REVIEW: HTC One M8

HTC is going through a rough patch at the moment but its latest device is just about the best designed smartphone on the market.

Graph for REVIEW: HTC One M8

HTC has had a rough time in the hyper-competitive smartphone market. Declining revenue has been a consistent theme in the company’s financial reports for the last 28 months, ending 2013 with just 2 per cent market share. It’s a fall from grace for a company that was once a firm third to industry heavyweights, Apple and Samsung.

It was always going to be an uphill battle for HTC -- it lacks the brand recognition and the gargantuan marketing budget of its rivals. However, despite the financial troubles, the company released what was arguably the best smartphone of 2013, the HTC One (M7).

It might have fallen well short of the commercial success of the iPhone 5s or the Samsung Galaxy S4, but it won rave reviews across the board. HTC is hoping that its follow up, the HTC One (M8), will be enough to revive its fortunes. But does the end product deliver?

The best designed smartphone in the market 

It’s hard to talk about the new HTC One without harping on about the build quality and the exceptional attention to detail on show. HTC has always made great looking phones, but last year’s HTC One raised the bar to an all-time high and truly showcased HTC’s design prowess. This year’s refresh takes the outstanding design DNA of its predecessor and improves upon it in almost every arena.

The stunning metal unibody design with a distinct curved back that virtually melds into your hands from the original HTC One is back; however, this time around the chassis is made up entirely of a unibody metal that is almost seamless, right up to the 5-inch glass screen.

In fact, the only semblance of plastic you will find is a small strip at the very top of the phone to allow wireless signals to penetrate through the housing. Combine the all-metal exterior with the striking new gunmetal grey aluminium finish and the result is the best looking smartphone in recent memory.

The premium feel is maintained on the software side with HTC’s custom Android skin, Sense 6, providing a simplistic elegance to the UI. It’s extremely lightweight as well, with apps launching almost instantly, smooth transitions and no signs of stutter.

It might not be as feature-rich as Samsung’s TouchWiz UI but what’s there works well and there’s no unnecessary bloatware or gimmicks.

That said, some of the new integrated motion gesture features fall flat.

Gestures such as launching the camera -- almost instantly from a locked state -- by simply picking up the phone in landscape orientation and holding down the volume button, work well. Double-tapping the display to unlock the phone is equally consistent. However, gestures such as holding the phone in portrait and swiping down on the screen to launch the dialer failed to work most of the time.

Other additions include HTC TV, which enables you to use the smartphone as a universal remote via the onboard IR blaster. The app also offers an integrated channel guide and built-in reminders for when your favourite TV shows are about to air. While this feature works well, it lacks support for PayTV providers such as Foxtel, effectively limiting its appeal to regular free-to-air viewers.

Cautious approach to fitness tracking

HTC has preloaded the phone with the Fitbit app which will require anyone interested in health and fitness tracking to invest in a Fitbit band to utilise its full potential.

Like the iPhone 5s, HTC has a motion co-processor beating away inside the M8 that effectively functions as a pedometer without exhausting the battery.

It works in conjunction with the phone’s GPS to track location and the amount of steps taken, but it won’t be able to distinguish between different step patterns -- such as if you’re running up stairs or climbing a hill, as opposed to running on flat ground like a soccer field. Other functions such as tracking sleep or your heart rate will require the use of a dedicated Fitbit band.

Activity updates and goals can be accessed outside the Fitbit app, such as from the home screen via HTC’s news feed aggregator, Blinkfeed.

HTC’s fitness plans might not be as ambitious as Samsung’s, which has its own fitness bands and even have a heart rate monitor onboard their latest flagship, the Galaxy S5. That said, most who are serious about fitness tracking will either already own a fitness band or, at the very least, plan on buying one, and they are well served here with the level of integration on offer.

Great camera with some drawbacks

HTC made the bold decision to not take part in the megapixel war when it debuted the 4MP Ultrapixel camera in last year’s HTC One.

Instead it chose to focus on advancing the core sensor and optical lens system to capture significantly more light than its higher megapixel totting smartphone rivals.

HTC has once again made advancement in this area with the company claiming that the M8 can capture 400 per cent more light than its predecessor.

To its credit, taking shots in low light with the HTC One M8 produced shots that are unmatched by any of its smartphones rivals. The M8 also has a blazingly fast shutter and auto-focus ability making it very easy to take blur-free action shots.

Like the iPhone 5s, the HTC One M8 also has a dual-colour LED flash, thanks to a cross-patent licensing deal. This means that you get a warmer shot when using the flash as opposed to the washed out look of the traditional dual LED flash normally found on smartphone cameras. It doesn’t have the reach or exposure of the superior Xenon flash from the Lumia 1020, of course, but it does hold up well when shooting a subject up close in a dimly lit environment.

The camera does, however, come with some drawbacks. It has a habit of over-exposing parts of a scene or washing out the picture in the bright sun.

The low megapixel count also means that zooming in and cropping pictures without revealing a high degree of noise in the image is virtually impossible.

But what really elevates HTC’s camera above the competition is the Duo camera setup, which is essentially a second sensor, located directly above the Ultrapixel camera. The secondary sensor scans every scene and embeds depth information into every photo you take. The net result is that you can easily add professional looking background blur (bokeh) to your shots or more accurately change the background.

Other smartphone cameras such as the Galaxy S4 and Lumia 1520 offer a similar feature at the software level but the difference here is that depth information is gathered using a dedicated hardware sensor, resulting in a more accurate and convincing effect.

There’s also a microSD card slot available this time around for additional photo and video storage.

Overall, the quality of the camera is definitely a cut above its nearest rivals -- barring of course the Lumia 1020. That said, we aren’t convinced that HTC has raised the imaging bar high enough to outpace the impending smartphone camera competition we are likely to see on the upcoming Galaxy S5 and the Sony Xperia Z2.

A powerhouse with impressive battery life

Last year’s HTC One was a bit disappointing when it came to battery life but the company, with a little help from chipmaker Qualcomm, has really delivered this time around.

The HTC One M8 is the first smartphone off the blocks to be powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 801 chipset (2.3GHz quad-core), the same processor that will power the upcoming Galaxy S5 and Sony Xperia Z2. Aside from the usual boost in processing power, the new chipset is much more power efficient translating into longer battery life.

In real world terms, we were comfortably able to get through a full day of heavy use and then some. More moderate usage should easily see you get through two days before having to reach for the charger.

Another highlight of the original HTC One was the incredible clarity and volume of the front firing stereo speakers. HTC has managed to top itself this time around with speakers that are not only louder but richer sounding and distortion free regardless of the film, game or music we were playing. People who regularly rely on the loudspeaker for taking calls or who are in the habit of sharing videos with a group of colleagues will appreciate the quality of the external speakers.

HTC has once again delivered an impressive flagship smartphone that raises the stakes on all fronts. Our only qualms with the M8 is that it won’t tolerate water like some of its competitors can and the reduction of internal storage to 16GB from last year’s 32GB is an unfortunate step backwards in our minds.

Despite those missteps, the HTC One M8 offers the perfect blend of design and performance with next to no compromises.

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