Friday, November 30, 2012
Windows Phone 8 Comparison - Nokia Lumia 920 and HTC 8X
When Windows Phone 7.5 was released I made the switch from an iPhone 4 to a Nokia Lumia 900. I haven't regretted the move once; sure, there aren't as many apps in the store and Windows Phone is still a bit immature but the fresh UI and near-perfect Exchange integration make it a clear winner for me. The one thing I wasn't really happy with were the phones themselves. Before Nokia got into the game all the offerings were pretty poor - grainy screens, cheap construction, abysmal battery life - and just plain boring. But the Lumia was different - strong design aesthetic, solid construction, and an amazing screen. Definitely a step up from the competition.
After embarking on my Windows 8 adventure I discovered that I had a problem - Windows Phone 7.5 won't sync with the native Phone app in Windows 8. It still works with the Zune software just fine but I really wanted the native integration with a dedicated app (which, it turns out, isn't all that great - the Phone app is very basic and falls quite short of the Zune experience). Fortunately for me, this happened right around the time Windows Phone 8 was launching and, since I needed to add another device to my plan anyway, it made sense to upgrade.
Since the Lumia 900 had treated me pretty well I decided to go with the Lumia 920. It didn't take long before it became apparent that I had made a mistake. The Lumia 920 is a massive device in every way - tall, wide, thick, and heavy. I mean really heavy - like old-school flip-phone heavy. It's a huge brick of a phone that doesn't fit well into any kind of pocket and is hard to hold comfortably in one hand. The major drawback to the Lumia design - sharp corners where the flat ends meet the rounded sides - is made much worse by the extra weight. Holding it up to your ear without some kind of case causes the edges to bite into your palm (it's actually quite painful). And while the increased size makes viewing the phenomenal screen easy on the eyes it pretty much demands two-handed typing unless you have hands like Shaquille O'Neal. But the reall killer is the weight. I don't know what Nokia has done or why they did it but there's just no excuse for a phone to be that heavy.
So after a couple of weeks I took the Lumia 920 back to the AT&T store and traded it for an HTC 8X. When I originally purchased the Lumia they had a couple of 8X devices on display but none in inventory so I didn't give it much thought. Plus, I was really disappointed by HTC's earlier Windows Phone offerings. The Titan, Radar, HD7S, Arrive and others were pretty much copies of existing Android phones and there was nothing about cheap plastic, average screens, and dismal audio to get excited about. Despite this, I didn't really have much choice but to give HTC another try - since the Lumia 920 was no longer a viable option for me, I either had to go with the 8X or wait for another manufacturer to release something new (as an aside, the Lumia 820, which doesn't have the same drawbacks in terms of size and weight, wasn't a consideration as the screen is subpar).
The first thing that struck me about the HTC 8X was the size - it appears to be razor-thin compared to the Lumia. It's actually not - at their thickest points the two phones are nearly identical but HTC chose a more ergonomic design that tapers to a thin bezel around the edges whereas the Nokia is just one thick chunk of rounded plastic. The result is deceptive; it looks and feels like you are holding a very thin device.
The 8X is also much narrower, with a 4.3" screen as opposed to the Lumia's massive 4.5" screen. You wouldn't think less than a quarter of an inch would make much difference but it does - everything is just a bit smaller on the HTC. This is immediately apparent when typing with the on-screen keyboard. The extra-large keys on the 920 result in fewer typos and faster texting but at the cost of doing so two-handed. The smaller keyboard on the 8X isn't much of an improvement (if at all) from earlier Windows Phone models but at least you can comfortably use it with one hand. The size difference is also apparent when browsing web pages - text and images are all just a bit smaller and I constantly find myself pinch-zooming which I hardly did at all on the Lumia. My eyes aren't getting any better as I get older so this could end up being an issue for me as I use my phone a lot when I'm traveling.
As for the screen itself, I was a bit worried based on my previous experience with HTC devices that it would be average at best. Fortunately, I was wrong - it may not be quite as good as the Lumia 920 but it is still exceptional. Everything is crisp and clear, with deep blacks and rich, vibrant colors. The Nokia screen has received a lot of hype and deservedly so - it's truly magnificent. There are probably a bunch of technical differences between the two that give the Nokia a significant edge but for all practical purposes they're not that far apart. I'm really pleased with the screen and everyone I've shown it to has commented on how good it is; a subjective measure, I know, and the Lumia owners are quite correct in claiming victory on this point, but it does demonstrate how good the display on the HTC is perceived to be. One other note in this category - the Lumia screen can be set to a high sensitivity mode that allows for operation with gloved hands, a blessing for those in colder climates who are constantly chilling their digits in order to send LOL's and smiley faces to all their friends.
When it comes to weight, the HTC 8X is the clear winner. The technical specs indicate a 55 gram difference between the two devices (130 grams for the 8X versus 155 grams for the Lumia) but it feels more like 550. The HTC device seems like it weighs half as much, a perception that is reinforced by the tapered design and thin edges. Everyone who picks it up says the exact same thing I did when I first handled it: "Wow, that's light!". It's not quite as light as the iPhone 5 (112 grams) but it feels just about the same.
Naturally, the reduction in weight comes with a few trade-offs. The 8X doesn't feel nearly as sturdy as the 920 and it probably isn't - I suspect dropping them both onto a hard surface would have dramatically different results. The battery in the HTC (1800mAh)is smaller than the one in the Lumia (2000mAh) but, surprisingly, there doesn't seem to be much difference in run time. With battery saver off, push email for Exchange and Hotmail enabled, several live tiles on the home screen, and using a mixture of Wifi and LTE to do some light surfing along with a couple of hours in actual talk time over Bluetooth, both phones seem to last about a day on a charge.
I'm a pretty poor photographer even with the best equipment so I can't really make any judgment as to the quality of cameras in either phone. The Lumia camera got a lot of press and is supposedly far superior but pictures look good to me on both devices. The front-facing camera on the HTC is a bit better, pulling 2.1MP as opposed to the Nokia's 1.92MP, but I doubt that small difference is even noticeable (I didn't try any video calls on the Lumia so I can't say for sure). They both record 1080P video on the front and rear cameras.
Other features that set the two devices apart include wireless charging (the Lumia has it, HTC does not), storage (a max of 16GB for the 8X, 32GB for the 920) and sound (the HTC gets Beats audio while the Lumia comes with Dolby sound). Neither device has an SD expansion slot. I don't put much music or video on my phone but if you have an extensive audio collection you'll fill up the 8X in a hurry. I can say that the HTC sounds better over headphones than the Lumia; it may just be me but it seems there is someting to the Beats Audio hype after all (other than a cool logo).
Although it doesn't offer wireless charging, which is a shame, the 8X does have a nifty Attentive Phone feature. Once enabled, it allows the phone to behave differently when you receive a call. Pick it up while it's ringing and the ring volume automatically goes down. If the phone is lying face up when it rings, flipping it over will silence the ring. That's handy - we've all left our phone on in a meeting at some point when we shouldn't have; fumbling with the silence button always results in at least two or three rings before it can be squelched. Flipping it over is much faster and potentially less embarassing. Another option supposedly increases the ring volume when the phone is in a bag or a pocket, although how it knows when you've tucked it away is a mystery to me.
When it comes to vendor-provided apps, Nokia is leaps and bounds ahead of HTC. The 8X comes with basic out-of-the-box Windows Phone 8 features plus an HTC-branded live tile. The Lumia comes with Nokia Drive (turn-by-turn voice navigation), Nokia Music (mix stations and offline music caching) and Nokia City Lens (an augmented reality "what's nearby?" app). These are all pretty handy but the Drive app is far and away the best - it takes a bit of setting up to download maps and voices but once you have things going it works amazingly well.
One feature that Nokia just can't seem to get right is Bluetooth. Both the 900 and 920 behaved erratically with various headsets and connections. Certain headsets would pair with the 900 but not the 920 and vice versa. The Bluetooth radio would turn itself off seemingly at random. In my vehicle, whenever I turned the ignition off, thereby breaking the connection, the Bluetooth radio would disable itself. It also did this frequently after a call was ended even though the vehicle was still on. There were lots of reports of this kind of thing happening when the 900 first came out and I assumed it would be fixed in the 920 but it wasn't - same problems (in different vehicles, I might add). The HTC 8X just plain works. The radio never disables itself - I can take off my headset in the office, walk out to my truck, turn it on and keep right on talking. All of my headsets work without issue even with streaming music. Even though the HTC has an inferior radio (BT 2.1 versus 3.1 in the 920) the functionality is far superior.
The button placement on both phones seems a bit strange to me. The Lumia 920 has a single row of buttons on the right side - Volume Up/Down, Power and Camera. The HTC moves the power button to the top of the phone and keeps the remainder on the right. Neither has any buttons on the left side at all. I never really liked the power button being on the right side, preferring instead for it to be on top like the 8X but the right-side button placement on the device is all wrong for me. No matter where I grab it to turn the power on or off I'm always pressing another button - usually Volume Down. But I also hit the camera button a lot. I think the reason for this is that the buttons start rather far down the side, right where my fingers are if I'm gripping it left-handed or where my thumb rests if I'm holding it in my right hand. The camera button is only a problem in my right hand as it hits dead center in the heel of my palm. It's a small but irritating annoyance. I never had this problem with any other phone. I think the Samsung Focus had the best arrangement with two buttons on the right, one on the left, all in the right places.
So what's the verdict? For my money, I'm sticking with the HTC 8X. The Lumia 920 is actually a better phone but Nokia completely missed the mark on size and weight. And I just can't stand those sharp edges - for the sake of comfort and usability they should adopt the 820 design across the range and ditch the post-modernist approach. I miss the big keyboard and large screen but I'm willing to sacrifice those for a phone that fits in my hand (and can actually be used with one hand). The Bluetooth issues were a real annoyance for me and I'm happy to have them resolved. I would like to have the Drive app back but it's certainly not a deal-breaker. It seems that HTC have learned from their mistakes and finally delivered a top-notch product. Perhaps the Samsung Ativ S will change my mind but for the time being the HTC 8X is my choice for best all-around Windows Phone.