HTC One (M8) Review: The Rolex of smartphones

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Last year, the HTC One (M7) received a ton of praise from just about every media outlet including yours truly. It was simply the best phone on the planet at that time, but as great as it was, HTC watched Samsung and Apple continue to dominate the smartphone market share. HTC still believes that it’s quality that sells phones and that eventually consumers will catch on. They are hoping that internet sites such as this site will continue with the praise, and those that opted for the Galaxy S 4 last year, will finally see the light. There is no denying the beauty of last year’s HTC One and this year’s HTC One (M8), but as the saying goes, “beauty is only skin deep.” There is a lot more to a phone than just the outside, especially for those that plan on slapping a case on it. Last year, Motorola proved that it’s the user experience that is the most important. Hell, even Apple proved that years before. Let’s face it, if you’re a geek like myself, you will love the HTC One (M8), but what about the mainstream audience? Is it finally time for them to wake up and smell the coffee, dump their Samsung Galaxy phone (or iPhone), and join the HTC parade? Well hit the break to get started.

Design

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I have to be honest with you. I can almost skip this step because HTC knocked it out of the park in this category. Ever since the One X, HTC has been making phones that make people say “Wow! What phone is that?” I just love watching their reactions. The One (M8) screams quality in every way imaginable from the smooth edges to the beautiful feel of that metal touching your skin. Last year’s One (M7) was already great so how could they possibly improve things with the M8? Well for one, this year’s body includes 90 percent aluminum as opposed to last year’s 70 percent.The corners are also more rounded and the back has a brushed-metal finish, which feels a touch better in the hand. Throw in Gorilla Glass 3 and you have one gorgeous device.

Now as hot and sexy the One (M8) is, nothing is perfect right? If the M8 has a weakness, it’s the size. The front-facing BoomSound speakers sound wonderful, but they do add to the size of device, more specifically, the length. There is also that extra black strip just above the bottom speaker grill that has the HTC logo on it. HTC says that it’s needed for components and such, and I won’t get into an argument on whether it is really necessary or not, but it also adds extra length to the phone. In comparing the M8 to other phones with the same display size (5-inches), the M8 is by far the largest. The M8 comes in at 5.76 x 2.78 inches, while the Galaxy S 4 comes in at 5.38 x 2.75 inches, and the HTC made DROID DNA is 5.55 x 2.78 inches. Even the Galaxy S 5, which has a 5.1-inch display is smaller at 5.59 x 2.85 inches. As far as thickness goes, the One (M8) is at 9.35mm, which is roughly the same as last year. Not the thinnest in the world, but it’s not as noticeable with the rounded back.

My other complaint is that the phone is slippery, which has always been a pet peeve of mine. Now there really isn’t much HTC can do about this. With an all aluminum case, this is expected. Of course, you can always slap a case on it, but to me, it’s a sin to cover up a phone like this. Yes, that includes the very cool Dot View flip cover accessory.

As far as buttons and ports go, HTC did shift some things around, which they seem to do with every phone. I personally don’t care, but mainstream consumers like consistency. Love or hate Samsung devices, they are always consistent with their power buttons, volume rockers, and charging ports. The power button (and built in IR blaster) shifts from the top left side (M7) to the top right side. The microphone jack moves from the top (M7) to the bottom. The USB 2.0 port remains at the bottom, a little off center to the right. The volume rocker remains on the right side towards the top, but the nano-SIM tray moves over (from the top left side) to the right side at the top. In place of where the SIM tray was on the One (M7), you now have something brand new…..a microSD slot, a welcomed addition for many. Just like the nano-SIM tray, you will need the included ejector tool to open the microSD slot.

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The back of the device is where things get interesting. You will not only find the main camera lens towards the top, but you will find a secondary smaller lens at the very top center. We will get into more detail on this later. You will also find a dual-LED flash to the left of the main lens, and right in the middle, is the HTC logo.

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HTC finally dropped that crazy button configuration they had last year with only capacitive Home and Back buttons. This year, they not only brought back the task button, they went to onscreen. A welcomed addition.

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The HTC One (M8) is simply stunning, and even though it’s a little taller than I would like, the looks more than outweigh this nuisance.

Hardware

The HTC One (M8) features a 5.0-inch 1080p (1920 x 1080) Super LCD 3 display (441 ppi), a 2.3GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor, 2GB of RAM, 16/32GB of storage, microSD for up to an additional 128GB of extra storage, 4MP UltraPixel main rear camera, 2MP secondary (for depth) rear camera, 5MP front-facing camera, 2600 mAh battery, NFC, Bluetooth 4.0 with AptX, Wi-Fi Dual-band, 802.11a/ac/b/g/n, Nano-SIM slot, MHL, DLNA, and IR Blaster.

Performance

Last year’s One (M7) featured the quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 600 clocked at 1.7GHz, which was pretty powerful, but with today’s fast evolving technology, it feels so ancient. This year, we get a pretty significant boost to a 2.3GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801. Processors are at a point in which consumers won’t notice a difference, but these upgrades actually do serve a purpose behind the scenes. To keep things like Zoe, Video Highlights, and even the new Duo Camera features, you need fast processors to keep up with the demand. They also help in battery life as they become more efficient with each generation. The bottomline is that the One (M8) flies and can handle anything you throw at it. I usually run an AnTuTu benchmark just for the heck of it, and using the normal AnTuTu app, it came in at 36,299, but using the AnTuTu X app, it came in at 27,597. It’s obvious that HTC is playing some games here, but it really doesn’t matter since benchmarks mean nothing to the average user.

As to the display, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that it’s pretty much the same Super LCD 3 1080p display from last year. The good news is that it’s still gorgeous and it is now at 5-inches as opposed to 4.7-inches. Because of the larger display, the ppi drops from 468 to 441, but who is going to complain about that? HTC makes one of the best displays in the business, with vibrant colors and amazing viewing angles.

BoomSound is now a tradition for HTC. This year’s BoomSound is 25% louder (reaching 95 dB) than last year’s M7 and has less distortion. This is one category that has no debate. No other phone comes close to what the One (M8) offers from these front-facing speakers.They sound brilliant.

Battery

This year’s One (M8) gets a bump up to a 2600mAh battery. Comparing it to last year’s 2300mAh battery on the One (M7), you would think there would only be a slight improvement, or not much at all since the display is larger. I have good news to report, and that is for the first time, HTC finally has a phone with decent battery life. I am not sure how they did it, but the change is dramatic.

If you have read any of my past reviews, you know I usually conduct a battery rundown test in which I run continuous video while the phone is connected to 4G LTE, and Wi-Fi (not connected), Bluetooth (not connected), and the GPS are all turned on with the display turned up to about 2/3’s brightness. Last year’s One (M7) was only able to get a little over 7 hours, but the One (M8) lasted 11 hours and 40 minutes. That is a 67% increase in performance.

Now I know your typical day isn’t running video all day. We use this test as a guide to see how things stack up with other phones. Plus, there is a strong correlation to how long your device is going to last between charges based on the performance from this test. The bottomline is that you should have no problem getting through the time you get out of bed to the time you go to sleep with the One (M8), and I don’t think I have ever said that about an HTC phone.

There is also an Extreme Power Saving Mode that unfortunately isn’t on the U.S. models just yet. This mode will only turn on the essentials like texting and phone calls and can prolong your battery a lot longer than if not in this mode. I was told that you would get 10 hours of life if there is only 20% remaining battery life. Once you get the update, you will be able to set what percentage of remaining battery life you want the Extreme Power Saving Mode to kick in.

Software

The One (M8) features the latest version of Android, which is 4.4.2 KitKat, and HTC’s own proprietary skin on top of it called Sense. HTC usually drops a new version of Sense with each major phone release so it’s no surprise that the M8 gets Sense 6 (Sense 5.5 debuted on the HTC One Max). Ever since Sense 5, HTC has been keeping things consistent, which is a good thing. They did make some slight changes, and most of them are for the better. The good news is that although Sense isn’t stock Android, it not completely different like TouchWiz and whatever LG is calling their UI these days.

A couple of really nice additions is that you can now long press on home screens to access wallpapers. Before, you had to find the option in Settings, which was a pain. They also offer new gestures to wake your phone. For example, you can knock on your display twice to wake it or knock twice again to turn it off. Swipe left to right to get to BlinkFeed, right to left to get to your default home screen, bottom to top to get to whatever you were doing before your phone went to sleep, and you can also swipe from the top down to open Voice Calling. They also added the ability to open the camera much quicker by holding the phone in landscape mode and tapping the volume button. Other than the camera gesture, I am not in love with them, especially the knocking gesture. I found that it worked almost too well in that when I grab the phone, not wishing to turn it on, it would still turn on. Unfortunately, you can’t pick and choose which gestures you want turned on or off other than the voice calling one. The rest of them are grouped together.

Quick Settings were introduced in Sense 5.5, and they stuck in Sense 6. You can access them from your notification panel, and you can choose which settings you want to appear.

Here is a video highlighting all the ins and outs of Sense 6

 

BlinkFeed was introduced last year on the One (M7). It’s HTC’s version of a Flipboard style newsreader, but unlike Samsung’s Magazine UX or My Magazine, it’s not powered by Flipboard. It sits on your left most home screen, and if you don’t like it, you can get rid of it. HTC has refined it over the last year and it’s actually a pretty useful product. They offer a number of curated sites, including TalkAndroid, but adding other non-listed sites is very cumbersome.

Here’s a video showing you how BlinkFeed works along with all the different settings

 

Sense TV Is another feature that was found on last year’s One (M7). This app will allow you to not only control your home theater system through the built in IR blaster (within the power button), but it will also provide a nice looking guide showing you what’s on TV right now. It will even give you recommendations based on your interests or what you have chosen to watch before. The look and feel is much like last year, but sports fans will love the new addition of scores for all the games that your broadcaster is airing.

Here is a video showing you how Sense TV works.

 

Just like any Android fanboy, I prefer stock Android, but I can safely say there isn’t too much about Sense 6 that annoys me. About the only thing is the keyboard, but the good news is that you can easily change it out for the stock Android Keyboard or any other third-party keyboard available in the Play Store.

Camera

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Just like last year’s One (M7), the camera is a big focal point for the One (M8). Last year brought Zoe and Video Highlights. They remain, but we also get the addition of an extra rear lens for new effects.

Lets start with the hardware. The main rear camera is the same lens as last year. It is 4MP and is UltraPixel meaning that you get a large sensor (one-third-inch BSI) combined with bigger pixels. The average phone sports 1.1-micrometers pixels, but the One (M8) sports 2-micrometers pixels, which lets in 44% more light. You also get ImageChip 2 and a 28mm f/2.0 AF lens. Now on top of this being the same quality as last year, we also lose optical image stabilization (OIS). My understanding is that it wasn’t compatible with the Duo Camera setup. In place of that, the One (M8) sports faster focusing.

Many will complain that 4MP is too low, but HTC will argue that it’s not megapixels that make the quality. I agree 100 percent, but with that low of a count, it makes it impossible to crop any of your photos after the fact. You’re going to have to line up your photo just right when you shoot it.

On top of the 4MP main lens, you also will find a 2MP lens just above it. This lens is used for depth and gives you the ability to change focal points after the fact. More on this in a bit.

What is most interesting is the front camera is 5MP, which is higher than the main rear camera. Sure, it doesn’t sport UltraPixel, but it is odd. Those of you that are into selfies will love it, otherwise it’s not a big deal.

One nice upgrade is the dual-LED flash. Apple introduced this on the iPhone 5S last year. This will help night shots look more natural.

HTC changed up the camera software this year, adding a lot more versatility. For those that know a thing or two about camera settings, there are a number of options for you to control. Plus, you can save various presets for fast retrieval. Zoe is also a little different. Last year, Zoes consisted of 20 burst images and 3 seconds of video. Now you have more options. Tap the shutter button once, and get one still shot. You can also tap and hold for up to 3 seconds and release. This way you can limit your video to one or two seconds if you want. This also limits the amount of burst shots. If you want longer video, just tap and hold for 3 seconds or until you see “Locked” on the screen. Now when you release your finger, you will still be recording until you press it once more. You are still limited to a maximum of 20 burst shots, but at least you can capture more video. If you’re used to last year’s One (M7), it takes a little getting used to, but this change is for the better. There are definitely those moments where you want to capture more than 3 seconds of video.

I put together an overview of the entire camera interface and Zoe, so check it out below.

 

The Duo Camera feature is brand new for 2014. It brings a few more effects, but the big question is if it’s a gimmick or something useful? Let’s start with what it can do. The second smaller 2MP lens is used for depth and only works when you are in the Basic camera mode. Pictures shot in this mode will look like any other photo, but the second camera lens records the background separately from the foreground. If you go to the editing features, and more specifically, Effects, you will see a few new tools that can be used for these types of photos. uFocus gives you the ability to change focal points. It’s basically a Bokeh effect where you can blur out the background or a particular person (if they are either behind or in front of the area you want in focus). I must stress that this feature isn’t meant to fix photos. If your main subject was never in focus to begin with, you won’t be able to fix it with uFocus. It’s strictly for effects.

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There is also the Foregrounder option, which lets you add up to four different effects to the background of an image.

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The next cool thing is you can actually copy one person out of one photo and paste them into another. You can even add accessories to your friends like hats and glasses (Stickers). Want to add a little falling snow or leaves? You can do that too, but it won’t save the final product into a GIF, only an MP4 video. The last thing you can do is a parallax effect with Dimension Plus. It’s a 3D effect, and in my opinion, is absolutely worthless. Here’s a video showing you how all of these features work.

 

Going back to my question on whether these features are a gimmick or useful, I do have to say they are somewhat cool, but as I always say, “Cool isn’t necessarily useful.” They just seem Samsung-like to me. Probably my biggest complaint about them is that they will not work if you are in any other mode but the Basic camera setting. So that means if you like the Zoe function, you are out of luck. Even if you take one still image in the Zoe setting, you won’t be able to apply Duo Effects. Zooming also negates it. HTC added the second lens in order to defeat the need to be in a specific setting or to take a bunch of images to do effects such as these, but if you’re going to limit what is a very popular feature in Zoe, what good does that do? Zoe fans will still need to know in advance that they want to do some funky editing and switch to the basic camera setting. Now if HTC could have included Duo Effects in Zoe, they would have done it. It’s an obvious hardware limitation. In closing, I have to file this under cool, but only somewhat useful.

So how does the HTC One (M8) perform as a camera? Pretty darn good. I was a big fan of the One (M7), and this year’s version continues the trend. The fact that it’s only 4MP is still a big downer, but I do prefer to take better shots at 4MP over terrible shots at 8MP. The shutter speed is super fast for action shots too. The UltraPixel does perform well in low light situations, but in extreme situations, you will get some noise. Here are some example photos in various situations.

Outdoors

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Action

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Indoors – Low Light

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Indoors – Extreme Low Light

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Closing

On the surface, it would appear the HTC One (M8) is only a slight upgrade from the HTC One (M7), but that couldn’t be further from the truth. In appearance, they look very similar, but the fact that the display is bumped up from 4.7-inches to 5.0-inches, the processor is faster, a microSD slot was added,  and the battery life has been improved dramatically, makes this year’s model a significant upgrade in my opinion. I didn’t mention the Duo Camera in that list because I see it more of a gimmick, but yes, it is an addition.

I have reviewed enough phones in my day to know that no phone is perfect, so the HTC One (M8) isn’t without its faults. The fact that the camera is still only at 4MP and the overall size is rather large for a 5-inch device certainly are negatives, but the positives more than outweigh those issues.

When I reviewed the HTC One (M7), I called it the best smartphone on the planet, but I rarely recommended it. I find that with most mainstream consumers, it made sense to recommend the Galaxy S 4 since it was more like the iPhone of Android phones if you know what I mean.

With the One (M8) I feel a little differently. Maybe it’s the second go around, or maybe it’s the fact that such improvements like the battery life make it a more “well rounded” phone. I’m not sure the mainstream audience will sway from Samsung, but I think the HTC One (M8) is more ready for the mainstream than the One (M7) was. It is a phone that I will definitely recommend to everyone and anyone.

If you appreciate the finer things in life, then go out and grab the HTC One (M8). It’s the Rolex of smartphones, but it costs the same as competing phones. How can you go wrong with that?


About the Author: Robert Nazarian

Robert lives in upstate New York where he was born and raised. Technology was always his passion. His first computer was a Radio Shack TRS80 Color that used a cassette tape to save programs, and his first laptop was a Toshiba T1200FB that sported a CGA greyscale screen and two 720kb floppy drives (no hardrive). From the early 90’s through late 2011, he only owned Motorola phones starting with the MircroTAC all the way through to the Droid X. He broke that streak when he bought the Galaxy Nexus. Now he's sporting a Galaxy Note 4, and absolutely loves it. He has a wonderful wife and a 6 year old son. In his free time he enjoys sports, movies, TV, working out, and trying to keep up with the rapid fast world of technology.


  • rebirthofcool

    OEM should not focus on generating the most profit alone but a well thought balance in product offerings while attracting brand loyalty and this is where HTC One M8 stands out among the rest by selling solidly built designed smartphone that screams PREMIUM worthy of a flagship phone price

  • SYD Harry

    No doubt. It’s the Rolex of smartphones.
    I’ve been using last 15 days. I love it 100%. Camera is more enough for me. Photos are excellent on phone display and good on PC display. Boom sound and Sense 6 are really awesome.

  • Sang-G

    you must see it like this.
    HTC One (m8) its like Ferarri Scuderia/ Bentley / Veyron / Audi R8 etc
    Samsung s5 more like an via panda from 1990

  • wolffen

    Went from iPhone to the HTC M7, and now the M8. Have NEVER purchased a plastic smart phone, have NEVER considered megapixels as a selling point. I watch many videos, listen to music, and games when I am bored – NOTHING COMES CLOSE to the sound of the ONE. . . . nothing.

  • krym73

    Htc one is way overhyped all over, the reality is the s5 is King, and offers much more than anything HTC has to offer put together (which isn’t much to begin with.

    • Mark

      Overhyped? Haha… Funny that you’d say HTC overhypes its devices over Samsung, self-proclaimed kings of marketing and hyping.

      I have respect for both companies and both phones, but the hype factor on the HTC One M8 is almost nonexistent compared to the S5.

  • Pam Oakea

    I’m coming from the S4 and now have the HTC One M8. It is not over hyped but it has been criticized over and over for its camera and size. The camera is just fine for what most will use it for and it’s actually fun to play with. Samsung loads the phone with features most don’t want or use and gives you 16gb of storage in a plastic housing. On the flip side, the M8 is a beauty to behold, has software you’ll actually use, gestures that are well thought out, 90% metal, boom sound speakers and 32gb of storage and all at the very same price! Sounds like a No Brainer to me.

  • raycee63

    Sorry but I dislike the all aluminium cases of all manufacturers, not what I would call a premium feature at all, they are too hot in the summertime and too cold in the winter. The body of the phone is too thick with the rounded shape. Cannot change the battery at all, only good point is they have put back the SD Card feature. How often would anyone use the phone for music playback without headphones or using it with a Bluetooth speaker device for better sound?