Name: HTC 8X

Carrier: AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon

Price: $150–$200 (w/two-year contract)

The Back Story: When Microsoft entered the mobile market with its Windows Phone 7 (WP7) platform, Apple and Google were far and away the leaders of the pack. Though novel in its approach and design, WP7 and the handsets that supported it lacked a number of key features. Most important of which was a competitive app store. Despite those set backs the PC giant managed to knock BlackBerry out of the number three spot on the smartphone echelon. But what company aspires to be number 3?

Microsoft went back to the drawing board and tapped its two biggest hardware partners, Nokia and HTC, to help introduce its new mobile OS, Windows Phone 8 (WP8). Visually similar to WP7, the new OS would be feature a lot of under-the-hood upgrades to make it faster and smoother. Understanding that people love apps as much as their phones, Microsoft also took on the task of getting the top app makers to port their products to WP8. With the software in order, it needed smartphones that were as feature-filled and attractive as those from Apple and Samsung. Enter the HTC 8X.

Inspired by WP8 to build a handset from the ground up, HTC, like Microsoft, looks to prove its naysayers wrong and show the world it can rock with the top smartphone brands. Set for release on multiple carriers in two weeks, we got our hands on an AT&T version of the device and took it for a test spin. With cutting-edge design, up-to-date specs, and a suite of new Windows Phone features, the 8X is ready to take on the competition. So is it built for the heavyweight class or do a number of lapses keep it at the middleweight level?

DOPE

• Refined software: Microsoft improved its already gorgeous OS by integrating a number of productivity enhancements. For starters, the homescreen supports more live tiles, which are now resizable, allowing you to squeeze more programs onto the main screen at one time. WP8 introduces a new feature called Live Lock Screen that lets users view their Facebook profiles and other notifications on the lockscreen. Another sweet feature is “Rooms,” where you have the option of creating personal groups with which you can share particular info (calendar, pictures, notes, etc.) with assigned contacts.

Using smart compression technology, Microsoft has managed to make Internet Explorer faster and more data efficient, promising up to 45 percent more web surfing time on the same data plan. The browser will work closely with Data Sense, a new program that informs you of data usage and adapts to phone behavior to help ensure no one goes over their plans. It’s also capable of finding nearby wi-fi hotspots when necessary. Lastly, the introduction of Kids Corner gives those with little ones the chance to pass off their phones to children and grant restricted access to approved games and apps. That'll keep them quiet.

• Impressive spec sheet: Even with WP7 devices running smoother than a majority of the Android phones with dual-core processors, the biggest gripe among customers was its dated specs. Microsoft finally got the memo and gave the manufacturers clearance to deck-out their devices. HTC chose to bring over its beautiful 4.3-inch Super LCD 2 display from the One X, producing a higher pixel density (341 ppi) than the iPhone 5 (326 ppi). Colors, contrast, and detailing are precise. Multitasking excels thanks to the 1.5GHz dual-core processor, allowing the phone to surprisingly sprint at remarkable speeds and benchmarks. Audio gets a huge boost thanks to the two built-in rear amps and Beats Audio sound processing. The result is a handset that's able to blast sound louder than any smartphone we've tested.

• Ergonomics: HTC continues to cement its spot as one of the best handset designers in the game with the 8X. The polycarbonate chassis, rounded edges, soft-touch texture, and slim profile really set the phone apart from its WP8 competitors, as well as offerings from Google and Apple. It’s a pretty durable, yet lightweight phone, weighing in at 4.6 ounces. Plus, the numerous color options being offered by the carriers make it one of the most stylish smartphones available now. 

• Improved camera experience: Like its Android counterpart, the 8X is powered by HTC’s phenomenal ImageChip technology and features the same filter software, except with minor effect upgrades. Though you won’t get the same stellar results as the One series, the rear 8MP shooter does snap better pics than its WP predecessors. The ultra-wide angle front-facing 2.1MP camera is impressive, providing more open space for group shots and shooting solid 1080p video clips. A dedicated camera button can be found on the right side, allowing the camera app to be accessed without unlocking the screen. Users can also tap the touchscreen to capture images.

• Good LTE coverage and voice calling: Our test phone ran on AT&T’s 4G network. During our tests the network provided strong signal reception and data speeds throughout California's Bay area. Web browsing was quick, Windows Phone Store apps downloaded in less than six seconds, and social media updates published instantly. It’s also worth mentioning how sharp the 8X was at picking up wi-fi hotspots. Calls came through loud and clear, especially through the rear speaker grille. The same can be said when pairing the phone with a Bluetooth headset, as we did using the Plantronics Marque 2.

 

NOPE

Lack of premium apps: Microsoft announced it was working with several companies to bring over “46 out of the top 50 apps” to the WP8 platform. And the company has so far managed to get big-name apps like Skype and Facebook. But several major players like Instagram, Dropbox, and Spotify remain M.IA. It’s also undetermined when we’ll see these other prime-time applications hit the WP Store.

Missing compartments and flushed buttons: The compromise of having a unibody form factor is the elimination of a battery chamber, and in the HTC 8X's case, a microSD card slot as well. In addition: The power, camera, and volume rockers are so recessed into the casing that it's difficult at times to access them.

Battery life : There have been mixed responses regarding the phone’s vitality. It’s unknown whether the 1800-mAh cell on our review unit was defective, but we found battery life to be more miss than hit. We did get through the entire day on moderate use, but saw the energy bar fully depleted in less than six hours after heavy multimedia engagement.

Final Say: Microsoft’s done two things right. Not only has it created a great mobile platform, it worked closely with the mobile manufacturer to assemble one of the holiday season's best smartphones. The HTC 8X is a sexy, intuitive, high-powered device that boasts enough personality and capabilities to slowly customers away from the Android and iOS platform. Next-gen specs, tight Windows 8 integration, and an accessible SDK for developers guarantees WP8 will have a longer shelf life than expected. Its app selection is still weak in comparison to others and there are still some third-party compatibility issues to be fleshed out, though that shouldn't take away from the strides Microsoft and HTC have achieved with the 8X.