Review: HTC One (M8)

HTC delivers an outstanding smartphone experience with the new One (April 27th, 2014)

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Product Manufacturer: HTC

Price: $649 outright

The Good


  • - Superb aluminum design
    - Great software
    - Excellent display
    - Outstanding audio
    - Strong battery life
    - Duo camera innovative

The Bad


  • - Duo Camera not great for enlargements
    - Larger and heavier than predecessor

The HTC One (M8) is the sequel to the critically well-received HTC One (M7), released around 12 months ago. The HTC One (M7) stood out from the Android crowd by making a bold aluminum statement when nearly all its competitors continue with cheap looking and cheap feeling plastic materials. Despite boasting a some great all-round qualities, the HTC One (M7) did not take the market by storm as HTC had hoped. Rather than backpedalling, however, HTC has upped the ante by making the HTC One (M8) even more stunning and adding a raft of improvements that make it one of the most compelling smartphones on the market. However, like most things, it is not without its shortcomings, but whether these are deal killers will ultimately be up to consumers.

Design and construction:
The HTC One (M8), is one of the most beautiful smartphones ever made. Some might argue that none surpass it for its stunning industrial design. Not only does it look amazing when you see it first hand, but it also feels completely premium when you hold it. There are no faux metal parts, or tacky cheap feeling plastic that detract from the overall user experience. The new model is around 90 percent aluminum, and increase of 20 percent over the HTC One (M7). Where it deviates from aluminum in its construction, it uses neat plastic bands that are necessary to permits both the Wi-Fi and cellular connections to work properly. Its MacBook-like pin holes for the BoomSound speakers look great, while its chamfered edges add another classy touch. What you really marvel at, however, is just how HTC has been able to make the aluminum tapered edges rounded, greatly enhancing your comfort when using it.





Less welcome, perhaps, is that the HTC One (M8) has grown in size, ostensibly to to accommodate its new 5-inch display (up from 4.7-inches). Its dimensions now measure 5.76 x 2.78 x 0.37 inches (146.36 x 70.6 x 9.35 mm), while weight is also up to 5.46 oz (160 g). While this reviewer is able to manage the device with one hand, it is at the absolute limit of what we would want to see in a regular smartphone. It's tapered edges help with navigating the device, but for people with smaller hands, it is going to require two hands to manage the device comfortably. Some have criticized the HTC One (M8) for its relatively large bezels, although this is the trade-off for its its integrated BoomSound speakers with discrete amplification. Ideally, having thinner bezels at the top, bottom and sides would have been preferable, but its footprint is not dissimilar to the Samsung Galaxy S5.




Display:
Another highlight of the HTC One (M8) is its superb display. It is 5-inch 1080p IPS-type Super LCD 3 panel with a pixel density of 441ppi. Although this is slightly down from the 468ppi of the 4.7-inch HTC One (M7), it it makes absolutely no difference in practical terms. As Apple has previously explained, anything over 300ppi makes it very hard for a person to discern individual pixels. As such, reading fine text on the HTC One display is an absolute pleasure, while viewing web pages and photos is similarly enjoyable. Movies also look sensational, with rich, but balanced color and wide viewing angles. This is protected by Corning's Gorilla Glass 3, with native damage resistance. What this means is that minor scratches will eventually repair themselves - with care, most users can avoid having to muck around with screen protectors. As an added bonus, HTC Advantage cover is included with each HTC One (M8). If for some reason, your display shatters in the first six-months, HTC will repair it, or replace your device once, free of charge.




Audio:
The HTC One (M7) set the mobile benchmark for smartphone external speaker sound. The only smartphone that we have heard that sounds better than it is the new HTC One. HTC claims that BoomSound on the HTC One (M8) is 25 percent louder thanks to larger chambers contained within the body, coupled with a new amplifier. It is not just the volume that impresses, it is also the sound quality itself. The amplification delivers a high-fidelity sound that just does not seem possible from speakers that are so small. For casual listening, say in a dorm room or bedroom, there is absolutely no need for a Bluetooth speaker. Speaker calls are also amazing, while listening to regular calls is simply a joy. No more straining to hear callers, particularly in crowded or noisy areas when trying to take an important call.



For music lovers, an added bonus is that the amplification is now also available through the headphone port. Tests have shown that the HTC One (M8) has more than twice the output power through the headphone jack than any other smartphone on the market. HTC may no longer have Beats Audio, but it has actually a change for the better as the new One produces high quality, distortion free audio that is free of any traces of artificial signal boosting. The added power of headphone amplification produces the most rich and satisfying listening experience we have yet to hear from a smartphone. Audiophiles will also be excited to learn that the HTC One (M8) supports 16-bit and 24-bit FLAC audio files. Coupled with the revamped and excellent HTC Music app, the HTC One (M8) may have stolen the crown from the iPhone 5s as the best smartphone for music lovers.




Camera/s:
If there was one area that the HTC One (M7) proved potentially disappointing for serious mobile photographers was its Ultra Pixel camera. For most people, however, it was a solid all-round proposition with an emphasis on the light capturing capabilities of its 2.0 μm sensor pixels, rather than its overall megapixel count. As we demonstrated in some detail as part of our HTC One (M7) review last year, the level of detail was lacking when compared with the iPhone 5 camera and the Samsung Galaxy S4 camera. Unfortunately, things haven't changed this year either, in that the 4-megapixel Ultra Pixel sensor remains, but lost is that camera's optical image stabilization. It retains a large f/2.0 aperture, a large one-third inch BSI sensor and a long 28mm lens. New is a secondary 2-megapixel sensor for providing depth information, that when combined with main camera has been dubbed by HTC as the Duo Camera.



While we would have liked to see HTC increase the megapixel count of the Ultra Pixel sensor to at least 5-megapixels for some additional detail and reduced artefacts when images are enlarged, the inclusion of the Duo Camera makes is an interesting addition and a genuine point of differentiation. If you like taking photos of friends and family, the HTC One (M8) will not disappoint. Where it may disappoint is if you like to capture more expansive shots of sunsets or scenery. In these instances, flagship competition from Samsung and Apple comfortably beat it out. However, if you prefer to take these types of shots with a high quality camera, the Ultra Pixel and Duo Camera combination will not be a deal killer. As it is, it still takes very good shots, with balanced exposure and vibrant, but natural colors that are well suited for standard 6x7 photos. The 1080p videos are sharp, but probably suffer somewhat from the lack of optical image stabilization, although digital image stabilization off-sets this to some extent.


UFocus applied



Without UFocus


HTC's camera app has been improved markedly for the new HTC One, taking particular advantage of the Duo Camera functionality. If you like bokeh photo effects, you will love the Duo Camera UFocus effect. You can adjust the focus after the shot has been taken using UFocus, allowing you to put real emphasis on your chief subject, while instantly blurring either the foreground or the background. As you can see from the shots below, it works exceptionally well for portraits. While optical image stabilization has been lost, the fast 300 millisecond autofocus and digital image stabilization help to keep shots sharp, while the intelligent LED Dual Flash produces more natural looking flash photos of friends and family taken at night. One other Duo Camera function that dips into gimmickry is the parallax effect created when using the Dimension Plus mode, however, it is fun for kids in particular.



HTC Zoe has been retained. It captures a series of still photos and then collects them in a short video clip. This time though, HTC plans to share the app through the Google Play store later this year for online sharing of Zoe's with friends regardless of device. The Camera app will also be released through the Google Play store, helping to get updates out to users faster than waiting for firmware updates. Another highlight includes a new slow motion video capture function that "wows" just as much as it does on the iPhone 5s. Other useful in-built functions include 360 degree panoramas, photo filters, animated season effects, a GIF creator, HDR, white balance adjustments, burst mode, smile detection, copy & paste (to insert family or friends into a completely different scene) and a macro mode. As you can see, there is no shortage of functionality, which helps to make the HTC One (M8) a good all-round performer in typical situations.









While one can debate the relative merits and shortcomings of HTC's bold decision to dodge the megapixel war for its main camera, it has dramatically upped the ante of its front facing camera by switching to a 5-megapixel sensor. It too, has a large f/2.0 aperture and BSI sensor, with a wide-angle 88-degree lens that will help to capture large groups of people. It has done this to tap into the selfie craze that seems to show no signs of abating. As an added bonus, it can also shoot full 1080p videos as well and supports HDR photos. The level of detail and quality of photos that it produces will see some high-quality selfies hit the social networks, for better or worse.


Software:
While we have often touted the benefits of stock Android on a smartphone, there continue to be strong arguments for manufacturers to differentiate their devices through additional software capabilities that are not native in the Android OS. Sense 6 is the latest iteration of HTC's own version of Android is one of the very best manufacturer skins that we have seen. What makes it so successful is how cohesive the whole user experience feels. It is still recognisably Google Android, but HTC has built on it to genuinely value add, while keeping the whole experience relatively simple, clean and uncluttered. There are several color themes that can be activated, similar to the way color themes work in Windows Phone 8, but these help to bring a real sense of focus to the user interface. The default green theme appears, for example, in Blinkfeed 2.0, when you type on the keyboard and trace with gestures, through to appearing in toggles in the settings functions. Coupled with the new flat UI aesthetic, it just looks great.



The downside is that Android updates will take somewhat longer to get to end users, but HTC guarantees two full years of Android updates - if that doesn't suit, a Google Play Edition of the device will soon be available through Google Play. Given the way HTC has handled the UI development in Sense 6, we suspect that as it has not strayed too far from the core Android experience, updates could well get to users much more quickly as a result. In a sign of things to come, perhaps, the HTC One (M8) ships with the very latest version of Android out of the box in Android 'KitKat' 4.4.2. The slickness and speed with which it operates is truly at Apple levels of sophistication. We have not encountered a single instance of lag or a sign of any glitches in the many hours that we have spent with the phone to date. BlinkFeed has also seen marked improvements. now in version 2.0, there are plenty of customization options for the type of coverage that you get, including customized sports news. And if for some reason you want the extra home screen, you can deactivate BlinkFeed altogether. Although as we said last year, it is a really handy feature and one that we can see most users really enjoying.



Another software highlight is the built-in Sense TV app. We were able to set it up to control our TV, home theatre and pay TV box within five minutes. Its beautiful interface, common in look and feel to HTC's other built-in media apps, uses a graphics-based programme guide. It also learns the shows that you like watching to make intelligent suggestions for new shows that you might. Combined with Sense TV Sports, it will tell you what channel your team game is being televised on as well as provide you with scores, stats and other information related to your team.



New Motion Launch and Motion and Touch Gestures are another set of very useful software enhancements that HTC has developed for the new One. Motion Launch functions include waking the phone by lifting it up in portrait mode and double tapping the screen, picking up the phone and swiping to the right to launch straight into BlinkFeed, or swiping to the left to wake up the phone directly into the Home widget panel. You can also wake the phone directly into camera mode by picking it up horizontally and pressing the volume up or down buttons. You can also use Motion Launch to jump directly into a phone call with a swipe down that activates the mic to take voice commands.



Motion Gestures can be used to reject a call by flipping the phone over, set it to quiet ring on pick up, or increase the volume automatically when it is in a purse on a pants pocket. Touch Gestures include being able to launch Quick Settings with a two finger swipe down, a three finger swipe can execute the share function in apps, while a three finger tap while in the Car mode will activate voice commands. Building on these capabilities, HTC's Dot View cover for the new HTC One allows you to double tap the phone to quickly check the time and whether, presented in a retro-look dot matrix representation. You can also swipe on the cover to take and reject calls, while also getting message and mail alerts. These are all HTC One/Sense 6 enhancements to Android that help to make it a pleasure to live with the new HTC One. The good news for HTC One (M7), HTC One mini and HTC One max customers is that a number of these enhancements will also come to their devices in Spring.








Performance:
As you can see from the raw benchmarks, the international version of the HTC One (M8) is one of the fastest Android smartphone on the planet right now. Although the 2.5GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 is not the massive generational leap in performance that we have become accustomed to year-over-year, it is still lightning fast and much quicker than the Snapdragon 600 in the HTC One (M7). Yet at the same time, because of its asynchronous cores, is able to conserve power by switching off cores when they are not required, giving it both better performance and battery life. While the US model of the HTC One (M8) is clocked around 200MHz slower on the CPU side, its Adreno 330 GPU is clocked at the same high 578MHz frequency of the faster international version of the chip. Games are going to perform exceptionally well as a result with some of the highest framerates you will see on any mobile device as the GFX Bench result indicates. The reason the US version of the HTC One (M8) ships with a slightly slower version of the Snapdragon 801 in the US is because Samsung was able to secure US exclusivity on the chip for its GS5 launch. In practical terms, though, it is hardly cause for concern as either version of the chip is a top shelf performer, at least in the Android space.







As fast as the HTC One (M8) and the Galaxy S5 are, they still lag somewhat in single-core performance when comes to comparisons with the Apple iPhone 5s. Although released in September last year, the iPhone 5s scores 1406 on the single-core Geekbench 3 mark, which compares with a score of 1019 produced by the HTC One (M8). Apple's 64-bit A7 design highlights the benefits of Apple's early transition to the ARM v8 instruction set along with the additional pipelines and registers in its 64-bit 'Cyclone' cores for much more efficient processing per clock cycle. Where the Snapdragon 801 manages to outmuscle the iPhone 5s is in multicore performance with a score of 2777, versus the iPhone 5s, which comes in with a score of 2541. When you factor in the fact that the A7 in the iPhone 5s is a dual-core chip clocked at just 1.3GHz, you can start to see why Apple accelerated its transition to a fully 64-bit architecture. Nonetheless, HTC One (M8) is no slouch, and is still more than capable of comfortably handling just about anything that you might throw at it, especially as it supports 2GB of onboard system RAM.


Storage, Battery life & Connectivity:
A drawback for power users of last year's HTC One (M7) is that it did not include a microSD card slot. HTC has rectified things this time around and not only adds support for microSD cards, but it also supports newer cards with capacities as high as 128GB. This is great news for people with large music collections, or who like to carry around a wide range of multimedia and other files. The HTC One (M8) is available in either 16GB or 32GB standard variants, so in either case, you are no longer especially constrained. Still, we would recommend opting for the 32GB model, particularly if you plan on installing lots of apps, which can't be stored on the external card. The microSD capability does add an additional layer of complexity for some users, but for users who want to take advantage of it, it proves a welcome addition.



Another area that has been boosted considerably in the new HTC One is battery life. The new model picks up a larger 2600mAh battery, up 300mAh over the previous model, which is one of the benefits of HTC increasing the overall footprint of the new device. We have found that it can genuinely last through a typical work day with web surfing, light gaming, listening to music and watching videos without resorting to the wall charger. Added to this, HTC has also included a new Extreme Power Saving Mode. When activated, it will deliver up to 14 days of power, while still allowing for calls, texts and emails. Activated at 20 percent of battery power, it will deliver users up to 60 hours of standby time, 30 hours at 10 percent power and 15 hours at 5 percent power. So while you might not be able to browse the web, play games or watch movies, at least you know that you are going to be able to maintain contact with family and and friends when your juice starts to run out.



From the perspective of connectivity, the HTC One (M8) supports everything that you would expect a premium smartphone should. In addition to a fast 4G cellular connection, it supports dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11ac. Also included is NFC, MHL and DLNA for streaming to compatible TVs and PCs. In another plus for music lovers, the device supports Bluetooth 4.0 with CSR aptX. For those unfamiliar with aptX, provided you pair the HTC One (M8) to a pair of Bluetooth headphones that also supports aptX, you will be able to enjoy uncompressed wireless audio streaming - it is a big plus for those who like listening to high quality music, but don't like being tethered by a cable if it can be avoided.


Final thoughts:
The HTC One (M8) is a highly impressive smartphone and deserves every success. There is an undeniable Apple-like aesthetic running throughout this phone, but nothing that you could point at being deliberately or obviously ripped off from the iPhone. The difference between the HTC One (M8) and some other Android iPhone switcher wannabes is that not only has HTC got the hardware right with its stunning, seamless aluminum unibody, but it has also got the software right too. This is what really helps to set it apart from the Android crowd and what makes it a much better overall bet than the Samsung Galaxy S5 in our view. Whereas the Galaxy S5 UI is fragmented and fails to present a unified and consistent UI experience, the HTC One delivers the cleanest and most classy version of Android that we have yet to use.

It is obvious that HTC has put considerable thought into all aspects of this smartphone and has studiously avoided feature overload. While there is no doubt that the Galaxy S5 has plenty of technological prowess, Samsung has thrown every kind of feature that it can at the device without due consideration or care about whether it is really useful or helpful. On the other hand, just about every feature that HTC has included in the One not only works properly, but authentically adds to the user experience. It is not without its shortcomings, as we have pointed out above - it is larger and heavier than its predecessor, while it also continues with its somewhat controversial 4-megapixel Ultra Pixel camera. It would be nice if it was water resistant as well. Overall, though, there is so much to like, and indeed, love about the HTC One (M8) that makes it easily one of the best smartphones that you can buy.

by Sanjiv Sathiah


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