HTC One M8 review
The HTC One (M8) has been officially announced, having been more comprehensively leaked than any previous smartphone device in recent years.
There's plenty of interest and anticipation too. With Samsung and Sony launching flagship devices at Mobile World Congress 2014, HTC is looking to steal the show by announcing that its new handset is available on launch day. That's right, you can go to the shops and buy a new HTC One right now.
The big question is whether HTC has created the best of the flagship bunch? Is this the device that will halt the downward slide at HTC and win back the fans? We've spent the past week digging into its every detail to find out. Drum roll please, here's our comprehensive HTC One review.
What's in a name? Although "M8" is attached to the HTC One, it's a namesake that will likely get stripped away in the coming days and weeks. It is, after all, merely some digits that appear on the barcode of the device's box. But we shan't dwell on the name, because the new HTC One has got far too much else we're itching to talk about in this review, principally the design.
HTC has been making a lot of noise about design and all that talk has lead to the 2014 HTC One. It's more than just talk, too: the new One has the highest quality build and one of the most luscious designs we've seen on a smartphone yet.
HTC has increased the amount of metal in its handset, aiming to make every point of touch from metal (except the display, naturally). The big difference is that where the 2013 HTC One had plastic set into the edges, now it's metal wrapping around the sides which gives the HTC One (M8) a seamless look, making the older model look slightly awkward by comparison. The same zero-gap manufacturing technique has been used as per last year's model - a process where the plastic elements are injected into the metal unibody for a seamless effect, which comes together nicely.
We're also pleased to see the new design incorporate a microSD card slot, so the days of missing out on storage expansion are a thing of the past. And if you're thinking of jumping over from an iPhone 5S then the new nano SIM will ensure easy accommodation. A small faff for those wanting to straight swap a micro SIM into their new handset though.
The new HTC One measures 146.36 x 70.6 x 9.35mm and weighs 160g, so this is a fairly sizeable handset. Perhaps most notable is that it's larger than its predecessor by 9mm in height, 2.4mm in width and a mere 0.5mm in total depth.
Bigger isn't always better, but the HTC One is balanced. It's a touch smaller than the Sony Xperia Z2, the big difference being that the top and bottom space are "empty" on the Sony handset, whereas the One offers the excellent front-facing BoomSound speakers.
BoomSound makes for a phone that's taller than its rivals - like the Samsung Galaxy S5 for example - but the width is still manageable and the new HTC One feels nice to hold.
The size means it's a bit of a stretch to get to the top standby button, but there's a clever new gesture to get around that problem, which we'll get to later. In the hand the metal finish has that cool premium feel to it and the edges are softer than the earlier model. It we're being critical, we'd say it's slightly less tactile than before and on a cold day, with dry hands, we've had the odd slip.
We heavily praised the 2013 HTC One for its design. The 2014 HTC One takes this up a notch. It's a stunning bit of smartphone design, although there's no avoiding that this is a large handset.
The HTC One has the latest quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 chipset, clocked at 2.3GHz as reviewed here, but it will also be appearing in a 2.5GHz version in Asia. There's 2GB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage, along with that microSD expansion, up to 128GB, we've just mentioned.
There is also a deal with Google Drive to offer 50GB of online storage. You can claim this by opening the Google Drive app and signing in.
That loadout puts the latest HTC One alongside the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S5 in terms of hardware. Running Android 4.4 KitKat and Sense 6.0, the HTC is incredibly slick and smooth. There's plenty of power on offer, everything happens with pace and purpose, and there's no sign of lag.
We were happy with the performance of the 2013 HTC One, but the 2014 model casts a shadow over it. There's more pop, more speed, and it makes the older device feel noticeably slower.
One of the problems we've experienced with the latest quad-core processors is the amount of heat produced when under load. The HTC One does warm up, but it isn't as severe as some devices we've used.
Display to dazzle
The HTC One now has a 5-inch display, sticking to a 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution, resulting in 441ppi. It's crisp and sharp with plenty of vibrancy and colour, even though it doesn't venture out into 2K resolution land like the Oppo Find 7.
The LCD display comes protected by Corning Gorilla Glass 3 and offers great viewing angles. The auto-brightness works well, although the display looks its best when the brightness is higher and sometimes with power saver mode engaged you'll find it doesn't lift brightness in sunny conditions quite as much as you'd like.
The display also appears to be slightly warmer than the outgoing One model, which had brilliant whites, but overall we love the vibrancy of the colours and we've got little to complain about.
HTC's front-facing speakers have won a lot of fans. They may make the HTC One taller than its rivals, but in return you get the best sound quality you'll find on a smartphone.
With Beats Audio now a thing of the past as far as HTC is concerned, the new HTC One swings in its own BoomSound branding for those speakers.
There's a slightly different arrangement of the speaker grilles on the front of the handset: they're still micro-drilled, but now aren't equally sized. That makes no difference to the performance, however, as the newer BoomSound speakers are louder than before, 25 per cent louder according to HTC.
That means more volume when you're watching that YouTube video or playing your favourite mobile game. That might sound unnecessary, but turn up the volume on Real Racing 3 and the experience is much more immersive. That quality flows through into calling too, as you'll benefit from that great speaker setup.
We said of the original HTC One that it was easily the best sounding smartphone around. We're certain that will be true of the new HTC One too, as BoomSound is a really strong performer.
BoomSound is more than just the name of the speaker, it's also the name for the enhancement that comes with it. You can't turn off the enhancement when using the speakers, but if you plug in headphones then you can - not that you would want to opt out of the rich bass that it brings.
Software: Sense 6.0 meets Android 4.4 KitKat
The HTC One (M8) brings with it a new version of HTC Sense. Called Sixth Sense by its friends, this latest version of HTC's user interface doesn't make huge changes to the previous version, but adds refinement across a number of areas.
We've reviewed the new software in detail separately as there's so very much to cover. We'll engage the highlights here, but we'd recommend you head over to read more in our HTC Sense 6.0 review to get the complete picture.
One of the big changes that the new HTC One brings is on-screen controls. These sit on a translucent background, giving Sense 6.0 more of a KitKat feel than Sense 5.5 had.
On-screen controls are now a familiar thing and here they work just as well as they do on the Nexus 5. In many applications they will move aside to give you a full screen view, but in some cases you'll have to remember to tab near the bottom of the display to get them back. It's not a problem, just a change from HTC devices of the past.
READ: Nexus 5 review
Across this new version of Sense, HTC has continued to simplify things, stripping out a lot of the fuss from icons, making them simpler, as well as slimming down and cleaning up the fonts. The result is a handset that looks more sophisticated.
One of the changes in Sense 6.0 is the introduction, or more accurately the reintroduction, of themes. This brings colour to the default apps, adding a feeling of consistency to them. The media apps get one colour, the communication apps another. It ties things together and moves things along from an interface that was predominately shades of grey previously.
BlinkFeed is still present and correct, offering to aggregate your news and social feeds with more customisation options than before. The arrangement of tiles has been updated and there's a new, more fluid, scrolling action that neatly runs behind the shortcuts and on-screen controls.
You get the option to turn it off if you don't like it, or pick a regular home page as the default instead. This being Android 4.4 KitKat, you can install a different launcher entirely and easily switch between them in the menu.
One of the interesting changes that arrives with Sense 6.0 is the breaking out of various apps from the system. BlinkFeed, Zoe, Gallery and the TV app will all become independent, meaning that HTC can update them more regularly through Google Play.
The TV app has had a bit of an update too, but still supports the top-mounted IR blaster and offers TV programme suggestions. There's a new live sports section to help you find the action, as well as integrated twitter feeds, so you can keep up with fans' conversations. The same applies in TV programmes too.
The day-to-day experience in Sense 6.0 isn't hugely different from Sense 5.5, though, and there's nothing really groundbreaking in terms of update. If you're and HTC user then you'll love the increased level of refinement. And if you're new to it all then there's the right balance of useful features and sophistication to make this, we think, one of the best smartphone user interfaces around.
Motion Launch gestures
One thing that is new, however, is the range of Motion Launch gestures. These use hardware in the sensor hub of the M8 to allow a number of interactions without having to press the standby button. As we mentioned previously, the button is a bit of a stretch to reach one-handed, but the Motion Launch gestures circumvent this problem.
You can double tap to unlock, which is really handy, as well as swipe to access BlinkFeed or the regular home pages, none of which depends on pressing the button first. If you have security in place, then of course you'll then have to unlock your phone before you get to what you want.
There are a couple of exceptions however. There's now a fast launch for the camera using the volume button. This will fire up the camera from standby, a little like a long press on the camera button on Sony Xperia devices.
There's also a down swipe gesture that will launch voice dialling. This will likely be handy for those driving, but we've found it accidentally launched with a passing swipe on a number of occasions, so we've disabled the feature.
There's also a new low-power sensor in place to handle motion. This has added benefit for motion controls, such as with the pre-installed FitBit app that will track your steps, using the One as a pedometer. We've found it to be less aggressive on the battery than apps like Moves, so it's a handy addition.
Software-wise the HTC isn't a complete home-grown suite like you'll find on the Samsung Galaxy S5, which is perhaps symbolic of the difference between HTC and its competitors. The likes of Sony, Samsung and LG each have much wider ecosystems of products to tie into their flagship smartphones, often with success such as the LG G2's motion and gesture controls.
READ: LG G2 review
The biggest talking point of the HTC One (M8) is the Duo Camera. On the rear you can see what looks like two lenses: one is the main UltraPixel sensor for capturing images, the other an additional sensor designed to capture depth information.
Critics of the previous camera might be disappointed to find that this is the same UltraPixel sensor setup: it's still a 4-megapixel resolution and one of the side-effects of that is that the HTC One (M8) doesn't offer much scope to crop or digitally zoom like the Nokia Lumia 1020.
The HTC One also can't offer 4K video capture, which would natively require 8-megapixels. For us the video capture side of things isn't a huge downside at the moment, but it's a negative when comparing the spec sheets of rival devices, such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. Give it a year and 4K video might be something that's even more in demand.
HTC likes to try and do things differently - that's what the Duo Camera is all about. The secondary sensor is primarily designed to capture depth information which means there's more data to use when taking photos and editing them. Some of those options are clever, too, such as Ufocus where you can change the point of focus in a shot after taking it.
The camera is very fast, a characteristic of HTC's flagship phones of the past few years. But it's not only fast to capture, but fast and accurate to focus, so there's a good chance you'll always get the shot you're after.
The flash is a twin-tone flash and we've found it to be pretty good too. We typically avoid using smartphone flashes, but recently they've got much better - the iPhone 5S being a primary example - and the new flash on the new HTC One is well positioned to capture skin tones at close ranges.
READ: Apple iPhone 5S review
The camera is great and we've had some lovely results from it in good light conditions. There's still that slight limitation that comes from the lack of resolution, so zooming in on the subject is more or less out of the question.
The biggest problem the HTC One camera faces is image noise in dim conditions or shadow areas, where we've seen unwanted noise even at ISO 100. Higher ISO shots are obviously further marred, something that needs to be considered when taking handheld low-light shots.
However, you can limit the ISO range and there's a new manual mode that will allow you set-up the camera for specific types of shot. You can manually focus, set the white balance, ISO or shutter speed, which is all useful for capturing deliberate shots, particularly in limited light. You'll be able to set a low ISO sensitivity, expose for a longer shutter speed and, as long as the phone itself is steady, get a better shot than leaving it to the auto settings. You can save settings too, so once you've got settings you like, you can store them for easy access in the future.
On the video front there is full HD capture, along with a Full HD 60fps option for fast moving subjects, a slow motion video and HDR (high dynamic range) video option too. We like that you can pause recording to move to a new location in the same video, but you don't get the fancy sort of slow-motion edit option as you do on the iPhone 5S.
Ufocus and editing effects
While the pure camera experience of the HTC One might not be the best out there, there's a lot more on offer. Once you've taken your photo, there's a range of clever editing options that make use of that additional data.
Ufocus is our favourite, as this option will allow you re-focus an image after capture. It uses the data captured from the Duo Camera to help recognise the different depth layers and then will neatly enable you select the focal point you want. It's a more practical approach than Nokia Refocus on Windows Phone because you don't have to select a special mode to use it, simply just shoot as normal and then edit your photo afterwards.
Ufocus can also use the captured depth data to apply a blurred photographic effect behind a subject typically used for that pro portrait look. This produces a shallow depth of field type of look typical of pro cameras with wide aperture lenses; that melty out-of-focus background effect is known as bokeh, which will be one of those hot words you'll be hearing a lot more.
The same technique is used to apply other background effects as the Duo Camera can effectively identify foreground subjects based on their depth within the frame. Take Foregrounder, for example, that identifies a subject in the foreground and can selectively ignore this element of the photo while applying an effect to the background only. It doesn't have to be a bokeh effect, though, you can also add more dramatic filter effects. There are even seasonal ones, like snow or leaves falling, although these effects aren't entirely dependent on the Duo Camera's additional data.
HTC One (M8) review - Ufocus example image
However, while the concept is great the delivery isn't always. As this is "mock bokeh" applied in processing it needs the right sort of subject to work best and doesn't always look genuine. On the phone's screen the results might look spot on, but when viewed up close the imperfections can show. Take the boat on the river shot above, for example. It looks fine at first glance, but the bokeh effect is to excess, the blurring "bleeds" over the subject's edges in certain parts and fails to mimic a true focal plane as an optical system would achieve.
As depth information is captured by the second lens there is certainly scope for this to be improved with future software updates. For now the key thing is to use the effect with the most suitable scenarios: if there is good distance between the subject and its background with little else to interfere then you'll achieve a more realistic result.
The last device we saw with two lenses on the rear was a bona fide 3D device. The Duo Camera isn't about capturing 3D images, but the added depth information means that you can change the perspective of your shot slightly or create a 3D motion effect, with the image moving as you move your phone around.
Zoe, highlight videos
Zoes - the unusual name for three-second motion clips - are still a feature in the 2014 HTC One just as they were with the previous model. Only now Zoes don't have to be three seconds long as the feature has been expanded in the HTC One (M8) to capture shorter or longer ones: you can tap for a photo and keep holding and it turns into video.
The Gallery is full of movement with the automatic highlight videos offering a great way to showcase your photos. We loved this feature on the first HTC One and thanks to complete editing options it's still a fun way of turning your photos into something more interesting. The Gallery has also been redesigned make the highlight videos more visible.
Sharing those clips has now been changed however, with a new Zoe app looking to help you share, but also collaborate on those highlight videos. It's here that HTC is making a change, as it wants to make Zoe into a more social experience.
The aim is to have Zoe as a new photo sharing social network, making it available across Android devices, rather than just limited to HTC's own phones. At the time of writing, however, the new Zoe app isn't available, so we've been unable to test it. We will update as soon as we have tested it out.
Battery and extreme power saving
There's a 2600mAh battery in the new HTC One which is a little larger than the earlier model. Although that might not sound quite as capacious as you might like because the Samsung Galaxy S5 has 2800mAh and the Sony Xperia Z2 has 3200mAh, but we haven't yet had the chance to fully test those.
However, the battery life of the HTC One (M8) is markedly better than the original HTC One. On a typical day, you can easily make it through to the evening without having to worry about charging. We've had days where the HTC One (M8) has seen us through the day and most of the night, admittedly with light data use. Even on heavier use days, with plenty of data and camera use, we were still able to make it into the evening.
HTC's power saver mode is in place, but if you're looking for real endurance, then it will be the extreme power saver mode that you want. This can be manually engaged or set to trigger at 20, 10 or 5 per cent remaining battery level and promises to give you 15 hours of standby life when the phone battery is as low as 5 per cent.
Extreme power saver mode does this by turning the M8 into a dumbphone. Data is turned off as is most other stuff, the interface changes and you're only able to access certain basic functions, like calls and text messages. It's an emergency state, designed to give you the chance to call a cab, or let loved ones know you're coming home. Existing HTC One owners will know the 5 per cent warning on the 2013 model meant shutdown was imminent, so we think this option is a great idea in the new handset.
The new HTC One is Quick Charge 2.0 enabled, but it's worth noting that the charger in the box isn't, so if you want to take advantage of faster charging then you'll need to get a compatible charger. HTC will be offering it as an accessory in the future.
Overall, we've been happy with the battery performance. Naturally if you fire up games like Real Racing 3, then it will chew the battery life at pace, but head out the door for a busy day and you should still be connected when you get back home.
HTC is passionate about smartphone design and you can see the consideration that has gone into the new HTC One. It's difficult to criticise the quality of the solid build, which eclipses many other devices. It sticks very much to the concept behind the 2013 model, so if you own the older device, then you'll love how the One has evolved in 2014.
The new phone is a large device and that may be a consideration for some. But it feels slightly easier to manage than the likes of the Sony Xperia Z2 thanks to the curve of the back that sits so nicely in the hand. The gesture controls make it easy to access too, as you don't have to stretch for the access button.
But the new HTC One isn't just about design. It's also hugely powerful and a pleasure to use. It can fly though intensive tasks and the addition of the microSD card slot is a real benefit too, satisfying an old but still very important demand.
HTC has continued to push camera innovation and should be commended for committing to something that's different, even if its success rate isn't 100 per cent. This isn't about pushing megapixels, it's about unlocking new functionality which can be effective and about thinking differently. But there will be plenty who still see the advantages of having more megapixels that otherwise lack here.
Finally Sense 6.0 moves HTC's Android skin on a step, continuing to refine the user experience, trim away unnecessary excesses and support you with native functionality that actually matters. There's still some bloat, but sections such as Gallery are much enhanced.
Overall, the HTC One (M8) is a wonderful reinvention of the 2013 handset we liked so much. There's innovation, refinement and new features aplenty that make it a shining example of a flagship device. The bar has been set high with what will be one tough act to follow.