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HTC One (M8) review

Is the new HTC One M8 the best Android phone to date? Found out in our full review

HTC One M8_Gunmetal_Silver_Gold

If you have any interest in Android  you can’t fail to have noticed that the original HTC One was incredibly well received at its launch a year ago. Not only that, it has continued to wow with design awards aplenty and widespread industry acclaim both for the device’s hardware and software.

With this in mind, you might assume it has been a roaring success, however while it is HTC’s best selling product by some margin, it hasn’t really turned around the sliding finances of what was once the shining light of the Android world. Samsung continues to dominate.

What we have here is the successor, also called the HTC One but with the ‘M8’ tag – the original One was codenamed the ‘M7’ internally.

When you have a product as adored as the M7, it’s important to try and capitalise on that goodwill with an incremental product that will still excite the industry, new owners and existing owners alike. That’s what HTC has tried to achieve with the M8. Not an easy task.

Externally the key design cues are an evolution of the M8’s predecessor, dominated by that signature all metal body.

Internally the devices specifications have received an update for 2014 – it’s very much a case of evolution rather than revolution but until devices like the G3 start arriving in the middle of 2014, this is what we’ll continue to see (the same applies to devices such as the Samsung Galaxy S5 and the Sony Xperia Z2).

Design

The design of the M8 is dominated by the aluminium body, as with the original, but to an even greater degree than before.

The M7 body was 70% metal but the M8 pushes that to an incredible 90% – and you can really feel the difference in the hand. On the first device, the back of the device was metal but the edge of the device was plastic. On the new phone the metal wraps around the edge right up to the screen, creating an even more awe-inspiring experience.

While the plastic trim has gone from the edge of the device, there is one concession to allow placement of the various antennas required on the device and that is a shiny piece of plastic on the top of the device. It actually looks fine – the power button is on the top in the same area and is also black, with the IR transmitter integrated as before.

The 3.5mm headphone socket has migrated from the top of the device to the bottom, which seems to be the preferred placement amongst users.

If you place the device next to it’s predecessor, you’ll immediately notice that it’s quite a lot taller. The primary reason for this is that the screen itself has grown from 4.7” to 5”.

The home and back buttons have moved from either side of the HTC logo to software buttons on screen (as per the Nexus devices), but the area where they used to reside remains, just with the HTC logo.

The reason for this is that there are screen electronics that are behind this area which can’t go any further down the device due to the presence of another HTC signature experience – the awesome BoomSound speakers, which are now 25% louder than before.

The double size SIM tray (to allow use of the same chassis on the dual SIM device) is accessed on the edge using a pin as before (Nano SIM this time round) but in addition there is now a microSD tray too on the other side. Finally, microSD expansion has returned!

The back of the device looks almost the same as last year’s device, with the exception of the new ‘Duo camera’ with its dual tone flash. Of the colours of the M8 that are available (Gunmetal Grey, Amber Gold and Glacial Silver), the grey ‘hero colour’ is the only model to include a brushed effect finish. It’s the best looking of the three!

Screen

HTC are known for making some of the best screens in the business and the new HTC One is no exception. A 5” unit at 1920×1080, it’s an incremental upgrade from last year (and actually, the available real estate is less than it’s predecessor due to the on screen buttons), but it looks fantastic.

Brightness is excellent and viewing angles are second to none.

The new HTC software offers improved auto brightness with a customisable high point, resolving a frequent complaint with many devices – that the automatic brightness level is either too high or too low.

Although later this year it’s likely that flagship devices will move to QHD ‘2k’ screens, it’s largely irrelevant. The display on the One looks stunning.

HTC One M8_PerLandscape_Silver

Performance and battery

The M8 packs a 2.3GHz Snapdragon 801 processor with 2GB RAM. This is interesting as it looked as though there might be a trend towards 3GB RAM following the launch of the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, but with the exception of the Xperia Z2, 2GB still looks to be the configuration of choice (the Galaxy S5 also retains the same setup).

While the Snapdragon 600 in the M7 still feels pretty quick today, the 801 (a small upgrade from the 800 found in the Nexus 5 and LG G2) takes performance to another level. The M8 flies.

One of the advantages of running a device with HTC’s software than stock Android is that they do a lot of performance tuning and you can really feel it. No matter what you throw at the new HTC One, everything is silky smooth and there’s no lag or stutter to be seen.

One of the other benefits of the new chipset is that it is more frugal than the Snapdragon 600. The battery on the M8 has grown from 2300mAh to 2600mAh and while it’s still smaller than a lot of it’s peers (the Galaxy S5 is 2800mAh, the LG G2 is 3000mAh and the Xperia Z2 is 3200mAh!), HTC claim a 40% increase in battery life compared to the original.

This is particularly significant because stamina was a problem on the M7 and thankfully, in our experience, the M8 does indeed perform much better, even if in our own use the 40% estimate is a little optimistic.

Software

Over the last year HTC has gone from being notorious for including HTC Sense to being commended for it. Although the purists will always decry any manufacturer customisation of stock Android, the reality is that Sense, particularly in it’s 6th iteration as seen here, adds genuine value and polish to the standard Google experience.

From a design perspective, Sense 6 takes the flattening and simplification of the skin started in Sense 5 a step further. Sense is no longer graphically heavy like it’s predecessors, instead making great use of theme-defined colours (new to Sense 6) and the Roboto Compact font to give a mature, grown up look throughout the OS.

Bloatware (pre-installed apps) is kept to an absolute minimum and changes are generally genuine enhancements rather than the ‘replacement for the sake of it’ approach that you still see on competing devices.

HTC’s Flipboard-like interface, BlinkFeed, has been given a major overhaul for the M8. The design is more flexible to allow free scrolling through a feed with more variety of item sizes within the feed and sources are greatly expanded.

Developers can also now integrate directly with Blinkfeed via a SDK. HTC clearly have big plans for BlinkFeed as it will be rolled out to non-HTC devices via the Play Store later in the year, which will certainly help motivate developers to add support.

Blinkfeed won’t be the only application deployed and updated via the Play Store. In order to provide more rapid upgrades in the future, HTC will be offering updates outside of the usual over-the-air ROM route for key elements of the device such as Blinkfeed, Zoe Camera, Gallery and more over time. A really positive step by HTC.

Amongst the preinstalled apps on the device you’ll find Fitbit. If you already have a real Fitbit device you’re ready to go, but if not then you can take advantage of another new feature in the M8.

The device features a ‘Sensor Hub’, which allows it to monitor various sensors even when the screen is off and the main CPU is clocked down. This means it can function as a basic pedometer that hooks straight into Fitbit – just remember to keep the phone in your pocket!

The sensor hub also facilitates the inclusion of new ‘motion launch’ gestures on the M8. A frequent complaint on the M7 was the placement of the power button on the top, but the M8 uses the sensor hub to determine when you pick up the device.

When you do, it turns on the screen’s touch layer to allow double tap to wake or sweep up / down / left / right gestures to wake with various actions. Picking up the device and tapping the volume down button while held horizontally launches you straight into the camera app.

Camera

The introduction of the original HTC One signalled a huge change in HTC’s approach to the camera in their phones. Rather than participating in the inevitable race to cram in as many Megapixels as possible, HTC dropped the resolution of the sensor down to 4.1 Megapixels and instead used a larger pixel size, giving the device exceptional performance in low light.

On the whole, the strategy worked pretty well – while the lower pixel count would compromise the ability to zoom in or massively enlarge images, the tradeoff was worthwhile because of the camera’s excellent all round performance and incredible ability in darker conditions.

Surprisingly, the camera in the M8 maintains the same resolution and same pixel size (although the module itself is from a different manufacturer).

Optical Image Stabilisation is not present this time round, instead replaced by a software equivalent courtesy of the innovative second camera. The second camera doesn’t capture images per se – it’s used for capturing depth information, enabling clever effects such as bokeh (background blurring) and auto highlighting of image foreground objects in order to manipulate just the background.

It works fairly well, but feels at the moment as though it’s a cool technology that HTC hasn’t quite made the most of. As with Blinkfeed, an API is available to allow developers to take advantage of the sensor and we are likely to see camera’s abilities improve over time. The best assets of the original’s camera remain with the addition of much better pictures when using the flash, by virtue of the dual tone LEDs.

Apparently we live in a Selfie dominated world now and this is reflected in the front camera, a 5 Megapixel wide angle unit which does take much higher quality pictures than we’ve come to expect from a front facing camera. It also means the front camera has a higher resolution than the rear camera. How strange.

Verdict

HTC have accomplished exactly what they needed to with the HTC One (M8). They’ve built on all the strengths of the original (particularly with regards to the design), lightly massaged the specifications to bring them right up to date and continued their process of gradual improvement in the software.

It remains to be seen whether the camera’s innovative Duo sensor will really add value in the long term, but even so – the camera is at least as good as on last year’s device.

Review written by Paul O”Brien

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