Sighted more times in the wild than Bigfoot, the HTC One (M8) already feels like an old pal, even though it’s only officially been revealed today. That feeling of familiarity however is also down to how similar this year’s HTC flagship is to last year’s model. 2014’s HTC One is an undeniable beauty, but not the revolutionary revelation its predecessor was.
HTC’s top-of-the-line smartphone for 2014, building upon the critical success of 2013’s HTC One. Running Android 4.4.2 with HTC’s own Sense 6.0 UI overlaid on top, it’s a premium-feeling handset with an eye-catching 5-inch 1080p display and very capable 2.3GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor (backed by 2GB of RAM) under the hood. Flip it over and you’ll find the much-vaunted Duo Camera, able to add all manner of depth-of-field tricks to your still photographs.
People that don’t want a cookie-cutter Android phone. Those who appreciate the use of premium materials in a smartphone’s construction and don’t want to have to buy an Apple device to find them. Anyone that wants to be able to experiment with some quirky smartphone photography tools, and anyone that reads a wide range of blogs and websites and wants their best bits collected and presented in a dedicated hub.
Despite housing a 5-inch screen only .3 of an inch bigger than last year’s HTC One, the M8 (as I’ll refer to the handset for the remainder of this review, for differentiation’s sake) feels much larger. Measuring 146.36 x 70.6 x 9.35 mm and weighing 160g, it’s 13g heavier than its predecessor. Along with the gentle curvature to its chassis (available in “gunmetal” grey, “glacial” silver and “amber” gold) and its smooth brushed aluminium casing, the M8 is actually quite difficult to keep a grip on. It’s a slippery customer.
But it’s also very attractive: 90 per cent of the housing is now metal, and the construction is solid, with chrome trim running around the edges of the handset and black piping wrapping around to the back. It’s a unibody build, which means unlike the HTC One Max phablet you won’t have access to the battery. The power button sits on the top, hidden within the returning IR TV zapper, while a microUSB charging port and the headphone socket sit on the bottom. A nanoSIM tray sits on the right hand side, while a slot for microSD cards up to 128GB in size sits on the left. The large dual camera lenses sit nearly flush on the rear of the handset, with a sizeable HTC logo halfway down the back of the phone. Back around the front, HTC’s kitted the phone out with a stereo speaker pairing above and below the screen, providing reasonably good stereo separation when the phone is held in landscape orientation.
The one sore point in the build quality is with the thin volume rocker, which rattles around horribly. It’s a particular shame seeing as the rocker can also double up as the camera shutter.
All in, it’s a refinement over the previous model rather than an overhaul — a sensible decision given how great the original design blueprint was.
Though Google’s Android 4.4.2 is sitting beneath it, HTC’s Sense 6.0 UI is worked into many of the phone’s features. Those who love vanilla Android may shudder at the thought, but I’m actually quite a fan of Sense, which always feels far more nimble and well-considered than other manufacturers' bloated UI re-skins. Sense 6.0, like the rest of the M8’s design, builds upon last year’s more-significant changes, rather than being another upheaval. Following current design trends, everything feels “flatter” and more spacious, with soft pastel shades and an attractive, readable font employed.
As you’d expect then, the divisive BlinkFeed homescreen returns. First appearing in the original HTC One, it’s a vertically-scrolling social and news aggregator, pulling in articles and status updates from sources you determine, and arranging them into a tile-like feed. It takes up a whole homescreen, but doesn’t have to be the default one if you’d rather jump straight to your apps. Mechanically little has changed aside from the fact that it’ll now offer recommended content based upon your Facebook and Google+ likes, and there's now an option to save stories for offline reading. Sadly, you’ll still have to pick from the (admittedly generous) selection of HTC’s content partners when it comes to websites and blogs — an option to pull in a feed based on a search term is your only alternative for hunting down an interest of granular specificity.
Motion Launch gestures allow you to wake the M8 from sleep and jump to a specific app or function with just a swipe or a press of a volume button. They work excellently, and going back to my personal iPhone without them has proven difficult. When the phone is asleep, picking it up in portrait orientation and double-tapping the screen or swiping upwards wakes it, swiping right jumps to Blinkfeed, while swiping left brings you to your default standard homescreen. Swipe down and you’ll activate voice-dialling. Pick up the phone in landscape orientation and hit the volume button and you’ll dive straight into the camera app, with the volume button ready to be used as the shutter. Sure, we’ve seen some of this in the LG G2 before, but it’s still a welcome addition.
Aside from the considerable work that’s gone into the camera app (which we’ll get onto in a second), it’s otherwise pretty much business as usual for Android users. Software touchscreen Back and Home buttons and a Recent Apps multitasking button sit below a fixed and assignable array of four shortcut buttons (which are set as default to the phone dialler, messages, web browser and camera applications), alongside a button that brings you to the vertically-scrolling app drawer. Long-pressing on any app icon or empty space on the homescreens allows you to arrange app shortcuts as you see fit, while there’s also a number of pre-installed larger widgets, offering at-a-glance information, such as weather details or incoming emails. Any new apps you may want can be bought from the Google Play store.
Alongside the BlinkFeed screen you can have a maximum of five homescreen pages, which can each be filled with apps, app folders and widgets. Slide down from the top of any screen to access notifications which can be dismissed with a swipe, while a button in the top-right corner of this view gives you access to connectivity and battery-preserving settings such as screen brightness.
It’s all presented with silky smooth precision thanks to the powerful processor working away under the hood. The Snapdragon 801, backed by 2GB of RAM, is a beast, never breaking a sweat no matter what I threw at it or how many background apps I had running. Even with visually-intensive space-bound zombie shooter Dead Effect’s graphical settings dialled up to the max, gameplay was as smooth as you could wish for. Pair a screen this size with a decent Bluetooth gamepad and you’ve got a worthy, pocketable gaming machine, let alone a phone.
The screen is a joy to view it all on, too. Super-sharp at a full HD resolution, it’s actually rocking a slightly lower pixel density than last year’s 1080p-equipped HTC One, given this year’s larger screen size. But to the naked eye you’d hardly notice — bright and detailed, I was able to view it clearly even when snapping away with the camera in direct sunlight, and found its colour reproduction to be very accurate.
If you’ve been following the weeks of leaks leading up to the M8’s reveal, you’ll be well aware of the dual-camera system the smartphone is packing on its back. HTC is calling this its “Duo Camera”, and it’s capable of some very cool still-photo tricks. It’s worth noting that the M8 again uses HTC’s “Ultrapixel” camera tech which, while using a seemingly-lowly 4MP array, uses bigger pixels which are theoretically better at capturing light than competing smartphone cameras. We’ve written about it at length in the past, and I urge you to refresh you memory with what HTC is trying to achieve with it here.
So, onto the “Duo Effects”. Alongside the standard cropping and filter options that practically all smartphone camera systems now offer, HTC is able to pull off some smart depth effects by capitalising on the information captured by the secondary rear sensor. The best application of this is the UFocus option, which allows you to add a “bokeh” effect to captured images. This uses the differing depth information captured by the two sensors to allow you to tap on a captured photo and select which element should be the subject of the focus point — all this after the photograph has already been taken. This is best illustrated with the two examples below, produced from one single photo I took — note how in one the background mask is in focus, while in the other the foreground bald-headed toy and chicken is:
It’s easily the most useful of the camera functions HTC has included here. Elsewhere, you’ve the option of using a “Foregrounder” effect, pulling the subject into focus while ker-azy effects are added seamlessly to the background, and a “Seasons” effect which adds fluttering leaves or snowflakes to an image, to be captured either as a still shot or animation. More impressive, though ultimately useless, is the Dimension Plus option, which takes the data and images captured from the Duo Camera and allows you to use the handset’s accelerometer to tilt in and out of the captured image. It gives the illusion of being able to peek around the edges of a subject. It’s a good proof of concept for the Duo Camera with which to impress your mates, though the resulting images always look strangely warped.
The Zoe Camera feature also returns little changed from its predecessor. It’ll capture a short burst of video along with your still shots, animating your gallery view and automatically building montage clips of a day’s activities. These can be shared with friends who can now remix and edit them with their own snaps, allowing for a collaborative look at a treasured moment (or multiple viewpoints of your latest pratfall).
These bells and whistles aside, the camera can take some remarkably detailed shots, quickly adjusting to changing lighting conditions, and houses useful functions like a burst mode and all manner of manual controls, such as ISO and exposure settings. The camera also performs well in low-light situations, making use of a dual flash that’s able to adjust its intensity based on ambient lighting. While the exported images aren’t massive at a maximum resolution of 2688 x 1520, they are accurately-coloured and capable of picking up tiny details in a scene. The dual-cameras also make for the most responsive tap-to-focus system I’ve ever used in a smartphone:
Full HD video capture is solid too, again adapting well to changing lighting conditions, using a HDR function to deliver constantly rich contrast levels. Move at speed while capturing video and your resulting clip may appear a little juddery, but it’ll hold its own with the best of full HD smartphone video cameras out there, if not the latest wave of 4K ones.
The multiple camera features are great, but there are some frustrating restrictions on them. The UFocus and Dimension Plus Duo effects can be a bit contrary, only working if a shot was taken using the Auto setting, with the flash switched on (even if the Auto setting decides not to use it), had suitably bright ambient lighting, and if the subject and foreground are a reasonable distance apart.
The facial recognition unlock option can also be a bit rubbish. I’m a part-time glasses wearer (it’s me poor distance vision that’s me blight I’m afraid, guvnor), and pop ‘em on and off all the time. I just so happened to be wearing my glasses when I set up the facial recognition lock system. Needless to say, it wouldn’t unlock afterwards unless I was wearing them.
Though I can’t argue against any technical reasoning HTC may have had for doing this that I am oblivious to, but was it really necessary to keep the HTC logo in a useless strip below the screen? In last year’s HTC One this area served a purpose, housing the touch-sensitive Home and Back buttons. But with the M8, these are pure touchscreen software buttons. To my untrained eye, HTC could have removed this useless vanity strip and made the whole smartphone more pocketable by shaving almost a centimetre off the overall length, without reducing the useable screen space.
- The TV integration is as good as it’s ever been on the HTC One line — a quick and painless set-up procedure had me controlling my Panasonic TV, Humax YouView box and Onkyo receiver all directly from the phone thanks to its IR zapper tucked away on its top edge. The Sense TV app also has a built in TV guide, to which you can assign favourite shows and be notified as to when they’re on, while there’s also Zeebox-like social integration built in too, letting you keep track of your mate’s 140-character quips on the latest Eastenders death.
- With Sense 6.0 being a significant overhaul of the standard Android experience, HTC has mercifully kept the number of pre-installed bloat apps to a minimum. Of the few indulgences it has allowed itself, the one most worthy of merit is the pre-installed Fitbit app. A partner for the M8, it takes advantage of the smartphone’s sensor array to track everything from steps taken and distance walked to calories burned. You can also set up a food plan with the app, and track how much water you’ve consumed. All this data can then be fed directly into Blinkfeed should you want a constant reminder of your ailing health.
- The HTC One series' BoomSound speakers have always impressed, and they sound better than ever here. Front-facing and surprisingly loud, they manage to deliver a reasonably dynamic sound despite the svelte housing. They’re no replacement for a Bluetooth speaker, but should be more than enough for a picnic.
- You’ll get 50GB worth of Google Drive cloud storage with the M8, good for two years' free use before you’ll have to pay for it. Add to that either 16GB or 32GB of pre-installed storage space, plus the option to pop in a 128GB microSD card, and you won’t have any trouble storing your complete collection of HD Come Dine With Me rips.
- If you’ve little ones that like to use your phone — but you want to keep them out of mummy and daddy’s personal photo collection — there’s a “Kid Mode” on offer that locks them into a child-friendly bubble within the phone. This gives them access only to a collection of audio books, art tools, a video messaging app (the recipients of which you set) and any number of age-appropriate gaming apps you’ve installed on the phone elsewhere. It’s not foolproof, though — my short time in Kid Mode saw me able to briefly access the regular phone home screens when jumping out of Temple Run 2, so supervision will still be required.
- Jumping between camera setting options is accompanied by an unpleasant clicking sound. It’s like the sound you get when you’ve been doing a handstand, rubbing your hair furiously against the carpet (…just me then?) and are then delivered a static shock. I actually thought there was a problem with the speakers the first time I heard it.
- The supplied charger is thoughtfully designed, allowing you to pop in and pull up one of its three prongs in order to make it a little more portable. HTC also throws a half-decent headset and rubber shell case into the box too.
- The 2,600mAh battery onboard may seem slight, but it easily saw me through an average day’s usage, one that had me regularly browsing the web, watching a few Netflix shows and taking more photos than I usually would. It’s not difficult to squeeze over a day out of it too, and if you take advantage of the phone’s “Extreme Power Saver” mode (turning off all non-vital functions), you’ll be able to eke a couple of dozen more hours out of it, even if you’ve just 10 per cent of the battery’s power remaining.
- And of course, it's a phone too. Call quality was consistently clear and loud, and reception levels remained strong throughout testing. The HTC Sense UI is great for quickly populating your contacts book too, pulling in pals' email, profile picture and number details from sources including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, as well as your Google account contacts library.
If you’re on the market for a top-shelf new smartphone, the M8 has to be one to consider. It’s not got the 4K recording or waterproofing of the Sony Xperia Z2, or fingerprint scanning health options of the Samsung Galaxy S5, but its own Android tweaks and camera features make it a unique option in the Android field. Everything feels well-considered, and the additions to the camera and Sense UIs mostly have genuinely useful purposes.
It’s not the jaw-dropping entrant into the smartphone war that the first HTC One was — even with the fancy add-ons and larger screen it’s too similar to its predecessor to shock or surprise in any major way (something that the months of leaked details haven’t helped with). But don’t let its familiarity put you off. This is a wonderful device, and easily HTC’s best smartphone yet.
Processor: Quad-core 2.3GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801
Screen: 5-inch 1920 x 1080
Memory: 2GB RAM
Storage: 16GB/32GB, with microSD expansion supported
Camera: Duo rear camera (“Ultrapixel”, 4MP), 5MP/1080p front camera
OS: Android 4.4.2 with HTC Sense 6.0 UI skin
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