A beautiful, highly competent smartphone that’s packed with clever features, but the improvements are too subtle to justify the significant price premium.
The HTC One (M8) is a smartphone with a lot to live up to. Its predecessor, the HTC One, was our favourite smartphone for six months, until the Nexus 5 rolled up. There’s more competition coming, too, in the form of the Samsung Galaxy S5 and the Sony Xperia Z2.
With such a daunting task on its hands, you might expect a radical overhaul. In fact, the One (M8) takes a subtle approach; it’s more a refinement than a redesign.
Instead of matte silver, the M8 features a polished, dark gunmetal-grey finish with an attractive brushed effect. It still has the smoothly rounded rear of the old unit, but the sharp, chiselled edges have been rounded off.
It has a larger 5in, 1080p display, making the phone slightly bigger than the original, but the difference isn’t major; the M8 is only half a fingernail taller. In all, it’s a good effort from HTC: the M8 is better looking than the One – and its major rivals.
From a practical point of view, we’re disappointed to see that the M8 lacks dust- and water-resistance, unlike the Samsung Galaxy S5 and the recently released Sony Xperia Z1 Compact. However, it’s good to see that HTC has added a microSD slot to the new model; with the original HTC One – now renamed the One (M7) – you were stuck with the storage you opted for at purchase.
Aside from the design, the most significant update concerns the Duo camera. Flip the M8 over and you’ll see two lenses – one that captures the main image and a smaller one that records only spatial information.
This enables the M8 to add dramatic depth-of-field effects to your photos after they’ve been taken. The UFocus tool allows you to blur foreground or background detail, while the Foregrounder effect isolates the main subject by desaturating the background and adding a sketch filter to it. Dimension Plus adds an interactive parallax effect to pictures; tilt the phone around and the background changes position relative to the foreground subject, in a similar fashion to Apple’s parallax wallpapers.
Alas, in most of our test shots, these effects weren’t completely clean: we saw plenty of areas where background effects encroached on the foreground subject, and vice versa. It’s also too easy to inadvertently leave a finger covering the depth sensor, meaning these effects won’t work at all.
Still, for general snaps, the camera is more than satisfactory. It uses a 1/3in, 4.1-megapixel sensor with the same 2µm “UltraPixels” as before, and an f/2 aperture. Unlike the original One, there’s no optical image stabilisation, but photos look sharper and cleaner: in low light, there’s more detail and better control over noise; in good light, there’s better judgement of exposure. The dual-colour, twin LED flash means taking snaps in a darkened pub lounge doesn’t result in ghost-white skin.
The lack of stabilisation leads to slightly shakier video footage, but more natural colours and crisper details make up for that. Overall, we’d say the M8’s rear camera is better than the Nexus 5’s, but it still can’t match the snappers of the iPhone 5s or the Nokia Lumia 1020.
The front-facing camera has been upgraded to a 5-megapixel unit, which produces surprisingly detailed self-portraits. HTC has added an onscreen countdown timer to make capturing these shots easier, too. We’re not keen on the new facial Touch Up filters, however: the eye resizer, skin smoother and face narrower are crude.
The One (M8) runs the latest version of HTC’s proprietary UI, Sense 6, on top of Android 4.4 KitKat. Naturally, this includes a number of customisations. First up is a feature called Motion Launch, which lets you wake up the phone with various gestures. A double-tap takes you to the lockscreen, while swiping up from the bottom takes you directly to your chosen homescreen. A swipe from the right opens the Android desktop, complete with shortcuts and widgets, and swipes from the top and left access voice-dialling mode and the HTC BlinkFeed interface respectively.
BlinkFeed itself has been updated to scroll continuously, rather than a page at a time. Blocks of colour now space out the items and give it a more airy feel, and it’s possible to search through items in your feed by keyword.
There are now two power-saving modes: a standard one and an “extreme” one, the latter of which shuts down all but the essential apps and limits CPU speed, brightness and non-essential features. In this mode, you can access only one screen, which displays the time, as well as shortcuts to the phone, SMS, email, calendar and calculator apps.
Core hardware and specification
The M8 sports the very latest in mobile-processing grunt: a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 SoC, clocked at 2.3GHz, backed by 2GB of RAM. It’s blazingly fast, scoring 2,849 in the multicore Geekbench 3 CPU test, and 29fps in the GFXBench T-Rex HD gaming test. These scores are slightly quicker than those of the Sony Xperia Z1 Compact, and a good distance ahead of the Nexus 5.
HTC has also significantly boosted performance in the audio department. It has redesigned the forward-facing speaker chambers to produce even more volume than before – and it’s still distortion-free. Call quality is equally good, and wireless communications are suitably comprehensive, including 4G, NFC and 802.11ac.
Display and battery life
The M8’s 5in display isn’t only bigger than the screen in the original One, it’s also punchier, with a contrast ratio of 1,687:1, compared to 1,202:1. It’s just as bright as before, making it a fantastic display that’s perfectly readable outside and inside.
The One (M8) also has a bigger battery, rising from 2,300mAh to 2,600mAh. HTC claims this, combined with improved component efficiency and the new battery-saver mode, can deliver a “40% increase” in overall battery performance.
That’s a little optimistic, but the M8 did perform well in our tests. While playing a 720p video with the screen set to 120cd/m2 (slightly below mid-brightness), capacity fell at a rate of 6.5% per hour. Streaming audio over 3G used up 3.8% per hour. Leaving the phone overnight in standby – but still syncing several accounts – consumed a miserly 0.3% per hour.
These results place it only fractionally behind the Sony Xperia Z1 Compact – but you’ll need to watch your gaming habit. In the gaming portion of our battery test, at mid-brightness, the M8 chomped through a frightening 42.3% per hour.
The One (M8) is a better smartphone than last year’s One. It has superior cameras and software; the display is superb; and the design is the best we’ve seen from a smartphone this year. At the moment, it’s the best Android smartphone money can buy.
There are two key sticking points, however. The first is that its biggest rival, the Samsung Galaxy S5, brings even more significant changes, including a new camera autofocus system, water- and dust-resistance and a bigger battery, plus fingerprint and heart-rate sensors. The second is that the Nexus 5, although not as impressive, costs $500 less.
The HTC One (M8) is a cracking smartphone, and is packed with useful and clever features, but if you’re on a budget, it isn’t revolutionary enough to justify the premium over a Nexus 5.