ZDNet Editors' Choice

HTC One (M8) review: The flagship smartphone to beat

Summary: The HTC One (M8) ticks most of our boxes: design, build and performance are all excellent, there's no app overload, and HTC Sense is improving with every iteration. Battery life could be better and some of the camera tools may seem unnecessary, but overall it's a winner.

  • Editors' rating:
    9.0
  • User rating:
    9.0
  • RRP:
    USD $800.00
    AUD $699.00

Pros

  • Superb hardware design
  • Storage expansion via MicroSD slot and USB port
  • Good gesture-based features
  • Well-rounded range of apps and UI features

Cons

  • Relatively heavy
  • Camera features need work
  • Battery life outside power-saving modes could be better

HTC has a rich heritage as a smartphone maker, and last year's HTC One was the company's best-selling and most-awarded handset ever. All of which makes a stark contrast to more recent HTC news concerning falling market share and repeated loss-making quarters . Hopes of a financial turnaround hang heavily on the HTC One (M8) , the company's new flagship handset for 2014. Although it was announced later than key rivals from Samsung (the Galaxy S5) and Sony (the Xperia Z2), the One (M8) was available to buy at launch — before the Samsung and Sony handsets. Although this gave HTC a temprorary edge over its competitors, the One (M8) still needs to impress if it's to match or lead those rivals when they do hit the market.

htc-one-m8-main
The 5-inch HTC One M8 has a 90-percent-metal ‘zero-gap’ chassis, which looks very smart but contributes to a relatively hefty 160g weight. Last year’s HTC One weighed 143g. Image: HTC

Design

The HTC One (M8) shares some key design characteristics with its predecessor, while building on the original HTC One's best features. The aluminium finish to the back gives the phone a premium appearance, while the back's curvature make it comfortable (if somewhat slippery) to hold. Where last year's One had plastic edges, the HTC One (M8) has metal curving round the left, right and bottom — only the top has a plastic section. HTC says the One M8's unibody chassis is 90 percent metal.

There are two narrow plastic strips along the back just as there were with the HTC One. These have been injected so that you can't see a join between metal and plastic. HTC calls this a 'zero gap' design and it's one of several factors that make the One (M8) look every inch the premium handset.

htc-one-m8-movie
The One (M8)'s BoomSound stereo speakers deliver class-leading audio. Image: HTC

Another design feature carried over from last year's flagship is the pair of speakers bookending the screen. These do add height to the handset, so they need to be good to justify their presence. Not only are they good — they're probably the best speakers we've experienced on any smartphone. HTC has engineered them to be 20 percent louder than on the original HTC One, but volume is only part of the story; audio quality is also impressive.

Absent from the HTC One (M8) are the navigation buttons that sat beneath the screen of its predecessor. These are now incorporated into the screen area itself. The main downside of this approach is that some screen real estate is lost to the buttons when they're in use.

Entirely new — not only to HTC's handset line but to any smartphone — is a second rear camera. This Duo Camera system gathers extra depth information, giving you some interesting photo editing possibilities. That's one of the key features of this phone, and we'll spend more time on it below.

The 5-inch Super LCD3 screen has a full-HD resolution of 1,920 by 1,080 pixels. That's last year's specification, but we don't see much point in complaining — text is clear and sharp, colours are vibrant and viewing angles are good. There does come a point where increasing technological capabilities is more about showing off than about real utility, and we're perfectly happy with the screen in this case. Gorilla Glass 3 provides excellent protection against drops and scratches.

The screen size and those stereo speakers make for a large phone. At 71mm by 146mm by 9.4mm it'll be too large for some pockets, and its 160g weight is on the heavy side thanks to all that metal in the chassis.

htc-one-m8-dot-view
HTC's Dot View case costs £35 (inc. VAT). Image: HTC

One of the design features HTC was keen to mention at launch has nothing at all to do with the handset itself. Journalists were given the Dot View case/screen cover, which provides both protection and pixelated notifications of time, date, incoming calls and so on via the perforated screen cover. It's a smart and attractive approach to providing information when the handset itself is inactive. The Dot View case costs £35 (inc. VAT).

Features

HTC uses Qualcomm's 2.3GHz Snapdragon 801 SoC with 2GB of RAM in the One (M8). The Samsung Galaxy S5 has been announced with a 2.5GHz version of the Snapdragon 801 with 2GB RAM, while Sony's Xperia Z2 has the 2.3GHz version and 3GB of RAM. We found that the HTC One (M8) performed well, and we have no complaints about its speed or responsiveness (see benchmarks below).

There is 16GB of internal storage, but thanks to both Android 4.4 and the latest revision of HTC's Sense UI, now at version 6, as well as a number of add-on apps, this is reduced to 10.1GB of accessible storage. Thankfully HTC allows for storage expansion — a feature lacking in the original HTC One. There's a MicroSD card slot in a pop-out tray on the right side of the chassis, which HTC says will support cards up to 128GB in capacity.

Further memory expansion is possible via the MicroUSB connector, which supports USB On The Go (OTG) and which streamed video from my Kingston Data Traveller microDuo memory stick without any trouble.

The One (M8) takes a Nano-SIM, which sits in a slot on the left edge of the chassis. Its tray is relatively large in order to support a dual-SIM version of this handset.

Other specifications are from the top drawer. This is a 4G (LTE) handset with 802.11a/b/g/n/ac wi-fi, Bluetooth 4.0 (with aptX support for high-quality audio streaming) NFC, MHL and infrared. IR is making a comeback: it was present in early smartphones and disappeared for a long time, but handset makers are now realising that your phone can double as a TV remote control. HTC bundles a TV app, Sense TV, which combines remote control and channel guide functions.

Duo Camera
We've already noted the second camera on the back of the chassis. This is half of what HTC calls the Duo camera system. As in 2013's HTC One, the main UltraPixel camera has a resolution of 4 megapixels, using larger pixels and trading off detail capture for better low-light performance. 

htc-one-m8-camera-menu
The Camera interface includes Selfie and Dual capture buttons for, respectively, switching to the front camera and using both cameras simultaneously.

The real advance is the second camera, which captures depth-of-field information for images. This doesn't work if you have zoomed into a shot, but when its data is available you can pop into the editing app and change the focus on images via the UFocus feature. Usually you'll want to blur the foreground or background to generate interesting effects (see images below). You can also apply effects to particular parts of an image using the Foregrounder tool, cartoonising or adding sketch effects for example. You can also create a pseudo-3D effect, and drop animations into your photo based on the four seasons: falling leaves, snowflakes, dandelion seeds and so on.

htc-one-m8-ufocus
A standard image (top) and the same image with the Duo Camera's UFocus feature applied. Images: Charles McLellan/ZDNet

Using these tools can be fun, although there are issues. The focus alteration feature isn't good at precisely identifying the edge of what you want in focus, for example. Things tend to look OK on the handset, but less impressive when moved to a larger-screen device.

There are plenty of camera settings, they're quite easily accessed, the camera software is responsive and fast to focus. Shots can be taken in quick succession. You can make manual settings for features such as ISO, and save your own presets — a rare and welcome feature. The front camera, incidentally, has a 5-megapixel resolution and you switch to it by tapping the 'selfie' icon in the camera interface. It also shoots 1080p video.

Sense 6 and BlinkFeed
HTC's Sense 6 user interface benefits from decluttering and the addition of some new features. It's a cleaner, sharper skin than Sense 5, and we're delighted that HTC no longer feels the need to tell us the time or weather when we pop into the apps drawer.

htc-one-m8-motion-launch
HTC Sense 6 now includes a range of Motion Launch gestures.

A range of motion gestures are now available. You can double-tap the screen to wake the phone, swipe right on the lock screen to launch BlinkFeed, swipe down to turn on voice dialing, or, in landscape mode, wake the handset into the camera using the volume button. There are other motion and gesture settings too — we particularly like the ability to answer a call simply by lifting the handset to the ear.

BlinkFeed, HTC's social and news feed app, has also had some attention. You can now customise the feed — you just type the text of the topic you want. We found this to be reasonably accurate, although our feed for 'orienteering' seemed to be quite keen to pick up unwanted news about football clubs with 'Orient' in their names. Clearly some refinement is required. Earlier iterations of BlinkFeed were a permanent fixture on a home screen, but now you can treat it like a widget and remove it if you don't like it.

HTC adds a few apps to the Android 4.4 staples, but thankfully does not go overboard. We've already noted Sense TV. Kid Mode, which lets you lock the handset down for child access, is a third-party app that HTC has chosen to preload, as is Fitbit — you can use the HTC One (M8) as your Fitbit pedometer if you wish. Scribble accepts hand-drawn and text-based notes. Zoe is HTC's photo and video app. Polaris Office allows you to create Microsoft Office-compatible files. There is also an FM radio.

Performance & battery life

The 2.3GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 SoC with 2GB of RAM in the HTC One (M8) delivers a significant performance boost over last year's 1.7GHz Snapdragon 600-based HTC One (also with 2GB of RAM):

htc-one-m8-geekbench

Benchmarks aren't everything, of course, but as noted above, we found the HTC One (M8) to be admirably responsive during the test period. If you're into 3D gaming on your smartphone you'll find the One (M8) a good performer too, although HTC has been criticised for fine-tuning the handset's performance when it detects that a benchmark is being run.

htc-one-m8-power-modes
Power saver and Extreme power saving modes are available on the HTC One (M8).
htc-one-m8-eps-home
In Extreme power saving mode you get a minimalist home screen accessing basic functions.

The One (M8)'s 2,600mAh battery has only 300mAh more capacity than the HTC One's, and we had trouble getting through a day of use on a single charge. However, HTC has built two battery saving modes into the One (M8). The one you're most likely to use, Power Saver, allows you to decide whether you want to slow the processor, dim the screen, disable vibration and close the data connection when the screen is off.

The other power saving mode is much more drastic. Called Extreme Power Saving Mode, this cuts off access to most features and apps just leaving you with the phone, SMS, email, calendar and calculator. It can be set to automatically kick in when the battery drops to 20%, 10% or 5% and you can jump out of it if needed by tapping 'exit'.

Conclusion

The HTC One (M8), which costs £534 (inc. VAT, or £445 ex. VAT) SIM-free from Clove Technology, ticks most of our boxes and it's difficult to find much to complain about. Design, build and performance are all impressive, and the handset doesn't suffer from app overload. HTC Sense also seems to be improving with every iteration. Battery life could be better, but the power-saving options are well implemented and useful. HTC's camera tools may seem unnecessary to some, but they are harmless and easily ignored if you don't need them. Samsung, Sony and the rest of HTC's competition will have to do very well to beat HTC this year.

Topics: Smartphones, Mobility, Reviews

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