A vision in ‘colour-dipped’ polycarbonate, the HTC 8S continues the sterling work of its 4.3in sibling, the 8X, in flying the flag for supremely good-looking Windows Phone 8 hardware.
Priced just £180 on Pay as You Go with Three or on contract from less than £20 a month, it could be a two-tone dream come true for anyone struggling to wrap their mitts around the 8X or its Android counterpart the HTC One X+. But does the HTC 8S perform as handsomely as it looks? And can it trounce the mid-range Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini and Nokia Lumia 820?
HTC 8S review – design and build
As we’ve already gushed, the HTC 8S is just as sexy as the 8X, if not more so thanks to its tidier proportions. Most gadgeteers will find the 8S much easier to use one-handed – just try not to get distracted by the matte, soft touch body too much or you’ll find yourself stroking the curved back panel while web browsing.
Our Atlantic Blue model’s colour scheme gives it a nice preppy feel, but continues the Windows Phone tradition of flying in the face of the muted and monotone looks of the vast majority of iOS and Android smartphones.
Windows Phone 8’s big live tiles are very forgiving, so at first glance the 8S' 4in super LCD screen looks like a winner. But open up a web page and that 800x480 resolution rears its ugly head, with text in particular looking very fuzzy until you zoom in. While gaming or viewing images the 8S can look a little faded, too, especially next to the best new out there. It does fare well in terms of colour reproduction next to the high end Lumia 920, though.
All-in-all, though, for the price this is a more than passable screen. The keyboard is a little cramped and the bright blue strip for the WinPho keys can be distracting, but if your usage will mainly stick to the built in apps and the likes of Facebook, you should get on fine with the low-ish resolution.
Putting in a hit-and-miss performance, the 8S handles everyday tasks well but the fancy Windows Phone 8 transitions are a touch slower than they are on the 8X and Lumia 920, and that can push them into annoying territory after a while. Essentially everything seems to take two or three seconds longer than it would on an Android phone, even opening up music stored on the handset itself.
Speaking of storage, it's pretty non-existent, with just over 1GB of onboard space. Thankfully you can whack a 16GB microSD card into a hidden slot that’s in the lower portion of the 8S, and we’d recommend you do this as soon as you get the handset – you won't be downloading any apps if you don’t. That said, you do get 7GB of free SkyDrive space, which works neatly with the camera roll and Office.
Call quality on the 8S is generally fine, although we did experience a few dropped calls during our time with the HTC phone, and Wi-Fi sensitivity isn't particularly brilliant. The 8S also gets a little warm when downloading music tracks and games. We’re fine with that on these cold winter days, but come summer will be less of a welcome trait.
The Windows Phone store still isn't exactly teeming with quality gaming titles, and if you’re looking for a gaming phone the 8S probably wouldn’t be your first port of call anyway, but it’s worth pointing out that both Need for Speed and Assassin's Creed: Altair's Chronicles play smoothly enough.
The Windows Phone 8 homescreen looks a little messier than WinPho 7, with more live tiles in particular, but each one is resizeable and rearrangeable making sure you can see what you need to at a glance. You'll notice straightaway that HTC hasn't put as much effort in as Nokia in terms of built-in apps (Nokia Music and Nokia Drive are superb freebies) but the excellent People Hub is still present and correct, and now has additional 'Rooms' (WhatsApp-style groups) to share messages, calendars, photos and your location with friends.
Windows Phone 8 perhaps isn't the most intuitive smartphone OS out there, but it is arguably the most exciting, and once you've got to grips with it you’ll find it delivering lots of useful, tailored information at a glance. Make friends with the ever-present ellipsis in the bottom-right-hand corner and you'll get tons of options – from editing your photos to pinning web pages to the homescreen. Holding down the back button brings up the multi-tasking screen, which is quick and simple, but be warned – the Bing search button is very easily pressed in both portrait and landscape.
HTC 8S review – apps
Apps are still a huge problem for Microsoft – it's not that there aren't plenty of apps on the Windows Phone 8 Store, it's just that there's not enough we actually want to download. Big gaps include Spotify, Dropbox, YouTube (it's a link to the mobile site), Lovefilm and banking apps.
There are ways around these omissions when using the 8S, such as downloading third-party apps like Dropbox Viewer, subscribing to Netflix instead and controlling your Sonos Play:3s with the unofficial £3.99 Phonos app, but none of these are as satisfying as the first-party apps available on iOS and Android.
Xbox Music, too, offers a Spotify-style subscription service that works really well, especially when it comes to downloading tracks from the massive catalogue for listening offline. Compared to iTunes or Google Play though, Microsoft still has some way to go. It needs to offer ebooks, a proper movies channel in the Store and some big, exciting WinPho 8 games. The fact that even movies downloaded to the Windows 8 Store on your computer won’t work when transferred to a Windows Phone 8 handset is downright silly.
There's no front camera on the 8S so video calls are pretty much out, but around the back is a 5MP snapper. It’s perfectly respectable for a mid-range phone, but not exactly special: colours look accurate from daytime snaps but images are lacking in detail once you've blown them up on a bigger screen. There are lots of useful options to tweak, edit and crop after you've taken the shot, but indoors the camera struggles even when you've altered the settings, while 720p video comes out fairly shaky too.
The 8S' 1,700mAh battery’s seven-and-a-half hours of intensive YouTube streaming via Wi-Fi with the handset on medium brightness is pretty impressive, and in normal use this easily lasts all day. The 8S charges via microUSB quicker than most, too, so you’ll never be out of juice for long.
HTC 8S vs 8X
HTC had already dropped the Super AMOLED screen and skinny chassis of the One X in order to produce the 8X, so where does that leave the 8S in the grand scheme? Well it’s lighter and easier to grip, but the 720p screen, slimmer design, larger storage and superior camera mean there’s no getting around the superiority of the 8X, and by extension, the chunkier Nokia Lumia 920.
HTC 8S review – verdict
The HTC 8S is obviously a great deal cheaper than both of those alternatives, though, and with its head-turning looks and excellent battery life, the 8S is a great choice for the budget-conscious gadget fan looking to board the colourful, customisable world of Windows Phone 8.
A strong 4in Windows Phone specimen at a great price. But if you want the superphone package – apps, camera, storage – look elsewhere.