Review: HTC One (M8)
March 30, 2014
There are a lot of great smartphones out there. But what if you're looking for one that was forged out of premium materials, with a focus on high-end design? Well, most people would point you to the nearest iPhone and move on their merry way. But I'm not sure if Apple's phone is the best example of that anymore. Read on, as Gizmag reviews a phone that oozes quality, the HTC One (M8).
Looks aren't everything, but a pretty face can influence how you perceive the rest of the package. And the HTC One (M8) has one of the prettiest faces of any tech product I've ever seen.
This phone is stunning. Pick it up, and you see a smooth and solid hunk of unibody aluminum that practically forces you to use words like "elegant" and "sophisticated." The new gun metal color option, with its brushed metal finish (pictured in this review), is especially striking. The One is HTC's showcase piece, and it reveals a company that, much like Apple, gives a damn or three about design.
There are phones that are lighter in hand, but the One M8 doesn't feel too heavy. It's a pretty big phone that's made out of metal, so of course it's going to have a little substance to it. And at 160 g (5.6 oz), it's still only 10 percent heavier than the plastic Galaxy S5. If the One's premium, metallic aesthetic is a priority for you, then that little bit of extra weight should be a no-brainer. It's a very small price to pay.
The phone's aluminum wraps around to the front face, with dueling speaker grilles sitting above and below the screen. On a cosmetic level, these speakers give the One a different look, helping it to stand out from a sea of similar-looking smartphones. On a functional level, the speakers produce what's easily the best sound I've heard out of any smartphone. HTC calls its speakers "BoomSound," and, even with a cheesy brand name, they deliver surprisingly rich audio. They sound noticeably fuller than the speakers in last year's One, which were already in a league of their own.
The One M7 had one of the best smartphone displays of 2013. And though the screen on the One M8 doesn't improve on it, it looks just as good. The 1080p LCD is extremely sharp, with colors that are less surreal, and more realistic, than the AMOLED displays you'll find on Samsung Galaxy devices.
The One's screen is a little bigger this time around (it's 5-in, compared to the 4.7-incher in last year's One). HTC also replaced the M7's capacitive back and home keys with onscreen navigation buttons. So in most apps, the usable screen area won't be much different than it was on the OG One. Android's Immersive Mode, though, does help out by letting you use the full 5-in screen in key areas like your image gallery, videos, and Google Play Books.
One of my favorite new features in the One M8 takes a little inspiration from rivals like the LG G2 and Moto X. HTC has thrown in some new sensors that let you jump straight from a sleeping phone to wherever you want to go – without touching any physical buttons. Like LG's Knock-on, you can double-tap your sleeping One's screen to turn it on (this will take you to the lock screen). But you can also swipe up on the dimmed screen to jump straight to the home screen. A swipe down will activate HTC's voice control for initiating a phone call. Swipes left or right will take you to widgets or BlinkFeed (more on that in a minute). All of these gestures only work when you're holding the phone in portrait mode.
Motion Launch also lets you answer a call just by lifting the One to your ear. No sliding a green "answer" icon, then picking it up. Just lift and talk. You can also jump straight to the camera, also from a sleeping state, by holding the phone in landscape and pressing the volume button.
Taken as a whole, Motion Launch is a pretty simple set of new features. But I think sensor-based shortcuts like these make for a more convenient smartphone experience. These are the kinds of features we're seeing in a post-Moto X world, and I welcome them.
The HTC One M8 ships with Android 4.4.2 KitKat, with HTC's new Sense 6 UI on top. The modern Sense UI has a sophisticated, no-nonsense appearance that fits well with the phone's hardware. It's less bloated and playful than Samsung's TouchWiz, and none of the UI changes lead to any performance lag. Android OEMs' custom UIs are always polarizing, but I think Sense is one of the least obtrusive, and most respectful to its underlying Android core.
BlinkFeed is back. In case you missed that with last year's One, it's a permanent home screen widget that displays customized news and social feeds. A swipe to the right from the default home screen always takes you to your BF home base. This time there's a little extra customizability in tow, as you can search for any – literally any – subject, and BlinkFeed will show you Twitter mentions or feeds based on those keywords.
You might love BlinkFeed. As far as permanent feed-based widgets go, it does its job well enough. But I personally don't get much out of features like BF and Samsung's Magazine UX. Even with a little extra customization this time around, it's still less flexible than individual apps like Flipboard. And how hard is to just open an app and get a more flexible experience? You can, fortunately, turn BlinkFeed off (by pinching from the home screen and dragging the BlinkFeed panel to "remove"). I did that and haven't looked back.
HTC's camera has become the flag-bearer for the "megapixels are a steaming load of crap" argument. While rivals like Samsung and Nokia are pushing out 16 MP and 41 MP rear shooters, the HTC One's has a mere 4 megapixels. The difference here is that the pixels are bigger. As HTC likes to brand them, these are "UltraPixels."
The biggest strength of the UltraPixel camera is how well it captures shots in low-lit conditions. Pit it against just about any other high-end smartphone, with flash turned off, and the One (both the M8 and last year's M7) will take brighter and more colorful shots under the crappiest of lighting.
The camera's lower resolution does show itself if you're zooming in on a subject from far back or making a small crop of an image you've taken. Fewer pixels means tiny sections of images just won't look as sharp. But if that isn't a big part of your smartphone photography, then I think you'll be extremely pleased with the One M8's camera.
The big photography change with this year's One comes from its second rear camera. Its job is to sense depth, letting you to perform some cool tricks with the images that the main camera snaps.
The most useful depth-based feature is called UFocus. It uses the One's second camera to simulate a bokeh (blurred background) shot from a DSLR with a wide-aperture lens. But unlike shots from a DSLR, you can change the point of focus after the fact. You can experiment with different areas of focus by tapping on different areas of the screen. Save as many different versions as you want.
Here's a sample that shows UFocus doing its job pretty well:
When UFocus is on the money, it can make for some of the most stunning shots I've seen from a smartphone. It's particularly great for portraits. But it isn't perfect. Sometimes jagged little pieces of the background will be detected as foreground. At that point, the illusion is ruined. You can sometimes remedy this by tapping on a slightly different area of the shot to adjust the focus. But just know that you aren't getting a rock-solid, completely flawless bokeh-creating feature here. It's a little hit-or-miss.
The depth sensor also has a few other tricks up its sleeve, though they're a lot less useful than UFocus. There's a faux 3D effect, that lets you tilt your phone back and forth to see your shot from (simulated) slightly different angles. Fun enough when messing around with friends, I suppose. But there are also some quirky effects that let you surround your focused subject with pencil-sketched, radius-blurred, or cartoonized backgrounds. I found these to be the most gimmicky, and least interesting, of the depth-based features. And one feature that claims to highlight your point of focus by making its background black & white – always a striking effect when done right – never gave me anything but a background with slightly muted colors.
The One also has an improved front-facing camera. Most smartphones' front shooters hover around the 2-megapixel mark, but the M8 cranks it up to 5 MP. It shows, with the M8 taking the sharpest-looking selfies of any smartphone camera I've used. It also has some post-shot processing effects you can apply to portraits – things like skin smoothing, facial lighting, eye brightening, and anti-shine. They work pretty well, if you're into that whole "using technology to convince the world I have no imperfections" kind of thing.
Here are a couple of selfies I took with the One M8. First, unaltered:
... and the same shot with skin smoothing, facial lighting, and eye brightening effects added (or, as I like to call it, "a prettier but less interesting version of me"):
The One's face detection does seem to have a few issues, though. It said "no face detected" in more than half of the portraits I snapped with the rear camera, despite someone's face dominating each one. And when it doesn't detect a face, it won't let you use any of the touch-up effects.
I never had any problems with the 2013 One's battery life, but with HTC promising 40 percent longer uptimes in the new model, I was eager to put that to the test. In our standard test, where we stream video over Wi-Fi with brightness set at 75 percent, the One M8 lasted nine hours and 20 minutes. By comparison, the iPhone 5s lasted six hours and 15 minutes, the Nexus 5 lasted four hours and 43 minutes, and the Galaxy S4 lasted four hours and 24 minutes. The One's battery life is indeed excellent.
I've read other reviewers describing the new HTC One M8 as the best Android phone you can buy today. I wouldn't disagree with that, but I might actually amend it to say the HTC One M8 is the best smartphone you can buy today, period. I have no big problems with the iPhone 5s, and I enjoyed using it as my daily driver for a couple of months. But with a much smaller screen, inferior low-light photography, shorter battery life, and a crashtastic iOS 7 browser, I think it's a little too generous to suggest that the 5s gives the One M8 a run for its money.
Of course any talk of "the best" gets into highly subjective territory, and I wouldn't pretend to have a one-size-fits-all judgment for every smartphone shopper on Earth. But as someone who spends a lot of time with many different mobile devices, I think HTC came up with something really special here. The One M7 was already an outstanding phone, and the One M8 improves on it in all the right ways.
Now you may have also heard about a little company called Samsung that's about to launch a new phone of its own. And it's too early to jump to conclusions about how the Galaxy S5 compares to the One M8 (stay tuned for Gizmag's review). But I can say that the One is going to be a very tough act to follow. Its premium construction, stellar screen, outstanding battery life, and powerful camera combine to make one hell of a package. You'd be doing yourself a disservice to not at least consider the HTC One M8. It's a terrific smartphone.
The HTC One (M8) is available now, usually starting at US$650 off-contract (US carriers are selling it for $200 on-contract). You can read more on the One at the product page below.
Product page: HTCShare
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