There are two schools of thought when it comes to smartphone production. One is to take the Samsung approach of packing a handset with features until it’s bursting at the seams, bulging with enough fodder to fuel 12 months of marketing campaigns.
The other is to subscribe to HTCs strategy with the new One (M8); a well-made, good looking device first, and a smartphone with a clever camera and incredible speakers second.
To understand just how heavily invested HTC is in believing a good looking phone is more important than one laden with features, the Taiwanese company says it shunned making the new One waterproof in favour of keeping the design as slim and clean as possible.
But has HTC’s gamble paid off? Is making a handsome and well-made smartphone enough to tempt consumers away from the Galaxy S5, iPhone 5s and Sony Xperia Z2? We spent some hands-on time with the new One to gather our initial impressions.
Remember my name
First up, a bit of housekeeping. The brand new smartphone you see here is called the HTC One (M8), and it replaces the year-old HTC One, which is now referred to by its full name of One (M7) - and the older phone will remain on sale alongside the M8.
With that cleared up, let’s have a look at what HTC has been up to.
Broadly similar to the M7, the new One is an aluminium-shod Android smartphone with a 5-inch display, 1080 x 1920 resolution, and dual Boom Sound speakers - only this time boasting a volume increase of 25% over the old model.
Visually, the new One’s corners are slightly moved curved, and the flagship colour, gunmetal grey, is a few shades darker than before; the new phone is also available in silver and ‘amber gold’, similar to the gold highlights of the iPhone 5s.
The rear cover, which forms much of the phone’s unibody chassis, has a brushed finish to it which HTC describes as an “honest and deliberate hairline pattern”. To our eyes it looks great - and no wonder, as the company used 120 different oils to lubricate its buffing machine to get the finish just so.
Further evidence of how committed HTC is to delivering the world’s best-looking phone, is its ditching of the One’s black colour option because the new phone “just didn’t sing” visually with the darker colour.
HTC told journalists how its engineering team is the company’s core focus - and it shows. The One (M8) has the fit and finish of a Swiss watch: every part is beautiful and every seam is tight. There’s a real sense of quality here and we believe that’s something smartphone buyers will look for more than ever, now high-end handsets are almost impossible to tell apart on performance alone.
Form before function?
But there’s more to life than good-looking smartphones, and with the best will in the world HTC needs to show its One (M8) can match the Apple and Samsung heavyweights in the gym as well as on the catwalk.
Powered by Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 801 quad-core processor, the One (M8) is clocked at 2.3GHz and has 2GB of RAM. Internal storage is just 16GB, but this can be easily (and cheaply) expanded by up to 128GB via a microSD card slot - something the original One sorely missed out on.
If that isn’t enough, HTC is including 65GB of Google Drive storage, free for two years.
Camera: Two is better than one
HTC shook up the smartphone camera industry last year with the original One and its ‘Ultra Pixel’ camera. The company argued that a race to add more and more megapixels to a camera sensor was pointless, and that the size of the pixels was far more important, due to the extra light they can capture, producing higher quality images in low-light.
For the One (M8), HTC is sticking to its guns on the Ultra Pixel front but has added a second rear camera to open up a whole new world of photography options and imaging effects never seen on a smartphone before.
When you tap the new One’s shutter button both rear cameras take a photo at the same time, but focused on different parts of the same scene. This means you can choose to have either the foreground or background of an image in focus, selected after the photo has been taken.
You can also highlight specific objects and change their colour, as well as add effects such as a cartoon-like finish, and cut objects out entirely or move them to another photo.
HTC has also worked its photography magic on the One’s flash, creating what it calls True Tone, which monitors the ambient light before taking a photo, then deploys one of five levels of flash intensity to light the subject as naturally as possible. The company promises this is “just the start” of what it has planned for smartphone camera technology.
The One (M8)’s front-facing camera foregoes the Ultra Pixel trickery, but offers a higher resolution than most, at five megapixels.
Boom Sound: Come feel the noise
Boom Sound makes a return for the One (M8) and is a full 25% louder than before, while also featuring a new amplifier which can independently manage the high and lows of your music, ensuring both bass and lyrics are kept in check.
HTC has redesigned the speaker chambers to further improve sound quality, and as before the dual speakers are located on the front of the handset, where they won’t be obscured by your hand.
Case with a view
New for the One (M8) is HTC’s DotCase, which covers the back of the phone entirely but has a mesh front letting certain information from the screen bleed through. At this point HTC has given the case a retro twist, as the time and local weather appear in an eight bit-style font reminding us of the early days of computing.
Rather than being created by the case’s many holes, the squared-off 8-bit font is displayed by the screen automatically when the phone senses a DotView case is attached. Not only are the time and weather shown, but the phone can also be interacted with through the case - swipes up, down, left and right are acted on to deal with notifications and incoming calls.
Additionally, calls can be answered by simply picking up the phone and holding it to your ear - even while the DotView case is closed.
The Early Verdict
The HTC One (M8) is a hugely impressive smartphone boasting the power, features, design and build quality you would expect from a flagship handset. It may lack the smorgasbord of features found in the Samsung Galaxy S5, but for our money it trumps just about everything where design is concerned.
Focusing on aesthetics is a brave move for HTC, as while Apple can afford to sell the gold iPhone 5s on good looks and desirability alone, the Taiwanese company’s brand image is nowhere near as strong - and neither is its balance sheet.
We - along with much of the technology press - adored the original One (M7) and couldn’t help but feel sorry for HTC when its flagship failed to bring home the bacon. With the One (M8), HTC has taken everything we loved from the M7, added a nifty new camera, freshened up the design and created a truly world-beating phone.
Our full review of the One (M8) will be pubished soon.