We review one of the mostly hotly-anticipated smartphones of 2014, and one which claims good looks are as important as killer performance - the HTC One (M8).
Review by Sunetra Chakravati,3/26/2014 1:10:46 PM
Look and feel
Ease of use
Gorgeous, premium design. Superb build quality. Excellent screen. Expandable storage. Brilliant performance. Clever new camera.
Slippery when held with cold hands. Sense 6 isn't for everyone - but a Google Play Edition M8 is also on the way. Rear camera resolution lower than most.
By Alistair Charlton, Devices Editor
In what was surely the worst kept secret in technology so far this year, HTC has updated its multiple award-winning One smartphone, announcing the new One (M8). With a dual-lens rear ‘Ultrapixel’ camera, a five inch Full HD display and a gorgeous all-aluminium chassis, the M8 looks set to be one of the best smartphones of the year.
Qualcomm’s brand new Snapdragon 801 processor packing quad-cores and a 2.3GHz clock speed with 2GB of RAM ensures the One (M8) is more than ready to fight with Samsung, Sony and Apple.
And fight they will. HTC brings its new One to the marketplace below the radars of Sony and Samsung, both of whom showed off their latest Android hardware in February, but at the time of publication are yet to join HTC on the highstreet.
At the weigh-in at least, it seems HTC is capable of toppling a Goliath or two. Enough hyperbole, let’s see if the M8 marks the return of The Special One.
‘Like a premium watch or piece of jewellery’ - that’s how HTC describes the One (M8) and who can argue? The phone oozes quality from its every pore, commanding attention from the moment you lay your eyes on it. HTC claims 90% of the handset’s chassis and internal construction is made of aluminium - up from 70% on last year’s One - and this makes for an incredibly rigid smartphone with absolutely zero flex in any direction.
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That rear cover acts as a unibody chassis on which the phone’s screen and other components are attached, and the hairline finish of our gunmetal grey review sample is something to behold. Subtle and almost invisible unless caught under the right light, the finish reminds us of a pair of brushed aluminium cufflinks or the speedo of an Aston Martin.
Peel your eyes away from the One’s back and you find plastic panels above and below the five inch screen, each housing one of the phone’s two Boomsound front-facing speakers. You get the feeling HTC’s design studio was reluctant to use any plastic with the new One, but owing to the material’s superior conduction of radio waves, its use in smartphones is still a necessity. HTC’s decision to give the plastic panels a dark colour is the correct one - and looks much better than Samsung’s smothering of the Galaxy S4 and S5 in look-at-me chrome.
Back for a second bite of the annoying-everyone-on-the-bus cherry, the One (M8)’s Boomsound speakers are incredibly loud for a smartphone (or any portable device, quite frankly). Booting up Real Racing 3 filled our lounge with the sound of a Porsche 911’s exhaust note, drowning out the television in the process. It isn’t just loudness though, as new speaker chamber design and amplification trickery ensures the highs and lows of whatever you’re listening to are kept in check independently. No Beats-style overwhelming bass here.
For those concerned about the size of their smartphone - and given the size of some phablets, who can blame you? - the One (M8) is slightly larger in every direction than its year-old predecessor, but you’d be hard pressed to notice the difference.
The M8 has a footprint of 146.4 x 70.6mm, a thickness of 9.35mm and a weight of 160g. None of which will win Slimmer Of The Year, but they keep the One the right size of pocketable and usable in one hand - and the 17g increase in weight is immediately forgiven the first time you pick it up. Any lighter or smaller, and the M8 would start to feel cheaper than its £530 SIM-free price would have you believe.
We’re rather smitten by the One’s design; however, we suggest smartphones shouldn’t get any larger than this, as some users may have trouble holding it comfortably in one hand - a problem we found to be compounded by the phone’s highly polished rear. Holding our M8 on the Tube with a single cold hand was a nerve-racking experience - best to use the new DotView case, but more on that later.
As for a quick roundup of ports and buttons, everything is as you would expect. A volume rocker below a microSD card tray on the upper-right edge, headphone jack and microUSB port on the bottom, a nano SIM card tray on the upper-left and a power button at the top, surrounded by an infrared blaster used to control your television.
At five inches, the new One’s screen is 0.3in larger than last year’s model, while retaining the same 1920 x 1080 Full HD resolution. Pixel density takes a small dip but remains comfortably over 400 per inch, making for a super sharp image with beautifully crisp application icons and smooth, rounded text.
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Viewing angles are excellent - add this to the Boomsound speakers and sharing a funny YouTube clip with friends is easier than ever - while the backlight is both even and retina-burningly bright if you need it to be. It is a truly great screen and we’re struggling to see how HTC could improve on it. Really, it’s that good.
With a 2.3GHz, quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM lurking beneath that sleek exterior, we always knew the One (M8) was going to be a speed machine - and we’re happy to report we were right. This phone absolutely flies; intense 3D games like Real Racing 3 are silky smooth, launching quickly and disappearing just as rapidly when you fancy trying something else. The phone warms up a little when gaming, as you would expect, but it’s nothing to worry about and we never felt the phone was uncomfortably hot.
Browsing the web is insanely fast, with super-responsive zooming and scrolling, and even image-heavy pages or those with embedded HD video load as quickly as they do on a desktop browser. A six-inch phablet would deliver the web with even more aplomb, and we’d like to see Android’s three on-screen navigational buttons be relegated to the screen bezel or hidden when scrolling down a web page, but otherwise we can’t complain.
One of our biggest gripes with the original One was its lack of a microSD card slot, preventing the phone’s storage from being expanded. Thankfully, HTC has listening and the M8 has such a slot, capable of accepting cards of up to 128GB, in addition to the 16 or 32GB of internal space, depending on your budget.
HTC has increased the One’s battery capacity from 2,300mAh to 2,600mAh and has added two levels of power savings. The first level conserves processor usage, reduces screen brightness, stops the vibration alert when ringing and turns your mobile internet connection off when the screen is locked.
The second, more extreme power saving mode can be set to automatically come on when the battery falls to 5%, 10% or 20%, and when in use severely limits what the One can do. The user interface is locked down to a single black home screen limiting access to the phone, text message, email, calendar and calculator apps only.
Last year, HTC sought to end the megapixel arms race by developing its Ultrapixel camera which took photos of just four megapixel resolution, but did so with larger pixels capable of capturing more light, drastically improving its low-light performance.
The One (M8) retains this Ultrapixel technology, but adds a second rear camera letting you adjust the focus of a photograph after it has been taken. Using that second lens, the M8 gathers information on the depth of every photograph you take, which it then uses to let you apply an out-of-focus blur mimicking the high depth of field effect possible with an SLR camera.
This means subjects in the foreground or background can be blurred out of focus - but don’t expect the feature to improve your photography skills. What the M8 cannot do, is refocus a subject that was out of focus when you took the photo. Accidentally focus on the background while taking a close up and the feature cannot bring the subject back into focus.
However, as long as you take a half-decent photo in the first place, the phone can really make them pop - we expect Instagram to be packed with deep depth of field shots any day now.
As for photos generally, the HTC takes excellent shots - however, megapixel junkies may baulk at the 4-mp limit of the One. This severely limits how much you can zoom and crop images, but for the majority of users we can’t see this being a deal-breaker - they’ll still look great when shared on social media.
As for our selfie-loving readers, HTC has you covered. The front-facing camera has a 5-megapixel sensor, and although it isn’t Ultrapixel, the results are top-notch.
New for the One (M8) is HTC’s Sense 6 user interface. Draped over Android 4.4 KitKat, the sixth generation of Sense sees Blink Feed relegated to the left of the Home screen, having previously taken the centre seat. Essentially a tiled collection of tweets, Facebook updates and news stories from around the web, Blink Feed serves as a useful distraction while you’re waiting for the train.
The Zoe video highlights application also returns, but this time videos can be longer or shorter than the three second limit imposed by last year’s app. Unfortunately, the new Zoe app wasn’t ready to roll when the phone launched on 25 March, but HTC promises it’ll be in the Play store soon.
An included Fitbit application means pairing with the company’s wrist worn fitness trackers is a doddle, but for those who don’t yet own a Fitbit, the app can use the phone’s sensors to track your walking and running, providing basic information such as the number of calories burned each day.
HTC has kept things simple with the One’s software, avoiding the urge to pack it full of features that soon turn to gimmicks (a move some rivals are guilty of), and instead focusing on what matters - offering a handset anyone can pick up, use with ease, and enjoy.
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 One (M8) is more than just a gorgeous phone. It mixes the design and finish of a luxury Swiss watch with the speed and power of a top-of-the-range smartphone, resulting in a device that has simply bowled us over. We were initially concerned that HTC’s focus on aesthetics would leave performance as an after thought, but this couldn’t be further from the truth - the One (M8) matches its Samsung and Apple rivals punch-for-punch both on the catwalk and in the gym.
Yes, the 4-megapixel camera has its limitations and the clever depth-of-field feature is more Photoshop trickery than a new imaging yardstick, but as a complete package the One is going to be hard to beat.
This will be the year when smartphone makers realise they need to create devices which do more than offer the biggest screens, the fastest processors and the best features - they need to appeal to us in a way technology hasn’t before. They need to appeal aesthetically and they need to make us feel good about our purchase. HTC knows this and, in the Android market at least, it has the upper hand.
Your move, Samsung.