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HTC One M8 Review – The One to rule them all?

OVERVIEW

Welcome to the HTC One M8 review – the sexiest phone yet. Period. Released a full year after the M7, it seems like HTC is slowly learning from their mistakes. Marketing of the M8 has been rapidly ramped up, with their Facebook page wasting no opportunity to go noticed. The M8 builds on the M7′s foundations, and strengthens them immensely. However there were some things we felt the M7 had strengths in, and the M8 now lacks.

PROS:

  • Unbelievably sexy
  • BoomSound speakers are loud
  • Display is flawless
  • Really comfortable to hold
  • Clean UI

CONS:

  • Metal body causes the phone to heat up to the point of severe discomfort within minutes
  • Power button is located at the top
  • At maximum volume, music is heavily distorted
  • Camera is a measly 4 megapixels
  • Duo Camera is unnecessary
  • No Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS)

INTRODUCTION

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Those who’d given the Q4 2013 flagships a miss in wait for a better package will be pleased. Launching their new flagship concurrently with Sony’s Xperia Z2 and Samsung’s Galaxy S5 (albeit announcing it much later), the M8 is facing serious competition. Compared to the HTC One M7 (2013), the M8 has improved immensely, yet has regressed in some ways. Let’s look at its specs.

  HTC One M8
Display 5”, 1080p SLCD3 display
Camera Dual cameras, 4 MP UltraPixel, 1/3 inch sensor
Video Recording 1080p/FHD
Processor 2.5 GHz Quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801
GPU Adreno 330
RAM 2 GB
Storage 16 (review unit capacity)/32 GB, micro-SD expandable
Battery 2600 mAh, Extreme Power Saving mode
Other BoomSound front-facing speakers, IR Blaster, NFC, LTE

HTC M7 owners will be jealous. This year HTC has released a really strong package, and together with that package has broadcasted their presence to every average Joe and Jane there is. Still, it is not perfect.

It got rid of OIS from the M7, and slapped in a second viewfinder which, as other manufacturers have proven, is unnecessary. It also gets hot way too easily, and camera resolution is still just 4 megapixels. It is not without its merits though, of which there are many. Read on to find out what we loved and what we didn’t.

DESIGN AND BUILD QUALITY

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The HTC One M8 looks absolutely stunning. Utilising 90% metal in its construction, HTC have created a device that is the best looking device ever – and there can and will not be any arguments. The review unit was in gunmetal grey (my colleague Way bought it in Glacial Silver). In my opinion, Gunmetal Grey is the best colour to grace the M8.

Measuring at 146.4 x 70.6 x 9.4 mm, it is the thickest flagship around, but its brilliant ergonomics do very well to hide this fact. Its width is similar to my Z1, and height is slightly less. It does pack a heft though, at 160 g, but I am more than willing to excuse it – 90% metal has a price.

Front

The haptic navigation buttons on the front of the M7 now appear on-screen on the M8, and in the way that Google wants them to. BoomSound speaker grilles bracket the display and the 5 MP front camera is prominent. The notification LED is also embedded in the top speaker grille. An issue we found was that while charging, there was no indication of any notification – there was just a solid red light.

Back Camera

At the bottom is the microUSB port, and 3.5 mm audio jack. The back now also sports dual-camera lenses and a dual-LED flash, which make it distinct from the M7 there. The left side is bare save the nano-SIM card slot, while the right has the micro-SD card slot and volume rocker, which is nice and large.

At the top is the IR blaster hidden in the power button, which enables you to control your TV and DVR using the included app (more on that below). It’s an absolutely stunning design that hugely overshadows the iPhone 5/5s, Xperia Z2/Z1 and any other device that dares come close. Still, that could hardly matter if the rest of the device is not up to the mark.

HANDLING

The ergonomics of this device is perfect. Thick as the specs might make you believe, you really have no inkling of the dimensions in your hand. The curved back and metal body make holding it a joy, so much so I was finding excuses to hold the device all the time.

Still, there are issues. The power button is located at the top, and while this is not an issue for unlocking the device thanks to the gesture/tap waking, it is an issue for locking the M8. Weirdly, tapping twice on the homescreen does not lock the device, and hence I always had to shift my grip to press the power button.

What’s more, after watching just 10 minutes of a 1080p TV show on the M8, the device got so hot that I had to put it down. It certainly is not down to my personal heat tolerance – temperature tests showed the M8 hitting 70 degrees Celsius and beyond.

DISPLAY

IMG_8390

Coming to the display though, here is where there is not a single fault. The HTC One M8 has a Super LCD3 Full HD (1920 x 1080 pixels) display with a diagonal of 5 inches. This gives it a pixel density of 441 ppi, making it the densest (but not by much) pixel layout of the three April 2014 flagships.

The display was crisp, and colour reproduction hit the spot. SLCD3 is essentially IPS LCD with differing trademarks, and the wide viewing angles were also present. Sunlight legibility is good, but falls behind the M7.

Display test 50% brightness 100% brightness
Black, cd/m2 White, cd/m2 Contrast ratio Black, cd/m2 White, cd/m2 Contrast ratio
HTC One (M8) 0.20 245 1219 0.46 577 1256
HTC One 0.13 205 1580 0.42 647 1541
LG G Pro 2 0.11 130 1132 0.48 533 1113
LG G2 0.10 149 1522 0.45 667 1495
Samsung Galaxy Mega 6.3 0.12 160 1364 0.32 440 1379
Samsung I9505 Galaxy S4 0 201 0 404
Oppo Find 5 0.17 176 1123 0.51 565 1107
Apple iPhone 5/5c/5s 0.13 200 1490 0.48 640 1320

The contrast ratio wasn’t the best though, being surpassed by the M7 by a fair margin, as well as the LG G2 and mid-range Galaxy Mega. Under sunlight though, the M8 fares better, but not too well.

Sunlight Contrast

Again it falls behind the M7, but the fact is, the Xperia Z2, Z1, Galaxy S5 and Note 3 are far ahead. Still, as a consolation of sorts, the M8 does beat the Nexus 5 (albeit barely) and the LG G2.

Say what you will, the M8 has a staggering display. Under sunlight it is adequately bright enough to not be an issue while watching videos, and colour reproduction as well as viewing angles are flawless.

BATTERY LIFE

HTC has decided to pack in a 2600 mAh battery in their M8 – far lower than the Z2′s 3200 mAh and slightly less than the S5′s 2800 mAh. This capacity might seem tiny, but it will easily last you throughout your day.

Putting the M8 through our intensive daily usage test, we didn’t have high expectations. We used the device in the following situations:

  • 1 hour LTE web browsing
  • 1 hour WiFi web browsing
  • 1 hour WiFi YouTube video streaming (1080p)
  • 2 hour 1080p movie
  • 30 minutes light gaming (Angry Birds Rio)
  • Standby idling under Extreme Power Saving Mode

After all was said and done, the device had been away from the charger for 18 hours, with a 5.5 hour screen-on time. It managed to last 12.5 hours in standby with 26% of battery life remaining.

Extreme Power Saving mode on the M8
Extreme Power Saving mode on the M8

The standby time takes a massive boost when Extreme Power Saving mode is activated – the device only lost 1% of battery after 4 hours. This mode restricts your colour palette and app access access and changes the UI completely.

USER INTERFACE, APPS AND AUDIO

Sense 6 (left) vs Sense 5.5 (right) | PHOTO CREDIT: PHONEARENA
Sense 6 (left) vs Sense 5.5 (right) | PHOTO CREDIT: PHONEARENA

HTC has included the latest version of Sense (v6) with the M8, and it comes out of the box running 4.4.2 KitKat. Sense is a very tastefully designed user interface, and it has not changed much from 5.5.

The lockscreen has some minor changes though. Now, you can swipe up to return to your last app, swipe right for the home screen, and left for BlinkFeed. HTC has also included a very useful feature called MotionLaunch with the M8.

With the screen switched off, you can swipe up in portrait mode to unlock the device. Swiping down activates a voice calling feature, while swiping left and right takes you to the homescreen and BlinkFeed respectively. This only works without a security code though.

You can also simply wake up the display to see the time and weather by double tapping, though double tapping to switch the display off only works on the lockscreen and not the homescreen.

Screenshot_2014-04-26-18-24-49

HTC has also finally stepped in line with other manufacturers (except Samsung) by including on-screen navigation buttons. However they take up display space unless while viewing images or videos. Folders also follow stock Android style.

Similar to the M7, the left-most home pane houses BlinkFeed. It aggregates content from your social networks, as well as from over a thousand news sources, which will grow, as now third-party apps can include themselves in the repository.

Screenshot_2014-04-26-18-46-55

Thankfully, BlinkFeed is completely removable if you so wish.

Screenshot_2014-04-26-18-47-04

HTC has also taken the stock Android power toggles and improved them. Instead of having to long-press to activate them, you can simply short-press and tap on the three dots below if you wish to delve into their respective Settings menus.

There are up to five home panes available for you to use, which we felt was enough, even though some manufacturers offer up to seven. BlinkFeed does not count in the five though.

Screenshot_2014-04-26-18-47-48

As for the app drawer, you can either display the icons in 3×4 or 4×5 mode. Problem is, the former does not allow for the icons to be bigger – they just have acres of space around them instead. The lack of custom sorting also irked me, but it’s nothing a launcher won’t fix.

Screenshot_2014-04-26-18-49-07

The task switcher UI also follows the vertical format of the app-drawer, however there is a catch. Only 9 applications are stored in the RAM – any more, and they are killed automatically. If this is a result of the RAM being 2 GB as to the Xperia Z2′s 3 GB, it is a grave mistake.

As before, HTC Sense has a dedicated Car mode screen, which has been styled to look like the rest of the interface, and looks a lot like the Extreme Power Saving mode UI.

Screenshot_2014-04-26-18-51-17

HTC has also followed LG in including a Kids’ mode, where you can restrict access to apps based on different child profiles.

What we found really interesting and unique was in the stock music app. Switching to visualiser mode not only showed cool effects – it also showed the song’s lyrics. This needed an internet connection though, and the lyrics sometimes had grammatical errors. Some songs failed to display lyrics at all, as was the case with ‘Let it Go’.

As for the audio, BoomSound is truly amazing. It is amazingly loud, and I failed to find a situation where I could not hear any song regardless of background noise. However, at maximum volume, every song had tremendous distortion. All in all, the User Interface is extremely well done, both visually and in function, although it could improve in the latter.

PERFORMANCE BENCHMARKS

With the spanking new Snapdragon 801 humming inside the M8, there was never going to be any compromise in performance. The device gets a further boost in Asian markets, where the AC variant is included, compared to the AB variant in the US. The former runs at 2.5 GHz, while the latter at 2.3 GHz.

Looking at the benchmarks, in terms of raw power, the results confirm what we know – the Q4 2013 flagships stand no chance.

AnTuTu

In AnTuTu, a comprehensive benchmark that test everything from CPU to storage speed, the M8 beat the Z2, but fell short of the S5.

BrowserMark 2

In BrowserMark 2 though, the M8 was at the bottom of the 2014 pack, with the S5 creating a strong lead.

Vellamo

In Vellamo, surprisingly, the 2014 flagships fell far behind their Q4 2013 counterparts (save the Nexus 5). In between themselves though, the M8 performed the best.

Long story short though, these benchmarks mean barely anything, except providing an assurance of future-proofing. The M8 is going to be blazingly fast, and my personal use confirms the fact.

CAMERA INTERFACE

The HTC One M8 camera interface has been redesigned in tune to the rest of the UI. As before, since default aspect of the still camera matches that of the videos – 16:9, you don’t need to worry about framing different aspects on the same viewfinder (though there is the option to).

Your choice of shooting modes includes: Still camera, Video, Zoe camera, Selfie, Dual Capture (front and back camera simultaneously) and 360-degree Panorama. The Zoe Camera shooting mode records the necessary video and images to create the beautiful animated photo reels that you will find in the dedicated Zoe app.

DUO CAMERA

In today’s smartphone market where true innovation has been relegated to the rarity of a unicorn sighting, the folks over at HTC believe they have achieved it.

The dual-camera of the M8
The dual-camera of the M8

We, however, are not so sure. The Duo Camera seeks to achieve a 3D stereoscopic effect, however Sony has been long doing so, and recently Samsung, LG and Google have achieved this via software as well.

The various effects thanks to the duo-camera | PHOTO CREDIT: GSMARENA
The various effects thanks to the duo-camera | PHOTO CREDIT: GSMARENA

It doesn’t take any pictures, as it’s a sort of a range-finder. Its job is to create a depth map of your scene, which allows you to add high-quality rendered effects such as background blur (faux bokeh) or refocus your images after the shot. It can even allow for 3D-like photos with an extra layer of depth, which is visible when you tilt the phone (a parallax view).

The reason why the inclusion of Duo Camera is such an issue because it meant that the M8 lost the Optical Image Stabilisation (OIS) that was in the M7. It also meant that the device did not have enough physical space for the inclusion of a larger sensor or a higher resolution one.

We also can’t help but find the duo-camera gimmicky. Once the novelty wears off you are rarely going to be using its features in day-to-day photography. In our eyes, this is a grave mistake by HTC.

CAMERA PERFORMANCE

HTC has continued inclusion of the 4 MegaPixel “UltraPixel” camera in the One M8, with a comparatively tiny 1/3 inch sensor (Sony uses 1/2.3″ and Samsung 1/2.5″). HTC has also included a dual-LED flash they call “Smart Flash” similar to Apple’s “True-Tone” flash in the 5s.

In recent years, the megapixels race in smartphones has lit up, and consumers demand the largest values. However, photography enthusiasts know that the megapixels alone do not make a picture better – sensor size and post-processing are equally important too.

The UltraPixel explanation by HTC | PHOTO CREDIT: HTC
The UltraPixel explanation by HTC | PHOTO CREDIT: HTC

HTC took a big risk in 2013 when it announced that the HTC One would feature a 4 MP camera with their “UltraPixel” technology. This sacrificed resolution for larger sized pixels and the camera promised better performance in low-light conditions and a handful of other sought-after goodies (it did, but suffered in the day).

Unfortunately, the gamble did not work in 2013, and one year on, it has not worked either. While there is a noticeable improvement in image quality over the One M7, the M8 pales in comparison to the Xperia Z1/Z2 and Galaxy S5/Note 3.

Still Image Quality:

Day Samples:

The M8 has a fast auto-focus, except the accompanying software is poor when using the auto-focus. When allowed to choose focus on its own, colours were muted and dull like in the third picture. Otherwise, colours came out realistic and vivid and captured the scene perfectly. The only gripe there is is the resolution, which is woefully inadequate.

Night Samples:

At night though, the camera went from decent to absolutely terrible. The focus acted up again, and an auto-focus shot ended up looking like this. Even with manual focus, the noise was off the charts, lens flare was hugely excessive and colour reproduction also struggled.

There was a saving grace with the dual-LED flash and macro performance, but the lack of detail due to noise reduction and poor resolution make the camera unusable at night.

Video Quality:

Day Sample (1080p):

The video quality is not much better either. Even in the day, the lack of detail in the video is apparent, and thanks to the auto-focus, colours are muted.

Night Sample (1080p):

At night, the autofocus was abysmal and noise as well as lens flare was off the charts. This is something the One M7 actually did well in, and we are very disappointed with the regression in video quality.

Overall the camera is a horribly weak point for the HTC One M8. It is not just a chink in its aluminium armour, but a gaping hole. The meagre resolution, tiny sensor and lack of OIS all contribute to the extremely poor camera performance in both still and video images.

CONCLUSION

The HTC One is a tremendous device. But is it really the one to rule them all? We don’t think so. The camera is a massive let-down, and we were expecting better after the M7′s camera performed poorly last year.

M8 Launch outside

Other than that, there are issues with the device such as distortion of audio at maximum speaker volume, and the device heating up unnaturally within minutes, but there are many positives to the M8 as well.

For one, it is packing a ridiculously fast processor, and even with just 2600 mAh of battery capacity, manages to eke out an impressive battery life. The display is also one of the best ones today, and the BoomSound speakers have seen further improvements that make it the loudest ones one smartphones today. We also were impressed by the clean UI, and how fast it was.

HTC unveiling the M8 | PHOTO CREDIT: CULT OF ANDROID
HTC unveiling the M8 | PHOTO CREDIT: CULT OF ANDROID

Of course, it is impossible to ignore the sheer beauty of the HTC M8 – there is simply no device that can compare. The 90% metal choice by HTC is something that we really liked, especially in Gunmetal Grey and Amber Gold.

samsung-galaxy-s5-vs-sony-xperia-z2

Overall it is a seriously good contender for top spot in between the early 2014 flagships, but if you’re looking for a good camera, you’re better off with the Xperia Z2 or Galaxy S5. Even the LG G2 and Galaxy Note 3 can easily hold their own here, so do think long and hard before deciding on your next device.

Taking the camera out of the equation though, and you have got what I believe could have been the best phone for the first-half of 2014. Metal body, lovely UI, speakers and just about everything else make the HTC One M8 a stellar smartphone. The battle for 2014 has just begun.

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