How HTC ruined the best phone of the year … again

Have you ever put most your faith – or all of it, for that matter – in something? Chances are, you have. Odds are also pretty high that something you put your faith in let you down, at least once by now, unless you’re an overly-cautious (read: likely very boring, uneventful) person.

That feeling you get when it happens, though, that pit in your stomach, is exactly what I’m feeling right this minute.

After seeing Samsung’s Galaxy S 5 announcement, I wasn’t enthused. I’m still not. Sony’s Xperia Z2 seems to be the hotness, but I’m not salivating over Sony’s squared, industrial design like I do over HTC’s or Nokia’s. And as much as I’ve enjoyed using the G2 this week, LG’s G Pro 2, as great as it seems, just doesn’t offer the design and build quality I’m looking for in a smartphone.

lumia-icon-review-19If you couldn’t tell by now, design and hardware are big factors for me. And on the Android front, HTC has a huge advantage when it comes to both of those things. There are a handful of reasons HTC’s 2013 flagship won so many awards. For one, it’s gorgeous, and to this day, there aren’t many Android smartphones that can even come remotely close, at least in terms of aesthetics, to the One (M7).

In dozens of leaks and rumors, we got to see the second-generation One, the M8, up close and personal – from practically every angle, in great detail. The phone, while visibly related to the original One, looks much better, more refined, and more mature. It looks more professional, more classy.

And logically, if HTC just slightly improved the very few sore points of the original one, such as the camera or battery life, the M8 would be the phone to beat in 2014. We all we sure of it.

HTC One M8 Camera

The rumors, per usual, had many of us convinced HTC had done just that. Two cameras? We figured those image sensors worked in conjunction with one another for a stereoscopic effect, or greater depth of field. Rumors pointed to a 16-megapixel primary camera, which would have been perfectly awesome.

Frankly, if HTC had delivered on just that – the camera – I think many people would have been completely, totally satisfied. I know I would have been. A better camera and the new design? It would have been a killer smartphone. Near perfection.

HTC was so, so close – closer to perfection than arguably any other mobile manufacturer has come yet.

However, earlier today, HTC announced of brand spankin’ new HTC One, also known as the M8. And, for the most part, it’s exactly what we were expecting. It looks fantastic. I fancy the wider radius corners and brushed appearance (even if it looks like it’s begging to be scratched), and it has all the great features of the original One: BoomSound, a gorgeous display, an aluminum chassis, and specs on par with all the competing flagships. It has an impressive 2.3GHz quad-core Krait 400 CPU and Adreno 330 GPU (Snapdragon 801 SoC), 2GB RAM, 16 or 32GB of fixed storage, and a 5-inch 1080p S-LCD3 display. HTC even brought some older features back by popular demand, such as the microSD card slot, now with support for cards up to 128GB. And it gave Sense a warranted, ever-so-slight face-lift, with updates to BlinkFeed and a few accent tones.

HTC One M8 Camera duo sensor

All great so far.

Then there’s the camera situation.

The front-facing camera is, in fact, a 5-megapixel camera. Awesome. Next level selfies. It’s about time someone did this.

And those two juxtaposed shooters around back? The Duo Camera, as HTC calls it, is one 4.1-megapixel camera and an auxiliary 2-megapixel image sensor, specifically used for the depth effect. Worst of all, the 4-megapixel camera does not have optical image stabilization, as HTC says it’s not compatible with the stereoscopic technology.

So not only has HTC not improved the camera’s resolution – undoubtedly the biggest complaint about the M7’s camera – it removed the one redeeming feature of the camera last year, in favor of a faux bokeh feature that works … sort ofsometimes.

Seriously, HTC?

This is a company who goes further than any other OEM to provide a stellar piece of hardware, and what otherwise appears to be a more well-rounded package than pretty much anything else currently on the market or horizon. Yet, time and again, HTC fails to deliver in optics. Every. Time.

UltraPixel last year may not have been the most amazing technological breakthrough ever, but was a great start – a step in the right direction. HTC forced some manufacturers to focus on image quality and light intake, rather than just a higher resolution. And HTC was right. Megapixels aren’t the be all and end all of mobile cameras.

But, somehow, HTC fails to understand that megapixels do actually matter. They may not be the most important factor, but in an age where QHD displays are commonplace on tablets (and now even some phones), a 4-megapixel camera is unacceptable.

Maybe HTC would earn a pass if the M8’s camera performed spectacularly and rivaled some of the best cameras on the market. Just peeking at some of Michael’s sample shots with the M8’s camera in his full review, that doesn’t appear to be the case. Images are noisy, have artifacts, and simply don’t compare to images from comparable smartphones. Not to mention, they’re only a fraction of the resolution, so no serious cropping.

HTC One M8 display

So why does a mediocre camera ruin the M8 for me?

I may favor design and hardware, but two other features trump even that: camera and battery life. Currently, I’m putting up with the underwhelming camera performance of the Moto X. It’s literally my only complaint with the phone, and I rely on the iPhone 5 to pick up the slack left by the Moto X’s camera.

It may sound melodramatic, but that’s my own prerogative. The M8 won’t likely fit the way I like to use my device.

I’m the type of user who is always snapping photos, for one reason or another. Sure, a lot of those get chopped to 612 by 612 pixels for Instagram. But I do like to take pictures (with my phone, not a dedicated camera) for other things. I run social media for some local businesses here in Charlotte. I like to make my own wallpapers. A smartphone camera, for me, is far more than an Instagram tool. And that’s all the M8’s camera would be, an Instagram tool.

I’m not okay with that.

DoF effect M8And this so-called Duo Camera is a gimmick. There. I said it. Two cameras are not necessarily better than one, and resolution absolutely matters.

I’d be willing to bet the vast majority would have preferred to see a standard, OIS 16-megapixel camera on the backside over the Duo Camera, as it stands.

In fact, if that were the case, I’d be ponying up and dumping $700 into a Google Play edition HTC One M8 the minute it goes live. Instead, I’m back to pondering whether I should just buy a bright red Nexus 5 or wait to see what Motorola has in store for 2014.

I’m still interested in getting my hands on the M8 and actually testing the image sensor myself. Who knows, maybe it’ll change my mind. I will not, however, be holding my breath.

For now, it looks like I’ll probably be sticking with my Moto X. And that’s a shame, because it seems every other aspect of the M8 is spot-on, according to Michael. I wanted it. Bad. Now it will take some serious convincing for me to drop over $600 into a phone with a haphazard camera.

What say you? Are you also disappointed in HTC and the M8? Will you be picking it up anyway? Or will you be holding out for a competing smartphone with a notably better image sensor?

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About The Author
Taylor Martin
Based out of Charlotte, NC, Taylor Martin started writing about technology in 2009 while working in wireless retail. He has used BlackBerry off and on for over seven years, Android for nearly four years, iOS for three years, and has experimented with both webOS and Windows Phone. Taylor has reviewed countless smartphones and tablets, and doesn't go anywhere without a couple gadgets in his pockets or "nerd bag." In his free time, Taylor enjoys playing disc golf with friends, rock climbing, and playing video games. He also enjoys the occasional hockey game, and would do unspeakable things for some salmon nigiri. For more on Taylor Martin, checkout his Pocketnow Insider edition. | Google+