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With both Samsung and Nokia already committed to the Windows Phone 8 platform with their previous announcements for the ATIV S and Lumia 920 and 820, respectively, it was left to HTC to round out the new handsets we’ll see here in the US. And today’s announcement has made me a believer: It looks like the firm’s upcoming Windows Phone 8X and 8S handsets are going to be among the most exciting handsets we’ll see this year.

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No, strike that. The HTC Windows Phone 8X is almost certainly the most impressive Windows Phone 8 device that will ship this calendar year. It may simply be the greatest smart phone of 2012.

How this happened is a pretty interesting story, I think. Interesting and unexpected.

With Microsoft firmly embracing Nokia as a special partner, the software giant’s other partners had a choice to make. And those that chose to stick around have mostly followed a pretty predictable pattern: They’ve repurposed the smart phone designs they created for previous devices. That’s what Samsung did for the ATIV S, which is basically a reskinned Galaxy S III running Windows Phone 8. Heck, it’s what Nokia did it’s Lumia 920, too: That’s an update to the existing Lumia 900, which is the same basic hardware as its previous N9 device.

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This is not what HTC did. Surprisingly, amazingly, HTC has designed not one, but two brand new Windows Phone handsets, each of which was designed from scratch for this platform. Both of these devices, which it simply calls the Windows Phone 8X and Windows Phone 8S, respectively co-opts the Windows Phone 8 brand from Microsoft—with the software giant’s permission and help—and expresses the 2D Windows Phone UI in a unquiet 3D form that is better looking, thinner, lighter, and truer, if you will, to Windows Phone 8 than anything that either Samsung or Nokia is offering.

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You’d expect this kind of innovation from Nokia. But you’re not getting it from Finland: The Nokia 920 and 820, while interesting enough in some ways—the PureView camera technology in the 920, for example—are also just tired evolutions of previous products. Only HTC is offering something that is different and superior as a result, just as is Windows Phone itself.

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I have to be honest here. I wasn’t expecting much from HTC. I was expecting the company to reskin its successful HTC One X as a Windows Phone device and, to be honest, I would have been OK with that. But its new devices—the unibody 8X and the colorful and fun 8S—are both, in their own ways, better than they needed to be. This was exactly the shot in the arm Windows Phone needed. You are going to love these devices.

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Unlike with the recent Samsung and Nokia events, I was actually in town for this one, so I attended the HTC launch event and got to actually go hands-on with both. As with previous Windows Phone 8 events, HTC was prevented from letting reviewers actually “use” the devices—they could walk you through specific demos, but if you had the phones in your own hands, they had to be on the lock screen—so that still-secret Windows Phone 8 features wouldn’t be revealed.

But even in this limited usage, a few things were very clear. The HTC devices are beautiful, thin, and light, and they make all current Windows Phone and competing handsets look sad by comparison. My current phone, the Lumia 900, is decidedly portly, huge, and heavy compared to the HTC Windows Phone 8X, despite the fact that both feature unibody designs. How HTC got this right and Nokia did not is unclear. But it’s a fact.

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HTC Windows Phone 8X (top), Nokia Lumia 900 (bottom)

Now, we’ll see how these devices compare in real world usage, of course. But if I had to make a buying decision right now, I’d go with the HTC Windows Phone 8X. This device is beautiful, and it will be made available via AT&T, T-Mobile, and, yes, Verizon Wireless when it goes on sale in November.

For now, we can at least compare the specs.

Windows Phone 8X

The HTC Windows Phone 8X features a 720p (1280 x 720) 4.3-inch screen and a unibody design that will come in four colors—California Blue (which is almost purple), Graphite Black, Flame Red and a neon-bright Limelight Yellow—that will be matched in the software for those who want a perfectly synchronized look between the hardware and the software. Under the covers, you’ll get a 1.5 GHz dual-core processor, 1 GB of RAM, and 16 GB of non-expandable storage. (This seems to be an issue with unibody Windows Phone devices.)

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Inside, you’ll find all the expected Windows Phone hardware goodness, including GPS, GSM/GPRS/EDGE and HSPA/WCDMA wireless antennas, NFC, and so on. Yes, it works on both Verizon and AT&T (and T-Mobile).

As with the Lumia 920, the big news, spec-wise, is the camera. HTC is utilizing an 8 megapixel camera in the 8X, which is no surprise. But the camera is outfitted with a superior F2.0 aperture and 28mm lens, and a custom HTC ImageChip that the company claims, among other things, will dramatically improve low-light still frames. I’m eager to test this against the Lumia 920’s PureView camera.

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Beyond the primary camera, HTC offers two unique hardware features you won’t see anywhere else. The front-side camera, for example, is a 2.1 megapixel unit, and not the sad 1 megapixel job found on most other phones. (And it, too, includes the HTC ImageChip and F2.0 aperture, while providing 1080p video recording capabilities.) Better still, the 8X includes Beats Audio sound enhancement with a built-in amplifier that, in admittedly difficult conditions, was loud and bright. In a short test with Beats headsets, I was floored by the quality of the sound. This could be a new standard in smart phone audio playback.

The 8x includes a 1800 mAh battery, which is non-removable because of the device’s unibody design.

Windows Phone 8S

While the HTC Windows Phone 8X got most of the attention at the launch event, its smaller sibling, the Windows Phone 8S, is equally interesting. This unit ships with a 4-inch WVGA (800 x 480) screen and comes in four beautiful colors: Domino, (an almost orange) Fiesta Red, Atlantic Blue, and High-Rise Gray.  HTC describes these as “color dipped,” which makes more sense when you see the phone. It’s actually more attractive than even the 8X, I think.

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As an entry-level device, the 8S has lower specs than the 8X, with a 1 GHz dual-core processor, 512 MB of RAM, and 4 GB of storage (expandable to 36 GB with micro-SD).

Like the 8X, the 8S supports GSM/GPRS/EDGE and HSPA/WCDMA networking, though HTC wouldn’t confirm which carriers will provide this device. It includes a GPS but not NFC.

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The 8S camera is a more pedestrian 5 megapixels, and it includes a F2.8 aperture and 35mm lens, with 720p video recording. Nothing special, and there’s no front-side camera at all. And while the 8S does include Beats Audio, it lacks the dedicated amp provided in the 8X.

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The 8S battery has a 1700 mAh capacity. Like that in the 8X, it’s non-removable.