Review : The HTC One (M8)

“Jesus, It looks like a fridge” said the wife when she first saw the large, polished aluminium HTC One in my hands. She has a point, the One could pass for a high end fridge in a Barbie fun house. A week later, she’d stolen my review unit to try for herself, and a week after that, she’d bought her own. 

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Hardware

The HTC One (M8) is the most beautiful phone I’ve ever held. It is fucking stunning. The all metal body is gorgeous from every angle, and the 1080p screen is just as pretty.

The edges of the phone are smooth in the hand — a little too smooth, actually. I was terrified the phone would slip out of my hand when I first started playing with the One, and therein lies the dilemma. The phone is too damn beautiful to wrap in a case, but too damn slippery not to use one.

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Dot View Cover

To address this, HTC have released a collection of cases designed for the One. The most unique case is the Dot View Cover, the weird rubbery shell that turns the HTC into an old school, chunky, dot matrix display. It’s a fun idea, and a more than just a novelty. You can answer or dismiss calls with the cover, see upcoming appointments, check the time and weather. HTC promise more features will be added to the Dot View case, I’m personally hoping for a Snake clone.

While the Dot View case is immediately charming, it eventually becomes annoying to use. It’s great to play with while it covers the phone, but the flip case gets in the way too much when trying to use the phone’s screen. The rubbery flap is just too elastic, too desperate to flip back over the screen. A Dot View case with a fabric side that allowed the screen cover to flip all the way over to the back of the unit would be a lot more comfortable to use.

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Due to the limitations of the Dot View, I’ve been using the phone sans-case for a few weeks now. My hands have adjusted to the slipperiness of the device, and I’m no longer terrified of pulling the phone out of my pocket, watching the One sail out of my hands and shatter onto the pavement. Almost.

The HTC One features a battery that will last all day, even under heavy use. Not a “day of charge” as long as the phone is plugged in at your desk for most of the day, I’m talking a full Saturday day here, where the phone leaves it’s charger in the morning, and doesn’t return til midnight.

Like the Samsung Galaxy S5, the One features a power saving mode to squeeze even more life out of the battery — up to 48hrs on a charge — and an ultra-power saver mode that stretches the battery to ridiculous lengths.

Software

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If a Samsung phone tends to lose points in the software round, HTC tends to shoot ahead. HTC’s Sense software is still the classiest damn version of Android available. Android purists will argue that stock Android is the only way to go, but I disagree. Sense gives you the best of both worlds, a a classy and uniformly designed suite of apps, while still allowing you to add or remove of Googles apps and keyboard etc if you’d prefer.

Sense starts with a beautiful, well thought out settings app and notification menu. The dialler matches the simple, elegant design. Unlike Samsung’s Touchwiz, nothing HTC provides is so awful you immediately need to swap it out, but being an Android phone, you still can if you want.

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The killer HTC App is an Exchange compatible email and calendar application better than anything available on Android or iOS.

Even the Exchange email apps on mythical ‘stock Android’ handsets still kinda suck. All improvements, as you might guess, go to the separate Gmail application – stock email hasn’t changed much in years. But with Sense Five, HTC coded the first great Exchange for Android email experience. Not much has changed with Sense Six, but not much needed to.

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So, if you need to get an Android phone for work, and your workplace uses Exchange, you really should get an HTC One or One Mini.

The One ships with gestures and taps that make using the phone a little easier. To wake the One, just double tap the screen, and you’re back in action. For those of us with tiny little hands, this is a god-send. I believe this idea was stolen from LG, but it’s an idea worth stealing, and I hope other handset makers steal it too. There’s a tonne of other gestures that I didn’t bother to learn, they had me at double-tap.

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The Sense Home Screen (or Launcher in Android speak) is pretty damn nice too. BlinkFeed is back, and it’s not a bad way to browse Facebook and Twitter on the phone. It’s not a killer app, but it’s a fine time-killer at a bus stop. I still decided to use the Nova Launcher, just because the small, widely spaced icons of the HTC launcher seemed a weird choice on such a massive screen, but that’s just me.

Camera

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The camera is the hardest part of the phone to review. The HTC One camera is sometimes fantastic, sometimes truly awful.

David Pierce of The Verge writes “The One really only has one major flaw left, and it’s a big one: its camera is still pretty bad. It’s the same UltraPixel camera HTC debuted last year, which trades resolution for pixel size so as to collect more light at a time. The idea is certainly sound, but the execution was wrong then and it’s wrong now. And the changes it did make are either niche features or interface changes attempting to disguise the device’s basic shortcomings.”

First, the good news.

The camera is lightning fast, so you’ll be able to capture crisp shots of even the most hyperactive toddler. The camera will also work wonderfully in low light conditions, capturing decent shots without too much noise.

In evenly lit conditions, portraits look amazing, and thanks to the dual camera, you can pull focus or add a bunch of naff effects to the background in camera. Landscape shots can look gorgeous as well, as long as the scene is evenly lit. Stay up close to your subject, and the camera works just fine.

But shooting outside on a sunny day, particularly when capturing landscape shots, is when everything falls apart.

In my testing, on a bright sunny day, the sky blows out into an almost cartoonish blue. When capturing shots during sunset, instead of seeing a sky of reds and oranges, the camera saw one giant blob of piercing white light. The camera just can’t cope with a high dynamic range. You’ll still be able to pull off some lovely artsy shots, silhouettes against a sunset, that kind of thing. It was just impossible to capture a sunset sky, and any detail in the foreground.

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Perhaps I haven’t spent enough time getting to learn the HTC One’s camera. Friend of the blog, Kieran, has been able to capture some really interesting shots with his HTC One M8, proving it is possible. See a full range of HTC One test pics here, on Flickr.

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Just to repeat, you will get great shots from this phone as long as you stay close to your subject, or you’re in an evenly lit environment. The camera is fast enough to capture very low light scenes too, making it great at night. It’s just the HDR scenes that modern cameras (and camera phones) effortlessly capture, the HTC struggles with.

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It’s a damn shame, because every other part of the One is an industry best. But you can’t afford to mess up a camera in a smartphone, this is the only camera most people will own.

Despite the disappointment of the One camera, I still find myself loving the phone. The hardware is just too beautiful, and the software, particularly the Exchange calendar and email, is excellent. If HTC had nailed the camera, this would’ve been the best phone I’d ever used.

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