HTC One M8 review: HTC's stunning sequel steals the show

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CNET Editors' Rating

4.5 stars Outstanding
  • Overall: 8.7
  • Design: 9.0
  • Features: 9.0
  • Performance: 8.0

Average User Rating

5 stars 7 user reviews
Review Date:
Updated on:

The Good The HTC One M8's sumptuous aluminum body makes a beautiful background for this top-flight smartphone's brilliant 5-inch display. It runs on a powerful quad-core processor and Android KitKat, the stereo speakers deliver excellent sound, and the depth-sensing camera brings a ton of useful features.

The Bad The One M8’s battery is not removable, making it harder to replace once the battery inevitably wears out. The phone's sealed chassis is not water-resistant, and the One M8's photos look less sharp than competitors'.

The Bottom Line Elegant style, raw power, and sophisticated features make the HTC One M8 an excellent smartphone choice for anyone but the most exacting photographer.

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Think of the HTC One M8 as the big-budget sequel to an Oscar-winning indie film. Last year's HTC One won rave reviews and obsessed fans, but not enough customers to keep HTC growing. This year, HTC needs a rip-roaring box-office hit with its flagship phone.

It could happen. The One M8 is undeniably the most impressive handset the company has ever minted. Like its predecessor, the M8 brings a refined and beautiful software and speedy performance, all wrapped in a lithe and eye-catching aluminum skin.

The HTC One M8 must compete head-to-head against its arch-rival's freshest mobile machine, the Samsung Galaxy S5, and compete it does. Aesthetically speaking, the HTC One M8 runs rings around the GS5 with its elegant and intuitive Sense interface. What's more, though the M8 may lack every bell and whistle that Samsung packs into its phones, it matches the GS5 on almost every feature that really matters, from processing speed to user interface. Only the camera and its ever-so-slightly muddy shots give me pause.

Until the Samsung GS5 reviews are out, I can't say with certainty that the One M8 is a better phone or even if its the best Android alternative to the iPhone 5S. But I can say that the One M8 is a truly great phone all on its own--one worthy of anyone's investment.

Design

When the original HTC One hit the mobile scene last year, I was stunned by its sophisticated all-metal unibody chassis. Not only was the 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. Frankly I'd never seen a handset look that good, and I've handled a lot of mobile phones in my day.

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The HTC One M8 is one lovely phone. Sarah Tew/CNET

Design-wise, this certainly sets the bar high for any subsequent smartphone, let alone an HTC One follow up. I can confirm though 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). While HTC's latest creation is more conservatively-styled than the previous One, its has a look that's just as premium.

For instance the M8's bezel (where the screen and phone edge meet) is alluringly reflective and convincingly conveys that you're holding a luxury handset. Even so the bezel is not polished to the same eye-catching sheen as the first One. I also found the back surface of my M8 review device, though lovingly minted in a classy brushed metal motif, smoother than the old HTC One which had a roughness almost like a ceramic bowl. Indeed this gray M8's slicker texture doesn't wick away moisture quite as effectively. The result is a slippery, more friendly canvas for grease than its predecessor's matte back.

HTC One 2
This new HTC One has even more metal. Sarah Tew/CNET

To be clear though, the One M8 comes in two additional color options (silver and gold) which don't sport the brushed metal pattern (which HTC calls "hairline"). The fallout is that both the silver and gold versions of the M8 lack the gray model's slippery feel. And in other ways the M8 is just as beautiful as its predecessor. It uses a gorgeous all-aluminum body which flaunts a similar curved backing. The M8 also feels superbly solid, strong, and well-constructed.

I admit these are minor issues and nitpicking on my part since the M8 brings important design improvements to the HTC One franchise. Notably the phone's screen is now a larger 5 inches across (4.7-inch in the HTC One). And unlike the first One, HTC says the One M8's chassis is truly built entirely from metal. By contrast the company explained the original One's body was 70 percent aluminum, the rest being plastic.

Additionally the M8 sports a pair of powerful stereo speakers which flank the display. Also branded by HTC as BoomSound, these front-firing grilles 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. It's to be expected since 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.

HTC One 2
The One M8 remains thin even with beefed up specs. Sarah Tew/CNET

Despite the phone's larger display, the device remains roughly the same size, thickness, and weight. Tipping the scales at 5.4 ounces (154.2 grams) the M8 understandably stands a little taller yet is just slightly heavier than the older 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.

Display

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 GS4, the M8's IPS LCD has a lot going for it. Specifically these are admirably wide viewing angles, a pleasing amount of brightness, plus rich colors.

With a full HD resolution (1920x1080 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, 1920x1080 pixels). 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 with my pair of 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 (see next section). 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 plus social networking, 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 books, movie rentals and purchases, games, along with the over 1 million apps hawked by third-party developers are just a finger tap away.

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The lockscreen offers more options. Brian Bennett/CNET

You'll find the futuristic Google Now personal notification system on board too, either in widget form or launched by swiping upwards 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.

Sense re-envisioned

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 re-think of Sense, version 6, the company says it has cleaned up the look of the Android skin to give it a freshened appearance.

Essentially the overall layout of Sense 6 remains the same. You have numerous homescreens to customize to your hearts content (now five instead of six that were in Sense 5.5) with app shortcuts and widgets. Likewise, the left-most screen is occupied by the BlinkFeed news aggregator and thankfully HTC gives you the option to turn the service off if you don't want it.

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HTC's Sense UI just got a lot more colorful. Brian Bennett/CNET

One subtle tweak HTC made to Sense are colors coded to major phone features and their palette of hues coordinated with themes you select from the M8's settings menu. For instance the phone dialer and messaging functions may have a blue header while the gallery app is marked with a purple strip across the top of the screen. Settings have a special highlight hue as well, say violet.

Bundled with my HTC One M8 unit were three color themes; one greenish-blue, the second warmer orange and reds, the third skewed to electric purples and violets (my favorite). A fourth theme takes the conservative approach, consisting mostly of black-and-white paired with a grayscale wallpaper.

BlinkFeed sees further

A surprising feature HTC unveiled with the previous One last year was BlinkFeed, a magazine-like news aggregator in the vein of Flipboard. It's designed to pull in articles from a vetted pool of media outlets and websites, and then serve everything up fresh via one vertically-scrolling panel.

BlinkFeed is set as the left-most homescreen, though unlike the first iteration of the feature (later fixed in Sense 5.5), users can disable it if they find no use for the function. Additionally, BlinkFeed is no longer mapped to phone's home button as it was on the original One device.

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BlinkFeed pulls in news and social media info. Brian Bennett/CNET

The biggest change to BlinkFeed though is that you now have the option to search for and add custom topics to the service. For example if you want to keep apprised of the latest developments in nuclear fusion or perhaps news around aviation, BlinkFeed will do its best to return related results. Frankly its a welcome enhancement which helps BlinkFeed approach Flipboard's level of customization. It's also worth mentioning that Samsung's similar My Magazine feature lacks this ability.

HTC has also brought support for notifications from third party apps Foursquare and Fitbit into the BlinkFeed fold. This complements existing alerts and content from social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google+ that were already within BlinkFeed's reach.

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Create custom news topics for your reading pleasure. Brian Bennett/CNET

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About The Author

Brian Bennett is senior editor for mobile phones at CNET and reviews a wide range of mobile communication products. These include smartphones and their myriad accessories. He has more than 12 years of experience in technology journalism and has put practically anything fun with a micro chip through its paces at some point.