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HTC 8X Great display, bad camera

The 8X is HTC’s first Windows Phone 8 model. SEAN BACHER discovers it is well priced, has a great screen and sound, but really lacks in the camera department.

HTC initially started making phones based mostly on the Microsoft Windows Mobile operating system, but in 2009 branched out to Android. Although HTC is now better known for Android phones, the company has followed in Nokia’s footsteps and embraced Microsoft’s new mobile operating system, Windows Phone 8. The 8X is one of the first in HTC’s Windows Phone 8 line. While it has not done much in terms of changing the Windows interface by plastering its own skin on top of it, the phone gives a sense of style and sophistication.

We put it through the Gadget 10 Question Users Test to see how it fares in other departments.

1. General look and feel (aesthetic judgement, differentiation in look and feel)

As with many current smartphones, the HTC 8X uses a unibody design, meaning that there is no removable battery or back plate. The micro SIM is slotted into the left of the phone but, unlike the iPhone where a pin is needed to get the card out, this one can be easily removed with your fingers.

The 8X design puts it in a class of its own. It is slim and light and uses a tapered design, which makes it feel thinner than it actually is. The polycarbonate chassis gives it a ‚”rubbery‚” feel, which also means that the phone has more chance of surviving an accidental drop.

Overall, the HTC 8X feels great in the hand and, at 130g, it is significantly lighter than rival Windows Phone 8 models.

8/10

2. Slippability (Weight and size, ability to slip into a pocket unnoticed)

At just over 10-mm thick, the HTC 8X is not the thinnest out there, but the clever tapered design will allow it to fit into most pockets. I did, however, find that the rubbery coating made it more difficult to slip in and out of a pocket in a hurry.

The buttons are well hidden around the phone in fact, too well hidden. Due to the fact that the buttons are flush with the phone, it is nearly impossible to feel for the Power button or Volume rocker without looking. The Camera button, located at the bottom right, was too easy to push accidentally, so one must make sure the screen and phone are locked before putting it in a pocket.

The well-designed tapered body definitely counts in favour of the 8X, but the almost hidden physical buttons will make it a pain to use in the dark.

7/10

3. General performance (speed, responsiveness, multi-tasking)

The HTC 8X uses a 1.5GHz dual-core Snapdragon CPU, putting it on a par with most other leading smartphones. The CPU, which is backed by an Adreno 225 GPU and 1GB of RAM, makes the phone’s navigation seamless, with no freezing.

Apps launched one after the other without showing any sign of slowing the phone down. Because the 8X runs Windows Phone 8, you need to set up a Microsoft Live account before downloading any apps. In addition, downloading games needs a Microsoft Xbox account. Although this was a tedious process to set up, once done, accessing apps and games was as simple as clicking on the relevant tiles on the home screen.

Angry Birds was easily tamed by the powerful CPU, and more processor intensive apps like 3D Moto, which uses the phone’s accelerometers to navigate a bike through traffic, ran effortlessly.

Holding the virtual Back button on the phone launches an application manager that brings up mini windows of active applications. Swiping from one to the other was easy enough, but there is no option to force an app to close right there.

Overall, the phone’s performance did not disappoint. The active tiles running on the Home screen were always up to date and switching between open apps was a breeze, but the lack of control when dealing with them was a bit of a disappointment.

7/10

4. Life as we know it (How’s the battery life?)

The 1 800mAh battery is good enough to get you through a full day of browsing, sending and receiving e-mails and tweets. It will also provide you with enough power to watch a few videos on YouTube.

That said, the phone is 4G enabled and so will continually hunt for that network. If you are not in an area covered by 4G, it is a good idea to force the 8X down to a slower network. Included under the Settings menu is a Battery Saver option. This automatically closes all apps running in the background and turns off the automatic synchronisation of Facebook, Twitter and any e-mail accounts when the battery level drops below a certain point.

Like the Nokia Lumia 920, the HTC 8X offers wireless charging, but I was unable to test this. It is best to check which charging mats are compatible with the 8X before buying one.

7/10

5. Vision of the future (picture, video and browsing quality)

The HTC 8X’s 4.3-inch capacitive touch screen really stands out from the rest. It offers a maximum resolution of 720×1 280 pixels with a pixel dimension of 342 pixels per inch. Not only is the screen bigger than that of the iPhone 4s, but is also clearer. The screen is also bigger than that of the iPhone 5.

The bright Corning Gorilla Glass 2 screen shows its true colours when one is watching high-definition video, but its clarity is completely lost when taking videos and pictures. Although the phone uses an industry standard 8MP camera, the images pixelate and don’t have the quality found on many other smartphone cameras.

Browsing the Internet was simple and effortless, and is well integrated with the phone’s voice commands. Unlike Apple’s Siri, that doesn’t understand half of what you say and ignores the other half, the HTC makes a proper effort at trying to work out what you are saying and getting the correct information to you.

The superb screen, combined with the great voice integration are stand-out features. But HTC really needs to improve both the front and rear camera if it wants to compete with the big toys.

6/10

6. Talk to me (quality of audio)

The sound quality that comes out of the rear mono speaker is pretty standard, but the HTC is designed to integrate with Beats Audio by Dr Dre headphones. When they are plugged into the 3.5mm head jack, and the Beats Audio feature is activated under the Settings menu, sound is taken to a new level. No longer is the music tinny and distorted, but feels like it has got some volume and oomph.

Beats Audio by Dr Dre headsets are not included with the phone, so normal headphones can be connected to it and it also connects to Bluetooth enabled audio devices.

9/10

7. Message in a bottle (range, speed and efficiency of messaging solutions)

The messaging apps on the HTC 8X are all standard. E-mail, tweets and Facebook messages are all pulled into a single app, which can be shown as an active tile (the Windows equivalent of a widget) on the Home screen. I found this really confusing, and so opted for separate apps. Windows Phone 8 does the same for your contacts, but in this case things worked better. Instead of ending up with duplicate contacts, all details were merged into a single contact. Once again, you have the option of displaying this as an active tile, with images of random Facebook and Twitter contacts popping up.

8/10

8. Keep control (How effective are hardware and software controls?)

As mentioned, the physical buttons located around the phone’s edge were very difficult to use. The Back, Menu and Search buttons below the screen were easier to find as they light up and give full control of the phone, no matter which app is in use.

A problem I find with many tablets and smartphones is never knowing if I have tapped a button or not, but the HTC 8X offers tactile feedback on the three buttons below the screen. A knocking sound is also made when tapping away at the keys on the virtual keyboard.

The hardware buttons are a let-down, but the easy-to-use keyboard and the tactile feedback evens the score out.

7/10

9. The new new (innovations, unique features)

Although the HTC 8X offers some vast improvements over its predecessors and other smartphones, it offers nothing innovative.

6/10

10. The wallet test (Is it competitively priced?)

The HTC 8X comes in at around R7 000. This beats the Samsung, Apple and Nokia equivalents hands-down, and makes it a viable Windows alternative to competing Android and iOS devices.

9/10

Conclusion

Total score: 74%

Overall, the HTC 8X scores well in the looks, functionality and price departments. But, due to the fact the Windows Phone 8 is still a new operating system, the variety and number of apps available for it is limited. This is by no means a drawback on the phone, as next year more Windows Phone 8 devices will become available and so to will the number of apps available for it.

The camera, on the other hand, is a real drawback. A camera that took decent images and video would have complimented the beautiful sound offered by the Beats by Dr Dre integration and the dazzling display.

* Follow Sean on Twitter on @seanbacher

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Product Reviews

Bose Portable: quality at a price

The Bose SoundDock Portable looks great and performs well, but SEAN BACHER finds the price doesn’t justify the better sound quality.

Since its inception in 1964, American-based audio specialist, Bose, has built a name synonymous with quality. Along with that, it has built a reputation of being more expensive than many of its competitors, but not deterring many from making the expensive investment. The mini sound speakers are quite often used in boardrooms, bars and restaurants around the world and offer crystal-clear sound that rivals most speakers twice their size.

Testament to the Bose sound quality is that it is used as the standard audio system in luxury cars like Audi, BMW and Mercedes, and according to Wikipedia, Bose products can be found in many military and NASA applications.

It is therefore not surprising to find Bose accessories compatible with smartphones. One example is the Bose SoundDock Portable. A portable docking station for iPhones and iPods that works off rechargeable batteries.

We put the Bose SoundDock Portable through the Gadget Five Question User.

1. Ease of use (including set-up)

Although the Bose SoundDock Portable, comes with instructions, they are not needed and in most cases, it will be ready to operate the minute it is removed from the box and an iPhone or iPod is plugged into it.

If the batteries on either the phone or docking station are flat though, the charger needs to be plugged into it before it can be used. You don’t need to wait for the batteries to charge fully before using it.

Bose has taken the minimalist approach with the SoundDock as on the right are two touch-sensitive Volume buttons and that’s it. No Power or other controls. The included remote is also very easy to use. It uses standard Play, Pause, Volume and Skip buttons, all well labelled.

The front of the docking station is made up of a silver grill, below which is the retractable iPhone dock. Although the casing around the connector is designed to accommodate an iPhone’s protective skin, it was not big enough to for the bumper I had on my phone, which meant I had to take the phone out of the case every time I wanted to plug it in.

On the plus side though, unlike many other portable docking stations, the Bose will charge a docked phone even if it is just running off battery power.

The Bose SoundDock Portable’s ease of use along with its elegant design cannot be faulted. But its dock connector counts against it.

Score: 18/20

2. General performance

The two front facing speakers offer crisp sounds and when the volume is cranked up all the way the SoundDock does not distort at all and is deafeningly loud.

At the rear is 3.5mm jack, allowing you to connect non-Apple phones, MP3 players and other audio equipment.

According to Bose, the 1 900mAh rechargeable battery pack will offer up to three hours of music at a maximum volume a different approach to rating battery life as most other vendors rate operating times at ‚”typical listening volumes‚”. I have been using the SoundDock on and off and not at full tilt for the past week without having to plug the mains adapter in yet.

This is however a good thing. Although the Bose SoundDock Portable is elegant and well made, Bose didn’t pay to much attention to the adaptor. It is a bit bigger than two cellphone chargers placed next to each other. It monopolises all the other electrical outlets, when plugged into the wall, meaning you need a dedicated plug for when you want to charge the battery.

The Bose SoundDock Portable provides a beautiful sound, its battery life is great, but the giant-sized charger is a complete let down.

Score: 12/20

3. Does it add value to your life?

Unlike many docking stations that are designed for bedside listening, the Bose SoundDock Portable is powerful enough to offer good sound in an average sized dining room or lounge.

Weighing in at just under three kilograms, it is not the lightest of them all, but the rear, recessed-handle makes carrying it fairly easy. (A carry bag is available as an optional extra.) Overall, it is a nice addition for a picnic or where an electrical outlet is not available.

18/20

4. Innovation

Sound docks have been around for years, and although the SoundDock offers superior sound, it offers nothing in the way of innovation. In fact, the lack of Bluetooth or any wireless connectivity for that matter is limiting.

13/20

5. Value for money

Much like the die-hard Apple Mac fans that will spend more on a product that performs much the same as cheaper alternatives, you get the same in the audio/visual world.

This becomes especially clear when reading the various reviews posted on the Internet. Reviewers either dislike the Bose SoundDock Portable due to it price, while others like it, saying the sound quality justifies the price.

But at R5 000 for a docking station I would have to agree with the former reviewers. R5 000 is ridiculously overpriced, even though it offers superior sound.

10/20

Conclusion

There is no faulting the Bose SoundDock Portable in terms of elegance and sound, but its clunky charger and high price are complete turnoffs.

Total score: 71%

* Follow Sean on Twitter on @seanbacher

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Product Reviews

Nokia Lumia 720: Well rounded: great battery

The new Nokia Lumia 720 has been punted as a mid-level phone. This means Nokia would have had to cut back on features and specifications to keep the phone’s price down. SEAN BACHER checks what’s missing.

For a few years, Nokia was almost forgotten in the smartphone market. This changed with the release of the N9, running its in-house developed MeeGo operating system. Sadly for its many fans, MeeGo was then summarily dropped. Instead, Nokia unveiled a range of high-end Lumia phones running the Windows 7.5 operating system and, finally, a second generation Lumia range running the Windows 8 platform. At the same time, the company targeted the entry-level market with its Asha feature phones, running the Symbian Series 40 operating system.

Between the top end Lumias and the Ashas, it has been quietly filling out its offering, The latest, the Lumia 720, is intended to be a mid-level phone with high-end features.

We put it through the Gadget Ten Question Task Test to see how it copes as a mid-level phone, and to find out what’s missing.

1. General look and feel (aesthetic judgement, differentiation in look and feel)

The Lumia 720 follows a similar design to its siblings in that it uses a unibody design, meaning there is no removable back plate or battery. Three virtual buttons are located below the screen and it has a Volume rocker, Power and Camera button on the right.

The plastic chassis has a rubber feel to it, which makes it easier to hold and less prone to scratches and dings. On the right is a microSIM card slot and at the top an SD card slot, both allowing for easy access.

The phone fits comfortably in your hand and is quite easy to operate with one hand.

7/10

2. Slippability (Weight and size, ability to slip into a pocket unnoticed)

Nokia has significantly cut down the weight of the Lumia 720, which comes in at 128g: the 920 hits 185g. Size-wise, it measures 128x66x9mm, making it a confortable fit for most pockets and its curved edges make it easy to lift off flat surfaces.

The phone cannot be faulted in terms of size and weight.

8/10

3. General performance (speed, responsiveness, multi-tasking)

Running the Windows Phone 8 operating system is a 1GHz Qualcomm dual-core CPU, which is complemented by a dedicated Adreno 305 GPU. The phone packs 512MB RAM and 8GB on-board storage. On paper, these specs are not too impressive, but in practice there is nothing wrong with them.

The Lumia shows no signs of slowing or freezing, even after numerous apps are opened. The active tiles update effortlessly and playing processor-intensive games like AE 3D Motor, which uses the phone’s accelerometers to guide a bike through traffic, does not jolt.

The 8GB of on-board storage is not that great, especially when movies and music start to fill the memory, but the Lumia 720 accepts SD cards, meaning that the storage can be beefed up to 64GB putting it on a par with high-end devices.

The phone performs very well, even with a lower-end set of specifications: the ability to install an SD card really is a plus.

9/10

4. Life as we know it (How’s the battery life?)

The non-removable Li-ion 2 000mAh battery is said to provide up to 520 hours of standby time and over 13 hours of talk time. Both of these claims are tall orders for most smartphones that typically provide just over a day’s usage before they need to be charged.

But, the Lumia 720 lives up to Nokia’s reputation of having some of the longest-lasting batteries found in a phone. Although I did not count the number of hours the 720 went without being charged, it was able to hold its own for over three days. In that time it was bombarded with new apps, was constantly being used for WhatsApp messaging and was also continually used for making and receiving calls. The battery went over and above what is required in terms battery-life on a current smartphone.

10/10

5. Vision of the future (picture, video and browsing quality)

The IPS (In Plane Switching) LCD capacitive touch screen measures 4,3‚” and boasts a maximum resolution of 480×800 pixel per inch. Although this is not the biggest, nor the clearest of screens, it was more than sufficient to view videos and images. In fact, the only time the sub-standard screen quality was noticeable was when the 720 was put next to its bigger brother, the 920.

Windows Explorer on the phone launched effortlessly and displayed all websites without any hassles: the pinch to zoom option came in very handy when inputting credentials to access a website.

The Lumia 720 uses a 6.1MP rear-facing camera, which features Carl Zeiss optics and thus makes images vibrant and clear. The front 1.2MP camera made a viable option for video calling and both record videos.

When making an entry or mid-level phone, manufacturers have to cut back on certain specifications to keep the price low. Even though the Lumia’s screen is not the greatest, it is more than adequate. But the oversized bezels around the screen count against the phone.

The bezels all around measured more than 5mm, which could have been converted into a larger screen.

7/10

6. Talk to me (quality of audio)

The Lumia 720 single loudspeaker is clear enough to hold conference calls, and is great for streaming music from TuneIn radio. No distortion was heard when the volume was cranked all the way up.

Overall, the audio quality is on a par with most other smartphones, but is not anything that will blow the user away.

7/10

7. Message in a bottle (range, speed and efficiency of messaging solutions)

Adding e-mail, Twitter and Facebook accounts is very easily done through the Account Settings function, but the phone streams all this content to a single hub, making it difficult to work out which message is from which account.

That said, individual apps are available from the Windows Phone Store that will present their relevant streams. Many of these apps can also be moved to the Home screen, and can be set to update on the fly, meaning that the latest content will be updated and automatically displayed.

8/10

8. Keep control (How effective are hardware and software controls?)

The physical buttons located on the right of the phone are all within easy reach when using the phone with one hand, and do not sit flush with the chassis, so are easy to identify in the dark.

The three virtual buttons at the bottom of the screen allow users to return to the Home screen, go back when in an app and quickly search the phone for a contact or app. Pressing and holding the Home button launches a task manager, from where apps can be closed and sent to the background and new ones opened.

The control buttons are very similar to other Windows Phone 8 smartphones, so the Lumia scores average here, too.

7/10

9. The new new (innovations, unique features)

On the hardware side the Lumia 720 offers no unique or ‚”wow‚” features, but a few of the preinstalled apps deserve a mention.

The phone is Office 365 ready, meaning that a user merely has to input his or her Office login details and is immediately able to view, edit and download documents from SkyDrive.

The Nokia Drive app contains most country maps, and a user merely has to choose a country, and the map is downloaded to the phone. Turn-by-turn instructions can also be downloaded and different languages can be chosen. Ever heard a woman giving you South African driving instructions in Chinese?

Then there is Nokia City Lens. Launch the app, calibrate it and point the phone down a street. The phone employs augmented reality and puts shopping, dining and points of interest on the screen with descriptions and contact details.

Although these apps are not unique to the Nokia Lumia 720, they count in its favour, especially when considering it is a mid-range phone.

8/10

10. The wallet test (Is it competitively priced?)

Coming at R5 500, the phone fits comfortably in the mid-range market. It also slots in well between the entry-level Lumia 520, which retails for R1 899, and the higher-end Lumia 820, which will cost R6 400.

8/10

Conclusion

Overall, the Lumia has a great set of features built into it. Its battery life is amazing and, even though the screen is of sub-quality, it is adequate.

Total score: 79%

* Follow Sean on Twitter on @seanbacher

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