HTC One M8: the camera review

The smartphone camera wars continue with the HTC One M8's ultrapixel sensor stepping up to the plate. Does it have what it takes to become a standalone camera replacement?

Lusting after the exterior of a handset might not be the expected reaction when conducting a review of a smartphone camera. Yet that's exactly what happens when first glancing across the smooth surface of the HTC One M8.

There is absolutely no questioning the stunning appearance of the M8's form factor. But then the inconvenience reality sets in. While your eyes glide around the handset, your hands are busy making their slip and slide moves across its sleek curves.

Admittedly, I am a total klutz, so this isn't an unexpected occurrence when I test out smartphone cameras. Placing the phone in the hands of more spatially-able candidates also elicited a similar reaction, which was reassuring for me but didn't do many favours for the handset.

The dot case doesn't really improve things. Sure, the soft plastic casing does a jolly good job of protecting the screen and displaying the time in a deliciously retro fashion, but the screen cover doesn't have much flex. This means you physically need to hold the cover away from the screen as you take images, which isn't exactly conducive to photo-taking activities.

But enough about the externals. The M8 is about what's inside as much as it is about its seductive exterior. Behind the main lens is essentially the same 4.1-megapixel ultrapixel sensor as the previous One phone (M7).

For those new to the terminology, "ultrapixel" is a word that HTC made up to describe the humble pixels dotting the surface of its backside-illuminated (BSI) sensor. Reducing the effective resolution of the sensor to 4 megapixels means that the physical size of each pixel can be made bigger. This means they are generally more receptive to light and the signal-to-noise ratio is lower, producing cleaner images than sensors where the pixels are smaller and more packed together.

The premise sounds great on paper, but there are some disadvantages to a lower-resolution sensor. Namely, you only have 4 megapixels to play with which can make enlargements or cropping difficult. Plus, having fewer megapixels on a sensor (even if they are larger and more receptive to light) doesn't mean much if the image processor and lens is not up to scratch.

Speaking about sensors, the M8's edition measures 1/3-inch, which makes it slightly smaller than some other smartphone sensors. Here is how the camera stacks up against some of its fellow high-end competitors:

HTC One M8 Sony Xperia Z2 Samsung Galaxy S5 Apple iPhone 5s
4.1-megapixel (1/3-inch) BSI sensor 20.7-megapixel Exmor RS (1/2.3-inch) sensor 16-megapixel Isocell (1/2.6-inch) sensor 8-megapixel (1/3-inch) CMOS sensor
5-megapixel front-facing camera 2.2-megapixel front-facing camera 2-megapixel front-facing camera 1.2-megapixel front-facing camera
f/2.0 f/2.0 f/2.2 f/2.2
2µm pixel size 1.12µm pixel size 1.12 µm pixel size 1.5 µm pixel size
Dual LED flash LED flash LED flash Dual LED flash
28mm fixed focal length 27mm fixed focal length 31mm fixed focal length 28mm fixed focal length

Like many other Android handsets, you can set the volume rocker on the M8 as a shutter button to take an image. Press either end of the rocker and the phone will bring up a menu to ask how you would like to use it — as a shutter or volume control when in the camera app.

Double trouble

Around the back of the camera you will notice twin lenses, but they are not used for stereo imaging to make 3D photos. Instead, the secondary lens reads depth information from the scene which can later be used to refocus images. Though the methodology is different, the theory is similar to what the Lytro light-field camera achieves, without the need for an entirely new set of hardware.

Delve into the post-processing options on the M8 in the edit menu to find the UFocus feature that lets you tap around the image to change the point of focus.

The results are impressive for a smartphone, though there is not that much difference in how the effect is rendered compared to other focus-shifting apps we've seen before such as the Nokia Refocus app for Lumia handsets.

Though the M8 captures (what we assume) is a lot of depth information about a scene, the results are limited by the software used to manipulate these results. At the moment, the depth information from the lens can't be accessed on anything but the M8 which does restrict your editing options. You need to export a focus-shifted image from the M8 to a standard JPEG if you want to see the effect in any other environment other than the phone screen.

It's all in the eyes ... and the simulated bokeh is everywhere else. (Credit: Lexy Savvides/CNET)

Also, the positioning of the depth-sensing lens can be awkward when holding the camera as your fingers naturally want to cover that area. It's worth noting that if you cover the smaller lens accidentally, you won't have access to the depth information for refocusing.

The UFocus effect is applied after the shot has been taken, but there is also a separate mode called depth-of-field that generates a bokeh effect before the shot has been taken. This is found in the effects section with other options like sepia, greyscale, vignette and more.

Depth information captured by the secondary lens also gives access to manipulating a photo with what's called 3D dimension plus. This shifts perspective and warps the image depending on how you swipe across the screen to give the effect of three dimensionality to images.

Performance

The camera on the M8 is lightning fast. Rather than waiting around for the handset to focus, the M8 is able to take photos almost instantaneously, effectively removing traditional issues like shutter lag from the equation.

Manual exposure mode on the M8. (Credit: Lexy Savvides/CNET)

For the tweaker within, the M8's default camera app offers manual exposure control. It is not activated by default; instead, hit the settings menu, press Auto and activate "M" for manual. This brings up a nice visual way to tweak shutter, ISO, white balance, exposure control and focus values. There is no manual control over aperture within the default camera app. Fortunately, the camera does remember its state when you lock the screen or close the dot view cover. For example, if you have selected manual mode, the app loads again with this setting active.

A 360-degree panorama in flattened 2D form. Click for the full-res version.
(Credit: Lexy Savvides/CNET)

Fortunately, HTC has equipped the M8 with several shooting modes beyond automatic and manual mode. The Pan 360, available from the main menu, creates a full spherical 360-degree panorama of a scene. The phone prompts you to match up a target to a rectangular object overlaid on the scene so it can capture every single part of the image before stitching it together.

Matching rectangles using the Pan 360 mode. (Credit: Lexy Savvides/CNET)

The Zoe mode, as seen on the M7, lets you grab short videos and a burst of stills. Outside of this mode, the default camera app can take a burst of photos if you hold down the shutter button, up to 20 frames at a time in each burst. You can either save just one photo, where the phone chooses the best shot, or the entire burst. The M8 can shoot at 12 frames per second, with shot-to-shot times measuring approximately 0.09 seconds.

It's fall(ing)! Just one of the interactive "season" effects available when editing images. Others include snowflakes and sakura. (Credit: Lexy Savvides/CNET)

Image quality

The lens does display quite a lot of barrel distortion. As the lens is a fixed focal length (28mm equivalent) every photo is affected, but you notice the distortion most on architectural photos or those with straight lines.

Colours are punchy, which is generally a desirable characteristic in mobile phone photos. However, the automatic white balance tends to err slightly on the warm side which can cause some colour casts where images appear warmer (or slightly more red) than they actually are.

The lens also exhibits lots of chromatic aberration, which is particularly noticeable in high-contrast situations, such as when a dark object sits alongside bright sky. In automatic mode, the M8 has a tendency to blow out highlights, producing undesirable glowing effects. It also makes detail recovery very difficult. HDR mode does alleviate this a little by merging several exposures into one shot for better dynamic range.

(Credit: Lexy Savvides/CNET)

If the concept of a 4-megapixel sensor doesn't float your boat, never fear: the M8 actually has a slightly higher resolution front-facing camera. So, how does the "selfie" camera perform?

Funnily enough, it actually displays less of a red-shifted colour cast than the rear camera, resulting in more even-looking shots. However, the front camera exhibits more over-processing than the rear camera so details are more smudged. Take a look at the comparison image below and the 100 per cent crops.

(Credit: Lexy Savvides/CNET)

The M8 does not perform well in low light conditions. The lens is very susceptible to flare and fringing when there is a bright light source, while detail is lost due to over-processing at high ISO levels. In automatic mode, highlights are blown out completely unless the camera meters off the light source itself.

If you want to see some comparison shots of how the M8 stacks up against the rest of the smartphone competition, CNET's Andrew Hoyle has put together a comprehensive gallery of test shots for your viewing pleasure.

Image samples

Click each image for the full-res version.

Conclusion

The M8 presents an interesting dichotomy: the sleek brushed metal finish screams "touch me", but the seductive surface doesn't lend itself very well to photographic applications. The same principle applies to the internals.

Ultrapixels sound great on paper but there is only so much you can do with 4 megapixels. The handset's 1080p screen is beautiful, but unforgiving. You notice every detail — or lack thereof — when you zoom in.

That said, if all you want to do is share photos at a reduced resolution online, the M8 will suit you well. But, for the most part, the M8 performs much the same as the previous M7 when it comes to overall image quality. It's a real shame because the performance of the handset, apps and the included features (such as UFocus) present a compelling smartphone photography experience.

 

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