In 2013, HTC was coming off of a rough year. They had gone a year with the One X as their flagship device, and though reviews placed the device on equal footing with the Samsung Galaxy S III, sales were faltering. At that time HTC was using a similar camera to the S III and was also using a polycarbonate shell. To try and differentiate a little bit and increase sales, HTC released the HTC One to duke it out with the Samsung Galaxy S4. The HTC One came with a new aluminum housing and its “UltraPixel” camera. The HTC One was universally praised for its design and display, but received mixed reviews on most everything else. Fast forward to 2014 and we are seeing an HTC in much the same spot it was in 2013.
This year, HTC has decided to use some of its previous tricks and a few new ones to try and draw in more customers from Samsung. On March 25 HTC announced and released the All New HTC One (M8) featuring a dual event in London and New York City, as well as same day release with some carriers. Is this the device that will allow HTC to climb back to the top of the Android heap? Will it allow HTC to simply stay relevant and survive another year? Read on true believers for thoughts on the All New HTC One (M8). (Note: for the purposes of this article I will abbreviate to M8 for the All New HTC One and M7 for last year’s HTC One.)
The best way to look at and consider the M8 is to compare it to what we have seen before. Last year’s M7 is obviously a good place to start. This year’s model features a very similar visual aesthetic but may feature more changes than you would suspect on a cursory inspection. The M8 is a little taller than last year’s device, features a 5 inch screen instead of 4.7 inches, and is more rounded in its appearance. You will notice the new second camera on the back of the M8 and last year’s capacitive buttons have eschewed for on-screen buttons (while leaving the same black bar underneath the screen where capacitive buttons were in the past).
Visually, the M8 is a stunning device. It is well put together and screams craftsmanship. This year’s model reduces the amount of plastic in the device by featuring a more rounded back metal plate that comes around to the front of the device. The edges on the front of the device as well as around the cameras and flash are chamfered, giving the device that premium look that you will see on jewelry. The device is not as striking and daring as last year’s model, which (in my opinion) had a tougher, more in-your-face aesthetic. However, where last year’s model popped more and felt more striking, this year’s model looks a bit more elegant and refined.
The only thing I am willing to comment on negatively about way the device looks is that black bar and the bezel size. I have seen no explanation from HTC on that black bar. Both the M7 and M8 have a lot of bezel. The inclusion of the BoomSound front-facing speakers in and of itself causes the device to stretch to the tall side and when you compare the screen to front surface area ratio to that of devices like the Motorola Moto X and the LG G2, it is a bit disappointing. Even the side bezels (though reduced this year) are a little disappointing. All of those things can be overlooked, but that black bar sticks out like a sore thumb. When you look and see that and have familiarity with last year’s device it almost appears as though HTC decided late in the device’s development that they should use on screen buttons instead of capacitive buttons but had already finalized hardware, deciding to pull out the capacitive buttons but leaving the black bar. If you are familiar with the common sentiment of Android fanboys, on screen buttons are the preference. I personally have likes and dislikes about both, cancelling out my opinion. However, what I am willing to say is, if the theory I just posited is correct, it was a bad decision. If on screen buttons reduces bezel size great, but if you are going to give me a bigger screen and leave in the space that was once dedicated to buttons, I would just assume you leave the buttons and give me all of the screen real estate. This choice here is weird. Perhaps even weirder than last year’s decision to go with an untraditional two button lay out.
All of that being said about the bezel and the black bar, I still think this is one of, if not the, most beautifully designed Android devices to date. Can it be improved upon? Sure. Can you get accustomed to the size? Absolutely. Does the way it feels in your hand take it to the next level? Oh yes!
The HTC One may be visually striking and look like a smartphone made by a jeweler, but that is not even the best thing about the design. This device is one of the best feeling devices I have ever handled. The rounding of the back coupled with the feeling of substance really make this device comfortable to hold and premium feeling. The feeling of metal on the back is vastly superior to the LG G2 and Galaxy S4 and somewhat better than the Moto X. The device is heavy but not too heavy. The contour of the metal wrapping all the way to the front make it leaps and bounds better in the hand than the M7. Any reservation or complaints I have about this device seem to melt away as long as I am holding it because I just don’t want to put it down. There is still room for improvement, however, as HTC has stayed the course with the power button being on the top of the device. With a device this tall the power button really needs to come over to the side. That is alleviated in software but still warrants being mentioned.
The M8 features the specs you would expect (mostly) from a flagship device in 2014. HTC has long been partnered with Qualcomm (even to a detriment at times) and continues that trend with the Snapdragon 801 processor coupled with an Adreno 330 GPU and 2 GB of RAM. There is no shortage of power coming out of this device, but I am not the type to dwell on that aspect of a device. We have reached a place with smartphones where benchmarking and obsessing over processing power is silly. The specs that matter are, the 5 inch 1080p SLCD3 display, covered in Corning Gorilla Glass 3. The battery is a non-removable 2600 mAh lithium polymer battery. The Verizon version of the device comes with 32 GB of storage and a MicroSDXC slot for expanded storage up to 128 GB. The camera I will save for later.
All in all you should see similar performance to other flagship devices. The battery is a tad smaller than the Samsung Galaxy S5 and a little bit smaller than the LG G2. The battery is bigger than the one in the M7 though and you should see modest improvement in this generation. If you are the battery crushing type you may want to get the extra capacity of a G2 or the S5 when it is released because of its removable battery. The screen is phenomenal and continues to be one of the strongpoints for HTC if you are looking for excellent color reproduction and clarity. It lacks the power saving features of an AMOLED but also lacks the blown out colors that are often associated with AMOLED screens. Last year HTC was putting the best looking panel in any devices on the market, and this year is no different in that respect. That being the said, the spread from the worst panels to the best panels is shrinking and making a good panel less of a selling point. The M8 also include HTC BoomSound which is the front facing speakers. You will not find a better sounding speaker on a smartphone.
Overall my main point on specs on flag ship devices these days boils down to asking yourself questions about your preferences. You are going to get good performance out of pretty much any device at this point with slight variances here and there in particular areas. Specs are not completely commoditized yet, but they are so close that it boils down to personal preferences. I will talk more about this towards the end.
The most controversial aspect of this phone is no doubt the camera. We are in an age where smartphone cameras are great in some cases, and the expectation for them to take great pictures is on the rise. Last year HTC decided to take a different approach and take the focus away from the number of pixels in a picture and focus on the quality of the picture that was taken. They dubbed their new technology UltraPixel and featured a sensor that would allow for capturing of more data. They also added optical image stabilization (OIS) to improve low light shooting situations. The results were mixed. The M7 seemed to take better low light pics than most cell phones but was fairly average in better lighting. Being average and having a lot less pixels is probably not the best idea. On top of that there were problems with many devices casting a purplish hue in some pictures, likely from heat in the camera sensor. It’s safe to say that while most were optimistic with the camera on the M7 (after all, people had been saying for years, megapixels don’t matter) pretty much all of humanity had decided that it was a letdown and needed improving.
The M8 is now upon us and is some of the same and some changes. The camera again features a 4 MP camera (and again dubbed UltraPixel) for shooting images up to 2688×1520 resolution. The changes come in the addition of a second camera sensor that is used for depth perception, a dual LED/dual tone flash (dual tone means that there are two different colors on each flash LED that adjust their brightness to create lighting that is unique to the situation and more lifelike), and the removal of OIS. The controversial aspect of this camera comes down to a few things. First, the resolution is not very high. That means that while the picture may look fantastic on your device, it may still fail to have enough pixels to fill out newer higher resolution displays. You can still print out a good looking 4×6 photo but paper is dead and high res screens are proliferating our lives. Second, OIS has been removed because it is not compatible with the new Duo Camera. Third, many people see the Duo Camera and the software enhancements it adds as a gimmick.
I am of a mixed mind on the camera on the M8. The resolution is low. Some ardent HTC supporters will ask where are you ever going to see the picture other than on the phone, and they are not entirely wrong. Virtually all of my pictures are going to be seen on my phone or other people’s phones. Perhaps occasionally I will want to print one, but this seems unlikely. Even if I would like to print pictures from the phone, it’s even less likely to end up being a large print. I might put it on a high res screen and once 4k is the standard resolution on things it will be very subpar but really it seems like we are in a world that is more concerned with smaller screens than larger ones. I do know this though, I have a son and I am taking a lot of pictures of him and want them to last forever. With that being the case, the higher the pixel count the better. In 20 years when I have a 16k monitor for a wall in my house and I want pictures to show up there, my M8 pictures will be sidelined (this is partly tongue in cheek and partly serious.) If I am going to settle for less pixels I should have a phone that I know is going to take fantastic pictures all the time and is going to be the best camera I can have. The pixel count is less important if the picture just sucks.
The camera on the M8 does have the new Duo Camera, though, and some new features. The second sensor is capturing depth information. The way that plays out is that it allows the M8 to snap pics at really fast speeds…seriously fast speeds. I don’t know that I have gotten faster response out of any other phone and that is because of how quick the device can lock on to and focus in on things. The other things that this camera is allowing one to do is apply effects on pictures after they are taken using the depth information. The second sensor may be mostly gimmick but it does have utility. The fact that it caused the removal of OIS may counterbalance those utilities, but I am not ready to say that is the case at this point. OIS is the new term that everyone is grabbing on to and acting like it’s a game changer (OIS works by allowing the camera to stabilize itself in case of movement while the shutter is open. Since the shutter is open longer in low light pictures, allowing more light in, movement causes ghosting in the images) but I find most of my problems in low light are what I am capturing moving, not myself. So, if OIS is not making a big difference it may be a worthy sacrifice. This is something I may come back to in the future but right now I have to say that I would take the increased snap speed over the OIS.
The front facing camera in the M8 has been upgraded to 5 MP which seems kind of funny when you consider that the back is lower res. Front facing cameras have been crummy pretty much from day one just like the first cell phone cameras were. I don’t know if this improvement is a blessing because it makes selfies better or a curse because it makes selfies easier to take. I will just err on the side of better tech and say it’s just better, even if it does only lend itself to more duck face.
Finally, the camera software is an important area to address. The camera software on the Nexus line has not been great and OEMs have been trying to jam in new features. Most of the features on all phones have been take or leave, and this is no exception. The M8 features Zoes, a feature that was introduced on the M7, but it has been slightly tweaked. Zoes no longer have the time restraint that they had previously and they allow you to snatch frames from the video at your leisure. The software also adds in the new features that allow for effects to be added after the fact. The things about these effects, even the ones that rely heavily on the depth information, can be done on single lens cameras. Perhaps it is easier and more accurate to apply a bokeh effect in the background of a picture with this Duo Lens setup but it only enhances the feeling that this is a gimmick (though I am hopeful that with there being a public API we will see more and better utilization.) The rest of the camera is standard fare. I will say that I do like the software as it is simple and effective. It has an easy layout and anyone can pick it up and start snapping.
What more can I say about the camera situation here? I want more pixels, but I think I like the other aspects of the camera. Maybe a higher megapixel count would have resulted in less pictures that would be worth keeping. I feel like this is something that each person has to ask themselves about this device and this camera. Some people will rely more heavily on a DSLR. Some will place a preference on other aspects. It’s hard to say what you should think about this camera other than to say, we just want more. However, I feel like I am saying that to pretty much every camera in a smartphone on the planet. My last word (at least for now in the event that I change my mind later) is that the camera takes really good pictures in low and regular lighting. It takes better pictures than the M7, they look really nice in mist situations, and I will plan on having my DSLR for special occasions. I feel really good about the quality of the images taken vs. the pixel count.
HTC pioneered custom skins on top of operating systems. They launched Sense very early on and were even doing similar things on Windows Mobile before Android was released. They have been doing software for quite some time. Sense was highly regarded when it first came out and the Android user experience left something to be desired. But, as Android improved and Sense added bloat, Sense fell out of favor. The last couple of iterations of Sense have tried to curtail the problems, last year featuring the largest visual overhaul to date. This year Sense (now on version 6), has been more of a refinement than an overhaul. HTC took what was good about Sense 5 and just tweaked and prodded here and there. The overall visual aesthetic of their software is closer to stock Android and results in less clashing of visual styles. The HTC launcher still has BlinkFeed that was introduced last year and is officially the only stock launcher I will use. The icons are well designed and flat. BlinkFeed delivers information that I like to see. The app drawer behaves in a manner I like. There is no need to detail all of the changes on this. Let’s just leave it as it looks a lot like last year but received many tweaks that make Sense more usable.
The biggest thing that I will brag on HTC and Sense on is the decoupling of their software in the same way that Google and Motorola have been doing as of late. Many of the Sense packages are now in the Play store and I am hopeful that this will result in better and timelier updates that are not relying on being pushed with a big update by the carriers. Also, HTC has added some gestures to the digitizer on the device to try and enhance usability. There are new lock screen gestures built into Sense that will activate when the screen is off. A double tap will turn on the screen a la Knock On from LG. A swipe from the top will open HTC’s voice command application (let’s make sure we distinguish this is not Google Now and kind of stinks.) A swipe from the left will launch into BlinkFeed. A swipe from the right launches straight to the launcher on a page other than blinkfeed. A swipe from the bottom launches straight into whatever was open last bypassing the lockscreen altogether. Overall these are nice additions and go a long way to correcting the problem of the power button being on the top of the phone.
I think there are three wild cards to consider along with this device. The first is the release of the Dot View Case. This case screamed get me from the moment I first saw it. It’s overpriced and kind of gimmicky, yet remains awesome in my mind. The second is HTC Advantage. This is a program in which you can send your device in for repair of broken glass in the first 6 months you own it. It’s a nice gesture, especially since HTC is making their devices harder and harder to repair. I would have liked to have seen them make it a year but I’ll take whatever I can get. The final wild card is the inclusion of 50 GB of Google Drive space. HTC has done this before with Dropbox and Samsung has done it with Dropbox as well. Pair that with the fact that the prices for Google Drive have recently dipped and I don’t know how much it may sway you, but it is still worth noting.
Is this device for me?
Earlier I said when making this decision you should ask yourself some questions. The first thing you need to ask yourself is, what things are most important to me in a phone? If you are saying look and feel this may be the device for you but I would still suggest that you see and hold it in person before purchasing. If you say a perfect screen then order now. If you say great pictures you probably should wait. But if you are saying serviceable pictures for when I can’t grab my DSLR, I think you will be happy here. Also, ask yourself what are deal breakers for you? If you say being able to replace the battery is a must, obviously this is not the phone for you. How much do I care about stock Android? How important is the sound from the speakers of the device? These are the type of questions you need to ask.
I think this device is and will remain in the upper echelon of devices for the year, just as the M7 did last year. I also believe that as long as you ask yourself the right questions and answer them honestly, you will walk away happy. My final thoughts on a personal level is that this is the best phoneI have ever held in my fat hands. It’s not perfect and another device could dethrone it later one but as of right now, I can’t recommend another phone more highly (unless you want to be a pixel snob.)
Photos by Blake Mitchell