HTC One (M8) Review – Steel perfect?

HTC One M8

How would you follow up one of last year’s most critically acclaimed smartphones? Would you break away from familiar ground in search of uniqueness? Stay the course, donning the proven formula ‘the more, the better’? Instead of mulling over these questions, the HTC One M8 sets out to accomplish what really matters to users.

To deliver a refined smartphone experience. A flagship smartphone experience, where software goes hand in hand with the hardware, with minimal disconnection between what you see on the screen and the hardware that makes it all possible. Think iPhone, but running Android OS.

But let’s not jump too far ahead.

 

 

At a glance

 

  • 5.0 inch Super LCD3 Full HD 1080p display
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 chipset with 2.3GHz quad-core Krait 400 CPU and Adreno 330 GPU
  • 16/32/64GB internal storage, 2GB RAM, microSD expansion up to 128GB
  • 4G LTE – 150Mbps Download, 50Mbps Upload
  • 4MP ‘Ultrapixel’ camera with dual-LED flash, and 5 MP front-facing camera
  • Stainless steel unibody, available in gunmetal gray, silver and gold variants.
  • 2600 mAh non-removable battery.

 

 

Walkthrough

 

HTC One M8

The HTC One M8 is finely crafted. The added steel girth has not only enhanced the premium look of the handset, but also radically transformed the feel of it. I can’t help but throw out the watch analogy. Like a Casio vs Rolex, you actually feel that you’re holding hardware of some seriously expensive calibre. And tipping the scales to around 160g, the HTC One M8 is definitely not a lightweight in its class, and rivalled only by Sony’s flagship Xperia Z2 (163g).

While the much touted design has remained mostly in tact, the new HTC One M8 also gained a few inches here and there. The One M8 is physically taller than its predecessor on the merit of its 5 inch display (vs 4.7 inches), while the few mm added thickness is concealed well under a noticeably tapered back.

HTC One M8

The added curvature translates well to the handling of the device – as much as it’s practically possible. I still feel that HTC could have been more aggressive with cutting down the bezels around the display. Since the touch sensitive Android navigation buttons are incorporated into the screen itself, the area below the screen just seems like a wasted space.

HTC has incorporated a top of the line 1080p resolution Super LCD 3 panel. It delivers bright and crisp colours at incredible viewing angles, but gets only passing marks for sun legibility.

The signature stereo ‘Boom Sound’  speakers make a welcome return on the HTC One M8. But don’t let the massive speaker grills fool you – there’s about 50/50 ratio between fake and real apertures from where the sound travels. While not obnoxiously loud, the speakers are powerful enough to fill the room with your favourite tracks. Or podcasts, as it was in my case.

M8 front camera

There’s a well sized volume rocker on the right side, accompanied by a pin-ejected microSIM card slot…

HTC One M8 right side

… the same pin that you will be forced to use every time in order to exchange microSD cards. That’s right, HTC has implemented a memory card slot that extends the 12GB or so built-in storage (if you have the 16GB unit, that is).

HTC One M8 left side

On top, there’s a break in the seamless design. I presume the plastic that covers this whole area holds most of device’s radios, including the IR-blaster built into the power/ screen lock button. Unless you have really long fingers or use your other hand, reaching this button is really hard. Using a flip-cover eliminates this problem somewhat, but it’s about time HTC realises that a side-placement of the power button on larger phones is a must.

HTC One M8

The back of the M8 appears almost alien. What looked like a witty photoshop in the early leaks turned out to be true –  HTC’s latest flagship sports not one, but two rear-facing cameras. Along with it, you’ll also spot a dual-LED flash that aims to preserve colours in low light shots. I’ll discuss camera performance in the following section of this review.

At the bottom, the steel unibody design flows together nonchalantly to expose two apertures. There’s the familiar sight of a microUSB port – annoyingly, slightly off centre. Here you’ll also find a 3.5 mm headset jack – a welcome change from the top position on the HTC One M7.

HTC One M8

 

 

Imaging

 

HTC One M8 Camera cover intro

Aside from some software tweaks, the primary camera appears unchanged from last year’s model –  4MP ‘Ultrapixel’ sensor with 16:9 aspect ratio and maximum output resolution of 2688 x 1520 pixels. What’s new is that there’s now a complementary 2MP camera that provides some additional visual effects. So, how does the camera really hold up?

If we forget for a moment what the competition from the likes of Nokia, Samsung or Sony has to offer, the camera shots are actually quite decent for Instagram, twitter or some other social network that you prefer. Below are some slightly resized highlights from my Flickr gallery:

HTC One M8

HTC One M8

HTC One M8

However, if you tend to observe your digital handiwork by zooming in, the M8 will probably fall short of your expectations. I don’t zoom often in photos. And before I’m even thinking about cropping an image, I try to frame my photos in a way so I don’t have to. But the limitation of having to deal with mere 4MP in photos is still there, and can be especially frustrating in landscape shots, where smaller details are washed away due to lack of definition.

While the colours mostly seem realistic, the photos tend to suffer from over or under-exposure. In particular, the sky often gets ‘blown’, while objects on the ground suffer from black pixels, with no detail in them. Luckily enough, you can take up to 20 photos in a quick succession by holding down the capture button (and boy is it fast!), giving you a chance to pick the most successful shot.

HTC One M8 camera UI

What positively stood out for me was camera interface. Choosing the manual option from the button left section of the viewfinder gives you a full range of available camera settings. From there, you can easily manage which of the settings you want to tweak, and which to keep on auto. It’s clean, intuitive, and encourages fun experimentation with the M8 camera.

The Duo Camera features is a gimmick, albeit a very clever one. The nicest one I found is the faux bokeh effect that HTC calls ‘ufocus’. This allows you to selectively blur out background or foreground objects, mimicking professional cameras. Here’s a quick demonstration:

HTC One M8 Duo Camera

While a novel idea, it doesn’t really justify the presence of the secondary camera, especially when competitors are able to achieve similar results via software-based solutions. The role of the secondary camera is extremely passive, and, instead of becoming a unique selling point for the M8,  is just another feature that most users will quickly forget.

But let’s not over dramatise the performance of the M8’s camera. For general consumers, it gets the job done. Only when taken in context of other flagships, only when we compare the meticulous attention to detail and perfection that is so prevalent elsewhere on the HTC One M8 – only then we can say that the camera comes off as a serious disappointment.

 

 

Software

 

On the software front, the HTC M8 currently runs the latest Andord 4.4.2 KitkKat release. As you’d expect, the latest iteration of company’s trademark software overlay runs the show. Except it doesn’t quite run the show, but merely curates the experience from a safe distance.

It really took me by surprise, just how understated Sense 6.0 really is. The UI is light and uncluttered, follows the latest trend of flat design, and does little to steer you into HTC’s own apps. You feel company’s dilemma; the struggle to decide how to keep long-time HTC fans happy without alienating newcomers.

HTC One M8 Sense UI

From left: BlinkFeed, homescreen view, and notification area shortcuts

Very little feels particularly out of place, the UI isn’t overflowing with gazillion little buttons and nobs, and other vaguely useful features that other Android OEMs, particularly Samsung, are so intent on. Perhaps the most telling thing of all, HTC’s signature social news aggregator BlinkFeed (think Flipboard) can be entirely removed from the homescreen, bringing the whole experience another notch closer to stock Android.

But it’s also the little things, like the clear all button in the task manager, customisable shortcuts in the notification area, or the useful motion launch gestures, that make Sense 6 a wonderful supplement to Android user experience. It’s not CyanogenMod-level customisable, not yet at least, but what’s there is incredibly stable and responsive.

HTC One M8 motion launch gestures

Motion Launch gestures ad the ability to unlock the device or access other features when the screen is off.

The current-crop Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 chipset purrs nicely underneath the metal casing of the HTC One M8. Honestly, I couldn’t be any happier with it. Obviously, the M8 will eat everything you can throw at it from the Google Play store, but perhaps the most dramatic improvement that you’ll notice is in battery life. Rarely I return home with less than 30-40% charge left. And if you’re really in a pickle, the built-in Extreme Power Saving mode allows you to extend the battery life by cutting down to most essential features such as calls and messaging.

 

 

Conclusion

 

HTC One M8

 

Competition:

Competition is tight in the smartphone race, where even the slightest mishap can be deadly. The most immediate rival is, of course, the Samsung Galaxy S5. Equipped with a 16MP camera, the S5 easily outclasses the One M8 in the imaging department, while its plastic, uninspiring design and loads of unnecessary software gimmicks could be a deal breaker for some users. A competitor that didn’t rely on gimmicks, the Sony Xperia Z2 sports an equally desirable glass and aluminium body, along with a solid performing 20 MP camera. And then there’s the G3, LG’s hotly anticipated flagship. It will presumably introduce some droll worthy specs, including a QHD resolution display, into an almost bezel-less design.

 

Liked:

  • The professional looking exterior. This is a serious looking handset that commands attention for its premium build materials and unmistakable, finely-crafted design.
  • The screen. Very responsive, with realistic colours across the most extreme viewing angles.
  • HTC’s stereo ‘Boom Sound’ speakers sport a surprising depth.
  • Superb battery performance.

 

Disliked:

  • 4 MP photos can be limiting to some users; ‘Duo’ camera lacks use cases; no optical image stabilization.
  • Bezels. The phone seems a wee bit too liberal with space around the screen – especially compared to LG and Samsung offerings.
  • Swapping MicroSD and SIM cards is a hassle – keep that metal pin handy!
  • Compared to rivals, no true water resistance.

 

The bottom line:

The HTC One M8 is there for the fans of the big and beautiful. Despite similarities, the One M8 is more thought out than its predecessor, greater than the sum of its parts – it carries across that sublime Wow factor that is so rarely present in Android phones these days.

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