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 archrival'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.
When the original HTC One hit the mobile scene last year, I was stunned by 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. Frankly I'd never seen a handset look that good, and I've handled a lot of mobile phones.
Designwise, this certainly sets the bar high for any subsequent smartphone, let alone an HTC One follow-up. 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 the Sony Xperia Z2 ). While HTC's latest creation is more conservatively styled than the previous One, it 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 was. 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.
To be clear, the One M8 comes in two additional colors (silver and gold) that 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 that 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 larger -- 5 inches across (as opposed to the HTC One's 4.7-inch screen). 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 that 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.
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.
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 (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 (which had the same number of pixels on a smaller 4.7-inch screen). 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 hand. 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 that books, movie rentals and purchases, games, and 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 onboard, 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.
With every new flagship phone HTC retools 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 (though 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.
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 was greenish-blue, the second 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.
The biggest change to BlinkFeed 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 control
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.
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.
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 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
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" and it 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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 8 a.m.) with the phone pleading for a recharge by 10 p.m. 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.
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.
I 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.