HTC One M8 for Windows review: just what it says on the tin
There was a time when the name “HTC” was synonymous with “Windows Mobile.” The two were so intertwined during the latter half of the last decade that, no matter what form factor or Windows version you needed, you could find an HTC-badged smartphone to suit you.
Then came the great Windows reboot of 2010, wherein Microsoft completely reinvented its mobile platform to better compete with iOS and Android. HTC’s efforts with the new Windows Phone 7 were at first strong and nearly as varied as they were in the Windows Mobile days … but the platform’s sluggish adoption rate and HTC’s flagging financials quickly put a damper on its efforts. HTC would release only three smartphone models for Windows Phone 8 in 2012-2013, a stark contrast to the eight devices it brought to market for Windows Phone 7. Meanwhile, HTC refined its efforts on the Android platform, winning no small amount of praise for its work on the One X, One (M7) and One M8 models – and the latter earned a very high score in our review from the spring.
Spurred on by the success of the One M8 and perhaps looking for a way to diversify its offerings in the wake of its Nokia acquisition, Microsoft asked HTC to create a new One M8 for Windows. The new device carries the exact same build and specs as its forebear, its hardware a perfect duplicate of the One M8 for Android. But can it duplicate its predecessor’s success while running Windows Phone 8.1.1? To find out, we used the phone for seven days on the network of its exclusive launch partner, Verizon Wireless, and we have some thoughts. Join us for Pocketnow’s HTC One M8 for Windows review!
Software · Camera · Performance · Pros/Cons
HTC One M8 for Windows Review Video
Specs & Hardware
When we say the One M8 for Windows is physically identical to its Android-powered predecessor, we’re not exaggerating. Aside from the silkscreened “Windows Phone” ribbon beneath the HTC brand and Verizon’s “4G LTE” logo down below, this One M8 is utterly indistinguishable from its Android sibling. That means we’re looking at a 160g unibody metal casing with a brushed hairline finish, understated chamfers flanking the Gorilla Glass 3-protected display, and a feel in hand that highlights its exemplary machining. Button travel on the volume keys and power/standby button is excellent, the latter still masking an IR transmitter on the hard-to-reach top edge. Fortunately the display glass can be double-tapped to unlock the screen, obviating the need for too much awkward hand-stretching.
Speaking of the display: it’s the same 1080p panel we’re familiar with from the other One M8, its pixel density of 441 ppi putting it on-par with its direct competition, the Lumia Icon/Lumia 930 and Samsung Ativ SE. The One M8’s SLCD3 can’t quite deliver the same inky blacks as the AMOLED panels on those devices, and it tends toward the cooler side of the gamut relative to its Android counterpart (at least on our demo devices), but it’s an excellent display nonetheless.
Down in the machinery spaces, the One M8 for Windows meets or exceeds the specs other Windows Phones are bringing to the table. Its 2.3GHz Snapdragon 801 processor (barely) edges out the Snapdragon 800s on the Lumia Icon, Lumia 1520 and ATIV SE, and it offers a MicroSD card slot capable of adding 128GB to the onboard 32GB of storage (27 of which is user-accessible out of the box). Verizon is also keen to point out its “XLTE” network compatibility, and of course we see the same embedded 2600 mAh battery and BoomSound speakers as before.
About the only thing we don’t like about the hardware is how tall it has to be to accommodate those speakers, and also the hazardous mixture of slippery finish and rounded corners – a combination that makes it easier to drop than some other phones. Fortunately, HTC has made certain the One M8 for Windows is compatible with its hip but stiff Dot View case, so you’ve got an option to protect the phone’s soft aluminum without totally ruining the aesthetic that makes the One M8 so attractive.
While we’re on the subject of aesthetics: we’ve seldom seen a hardware/software pairing that looks as good as the match HTC and Microsoft have made here. With its new customizable start screen and the minimalist Modern design language, Windows Phone 8.1.1 looks like it was made specifically for the One M8. Even after all these years, the HTC/Microsoft combination is still a potent one.
As for Windows Phone itself, most of our impressions from our review of the 8.1 Developer Preview remain unchanged. We’re still sad to see Microsoft compromise some of the clean look and feel of its original vision, and annoyed at the occasional bugs that the company has yet to iron out. But we’re excited that the new software includes things like Action Center and start screen folders, both of which are executed with Microsoft’s usual visual flair. Cortana is a smarter voice assistant than ever, striking a nice balance between the utility of Google Now and the personality of Siri. And the space-stealing softkeys at the bottom of the display can be hidden with the tap of a button.
Old pain points like navigation are gradually improving. Though it does a good job, don’t let Verizon sell you on the need for its subscription-based VZ Navigator software; download the free HERE suite instead. On a road trip we took about halfway through our review period, HERE Maps actually plotted a decent course for us, HERE Drive+ got us there safely, and HERE Transit helped out after our return, when we had to take a bus back from the car rental office. In the US, we still prefer Google’s navigation solutions for its traffic prediction and delay alerts; using it alongside the HERE offerings, there’s a night-and-day difference in utility, usability, and raw capability. But the combination of HERE and Bing Maps does get us to our destination much more reliably than it did even a year ago, and certain aspects of Microsoft’s approach are superior, such as the ease of downloading maps directly to the device to save on data, or when traveling through areas with limited coverage.
Lots of little stumbles
The main shortcoming with Windows Phone 8.1.1 on the One M8 is its less consistent day-to-day experience. Windows Phone was for years a bastion of stability and smoothness if nothing else, and while the buttery responsiveness is still here for the most part, we’ve also encountered more hangups than usual on this build. The platform’s new global share capability is very nice, allowing you to send things like photos directly to an app like Facebook Messenger, but its intent functionality sometimes breaks for no apparent reason: trying to share an item via a specific app will dump you into that app, but without bringing the relevant attachment with it.
Windows Phone’s less-developed ecosystem is sometimes to blame for the day-to-day woes. Spotify, in particular, crashes more often on the One M8 than on other devices we’ve used, and HTC’s own camera app (discussed in more detail below) also has a tendency to stutter at the least opportune times. Popular titles like Twitter exhibit more bugs than they do on other platforms, while other big-name apps like Instagram –still hiding behind a BETA tag even after 9 months– lag far behind in updates. Lesser-known apps like Wakie show a lot of promise, but a broken Facebook login relationship makes it difficult or impossible to use them on our test device.
Probably the best illustration of the Windows Phone usability handicap is the case of the shared Evernote document. Where, on Android, accepting an emailed invitation to collaborate is as simple as clicking the link to open the Evernote app, the experience on Windows Phone is markedly different:
- Tap link in email
- Log in to Evernote via IE
- Tap accept link, which dumps you to Store page for Evernote app
- Tap View
- Open Evernote and manually find new shared note.
Little stumbles like this aren’t a big deal on their own, but taken in the aggregate they significantly diminish the whole experience.
But better than ever before
Lest we get too mired in the doom-and-gloom that always clings to the world’s third-place platform, though, there’s a lot to love here. The Windows Store recently surpassed 300,000 apps –an impressive milestone for a catalog that just hit the 100K mark last year – and recent high-profile additions like Swarm and Uber testify to its its continued expansion. There are more options than ever before to customize the look and feel of Windows Phone’s Modern UI. Data Sense and Storage Sense stand ready to help you manage the One M8’s finite resources. And Microsoft’s Office suite is more beautiful and functional here than almost anywhere else if you’re looking to get some work done on the quick: though we’re big Evernote fans around the office, we typically find Microsoft OneNote a much more enjoyable memo-taking experience on Windows Phone.
Moreover, HTC’s ported-over BlinkFeed, Photo Edit, Sense TV, and Video Highlights apps give this phone as special a feel as it’s possible to get on a platform whose design is so rigidly controlled by Microsoft. Given the recent democratization of Nokia’s formerly exclusive apps across the whole of the Windows Phone landscape, the HTC One M8 may well be the most software-customized device in the whole portfolio.
A huge portion of that customization comes in the form of the HTC Camera app, whose deep hooks into the OS required some close work between Microsoft and HTC. The app is a nearly perfect duplication of the camera on the Android M8, with a simple mode-select screen leading to a more granular viewfinder offering everything from custom filters to manual exposure, ISO, and other settings. While there’s sadly no camera shutter key on the One M8, Windows Phone’s new Action Center does allow for the installation of a special camera shortcut in the notification shade, which helps somewhat with fast launch. The app is a bit on the slow side when it comes to launching and capturing photos though, and it hasn’t entirely duplicated the Android version’s feature set: Zoe support has been axed, as have Dual Capture, animated Foregrounder effects, and the ability to save custom preset shooting modes.
HTC was careful to port nearly all of the Duo Camera features in their entirety, apparently determined to make the most of the One M8’s odd twin-eyeball arrangement. The faux bokeh depth-of-field effect hasn’t improved much in the months since release, but it’s good for the occasional trick shot to impress your friends.
We have a better time shooting conventional photos with the One M8, and despite its 4MP output, it’s possible to get some nice results. As we’ve seen from past comparisons, we’d rather have this shooter than the 13MP sensors the company uses on its midrange offerings. Daylight photos can appear overblown without careful control of the finicky exposure/focus reticle, but HTC’s software endeavors to correct for some of that by artificially boosting saturation and contrast. Turn down the sun and the M8’s UltraPixel enhancements come into play to pull every last photon from the scene. Windows Phone already has some excellent low-light cameras in the Lumia line, and with the addition of the M8, it’s the platform with the best overall low-light performance around.
Just like its predecessor, the One M8 for Windows also ups its game on the selfie side: the 5MP front-facing camera with wide-angle lens is an excellent fit for anyone who takes a lot of groufies.
Videos shot with the 1080p camcorder mode are bumpier than what you’ll get from an optically-stabilized rig, the frame rate isn’t always the best, and the manual focus could be a bit more precise. Still, for the overwhelming majority of consumers, that’s picking nits; especially if you make use of the excellent Video Highlights feature to spice things up, this camera is more than enough for documenting most life events, resolution be damned. (For video samples, see the HTC One M8 for Windows review video at the top of this page.)
And depending on where you live, sharing those videos –or streaming other vids via Netflix or MyTube– might take no time at all. The HTC One M8 for Windows is exclusive to Verizon’s LTE network for now, and Verizon’s recent network enhancements gave it a made-up marketing term (XLTE), and a not-so-made-up speed boost: we averaged 50Mbps down and 12Mbps up in Greater Boston during our seven-day test period, a huge improvement over Verizon’s performance last year. Coverage between Boston and New York in both rural and urban areas is also excellent, as you’d expect from a company touting itself as “America’s largest network.”
The M8’s radio loadout lives up to the network’s performance, too: reception is solid, from the FM module to the various cellular and WiFi transcievers. Voice calling is also just fine, with no clarity or loudness issues on either end. Callers said they couldn’t tell a difference between the One M8 for Windows and its Android sibling, and while we slightly preferred the latter’s crisper earpiece sound, that’s no doubt due to network differences between the GSM AT&T and CDMA-based Verizon Wireless.
Speakerphone calls are outstanding thanks to the amplified BoomSound drivers, which are still the best smartphone speakers we’ve heard on a US carrier-branded smartphone; if you’re a conference call junkie, this is the phone for you. The only complaint we have on the audio side comes from Windows Phone’s treatment of notification sounds while listening to music through the (included) earbuds: whenever any system sound occurs, there’s a window of several seconds wherein the audio playback is hushed. That’s fine for notification sounds, but it also happens every time you lock and unlock the device, which gets annoying pretty quick.
Budding racecar drivers will be happy to know that gaming is no trouble on the One M8 for Windows (so long as you can find a game you want to play in the Windows Store: its selection is particularly thin when it comes to recreational titles). Our old reliable Asphalt 8 ran wonderfully even in max graphics mode, as did the flight simulator Infinite Flight. And while we’re on the subject of graphic rendering: Internet Explorer had no trouble displaying even pretty dense webpages, but we still encounter more compatibility issues and generally wonky behavior in IE than Chrome or Safari.
Finally, while the One M8 for Windows doesn’t quite live up to HTC’s optimistic estimates, you’ll be happy to know that battery life isn’t bad. On a morning with 2 hours of continuous moderate mixed usage (60 minutes of FM Radio, 20 minutes of speakerphone voice calls, 20 minutes of IE browsing, 15 minutes of email and social app usage), we were still at over 70% charge after about 7 hours off the charger. That said, on another day with light usage but poor coverage, we blew through 25% battery in one hour of standby. So, as always, keep an eye on your power consumption, and remember: that 2600 mAh power pack isn’t removable. So if you’re a real road warrior spending lots of time away from AC power, bring an external battery pack with you.
+ Outstanding industrial design
+ Unique media features not available on other Windows Phones
+ Unrivaled acoustic experience on speakers
+ Best hardware specs available on Windows Phone
+ Excellent low-light camera performance
– Windows Phone better than ever, but still suffers from usability gaps
– Slightly buggier app experience
– Camera resolution lower than any other flagship
– Ecosystem still limited relative to competition
Pricing and Availability
The HTC One M8 for Windows is currently exclusive to Verizon Wireless in the United States, though AT&T has announced it will also carry the device in the coming months. On Verizon, the device carries a full retail cost of $599, a 2-year contract price of $99.99, or a Verizon EDGE price of $29.99 per month for 20 months. Verizon has also bundled its NFL Mobile app with the One M8 for Windows, throwing in a season pass for live-streaming football games to customers on one of the carrier’s More Everything plans.
The device is available online and in Verizon retail outlets now. There’s currently no word on global availability.
Will the One M8 for Windows be enough, on its own, to arrest Windows Phone’s current popularity slide? Certainly not. A lack of beautiful hardware and gorgeous software has never been the platform’s problem. But whatever the reasons for Windows Phone’s current woes, it suffices to say for our purposes that the new HTC One M8 is not part of the problem.
If you’re the kind of person who values personality over utility, someone willing to deal with a few rough edges in exchange for a more colorful experience, Windows Phone is a better fit than ever before. And with its beautiful fit and finish and HTC’s custom software additions, the One M8 is possibly the platform’s greatest showcase. In short, this is one of the finest Windows Phones ever created. If it’s a Microsoft smartphone you’re looking for, and you have no need for a PureView camera, you can’t do better than the HTC One M8 for Windows.