Almost exactly a year ago HTC surprised the world with a new smartphone that focused on design and build quality more than any previous Android handset maker. That was the HTC One (M7) and, today, we’re here with our full review of the follow-up HTC One (M8). The phone is an improvement on its predecessor in nearly every way: it has faster components, a larger display, a unique camera and an even more refined hardware design, but HTC has big shoes to fill. The One (M7) was an award winning handset and, yet again, the new smartphone faces competition from Samsung’s latest Galaxy flagship smartphone. Is the HTC One (M8) a worthy successor to the M7? Does it offer enough features to stand apart from the bevy of other flagship smartphones on the market? We’ve been using the HTC One (M8) for more than a week now, and we’re ready now to chime in with our opinion on the promising new device.
HTC One (M8) Video Review
The HTC One had the best hardware design of any Android smartphone that came before it and, until the One (M8) the market, it held that crown. Yes, there are larger displays and other compelling handsets, but none came close to the industrial design of the M7. HTC knew it had a lot of work ahead of itself in order to build on that already successful and stunning smartphone — but it managed to succeed in that endeavor. The aluminum unibody HTC One M8’s backside is now 90 percent metal — up from 70 percent on the M7 — and the smooth brushed stainless steel-looking finish creeps all the way up the sides of the phone to the 5-inch 1080p display. We had the gunmetal grey unit in for review, though glacial silver and amber gold are coming, too. On the previous M7, HTC had to run plastic strips down the edges in an effort to make sure the antennas worked properly. It was able to escape that this time around by changing where the antennas are placed (the stripes along the back and in the top, where there’s a plastic slice that allows the signals to come in and out). The metal comes at a cost. While the device is well-balanced, it’s also heavier at 5.6 ounces, versus the 5 ounce weight of its predecessor. Pair that with the slippery-feeling backside and dropping becomes a concern. The front of the phone is largely dominated by the bright Super LCD 3 display, which functions well in all lighting conditions. The BoomSound speakers — which I’ll address later — are improved and flank the screen on top and bottom. The buttons have been replaced by on-screen controls, leaving more space for the screen. The front-facing camera now snaps 5-megapixel photos, too. On the right, you’ll find the volume up/down toggles, though HTC opted for a more flush design than the metal buttons on the M7, and I kind of preferred the way those accented the device. Also on the right, however, is the new microSD card slot that can be popped out with a SIM-tray pin. Speaking of the SIM, a new nanoSIM (the M7 used a microSIM) slot rests on the left-side of the phone. The power button remains up top, and you’ll find the microUSB and 3.5mm headphone jack on the bottom of the device. The back of the HTC One (M8) is home to the new Duo Camera setup, which includes a 4-Ultrapixel (4-megapixel, technically) camera and a secondary lens that captures depth information. There’s also a new dual-LED smart flash that replaces the single LED flash on the original M7. Internally, you’ll find some of the best specs that are possible for a smartphone maker to add right now, including a 2.3GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor, 2GB of RAM, 16GB or 32GB of storage (our unit had 32GB) and, finally, support for expanding your storage with up to a 128GB microSD card. All of that hardware was more than enough to cut through apps and games without any issue — the whole system just flies. For those keeping track at home, however, the One (M8) received a Quadrant score of 22,500. Personally, and I know everyone won’t agree with this, I liked the more palm-friendly size of the HTC One (M7). It was much easier to tap every corner of the screen with a single finger, and now — since I can’t reach the far corners without adjusting my grip — I have a constant fear I’m going to drop the M8. HTC could have avoided this, but only at the cost of removing the fantastic BoomSound speakers or with a smaller screen. Trade-offs, for sure, and I’ll take the 5-inch display at the risk of a drop. Before I end, because I want to drive this home: this is the most beautiful phone I’ve ever held. I want to applaud HTC’s engineers and design team, some of whom TechnoBuffalo has met with in the past. I know how much work they put into their products, and how unwilling they are to cut any corners. The work paid off — there isn’t an Android handset I’ve seen that comes close to beauty of the HTC One M8.
The HTC One (M8) runs Android 4.4.2 out of the box, which is the latest available version of Android KitKat. It also has the company’s brand new Sense 6 user interface on top, and I’m a big fan of all of the changes. First — I think typically Samsung’s TouchWiz largely sort of just throws everything in your face, while HTC’s Sense 6 is much more deliberate execution of add-ons that build on the experience. BlinkFeed has been revamped with new custom topic information, and it can be tooled to just show information about your social networks, the news topics you care about, certain subjects and more — or you can get all of that information at the same time. You can also set it to automatically download everything, so you can read the news stories that pop up even when a connection isn’t available — like when you’re in the elevator. Support for Fitbit, which uses sensors in the phone to track your steps, is coming soon, too. With Sense 6, HTC added a splash of color and customization — if you want it. You can choose from a few themes that change the color of BlinkFeed, the Music player (also revamped, by the way) and more, and the colors spread all the way up into the status bar, similar to what you see in iOS 7. It’s a much more complete feeling experience, though I opted to turn all of the colors off and go with a more neutral dark gray setting. The Gallery has a lot of changes in Sense 6, too. You can sort by album, event, location and more, and it all looks really clean. Despite the phone’s Snapdragon 801 processor, however, the gallery is still slow to load my thousands of pictures that are stored on a microSD card. I also wish there was an option to easily view the photos I have stored elsewhere, like on Dropbox, though that’s no longer an option. If you’ve used Sense 6 before, you’ll feel right at home. If you haven’t, I think you’ll like all of the options that are available. My biggest gripe is that the One (M8) doesn’t have an always-on speaker for executing voice-based commands, something that’s available on the Nexus 5 and the Motorola Moto X. I like waking up, saying “Ok Google Now” and then asking the weather, for example. There’s no quick way to do that—out of the box—with the One (M8). The camera UI is one of the other major changes in Sense 6, but I’ll go over that in the camera section where we discuss that aspect in detail. Overall, though, HTC did a nice job building on an already solid user interface without going overboard.
The HTC One (M8) is chock full of software that allows for some really cool gestures. If the phone is ringing, for example, you can just raise it up to your head to answer the call. Or, if you want to snap a photo, just pull it out of your pocket, turn it horizontal, and hit the volume button — boom, the camera just launches. The gesture functions work really well, though I did find that while I was sitting and watching a movie and playing with the One (M8) in my lap, just turning it over and mindlessly playing with the device, it would react to my movements as if I was trying to interact with it. Yes, it was my fault, but the sensors are always on and ready to respond — even when you might not want them to.
Ok, let’s address the big elephant in the room here: the Duo Camera. HTC did a really awesome job with the 4-megapixel (branded Ultrapixel) camera on the One (M7). The biggest complaint a lot of users had, however, was that it didn’t perform that well in really bright situations, and that the photos were of such a low resolution that you couldn’t really zoom and crop a photo. HTC tried to address one of those issues this time around but also ignored the other completely. Still, it added even more functions. The camera performs much better in bright situations, but it’s still not perfect, and that’s because HTC said it chose a better sensor this time around. Also, the phone autofocuses and snaps photos in just 0.3-seconds, so you can rapid fire off a bunch of shots much quicker than before. As for the megapixel count, well you’re still stuck with only four megapixels to work with, and that means zooming and cropping still yields a crummy photo that’s loaded with noise and blurred edges. I found this to be the case on nearly every photo I viewed back on a 32-inch TV. Also of note: while the original One (M7) had optical image stabilization (OIS), the One (M8) does not. It’s certainly not ideal for folks who are moving and trying to snap photos, like a parent chasing a child around, and I noticed a lot of blurry images in my camera roll because of this. Shots where I deliberately held the camera still – like resting it on my windowsill, came out much better. The secondary Duo Camera lens is capable of pulling in all of the depth data in a photo. So, the One (M8) knows what objects are in the background and foreground. It can then use that information to blur photos to add a “bokeh” effect that you usually find on DSLRs. The feature, called UFocus, is not perfect but it does work better than other phones that have attempted this task, like the Xperia Z1s and Nokia’s Refocus app. The depth data can be used for other functions, too. You can apply filters to the background of a photo using a feature called “Foregrounder,” or create photos with a unique parallax effect called “Dimension Plus.” The latter, however, can only be viewed on an HTC One (M8), so it’s a feature you’ll only be able to show off to friends who are looking over your shoulder.
The smart dual-LED flash is really solid. Instead of blowing out subjects with a bright white light, it adjusts itself to make sure that skin tones and other colors still look accurate. We first saw this tech used on the iPhone 5s, and it works really well on the One (M8), too. The camera UI is super fluid and easy to use, but HTC removed the “Zoe” function from the default app and put it in another setting. That’s because the depth camera doesn’t work with the Zoes. If you open the Zoe camera, however, you can still record the short clips, snap photos and even record longer videos. You can even pause a video and then resume filming right where you left off. Again, the photos snapped in this mode don’t have depth data. It seems silly, but that’s just how the sensor works. HTC is going to release a new Zoe app that will allow people to collaborate and create multi-user Highlight reels, and I can’t wait for it to launch. It’s not out yet, however, so I can’t address that just yet. Also of note: there isn’t a default HDR mode in the camera. However, you can turn on HDR and then save the camera settings as a separate camera profile — a feature I really dig — and you’ve essentially created your own default mode to tap into. You can create custom camera setting profiles for anything, too, so if you want to save one with specific ISO and white balance settings, or another with a filter that’s always active, you can do so. Finally: the front-facing camera. It works really well, and I love the wide-angle aspect that HTC pulled in from earlier handsets like the One M7 and the Butterfly. The images are far better, too, because it shoots 5-megapixel shots instead of the 2-megapixel shots on the One M7. Overall, if you’re chasing megapixels then look toward other phones. The HTC One (M8) still takes great shots though, and I’ve really enjoyed the performance of the camera save for the lower-res shots.
Call Quality and Data
Phone call quality these days is largely very good, but I do feel it’s still necessary to cover the topic in my reviews because, here and there, you come across a phone that doesn’t perform as admirably as others. The One (M8), in my tests, has provided crystal clear call quality at all times. I also love using the BoomSound speakers during a conference call, since voices come through loud and clear and aren’t muffled at all. The speakers are also fantastic for watching movies and listening to music. Data speeds on AT&T’s network in New York City and New Jersey were also excellent. While I was riding to New York City with four bars of service I was able to pull in about 11.4Mbps down and upload at a rate of 5.77Mbps. My speeds varied depending on the signal, but in general I saw no major issues — and again, that’s really impressive considering the phone’s body is 90 percent metal. That’s no easy task.
HTC announced a new feature called Extreme Power Saving Mode when it unveiled the HTC One (M8), which is its own but completely different version of what Samsung is offering in the Galaxy S5. It basically shuts down everything on the phone so that you can only place calls and text messages or manually pull in emails. It sounds like a stunning feature — at 5 percent, HTC promises 15 hours of battery life. Unfortunately, the U.S. AT&T model of the HTC One (M8) that I tested doesn’t have this feature yet. It’s coming soon, but so far it just has the standard power saving mode that we’ve seen before. Thankfully, battery life really isn’t that much of a concern. I’ve largely used the big-screen phablets of late because they also come with huge batteries that last me through the day, if not longer. The HTC One (M8) is just as capable, though. At night I’m typically cruising with around 45 percent, and by the morning the battery has only drained a bit more. That’s basically all I need in a phone, though, enough to get from the time I wake up in the day until the time I fall asleep — and with this kind of battery life I was even able to act a bit like a night owl over the weekend without a worry.
The One (M8) delivers on every last thing that I look for in a smartphone…
The One M8 is the best Android handset you can buy right now. I think there are plenty of folks out there who might try to say that this phone is iterative because it carries a similar name to last year’s model, but that’s basically the only iterative jump that was made here.
HTC improved nearly every aspect of the phone possible. It made the design even better — something I didn’t see coming — Sense 6 is a nice bump from Sense 5.5, the BoomSound speakers are larger and crisper than before, the camera is improved (though now lacks OIS, which will no doubt upset some fans), and the hardware is leagues better thanks to the Snapdragon 801 processor and the new option for expandable storage.
The One (M8) delivers on every last thing that I look for in a smartphone, and even excels with its battery life, an area where I typically worry the most. I’ve spent nearly 3,000 words talking about the phone and yet I know that I could continue on in several areas, and that says a lot: there’s so much to talk about here that you really need to just try it for yourself.
The One (M8) easily deserves a 9, and if it just had a slightly better camera it would be pretty much perfect in every way. We don’t say this often: need a new phone? Buy the One (M8).
Disclaimer: HTC provided TechnoBuffalo with a single unit for early testing under embargo. AT&T and HTC then provided AT&T with two phones for testing in our Irvine and New York City/New Jersey offices for the written and video sections of this review. Jonathan Rettinger used the International phone for 9.5 days as his daily driver before switching to the AT&T unit. Todd Haselton used an AT&T unit for 7 days as his daily driver.