The One (M8) owes its curious name to the indecision and confusion that has characterised HTC's development and marketing efforts for the past few years. It's meant to supersede the One as HTC's flagship, but we suppose this is better than calling it the HTC Two (or even worse, the One 2).
In a sea of mostly white plastic, last year's One and this year's One (M8) stand out with their metal bodies and solid look. Considering that this wasn't enough to help HTC climb out of the doldrums last year, does the M8 have enough firepower to succeed where its predecessor failed?
Look and Feel
HTC has managed to stay somewhat consistent with last year's breakaway design, but for some reason the One (M8) isn't as attention-grabbing as its immediate predecessor. We constantly find ourselves comparing it to the One (now retconned to M7) and finding ourselves underwhelmed. The slick, sharp edges which gave the M7 a distinctly powerful air have made way to soft curves. The solid aluminium now has a brushed pattern which, at least on our gunmetal grey review unit, didn't feel as premium.
HTC's aesthetic is still miles ahead of the competition, though. The M8's front face is minimalistic and clean, with only a small silver company logo breaking from the dark glass and metal. There are grilles above and below the screen for HTC's trademark BoomSound speakers, and the notification LED is as usual hidden behind the upper one. Thanks to a switch to on-screen buttons, the M7's awkward two-button setup has been dispensed with.
The top of the M8 has an unusual plastic strip, which makes it looks somewhat like a remote control. In fact, the plastic hides an infrared emitter which can be used to control TVs and other home electronics. The power button is also located up top, rather than the newer, more fashionable spot on the right edge. Many people now prefer the power button to be on the right edge, and you might find this placement inconvenient if you have small hands. The Micro-USB port and headset socket are on the bottom
The original single-SIM One M7 had a sealed unibody construction, and prioritised aesthetics by omitting a microSD card slot. The dual-SIM variant that replaced it in India had a removable rear panel, making it less slick, but allowing space for two SIM cards and a microSD card. The M8 goes back to a sealed body, but there are now trays on either side for a SIM and a microSD card. On our review unit, the microSD tray on the right edge was slightly raised, and unfortunately we kept hitting it as if it was the power button, since it's right above the volume rocker.
But by far the most interesting physical aspect of this phone is the rear, thanks to the addition of a second camera. It's definitely an unusual thing to see, especially since the two cameras look quite different. Luckily, they're placed in such a way that your fingers won't easily cover either lens.
The M8 will be available in silver and grey, with a pale gold model coming a little later, and it's hard not to see reflections of the iPhone 5s range in HTC's palette. The gold variant should have quite a few fans in India.
We've become so used to plastic bodies that it was often surprising to feel how cold the HTC One (M8) got when it had been left in an air-conditioned room, and how hot it felt when we just had it in our hands outdoors.
Features and specifications
The M8 comes to market with Qualcomm's latest and greatest Snapdragon processor, the 801. This is a slight speed bump over last year's flagship Snapdragon 800, but HTC used the lower-end Snapdragon 600 with the M7 so the performance gulf will be more significant.
Interestingly, the M8 in India has a higher clock speed; 2.5GHz as opposed to 2.3GHz in other markets. HTC says this is because Indian consumers are more concerned about specifications. It's also worth noting that HTC, after being criticised for manipulating benchmark scores, has decided to expose an option for a "High Performance Mode", which bumps up the clock speed for all applications. This doesn't mean that speed boosting is disabled with the option off, though. We'll investigate more when we get to the benchmarking portion of our review.
The HTC One (M8) comes with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of built-in storage, which can be expanded using a microSD card. The battery is rated at 2,600mAh, which is adequately beefy. Wi-Fi b/g/n/ac and Bluetooth 4.0 are standard, and there's also an infrared emitter and receiver, FM radio, and the usual array of sensors.
The 5-inch 1080x1920-pixel screen is noticeably larger than the M7's 4.7-inch one, and it's really a matter of personal preference to call one better than the other.
The M8 runs Android 4.4.2, with HTC's Sense 6 interface on top. This version of Sense is definitely more minimalist than previous versions. In stark contrast to Samsung's often over-the-top colours and abundance of options, Sense feels almost Spartan.
By default, your home screen is the BlinkFeed magazine view, which aggregates articles from around the Web and social network updates. For some reason, the app dock and Android soft buttons remain visible on top of displayed content. Swiping to the right brings you to a more familiar home screen, with only a single weather widget and a Google search box.
You can unlock the phone with a double-tap on the screen, which will come in handy if you don't like the power button placement. Swiping to the left will take you to BlinkFeed, swiping to the right will take you to the first home screen, and swiping upwards will just unlock the phone and take you to whatever you were doing last. With the phone on its side, you can just press either volume button to wake up directly into the camera. You can also drag any of the lock screen icons upwards to unlock the phone and launch that app.
The app drawer has a stark black background, and pages are separated vertically rather than horizontally. You can sort icons in alphabetical order, by date, or in your own custom arrangement. You can also choose between a 4x5 grid and a more spaced out 3x4 layout, though icon sizes don't change.
HTC also doesn't bundle very many apps. There's a Car Mode, which shows larger versions of the music controls, maps and phone dialler, as well as a Kid Mode that lets you restrict what a child can do when you give him or her your phone to play with. HTC also includes the 7digital music store, which is largely unusable in India; the Fitbit app, for users of Fitbit health bands; WeChat; Polaris Office 5; and a sketching app called Scribble.
The Television app uses the M8's infrared LEDs to control your TV, set-top box and home theatre receiver. The list of manufacturers included lots of Indian DTH and electronics brands, but channel guides are not available. In case your devices aren't supported, you can use their original remotes to program the M8 manually.
Very similar to Samsung's Galaxy S5, there's a power saver mode as well as an extreme power saver mode. While the former adjusts settings such as the screen timeout and background data transfers, the latter essentially turns the M8 into a basic phone which only lets you make use the calling, text messaging and email functions. The mode isn't quite as minimalistic as Samsung's implementation, but you can choose to automatically trigger it when your battery drops below the 5, 10 or 20 percent charge level.
We couldn't wait to test the much-hyped dual-camera functionality. HTC doesn't say much about the specifications of the second camera, and indeed you can't record pictures or videos through it. It's much more of a sensor, and is included in order to add extra context to photos taken with the primary camera. You won't get stereoscopic 3D effects or photos, but you will be able to make some very neat edits, which aren't possible with regular cameras or even regular PC software.
HTC is also still sticking to its UltraPixel technology (and marketing), which eschews high pixel counts in favour of expanded sensors which capture more light per pixel. By ordinary metrics, that means the One M8's camera has a piddly 4-megapixel sensor compared to the 16 megapixels of its competitors, but in practice, there is merit to HTC's approach.
Photos taken by the M8 are surprisingly detailed and clear. Most remarkably, there's very little loss of detail and almost no visible compression when seen at full size, which cannot always be said for photos taken with phone cameras. However, we found that colours were very muted and dull, even in broad daylight. The M8 also emits a very loud chirping noise when it locks focus, which seems totally unnecessary.
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The M8 camera excelled while taking shots from a moving car. With a fixed aperture, shutter speed has to be reduced to avoid blurring when in motion, which automatically means less light is captured. We were able to take beautiful, crisp shots with the M8 automatically adjusting to speeds as high as 1/2860 of a second. Similarly, low-light performance was remarkable. The M8 captured decent amounts of detail and colour with just faint illumination, though we needed a steady hand.
The 5-megapixel front camera was a bit of a letdown, considering it's actually capable of taking larger photos than the rear one. Images weren't always well exposed, and there was a lot of compression. As far as video goes, 1080p is a big step down from 4K, which the M8's prime competitors offer. Video is quite clean and smooth, but not spectacular.
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The dual-camera tricks only come into play when editing photos. The possibilities are quite impressive, and make for excellent demonstrations, but after a while we're left wondering how often we'd actually use them. The most impressive is the copy/paste feature, which lets you extract people from backgrounds and rearrange them in other photos. This doesn't just mean you can paste one photo on top of another; even the target photo is analysed, and the person you're inserting can be between people and their backgrounds. Effectively, you get three layers, and can choose who is in front and who is behind.
Of course it isn't perfect, and a lot depends on the angle you shoot at. It also only works on photos with recognisable faces.Automatic selections work best with high-contrast backgrounds, but you can refine the selection area manually. The effect, when done right, can be quite amazing, but more often than not, it's just comical.
Other effects include selective defocus, which adds a fake depth of field effect. You just have to tap any part of the screen that you want to focus, and the rest blurs around it. Foregrounder is somewhat the same, but instead of a DoF blur, other effects such as motion blur or cartoon sketch filter can be applied.
The Seasons effect is the least interesting, since you'd have to save your photos as videos to capture the pattern of falling petals or snowflakes, which honestly looks very fake. Dimension Plus lets you tilt your photos around for a 3D effect, which again works only so long as subjects are the right size and distance.
Many of these features won't work if the secondary camera was obstructed when you took a photo. Clearly, that depth-sensing capability has been harnessed here, but we have to wonder if it's worth the cost, since everything feels quite gimmicky. We're not likely to use these effects often, once the novelty wears off.
This is our first opportunity to benchmark a device based on the new Snapdragon 801, since Samsung launched only the Exynos-based variant of its Galaxy S5 in India. While the Exynos has four high-powered and four low-powered cores, the Snapdragon has only four, but more powerful and running significantly faster.
The Galaxy S5 and the One (M8) showed different strengths, but more often than not, it was the M8 that came out on top. Qualcomm's advantage over other ARM-based processor vendors has so far been graphics, and we saw that continue to be the case despite Samsung's impressive work with its in-house processors.
Of course, there's HTC's High Performance Mode to be accounted for. There's no real way to be sure which devices are and aren't optimising performance for which benchmarks, and despite giving us the (slightly hidden) option to turn it on for all apps, there's no way to make sure it's off for the purpose of benchmark accuracy. We ran our entire suite of tests with High Performance on as well as off, and saw only negligible differences. This could mean that our scores are inflated, so we're choosing not to report individual numbers here.
Instead, it should suffice to say that the M8 is a phenomenally fast phone, with the fastest processor currently available. Games are incredibly smooth, high-def videos play flawlessly, and we only noticed slight lags when applying photo effects, which is probably very CPU-intensive.
HTC's BoomSound speakers also deserve a mention here. Music and movies were both rich and detailed. The volume doesn't go high enough to fill a room, but it's more than enough for a group of friends clustered around you.
Call quality was decent, and so was network reception in most areas. The battery lasted 10 hours, 5 minutes in our video loop test, which is pretty impressive.
The HTC One (M8) is not a radical departure from last year's HTC One. It's a solid update, but isn't new or exciting, and definitely isn't worth upgrading to if you currently use any of last year's premium phones.
The M8's major competition will come from Sony's Xperia Z2 and Samsung's Galaxy S5, both of which offer similar or better specifications. The M8 will have to rely on its premium build quality and camera gimmicks to appeal to buyers, and perhaps a price cut sometime mid-lifecycle. Meanwhile, Samsung and Sony are experimenting with (and making big noises about) waterproof bodies, heart rate sensors, 4K video recording, fingerprint readers, smart accessories, and much more. This is exactly the strategy that led HTC to where it is right now, and it looks like history might well repeat itself.
Ultimately, despite being a fantastically crafted phone that works really well, the M8 will appeal only to those who either place a high value on design, or seriously dislike Samsung and Sony. We're less enthusiastic about the M8 than we are about the inevitable price cut the M7 will receive. HTC seriously needs a reinvention, and the One (M8) is not it.