Google cloud services on this platform. My phone has the following apps on it:
- Amazon Kindle
- Amazon Mobile
- American Airlines
- Calvin & Hobbes
- CFO Magazine
- Fly Delta
- Genius Scan (PDF scanner which uses camera)
- Microsoft Office
- Microsoft OneNote
- SBux Card (a third party substitute for the missing Starbucks app)
- Scan (free PDF scanner)
- Starbucks Finder (another Starbucks app)
- WSJ Live
- YouTube (third party YouTube viewer)
The LiveTiles in the interface are particularly helpful, and let you have kind of an interactive dashboard for your communications. For example, when you receive new mail, the number of messages you have not seen appears as a number on the live tile for the selected e-mail account. When new social network posts or SMS messages come through, the number of unread posts are listed on the live tile. One can "drill down" to the listing of posts, etc. by simply tapping on the Live Tile. Again, the interface has some things you have to learn about it, but it is pretty amazing .
While the industry specific applications I might use (CPA firm applications, for example) are largely not available on the Windows Phone 8 platform, just about everything I would have used is available using the mobile version of Internet Explorer 10 included in WP8. The major switch between Windows Phone 7 and WP8 is the change to run the phone on the same base code (kernel) as Windows (the "NT kernel"). This is a significant leap forward for this platform, as many people were "underwhelmed" by the Windows CE kernel used in previous iterations of this platform. I am told that the device has strong interactions with the Xbox platform, but since I do not have an Xbox, I am unable to offer an opinion, however, a person I spoke with informed me that the integrations were "sick" (I understand "sick" to mean that they are good – but as a 40-something accountant who works with technology, I'm also old enough and wise enough to be rid of any illusions that I'm "cool"). [I am who I am]
Battery Life: TBD, Love the Wireless Charging
I have not run a realistic test on the battery life yet (no overnight charge), so I can't offer an opinion on this. The cell phone stuff I read indicates that it gets a day and a half to two days of battery on a single charge, which means in English that you will have to charge it every night. The battery is built into the HTC 8X, so you can't buy a replacement battery and swap it out on the fly. I advise power users to buy a car charger, an extra micro-USB wall charger, and an external battery you can use to charge the phone. While I hope not to need the external battery, I would rather have it and not need it.
One of the other things that's interesting about it is that it uses the Qi wireless charging standard. I purchased a Verizon/LG charging pad to use with the device, and it works very well. I'll have to give a better report – but my initial view of the charging pad is that (1) I hate that it beeps loudly when you put the phone on it (woke my wife up), (2) It seems a little too easy to get things lined up wrong and have the phone not charge when on the pad. (early observations, will have more in a few weeks).
Microsoft Office on the Phone: Meh.
While the promise of having a native version of Microsoft Office on the phone sounds intriguing, I've been underwhelmed with every attempt to put Office on a Smartphone screen, and this is no exception. The real constraint which makes Office on a Smartphone impossible is the complete lack of screen real estate on these devices. While they may have good resolution, the font sizes needed because of the small (4") screen size make it impossible to use that screen resolution to good effect presenting a lot of options on the screen. As a result, the Office applications lack many features, and feel very "clunky". I would not dream of using the included Excel for anything serious, as the input and product functionality are pretty thin. Other things that may cause some heartburn include:
- There is no version of Outlook for this phone. While you can retrieve mail, you can't use it in an "Outlook style" interface.
- The lack of a flash memory slot means that if you use your phone for confidential stuff (CPA firm, HIPAA covered activities, etc.), you will have to sync your phone to get that confidential data on and off of the device, or you'll have to use a web-based portal.
While it's early days in my time with this device, the device, which is milled from a solid block of polycarbonate with a Gorilla Glass screen, feels good in your hand, and is both easy to use and flexible enough for power users. If you are not completely embedded in the Apple ecosystem (e.g. gone over to the "dark side"), this is a phone you should consider and evaluate. I'm VERY impressed with this phone, and like it as much or more than the Droid RAZR MAXX which it replaces. I think it will be interesting, and should be seriously evaluated by anyone getting a new phone, especially those who are tired of the old-school iPhone/Android interfaces, and want something a little more like a personalized dashboard. Check it out, or you will have phone envy when you see the Windows Phone your friends and neighbors purchase. It's the real deal, folks.
Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
*** The author has not counted the number of "fart" apps in the Windows Phone Store, but is convinced that it would be significantly less than the 1,123 reported which were in the Apple store in May 2011. While I am quite sure there is plenty of flatulence for those who seek it (teenage boys, for example), I think the app catalog should be judged on quality as well as quantity, and fewer flatulence apps is OK by me. While the Windows Phone 8 catalog is high quality, it could still use some more apps. Fortunately, the Store has what I need (although not all that I want), and I'm pretty happy with the quality I've seen so far.