Taiwanese manufacturer HTC is making a big noise about the One M8, its latest premium smartphone, but is the well-built, design-led device – but is it enough to dig HTC out of its hole?
Following the precedent it set with the original HTC One from 2013, which recently won the GSMA Global Mobile award for best smartphone, the new One M8 sets metal as its primary material. The 90% metal body is HTC’s way to combat the plastic fantastic of Samsung’s dominant Galaxy S Android smartphone range, while holding a candle up to Apple’s high-end industrial design.
In its pursuit of design over almost everything else, certain things have had to be left out of its flagship smartphone package. The One M8 has no fingerprint sensor like the Samsung Galaxy S5 or Apple’s iPhone 5S, no heart rate monitor and no wireless charging, though whether that really matters is debatable.
'It's taken us 13 years to get to this point'
HTC has made the entire body of the new One M8 out of a single, curved metal case that bends around the edges to the glass front of the screen. The One from 2013 had to have plastic edges, but HTC has removed the need for them by integrating all the needed radio antennas into the metal casing for things like the cellular radio, Wi-Fi, bluetooth and the GPS.
"It has taken us 13 years to get the point where we can create an all-metal phone. Metal is great for designers but for phone engineers that need to worry about the function of the phone it is a nightmare," said Graham Wheeler, HTC's director of product for Europe, middle east and Africa, talking to the Guardian about the design process of the M8. "At HTC the designers come first, however, and the engineers have to fit around the designers."
The result is an incredibly smooth and rounded back, side and corners, which feel beautiful in the hand. The curvature of the back and corners makes the phone ergonomic, sitting comfortably in the palm, while the metal body feels warm and inviting to touch. Throughout my testing of the phone I found myself touching it, almost stroking its silky smooth exterior for no real reason other than it felt nice.
While it certainly is smooth, the M8 is not slippery to hold unlike some glass-backed smartphones. The metal has an inherent tack against skin, while being slippery against clothing making the M8 easy to slip into and out of pockets despite its size.
The phone is also incredibly well built, with no give or flex anywhere in the body making it feel quality and like it could take a knock or two without much bother.
The M8 has a bigger, 5in screen over last year’s 4.7in One. The screen itself it bold, bright and vibrant, while being pixel perfect and sharp – it is one the best displays I have ever seen on a smartphone. It also has very wide viewing angles, which makes sharing videos and photos with others easy, but also means almost anyone on the train with you can see what’s happening on your phone.
The larger screen also means that the M8 is bigger than its older brother. In fact the M8 is one of the biggest 5in smartphones currently available, with large top and bottom borders to the screen making the phone long.
Those top and bottom bezels contain HTC’s improved BoomSound speakers, which bracket the screen as well as the impressive 5 megapixel front facing “selfie” camera – more on those later.
Neither top nor bottom part is wasted space, but the bulk makes the M8 a little unwieldy and difficult to manage. I cannot comfortably reach the top corners of the screen, let alone the power button on the top edge.
The M8 is also comparatively heavy, weighing 160g compared to the 145g Samsung Galaxy S5, 130g Google Nexus 5 and the smaller 112g iPhone 5S, but the weight is well balanced along the phone and feels more reassuring than hefty.
- Screen: 5in full HD LCD
- Processor: 2.3 GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801
- RAM: 2GB of RAM
- Storage: 16/32GB
- Operating system: Android 4.4.2 “KitKat”
- Camera: 4 UltraPixel rear camera with depth sensor, 5MP front-facing camera
- Connectivity: LTE, Wi-Fi (n/ac), NFC, Bluetooth 4.0 with BLE and GPS
- Dimensions: 146.36 x 70.6 x 9.35mm
- Weight: 160g
A lightning quick experience
HTC’s become the first manufacturer to ship a smartphone with Qualcomm’s latest and fastest 2.3GHz Snapdragon 801, which is both quicker and more frugal with electricity than last year’s top of the line Snapdragon 800.
The result is a lightning-quick experience where apps launch instantaneously, with no lag or any sign of slowness anywhere. I didn't think it was possible for Android to feel any faster than the Nexus 5, but the One M8 is just that, oozing power and grace.
Similar to the kind of technology Apple fitted to its current flagship smartphone, the iPhone 5S, the One M8 has a motion co-processor bundled alongside the main quad-core unit. The low power co-processor handles the information collected by the smartphone’s sensors, including the accelerometer, screen, GPS and light sensor without having to wake the main power-hungry central processor. The technology enables a whole host of new functions, including gestures and the ability to function as a fitness tracker.
HTC’s hard work with antenna and materials engineering to make a 90% metal case has paid off. The M8 locks onto a 4G signal faster than most other smartphones and maintains that lock in challenging network conditions that invariably see other smartphones drop down to 3G or below.
Wi-Fi and Bluetooth signal strength are equally good, as is the GPS signal lock.
The One M8 packs a microSD card slot this time around, which makes adding up to 128GB to the built-in 16GB storage easy, although that space cannot be used to store apps.
One of the points HTC went to pains to push at the launch of the One M8 was the smartphone’s impressive battery life. In my testing the battery stood up very well to a full day’s hard use including three hours of browsing, all day listening to music over Bluetooth, a bit of gaming and video watching, with hundreds of messages and emails being pushed to and checked on the phone over 4G all day and the built-in Fitbit fitness tracker running. That was without activating either of the two power saving modes, one of which will give you around 36 hours of standby time from just 20% battery – a killer feature if you must have your phone last on extended trips away from a power source.
The One M8 has one of the longest useful battery lives out of any modern, powerful smartphone currently available and should last around two days of average use and much longer with the aggressive power saving modes active.
HTC’s version of Android called “Sense” overlays a customise experience on top of the core Android software. For the most part the changes are minor cosmetic differences, which will still be familiar to anyone who has used Android in the past.
One of more useful additions is a whole collection of quick settings buttons available under the notification draw – many more than is available on standard Android and covering almost any most used setting.
HTC has also tweaked the multitasking interface, changing it from a list of running apps into a card-based interface that lets users see more of what's happening in nine currently running apps.
The most obvious addition to the Android experience, however, is HTC’s social news aggregator app, BlinkFeed, which is stored on the very left pane of the homescreen. It pulls posts from your social media accounts, information from your calendar and some of the built-in apps, as well as news and entertainment from a plethora of sources of your choosing.
While slick, BlinkFeed is very much like Flipboard except it isn’t available across multiple devices as yet, but that is due to change by the end of 2014, according to HTC. It is one of those features users will either take to and find useful, or instantly find a burden. Thankfully, unlike the 2013 HTC One, users can remove BlinkFeed from their homescreens entirely.
Gestures and motion
The M8’s motion co-processor enables some useful optional gestures without draining the battery. When picked up, double tapping the screen will wake the phone, as will swipes from the screens’ edge, which will automatically launch BlinkFeed.
Using the light sensor, the M8 can work out whether it is still in a pocket or a bag and deactivate the touchscreen preventing the phone from being woken erroneously.
The sightseeing gesture also lets users quickly activate the camera, even when the phone is locked, but turning it on its side and pressing and holding the volume down button.
The motion co-processor can also be used for more advanced functions like fitness tracking. HTC’s partnered with Fitbit to pre-install the app and let it use the M8’s accelerometer to count steps, although in my testing it was wildly inaccurate compared to a dedicated fitness tracker.
With the 2013 One HTC introduced a new camera concept called “UltraPixel”. It opted out of the megapixel race to concentrate on low light performance creating a 4 megapixel camera with physically bigger pixels on the image sensor, each one capable of accepting more light than the densely packed higher megapixel-rated cameras of competitors.
With the new One M8 HTC’s bolted a second, depth sensing camera to the UltraPixel sensor that is capable of seamlessly recording spatial information and binding it to a photo. In general use the depth sensor part of the “duo camera” setup is used to moderate the flash power to avoid blowing out the subject of the photo while imperceptibly to the user capturing the spatial information.
Once a photo has been captured a user can then re-focus that image on a point of their choosing using an advanced u-focus editing function to create a professional-looking narrow field of focus image. The results are impressive and appear akin to those created the Lytro light field camera.
Users can also separate their subject from the background to create visual effects such as decolourisation of the backdrop or even shift the perspective of the camera.
HTC’s combined video and still photo feature called "Zoe" been revamped to make sharing on the web easier too, with HTC promising to make it available for other Android smartphones in the future for collaborative Zoes.
The camera takes photos very quickly and the low-light performance of the UltraPixel camera is excellent when coupled with a powerful two-tone flash, but photos captured in good lighting conditions can often lack the detail afforded by competitor’s cameras with higher megapixel counts when viewed at full size, including the iPhone 5S’s excellent 8 megapixel camera.
5-megapixel selfie camera
HTC has seized upon the modern obsession for taking pictures of oneself and fitted the M8 with a very impressive 5-megapixel front-facing camera. It has a wide aperture lens, is captures significantly better photos than quite a lot of main cameras on smartphones, and is even capable of high dynamic range photography.
The M8’s camera software is also capable of making anyone look vaguely beautiful in seconds, with automatic “make up” modes and the ability to enlarge and enhance a subject’s eyes, narrow their chin and smooth their skin – functions that would take the average user quite a bit of time in front of an image editor like Photoshop to achieve.
The impressive front-facing camera also makes Android’s built-in Face Unlock feature work very well indeed, unlocking the smartphone by recognising the user’s face and handling the difficult lighting conditions generally found while trying to use the phone on the move or outdoors.
HTC introduced the concept of front-facing speakers mounted above and below the screen called “BoomSound” speakers with the 2013 One. They were impressively loud and clear, and miles better than any other smartphone mounted speaker that had come before it.
For the One M8’s BoomSound speakers HTC has made them 25% louder by using specialised amplifiers which work with software algorithms to boost but not distort sound across the entire range, avoiding one frequency from destroying the others. The result is clear music that is almost too loud to listen to directly in front of the phone, and is essentially room filling. It lacks base, of course, but is far from tinny and very impressive coming from a smartphone.
The One M8 features an infra-red emitter embedded behind the panel in its top edge that lets users control their TV or other remote-controlled appliances using the HTC Watch app, turning the smartphone into a universal remote.
The HTC One M8 is available in three colours arctic silver, amber gold and metal grey with the 16GB storage model costing from £530 without a phone contract, or free on contracts starting at £42 a month.
As with last year’s One, HTC has done an outstanding job at creating a powerful, premium smartphone with great build quality and functions most people will actually use without gimmicks.
The HTC One M8 is one of the best Android smartphones out at the moment. It is fast, slick and powerful, but still has great battery life. Its screen is one of the best ever fitted to a smartphone, while its all-metal build is unrivalled in the industry as are the BoomSound speakers.
The Duo Camera works well, but doesn't get in the way of regular shooting, with the only detractor being a lack of detail at full size. That negative is balanced by very good performance in the typically average to poor lighting conditions most photos are shot in.
The tall body of the One M8 could be difficult for some to wield, especially compared to 5in smartphones like the Nexus 5 with a much smaller overall footprint. The lack of a fingerprint sensor is not a big issue right now, but biometric identification mechanisms are likely to become a mainstay of flagship smartphones going forward as more sites and services like PayPal adopt them as a way to securely login and authorise payments.
HTC’s Achilles heal with the One M8 has nothing to do with the phone itself and more to do with the fact that Google has managed to undercut the competition with a flagship smartphone priced at a mid-range £300. It is quite a big ask for anyone to choose the One M8 without a contract at over £500 when they could purchase the equally great Nexus 5 for £200 less.
HTC’s problem has never been that their flagship phone hasn’t been anything less than great, as is the case here, but it just has not sold in the volume needed to effective compete with Samsung and Apple.
It will be interesting to see what happens in the next year. The 2013 One was the best selling HTC smartphone ever, but still only sold 6.4m units in 2013 compared to Apple’s 62.9m iPhone 5s and Samsung’s 43.3m Galaxy S4s, according to data from research firm IDC.
HTC has given itself first-mover advantage against the new 2014 crop of Android smartphones, beating Samsung's Galaxy S5 and Sony's Xperia Z2 to market by at least a couple of weeks, which could move buyers in its favour. But the majority of high-end smartphones are bought when individual user contracts are up for renewal throughout the year so it is unknown how much impact that two-week head start will help HTC.
Star rating: 5/5
Pros: Fantastic screen, beautiful design, all-metal body, great battery life, impressive speakers, Duo Camera
Cons: Heavier than the competition, slightly too long, photos lack detail at full size, no fingerprint sensor
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