HTC One (M8) review: The smartphone that changes everything… again

Review
HTC One M8 Review

It is considered poor form to begin a review with the conclusion, but there’s really no reason to drag this out: the HTC One (M8) is the best Android phone the world has ever seen. Period. Full stop. Of this, there is no doubt. In many ways, in fact, it is the best smartphone the world has ever seen. From the design of the device to the power of its components and everything in between, HTC’s new One better than its predecessor. And its predecessor, as you might recall, was the best all-around Android phone the world had ever seen last year.

Actually, it might still have been the best all-around Android phone in the world until about 11:15 a.m. on Tuesday.

With all that out of the way, let’s take a closer look at the new HTC One (M8) smartphone to find out exactly what makes it the best Android phone in the world. And just as important, of course, is the question of whether or not being the best will draw away enough Samsung and Apple customers to finally help HTC get back on track.

First things first: What, exactly, is the name of this fantastic new phone?

Good question.

On the packaging, HTC’s brand new flagship smartphone is called the “HTC One.” Of course, there is already an HTC One and for the time being, it’s still available on store shelves. Awkward indeed.

To differentiate the new One from the old One, HTC is referring to the just-announced model as the all new HTC One or the HTC One (M8). M8, by the way, might refer to the fact that this is the eight flagship smartphone that HTC has launched. Last year’s HTC One model, as you might have guessed, has been referred to as the M7.

It’s all a bit confusing and weird, especially to someone with a marketing background like myself. But over time it shouldn’t matter as long as HTC picks one single name to brand the device with and remains consistent across all marketing and advertising.

There will undoubtedly be an initial chorus of whiny blog posts complaining about the confusion surrounding the phone’s name, and some of them will make good points. But in the long run, it really won’t matter much.

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Now, one of the most important things to be aware of from the get-go with the new HTC One is that looks can be deceiving.

From afar, the M8 looks very similar to last year’s One. Having the same name certainly doesn’t help matters either. But the new HTC One is not a minor, iterative update. It’s not a bunch of newer components stuffed into the same case. It is a brand new smartphone from top to bottom, inside and out.

Starting with the housing, HTC completely redesigned the device’s case. It looks similar from afar but I assure you, there are plenty of important differences.

First, there is much more metal. Last year’s HTC One case was 70% metal, with plastic around the outer edges of the device and on the back where the antennas were. This year’s model, however, is 90% metal.

The aluminum on the back of the new HTC One wraps around to the sides and bottom now, with the only remaining plastic found in inserts on the back and top of the phone. The face of the phone is mostly glass, as it was before, but it’s actually quite different on the M8 compared to the M7.

My favorite little design element from last year’s One — the glass display cover that spilled over the sides of the phone and blended in with the chamfered bezel — is gone on the new model. At first, I was a bit sad to lose this fantastic detail. The new design is still quite slick though, with a raised perimeter around the glass and metal inserts that transitions down into a narrower chamfered bezel that is still polished.

It’s not quite as sleek as the old design, but the removal of the plastic surrounding the case makes up for it.

The display itself is fantastic, as was the case with the original HTC One.

HTC’s M8 uses a Super LCD 3 panel that is slightly larger than the screen on last year’s model, having been bumped up to 5 inches from 4.7 inches. It’s still the same 1080p full HD resolution so the pixels are a bit more spread out, but the difference really isn’t discernible to the naked eye. Text and graphics are smooth, colors are rich and the contrast is impressive.

The new HTC One’s display can go toe to toe with any other smartphone on the market.

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Metal inserts above and below the glass screen are home to HTC’s signature BoomSound speakers. As is the case with the rest of the phone, however, looks can be deceiving and they’re not the same.

HTC’s BoomSound system consists of speakers, amplifiers, audio tuning and hollow chambers behind the micro-drilled holes you see on the face of the phone. These chambers help amplify the sound from the speakers, and on the new HTC One they’re 20% larger than they were on the old One. HTC also used new and improved speakers and amps on the new model.

The result is sound that’s deeper, 25% louder, and even a bit clearer (at least to my ear) than it was on last year’s HTC One. I should also note that sound seems to be improved on voice calls, and through the audio jack as well thanks to another new amp.

Next to the micro-drilled speaker holes in the top metal insert sits a space for sensors and the phone’s front-facing camera. Since “selfies” are so popular these days, HTC’s new One includes a 5-megapixel front-facing camera with a wide-angle lens so more friends can fit in each frame.

A volume rocker sits on the right edge of the phone next to a microSD card slot. You read that right — the lack of expandable storage was a big complaint among users last year, so the new One includes microSDXC support for up to 128GB of storage in addition to the 16GB or 32GB available out of the box.

The left edge of the phone includes a nanoSIM slot while the bottom is home to a microUSB port and a headphone jack. The top edge of the phone has a power/lock button and a hidden infrared port.

Around back, HTC’s logo can be seen at the center of the case with plastic strips above and below for antennas. There is also a secondary microphone that captures audio while recording movies, as well as a dual-LED flash and two camera lenses that comprise HTC’s new “Duo Camera.”

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HTC is not worried about the megapixel race. Instead, the company stuck with its 4-megapixel “UltraPixel” technology and focused on two things: Improving the quality of the images captured, rather than the size, and adding unique new features to the camera experience.

This is a fine strategy, in theory. In practice, the results are somewhat mixed.

On the “adding unique new features” front, HTC absolutely succeeded. Rumors suggested that HTC’s new One included dual rear cameras in order to facilitate 3D photo and video capture, but it turns out that’s not true at all. Instead, the second smaller lens is used to measure depth, and the related information allows the phone to apply several very nifty photo effects after the fact.

While viewing photos in the gallery or in the camera app after an image is captured, a simple tap on the edit button reveals several great options that I really enjoyed using.

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Included among the phone’s photo effects are “UFocus,” which acts like a Lytro camera and lets you readjust the focus in an image by tapping any point on the screen; “Foregrounder,” which automatically adds a bokeh effect, blurring the background and making the photo look like it was captured by a DSLR camera; “Dimension Plus,” which creates a 3D effect and lets you pan around by tilting the phone in different directions; and “Touch Up,” which allows you to make quick edits to things like lighting on a face or red eye removal.

Image quality, sadly, is another matter entirely.

In meetings, HTC said that it spent a great deal of time working on improving the quality of the camera so photos would come out better in all lighting conditions. I didn’t find that to be the case in my testing.

Pictures taken with the first HTC One were pretty good, but users encountered issues both in dim lighting and in very bright light. With the new model, I still find colors to be washed out when taking pictures in many lighting scenarios and the photos definitely don’t pop like they do with leading cameras, such as the ones on the Lumia 1020 and iPhone 5s.

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Some of these issues are here to stay, while others may be addressed in future software updates.

Staples from the original HTC One’s camera tool belt are also on board in new and improved fashion. This includes Zoe, which combines still images and video, and the highlight function that automatically combines photos and videos, adds effects and music, and creates a highlight reel.

Of note, HTC also has a new Zoe application that allows friends to collaborate and edit each other’s Zoe movies. So, if you and a friend both go to the same party and take pictures, you can upload your Zoe reels and allow your friend to add pictures of some things you might have missed.

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Overall, there is simply no mass-market Android phone that even approaches the new HTC One in terms of design and build quality.

The fit and finish are absolutely impeccable. The materials are perfect, the brushed finish on the gunmetal version I received to review is stunning, the feel of the phone is phenomenal, and the lines are gorgeous and deliberate.

If I was a designer at one of HTC’s rivals, I would be embarrassed right now. The HTC One (M8) is everything a smartphone should be.

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Moving deeper inside the new One, HTC has redesigned just about every last pixel in its latest version of Sense. And as is the case with the phone’s housing, everything was changed for the better.

In keeping with the latest trends in iOS and other custom Android software, Sense 6 is much more minimalistic than earlier versions, and it also makes use of nice bright colors that vary depending on which app you’re in. Unlike iOS though, Sense 6 supports themes so you can change the color palette to suit your preference.

Fonts have been changed across the device, while gradients and textures have been flattened and made solid. The result is a much more modern look throughout the entire operating system.

The most pronounced design changes will be found in Sense 6’s key features, such as BlinkFeed and the camera app.

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Beginning with the former, BlinkFeed has been completely redesigned in Sense 6 to offer both a better look and a simplified experience. The app still pulls in content from various news services, blogs and social networks, but there are a few additional features as well.

For one thing, adding content is easier since everything is done by search. BlinkFeed is also a bit smarter about which content is displayed now — for example, it will give preference to Facebook content with more “likes.”

BlinkFeed will also create custom “channels” automatically. For example, users can search for “tech” and BlinkFeed will present them with the option to add a special tech channel that pulls in technology news from AP and other sources, tech-heavy Twitter content and so on.

Perhaps best of all, HTC has begun to add intelligent features to Sense 6 that use location, time and other context to present the user with relevant information even before he or she requests it. So, for example, HTC’s Foursquare integration will allow the phone to pop up information about a restaurant the user is passing if it’s lunchtime and the user’s friends have recommended it in the past.

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Another key partnership has been made with FitBit, which has added support for the M8’s in-built “sensor hub” to its step-tracking app. Like the M7 motion coprocessor in Apple’s iPhone 5s, the new HTC One includes sensors that track movements in order to count steps.

But the sensor hub is about more than just step counting.

One of my favorite simple new HTC One (M8) features is called “Motion Launch,” and it is made possible by HTC’s new sensors. This feature allows the user to pick up his or her phone with the display off and perform one of several tap, swipe or motion gestures to perform specific commands.

  • Picking up the phone in portrait orientation and tapping twice on the display will turn the screen on.
  • Swiping from left to right will turn the screen on and go open BlinkFeed.
  • Swiping from right to left will open the main home screen.
  • Swiping from the bottom up will open whatever screen the phone was on when it went to sleep.
  • Swiping the top down will open voice dialing.
  • Picking up the phone in landscape orientation and pressing the volume button will open the camera app.
  • Picking up the phone while it’s ringing and putting it to the side of your head will answer the call.

After you set up the phone for the first time, tips pop up periodically to teach you various supported gestures.

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Also new in the M8’s software is the fact that four of its core apps — BlinkFeed, Zoe, Gallery and HTC TV — are now updatable in the Google Play store. HTC’s newfound commitment to updating Android versions in a more timely fashion extends to apps as well, and funneling updates through the Play store means these four key apps can be updated frequently without the need to use the system update mechanism (and therefore deal with carriers).

And to briefly mention the HTC TV app, which was one of my favorite things about the original One, the new version is better in nearly every way. For a quick refresher, HTC TV combines smart TV show and movie recommendations with an on-screen guide and a universal remote function that utilizes the phone’s in-built infrared blaster to control every television and pay TV box in your house.

Now called “Sense TV,” the interface has been redesigned to match the rest of Sense and the app now integrates live sports scores, so you can keep tabs on all your favorite teams. There are new social sharing features, as well. I have noticed that the app now seems to take a bit longer to load data though, which can get a bit annoying. Hopefully things speed up in a future update.

The last big software change I’ll draw attention to is one that I absolutely love: Extreme power saving mode.

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It was painfully ironic that on the very day I met with HTC to pick up my M8 review unit, I left my iPhone charger at home and didn’t have one in my office. My phone’s battery was about 75% full when I left but after running around all morning, I was under 20% by mid-afternoon.

I had no choice but to run to Best Buy and spend $30 on a new charger.

Like Samsung’s “ultra power saving mode,” extreme power saving mode is a drastic measure on the M8 that can be taken when you need to squeeze as much as possible out of your battery. Enabling this mode lowers the brightness of the display and presents a special screen that provides access only to voice calling, texting and email, though automatic email downloading is turned off.

Everything else, including background data, is disabled.

How good is extreme power saving mode? According to HTC, a 5% charge will last 15 hours and a 100% will last a ridiculous two weeks.

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Extreme power saving mode can be enabled manually, and the phone can also be set to automatically switch over when its remaining charge reaches 20%, 10% or 5%.

Even without this special mode, the new One offers impressive battery life that easily carried me through a full day of use with plenty of charge left the next morning when I woke up. According to HTC, the new model lasts about 40% longer on a charge than last year’s One. It also charges up faster thanks to Qualcomm Quick Charge 2.0 technology.

The software on last year’s HTC One wasn’t bad at all, but Sense 6 instantly makes older versions feel old and dated. It’s not quite as drastic a jump as we saw from iOS 6 to iOS 7, but it’s in the same vein — once you use Sense 6, you really don’t want to go back to earlier versions.

Of note, Sense 6 will be coming to older HTC devices like the M7 and the One max as an update, and it will include all of the new features seen on the M8 that are not hardware dependant.

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My review of the first-generation HTC One was titled “the smartphone that changes everything,” and it was quite apropos at the time. The One was easily the closest thing we had ever seen at the time to a no-compromise smartphone.

The new HTC One (M8) changes everything again.

Don’t let the similar appearance fool you — everything about the M8 is new. From the design, to the materials, to the internal components and the software… it’s all new and it’s all remarkably impressive. And the new gunmetal gray color with a brushed finish is absolutely stunning, as is the amber gold color HTC introduced on the M8.

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The new Sense 6 software atop Android 4.4 KitKat is sleek and elegant, kept humming by a quad-core Snapdragon 801 chipset clocked at 2.5GHz in Asia and 2.3GHz elsewhere, as well as 2GB of DDR2 RAM. And while the phone’s design will be the star of the show for many users, the M8 is no slouch when it comes to performance. The AnTuTu benchmark tests I ran on my 2.3GHz review unit yielded a top score of 30,921, placing it behind only the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 (35,165), Sony Xperia Z Ultra (34,363), Sony Xperia Z1 (32,984) and LG G2 (32,917) among widely-available Android phones.

HTC’s Duo Camera introduces several great new features and the M8’s camera software is better than ever, but the quality of photos captured by the handset’s UltraPixel camera remains a weak spot on HTC’s flagship phone. Washed out colors remain my largest gripe, though the clarity of photos captured by the One also lags top rival devices, and photos often have an abundance of noise.

Even still, the new HTC One is the best all around Android smartphone the world has ever seen.

It’s beautiful. It’s different. It’s better.

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HTC’s marketing efforts with the new HTC One will rely not on a massive advertising budget, iPhone-bashing or Iron Man. Instead, they will rely largely on you. Yes, you.

The scrappy Taiwan-based smartphone maker does not have the budget of a Samsung or an Apple. We know this. HTC has had some big missteps in the recent past, but it now knows this as well.

What HTC does have, though, is a gorgeous new flagship phone that it believes will attract enthusiastic, discerning customers. Customers who are smart and savvy, and who are trend-setters. Customers who will influence their friends and family when it comes time for them to make new purchases.

This is a risky play, of course — especially since the launch of HTC’s new flagship smartphone comes just weeks ahead of Samsung’s Galaxy S5 release. The timing could be devastating considering the shadow that Samsung’s multi-billion dollar Galaxy S5 marketing campaigns will cast, but HTC doesn’t have much of a choice here.

But this is a smartphone that people will buy not just because a tidal wave of TV commercials, billboards and online ads told them to. This is a smartphone people will buy because they love it.

They will take it home and adore it, and they will speak of it enthusiastically at every opportunity. The friends and family they show it off to will be impressed, and those in the market for a new smartphone will likely at least consider the new One as a result.

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The HTC One (M8) will go on sale in the U.S. and abroad today, March 25th, the very same day it was announced, at 1:00 p.m. It will be available in three colors — the gorgeous “gunmetal gray” seen in most of the pictures above, as well as “glacial silver” and “amber gold” — and will start at $199 on contract for the 16GB model.

Launching alongside the M8 are a handful of accessories, highlighted by HTC’s new “Dot View” cases. These nifty new cases feature a cover with a dot-matrix pattern that allows the time and weather to show through while the cover is flipped closed. Notifications will be displayed through the cover as well, and firm swipe gestures are also registered so users can answer or reject calls without flipping the case open.

Verizon Wireless was very late to the game with last year’s One, but it won’t make the same mistake twice. Instead, the nation’s top wireless carrier has managed to score a brief U.S. exclusive of sorts.

At launch, Verizon’s retail stores will be the only carrier stores to stock and sell the M8, though it will be available from the top-three major wireless carriers online beginning Tuesday. Then, AT&T and Sprint will start selling the phone in stores as well beginning April 10th. T-Mobile plans to launch the phone online and in stores sometime next month.

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