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HTC One M8 review: An absolutely storming phone in almost every way

Holly Brockwell Gadgets & Apps 6 Comments

Originally published on Tech Digest. Handset supplied by Carphone Warehouse.

With the HTC One (M7) being one of the most popular HTC phones of all time, the M8 had a big case to fill. But HTC have outdone themselves, adding a staggering amount of impressive features, both in hardware and software. This is a flagship phone in every way, and it really is almost flawless.

The handset – 9/10

Screen-1-579x1024 (1)

What a beauty. Smoother than a seashell, the M8’s brushed metal finish glides across the palm of your hand – almost to the point that I was worried about dropping it. The curved back is extremely comfortable to hold, even on long calls, and the generous 5-inch screen offers pixel-perfect full HD. The M8 is currently available in gold, silver and grey – presumably chosen to show off the brushed aluminium unibody – although the flagship Dot View case comes in more shades if you’re not a fan of metallics.

Looking around the phone, some questionable hardware decisions have been taken in comparison with the M7. The power button has shifted from the top left to the top right of the phone, which I found awkward to use, although I’m told lefties prefer the new design. Most vexingly, the headphone jack has decamped from the top of the handset to the bottom, next to the charging port. This is particularly irritating if you’re slipping the phone into a pocket while wearing headphones – you have to pocket the phone upside-down to avoid losing a phone’s-length of wire. It also makes the handset awkward to hold in portrait mode while headphones are plugged in – the jack is right in the way of the heel of your hand, so you have to hold the phone further up.

The volume rocker and nano-SIM slot are in roughly the same places as before, and above the volume is – joy of joys – a MicroSD slot. Lack of expandable storage was one of the major complaints about the M7, and indeed about a lot of the M8’s rivals, so its inclusion is a very smart move. You’ll need the little SIM-poker tool to open the slot.

The experience – 9/10

HTC Sense 6 combines with Android KitKat to make a user experience that’s hard to beat. The pastel-hued Sense 6 has a flatter, simpler design than the previous version, and includes an immensely useful array of Motion Launch gestures. The handiest is double-tap to wake: pick up the phone in portrait mode and tap twice on the screen to wake it. This also works on the Dot View case: tap twice to see the time, weather, or any notifications.

Picking up the phone and swiping left gives you the widget panel (otherwise known as the middle bit of your various home screens), right gives you Blinkfeed, and swiping down activates voice calling, if you’re the kind of person who can say “call mum” without feeling embarrassed. If you pick up the handset in landscape mode and click the volume rocker, the camera app opens, which I’ve found useful for quick snaps. These gestures can be set to bypass any security you have on the phone, though, so think carefully before potentially risking the security of your device.

There are also some built-in interactions in Sense 6 that just feel like magic. Swipe down on the Status bar and it’ll show your notifications, as usual – but swipe down with two fingers and it opens Quick Settings instead. When your phone rings, you can just lift it to your ear to answer, without pressing anything at all. The classic HTC feature of turning a ringing phone over to mute it is still there, plus the option to mute it once (it’ll ring again while upside down if you get another call) or always (no ringing while it’s flipped). It’s worth noting that this just mutes the ringtone rather than rejecting the call. And as before, the phone will ring louder when it’s in a pocket or bag, and reduce the ring volume when you pick it up as it rings (useful for those embarrassing cinema calls).

One thing I really don’t like about the One M8 as opposed to the M7 is that the Back and Home buttons have moved from the HTC bezel to the screen, meaning they’re now software buttons. HTC have made up for this somewhat by adding a Thumbnails button, which shows all the apps you have open (previously accessed by tapping Home twice) but I’ve found it quite frustrating, because you sometimes have to tap the screen to see the buttons before you can press one. In the camera app, for example, the buttons become tiny dots to maximise space for the viewfinder. Tapping one of these dots brings up the three buttons, which you then have to tap again to get the feature you wanted. Going from one tap to two is annoying, and confusing given that the HTC bezel on the M8 is as beefy as always. Perhaps the speaker hardware took up all the space.

HTC Blinkfeed has been given an overhaul, making it look and perform better, although I’ve never been a fan. You can swipe right to customise the kind of content you see and which social networks it pulls in, and when you view a news story, swipe left or right to see more stories. Luckily for me, HTC is much less strict about removing its favourite features than other phone manufacturers, and Blinkfeed can be turned off.

There’s a general lack of bloatware on the device as a whole, which is much appreciated. Alongside the blisteringly fast Qualcomm® Snapdragon™ 801 quad-core processor, this makes the M8 one of the fastest and most responsive phones I’ve seen (even if you never use an app, background processes and syncing can slow your phone down and sap battery life, which is why bloatware that can’t be switched off is particularly egregious).

Switching between open apps is as simple as tapping the Thumbnails button and choosing a tile. The switch is seamless and instant. I’ve noticed no lagging, dragging, or delayed response whatsoever. It’s a very snappy phone.

The screen- 9/10

The display is everything you’d expect from a high-end handset: 1080×1920 HD resolution with a good range of viewing angles. I’ve had no problems with colour temperature or depth, although some people apparently have, which also happened with the M7 and seems to be a handset fault rather than a device-wide issue. There’s no perceptible lag and the display copes very well in sunlight on the maximum brightness setting.

The screen is made of Gorilla glass, so should be pretty resilient, but teardowns have shown it to be a complete faff to replace (iFixit gave the phone a repairability score of just 2 out of 10), so be extra-careful. In the US, the HTC Advantage scheme will do a free screen replacement within the first 6 months, but currently the UK Advantage page just says ‘coming soon’.

Again the size of the bezel around the screen has been an issue for some people, but I can’t honestly say I’ve noticed it while using the phone. A big justification for the size of the bezel is the two front-facing speakers, which combine with BoomSound technology (replacing Beats on the M7) to provide impressively loud, well-defined audio. Make sure you turn the volume down before you set an alarm on this one!

The camera – 8/10

There’s been a lot of talk about the M8 camera, mostly because 4MP seems pitifully low for such a high-end phone. HTC’s answer to this is that the front-facing camera – arguably more important for many people – is 5MP, and they’re using a large UltraPixel sensor on the main camera for better performance in low light. There’s also a second camera beside it, which gives you a whole host of exciting post-processing options including changing the focus of a picture after it’s been taken.

The main camera is every bit as impressive as the M7’s on Auto mode, and includes manual settings for people who like to play with shutter speed, ISO and aperture. These pictures were all shot on Auto (and could probably have done with HDR to fix the bright sky):

HTC One M8

HTC One M8

HTC One M8

HTC One M8

‘Selfie’ mode, as the camera calls it, takes well-focused pictures that you won’t be embarrassed to share on Snapchat (subject matter notwithstanding).

HTC One M8 selfie

HTC is still trying to convert users to its Zoe feature, which has always seemed a bit pointless, but definitely shows improvement in the M8. Take a video on Zoe mode and the phone will take continuous photos throughout the first three seconds of filming, so it’s ideal for capturing action shots which can then be combined into the internet’s favourite format, the animated gif. You can’t zoom in Zoe mode, so use normal video for that.

The dual cameras unlock a host of new options that are really fun to play with but fundamentally a bit gimmicky. The primary one is the ability to refocus a photo after you’ve taken it (although you can only do this once), which could potentially be useful for arty shots. The phone even warns you if you’re accidentally blocking the second lens, which is quite easy to do accidentally. If you take a photo in low light or use the zoom function, you won’t be able to use the duo camera effects later.

To try these effects, open a photo and tap Edit, then Effects, which brings up four options: UFocus, Foregrounder, Seasons and Dimension Plus. UFocus is the refocusing feature, while the oddly-named Foregrounder gives you the option to add sketch, blur, cartoon or colourise effects to the foreground or background of your photo by tapping the appropriate part of the image. Seasons, bafflingly, adds animated seasonal weather to your photo – you can make any picture look a bit weepy by adding animated snowflakes, I’ve discovered.

Before post-processing:

 

After applying the colourising effect:

 

After refocusing:

Dimension Plus is intended to make your photos look 3D. You can drag and swipe the photo to see the 3D effect, which varies from rubbish to actually quite good. Worth experimenting with, but again I can’t see the practical use.

Helpfully, the M8 photo gallery automatically saves your most viewed and shared photos in an album called Highlights. You can manually add photos to this by starring them for easy access.

The battery – 8/10

At 160g, the phone feels considerably heavier than the M7, and compared to similar-spec phones. This is probably down to the amount of metal, and the size of the battery – an impressive 2600 mAh (the M7 has 2300, the LG G2 has 3000). Once again, though, the battery can’t be accessed or replaced.

Sense 6 comes with a new battery-saving mode called Extreme Power Saving, which basically turns your phone into a dumbphone that can only do calls, texts and email. This can be a real lifesaver if your phone’s almost out of juice, but that isn’t nearly as much of a problem with this handset as it was on the previous One. Many M7 users got used to carrying around a portable power pack if they used their phones much during the day, but the M8’s increased capacity and smarter power use mean that it lasts noticeably longer. After two hours streaming a fullscreen film over Wi-Fi with GPS and BoomSound enabled and maximum screen brightness (which is probably a bit too bright), the battery depleted from 100% to 66%. In other words, you can watch an entire movie and still probably have enough power to last the day at normal usage.

The official HTC Dot View case has been one of the most hyped features about this phone, mostly because it looks really, really cool. It’s a rubber-feel flip case with a matrix of dots (if you’re thinking of 90s printers right about now, you’re not alone) that light up with adorably 8-bit-looking icons. Using the HTC Dot View app, you can see the time, weather, and phone notifications without opening the case or turning the screen on. There’s also a selection of themes you can use if you’d like the cover to show a pattern, but I prefer the lo-fi look – it looks particularly amazing in the dark.

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The main complaints about this case have been that dust gets trapped in the dots, which is true, and that the choice of notifications is too limited. Currently, you can only see calls, texts, voicemail and email – and that’s the official Mail app, not Gmail. Users have been crying out for the ability to add notifications from WhatsApp, Facebook, Snapchat and other apps, so I expect HTC will roll this out before long.

The case itself doesn’t seem like it’d do a particularly good job of protecting your phone from a bad fall, so if your handset isn’t insured, you might want to look elsewhere. Using a screen protector can stop the flip case from sitting flush with the phone, and I wouldn’t be surprised if over time the hinge loses its snappiness. You have to bend the very springy case around to the back of the phone to use the screen, which is awkward to hold and will probably cause an eventual loosening of the hinge.

I’ve found the double-tap and swiping features to be quite temperamental – sometimes it works every time, and sometimes the phone completely ignores you. I’ve also accidentally activated the screen through the case a couple of times, particularly when walking and holding the closed phone in one fist.

Nonetheless, it’s a great choice of case if you want something cool and innovative, less so if you’re really worried about damage.

The Final Score – 43/50

Holly reviews the HTC One M8 in more detail in the video below.

This is an absolutely storming phone in almost every way. The only real drawbacks are minor: the lack of accessible battery, the extra weight, and the awkwardly-placed headphone jack. Compared with the phone’s strengths – particularly the sound quality, screen clarity, endless camera options and sophisticated design – these are trifling and barely worth thinking about. If you want a phone that you never get tired of showing off, buy one of these and a Dot View case. Your iPhone mates will be sick with envy.

Thumbs up

  • Camera features
  • Beautiful body
  • Excellent speakers

Thumbs down

  • Inaccessible battery
  • Weighty
  • Headphone jack on the bottom

Classmates

  • LG G3
  • OnePlusOne
  • Samsung Galaxy S5
  • Google Nexus 5
  • Sony Xperia Z2

By Holly Brockwell | July 25th, 2014