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Review: The New HTC One M8

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One of the phones I loved in 2013 was the HTC One AKA the M7, so I was excited to check out what the next iteration of HTC's flagship would have in store. The most important thing HTC needed to have in store for the public was a timely release as it wasn't anything about the phone itself that kept the previous One from being one of the top selling phones of 2013, but a botched roll out to carriers. Let's just say that HTC did their due diligence and corrected much of what held the One back last year! And then some.

When HTC announced the new One which I will call by its codename, M8, they came out swinging for the fences! They gave all the details, screen, processor, camera features and then effectively dropped the mic and walked off the stage when they announced that, not only would the M8 be available that day on Verizon's network but it would be available with a new HTC Advantage warranty which entitles users to one free cracked screen replacement up 6 months from purchase of the device. Yeah, that was a mouthful but it needed to be said. This was a critical release for the Taiwanese company who set the mobile world ablaze when it first showed up on the scene years ago as an OEM manufacturer of PDA's, then smartphones for companies like HP and Sprint. In recent years though, their sales have been in a slump and many began questioning how much longer HTC might be around in a market increasingly dominated by manufacturers, Apple and Samsung. I think it's safe to say that HTC is definitely in the game with the M8, but that's enough back story for now. Let's get to what you came here for!

Right out of the box, the improvements over the One M7 from 2013 are obvious! Rounded, "softer" edges, more metal (can there ever be enough), brushed, high polish aluminum and external expandable memory tray. Oh, and there's that gun metal gray! Yep, the unit I tested, compliments of the folks at Verizon is the gun metal gray color (I'm a sucker for anything gun metal gray), though if that isn't your cup ‘O tea you can pick one up in Glacial Silver or Gold. I've always been a huge fan of HTC's industrial design. Unlike some of their competitors, their phones have pretty consistently maintained a premium feel with solid build quality and reassuring heft. The M8 is, in fact, heavier than its predecessor, weighing in at 5.64 ounces (160 grams) or .60 ounces/ 17 grams heavier than the HTC One M7. That's what happens when you throw in more metal and a larger battery. Looking around the sides and rear of the previous One, HTC utilized some polycarbonate in the body but the M8 is all metal with wrap around metal sides. On the right side of the phone you'll find the volume rocker and one of two pop-out trays which house your microSD and nanoSIM cards. The power button is up top and has been moved from the left side to the right, while maintaining its IR port from the previous version. Much to my dismay, the headphone jack has been moved to the bottom of the phone where it will have some company sitting next to the microUSB charging port. On the front of the device you're going to get HTC's Super LCD 3 screen which displays a brilliant 1080x1920 HD at 441 pixels which is less than the M7 due to the larger screen size. The M7 had a 4.7" screen where the M8 gains .3" and ups the viewing area to an even 5". At launch, you can pick up the M8 in 16GB and 32GB variants with Android KitKat 4.4 on board. With the inclusion of the microSD slot, HTC has opted not to include a 64GB and most carriers here stateside are selling the 32GB version by default. There's a lot more to this phone than what I've covered here, so let's take each of those items apart on their own!

 

M8 Drops The BOOM!

One of the features that impressed me the most about the M7 was HTC's Boom Sound feature. Those are the two speakers you see front and center on the M7 and now the M8. Well, technically not "center" but on the top and bottom of the device, framing the screen you'll see two stereo speakers that pump out loud, clear sound that is on par with or better than some high-end laptops. When you first jump into Settings menu and look at the Boom Sound menu, you'll notice that the on/off software toggle is greyed out but that is because as long as you're using the internal speakers, Boom Sound is set to "On" by default. This is because the sound is amplified, in part, via software enhancements that you have the ability to deactivate once your phone is connected to a pair of headphones or to another speaker source via Bluetooth. This is one of the most common sense features that, in my opinion, should be found on most cellphones. Especially ‘phablets.' We use our devices so much for multimedia consumption these days that having speakers on the rear of a device which fire audio away from you, or on the bottom of a device (Note 3, I'm looking at you!) firing toward your feet, just doesn't make sense. Even at max volume, the sound out of the M8 is distortion-free and clear, not sounding overdriven at all. Though HTC says it makes your music "thump" I wouldn't go as far as to say that. "Thump" is something speakers this small just can't do but I don't know too many people who think they're going to DJ a part from a cellphone's audio facility so I think  the majority of the public should be fine there.

Aside from those speakers on the front of the device, you get a Super LCD 3 display sporting full HD resolution. It's readable outdoors, has solid viewing angles and colors which tend to be less saturated than devices by Samsung using AMOLED technology. In this area, it's very much a preference thing as some people will look at the display and call it a bit cold, or washed out while others will welcome the departure from the artificially vibrant hues of Super AMOLED displays like the one found on the Galaxy Note 3. Right above that screen you'll find the updated front-facing camera which is now 5 megapixels, up from 2.1 in the M7. Now you can dazzle all your friends with great looking, high resolution "selfies" without having to turn the phone around to use the back camera. Another difference between the previous gen One, the lack of capacitive buttons on the front of the device. The "Home" and "Back" buttons which used to be at the bottom of the screen, right next to the HTC logo are now gone which HTC choosing to stay consistent with Google's Android design language and adding them as "soft buttons" on-screen. Of course this means that you lose just a bit of screen real estate, but you gain more timely updates as there's less fiddling to do with Android OS updates and any custom tweaks that HTC's made. Other than the proximity sensors on the front of the phone, that covers what you'll see on the face but turn the phone over and it's a whole new world!

The backside of HTC's M8 sports a dual LED flash and duo cameras. Yes, not one but two. The bottom camera is HTC's UltraPixel camera sporting what is essentially the same 4 megapixel spec as last year's model. To refresh your memory, the UltraPixel camera favors larger pixels instead of higher pixel count which is supposed to give you superior low-light imaging out of the 1/3" sensor. The top camera is used to provide depth information for HTC's new palette of duo effects which only work on images captured at the 16:9 aspect ratio. Two of the effects I had the most fun playing with were the 3D Dimension Plus effect which takes your still shot and the depth information and allows you to tilt the camera and have the image "tilt" with it in a 3D-like fashion. Only problem is that when you share those photos online, they lose their 3D tilt effect so the functionality for that bit of fun is minimal. The other effect is the UFocus effect which allows you to add a bokeh to your photos. Yeah, I didn't know what that was either for a time but the short of it is this: those pictures you see where the image in the foreground is in focus and the background has this pretty soft-focused effect to it, yeah that's bokeh. I played around with this with a few images and it really is pretty cool, adding another element to some of your favorite photos you've taken with this mobile camera. While the effect isn't perfect- see the tree image in the gallery- with a little practice you can actually produce some pretty fantastic bokehs which can look pretty stunning.  Just make sure you're not too close to the object you're taking a picture of, otherwise you won't be able to use the effect… it knows. Aside from the duo camera effects (there are actually seven in all), you get a host of what has become standard effects for modern smartphone cameras which includes various filters, crop, flip, rotate and digital frames. I have to say that I really like the quality of the photos I've taken with the rear camera on the M8! The low-light photos are pretty good with the noise level at very tolerable levels. The colors look good even if the images come out just a tad softer than those I'd taken with my Note 3 (you can see that for yourself in the gallery).

The M8 also camera also has features carried over from the M7 which include Zoe, a panoramic mode and Duo Capture which allows you to take a picture with the front and back cameras simultaneously. Zoe is the feature which automatically captures 3 seconds of video and allows you to create and edit stills from that piece of video. This camera has a few fun toys worth taking the time to play with and also has some which don't require much interaction on your part! The gallery app automatically creates video highlights from your escapades, set to music. The music lasts for about 30 seconds which you can edit to be shorter, though if you want it longer you have the option to add your own music track. You also get 12 themes which allow you to add an effect to the highlight and different music track (one default track per theme).

 

Software: Sixth Sense

Beyond the cameras, HTC's latest software customizations, HTC Sense 6 is the heart of the M8. Unlike phones from Samsung and LG, HTC takes a more minimalist approach with their software enhancements to Android. I really appreciate how they've handled this and feel that it actually adds value to the M8 overall, instead of cluttering it with things I probably won't use much- if at all. Let's start from the beginning… turning the phone on, or more appropriately, waking it up. Now, with Sense 6 you can set the phone to wake and unlock or wake, unlock and be taken to a specific screen/app in their "Motion Launch gestures" menu. Double tapping the screen will wake it, while swiping up will wake and unlock it. Swiping left will wake and launch the widget panel, right wakes and launches Blinkfeed and swiping down wakes the phone and turns on voice dialing. All of these happen when you're holding the phone in portrait orientation with the screen off. I've already covered one of the Sense 6 gallery features, video Highlights in the previous section and talked about Zoe but one other feature we're supposed to see this year is Zoe in the cloud. This will give your M8 the ability upload those Zoe videos to the cloud for sharing. Once in the cloud, you'll also be able to enable people to add their own photos, videos and music to that original Zoe video. All that should be available via a Google Play download this summer according to HTC.

 

Parent Tricks So You Don't Need A Sixth Sense

As a parent, one of my favorite features of HTC's Sense software is Kid Mode. It's exactly what it sounds like and it allows you to hand your phone to your little one to play games, watch videos, create digital content and more without worrying about them borking something accidentally. You can set up Kid Mode by heading on over to the Parent Dashboard app and setting up a password, or using your birthday (I don't recommend that) and then choosing which content your child will have access to. Kid Mode is powered by popular kid-friendly app developer ZOODLES which actually makes a paid version of this for multiple devices but I applaud HTC for baking it right in to their OS enhancements for free. Kind of. The free content you get on the device is pretty good, but to get at all of the features that ZOODLES has available you will have to pay a monthly access fee. Those premium features include: time limits, video mail, violence filter (for mobile gaming) and character block which allows you to block content which features specific characters like that stalwart of subtly, suggestive sea-dwelling situation comedy "for kids," Spongebob. I'm only half kidding there. I mean, come on? Bikini Bottoms Mr. Bob? You didn't think we'd eventually figure it out? But, I digress. In playing with the free content for a bit, it was all fun and games until I got to the apps tab which looks like a game controller but until you actually add any apps just pulls up videos, not games. Then, when you go to play some of those videos it is hit or miss. Some of the videos load and others presented me with a message that said "Sorry, YouTube cannot find this video." I got this message with a couple of the videos I tried to load while others played just fine. Understanding and navigating this "apps" tab is easy enough from the parent dashboard though as you just select the games you've already downloaded and they'll show up in the apps tab in Kid Mode. That isn't closed off to games only. Again, anything that shows up that you're able to select in the parent dashboard, you can select to show up in that apps tab.

 

Bottomline

This phone is beautifully built, fast and long-lasting with a minimalist approach to Sense 6 that makes it a joy to use. I would definitely call this an "all day" battery as I was easily getting more than a 12 hour day out of this phone on Verizon's LTE network here in Los Angeles. I have a co-worker here in the office at FOX who is considering moving over from an iPhone to an HTC One and I think that would actually be an ideal move! For iOS users, the One is fairly close to a lateral move when compared to competing products from Samsung and LG. Other than the Verizon bloatware added to the device, it is one of the more tame choices on the market in terms of feature bloat. HTC really has honed in on what they think users really care about and left the rest alone, relying on solid build quality, solid sound and their new HTC Advantage warranty. And while they do have an uphill battle to climb if they hope to unseat Samsung as the household name in Android smartphonery, if they continue to put out solid products like this in a timely fashion and honor all the cracked screen claims I'm sure they'll see as a result of that new warranty, I don't see why they won't have Sammy looking over their collective shoulders at some point in the future. Would I recommend the HTC One M8 to you if you're running out looking to buy right now? Yes and no. Samsung's Galaxy S5 is coming out very soon, so I'd wait and get both in hand then make my decision. Right now and today though, I'd have to say this is the best Android so far in 2014. We'll see if that doesn't change in a few days when the S5 comes to town.

 

The demo unit for this review was provided by Verizon wireless.

Tshaka Armstrong Tech Ninja Tshaka Armstong writes about the latest technology and helping FOX 11 Viewers understand how to be safer, smarter users of the internet and their "gadgets. He's also one of our social media guys, helping guide the station's online efforts and social media outreach.
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