HTC 8S review: a budget Windows Phone that doesn't compromise on style

We're not sure if HTC's One S suffered from middle child syndrome. It certainly shouldn't have. But if it did, it's a hindrance the company spared its Windows Phone 8 line. HTC decided two was enough, and who are we to argue? It was back in October that we handled the flagship, but now its smaller, cheaper companion has arrived. At around £230 (about $370) SIM-free, this potentially represents one of the best value Windows Phone options around at the moment (at least in Europe and Asia). Sure, Nokia's Lumia 620 will soon be gunning for some of its market share, but for now it's got relatively little competition. So far, Windows Phone 8 has seen plenty of entries running dual-core, 1.5GHz Snapdragon chips. This time we're looking at a slower clock speed (1GHz) and some more muted specs across the board (more on this later). Given that, did HTC get the budget-to-features balance right here? Read on to find out.

HTC 8S review

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HTC Windows Phone 8S

Pros

  • Great build quality
  • Excellent call quality
  • Great performance for price

Cons

  • Relatively narrow viewing angles
  • Mixed camera performance
Summary

Even as more WP8 devices start to arrive, there are few budget-friendly options. The 8S proves that budget doesn't have to mean compromise when it comes to design or performance.

Hardware

When we got our paws on the HTC 8X, it's fair to say that we were smitten with the design. We're happy to say we felt the same way when we first met the smaller, more colorful, 8S. Here too, HTC's inspiration comes from Windows Phone 8 itself, with clean lines dominating the overall aesthetic. While much of the design language apes its larger sibling, the 8S does have an identity of its own, the most obvious difference being the chin, which has a different color than the rest of the handset. Our review model is black and white, but there are more vibrant options available, including the same blue shade offered on the 8X. Unlike its big brother, though, the 8S isn't made from one block of polycarbonate, or if it is, it certainly isn't one piece now.

That chin is removable, and hides the phone's SIM and microSD card slots (this might be a good time to remind everyone that you won't find a memory card reader on the 8X). We definitely welcome the option to expand the -- somewhat limited -- 4GB internal storage, and hiding it away here means that it doesn't interfere too much with the overall design. The little plastic clip-on section, however, can be difficult to re-attach; it often took us several attempts. Once you've got it back on properly, though, it sits flush enough to create the illusion that the device is one solid unit. HTC might have given us access to our SIM and memory cards, but you're out of luck if you want to get at the 1,700mAh battery, as that's hidden away along with pretty much everything else.

DNP HTC 8S review a budget Windows Phone that doesn't compromise on style

The back has a soft-touch finish, and arcs out in a "pillow-like" fashion similar to the 8X. The 8S might be smaller diagonally (with a 4-inch, rather than 4.3-inch display), but it's actually a shade thicker at 10.28mm (compared to 10.12). This isn't particularly noticeable, but if you hold both in the hand at the same time, you can sense the 8S is a little... stouter feeling. The rear is also where you'll find the 5-megapixel camera, embossed HTC logo, discreet Beats branding and drilled speaker holes at the bottom. The front is equally sparse, with the black screen and bezel only being broken up by the top grille which matches the main body color -- somewhat less noticeable on the black version we have here.

At the other end, on top of the colored base, are the standard Windows Phone capacitive buttons. The glass front is entirely flat, and sits flush with the polycarbonate casing -- unlike the slightly protruding, curved screen edges of the 8X. The sides are tapered, but still play host to the usual facilities. In this case, we have a headphone jack and power / standby button up top, a micro-USB port centered on the bottom, and a volume rocker on the right-hand side. There's also a dedicated camera button just beneath this, leaving the other side free of distractions. The result is a phone that is wonderfully easy to use with one hand, and the curved back means it sits there comfortably at the same time.

DNP HTC 8S review a budget Windows Phone that doesn't compromise on style

As for what's inside, that display is WVGA (800 x 480), which translates to a modest density of 233 ppi. There's Gorilla Glass 2 to protect it, though, and the 4-inch non-PenTile RGB Super LCD looks bright and crisp, despite the slightly low resolution. If you inspect icons and images close up, you can definitely see the rougher edges, but you'll have to really be looking for them. Likewise, blacks are displayed well, and colors appear bright and balanced. Similar to what we found with the 8X, the range of viewing angles seems a little more constricted than what we've seen from other HTC handsets.

Deeper down in the engine room, you'll find a 1GHz dual-core Qualcomm S4 Snapdragon chugging along with 512MB of RAM, which so far make the specifications very similar to the HTC Desire X. As for radios, the HTC 8S supports GSM / GPRS / EDGE (850/900/1800/1900 MHz) and UMTS / HSPA+ (900/2100MHz). Along with those, you'll also find Bluetooth 3.1 and 801.11b/g/n, plus GPS and GLONASS antennas. So the main differences between this and the 8X are fewer HSPA+ bands (the 8X also supports 1900 and 850) and no NFC.

HTC 8S review big on style, low on cost

Performance and battery life


Navigation of the OS is just as smooth as we've ever seen it, even on much higher-specced phones.

In general, we've been pleased with how Windows Phone 8 performs on most of the hardware we've used. When you bundle that with a smaller screen -- and less demanding silicon -- we expect battery life to be reasonable too. And this is indeed the case with the 8S. Performance-wise, WP8 feels just like it ever did. Navigation of the OS feels as smooth as ever, even compared with much higher-specced phones. We put it through extended sessions of graphically intensive racing games, and there's nothing to suggest that it was being taxed any more than something running a much faster chip.

The problem is, simply just knowing that there's less processing power can sometimes be enough for you to start noticing sluggish behavior, be it psychosomatic or otherwise. We're glad to report, however, that this most certainly wasn't the case in our subjective use. So much so, if HTC had given this phone a 720p display, we'd struggle to determine any significant difference in the user experience between this and its 1.5GHz-touting brother. Of course, this is in regular daily usage; the benchmarks will tell you a much more objective story, with the full numbers below.

HTC Windows Phone 8S Nokia Lumia 820 Nokia Lumia 900 HTC Windows Phone 8X
WPBench 180 224 92 221
Battery rundown 3:30 2:07 4:29 2:30
SunSpider (ms, lower numbers are better) 1,415 909 6,902 914
AnTuTu (*GFX test off) 7,333 11,506 2,596 11,775

You can see that -- perhaps as you might expect -- the 8S files in some way behind the 8X, and isn't exactly nipping at the heels of Nokia's Lumia 820. Possibly the least thrilling test result is the 1,415 in SunSpider. We've been spoiled by a string of Windows Phone 8 devices turning in sub-1,000ms scores, so the 8S might seem like a bit of a letdown, but given the lower-powered chip, it's not exactly surprising, either. This is where benchmarks aren't always useful: despite this difference in scores, we can't point to any part of the user experience where we saw any corresponding symptoms. Possibly -- at the very worst -- we found that when waking the phone up from time to time, swiping to unlock was a little unresponsive, needing a second or third attempt to open it up. As for more utilitarian features, we enjoyed solid, loud and clear voice calls each and every time. Data download speeds were as good as the network (O2 UK) could typically provide – about 5 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up.

As for powering all of the above? We're still waiting for Windows Phone 8-specific battery rundown tests, but using the same WPBench test as before we regularly got 3:30, a whole hour more than the 8X. In more anecdotal use, too, we were easily getting a full day's regular use before we started reaching for the charging cable. If you ask us, the tradeoff that comes with a smaller battery is more than offset by the smaller screen it needs to power.

Camera


HTC 8S review big on style, low on cost

A recurring theme with the 8S is that its characteristics fall into one of two categories -- those it shares with the 8X, and those it shares with the Desire X. When it comes to the camera -- unfortunately for prospective 8S owners -- it falls into the latter category. And if you're a fan of self-portraits, you're definitely out of luck. No, there isn't a snapper up front. The performance of the rear camera, as we hinted, is similar to the Desire X. Although the two aren't exactly the same (the 8S has a 35mm lens, versus 24mm on the Desire), both share the same number of pixels, along with f/2.8 aperture.

The autofocus can be triggered by tapping the screen, which supports tap-to-focus. Alternatively, you can use the two-stage dedicated shutter button to focus more broadly, and fire off shots that way instead. We found that method more preferable, as we kept wanting to tap to focus, and then trigger a shot manually. Small details, but deleting stacks of unwanted photos is one of life's modern annoyances.

HTC 8S sample shots

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If you've used Windows Phone before, then you'll know the deal with the camera options, and there aren't any changes here. If you want a little more control, rather than leave the software to do its thing, you can change ISO, white balance, exposure, saturation and so on. There's also the usual collection of simple effects (e.g., sepia, grayscale). Still, there aren't any options for HDR or panorama shooting, which are becoming increasingly standard in other operating systems. All is not entirely lost in this department, however. There's always the option of "Lenses," which are essentially installable software updates that add extra functionality to the camera. These can include visual translators (point the camera at foreign text, etc.) and simple photo tools. In reality, they're essentially third-party apps, some free, some otherwise. But at the very least it means the door for HDR and Panorama features isn't entirely closed.

The short summary is that color quality seems to be at the mercy of the amount of natural light, with images soon looking a little bit washed out -- heaven forbid -- should it get a little cloudy outside.

And what of the photos themselves, you ask? Well, the best thing is to explore them for yourself, and as luck would have it, there's a gallery full of samples just above. But the short version is that color quality seems to be at the mercy of the amount of natural light, with images soon looking a little bit washed out, should it get a little cloudy outside. Likewise, if you're not a fan of the flash, then you'd better have a steady hand. If not, the camera will punish you with noise or blurry shots. Even when we took some photos of static objects in the middle of the day, the automatic exposure was long enough to cause softer edges on the object we were aiming for. That said, point the camera at something throwing out some good light, and it'll reward you with some nice, vivid pictures.

Video recording is equally prone to such situations. While the camera is capable of recording 720p (at 8 Mbps) and results can look great on the phone, viewing them on a desktop or some other, bigger screen can highlight small flaws. In particular, we noted the color warmth noticeably changed as we panned the camera around onto different subjects. Not ideal, but at the same time, for what most people will likely want from this camera, it's adequate. One other small gripe -- more with the operating system than the phone -- is that if you choose to share your video by email, it'll automatically compress it. In the event you want the original file (which we think should be most events), then you might want to opt for something like SkyDrive instead. The bonus of which being that once installed, it actually integrates very well into the camera roll feature.

Software


HTC 8S review big on style, low on cost

Once again, there's little to add that we didn't already explore in our original review for Windows Phone 8, but HTC has ever so gently added its own touch to the OS in the form of some apps. In reality, what this amounts to is a pre-installed hub for news, weather and stock information, a Photo Enhancer app and a connection wizard. There's little else on offer here. But, that said, as Engadget is listed as one of the technology news sources, we're not entirely out of love with them. If however, you decide that that's simply not enough HTC-flavored apps, prod the tile for the Windows Phone store, and you'll see that there is also an option to go off and get a few more. Once again, though, there's little more on offer other than a simple converter app and the ubiquitous flashlight tool -- nothing you couldn't get anywhere else from other developers.

The other main software addition comes in the shape of Beats audio. This has been a feature of HTC phones for a while now, so it should come as no surprise to anyone who's used a previous device. If, however, you're one of the uninitiated, Beats audio "enhances" your music through proprietary preset equalization, changed to give your music more impact. Or, in our experience, it simply makes it louder -- in particular at the low and mid-high end of the spectrum (think bass and "sparkle"). Some will love it, others less so, but it's there so knock yourself out if you are in the former category.

Wrap-up


HTC 8S review big on style, low on cost

When we got our hands on the 8X, we found it to be a worthy flagship, with a good balance of specifications and design. Fortunately for the 8S, much of the design DNA has carried over, which we like. Naturally, the spec sheet differs dramatically, but only as you would expect for a phone aimed at a more mainstream section of the market. Some people might not fancy the sound of a 1GHz dual-core chip or 5-megapixel camera, and these people should indeed look elsewhere. But, if you want a phone that looks good, is reasonably priced and just kinda gets the job done, then we're hard-pressed not to recommend the 8S. And until the Nokia Lumia 620 arrives, the 8S has the stage all to itself. So, if you're not looking to wait, we suggest you start thinking about color options.

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HTC 8S review: a budget Windows Phone that doesn't compromise on style