Review

Review: Windows Phone 8S by HTC

Even though HTC may not have the brand power of Nokia in the Windows Phone realm, recently they've been coming out with some pretty impressive hardware. Sure, the Windows Phone 8X may have its flaws, but the design and build quality is impressive when combined with a decent feature set, and that's what I'm hoping will transfer to today's review device.

The Windows Phone 8S by HTC is the second device from HTC's range of Windows Phone 8 hardware, and it fills out the lower end of the market with a cheaper device that contains understandably cheaper hardware. Still, it appears that HTC hasn't skimped on development as the Windows Phone 8S comes in a range of interesting yet beautiful two-tone colors in a high-quality finish. 

Today, I have in my hands the black-and-white HTC 8S thanks to the fine fellows at HTC, so I'll get right into determining whether this is the right budget Windows Phone for your needs. I've already posted up an unboxing video if you're into those sorts of things, so I recommend watching that first to get a quick idea of what the device looks like and the contents of the box. Otherwise, let's get on with the show.

Don't want to read the entire thing? Want to see the device in action? Check out my video review here.

Specifications

There's nothing particularly flash-hot about the Windows Phone 8S's specifications, which include a modest 4.0-inch WVGA display, 1 GHz dual-core processor, a 5 MP camera and just 4 GB of on-board storage. The device is also not LTE capable, so if you're after the fastest speeds in your location you might want to look to another (and probably higher-end) phone.

The Windows Phone 8S is also not available in the United States on any carrier, meaning if you desperately want the device you'll need to import an unlocked model. HTC decided to focus their efforts on selling the widely-available Windows Phone 8X in the States while neglecting their lower-end WP8 model, but never fear, as it's available in many other territories worldwide.

  Windows Phone 8S by HTC
Product Codes A620e
3G/4G HSPA+: 42 Mbps ↓ 11 Mbps ↑
LTE: N/A
Display 4.0-inch S-LCD at 800 x 480
233 ppi pixel density
Corning Gorilla Glass
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 MSM8227
1.0 GHz dual-core Krait CPU
Graphics Adreno 305
RAM 512 MB
Storage 4 GB internal storage (~1.5 GB available)
microSD card slot
Connectivity Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n
Bluetooth 3.1
A-GPS and GLONASS
Camera 5.0 MP rear camera with f/2.8 35mm lens and LED flash
720p video recording
Ports MicroUSB
Micro SIM
3.5mm audio jack
Battery Li-ion 1,700 mAh non-removable
Launch OS Windows Phone 8, with Portico
Launch Date December 2012
Size & Weight 120.5 x 63 x 10.28 mm
113 g
Price Unlocked & Outright: AU$379 (Buy now!) | £259 ex. VAT
On Optus: Free on $35 p/m plan; 24 month contract
Available on other carriers worldwide, excluding the USA

Design

Once again, HTC has come to the table with a device that looks fantastic, especially for the class you'll find the phone resides in. Using the same soft-touch polycarbonate as the HTC 8X while opting for a two-toned color scheme, the Windows Phone 8S has the ability to turn heads and surprise customers. I received a black and white model for review, but it also comes in other visually stunning colors such as bright red, blue/black, and a strange yellow/grey combination.

Again in a very similar fashion to the Windows Phone 8X, the 8S has a rectangular profile with a curved back, allowing the thickness of the device to be hidden while facilitating ease of holding. It's not curved to the same extent as the HTC 8X because it's a smaller device overall, but this actually works in the 8S' favor as it isn't as sharp around the edges which makes it feel better in your hands. The downside of not having these somewhat pointy edges is it looks much fatter than the 8X while actually only being 0.16mm thicker.

The front panel of the 8S features a 4.0-inch display protected by strong Gorilla Glass, which also has a great feel to it thanks to the coating that HTC (and many other companies) apply. The glass does not have an "infinity" design to it - where the glass curves slightly at the edges so your fingers simply woosh off - with HTC instead choosing to include a very small plastic edge, probably to help prevent the glass from cracking. The glass also extends into the colored area at the bottom of the device, which houses the traditional Windows Phone capacitive buttons.

The whole design of the Windows Phone 8S is quite minimal and uncluttered, featuring minimal branding and other writing, and including no fancy patterns or embellishment; HTC has even gone to the effort of hiding unnecessary visual elements, such as the sensor array on the front. This adds to the brilliance of HTC's design, because it doesn't need to have a whole bunch of extra stuff to look good, relying on the two-tone color scheme to catch the eyes of prospective buyers.

Around the device you'll find that things are pretty standard: there's a power button and 3.5mm audio jack on the top, microUSB port on the bottom, and a volume rocker plus camera button on the right edge. All the buttons feel solid and well placed, including the power button which is perfectly fine being on the top edge for a device this size. The top-central placement of the camera on the back also looks good and your fingers don't generally obstruct photography.

The colored panel at the bottom of the device can be removed (with quite some effort it turns out) to reveal the micro-SIM and microSD card slots, plus a number of other markings. Note that even though you can remove this panel you can't remove the battery and the actual piece of plastic that you can remove is made of something slightly different to the rest of the device, in fact it feels like the same polycarbonate but without the soft-touch coating. The good news is that it's still sturdy, so it doesn't feel at all like you'll be breaking it.

Anyone buying the HTC 8S should be very happy with the effort HTC has put into designing this device even though it falls at the lower end of the scale. It feels great in the hand, it's not too large and it also feels very sturdy and well built. Kudos to HTC for making appealing Windows Phone hardware once again.

Display

HTC has loaded the Windows Phone 8S with a 4.0-inch S-LCD display with a resolution of 800 x 480, so it's not going to be breaking any records for the best display on the market. The actual technology used in the display has been superseded by Super LCD 2, found on higher-end devices from HTC such as the HTC 8X and the One X, but this isn't too surprising as we can't always expect the best when the phone is produced to a budget.

As far as quality goes, the display slots in somewhere between a better IPS-quality panel and the less-desirable TN panels. When viewed straight on, which encompasses the vast majority of time using a smartphone, the color quality and reproduction is quite good although slightly understated in comparison to higher quality displays. Tilting and rotating the phone can produce some weird distortions and drastic loss of brightness, which shows the mediocre viewing angles, but again you're most likely going to be using your phone straight-on.

Off-angle viewing often distorts colors

The display can also go quite bright, which is helpful when attempting to use the 8S outside in the sun and for once the auto-brightness seems to work effectively. At lower brightness levels the contrast of the display appears reasonably good, however when you get to the upper levels it's apparent how much backlight seeps through black areas - it's not as bad as I've seen on some entry-level panels, but side-by-side against a HTC 8X there is quite a large difference.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of this panel is its resolution, which does fall below the "magic" 300 ppi meaning at a reasonable viewing distance you'll be able to distinguish individual pixels. Granted, the issue isn't as bad as having the same WVGA resolution on a 5-inch panel, but after using high density panels for quite some time it becomes easy to spot density flaws in a display.

At 233 ppi the Windows Phone 8S' display density is not terrible, but text is definitely not as sharp as it might be on a panel over 300 ppi. I also found that some blocks of solid colors, such as the green Games tile on the Windows Phone Start screen, appear very slightly grainy as only one of the three subpixels is being utilized to display that color; a higher density display would have smaller subpixels and this effect would be masked.

The good news is that if you haven't used a dense display for lengthy periods of time, you probably won't notice the flaws in sharpness present in this display. HTC hasn't gone to any incredible lengths when selecting a panel for their mid-to-low-range device, but the end result isn't disappointing either and most people will be perfectly satisfied with the display included.

Software

As you might have gathered from reading this review, the Windows Phone 8S by HTC is running Windows Phone 8. There haven't been many additions to the software by HTC for this device, so for an in-depth look on pretty much everything software-related I suggest you check out my Windows Phone 8 review.

→ Windows Phone 8 review

Apart from the base software HTC has loaded on five extra applications. The Flashlight, Converter (unit converter), Photo Enhancer (basic photo editing and effects) and Connection Setup apps are all fairly self explanatory, and don't add too much to the experience except for saving you from having to download a third-party app from the Store. HTC has also included a Make More Space app, which is a fairly lackluster application for repurposing some of the limited space in the 8S.

The HTC app is the highlight of the bunch, as it delivers weather, stocks and news in the one handy application. Apart from that through a Live Tile it delivers the time and weather straight to your Start Screen, and if you choose it as your lock screen background it can deliver weather information there as well. This can be particularly handy if you want quick access to location-specific info, and the addition of Live App info on the lock screen is a feature not many other apps do at the moment.

It's also worth noting that my HTC 8S came out-of-the-box with the Portico update installed, meaning persistent Wi-Fi, SMS call reject and a few other features are already included.

Performance

Packing a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 MSM8227 chipset, the HTC Windows Phone 8S is one of the few Windows Phone 8 devices not to use the classic 1.5 GHz Qualcomm dual-core seen in devices such as the Nokia Lumia 920. Instead we have a lower-end but still capable 1.0 GHz dual-core Krait CPU coupled with an Adreno 305 GPU and 512 MB of RAM, which meets the requirements for Windows Phone 8 and should be perfectly capable.

As expected the around-the-OS performance of the HTC 8S is quite good, with the device still easily managing to render the frequent animations smoothly. Launching and resuming apps is also quite quick, but a direct comparison against the faster crop of WP8 devices shows that the 8S is edged out slightly in launch times. The reduced amount of RAM will have an effect on the multi-tasking capabilities of Windows Phone, but as long as you aren't launching an app opened days ago things should still remain fast.

The area where I have noticed the lesser performance of the HTC 8S is, surprisingly, in the locking and unlocking of the device. Occasionally I would experience operating system hangs immediately after pressing the power button, causing the device to be unresponsive for several seconds and slowing down any sort of quick device use. With my review unit it happened right from the first boot, which is disappointing but almost certainly fixable through a firmware update.

What didn't disappoint though, is the graphics performance of the HTC 8S. Despite the lower-end Snapdragon S4 Plus chipset, the Adreno 305 is still more than capable for today's Windows Phone games. Qualcomm states that the Adreno 305 is 6x faster than the Adreno 200, while the Adreno 225 found in most high-end WP8 devices is 8x faster, but as the HTC 8S only has a WVGA display (compared to 720p displays for flagship devices) the end graphics power is basically the same.

When I decided to fire up one of my favorite 3D Windows Phone games - Ragdoll Run - it actually seemed smoother than what I had experienced playing the same game on either the Nokia Lumia 920 or HTC 8X. Needless to say, you shouldn't have any issues with gaming on the HTC 8S despite the lower-end status of the device, which is very impressive.

To directly compare the Windows Phone 8S to other Windows Phones and devices on the market, I ran a couple of benchmarks which you can see the results of below. The first is Futuremark's Peacekeeper, which is run from the browser (this case Internet Explorer 10), and WP Bench, which is the standard Windows Phone benchmarking app.

Neither of these results are particularly surprising: considering the power of the HTC Windows Phone 8S I expected that the device would come in above Windows Phone 7 devices, but below the high-end crop of Windows Phone 8 smartphones.

Apart from the standard CPU/GPU performance tests, I also made sure to check out the connectivity features of the Windows Phone 8S. The phone comes with Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n, and while the chipset normally supports dual-band operation it appears as though HTC has decided not to include a 5 GHz antenna. That said I had no troubles using the 8S on my home network, and with persistent Wi-Fi available out of the box you can also save a little battery.

Bluetooth 3.1 and GPS also worked perfectly in my location, as did the HSPA radio - note that there's no LTE in the HTC 8S, but I still achieved around 8.5 Mbps down over the Optus network here in Australia which is adequate for regular internet browsing. It's also worth noting that this is the only Windows Phone 8 device on the market without NFC capabilities, which depending on how much you like sharing through NFC could be a deal-breaker for you.

For this class device the performance is definitely above average, but the storage really isn't. At only 4 GB, HTC is cutting it fine when including both the whole Windows Phone 8 OS and extra space for users to install apps, with the space quickly filling up especially after installing a few games. With a pretty standard collection of 20 or so basic apps I've already used 250 MB of the 1.5 GB allocated to users, and if I started installing a huge bunch of games that would dwindle very quickly.

It surely would not cost a great deal more to include 8 GB of storage in the Windows Phone 8S; Nokia managed it in their mid-to-low end Lumia 620, which is priced similarly to the 8S. For all the happiness I get from the performance of this low(ish) cost device, HTC hasn't completed the package by including an adequate amount of storage, and that's a smidgen of sadness to deal with.

Camera

Without a doubt the most disappointing aspect of the Windows Phone 8S by HTC is the camera, which simply doesn't cut it for most photography situations. Even though on paper the camera may appear to be okay - a 5-megapixel shooter with a f/2.8 lens - the lack of a quality sensor really lets the phone down.

Many areas of the camera I found some sort of problem with. For starters, the shutter lag (time to take a photo after the camera button is fully depressed) is quite long, often longer than you think so you'll end up moving the camera prematurely and blurring the shot. The shutter also seems to be reasonably slow even in near-perfect lighting conditions, occasionally causing blurred shots from very slight hand movements during the shot, which is immensely frustrating.

This photo is blurred (notice the bottom portion) despite a quite sunny environment

The color accuracy and vibrancy produced by the HTC 8S' camera is also quite mediocre, while the dynamic range is appalling. If you take a photo indoors with any sort of window in the shot, or you take a photo outdoors and there's a significant portion of sky in the shot, you're not going to get a very good photo at all. A perfect example of this poor dynamic range can be seen below.

Yet another problem I had with the camera was the focus, which often either refused to focus on the subject in the middle of the shot, or claimed it was in focus but clearly wasn't. With a lot of patience it's possible to get some okay-looking shots from the 8S' camera, but often you might find things are out-of-focus (like the second photo below). Expect to be taking multiple photos of the same thing to get at least one that looks decent.

Surprisingly the low-light performance of this camera is not too bad, likely due to the relatively large aperture lens and some software settings that prefer to use a higher ISO rather than a longer exposure. This can create photos that are grainy in low light, but at least you can make out what's actually being photographed as opposed to it being a blurry mess. Of course, the HTC 8S is no patch on the Lumia 920 in low-light situations, but it's not all that bad.

Something you should try to avoid using is the flash, which has a tendency to horribly wash out an image. Only use it if there really isn't enough light to make out the subject of the photo.

The video recording quality isn't too bad, but it isn't too good either especially for 720p: there is still a persistent dynamic range problem and the individual frames aren't particularly sharp, but the audio quality was surprisingly clear from the 8S' microphone. You can check out a sample video from the camera below.

Ideally I would have liked to see HTC use the 5 MP array they gave to the HTC One V, which features an f/2.0 lens and BSI sensor, but HTC must have been looking to cut costs and the camera took the biggest hit. It's really unfortunate too, as the rest of the device performs quite well for the class the device is in.

Media Playback

Just like its bigger brother, the Windows Phone 8S comes with Beats Audio enhancement technology coupled with a logo on the rear of the device. Beats Audio generally speaking does a pretty good job of enhancing the quality of music through your choice of headphones, boosting the bass without making it overpowered and tightening the sound across the entire frequency range. It doesn't always make songs sound good, as I found out while listening to Avenged Sevenfold on the 8S, but most of the time it's worth leaving enabled.

What it doesn't fix, though, is the rear speaker of the 8S which is unexpectedly awful in terms of quality. It's also quieter than the speaker on the 8X for some reason, despite the grill being physically larger, often forcing you to turn the phone right up to hear notifications while the device is on your desk. With headphones on there's a lot of room to move in regards to the volume, so be careful not to blast your eardrums wide open when listening to music.

The inclusion of a microSD card slot is remarkably handy as I can simply whack in a 32 GB card with all my music pre-loaded, and after a reboot all my songs are recognized by the Music+Videos Hub in Windows Phone. There's no need for a reformat or use of a specific folder, as the OS will take care of all the metadata importing. You'll need to save all the space you can for apps, so I highly recommend including an SD card for your photos, videos and music.

For videos the HTC 8S is not exactly the most ideal device, as it only comes with a 4-inch display, but thanks to that removable storage you'll actually be able to store a few films on there if you choose to. While the more powerful MSM8960 SoC is capable of 1080p playback, unfortunately the MSM8227 in this phone isn't, as during my testing I found footage (taken from YouTube, so not even a high bitrate) to be choppy and completely unwatchable.

On the other hand, 720p footage plays back perfectly including decoding of 6-channel audio streams, and as you would expect the phone can also handle SD footage. There's no ability to play MKV files in Windows Phone, so you'd better hope your collection is mostly MP4 or AVI files, as both of those are recognized and work perfectly on the 8S.

Battery Life

You can thank HTC for including a sizable 1700 mAh battery in the HTC 8S, which during my testing was more than capable of getting the device through a day's usage. Even after making several phone calls and sending numerous texts, browsing the web for a good amount of time, using the camera for some sample shots and other general usage, the lowest I ever saw the battery was just under 50% after a day's usage.

Compared to bigger players on the Windows Phone market such as the Nokia Lumia 920 and Samsung ATIV S, the smaller screen size with lower powered internals all help to make the HTC 8S last longer. The Windows Phone 8X surprisingly only has a battery that's 100 mAh larger, and that battery is needed to power a larger screen with more pixels and a faster processor. Its battery is also larger than one if its direct competitors, the Nokia Lumia 620, which packs just a 1300 mAh battery.

If you're really content on squeezing the power out of the Windows Phone 8S through gaming or something similar, you'll likely kill the battery in under six hours, but for daily use there is more than enough juice to keep you going. I wouldn't go as far to say you could get through two days with moderate-to-heavy usage, so a charge every night is still recommended, but were you to push the phone it's probably going to be possible.

Below you can see how the HTC Windows Phone 8S compares to other devices on the market in my video playback test. Here, a 720p movie is looped on Medium brightness in airplane mode until the phone dies, and the results are recorded.

Device Movie Playback Life
Samsung Galaxy Note II 12:47
Motorola RAZR HD 11:49
Motorola RAZR 9:31
HTC One XL 9:03
Samsung Galaxy S III 8:41
Motorola RAZR V 8:32
HTC Windows Phone 8S 7:28
HTC Windows Phone 8X 7:15
Nokia Lumia 920 6:57
Sony Xperia S 6:50
LG Optimus 4X HD 5:16

Conclusion

HTC has really tried to produce a stellar low-end Windows Phone with the Windows Phone 8S and a good portion of what it's produced is great. For one, the build quality and design is superb; showing off the quality of engineering that can come from the folks at HTC and the performance is surprisingly good for a device of this class and price. You also get a decent amount of battery life from the 1700 mAh battery and even though you can't remove it, it should be more than enough for a day's work.

On the downside, it's an issue that the device only comes with 4 GB of storage, despite the fact that it has a microSD card expansion slot, and the camera is one of the worst I've seen for quite some time. Plus, there are still some niggles with Windows Phone 8 here and there that make it an unsuitable choice for some people - I do admit that the Windows Phone Store is starting to be populated by better apps and WP8-specific apps, but it's not at the level of Android or iOS at this stage.

Despite all of this, HTC has incredibly tough competition in the low-end WP8 smartphone space, as the HTC 8S is directly competing with the Nokia Lumia 620. The two devices are priced very similarly to one another, but the Lumia 620 includes several features that the 8S doesn't have such as 8 GB of storage, a front-facing camera, NFC and Nokia's collection of exclusive apps. For this reason, it makes it hard to recommend the Windows Phone 8S over what Nokia has available.

That said, if your carrier of choice isn't stocking the Lumia 620, or you understandably prefer the looks of the HTC 8S, it's still quite a good choice for a Windows Phone, all things considered.

Windows Phone 8S by HTC video review
Buy the Windows Phone 8S
The official Windows Phone 8S website
Video unboxing of the HTC 8S
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