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HTC One M8 Google Play Edition review: A deluxe phone for Android purists

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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.

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8.7

HTC One M8 Google Play Edition

Pricing Not Available

The Good

The HTC One M8 Google Play Edition pairs HTC's excellent 2014 aluminum superphone -- including its brilliant 5-inch screen and top-notch sound -- with a pure, Nexus-style Android KitKat interface that's free of carrier bloatware.

The Bad

No carrier subsidy means you'll be paying full price for this beauty. The M8 lags behind the Galaxy S5 on a few points: it’s got a non-removable battery, no water resistance, and photos that aren’t quite as sharp as you’d like.

The Bottom Line

The HTC One M8 Google Play Edition will fulfill the dreams of Android fanatics seeking to pair top-notch hardware with a Nexus-style KitKat experience, so long as they’re willing to pay a premium.

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.

Design

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.

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The One M8 Google Play Edition is ludicrously lovely in aluminium. Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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The M8 GPE fits the hand well. Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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The One M8 GPE is just as sleek as the standard One M8. Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Display

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.

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The One M8 GPE enjoys tight integration with Google Now. Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Core components

Inside the HTC One M8 GPE are the same fire-breathing components powering the HTC One M8 . Driving the phone's squeaky clean Android software is a 2.3GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor. Freshly minted by chip-maker Qualcomm, it's the same slice of silicon used by an elite group of flagship phones for 2014 including the Galaxy S5 and Sony Xperia Z2 . The Galaxy S5 relies on a 2.5GHz processor, but unless you're part machine I doubt you'll notice a difference.

Backing up the processor is a respectable 2GB of RAM but unlike the standard One M8 which ships with either 16GB or 32GB of internal storage, the Google sells the M8 GPE in one 32GB flavor. One critical improvement both handsets share though is an SD Card slot for additional storage space. I can't stress how much of a big boon this is particularly to those (like myself) who tend to load their gadgets up with music and movies. Also take note that the One M8 requires a nano-sized SIM card whereas the first One used larger micro-SIMs, so if you plan to upgrade you'll have to spring for a new card (or adapter).

Camera

Perhaps the wildest addition HTC brought to the One M8 is its dual-lens main camera, and the One M8 Google Play Edition relies on the same imaging hardware. As with a standard smartphone, the primary lens captures light to be read by the camera sensor. A second smaller lens on the back of the One M8 GPE also keeps an eye out for the relative distance of subjects and other objects--simply put it acts as a depth sensor.

And don't think because the M8 GPE lacks HTC's Sense UI, means the phone can't make use of its unique optical setup. HTC and Google have collaborated closely here to make sure many of the post-editing tricks the One M8 can tackle reside in the One M8 GPE's toolbelt as well. For instance, after you snap photos you can refocus them via HTC's Photo Edit app (installed) to blur either the background or foreground for that artful Lytro effect.

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The dual-lens camera lets you refocus photos. Brian Bennett/CNET

The revamped Google Camera application, the One M8 GPE's default imaging software, now features a "Lens Blur" shooting mode too that simulates this shallow depth of field. Along with this the app allows you to apply plenty of interesting filters, and manually tweak brightness, contrast, and sharpness. Modes for HDR, panorama, and "Photo Sphere" for capturing a 3D view are built in as well.

You can't choose the image size which honestly is a moot point since the One M8 GPE relies on the same 4MP "Ultrapixel" sensor which both the old HTC One and standard One M8 ship with. Due to this relatively low resolution, the pictures I took fine on the M8 GPE's small screen but become noticeably grainy and pixelated when blown up or zoomed in tightly.

Performance

Since it's identically equipped with the same powerful mobile parts as its HTC software doppelganger, I expected the One M8 Google Play Edition to turn in similarly swift performance. Astonishingly, this was not the case. While the handset's high Quadrant score of 19,206 is nothing to sneeze at, the HTC-branded One M8 running Sense 6 over Android notched a jaw-dropping 24,593 -- the highest result I've yet seen anywhere.

This includes the Galaxy S5 (23,707) Note 3 (23,048), LG G2 (19,050), and of course the 2013 HTC One (11,381). The highest Linpack (multi-thread) showing I could squeeze out of the One M8 GPE was 773.7 MFLOPs which is lower than that of the One M8's (878.5 MFLOPs) as well.

Of course when I used the One M8 GPE in the real world, the phone felt every bit as fast as the standard Sense 6 HTC One M8. Websites, menus, and apps opened just as quickly to my eyes -- in other words lightning quick.

Call quality

I tested the unlocked HTC One M8 GPE on T-Mobile's GSM network in New York and my test calls exhibited rock-solid call quality in line with what I've experienced with the AT&T-branded model of the One M8 I tested before it. Callers described by voice as clear, rich, and easy to understand.

They also didn't hear any artifacts such as background hiss, static, or clipping which can plague lesser cell phones. That said, people told me they could definitely detect I spoke to them from a wireless connection, given away by the slight robotic compression cellular audio tends to exhibit.

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.

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Data speeds on T-Mobile were fast Brian Bennett/CNET

Data speeds

One of the most compelling aspects of the HTC One M8 Google Play Edition is its unlocked SIM Card status. Essentially the device allows you to drop in any compatible SIM Card and is flexible enough to support both T-Mobile's and AT&T's flavor of 4G LTE data.

To confirm this I managed to connect the One M8 GPE to T-Mobile's 4G LTE network in New York, where the phone turned in acceptably swift data speeds. I measured average download throughput at a quick 15.6Mbps. The M8 GPE was also able to upload data at a respectable average of 10.9Mbps.

Battery life

Equipped with a 2,600mAh battery, the HTC One M8 GPE isn't as robustly configured power-wise as the big Galaxy Note 3 (3,200mAh), Motorola Droid Maxx (3,500mAh), or even 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 survived for 11 hours and 23 minutes on the official CNET Labs video battery drain benchmark. Interestingly this result is longer than the stock One M8 which couldn't break the 10 hours mark on the same test (9 hours, 52 minutes). Both version of the M8, however, outlasted what the first HTC One delivered on the same test (9 hours, 37 minutes).

Conclusion

For all HTC's attempts to add spit and polish to its current One M8 flagship, if push comes to shove I'd ultimately choose pure Android over Sense. That said, with Sense 6.0 the decision to place stock Android 4.4 KitKat on a pedestal is now the toughest it's ever been for me. HTC's latest whack at its smartphone interface is its most advanced and intuitive yet.

For many, then, the choice will come down to price. Both the standard, unlocked One M8 (running Sense 6.0) and One M8 Google Play Edition cost an identical and exorbitant $699. For US consumers who are used to subsidized contract pricing (or T-Mobile-style installment plans), that will feel incredibly expensive. Case in point, Verizon and AT&T offer the standard HTC One M8 for $199 -- though that price does, of course, require signing a 2-year service contract. T-Mobile sells the One M8 $0 dollars down but you're on the hook for 24 monthly payments of $26.50. You can also snap up the similarly equipped Nexus 5 for almost half the price ($399, unlocked).

Looking a little closer, it's clear that the One M8 GPE offers more value than you might expect. First, its metal design is utterly gorgeous. Second, as the only other phone outside of the Nexus 5 to serve up the powerful and attractive Google Now Launcher interface, the M8 GPE is truly a uniquely compelling Android product. Throw in the SD card expansion slot (something all Nexus phones lack) no to mention an intriguing depth-sensing camera and this gadget suddenly becomes very alluring indeed.

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8.7

HTC One M8 Google Play Edition

Pricing Not Available

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 9Performance 8