HTC One (M8) “The Best Made Better”

The original HTC One was always going to be a hard act to follow. Gorgeous hardware with usable software and some very clever features, wrapped up in something that was as powerful as it looked. And now, under the tag of “the best just got better,” HTC have released their new One.

Before I start the review I need to write a little about the new handset’s title, which is officially the HTC One (M8), whereas the older model is now the HTC One (M7). I don’t like calling my device the One (M8) or even the M8, I would prefer calling it the 2014 One. Or maybe Cecil, then I can call the 2013 model Sarah-Jane? Point is that I’ve been scratching around for things that I don’t like about the new One and the name is on that very short list. This is a flavor of the review to come!

Just because I have one of the best handsets in the universe, doesn't mean my buddies don't stop picking on me!

Just because I have one of the best handsets in the universe, doesn’t mean my buddies don’t stop picking on me!

I’ll start my review of the new HTC One by writing about the hardware, because again HTC have pulled something special out of the bag. Whilst the new HTC One is a tangible improvement over the original One, it’s also larger. They’ve smoothed off the edges and it feels very much like the rounded Desire 601 in the hand, only metal.

Oh and metal: the original One was only 70% metal construction whereas the newer model is 90%.

The M8 is barely wider and thicker than the M7 but noticeably taller. If you’re familiar with the iPhone, the difference is length is similar to the transition from the iPhone 4S to the iPhone 5. The M8 is heavier, whereas the newer iPhone was a lot lighter than the outgoing model, but it doesn’t feel it.

The Nexus 5, HTC One (M8) and HTC One (M7)

The Nexus 5, HTC One (M8) and HTC One (M7)

I need to say that I don’t notice the extra size of the handset until I use something smaller, such as the Desire S. Comparing it next to the Nexus handsets and it dwarfs the both the Nexus 4 and Nexus 5 devices. It’s as tall as the Samsung Galaxy Note II but narrower: however you look at it, it’s a big handset.

Let me write about box specification. The M8 is the first handset sold by my carrier to use the Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor, narrowly beating the Galaxy S5 out of the blocks. The One’s processor is clocked at 2.3 GHz and is paired up with 2 GB of RAM, 16 GB of internal storage (there’s a 32 GB version also available) plus a MicroSD card slot. The screen is now 5.0″ in size and still 1080p resolution. It has dual rear cameras, one being the 4 Mpixel unit with HTC’s “UltraPixel” branding and the other to help with depth perception. There’s a 5 Mpixel camera on the front. The M7 used onscreen buttons, which have now been replaced by onscreen buttons.

You have the usual array of radio networks including 2G, 3G, 4G, GPS, GLONASS, Bluetooth 4, NFC, infrared and high speed WiFi. You don’t get Qi wireless charging or a laser rangefinder. Power comes from a 2,600 mAh battery, slightly larger than the 2,300 mAh that powered the M7 One. The One supports Qualcomm’s QuickCharge 2.0 standard, which allows high speed charging using a higher voltage than usual. I’ll come to write about battery life later in the review, but this is not a handset that ties you down to a power outlet.

The M8 comes with Android 4.4 Kit Kat and HTC’s latest version of Sense, 6 (known as Sixth Sense). There’s a notification LED on the front and HTC’s now iconic dual front stereo speakers, called BoomSound, which are more powerful than the last model. The 3.5mm headphone socket has been moved to the bottom of the device.

HTC include a good set of earphones, data cable and silica case in the box, but no charger. I like this idea: I have at least half a dozen MicroUSB chargers at home and any of these will work with the HTC.

In use, the One is just as we should be expecting from a modern flagship handset. It’s smooth and quick when moving between applications. There’s little to write here because the One is as responsive as I expected. When running in Power Saver mode, the processor is underclocked to 1.1 GHz and you can tell that the device is not quite as snappy, but it never reaches the point of feeling sluggish.

On paper the screen is not quite as sharp as the previous generation One, being a little larger, but my eyes cannot tell. The biggest change that HTC have implemented is not the size of the screen but is that the M8 includes on-screen buttons, whereas the M7 has buttons set under the screen. This means that the effective screen size is not so much larger with the new ‘phone despite the increased size.

In terms of screen color reproduction, brightness, clarity and responsiveness, here again it’s business as usual. It’s sharp, clear, accurate and exactly what a flagship screen should be like.

The HTC logo at the bottom of the screen has raised a few eyebrows with people disliking it for wasting space. One of HTC’s design engineers Tweeted that under here the device is packed with electronics, so it isn’t a waste of space. I did not notice this in day to day use but it’s something to be aware of.

BoomSound is claimed to louder than before, which was already loud. The M8 loses Beats audio, which is replaced with HTC’s own music-enhancing BoomSound feature. This works as advertised, giving music more depth and sparkle when using a wired headset. It’s a noticeable improvement over the Nexus devices I typically use. When using the front mounted speakers for satellite navigation, watching YouTube clips or playing music, the device sounds clean and, yes you get it; loud.

As long term readers will know, I am fussy when it comes to ‘phone call audio. I’m really pleased to write that HTC haven’t ignored the cell ‘phone’s main quoted function, which is making and receiving calls. And folks, I have a new in-call champion: the HTC One (M8). It’s slightly better than the older generation One, the Moto X and the Nexus 4, my previous call quality champions. If you spend quite a bit of time on the ‘phone or need to make or receive calls in a noisy environment, this is the best handset I’ve tested so far.

The M8’s cellular radio performance is impressive, too. I tested the One back to back with a large number of handsets including the Nexus 5, Nexus 4, M7 One and found that the M8 gave consistently higher data speeds, measured by my carrier’s network application. The difference was usually between 20% to 25% over 3G. This perhaps shows the improvement associated with Qualcomm’s modem optimisation hardware. In real world use the difference did retrieve and render websites faster than other handsets I was testing but it’s difficult to quantify how much quicker.

Sense 6 running over Android Kit Kat has some improvements compared with Sense 5.5 on the M7. It’s just as fast and smooth as before but has some new features as well as some of the established favourites that I’ve known and loved for some time, including the ability to ring louder when the handset is hidden in a pocket or bag and to mute the ringer when picked up.

Close in photography, this is Zeus.

Close in photography, this is Zeus.

One of my favourite features is the automatic screen timeout, which I admit it not a few Sense 6 feature. This setting essentially keeps the screen active if you are holding the device and shuts it down pretty quickly if you are not.

Sense 6 also includes HTC’s backup service, which can store information about the handset in Google Drive should you upgrade or lose the device. I’ve used HTC Backup over Sense 5.5 and it’s one of those services I hope to never use, but is very handy when you do.

Of course, HTC Sense still comes with many online accounts built into the device. You can add Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram and LinkedIn accounts with a few taps. A new features for the M8 is integrated Fitbit support using the lots power sensor suite built into the device. It’s easy to tell if you’ve had a lazy day!

These low power sensors are also used for Sense’s Motion Launch feature, where you can control the device without tapping the lock button, for example. Picking the device up in portrait mode and sliding up on the screen will unlock the handset. Or you may slide left to activate the application launcher, right to activate BlinkFeed and down to activate the voice dial functions. You need to pick up the device in portrait mode to activate these functions; you can activate the camera by picking up the device in landscape mode and tapping a volume button.

To my surprise, I quickly adapted to using these gesture controls. They’re especially useful because the device is quite long and even with large hands, the lock button is a bit of a stretch away. I also appreciate HTC’s decision to simply turn Motion Launch gestures on or off rather than allow the user to fiddle with each setting: this keeps the device that much easier to use.

I was a little disappointed to read that the M8 my carrier sells is the 16 GB model, but pleased to see that HTC have included a MicroSD card slot. I’m happy enough with this compromise but I do not install games onto my device, which tend to have large download files and would quickly eat into this storage.

You can capture with the front and rear cameras at the same time. Just need a better subject!

You can capture with the front and rear cameras at the same time. Just need a better subject!

There have been some improvements made to BlinkFeed, too, which has taken a step closer to Google Reader. As with previous versions of Sense, BlinkFeed defaults to updating automatically over WiFi rather than the cellular network and again there’s no obvious impact on battery life. I should add that HTC have separated many extra functions – including BlinkFeed, Zoe, Gallery, Backup and Sense TV – to make them available via the Google Play Store. This means that users don’t have to wait for their carrier to approve new software versions in order to be running the latest versions of HTC’s applications.

This leads me on to talk about battery life, because it’s significantly better than one might expect from a 5.0″ screen, quad core 2.3 GHz processor and motion sensors constantly awake. Traditionally, HTC have included a relatively small battery compared with Sony or Samsung and here, the 2,600 mAh battery is the smallest of the early 2014 high end devices. This written, the battery is easily enough for a single day to a charge. I didn’t have an issue with the original HTC One but the new model is much better. That single day can easily be stretched to three days without using some of HTC’s more aggressive power saving technology, Extreme Power Saver Mode.

Extreme Power Saver Mode is a new feature that locks the handset down into running a very limited number of applications. Unfortunately, you can’t access Gmail when in Extreme Power Saver Mode but you can access the HTC email application. You can set the handset to put itself into Extreme Power Saver Mode when the battery gets low if you want to, but as a caveat the best way to get the most out of the battery is to manually disable radios before putting the One into this mode, as you cannot access Settings. It’s a neat idea that would benefit from a little more development.

As I said in the opening to the review, the One (M8) includes two cameras on the back. HTC have included some special image processing functions straight into the handset that takes advantage of the handset’s ability to measure depth, but I don’t want to go into such detail in this review as it probably merits an article by itself. Instead, I’d like to concentrate on the point and click end of the camera, which is how I use it most of the time. The results are good: the UltraPixel camera doesn’t have the same sharp level of detail as other flagship handsets but has good color reproduction and pictures are acceptable.

I started this article writing about the things I didn’t like about the HTC One. The name is on that list, as is the lack of Qi charging because I’m used to putting a device onto a charger mat rather than fiddling about with a MicroUSB cable. And that, actually, is pretty much it. Even the slightly weak camera is okay by my books. If you’re okay with a large handset, the One gets it right.

Wrapping things up, then, how good is the HTC One (M8) as a productivity device? It’s fast, has good battery life, great sound quality and is easy to set up and use. It is quite a big, heavy handset, even for the user moving from HTC’s 2013 flagship HTC One (M7) but if this doesn’t put you off, I wholeheartedly recommend the device. It deserves to sell by the bucket load.

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  • Very nice review. Lots of informative information 😀