It's an all-too-common refrain: "I love the hardware, but I wish the phone wasn't bogged down with all that carrier bloatware, or redundant apps from the manufacturer." And the new HTC One M8 is a good case in point: While the phone has received mostly enthusiastic reviews -- including CNET's -- there are plenty of users who aren't in love with HTC's "Sense" interface, which customizes and tweaks Android with some notable changes.
Well, we have good news: that same excellent hardware is back, now with a "stock" Android KitKat experience. In fact, the HTC One M8 Google Play Edition (which will only be available in the US at launch) actually takes it up a notch: it's the only phone besides the Nexus 5 to ship with Google's fancy Google Now launcher interface. And it's unlocked, too, ready to connect to AT&T and T-Mobile's flavor of 4G LTE in the US.
Of course, you'll pay through the nose for all that goodness, at least up front: $699 off-contract, with no carrier subsidy or payment plan to salve the sting. Pricey, to be sure, but not unreasonable for hardcore Android fans who are willing to pay a premium for one of the best Google-powered phones you can buy today. Anyone who's less of a stickler can safely opt for the default One M8 (or any of the other excellent flagship phones on the market).
Editors' note: Because the HTC One M8 Google Play Edition is physically identical to the carrier-branded versions of the handset, much of the this review is based on my prior assessment of that product.
I can't deny that I've been a big fan of HTC phone designs for a while now. I was simply blown away by last year's HTC One (codenamed M7) and its sophisticated all-metal unibody chassis. Not only was it sturdy and comfortable to grip, but thanks to a smoothly curved back and matte finish, its polished edges elevated the handset to an unprecedented level of luxury.
You'll be glad to learn that HTC's latest creation, the One M8 is no outlier. Indeed both the One M8 and One M8 Google Play Edition (which shares an identical external design) match its predecessor's physical charm in practically every way. That means a stunning unibody aluminum chassis, super-thin profile, and gently curved edges. The One M8 GPE also has a rounded back which feels comfortable to hold.
That said, while the M8 GPE is handsomely crafted and a worthy successor to the One line's classy aluminum looks, it's not flawless. As I pointed out with the standard One M8 handset, HTC's latest Google Play Edition device is more conservatively-styled than the previous One.
For instance the M8 GPE's bezel (where the screen and phone edge meet) is alluringly reflective and convincingly conveys the look of a luxury handset. That said, the bezel is not polished to the same eye-catching sheen as the first One. Keep in mind the One M8 GPE comes in only one color, what HTC calls glacial silver. I have to say I prefer this finish since its matte texture is less slippery than the brushed-metal skin of the standard gunmetal gray M8.
Additionally the M8 GPE sports the same pair of powerful stereo speakers you'll find on the regular One M8. Branded by HTC as BoomSound, these front-firing grilles flank the screen and belt out a ton of sound, at least for a mobile phone. Even better, the M8 is definitely louder and produces sound with way more presence than last year's model. In fact HTC says it enhanced the M8's BoomSound audio system by cranking up the volume by 25 percent and improved its frequency range. Don't just take my word for it. Be sure to check out our deep dive into the HTC One M8's upgraded audio prowess.
Despite the phone's larger display, the device remains roughly the same size, thickness, and weight. Tipping the scales at 5.6 ounces (160 grams) the One GPE weighs slightly heavier than the standard gunmetal grey One M8 (5.4 ounces, 142.9 grams) I got my hands on. This lines up, however, with HTC's and Google's claimed weight for the phone (160 grams). I can only imagine the discrepancy is due to the different materials and treatments of the glacial silver (and perhaps amber gold) version.
The M8 understandably stands a little taller yet is just slightly heavier than the 2013 HTC One (5.04 ounces, 142.9 grams). It's heavier than the Galaxy S5 too (5.1 ounces, 145 grams), even though the M8 lacks extra hardware such as a heart rate monitor and fingerprint scanner.
The One M8 GPE uses the same big 5-inch screen as the One M8, and that's mostly a huge positive. While it can't produce the same deep blacks and vibrant colors conjured by the OLED displays you'll find in Samsung Galaxy handsets such as the Note 3 and GS4, the M8's IPS LCD is certainly high-quality. I was treated to admirably wide viewing angles, a pleasing amount of brightness, plus rich colors.
With a full HD resolution (1,920x1,080 pixels), photos, video, and text were also crisp on the phone's screen even if it has a marginally lower pixel density than the original One (4.7 inch, 1,920x1,080 pixels). All this adds up to a display that does justice to any visual content you choose to enjoy on the M8 GPE.
As I noticed on HTC's stock One M8, I ran into trouble viewing the One M8's screen outside with polarized sunglasses. Specifically when using my pair of dark-tinted Ray-Bans, the phone's screen in portrait orientation was dim to the point of being unreadable. Flipping the One M8 GPE into landscape position wasn't a problem and the display was just as bright as usual under these conditions.
Software and interface
Instead of HTC's Sense user interface which the company usually layers over its Android devices, the One M8 GPE is special: it's Google all the way. So not only does it run pristine Android 4.4 KitKat, the handset also uses an almost identical software layout as the Nexus 5. Yes, that means you get the Google Now launcher complete with tight ties to the company's advanced search.
Swiping left to right on the home screen activates the Google Now card-style interface, just like how it does on the Nexus 5. Likewise, the phone can also respond to your verbal commands to perform fancy voice recognition tricks such as launching searches, setting reminders and calendar appointments.
HTC's revamped BlinkFeed news and social media hub, however, isn't on board. That said, the One M8 GPE does retain other skills which set the company's smartphone apart. For instance you can wake the handset simply by tapping the screen twice. Another slick way to fire up the device from slumber is to pick it up then swipe upwards from the bottom of the display. Both gesture methods are vital since reaching the power button on the top edge of the very tall phone is pretty much impossible using one hand.