Life is never easy when you’re up against behemoths like Apple and Samsung. With last year’s One, HTC struggled to get the word out that it might just have the best smartphone on the market. Undeterred, it’s back to try again with its third major One. The One M8 is a fantastic new device, but can it compete with the big guns from Samsung and others?
Updated on 4-1-2014 by Jeffrey Van Camp: I’ve used the One for a week now and filled in our longer-term impressions, including more detail on its interface, battery life, feel, camera, and just about everything else.
It’s a beautiful phone
Looking at pictures of the HTC One M8, you will not be impressed. There’s nothing all that exciting about it. Seeing it in person is a different experience. Like the iPhone, the One M8 is built with incredible attention to detail that you literally have to touch to appreciate.
The new One is undoubtedly a beautiful phone, but it’s also the most comfortable phone we’ve held (in some ways), thanks to its aluminum case that’s so brushed and buffed that it’s actually soft to the touch. It’s so smooth that the few seams it does have are undetectable by human fingers. You’d have to be an alien with extra sensitive feelers to find a crack in HTC’s shell, and we can’t verify that such an alien exists at all.
We don’t intend to gush, but the One M8 has better “hand-feel” than the Moto X and anything Samsung or Apple have to offer. Thanks to its roughly 90 percent aluminum shell, it feels sturdier than most devices, too.
HTC’s front-facing “Boom Sound” speakers also got an upgrade this year. They sound clearer and a little louder than the One. Don’t sell your Bluetooth speaker out of excitement, but do know that the One M8 probably has the best sound you’re going to get on a smartphone.
But it still has a few quirks
The HTC One is gorgeous and well-built, but there are some downsides to its design. The metal casing does make the phone a little heavy at 5.64oz, and if you don’t buy a case (and you won’t want to because it’s a pretty phone), its also a very slippery phone. A lot of people are going to accidentally drop the M8 because it doesn’t have good hold.
The big tradeoff with HTC’s design is its lack of water resistance.
HTC also still hasn’t figured out that placing the phone’s power button way up top does make you stretch your hand to use it. Luckily, there is a new way to unlock the phone: touch. (We’ll get to that next.) The power and volume buttons are very easy to press, but almost too easy. The volume tended to annoyingly move up or down sometimes while we were listening to music or podcasts with the M8 in our pocket. It wasn’t a huge inconvenience, but it did happen a few times. On the flip side, headphone lovers should be happy that the M8 has an audio jack on the bottom of the phone, which lets you pull it in and out of your pocket more naturally with headphones plugged in.
And though we like the larger 5-inch 1920 x 1080 pixel screen on the One M8 (the One had a smaller 4.7-inch screen), the bezels around the screen are thick compared to the LG G2 and other high-end phones. HTC could have fit a larger 5.2-inch screen on the M8 or shrunk the size of it. There is also a black strip of unused space under the screen that houses only an HTC logo. It adds about a centimeter to the height of the phone.
The big tradeoff with HTC’s design is its lack of water resistance. Both the Galaxy S5 and the Sony Xperia Z2 come with full waterproof bodies, but if you drop the One M8 in the water, or it rains particularly hard, you’re in trouble. Apple and LG also haven’t addressed waterproofing yet, but we expect it’s going to be a big selling point for Samsung this year.
Sense isn’t as nice as vanilla Android, but it’s close
HTC’s interfaces have come a long way. Its new interface that some of its execs lovingly call “Sixth Sense,” but some of its big ideas are impressive, especially its gestures.
Last year, LG introduced a feature called KnockOn. Instead of having to press the power button to turn the LG G2 on, you could tap your finger on the dark screen, waking it up like magic. HTC has borrowed this idea and introduced four new ways to unlock using swipes from the top, bottom, left, or right. These open different apps directly from unlocking. Swiping from the top, for example, will open up Google Voice Search and swiping from left will take you straight to BlinkFeed, HTC’s homebrewed form of Flipboard. Oh, and if you want to use the camera, simply hold the phone up in a camera position and press the volume rocker like a shutter button while it’s off; the camera app will open right up.
There’s another cool gesture, too. You can swipe three fingers from the left side at any time and quickly access all the video and audio devices that the One can connect up with.
Outside of gestures, Sense 6 has more of a minimalist vibe to it than previous versions. It looks more like stock Android and is speedy like stock Android, too. The only major changes are that HTC continues to keep the widgets menu separated from the apps menu. HTC’s default apps are simpler too, and color coded in nice pastels, though you’re still going to want to replace its messaging, browser, and calendar app with Google’s own. To access widgets, you need to hold your finger down on the home screen. The other big area of divergence is HTC’s built-in BlinkFeed.
Think of BlinkFeed like a built-in version of Flipboard. You access it by swiping from the left on the home screen. This time around, BlinkFeed does more than just aggregate news. It is a place to view your Twitter feed, Facebook feed, Google+ feed, get deals (ads), and new context-based notifications. So far, only Fitbit and Foursquare connect up and will send you notifications through BlinkFeed.
BlinkFeed is an interesting experiment. If more apps sign up, it could almost take the place of the Android notification menu entirely, but for now it’s just a fun app that you can either use or disable. We’ve grown fond of it, which is a surprise since we usually just use Flipboard or News Republic (which powers the news engine of BlinkFeed).
For those counting, the Unlocked T-Mobile version of the One M8 we got had 50 apps pre-installed and the Verizon version had 59. Verizon users beware: for some reason, Verizon has replaced the text messaging app with its own Verizon messaging service. Don’t use this. Use Google Hangouts or the HTC app. You don’t need Verizon looking at your texts.
Finally, this could be a pet peeve, but we really don’t like HTC’s default keyboard on the One. It has no numbers row and we continually misspell on it. You can download the default Google Keyboard on Google Play, if it bothers you too. Swiftkey and other alternatives are also available.
Processing power to back up its good looks
There’s nothing revolutionary about the specs of the new One M8, but they are competitive. It has the same Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor like all the hot high-end phones this year, including the Xperia Z2, Galaxy S5, and LG G Pro 2. And like all those phones, it’s loaded with a 5-inch (ish) 1920 x 1080 pixel screen, about 2GB of RAM (some have 3GB), on-screen navigation buttons, and Android 4.4, the latest and greatest new operating system from Google. Sadly, base models only come with 16GB of internal storage. This won’t get you far. We recommend a 32GB model, but that will cost you more than the default $650 price.
HTC can’t match the iPhone 5S’s camera, but continues to lead Android phones in camera performance.
HTC has already admitted to juicing its phone to perform better on benchmark tests than it should, but we ran a couple tests anyway. Surprise! The One did very well, getting a 22,700 on Quadrant and on the 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited Test, which tests gaming performance, it also performed well with a score of 20,600. From what we can tell, this will perform as well as any high-end phone out right now or coming soon. It’s in the same class as the LG G Pro 2, Galaxy S5, and Xperia Z2.
What does processing power get you these days? Well, for starters, it’s how the M8 performs all its fancy new camera features, including Ufocus, which adds Lytro-like refocusing abilities to pictures. Every big phone has this, but thanks to HTC’s dual-rear cameras, the M8 does it right. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
We’re particularly happy that the One M8 has a MicroSD slot. This was absent on the 2013 One, but it’s back and can take up to 128GB cards.
Best in class Android camera, but can’t topple iPhone
Yep. Three cameras. HTC has upped the ante with a very nice 5-megapixel front-facing camera (much like the Huawei Ascend Mate 2), but there are two cameras on the back of the One M8. The first is an Ultrapixel camera, which is an HTC-branded invention. The idea is that the pixels take in more light, so they’re called Ultrapixels. On top of it is a new camera that’s used to add depth.
Using these two cameras in conjunction, the M8 can produce shots with actual depth to them, allowing you to focus on almost any object in frame and defocus (blur) everything else. It’s what our eyes do all the time … if only our eyes had some of the fun filters and effects that the M8 does. Imagine being able to easily turn everything in a shot that isn’t you black and white. That’s the kind of thing HTC has made easy – no more Photoshop required.
Outside of its special refocusing abilities, the One M8 performs very well, but not as consistently as the iPhone 5S. Outdoor shots look fantastic and it performs better in low light than a Samsung, Motorola, or LG phone, but it still can’t balance light as well as Apple’s phone. The light from a window, for example, will come out blown out on the One M8 but looks just fine on the 5S. Still, HTC has made solid improvements and continues to lead Android phones in camera performance.
Battery life is good
The 2,600mAh battery on the One M8 has held up for us well. It’s about 300mAh bigger than last year’s One, but the battery life is much better. We haven’t had any trouble making it through a full (long) day of use, and we couldn’t say that last year. Don’t expect revolutionary battery life, but you may not need to tote around a charger everywhere this year. HTC says this phone will get 40 percent better battery life. If you use the battery saver mode, this can be higher. We chalk the battery life improvements up to Qualcomm’s new battery-friendly Snapdragon processor as much as anything else. It’s a good chip.
Our opinion of the One M8 hasn’t changed much since we first tried it out a week ago. It’s an absolutely beautiful phone with an attention to detail that’s unmatched. The problem is that at its $650-$750 price, it’s going head to head with the waterproof Galaxy S5 and the iPhone 5S. We wish HTC included better water resistance and that the phone was a little less slippery to hold.
If you already own the One, don’t drop your cereal and buy this immediately. HTC is going to send HTC One phones an Android 4.4 update, and you already have a phone that will last you just fine. But if you’re looking to upgrade, this is one of the best superphones around. It will be available on all four major U.S. carriers by the end of April, not to mention more than 230 other carriers around the world.
At half the One M8’s price, $350, the Nexus 5 is still the best deal going for an Android phone, but if you have the money, or your carrier discounts the phone, the One M8 isn’t a purchase you’ll regret.
- Apple-level design detail
- Excessively comfortable to hold
- Great sound from front-facing speakers
- Dual-rear cameras lead Android phones
- MicroSD card support
- 5MP front camera
- No water resistance
- Slippery grip could lead to dropping
- Camera still can’t match iPhone 5S
- Only 16GB of internal storage
- Uncomfortable power button placement
- $650 price is double the Nexus 5