How has HTC's 2014 flagship stood up to a couple of months in the hands of AC's editors?
It's been just over two months since HTC announced and launched the One M8, its flagship smartphone for 2014, across two continents. An unprecedented Day 1 retail launch allowed buyers in the UK and U.S. to pick up the M8 just hours after its global unveiling, though only after an extended campaign of leaks had already spilled many of the phone's secrets.
The same day we took the wraps off our HTC One M8 review, praising the phone's performance and build quality, as well as HTC's flatter, more colorful Sense 6 UI. But we questioned the decision to stick with an "Ultrapixel" camera — an upgraded sensor, but one with the same 4-megapixel resolution as last year — while also pointing out its ergonomic issues, which is a another way of saying the M8 is sometimes a bit too tall and slippery for its own good.
We've used a great many Android phones over the past couple of months, as rival devices from Samsung, Sony and LG have emerged, but the M8 has never been far from our side. So how has two months with HTC's leading handset colored our opinion of it? Join us after the break for a two-month retrospective on the HTC One M8.
Shiny and slippery
One of the most surprising effects of the HTC One M8's launch was how quickly it aged last year's HTC One. That device was one of the best-looking phones of 2013, but put it next to the M8, with its elegant metal curves, and it's striking just how old it seems by comparison. With a wraparound aluminum unibody, the 2014 HTC One is without question the prettiest phone of the year so far, and no other handset quite matches the in-hand feel of the M8's cold, rounded metal. Sure, the LG G3's "metallic skin" coated plastic looks similar from a distance, but the in-hand feel is miles apart. LG offers a close imitation, but HTC has the real deal.
In a sea of nondescript plastic slabs, the M8 feels like something unique and special.
In a sea of nondescript plastic slabs, the HTC One M8 feels like something unique and special — a phone ahead of its time. But its futuristic look and feel comes at a price. The M8 is a lofty phone in every sense of the word. Its front-facing speakers give it sufficient height to measure up to 5.2 and 5.5-inchers like the Sony Xperia Z2 and LG G3, and that makes it trickier to one-hand than many phones of the same size. And while the M8's curved metal unibody feels great in-hand, it's also fairly slick, and trickier to hold onto than the high-end competition.
Having used the M8 in both silver and gunmetal flavors, the former is, in my opinion, the easier model to hold onto. The matte finish of the bare brushed metal is just a little rougher, making for a more secure grip. That said, neither feels as secure in the hand as plastic competitors. So it's a trade-off between build quality ease of use, and which side of that argument you come down on will depend on the kind of smartphone user you are. Personally, it's taken me some time to get used one-handing the large, slippery M8, but I'm now comfortable enough wielding it without worry. That said, I still feel like I'm babying the phone a little more than the GS5 or G3.
Using the HTC One Mini 2, the M8's clumsily-named sibling, has also been a revealing experience. Sure, the Mini 2 can't boast the same wraparound aluminum chassis as its big brother. It's screen isn't as vibrant as the M8's, nor is its BoomSound speaker setup quite as boomy. But the in-hand feel is as close to perfect as any metal handset since the original Nexus One. As much as I like the 5-inch M8, I can't help thinking the Mini is closer to my ideal size for this sort of phone.
Like its predecessor, the metal body of the M8 has held up pretty well in day-to-day use. The most visible areas of wear and tear on my gunmetal gray M8 have appeared around its chamfered edges, and I've also noticed a little fraying on the plastic seal that joins the display to the metal casing. On my device in particular, I've picked up one small scratch on the back of the phone, and another on the glass around the camera lens — though fortunately not directly over the lens. None of these imperfections stand out too much, but they are noticeable on closer inspection.
Awesome audio, display and longevity
Even as we enter the age of Quad HD displays, the M8's screen stands strong.
We've reached the point where most high-end smartphones have high-quality 1080p (or greater) displays, but even with such strong competition the M8's screen ranks among the very best of the best. Daylight visiblity is solid, colors are bright and vivid but not garishly so, and viewing angles are as close to perfect as you'll get from an LCD. And according to third-party testing its color gamut is impressively wide too. Even as competitors start pushing "Quad HD" panels elsewhere, the M8's screen stands strong.
The phone's audio performance has been equally excellent over the past couple of months, once again ruining traditionally rear-mounted smartphone speakers for me, while also making ringtones and notifications loud enough to hear even when the phone is pocketed. So no surprises there in either area — the M7 excelled in terms of both sound and video, and it's expected that the M8 would surpass it.
Having used an M7 for most of 2013 and experienced decidedly average battery life, particularly on LTE, I approached HTC's M8 battery claims with a skeptical outlook. Yet battery life — an unglamorous but important benchmark for any smartphone — has impressed me over the past couple of months. Coming from mainly using a Nexus 5 in the months before launch, I saw around double the useful battery life out of the new HTC One.
The switch down to 16GB for the base HTC One M8 model in Europe is less than ideal, however I've yet to hit a wall in terms of storage space for apps, mainly due to the fact that photos and music (including Google Play Music) can be offloaded to a microSD slot. The lack of any 32GB SKU for Europe is something we'd like to see addressed in future models — and something I'll happily complain about — but HTC isn't exactly alone in neglecting this section of the European market. (Fortunately, lucky folks over in the U.S. can more easily get hold of a 32GB M8.)
Thoughts on Sense 6
We're written ad nauseum about Sense 6 in our reviews of the HTC One M8, One Mini 2 and Desire 816, so instead of going over old ground we'll reflect on a few features that've stood out over the past couple of months.
BlinkFeed has matured in Sense 6 to become a natural focal point of HTC's UI.
I could take or leave BlinkFeed in Sense 5. HTC's home screen reader was a neat addition, but not something I'd miss when I switched to another phone. However the handful of functional improvements and visual changes in the new BlinkFeed have made it one of Sense's most enjoyable features. Smooth scrolling, support for more services and a more image-centric layout make BlinkFeed more mature and more useful — a natural focal point for HTC's UI.
When BlinkFeed eventually hits Google Play for non-HTC devices, it could well serve as a sort of gateway drug to lure folks over to the HTC ecosystem.
Motion Launch — double-tapping or swiping the home screen to wake — quickly became my go-to unlock method for the M8, partly thanks to the phone's awkward power button placement, but mostly because the gestures involved are so natural and easy to use. First popularized by LG with its KnockOn feature, this is a great time-saver, and something we'd love to see on every Android phone from now on.
But we'd also like to see HTC step things up and find some way to enable Motion Launch even when the device is lying flat. Right now it's triggered by the M8's motion sensors in order to save battery power, but if LG can do it on the G2 and G3 with a negligible impact on battery life, hopefully HTC can find a way to make it work. While we're at it, it'd also be nice to be able to double-tap a blank home screen area to lock the phone, as we can on LG handsets.
And seriously. That power button. Just put it on the side already.
Lightning-fast touch response
For the most part, the scrolling lag and performance stutters that characterized Android's early years are a thing of the past, but there's still one important metric on which phones can compete, and that's touch response. It's an area in which the M8, and even lower-specced HTC phones like the One Mini 2 and Desire 816, are comfortably ahead of the pack. And it's a big part of what makes current HTC phones feel quicker than much of the competition.
It's great to see so much of HTC's software now living on Google Play. BlinkFeed, HTC Gallery and the Dot View case software, among other apps, can now be updated across all Sense 6 phones without pushing out new firmware.
The HTC Gallery app is great, but does it have to make events out of every image on the device? I'm never, ever going to want a video highlight reel of my screenshots folder or thumbnails from random apps.
And speaking of photos, at the time of writing we're still waiting on the Zoe cloud sharing app, which continues to taunt us with its "summer" release window.
HTC for some reason declined the great lock-screen media experience that just about every other phone is enjoying. Instead of full-screen previews of what you're watching, it's just a thumbnail player. We'd love to see that change.
For those in other territories wanting to make the switch, it's possible (and, in fact, surprisingly easy) to convert most GSM M8 models into a Google Play edition, provided you're willing to void your warranty and indulge in a little command-line hackery. (Switching back to Sense isn't as easy, however, so make sure you're 100 percent sure before pulling the trigger.)
In any case, the Google Play edition M8 performs much as you'd expect it to — HTC on the outside, Google on the inside. You'll miss out on video highlights, BlinkFeed and Zoes, but you do get Motion Launch, which is pretty much a requirement given the M8's challenging power button placement. The Googlified M8 also supports a small subset of Duo Camera effects, as well as limited Dot View case functionality and BoomSound audio enhancements. There's more custom stuff here than most Google Play edition devices, it seems, but the core experience is Google's, not HTC's.
If you don't mind ponying up $700, the GPe M8 will give you a great stock Android experience.
If you're looking for an awesome stock Android experience, the Google Play edition M8 is the only real alternative to the Nexus 5. Of course it's substantially more expensive than the similarly-specced Nexus, but the extra cash gets you a more vivid display, high-quality speakers, superior battery life and a quantum leap forward in build quality. For a solid, pure Android software experience without the N5's anaemic battery life or plasticky build, the GPe M8 is a great choice. (But buyers might also want to consider the unlocked or developer edition M8, with HTC's extra software goodies and a track record for speedy OS updates.)
For what it's worth, I've bounced between GPe and Sense flavors of the M8, but I've always found myself going back to the latter — the software the phone was actually designed for. Will that change in the future? Depends what Google's got in store for the next major version of Android.
The one major weakness of the Google Play edition M8 compared to the Nexus 5 is the its rather finicky camera. The HTC One, with its quicker shutter, is better at capturing fast-moving objects, but the Nexus' 8MP shooter bags you twice as many pixels, better-looking daylight images and comparable low light performance, especially in its excellent HDR+ mode.
In fact, the Ultrapixel camera in general is probably the M8's biggest pain point.
The problem with Ultrapixels
We could write at length about how the HTC One M8's camera is good enough most of the time, and how it's an improvement on last year's M7 — and neither of those things would be untrue.
The M8's camera is at best a mixed bag.
But to be brutally honest, the M8's camera is at best a mixed bag. We've taken a few really great photos on the M8, but we've also taken some crappy ones, and unfortunately some of the issues that plagued the M7 continue to affect its successor — exposure issues in outdoor shots, and surprising outbreaks of muddiness and noise even in well-lit scenes. As before, it doesn't feel like you're getting a whole lot in exchange for that 4-megapixel ceiling.
HTC touts its Ultrapixel camera as an answer to the megapixel myth — the idea that capturing more pixels just for the sake of it is unnecessary. However that concept originated in the world of standalone cameras, where interchangeable lenses and optical zoom made capturing excessively large photos redundant. If you need more detail, you just zoom in.
Smartphone cameras are different. For the moment, features like optical zoom are clunky and unworkable in a normal-sized phone, so instead there's been a push towards oversampling. The Nokia Lumia 1020 has a 41-megapixel sensor but shoots oversampled 5MP shots. Similarly, Sony's Xperia Z1 and Z2 devices get 8MP images from a 20.7-megapixel sensor by default. Doing so gives you some wiggle room for digital zoom before reaching the limits of the sensor, while also producing clearer, less noisy shots at the lower resolution.
By contrast the M8 pulls 4-megapixel images from a 4-megapixel sensor, meaning you (and the phone's post-processing software) have less raw data to work with. And though it excels in low light, it's thoroughly outperformed in daylight by most high-end Android competitors. Sure, cranking up the megapixel count doesn't automatically make for better-looking photos, but nor does increasing the pixel size alone. There's a happy medium to be found somewhere, but HTC's not quite there yet.
This is made all the more frustrating by the fact that the M8 does such an phenomenal job with the user-facing side of its camera software. HTC's video highlights are better than ever, making great use of the depth information captured automatically by the second camera to cut in neat 3D effects. While the background defocus effects produced by the Duo Camera aren't necessarily any better than rivals' offerings, HTC's setup is instant, and so much easier to use. But we want to be able to use all these great camera features with really awesome-looking photos, and we hope someday HTC can find a way to make that happen.
The best Android phone?
The HTC One M8 is a phone that excels in almost every area. Besides Apple, no other phone maker can come close to matching the M8's build quality; no other Android manufacturer has brought us a software experience as responsive and slick as Sense 6. It's this focus on the core experience that makes the M8 such a formidable phone. But one crucial piece of the puzzle is missing — the M8 is awesome phone without an awesome camera. The features are all there, but the image quality sadly isn't.
I'm lucky in that I get to use a lot of the best mobile devices out there, and increasingly I've found myself leaving the M8 behind if I know I'm going to be taking photos. That's certainly the phone's biggest single issue — I want to use it because of the fantastic design and software experience, yet I'm put off by the disappointing camera.
If your smartphone buying decision revolves around wanting a device to take very best photos possible, that's not the HTC One M8. However if you can make do with a camera that's just good enough and little more, the payoff is a phone that's truly excellent in every other area.
Do you own an HTC One M8? Jump into the comments below and let us know how you've been getting on!
More: HTC One M8 review
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