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

Not to be outdone by the LG G2 and Motorola Moto X, the HTC One M8 also flaunts its own take on gesture-based handset commands. Similar to LG's KnockOn feature, you can wake up the M8 simply by tapping its screen twice with your finger. Provided you haven't applied PIN or pattern-swipe security (which requires a lock screen), at this point sliding your finger right launches BlinkFeed, while doing the opposite whisks you straight to the main home screen.

To fire up the camera app in a flash, just turn the M8 into a horizontal position, then hold down either end of the volume rocker (volume-up or -down). The idea here is to save time by not having to first press the power button to activate the display, then hunt for the camera icon. Motorola took a similar approach with its Moto X, which allows users to launch the camera with two quick twists of the wrist.

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Tap the screen twice to turn the phone on. Sarah Tew/CNET

I certainly applaud HTC for folding these new gesture controls into Sense since they do increase the overall usability of the M8. I especially find Motion Launch helpful because it's way more convenient to tap the M8's screen than to stretch a finger toward the power key on the top edge of the phone. Using the volume button to fire up the camera isn't all that much faster than double-tapping the screen then flicking the camera icon upward. The Moto X's quick camera launch action is supremely intuitive, however, because you never have to touch the screen or press a button until you're ready to snap a picture.

Core components

If you expect the HTC One M8 to boast cutting-edge mobile components, you won't be disappointed. Tucked away inside this metallic beauty are high-octane parts to match its lovely looks. Powering the phone is a 2.3GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor which frankly just rolled off of the assembly line. In fact the One M8 is the first of a new crop of flagship phones for 2014 to feature the Snapdragon 801 which includes the Galaxy S5 and Sony Xperia Z2. The Galaxy S5 will bring a 2.5GHz processor, but the change will users will hardly notice the difference.

Built by dominant mobile chip maker Qualcomm, the company says the 801 offers 25 percent faster graphics than the Snapdragon 800 that powers devices like the Note 3 and LG G2. This means speedier gameplay and swifter Web surfing. The 801 was also designed to not break a sweat when heavily editing photos after you've taken them.

Buttressing this is a healthy 2GB supply of RAM and either 16GB or 32GB of internal storage (it's up to carriers and individual markets which version you'll be able to buy). As I mentioned before, however, this new One also has an SD card slot for additional storage space. It's a critical improvement over last year's One handset and a big bonus to those (including me) who tend to load their gadgets up with music and movies. Be advised that the One M8 requires a nano-SIM card, whereas the first One used larger Micro-SIMs, so a new card (or adapter) might be in order.

Camera: This sucker is binocular

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Two lenses do more than one. Sarah Tew/CNET

Undoubtedly the wildest change to the One M8 concerns its camera and imaging system. As it turns out all the rumors regarding dual-lenses on HTC's fresh flagship are true. The One M8 does in fact have two camera lenses on its back, as well as a dual-LED flash array. While the larger of the M8's eyes supports its main camera and handles traditional photo duties, the smaller lens (which sits next to it) is meant for an altogether different purpose.

Indeed its sole task is to tackle depth perception which allows the M8 to perform very interesting tricks. Every time you snap a picture the M8 also records optical data from its second vantage point seen through its depth-sensing lens. As a result, the One M8 lets you refocus images after you take them. So for instance you can choose subjects in the foreground to focus on while simultaneously blurring objects in the background.

In essence HTC is shooting to replicate the shallow depth of field that skilled owners of DSLR cameras often use to great aesthetic effect. It's also a technique the Nokia Lumia 1020 as well as the Lytro camera have strived to create through clever software processing. HTC calls the feature "UFOCUS" which lives in the phone's photo editing menus. Also placed here is a feature named Foregrounder which applies special filters to the background, like simulated pencil sketch-marks, motion blurring, even animated objects to indicate the changing seasons. Think snowflakes or blowing cherry blossoms, and you get the idea. Something HTC calls 3D Dimension Plus warps pictures to give them a cartoony depth that you can alter by tilting the phone back and forth.

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Add Lytro focus effects to your photos. Brian Bennett/CNET

The old HTC One Zoe engine is here, too. That means the phone's gallery app groups images and video by events and date plus mashes them up into highlight reels with canned themes and music automatically. it's an ability I like to have but sometimes it makes it tricky to sort through my photos and video. This is especially true if I can't recall when exactly I shot them.

Aside the M8's unconventional camera abilities, you also get a bucket-load of shooting modes such as night, HDR, sweep panorama, plus manual camera settings for just about everything -- except image resolution. Perhaps the reason HTC limits control over photo size is because the phone's 4-Ultrapixel sensor (really 4MP) is low-res compared with competing handsets such as the GS4, Note 3, and G2 (all of which pack sharper 13MP systems).

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Shallow depth of field brings more glam to pics of your ride. Sarah Tew/CNET

The image quality of test photos backed up my misgivings. While colors were accurate and white balance was correct in my experience, both indoors and outside, details appeared soft. Additionally, a deeper look into the One M8's camera performance revealed that the phone had difficulty with varied lighting conditions and often blew out bright skies in HDR mode. I can say that the One M8 does snap pictures like a speed demon, with shot-to-shot times that are virtually instantaneous.

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HDR mode lightened up shadow details but could also blow out bright skies. Brian Bennett/CNET

Performance

I was prepared for the HTC One M8 to pack a processing punch, but I admit I wasn't expecting it to hit as hard as it did. The smartphone incinerated the Quadrant benchmark, scoring a jaw-dropping 24,593 -- the highest result I've yet seen anywhere. This includes the Note 3, LG G2, and of course old HTC One.

The One M8's 878.5 MFLOPs showing on the Linpack test (multithread) was also stratospherically high.

Everyday use mirrored my artificial tests; the One M8 hummed through its various function effortlessly. The phone also launched, closed, and flipped between apps and menus almost before my eyes registered the change. In a phrase, the HTC One M8 handles like greased lightning.

Call quality

I tested the HTC One M8 on AT&T's GSM network in New York, and my test calls exhibited call quality in line with what I've experienced with other handsets. People described by voice as clear and easy to understand. They also didn't notice any distractions such as background hiss, static, or clipping. Still, callers said they could definitely tell that I spoke to them from a cellular phone due to the slight compression cellular audio tends to possess.

On my end, voices came through the earpiece with plenty of volume and richness. Oddly enough, despite the M8's powerful stereo speakers calls conducted via the speakerphone were not extremely loud.

Data speeds

Connected to AT&Ts 4G LTE network in New York, the HTC One M8 turned in some swift data speeds but was inconsistent. I clocked average download throughput at a decent 7.3Mbps but at times reached as high as 16.2Mbps. I was able to push data up to the cloud no faster than 5.1Mbps and through hovered around 2 to 3Mbps.

Battery life

Equipped with a 2,600mAh battery, the HTC One M8 isn't as well-endowed in the juice department as the big Galaxy Note 3 (3,200mAh), the Motorola Droid Maxx (3,500mAh), or even the Galaxy S5 (2,800mAh).

That said, the M8's battery is a tad larger in capacity compared with the previous One (2,300mAh). The phone managed to chug along for 9 hours and 52 minutes on the official CNET Labs video battery drain benchmark. it's a satisfying result which outlasts what the first HTC One delivered on the same test (9 hours, 37 minutes).

Anecdotally I was able to make it through a full day of testing (unplugging at 8AM) with the phone pleading for a recharge by 10PM. HTC has said it plans to enable in the future a special "extreme power mode" for the One M8 to extend its run time. My test device, sadly, lacked the feature.

Conclusion

Last spring HTC had high hopes for its then-best effort yet, the original HTC One. Sadly the Samsung Galaxy S4, which offered a killer screen, impressive camera, and all the software features the company could squeeze into one handset, stole its thunder. And even more to the point, Samsung was better at getting the GS4 to more carriers faster and it had a bigger marketing budget to spend.

We see a similar drama in the inevitable clash between the Galaxy S5 and the One M8. I'd argue that HTC is better equipped to do battle this time around. Not only is the One M8 a powerful performer with quad-core processing that's neck-and-neck with Samsung's greatest, its all-aluminum design is the clear winner between the two.

More striking to me, though, is how the M8's elegantly crafted hardware and intuitive software highlight HTC's and Samsung's opposite approaches to making smartphones. Samsung's Galaxy handsets aim to please the greatest number of customers by packing in the most features and performance for the lowest price. HTC, on the other hand, targets handset connoisseurs with painstakingly constructed devices running slick and efficient Android skins. Honestly, it's a combination I'm particularly defenseless against. Sorry, Samsung, but TouchWiz and plastic materials don't feed my soul.

Based on CNET's experience with the Samsung GS5 , it's clear that the S5's camera gives the gadget one leg up over the One M8 performance-wise. This is why I can't say with certainty that the One M8 is a better phone or even if it's 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.

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Quick Specifications See All

  • Technology CDMA2000 1X / GSM / WCDMA (UMTS)
  • Service Provider Verizon Wireless
  • Weight 5.6 oz
  • Diagonal Size 5 in
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