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Featured Review: HTC One (M8)

April 12, 2014 - Written By Tom Dawson

Last year, I was fortunate enough to spend some quality time with the HTC One, and this year I’ve got the opportunity to do it all over again with the HTC One M8. Except, this year HTC have remixed things a little bit. I say remix, because this is nothing like a revolution and its evolution is more like remixing your favorite into something that sounds familiar, but different all the same. The 2013 model made some waves in the mobile industry, delivering a build we hadn’t really seen before on an Android phone, speakers that you can actually listen to music with and a camera that HTC called “Ultra”. I was impressed last year, but what about today’s HTC One? Is it just as impressive or is it one of those bad remixes of a song that ruins the original formula? Read on as I try to answer that very question.

Hardware & Design

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Let’s start off a review about an HTC device properly, shall we? Last year’s HTC One was excellently put together, and this year’s is no different, in fact it’s even better. With a higher percentage of the device’s body being made out of metal, this year’s model feels like a solid device and surprisingly, it isn’t as heavy as you might expect. Design wise, the refinements made by HTC make a world of difference. The curvier design of the back panel makes the device far more comfortable in your hand and if it’s possible for something made out of metal to look “natural” than the M8 would be just that. The brushed finish is also a much welcome change from last year’s model, as this gives you a lot more grip on the device and I didn’t feel like this was going to slip out of my hands every five minutes. Details look as if they’re part of the overall design language here, with the front-facing camera and proximity sensors slipping into the front grill nicely.

Overall, I don’t have much to complain about when it comes to the M8’s design. Apart from asking whether or not the person in charge of placing the power button on the top of the device gave such a decision any thought at all. The One is a tall device, as such the decision to put the power button on the top of the phone is not only annoying, but just plain lazy. If I have to fumble my device in one hand to unlock it with the power button at the top of the phone, I am likely to drop it. However annoying I personally find this design choice though, it’s hard not to fall in love with the design at work here even if that HTC logo on the front feels like it makes the device unnecessarily tall (we’re told this is full of tech needed to make the phone work as intended, but we still don’t like it).

Display

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After spending some quality time with the HTC One (M8), I thought I’d be more impressed with the 5-inch 1080p display, after all HTC have made a name for themselves using good displays over the years. The overall quality of the display is pleasing, text is sharp and it’s extremely bright, with no signs of light bleed anywhere. However, it’s just not that impressive. This isn’t to put the One down or anything, but I’m nowhere as impressed as I was with last year’s display. There’s certainly nothing wrong with the display this time around, but there’s very little to write home about.

As it stands, the M8 features a sharp, crisp display that is easily read in sunlight and delivers punchy colors. However, if you were expecting some sort of revolution in display technology, this might disappoint you. That’s much the same with the Galaxy S5, G2 and G Pro 2 as well though. At the end of the day, the HTC One (M8) features a top of the line quality display that features excellent viewing angles and is perfectly bright enough. However, the display on my Nexus 5 is not far behind (light bleed issues aside) so we doubt the One will be winning any awards for its display this year.

Performance

With a Snapdragon 801 at 2.3 Ghz and 2GB of RAM, it’s no surprise that this year’s HTC One is a real speed demon. I’m rarely impressed when it comes to smartphones running a skinned version of Android. The M8 has a lot of things going on in the background and while Sense has been slimmed down since the days of Sense 4, there’s still a lot of added features on top of Android. In the case of the M8 however, these seem to have made absolutely no difference whatsoever to the overall performance. Animations are super-fluid, touch response is excellent and the only “waiting” I had to do when using the device was for the One to load web pages, which was entirely dependent on network speed. The Camera (more on that later) is particularly speedy and taking a photo can be done in a matter of seconds, even from the lock screen. It’s safe to say that those looking for a speedy smartphone will find very little to complain about with the HTC One (M8).

We would normally deal with benchmarks below here, but considering HTC is targeting benchmarks in order to produce more flattering results. We’re not even going there. With an immediacy that you’d expect from such a high-performance CPU, the HTC One (M8) never let me down during my testing and I never came across any bugs or anything like that, either. I was genuinely surprised as HTC have never really had a reputation of producing genuinely fast devices. This year’s HTC One makes navigating Android a breeze and everything is smooth and responsive.

Software

There might be a Google Play Edition of the HTC One (M8) available, but the main version ships with Sense 6 on top of Android 4.4.2 KitKat. A refinement of last year’s complete reworking of Sense 4, this year’s skin is more of the same. HTC has paid attention to the key aspects of their UI with Sense 6 and left what didn’t need much work well alone, a tactic we wish others would take up. The major changes in Sense 6 have to do with BlinkFeed, which is now more powerful than ever, and feels a lot more responsive. We take a closer look at BlinkFeed here. Another welcome addition is the ability to change themes on the device, which essentially changes the color accents in HTC apps and you can also change the font, too.

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Obviously, the bigger changes from last year’s Sense 5 are the inclusion of the onscreen buttons, which work just as you’d expect and the modular approach to core Sense apps. These Sense apps – such as BlinkFeed, SenseTV and more – are all available in the Play Store, which makes tweaking and updating versions of these apps much easier. Without the need to wait for a full carrier-approved update, these apps can get access to bugfixes and new features much quicker. The overall look and feel of Sense 6 has been refined and the minimal look works wonders. There are a lot of features waiting for you underneath it all however, it’s just a lot more manageable than other skins.

Another addition is in the form of motion gestures, which actually don’t have too much to do with motion, but they’re a decent way of getting from an unlocked phone to the feature you want. Like being able to hold down the volume button and launch the camera app, or swipe down to enable voice dialing. These are simple additions, and they’re not that difficult to learn, either.

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With features that are genuinely helpful and a look that’s both aesthetically pleasing and easy to use, Sense 6.0 is one of the better touches on Android we’ve used in a long time. HTC proved with the One last year that they can move faster when it comes to software updates and hopefully, this will stay true with the next generation of the One family.

The Camera

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I’ve already spoken a lot about last year’s HTC One, mostly because it’s impossible not to. When a device is mostly unchanged from its previous model, it’s hard not to compare. While the design and build of the M8 has been improved and refined and the internals have been upgraded, the UltraPixel camera remains pretty much the same as it always was. It seems that HTC’s approach here is “more” rather than “better”. Instead of revamping their UltraPixel sensor, HTC have added another camera module that takes in heaps of depth info to enable faster autofocus and magical tricks like being able to refocus after the fact. A lot has changed in the smartphone arena when it comes to imaging, so the question is really whether or not HTC’s offering still impresses.

First thing’s first, the HTC One (M8) features one of the best shooting experiences I’ve used on a phone in a long time. The camera software and UI is not only incredibly easy to use, but incredibly quick, too. Taking a photo is as simple as tapping a familiar button in the app, and you can focus anywhere you like by touching the display.

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Swiping up from this screen will bring you to the front-facing camera and hitting the grid icon in the bottom corner brings up a display with different modes, which are incredibly straightforward.

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This simplification of actually taking photos makes the One a joy to use when taking photos. Each mode is predictably self-explanatory, and the first time you switch to these modes, you’re given simple prompts from HTC to get the most out of these features. Those looking for a device that’s a joy to take care photos with, will not be disappointed. You might be wondering why there’s no listing for the Duo Camera that makes up the pair of shooters around back. That’s because the refocusing takes place after you’ve taken the shot, and is found in the “Edit” menu when viewing a photo and is listed under “Ufocus”. In the below image, you can see that the shot I took is focused on the pint glass.

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With a little editing, you can focus on the fridge in the background.

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The effect isn’t as severe as marketing might make out, but it definitely works and it’s a pretty cool feature that does actually have some use. For instance, this is better suited to taking portraits of children or loved ones with a blurred background, similar to the sort of striking portraits you get with a dSLR and a large sensor. This is what the Duo Camera does, and it does work as intended, by measuring depth and capturing all sorts of data, the One can let you refocus after the fact no matter how long ago you took the shot. You can take a look in the gallery below at some shots taken with the HTC One (M8), they are of course completely untouched.

Low Light Performance

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Where this “UltraPixel” business is supposed to shine is with low light performance. Bigger pixels means being able to take in more light, so the One should be excellent in low light, right? Well, not exactly. Focus time in low light is incredibly impressive, we assume this is down to the Duo Camera doing the heavy lifting, but whatever the reason you won’t be hunting for a focus point when the sun goes down. Low light performance is about as good as you’d expect for a smartphone, frankly. Colors start to look a little muted and noise creeps in badly. Things seem to be worse with the HTC One (M8) however, due to the lower resolution of images. These images are only 4-megapixel files, so this noise is far more apparent in your low light shots, but you will get usable photos. How nice those photos look however, is a matter of personal opinion we suppose.

So, all-in-all is the HTC One (M8) a capable shooter? I’d say so, but it’s not perfect. The resolution of these images relegates them to being only good for internet use and picture messaging, not something you would send off to National Geographic. However, in those situations, you wouldn’t even think of using your smartphone, so there’s not much of an issue here, but the low resolution can be annoying. Similarly, the lack of Optical Image Stabilisation can cause some issues, but only if you’re so impatient you can’t stay still for a second or two. Again , HTC has thought of this as they did last year and the Zoe Camera can take video of high-speed action and select stills for you. Overall, it looks and feels like HTC has thought of every common smartphone scenario when taking pictures. The UI is a joy to use, it’s fast, there’s a lot of editing options available, and it’s capable in low light situations. If you’re not looking for a device that produces high-res images you’re going to edit and send off for evaluation, the resolution won’t bother you and while the lack of optical image stabilisation seems bizarre these days, I never had an issue focusing when taking photos. We took a much closer look at the the HTC One’s camera here.

BoomSound and Call Quality

Shifting gears a little, let’s talk sound. BoomSound is here once again, and it sounds just as great as it always has. The stereo speakers feature a built-in amplifier and they’re very loud. It’s not just their volume that’s so impressive, but more the presence and bass that the sound has, too. From small drivers like these, you’re not going to get thumping bass, but you can hear some of that same punch you would get and the highs don’t run away either. The mid-range is very much alive here and the overall sound is full, loud and clear. Great for listening to music with, watching videos and video chat, the BoomSound speakers still remain a great selling point for the HTC One, and the omission of Beats Audio makes no difference at all, at least not to my ears. I also tested the One with a number of headphones and found the sound quality to be excellent here as well, everything was clear and had a nice warm tone to it.

Call quality is very good, too with voices sounding natural and clear. Those I spoke to on the phone said I sounded clear and crisp, with little to no background noise. Speakerphone use is obviously quite good thanks to BoomSound, but the usual microphone issues when using speakerphone mode on any smartphone are still here.

Battery Life

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How I use my phone is going to be different from your phone, however I was very impressed with the HTC One’s battery life. It was good last year, but it’s greatly improved this time around. Idle time is particularly impressive, if you have a good percentage of battery left when you go to bed, you could easily get away with not charging the One and even in use, it just keeps on going. Certainly, using the BoomSound speakers or taking a lot of photos will drain the battery quicker, but you shouldn’t have much issue unless you’re going crazy, taking photos of everything you see or spending all day listening to music.

The One features some really interesting battery saving features as well, chief among them being the Extreme Power Saving mode. This gives you a very basic homescreen with access to phone, messaging, HTC email apps and very little else. According to HTC, the One can survive for up to two weeks in this mode, but regardless it’s excellent when you need a few more hours’ worth of battery to make or receive calls. If you’re looking for a device with respectable – and in some cases surprising – battery life, then the One won’t disappoint.

The Good

  • Excellent build and design. A stunning device overall, that still manages to feel good in the hand.
  • Very speedy performance, with little to no lag in sight.
  • Good battery life that won’t let you down when you need it most.
  • Camera is not only easy to use, but a good performer all round.
  • Great sounding speakers will make listening to music with friends on the go a breeze and YouTube is better on no other device than this.

The Bad

  • 4-megapixel resolution relegates images to internet sharing more than anything else.
  • Display is more “same old, same old” than an overall improvement, despite its size increase.
  • Power button is in a bizarre place for a device of the One’s height and size.

The Final Verdict

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HTC might be struggling a financial unit, but they’re clearly not struggling creating quality smartphones. The HTC One (M8) – despite its awful naming scheme – is a quality smartphone that ticks all the critical boxes for those looking for a new smartphone today. The camera is great and has some excellent editing features, it feels and looks great and it’s one of the quickest Android phones on the market right now. There’s very little to find fault with on the HTC One and considering HTC have made bold claims to support their customers through HTC Advantage and guaranteed software updates, the M8 seems like a decent investment. There’s no doubt the One has stiff competition in the Galaxy S5 and the marketing machine that is Samsung, but as remixes of your favorite songs go, the M8 is a remix that creates a richer, fuller sound with a beat everyone can get down to.