HTC One (M8) deep-dive review: Smartphone sophistication made better

HTC's latest Android smartphone not only has a sense of luxury but may be close to the ultimate high-end device.

Watch out, world: The HTC One has finally arrived. Again.

The company that gave us last year's critically acclaimed HTC One phone is back with its follow-up effort, the HTC One (M8). After living with the device for the past several days, I'm confident in saying it's HTC's most impressive effort to date.

HTC One (M8)

With the new One, HTC has taken all the good qualities of the original One and subtly refined them to make them even better. The company has clearly listened to criticism, too, as it's corrected many of the hardware and software faults that held the previous model back.

The HTC One (M8) is on sale now online from AT&T and Sprint, and both online and in stores from Verizon, for $200 with new two-year contracts. The phone will be available in stores and online at all the major U.S. carriers -- including T-Mobile -- starting April 11.

So what's the new HTC One like to use in the real world and is it the right phone for you? Let's find out.

Getting to know the new One

You can't talk about the HTC One (M8) without talking about its form. With its all-aluminum unibody shell and sleek-looking metallic colors -- your choice of matte silver, matte gold or glossy gray -- the phone practically screams "premium" from the second you pick it up.

Sound familiar? It should: The new One maintains the same basic design language as last year's model -- but with some noteworthy new twists. The phone's aluminum back now slopes around its sides, for instance, creating a less angular and more gently curved body. The phone has even less plastic than its predecessor, too, as the wrapped-around edges eliminate the need for any trim along the perimeter.

All the smooth metal makes the device feel as good in the hand as it looks to the eye; the new One comes across as a luxurious yet approachable object, and is truly a pleasure to hold.

There's just one caveat: The M8 is unusually big for its class of device. At 5.8 x 2.8 x 0.37 in., the phone is more than a third of an inch taller and also a hair wider than the first-gen model. At 5.6 oz., it's meaningfully heavier, too, compared to last year's 5 oz. frame. (For perspective, Google's Nexus 5 is 5.4 x 2.7 x 0.34 in. and 4.6 oz., despite having practically the same size screen as the new One.)

As a result, the new One is just a touch too large for comfort; it's slightly awkward to carry in a pocket -- even in roomy men's jeans -- and too tall to use comfortably with a single hand. You get used to it after a while, but I can't help but think the phone would have provided a better overall experience if HTC had stuck with the smaller and more manageable dimensions of last year's device.

My, oh my -- that display and those speakers

The new One's increased footprint is partially a result of its 5-in. display, up from a 4.7-in. screen on the first-gen model. At 1080p and 441 pixels per inch, the LCD panel pops with brilliant, vivid colors and beautifully crisp detail. It's plenty bright, too, and easy to view both indoors and out.

Like most phones with LCD displays, the M8 has less dark blacks than you'll see on AMOLED-packing devices -- but on the flip side, it also has more pure whites. All in all, it's a stunning screen and easily one of the best you'll find on a smartphone today.

And take note of this: As part of its new HTC Advantage program, HTC will fix a cracked or damaged display free of charge for up to six months with all M8 purchases. For the butter-fingered among us, that's a pretty significant piece of insurance to have. (The screen is also protected by Corning's Gorilla Glass 3, which should help reduce the risk of breakage in the first place.)

Surrounding the screen are what may be the One's most distinctive elements: Its powerful front-facing stereo speakers. Man, those things are great. They have the same outstanding quality as the speakers on the original One, only with even more power -- about 25% more volume capacity, according to HTC. Whether you're listening to music, watching videos or playing games, multimedia on a smartphone doesn't get any better than this.

Buttons and gestures

One thing HTC hasn't yet mastered is the placement of power buttons. The company has moved the power button from the top-left to the top-right edge of the phone, which may be a minor improvement but is still awkward and out of the way -- particularly given the phone's tall height. Having the power button on the side of the device would have made it far easier to reach.

Thankfully, the M8 has some new motion gesture commands that let you rely on the power button less than usual. You can double tap the phone's display to turn it on, for instance -- similar to the KnockOn feature in LG's latest devices, except it actually works consistently and is consequently quite useful. The only problem is that you can't double-tap again to turn the screen back off, so you still end up having to reach for the power button some of the time.

The M8 has several other useful gestures, all of which work impressively well: You can swipe up anywhere on the screen while it's off to activate the display and unlock the phone; swipe left to activate the display and unlock directly to your home screen; and swipe right to activate the display and unlock directly to BlinkFeed, a news-reading app built into the device (more on that in a bit).

The BlinkFeed news-reading app is built right into the HTC One (M8).

The phone will automatically answer a call if you bring it to your head while it's ringing, and you can swipe down on the display while it's off to open a voice-dialing program (which is unfortunately just a simple voice dialer and far less useful than the native Android Voice Search utility).

Something you'll notice right away is the lack of any buttons on the new One's face. With the M8, HTC has ditched its awkward capacitive button setup and moved to the standard Android on-screen buttons instead. Android has been designed to use virtual buttons since 2011, so it's good to see HTC finally embracing that standard; needless to say, it makes the phone significantly more natural to use.

One curious thing, though: The black bar where the capacitive buttons lived on last year's HTC One is still present on the M8, albeit now with no obvious purpose. HTC says the area is necessary for components that live under the hood in that area, but having a sizable blank bar on the front of an already-tall phone sure seems like a strange decision from a design and engineering perspective.

Under the hood

Let me make this part easy: You won't have to worry about performance with the new HTC One. The phone packs a 2.3GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 CPU and 2GB of RAM -- yadda, yadda, yadda. What matters is that the phone's fast as can be; from app loading to Web browsing and heavy-duty multitasking, I've yet to see a single stutter or slowdown anywhere in the system.

The M8 also performs admirably in the realm of stamina: With its 2600mAh non-removable battery, I've consistently made it from morning to night without having to worry about recharging. On days with particularly heavy use -- a few hours of screen-on time with a scattered mix of voice calls, LTE video streaming and general Web and social media use -- I've sometimes made it down to 10% or 15% by the time I go to bed. But most days, I never even come close.

The U.S. models of the M8 come with 32GB of internal storage, about 23GB of which is actually available to you after you factor in the operating system and various preinstalled applications. Notably, the phone also has a micro SD card slot on its upper-left side that lets you add up to 128GB of additional external space.

The new One includes 65GB of free Google Drive storage for two years, too -- which, when combined with the 15GB of free Drive storage Google already provides, gives you a total of 80GB of cloud-based space.

Like most current Android phones, the M8 supports near-field communication (NFC) for contact-free payments and data transfers. It also has an IR blaster for remote control of your TV and other entertainment components. The phone does not, however, support wireless charging.

The new One can get 4G-level data on both LTE and HSPA+ networks, depending on your carrier and what's available in your area. The data speeds seem typical with the Verizon model I've been testing.

Voice call quality on the device has also been fine, though in-call sound seems to come only out of the left corner of the top speaker, so you have to position the phone in a specific way against your face for the volume to be sufficiently loud. That ends up being slightly unnatural for me, as I usually hold a phone up to my left ear when I talk, but it's easy enough to get accustomed to.

Unconventional camera setup

HTC is doing something unapologetically different with its smartphone camera setup -- and depending on whom you ask, it's either a brilliantly bold move or a weak point in an otherwise strong device.

After using the phone for the past week, I'm convinced the actual truth lies somewhere in the middle: The new One can take some great-looking photos and allows you to do some interesting things with your images, but it does have some undeniable limitations.

Like last year's device, the M8 utilizes what HTC calls an "UltraPixel" camera. In short, it uses only 4 megapixels -- a shockingly low-sounding number compared to what we see on most flagship phones these days -- but according to HTC, those megapixels are larger and consequently capable of capturing far more light than what other phones use.

This year's device also adds a second rear-facing lens designed to record depth perception data -- how near or far different objects are from you when you snap a shot.

If you're like most smartphone owners and use your phone for casual on-the-go photography, the end result is going to be a camera that's delightfully simple to use and capable of giving you perfectly decent-looking pictures. It does particularly well in low-light scenarios, sometimes producing images that are lighter and more detailed than what I can see with my own naked eyes.

The new One's images aren't flawless, though, and photo aficionados may at times feel let down by their quality. The biggest issue is just that they're inconsistent: While some shots look fine, others -- especially those taken in bright outdoor conditions -- tend to look a little washed out and under-saturated. They're certainly not unusable, but to the discerning eye, they're not always at the level of what other phones produce. The lack of optical image stabilization (which, curiously, was present in last year's model) doesn't help.

The other issue is simply size: Because of its lower megapixel count, the One's images are fairly low in resolution by current smartphone standards. If you're sharing pictures online or even printing them, that shouldn't make much difference -- but if you ever want to zoom into specific areas of a photo or crop it to leave only a particular part of the image in place, the smaller starting size can be a serious limitation.

The dual camera setup lets you create some neat effects with photos you've taken, though, like blurring or recoloring the background of an image while leaving the foreground in regular focus. I put together a gallery showing the various dual camera effects in action, if you want to see how the different possibilities work in real-world conditions.

"Sketch" applies a sketch effect to everything in the background of your image but leaves the foreground in regular focus.

The new One offers plenty of more traditional photo-editing tools, too, ranging from filters and frames to options for cropping, flipping and rotating images. And beyond just the basics like HDR, the camera app has a huge array of modes and settings -- the type of stuff you usually have to install a third-party tool to access -- if you want to control all the nuances of its performance.

Despite all of that, HTC has managed to keep its imaging software from becoming overly cluttered or confusing. If you like advanced options, they're certainly there -- but for the rest of us, the interface is pleasingly clean and easy to use. The One is astonishingly fast at focusing and snapping photos, too, which can make a world of difference when a photogenic moment arises.

The M8 has a 5-megapixel front-facing shooter for selfies, which results in surprisingly good-looking photos (though I can't vouch for the attractiveness of your subject). Both the front-facing camera and rear camera can capture 1080p-quality HD video as well.

The software

The M8 runs custom HTC software based on Google's Android 4.4.2 KitKat operating system. With this latest effort, known as Sense 6, HTC's take on Android has really come into its own and grown into a polished and cohesive setup.

HTC One Dot View -- who knew a case could be so cool?

HTC has created an innovative and unusual case for its new One (M8) phone -- and it's as interesting for its function as it is for its appearance.

See our hands-on report for a detailed look at how it works.

The user interface still has a distinctly HTC flavor to it, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Many of the weird and annoying UI quirks that have held HTC's software back in the past -- things like overly complicated procedures for adding apps onto your home screen or changing your phone's wallpaper -- are now corrected and the system is actually quite user-friendly. At this point, it almost feels like a custom Android launcher with much of the familiar Android environment still intact at its core.

The leftmost home-screen panel of the new One is taken up by BlinkFeed, a news-reading service built into the phone. BlinkFeed lets you scan through articles and social media tidbits right from your home screen. It's gotten a visual refresh in this latest Sense incarnation that's helped it mature into a useful and inviting tool -- and if you don't want it, it's now easier to turn it off.

Beyond that, you've got the usual mix of app shortcuts and widgets, all of which are now refreshingly easy to customize and arrange ( unlike on HTC's previous software efforts). Some of HTC's changes to Android are still mildly annoying -- the Recent Apps tool is visually overwhelming, for instance, and the expanded Quick Settings panel is mysteriously missing the basic option to display your phone's battery level. But all in all, the company has finally started to get out of its own way and mold its software into something that's pretty pleasant to use.

(One major exception: bloatware. My Verizon review unit came larded up with loads of random garbage that can't easily be uninstalled. Sadly, that's par for the course with carrier-connected handsets these days.)

HTC is also guaranteeing the M8 will get major OS upgrades for at least two years from its launch date -- a significant promise that sets it apart from other Android devices.

Bottom line

Last year's One was the start of a fresh beginning for HTC. With the new One, the company has built upon that foundation and created an exceptionally good device that's in no danger of becoming Just Another Android Phone.

At a Glance

HTC One (M8)

HTCPrice: $200 (with a new two-year contract from the major U.S. carriers )Pros: Premium all-aluminum body; exceptional display with free one-time replacement; outstanding front-facing stereo speakers; great performance; good battery life; expandable storage; dual camera setup provides interesting image effects; polished and cohesive user interface; contemporary on-screen buttons; useful motion gestures; includes two-year OS upgrade guaranteeCons: Tall body makes phone awkward to carry and use; power button in hard-to-reach place; inconsistent camera performance; no optical image stabilization; low camera resolution limits photo cropping possibilities

The new One has a huge list of impressive qualities: The phone is beautifully constructed, with an all-metal body that gives it a distinctly premium look and feel. It has a gorgeous display and outstanding speakers. The device provides great performance, commendable battery life and a polished and cohesive software experience. Its unique dual-camera setup opens the door to some interesting photo-editing opportunities, too, and HTC's "UltraPixel" technology shines when it comes to capturing photos in low-light conditions.

But hold the phone: It isn't all good news. The M8 is awkwardly tall, its power button is in a hard-to-reach place, and its camera -- while impressive in some ways -- produces inconsistent image quality and comes with a resolution that is potentially limiting.

Ultimately, the question is if the positives outweigh those negatives for you. One thing I can assure you: HTC has created something special. If you can live with the size and aren't bothered by the camera limitations, the M8 will give you an experience like no other -- one in a class all its own.

JR Raphael is a Computerworld contributing editor and the author of the Android Power blog. For more Android tips and insights, follow him on Google+, Twitter, or Facebook.

This article, HTC One (M8) deep-dive review: Smartphone sophistication made better, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

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