The all-new One is good enough to make a grown Apple or Samsung executive weep
For many people, their earliest memories of Android smartphones will be of HTC handsets. They weren’t great, at least by today’s standards, and Apple’s iPhone overshadowed them. But they were the first with Android. And if they didn’t put Android on the map, they at least gave it a compass and pointed the way.
A few years later and HTC’s fortunes have dived. The company was guilty of the cardinal sin of many breakthrough acts – stagnation. HTC presumed that being first to the party would be enough to keep it ahead of the game, but its products bounced from one forgettable mid-range handset to the next – about 50 of them in five years.
Last year HTC decided enough was enough. While the Goliaths of Samsung, Apple, Motorola and LG weren’t looking, David loaded his sling with the One M7 – a smartphone that surprised everyone with its quality.
It was genuinely good, objectively good – HTC had set about creating a market-leading smartphone and it actually pulled it off. Sales lagged in comparison to the Samsung Galaxy S4 and the iPhone 5, but that was arguably down to HTC’s lost reputation. The One was as good a smartphone as any released up until then.
With HTC’s reputation as an innovator restored, can it win you over once more?
Design & Build
Now we have the One (M8) – the successor to the One. The handset’s details had leaked online countless times in the build-up to the official reveal, with images and videos showing it from every conceivable angle.
Fans could be forgiven for being sick of the sight of the M8 before it had even been unveiled. However, the gut reaction upon handling the M8 for the first time is that this is a truly outstanding smartphone.
It sticks largely to the same template as the One. It has a unibody construction like its predecessor, meaning the phone is one solid, undissectible build, much like the iPhone. While some people dislike not being able to take the back off their phone, it cannot be denied that it lends the handset a much more solid feel.
The phone has a reassuring weight (at 160g it’s still lighter than the Sony Xperia Z2, and only 15g heavier than the plastic Samsung Galaxy S5), and its metal case feels much nicer in hand than plastic alternatives.
The One (M8) comes in three metallic colours: amber gold, glacial silver and gun-metal grey. A brushed finish gives it a pleasant matted effect.
But it’s the front of the phone that’s truly striking. Its display is a comfortable five inches, large enough to optimise the user experience without approaching phablet-sized awkwardness.
The display has a full HD 1,080p resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels.
That’s the same as the resolution found on the S5 and the Z2. However, as the displays on those handsets are nominally larger, the One M8 actually boasts a higher pixel density of 441 pixels per inch.
The difference is barely noticeable. What is noticeable is just how brilliant it looks, with colours brighter than ever and edges razor sharp.
Performance & processor
It’s a good thing that the One (M8) has the processing power to back-up the visuals.
With a 2.3GHz processor, it’s a huge step forwards from the One’s 1.7GHz, and it shows. Using the handset, it initially feels like it’s set to some sort of demo mode – or as if I’ve pressed a fast-forward button. Every app opens instantly.
Animations such as windows expanding and screens scrolling are impossibly smooth.
Processor-heavy games like Frontline 2 run as well as any home console title, thanks to the 2GB of RAM on the One (M8). Now, 2GB might be the standard in RAM for flagship smartphones, but depending on the software it powers, the differences in performance can be stark.
HTC milks every last drop of performance from its chip set, although the handset does get a little warm under heavy processing duress.
The One (M8) boasts 40 per cent improved battery life over its older sibling. HTC claims it’s capable of 20 hours of 3G talk time and 496 hours of 3G standby (although the handset is 4G-enabled). After a thorough day of testing, it was still left with a 50 per cent charge.
There’s also an “extreme power saving mode” that deactivates just about every feature when the power level dips to a percentile of your choice: 5 per cent, 10 per cent or 20 per cent. Then the One (M8) can last another 15 hours with conservative use.
Storage space was a major problem for the original One, as its unibody build didn’t allow for expandable memory; once you bought the 32GB or 64GB handset, that was your lot. Fortunately, the One (M8) has a microSD card expansion slot capable of up to 128GB extra storage.
There’s a chance you might need it, too, as the handset comes with an unusual amount of system software. This software is integral to the operation of the device and is irremovable, meaning that should you purchase the 16GB model, you only get 10GB of usable space; if you purchase the 32GB model, you can only use 24GB. That’s an awful lot of space consumed, and higher than average.
This clutter could be something to do with Sense 6.0, HTC’s operating system overlay running on the handset.
While the One (M8) runs the latest Android, 4.4 KitKat software, Sense is what distinguishes it from competitors that also run on Android. A lot of subtle nips and tucks help streamline the operating system, but by far the biggest addition is BlinkFeed.
BlinkFeed permanently inhabits the space one swipe to the left of your Android home screen, and is designed to be a one-stop news hub tailored to the user. It works a lot like your typical Facebook newsfeed, only instead of being full of banal status updates from people you don’t care about, it’s packed with the latest news from your favourite outlets.
You can choose highlights from categories such as sport, politics and tech, or go about selecting individual sources such as The Guardian, Gawker and Gizmodo, as well as integrating your social media accounts. The result is a constantly updating flow of news that is always relevant and interesting to you.
News is seamlessly collaged with tweets from people you follow and content from your favourite websites. Once you get used to having news a flick of the thumb away, you won’t want to go back to consuming information any other way.
The One (M8) also has a variety of gesture controls to make unlocking your phone more intuitive than ever.
It might sound silly, but think how impractical the current method of unlocking your phone is. No matter what your handset, chances are you have to press at least one button before swiping the phone once or twice, as well as entering some sort of password.
With Sense on the One (M8), you now have a variety of ways to unlock your phone. Perhaps most useful is the “knock to wake” feature: double-tap the display to bring up the lock screen – perfect if you just want to check the time or your messages.
To unlock your screen quickly, swipe in any one of four directions. Each direction takes you to a different screen: the home screen, widget panel, BlinkFeed or voice-dialling screen.
Meanwhile, holding up your locked phone in landscape and pressing the volume button opens the camera.
Ah yes, the camera. You’ll find two lenses, a large one placed below a smaller one. Except the smaller isn’t a second lens – it’s a sensor.
This sensor grants the One (M8) depth perception, meaning photographs no longer need to be focused. The phone simply captures an image and you can apply focusing and blurring afterwards. This also opens up a whole new world of possibilities for post-effects, as the phone can now intelligently distinguish depth of field.
The lens itself is only 4MP, although perhaps not in the sense that you’re used to. HTC’s cameras are actually all UltraPixel. They use pixels twice the usual size, which capture three times as much light and are three times as sensitive.
It’s a tough comparison to comprehend if you’re not a fully literate tech geek, but it performs at a similar level to the iPhone 5S, Samsung Galaxy S5 and Sony Xperia Z2 cameras.
Unlike the Xperia Z2, the One (M8) doesn’t support 4K video capture as it requires at least eight native megapixels. You’ll have to settle for 1080 pixel-resolution HD instead. It’s more than enough for now, although as technology rapidly progresses, it might soon become insufficient. At 5MP, the One (M8) has the best front-facing camera out there, so if selfies are your thing, you’re all set.
While the One (M8) offers decent video, audio is where it truly excels.
The One was possibly the loudest phone on the market, thanks to its dual front-facing BoomSound speakers. The One (M8) has the same set-up, but takes it even further.
BoomSound has been enhanced for greater clarity, and the difference is astonishing. At maximum volume, the sound from the speakers is almost deafening, and the two speakers at either end of the display produce a stereo effect like listening through headphones.
There’s plenty of bass without losing middle and top end, and there’s no distortion or crackling, even at the highest volume.
Make no mistake, the top-of-the-line technology of the One (M8) doesn’t come cheap, but at £530, it’s no more expensive than any other of this year’s flagship devices.
Those of you with the money to spare needn’t worry though, as it’s worth every penny. HTC has done well to push its phone out before the Samsung Galaxy S5 and Sony Xperia Z2 as – at least until their imminent release – the One (M8) is the best smartphone money can buy.
Arriving early established HTC’s initial dominance within the Android smartphone marketplace, and this punctuality could see it reclaiming the crown once more.
Samsung, Sony and Apple should beware – by the time they release their new handsets, there might not be anyone left to sell them to.
The HTC One (M8) is, in all probability, the best smartphone ever made. It both looks and performs better than almost everything else out there. Features such as Blinkfeed and knock-to-wake are a joy to use. If Apple, Sony and Samsung weren’t paying attention before, they certainly will be now.