Editors' note: This review shares many sections with the standard HTC One M8 review, as the devices are almost identical.
If you've ever wondered what a truly awesome smartphone would look like dragged down by tons of bloatware and aggressive marketing hype, then behold the HTC One M8 Harman Kardon Edition (HKE). Priced at $230 with a pledge to a fresh two-year contract, this revamped version of the One M8 sure sounds like a sweet deal on the surface.
For just $30 more than the standard HTC flagship, you get the best handset the company has ever made (perhaps the world has ever seen) and fancy, heavily discounted Harman Kardon earphones. Throw in the lure of six months of Spotify Music for free, and it's hard not to feel a bit of gadget lust.
Sadly it doesn't add up to a bargain. First, with the same hardware as the regular One M8 and software music processing that's way overhyped, much of the HTC One M8 HKE's appeal boils down to marketing smoke and mirrors. Now factor in Sprint's heavy-handed tweaking of Android toward its own ends, a Spotify deal that's not what it's cracked up to be, and you begin to quickly see you're much better off with the standard One M8.
Designwise, the glamorous, metallic HTC One is a hard act to follow. I can confirm, though, that the new HTC One M8 is one heck of a handsome device -- the sexiest smartphone I've seen all year, in fact (including the Galaxy S5 and Sony Xperia Z2).
You'll be happy to learn that the HTC One M8 Harman Kardon Edition shares many of the standard M8 model's design features, including its metal design, large screen, thin and rounded bezel, and powerful stereo speakers. For a full account of what makes the M8 so lovely, check out the full HTC One M8 review.
This One M8 Harman Kardon Edition, however, flaunts its own distinctive aesthetic. Instead of the brushed-metal pattern (which HTC calls "hairline"), the One M8 HKE uses a back surface that's even smoother and a plain jet black.
Sadly, while the hue gives the phone a certain unpretentious rock-and-roll appeal (furthered by the Harman Kardon logo on the bottom edge), it's more of a grease magnet and slick to the touch than the gray M8. Worse, the front rose-gold accents (framing the screen) look out of place. To me these highlights appear tacky, even gaudy against the phone's simple black back.
From the moment I picked up the HTC One M8, I knew its big 5-inch screen was high-quality. 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 S4, the M8's IPS LCD has a lot going for it. Specifically, admirably wide viewing angles, a pleasing amount of brightness, and 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 (whose 4.7-inch screen meant the same number of pixels were packed in tighter). All this adds up to a display that does justice to any visual content you choose to enjoy on the M8.
Some words of warning, though: if you choose to view the One M8's screen in the great outdoors, I suggest you do so without polarized sunglasses. When I did this while wearing my Ray-Bans, the phone's screen in portrait orientation was dim to the point of being unreadable. Flipping the One M8 into landscape position wasn't a problem, and the display was just as bright as usual under these conditions.
Software and interface
Premium design isn't the only ace in the One M8's deck. The handset runs Google's Android 4.4.2 operating system, the latest iteration from the tech giant. KitKat brings a cleaner, less cluttered layout, tighter integration with Google search, plus faster performance, especially on devices with lower specs.
Layered on top of that is HTC's most recent revamp of its Sense UI, version 6 (more on this later). As you'd expect from a smartphone churning such modern mobile software, the M8 has access to all of Google's bells and whistles.
This includes Gmail, Google+, the Chrome browser, and Drive file storage. The phone also taps into the company's vast universe of media content via Google's Play digital storefront. That means that books, movie rentals and purchases, and games, along with the more than 1 million apps hawked by third-party developers are just a finger tap away.
You'll find the futuristic Google Now personal notification system on board, too, either in widget form or launched by swiping upward from the bottom of the screen. It provides insightful reminders, suggestions, and directions automatically based on your past search history, time, and location data. It's the driving force behind the Google Wear operating system for smartwatches, clothing, and other wearable tech gear.
Sprint's heavy-handed branding
As a thoroughly Sprint-branded device, by default the HTC One M8 HKE puts the carrier's software and services front and center. I'd even go so far to say they're shoved in your face and nearly inescapable. For example, the phone comes out of the box using the Sprint Live wallpaper, which consists of a seemingly random collage of album cover art.
At first glance it appears innocent enough, but unfortunately the selection isn't random at all. It isn't created, say, from your favorite Spotify tracks or music you sideload to the M8 from other sources. Instead the wallpaper artwork is pulled from a collection of artists and albums currently sold through the Sprint Music Plus digital storefront. Frankly I see this as a blatant and distasteful attempt on Sprint's part to foist its music service onto One M8 HKE owners.
Also, the only significantly "Live" aspects of this themed wallpaper are two interactive elements, a virtual upturned paper graphic (in the top left corner of the screen) and the musical note tab right below it.
Dragging the paper graphic down diagonally to the center of the screen "peels" the homescreen away and opens a view that further shamelessly pimps Sprint services, apps, and downloads. After that you're treated to a staggeringly large pile of marketing junk such as ringtones and Sprint music for sale.
Likewise, tapping the music tab fires up a window that again shows suggested music to purchase. There's also a shortcut to the Sprint ID Song app, which strives to identify music playing around you (say at a bar or club). ID Song doesn't operate altruistically though. Indeed the app's real purpose is to tag songs on the oft chance you'd like to purchase them via Sprint Music.
Thankfully, while I find Sprint's music-pushing tactics extremely aggressive you can find some relief. Simply swapping out the Sprint Live wallpaper for one of the standard HTC or Android options (located in the settings menu) immediately eliminates much of the carrier's skullduggery. Of course you're still left with the typical uninstallable carrier bloatware to contend with, which lives in the HTC One M8's app tray.
Music, Spotify, and the Harman Kardon connection
Another nod to audiophiles is an included set of AE earbuds crafted by Harman Kardon. Priced at $80 on their own, yet rolled into the M8 HKE's $230 sticker price (with a two-year contract), the phone's headphones are its best feature.
They certainly beat the pants off of old plastic iPhone-style earbuds. I can vouch that they produce a sizable amount of bass yet also serve up pleasing helpings of midrange and crisp high frequencies. That said, to fully experience this performance, you'll have to make sure the earbuds' rubbery tips are jammed into your ear canal nice and tight.
Sprint and Spotify have also teamed up to offer some sweet-sounding deals for the popular music subscription service. For instance, you could get up to six months of free access to Spotify, worth $9.99 per month, not to mention discounted rates thereafter. But as with most promotions I've encountered, there's always a catch, and believe me when I say this one's a veritable minefield.
First off you can only qualify for six months of free Spotify if you also sign up for a Sprint Framily plan -- a wireless subscription that ropes up friends along with immediate relatives. Sorry, Sprint, but that's absolutely the last thing I want to do. Honestly, I'd like to kill contracts altogether, not add more people (or strangers) to my monthly bill.
Sure, you can nab three months of Spotify music for free, but only if you link your Spotify account to your Sprint number and service. If there ever was a more shady attempt to lure users of a popular service (Spotify) to one that's no where near as sexy (wireless carrier) I'm all ears.
HTC claims that the One M8 HKE boasts advanced audio properties that make it sound better than the standard One M8, even though they have identical hardware and components. Sadly it's a promise it can't deliver. The only real difference between the two phones lies in software, specifically audio processing courtesy of Harman Kardon. In my experience even the best software can't match what powerful hardware can give you.
For instance, a feature called Clari-Fi is meant to pump up low-resolution tracks (MP3s and the like) with more detail, depth, and richness. Similarly, Harman Kardon pledges its LiveStage technology will lend ordinary (studio-mixed) songs the quality and feel of a live performance.
The trouble is that a panel of expert CNET reviewers and I confirmed that Clari-Fi doesn't really enhance the One M8 HKE's sound. Instead both solutions merely run audio through a virtual equalizer which makes music sound different, but not sharper or more distinct. If you like what effects Clari-Fi and LiveStage create, that's fine, just don't expect them to conjure up something that wasn't already there to begin with.
With every new flagship phone, HTC re-tools its custom Sense interface and the launch of the One M8 is no different. For this latest rethink of Sense, version 6, the company says it has cleaned up the look of the Android skin to give it a freshened appearance.