HTC One M8 (Verizon) review: a beautiful, powerful smartphone for all
HTC has always had a penchant for beautiful smartphones, second-to-none hardware, and superior design. It has always preferred higher quality materials – metals, high-quality, soft touch plastics, and impeccable displays.
Last year’s One (M7) was no exception to the rule. It topped the charts, won the hearts of many journos and consumers alike, and brought home countless awards for HTC. It set the bar rather high – for its competitors and even for itself, particularly in building a successor to what many agreed was HTC’s best work yet.
The opening line of our first review of the M7’s successor, the One M8, by our very own Michael Fisher sums up the situation perfectly: “The down side to success is the pressure to keep on succeeding.”
The question on everyone’s mind now is, can the One M8 live up to the hype? Or is it a worthy successor to the throne? Can it compete with the likes of Samsung’s upcoming heavyweight and, ultimately, can it help build a foundation for a brighter future for HTC?
If Michael’s already answered some of those questions, though, why review the One M8 again? Because not every model is identical, and we received the Verizon Wireless edition of the One M8 last week. The differences are mostly minor, but they’re differences nonetheless.
We’ve spent eight days tinkering with the controversial camera, picking through the software, and trying our best to put the One M8 through some serious stress. You will find the final verdict on the Verizon Wireless HTC One M8 below.
Specs & Hardware
HTC had a pretty significant challenge after the fanfare its 2013 flagship caused. How do you follow-up the bold and beautiful, widely adored One (M7)? How do you improve upon something that is already so great?
If we had to imagine where HTC would have taken the design and build of the M8 without having seen it first, it probably would have looked a lot more like the original One and less like it actually does. We’ll leave it up to you whether that’s a good thing or not.
Not everyone is entirely sold on the aesthetics of the phone. Some feel it’s not as audacious and doesn’t have quite the same personality as before. But there is no denying the hardware is absolutely stunning, and it’s leaps and bounds better than just about anything else on the market, especially in the Android space. You don’t see brushed gunmetal gray on just any Android handset, and you won’t find the same level of fit and finish or attention to detail in many other Android flagships. That’s just one of the many things about the One M8 that set it apart from its competition.
Just holding the phone in your hand helps justify the $599 no-contract pricing on Verizon – that’s something that can’t be said for most phones. It reeks of quality, and the slight curvature of the backside and the curved, matte finished edges that disappear into the beveled edge only add to the effect.
We will note this brushed metal finish does make the device a tad slippery and, of course, metal isn’t the most resilient material. If you want to maintain that out-of-the-box look and feel, you’re likely going to need a case. We noticed slights signs of wear – tiny nicks and scratches in the chamfer. Fortunately, it’s nothing major, but we certainly felt more safe carrying it in the Dot View case, which is incredibly cool in its own right.
At 160g, it’s noticeably more weighty than its competition, but no so heavy it’s burdening. It has a nice weight distribution, even if it is a bit tall (146.4mm) for a 5-inch device. And, no, it isn’t impressively thin; it’s 9.4 mm at its thickest. The tapered edges certainly make it feel much more gaunt than it actually is, though.
Some of the M7’s standout aesthetics are still present. The distinguishing matte polycarbonate dividers on the backside and the BoomSound speakers are still present, of course.
One of the major differences is the implementation of the infrared port on the M8. It’s hidden beneath a large, polished black panel along the top edge, which also houses the power/standby button.
The insides of the M8 are just as pleasing as its outer shell. It comes with a new chipset from Qualcomm, the Snapdragon 801 SoC, composed of a 2.3GHz quad-core Krait 400 CPU and Adreno 330 GPU. Though the M8 itself comes in 16 or 32GB, the Verizon edition is limited to 32GB, and it has 2GB RAM. If, for whatever reason, 32GB is not enough, you can supplement your storage via the expansion slot, which supports up to 128GB microSDXC. Keeping the show alive is a 2,600mAh battery, which is said to offer up to 290 hours of standby from a full charge, and provided you have the proper power block, you can utilize Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 2.0 technology for up to 75 percent faster charging.
The pair of image sensors around back, called the Duo Camera, is a combination of a 4.1-megapixel camera and a 2-megapixel sensor, used for measuring relative depth and enabling various post processing effects. And to the left of that arrangement is the dual-tone LED flash. Around front, you will find a wide angle 5-megapixel shooter for next-level selfies.
To no surprise at all, the S-LCD3 display is, well, drool-worthy. Diagonally, it measures 5 inches and bears the now-standard 1,920 by 1,080 pixel resolution – an overall density of 441 pixels per inch. In other words, it’s crystal clear with no signs of pixelation on the edges of icons or text, videos and other multimedia looks fantastic, and the side angle visibility is great, as well. Like last year, colors are vibrant, contrast is great, and while blacks aren’t exactly pitch black, the display is exactly what you would expect out of a 2014 flagship.
Worth noting is the small amount of on-screen space that is lost due to the soft navigation buttons. It’s not a ton of space, and thanks to KitKat’s new immersion mode, the buttons hide away at times with display real estate is especially vital. But on-screen buttons are hit or miss with end users. We tend to like how dynamic they are.
Overall, the hardware is impeccable. From a design standpoint, it’s gorgeous. The build quality and materials are impressive. And the internals are about as good as they come. Not everyone is sold on the camera, but we’ll get to that in due time.
If you’re into beautiful phones made with care, this is the phone for you. If you’re after a solid, sturdy phone, this should be at the top of your list of options. However, if you’re after something resilient, something you can carry without a case and not worry about, this device should probably give you some pause.
The One M8 comes running the latest version of Android: KitKat, version 4.4.2. However, the firmware version on the Verizon model comes lagging a bit behind the global model. It doesn’t ship with the most recent update and its Extreme Power Saving mode, which as Michael beautifully phrased, turns the phone into a “cameraless dumbphone (that lasts for days).” You won’t find that on the Verizon M8 (or any U.S. carrier model), unfortunately, until the carrier approves the update.
Other than that, the software is effectively the same as the software found on the global model we previously reviewed.
Atop KitKat 4.4.2, the One M8 is running the most recent incarnation of Sense, version 6.0. Seemingly in response to the desires and requests of users, HTC has once again cut some unnecessary fat from the popular UI. Most the UI elements are now flattened with a selection of four themes which change the overall accent color – gray, orange, green, and purple. The vertical, paginated app drawer is still intact, as is the ability to adjust the grid size and the arrangement of applications.
And BlinkFeed, positioned to the left of the home screen, is still here in all its glory, though visually, it has also been altered a tad. The tiles are larger and are painted with your chosen theme’s accent color. There are more than 1,000 partners providing content to BlinkFeed now, and there is more support for first- and third-party services, such as Instagram, Fitbit, calendar, and your very own gallery. It’s quite nice, and we found ourselves gravitating towards BlinkFeed more so this time around than in the past.
What’s new is what HTC calls Motion Launch Gestures. Double tap the display in portrait to bring it out of standby; swipe up from the bottom of the screen to do the same; swipe left to power on to the home screen; swipe right to wake to BlinkFeed; or you can also pick the phone up, rotate to landscape, and hold the volume-up button to launch the camera. In our time with the One M8, all of these worked consistently and reliably, save for the camera launch, which is particularly finicky when it comes to the motion and orientation.
HTC’s suite of applications come preinstalled, as well: Car mode, Music, Parent Dashboard and Kid Mode, Scribble, Tasks, TV, and, of course, Zoe, though you’re met with a “Coming soon…” prompt upon opening it.
Both Verizon and Amazon also managed to get their hands in the cookie jar, as the One M8 on Verizon comes with no shortage of bloat. From Amazon, you get Amazon Appstore, Audible, IMDb, Amazon Kindle, Amazon store, and Amazon MP3. Verizon packs My Verizon Mobile, Mobile Hotspot, Verizon Tones, VZ Protect, VZ Navigator, Accessories, NFL Mobile, Games, Caller Name ID, Setup Wizard, Cloud, Slacker Radio, and Visual Voicemail. None of these applications can be uninstalled, which is unfortunate. But if you’re tired of them cluttering your app drawer, you can hide them in the app drawer menu and/or disable them in settings.
We like the customizability of the quick settings page, and just how fluid and beautiful the UI is. It’s simple, not overdone, and it gets the job done extraordinarily well.
There are still some quirks. The copy and paste functions are still a bit different from stock Android and can become quite aggravating to use in certain scenarios, but there is no denying this is the most solid software HTC has ever released.
Sense 6, though only a minor tweak to Sense 5, is a welcomed change alongside the One M8.
We wish we could say the same of the camera. With months of rumors and leaks leading up to the actual announcement of the device, the dual-camera around back piqued a lot of interest in the tech media and in enthusiasts alike. Turns out, while there’s some nifty stuff going on in the background and there are some neat features that can be pulled off with this setup in the proper conditions, the camera is still the sore point of this device.
First, the camera UI: it’s been utterly simplified and decluttered. It’s simple to navigate, and we fell in love with the ability to save different, customized camera modes with user-defined settings. The settings to tweak are par for the course – exposure, white balance, filters, ISO, scenes, crop, contrast, saturation, sharpness, etc. And you can save all these settings -say, if you don’t like the settings for how the stock camera mode captures shots- for quick access later on.
The images are typically hit or miss.
At 4.1 megapixels, detail will always suffer in comparison to other, higher-resolution cameras. And like with last year’s M7 camera, noise tends to creep into even some of the brightest photos. Colors and contrast, on the other hand, are spectacular, sometimes even in low-light scenarios. We captured some incredible pictures with the One M8. But for every one great photo, we probably took three, four, or more that weren’t so impressive. Above is a spread of some of the worst and best pictures we captured over the last eight days.
We were upset to see optical image stabilization to go, especially in favor of a less useful, more gimmicky feature – the Duo Camera. The second sensor around back measures relative depth for any given shot, so long as you aren’t too close to the subject or your finger doesn’t cover the sensor (a problem we ran into several times, due to how close to the edge of the phone it is). This allows you to select focus later on – using the UFocus feature in the image edit mode – and defocus the rest of the picture … in theory. It only tends to work in specific scenarios – a close-up subject, straight on, with a relatively distant background. If your subject is at an angle or has too much depth itself, the effect won’t work. If the picture is too busy, it’s likely the UFocus feature will fail. It will never blow the socks off a professional photographer, yet its tendency to defocus or focus the wrong parts of a picture will likely go unnoticed by those who just want to apply an effect to a photo. It’s a cool feature to show off, but we found its real world purpose to be far too limited and unreliable to sacrifice so much resolution and a truly useful feature like OIS in favor of a parlor trick.
That still doesn’t make it any less cool to show off when it does work as intended.
We feel the camera will still suffice for the masses of general consumers. But for those who want to truly capture amazing pictures with their smartphone, this phone can certainly do it, but it’s going to test your abilities as a photographer.
The 1080p video capture, however, is definitely more noteworthy. Colors, like with stills, are saturated and vibrant, but not excessively so. Video capture did tend to blow-out whites in the standard capture mode, but that was less of an issue with the HDR video capture. We noticed some jitters in the viewfinder during video capture that thankfully didn’t translate into the final raw clip, even without activating the 60FPS shooting mode. Audio was also impressive, though wind noise was an issue, even with little more than a slight breeze.
The front facing camera is something we found ourselves using far more than usual. HTC’s standard wide angle is a nice addition that makes using “Selfie” mode, as HTC calls it, a bit more fun. But the 5-megapixel resolution is a harsh reminder that simply a higher resolution doesn’t immediately equal better photos. They’re higher resolution, but they’re always littered with noise and artifacts. We still like it, though, for the occasional selfie. I, personally, took some amazing ones with my niece this past weekend.
On a much lighter note, performance on the One M8 is spectacular. No, really, it’s amazing. Not once have we slowed the phone down. We haven’t noted a single stutter, instance of lag, or hiccup, not even when downloading 50 applications from Google Play. The Snapdragon 801 chipset is a monster, and HTC did wonders with software optimization to make the phone slice through a heavy workload without pause.
We played some graphically intensive games, app-switched as much as possible, hammered out emails, and browsed the Web, all while streaming music. We won’t say it’s impossible to slow down, but even the toughest, most abusive power users will have a hard time conquering the computing prowess of the One M8.
Take heed, however, that heat transfers quite easily in this deivce. On more than one occasion, we felt the phone grow very warm to the touch. At one point, it was no longer comfortable to hold. This sort of heat happened quickly while playing Need For Speed: Most Wanted, and even with less intensive work, like browsing Reddit or Twitter.
And that heat, unfortunately, is only one of the things that made the battery life on the One M8 so unpredictable. In short spurts of gaming, when the phone would heat up, the battery would plummet. Other times, the battery would drop faster than usual on standby, but then sometimes it was great on standby. In our eight days with the One M8, we haven’t been able to narrow down a solid average for the battery life. We have managed to last a full day on a single charge on most days, but we definitely felt the need to top-off before going out in the evening. Fortunately, this phone seems to charge rather quickly, which was not the case with last year’s model. If you happen to have a power block which supports QuickCharge 2.0, you can take advantage of that, as well.
Call quality was a standout feature of the One M8. The background noise cancellation works stupendously well, and audio on both ends was crisp and vibrant. Data speeds were just as strong, too. In the Charlotte metro and Winston-Salem areas of North Carolina, we averaged 24.0Mbps down and 6.6Mbps up. Even on the fringe of the LTE network, the lowest data speeds we encountered in testing were 4.08Mbps down and 4.93Mbps up.
BoomSound is also one of the major improvements this year. Last year’s M7, paired with Beats Audio, is still one of the most talked about features. HTC cornered the market in smartphone speakers. No question. This year, it dropped Beats Audio and reportedly improved the volume output by 25 percent through larger chambers and new speakers and amplifiers. Is it noticeable? Absolutely. It’s extremely loud, and the audio is sharp, relatively balanced, and rich. If you like to game or watch movies from your phone without headphones attached to your skull, this is the phone you should be looking at.
+ Beautiful industrial design
+ Incredibly loud speakers
+ Powerful internals which translate to stellar performance
+ Sense 6 is cohesive with a rich UX
+ As premium as modern day smartphones come
– The camera performance is comparatively sub-par
– May be too large or hefty for some
– Battery life is hit or miss
Pricing and Availability
In a confusingly awesome move, the HTC One M8 launched on Verizon just a few, short hours after it was made official. It can be had in two colors: Gunmetal Gray (the brushed metal one pictured in this review) or Arctic Silver, a matte finished aluminum model with lighter trim that more closely resembles last year’s M7.
Pricing with a two-year agreement is $199.99 plus applicable taxes. Using Verizon Edge, you can have the One M8 for $25.22 per month. Or if you go contract-free, the One M8 will set you back $599.99.
It comes in only one capacity – 32GB – so there’s no upper tier model. And the case pictured below, the Dot View case from HTC, is a tad steep at $50.
So is the One M8 a worthy successor to the M7? Some say it’s not as bold or as breathtaking as the original. That’s likely not due to the M8 itself, but the awe we were in due to the dramatic change brought forth by the M7, compared to earlier HTC models.
That said, the M8 is an incredible follow-up device. It looks and feels better than practically anything else in the range of Android-powered smartphones. It’s built better than most its competition. And it offers a level of hardware fit and finish Android has been needing for years, just as its predecessor did.
The display, the internals, the BoomSound speakers, and almost every last detail is spot-on. It’s balanced, polished, it performs spectacularly, and, simply put, it can certainly be held to the same standards as the M7.
However, it isn’t perfect. The camera will be a love-or-hate item for most. Battery life has been all over the place, though more often good than bad. And the beveled edges started showing scratches after just a few days.
No less, if what you’re after is the absolutely most premium, best built, and most well-rounded Android handset on the market today, look no further than the HTC One M8. If the camera is of utmost importance to you, we’d recommend looking at some of Verizon’s alternatives, like the Nokia Lumia Icon which we reviewed not long ago.