Every so often, a product comes along and takes the best of almost everything that came before it and packages those things into a beautiful and functional device that’s hard not to admire.
The HTC One M8 is such a product.
Almost every smartphone comes with its fair share of warts, and the HTC One M8 is no different in that regard. But the M8 has learned from user behaviors and the competitive landscape, which amounts to an excellent device that stands atop the Android heap and next to (if not above) Apple’s iPhone or any Nokia Lumia available.
A Company In Flux
For the second year in a row, HTC has built what will likely be one of the year’s best reviewed smartphones (if the M8 can withstand the competition over the rest of 2014), but the company’s revenue and market share remain flat.
The reason for HTC’s stagnation is open for debate. HTC will claim it hasn’t been able to effectively market its phones. The manufacturer recently just hired the Samsung marketer responsible for the “Next Big Thing” campaign but HTC cannot compete with Apple and Samsung in marketing dollars. Another argument is that HTC has been damaged by cellular operators that lust after exclusive agreements to carry a device. Maybe the decline has come from production and shipping delays of its last two flagship devices, or patent battles with the likes of Apple.
In reality, HTC’s failures are a combination of all of the above.
The question continually asked by pundits is whether the newest HTC flagship can pull the company out of the mire. At ReadWrite, we tend to believe in quality products, so the answer is a definite “maybe.” It’s hard to be positive knowing all the extenuating factors: Motorola made a great smartphone with the Moto X and hemorrhaged money until Google had to sell it to Lenovo. Nokia has done some fine work with the Lumia series and hemorrhaged money until it sold to Microsoft.
If HTC is to fail with its own flagship smartphone, it represents a pox on all of the houses in the smartphone manufacturing world. A pox on Apple and Samsung for creating an anti-competitive market. A pox on HTC for failing to achieve the success that its design chops deserve. A pox on Google for allowing the maker of some of the best smartphones on the market to whither and die.
So where does the HTC One M8 shine and where does it need to improve? Let’s break it down.
Shining: Industrial Design & Performance
As long as the manufacturer is alive, HTC should take home the industrial design award basically every year.
With all due respect to Apple and certain Nokia devices, the One series has been phenomenally designed over its three generations. The One M8 is a compact and beautiful phone with a full metal casing and no hard edges. Everything that was good about the original HTC One has been refined in the One M8, including the forward facing speakers, the slightly larger screen, the weight and the grip. From an aesthetic point of view, the One M8 is gorgeous.
The performance of the One M8 is none too shabby. The One M8 employs the top-of-the-line Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 quad-core processor and it shows up in just about everything that can be done on the phone. From taking pictures (more on the camera below) to switching between CPU-intensive apps, the One M8 is on top of the “superphone” hardware spectrum that essentially puts a powerful PC in your pocket. Given that the One M8’s release comes in the first half of 2014, it will likely be eclipsed in the hardware department by the end of the year, but right now it is fast and responsive and has the ability to run just about any app you might want … and then some.
The One M8 is also successful in two areas consumers greatly care about: The screen, and the battery life. The HTC One M8’s 5-inch, 440 ppi display is notably crisper than last year’s model and comparative to other Android flagships within the past 12 months, including the Samsung Galaxy S5. And its battery (2,600 mAh) is only slightly bigger than last year’s (2,300 mAh) design, but the performance is much improved and also comes with a built-in battery saver function that Samsung Galaxy device owners may be familiar with.
Let me give you an example of the HTC One M8’s battery life. This past weekend, I traveled with the One M8 while driving down to Washington, D.C., from Boston. Starting from a full charge, the One M8 went to the zoo and snapped many pictures (especially of Bao Bao the giant panda) that were automatically uploaded to Google+, found me directions to get home, played Spotify for about five hours and then helped me navigate around traffic on the George Washington Bridge.
In all, the One M8 withstood a solid nine hours of non-stop activity, and still had about 9% of its life left. A quick refresh with an external charger and the battery jumped back up to 26% and played Spotify for another four hours to get me back to Boston. The HTC One could not have performed this feat (though the Galaxy S5 may have).
The camera on the HTC One M8 is a little hit-and-miss, but overall it is a marked improvement over the HTC One camera that introduced the concept of “ultrapixels” into the popular lexicon, confusing the heck out of smartphone buyers everywhere. (See our full review of the HTC One M8’s camera here.)
Gestures & The Pixel Case
The HTC One M8 is highly similar to its predecessor, but it also comes with a few new features. Gesture control and screen tapping should be familiar to Android users that have used either a Moto X or LG G2, while the chic pixel case—known as Dot View—is a curiosity all on its own.
If you’ve ever used a Moto X, you know you can check the time on the Active Display screen just by tilting the phone or picking it up off a table. The Moto X knows when you’re holding it and the gesture-based interaction made it the smartest of the smartphones when it came out last year. Other smartphones have similarly employed a swipe-from-offscreen interaction (Samsung Galaxy, BlackBerry 10, iPhone with iOS 7) model that allows users can access certain functions from behind a locked screen with a simple swiping.
These instant-access interactions now come to the HTC One M8, with a swipe down from the top to open voice control, a swipe up from bottom to bring you to your last-used app, a swipe left to visit the home screen and a swipe right to BlinkFeed, HTC’s content feed screen. Like LG devices, if you double tap the screen from an off position (power on, screen off), it will take you to the locked home screen.
Gesture control like this is not exactly a new concept; if anything, this is proves that HTC can take cool concepts from other phones and seamlessly incorporate them to create a unique user experience. The HTC One M8’s Dot View cases allow for easy gesture-specific controls while the front cover is closed. If you swipe down on the cover, HTC One M8’s voice system activates, and you can tell your phone who you want to call. If you double tap the case, you can see the time and weather at a glance. If you are a fan of cases (which I am not), the Dot View case is a cool conversation starter that employs an imaginative gesture-based user interface.
Whining: Sense, Zoe, BlinkFeed, M8
Let’s just get one thing out of the way. The name “One M8” is just all kinds of terrible. The HTC One was originally codenamed the “M7” but the moniker was dropped before the phone was released. The “M8” moniker was the development codename for the device that somehow found its way into the actual product name. Good luck with that, HTC marketing.
When it comes to skins—the unique user interfaces manufacturers add to Android smartphones—beauty is in the eye of the beholder. You may prefer the interface of the Samsung Galaxy S5 or one of LG’s G series smartphones. Some users (usually Android “purists”) prefer the Google Experience of Nexus devices.
HTC employs what its calls HTC Sense. The sixth iteration of Sense is what is shipped with the One M8 and, yes, it does feature some improvements over the last version of the launcher. The gesture-based controls and contextual computing is technically part of Sense and those features definitely add to the positive experience and feature parity of the phone.
At the same time, HTC—like Samsung—loves to push its marginal “features” that basically amount to a small mountain of frustrating and annoying features. For instance, Zoe is HTC’s dual-still-photo-plus-video-feature that is confusing to use and difficult to share. Zoe is like adding all of the motion and “best shot” features of other smartphone cameras (notably, the Samsung Galaxy S4 and Galaxy S5) into one setting within the camera app. The HTC One M8 camera is particularly good outside of Zoe, so I’d imagine most people won’t need to use this setting.
Sense 6 also employs the next version of HTC’s “BlinkFeed,” a feature that takes an entire homescreen to act as a social feed and newsreader.
BlinkFeed in Sense 6 is actually much improved from that found in the last version of Sense shipped with the HTC One in 2013, allowing users to add more customized feeds and publications. But the same basic problem exists with BlinkFeed in Sense 6 as it did in Sense 5: You cannot delete it and maintain an additional customizable home screen. You can either have BlinkFeed or you don’t. You can’t get rid of it to add an extra screen and HTC Sense 6 only allows for five homescreens (unlike Google Experience Android which will let users add as many as they like).
You can delete BlinkFeed, as Phil Nickinson explains in the video from Android Central below, but note that once you get rid of BlinkFeed, you lose the ability to access that panel unless you want the feed back.
To note, these types of frailties are of the nitpicking variety. Even the Google Experience Nexus devices have the Google Now home screen you can’t really get rid of if you want. The Galaxy S5 has a magazine-like homescreen pre-loaded onto the device. These device-specific feeds are popular on Android products right now. Similar less-than-stellar user experiences exist in just about any device you pick up, from the iPhone to any Windows Phone to the Nexus 5, Moto X, LG G2, Sony Xperia, or Galaxy S5.
Overall, the HTC One M8 packages excellent industrial design with a more refined user experience that its predecessor which makes for an excellent Android-based smartphone. If you like Android, you are probably going to dig the HTC One M8. It’s the best of Android and the best of HTC together in one sterling device.