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HTC One M8 Harman Kardon Edition review: Hyped Harman Kardon audio feature only amounts to spin

Unless you need a good deal on a pair of Harman Kardon earbuds, there's no reason to pick this over the regular HTC One M8.

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Brian Bennett
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Brian Bennett

Senior writer

Brian Bennett is a senior writer for the home and outdoor section at CNET. He reviews a wide range of household and smart-home products. These include everything from cordless and robot vacuum cleaners to fire pits, grills and coffee makers. An NYC native, Brian now resides in bucolic Louisville, Kentucky where he rides longboards downhill in his free time.

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Editors' note: This review shares many sections with the standard HTC One M8 review , as the devices are almost identical.

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8.3

HTC One M8 Harman Kardon Edition

The Good

The HTC One M8 HKE'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. It comes with premium Harman Kardon earbuds.

The Bad

The One M8 HKE’s special audio prowess is overrated and slathers on the bloatware extra thickly. The One M8’s battery is not user-removable. The phone's sealed chassis is not water-resistant, and the One M8's photos look less sharp than competitors'.

The Bottom Line

Unless you need a great deal on earbuds, there’s no reason to buy the HTC One M8 Harman Kardon Edition.

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.

Up close with the HTC One M8 Harman Kardon Edition (pictures)

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Design

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 .

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The One M8 HKE has gold accents. Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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The back is smooth and black. Sarah Tew/CNET

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 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.

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This One M8 uses Sense 6 UI as well. Brian Bennett/CNET

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.

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Sprint branding is on every home screen by default. Brian Bennett/CNET

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.

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Audio processing from Harman Kardon comes standard and you can adjust them in phone settings. Brian Bennett/CNET

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.

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The Spotify music app is preloaded. Brian Bennett/CNET

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.

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Included with the One M8 HKE are a set of premium earbuds. Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

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 rethink 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 home screens to customize to your heart's content (now five instead of the six that were in Sense 5.5) with app shortcuts and widgets. Likewise, the leftmost screen is occupied by the BlinkFeed news aggregator; thankfully HTC gives you the option to turn the service off if you don't want it.

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You can swap Sprint's wallpaper for another or one of HTC's color themes. Brian Bennett/CNET

One subtle tweak HTC made to Sense is the addition of colors coded to major phone features and their palette of hues being 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, such as violet.

Bundled with my HTC One M8 unit were three color themes: the first was greenish-blue, the second was warmer orange and reds, and 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 leftmost home screen, 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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The One M8 HKE comes with HTC's enhanced BlinkFeed news software. 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, it's a welcome enhancement that 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.

A dash of gesture controls

Not to be outdone by the LG G2 and the Motorola Moto X , the HTC One M8 also flaunts its own take on gesture-based commands for the handset. 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 landscape 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 wake the phone up. 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, though. 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. The One M8 is the first of a new crop of flagship phones for 2014 to feature the Snapdragon 801; two others are 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 32GB of internal storage. 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-size SIM card, whereas the first One used larger Micro-SIMs, so a new card (or adapter) might be in order.

Camera

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 has 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 blur objects in the background.

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The camera app offers plenty of editing options. Brian Bennett/CNET

In essence HTC is shooting to replicate shallow depth of field that skilled owners of dSLR cameras often use to great aesthetic effect. It's also a technique that the Nokia Lumia 1020 and the Lytro camera have tried to create through clever software processing. HTC calls the feature UFocus, and it's placed within the phone's photo editing menus.

Also placed here is a feature called 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 lend them a cartoony depth that you can alter by tilting the phone back and forth.

The old HTC One Zoe engine is here, too. That means the phone's gallery app groups images and video by events and date, and mashes them up into highlight reels with canned themes and music automatically. It's a feature 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.

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Add dramatic depth of field effects after the fact. Brian Bennett/CNET

Aside from 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 4-megapixel) is low-res compared with competing handsets such as the GS4, the Note 3, and the G2 (all of which pack sharper 13-megapixel sensors).

The image quality of test photos backed up my misgivings. While colors were accurate and white balance 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 snaps pictures like a speed demon, with shot-to-shot times that are virtually instantaneous.

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 Sprint's CDMA network in New York, and my test calls exhibited call quality below what I've experienced with other handsets (and the M8) on other carriers. People described my voice as clear and understandable but fraught with clipping at the start and end of sentences. Callers also said they could definitely tell that I spoke to them from a cellular phone due to the slight compression that cellular audio tends to possess.

On my end, voices came through the earpiece with plenty of volume and richness but I noticed the same clipping sound others had reported. Oddly enough, despite the M8's powerful stereo speakers, calls conducted via the speakerphone were not as loud as music and video.

Data speeds

Connected to Sprint's 4G LTE network in New York, the HTC One M8 turned in slow data speeds across the board. I clocked average download throughput at a low 4.2Mbps. Of course at times throughput reached as high as 8.44Mbps. I was able to upload data up to the cloud at an even slower average of 3.7Mbps and once hit a digital crawl of 2.2Mbps (rounded up from 2.16).

By contrast, the One M8 on AT&T's 4G LTE network averaged a faster 7.3Mbps but sometimes went as high as 16.2Mbps.

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Data speeds on Sprint's 4G LTE network in NYC were slow. Brian Bennett/CNET

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 14 hours and 18 minutes on the official CNET Labs video battery drain benchmark. Interestingly enough it's much longer than the standard HTC One M8 managed on the same test (9 hours, 52 minutes). Both are satisfying results that outlast what the first HTC One delivered on the same test (9 hours, 37 minutes).

Conclusion

To be clear, I wasn't thrilled by the prospects of the HTC One M8 Harman Kardon Edition from the minute I learned of its existence. There's a reason the best-selling flagship phones are all deployed across multiple carriers, and even worldwide, in roughly the same basic form. Not only are their physical forms not altered for the base purpose of carrier (or even retail outlet) exclusivity, but these devices serve up an unmolested software interface the way either the manufacturer or OS builder intended, and that's the way I like it.

I believe I'm not a radical for saying that's how customers prefer their phones to operate, too. Customers want phones to provide the same experience regardless of which carrier it happens to connect to.

Unfortunately, the One M8 HKE, while built on the bones of a superb mobile device, makes too many concessions to please Sprint. Sure, you can shut a lot of the carrier's bloatware off, but a ton of it still lives undead below the surface waiting to be resurrected if you're not careful.

The handset also doesn't deliver on all the lofty promises of a mind-blowing audio experience, at least any more than the standard HTC One M8. That's why I see no reason at all to buy the One M8 HKE over the ordinary model sold by Sprint -- unless you're really dying for a good pair of earbuds.

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8.3

HTC One M8 Harman Kardon Edition

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Performance 8