Last year’s HTC One was one of the best handsets of the year, and in 2014, the company plans to impress customers with something even better, continuing the reliance on metal, simplicity, and a camera that can handle its own.
Another year, another model, and for 2014, HTC is keeping the “One” moniker it gave to phones to simplify things two years ago.
In the new edition, you’ll find upgraded specs that put the handset on par with its fiercest rival, the Samsung Galaxy S5, sporting innards that are close to identical in so many ways.
For starters, you’ll find the latest Qualcomm Snapdragon chip, the 801 model clocked at 2.5GHz with the Adreno 330 graphics chip, running alongside 2GB RAM and 16G storage, though this last part can be upgraded through the microSD slot.
Android 4.4 “KitKat” runs on the One (M8) out of the box, making it up to date as far as Google is concerned, with HTC’s Sense 6 overlay running atop Android.
Connections are now standard for flagship handsets, and you can expect 802.11a/b/g/n/ac WiFi, DLNA, GPS, Bluetooth 4.0, Near-Field Communication (NFC), infrared for controlling your TV, and the Category 4 LTE (4G) connectivity that every major telco in this country now supports.
Wired connections are — as always — very limited, and you’ll find microUSB here, running the regular 2.0 version that most phones have been charging from for years. Data can also be transferred this way simply by plugging the phone into a computer using this port and a microUSB cable.
Cameras are included, of course, and they’re actually main features, with dual 4 megapixel cameras on the back as part of HTC’s “Ultrapixel” technology, complete with a flash, while the front-facing camera is rated for 5 megapixels. Both cameras are capable of capturing Full HD 1080p videos.
All of these specs sit underneath a 5 inch touchscreen, capable of showing Full HD’s 1920×1080 resolution, flanked on each side by speakers which HTC calls “BoomSound” technology.
Buttons are few and far between, and even less than previous HTC handsets, as the soft buttons have been taken off and moved to the on-screen Android display, with the bottom section of the screen showing the back, home, and multitask buttons, though these can be changed depending on the program running.
Physical buttons are also lacking in abundance, with merely a volume rocker on the right, and the power button up top, which has been relocated from the left of the phone and is now on the right.
Ports are equally small in number, with merely the microUSB port and 3.5mm headset jack sitting next to it on the bottom of the handset.
In a first for HTC, the company has shifted to the nanoSIM, with the pin-ejected tray for this located on the left side, the opposite side of where the microSD slot is (right side, above the volume rocker).
The battery is built into the handset and is rated at 2600mAh.
Back in 2012, the simpler naming scheme didn’t exactly pay off, with a One X, One XL, One S, and One V, to name just the ones we remember off the top of our heads. Last year in 2013, HTC seemed to get the gist of a simpler naming convention, with the One, One Mini, and One Max making up the whole “One” range.
And this year, it looks like we’re back for another One, as HTC shows off the new 2014 edition One, also known by the product name of “M8,” fitting since the 2013 edition One was known as the “M7.”
So here we are with the evolution of the 2013 One, and for this product, HTC has increased the specs, updated the body, and redeveloped the camera, so how does it fare?
Pick up the phone and you’ll find a familiar high quality experience, which is something HTC totally nailed last year with the metal body of the One. While few manufacturers seem keen on investing in metal phones, HTC is keeping with the material, with the 2014 One staying in metal, and even relying on more this time around.
In the hands, it’s clear you’re holding something made to survive, with a decent amount of heft and a body that has virtually no unwanted creaking or twisting.
As far as body perfection goes, this is it in a handset, and we’re thrilled.
Switch it on and you’ll find a bright and colourful 5 inch screen greeting you back, with more than enough light to make the viewing experience possible inside or out, which will please most people.
There’s a touch less pixel clarity here — sorry, it’s a numbers game, and with Full HD at 5 inches, the number is 441ppi against last year’s 469ppi — but it’s still perfectly sharp, making text and webpages readable without zooming in using your fingers.
The screen is now accommodating the soft buttons that normally sit under the screen, but HTC has made them sit on a translucent black bar, with the display still sitting beneath.
It’s a much better look for the built-in button design Google normally goes with, and helps to make the screen feel like it’s framed on all sides by the aluminium casing of the handset, which is something you don’t always get, especially when there’s a big black bar at the bottom just for screen-based buttons.
HTC’s shift to a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor is a massive update from the Snapdragon 600 in the original One, and while that was a speedy little chip, the new processor is even better, with little to no lag in everything we ran through the phone.
Apps could be run simultaneously and multitasked without problems, menus and animations performed flawlessly, and generally the system just ran remarkably well.
You’d be hard pressed to be disappointed with the new One’s performance, and we sure weren’t.
Over on the battery life front, we managed a good day to a day and a half before the phone would give out.
From our reviewing environment of pushing several email accounts, social networking, web browsing, taking photos, and playing music, we found that heavy users will likely only get that a day of use, while people who rely on their phone a little less will be able to grab time into the next day.
That’s not bad, and is certainly on par with other phones that aren’t phablets, though you’ll probably want to charge nightly.
Mobile performance is also equal to many of the devices we’ve had pass our review desk recently, with 4G speeds running from 25 to 80Mbps down.
Category 4 LTE connectivity is supported here, so provided your network supports the technology (which is Vodafone only in Australia at the time of publishing), you may see speeds as high 150Mbps down, though networks with only Category 3 (Optus and Telstra) can see as high as 100 down.
Some of the little things make an impact here, too.
Details like the dual stereo speakers on the front are a big deal, and mean you won’t have to go reaching for a Bluetooth speaker system if you want to listen to your music at a park, as the volume on offer is actually very good. We found this was perfect lying in bed, watching YouTube or trailers, as the amount of sound that comes out of front of the phone — where your ears are aimed at — was enough that we could hear things perfectly.
HTC has also relocated the 3.5mm jack to the bottom of the phone, which is a most appreciated change. With this location, you can pull the phone out of your pocket when your headphones are plugged in and just see what has been playing. It’s a more convenient location, that’s for sure.
Other areas that HTC has changed tend to be on the software side of things, where the Blinkfeed social and news reading system is slightly different, but still doesn’t let you add your own news sources, relying solely on services sent out by HTC’s supplier, and then connecting with your social networking services, calendar, mail, and even photos shot on the device.
It’s a better system than when HTC first released the One, but it could still do with some work, and we’re sure if you websites that aren’t handled by HTC’s news supplier, you’ll be disappointed to find you can’t add it to the phone.
There are other little things, such as different themes for the app menu bars making each a different colour, and highlighting whether you’re in a productivity app, web app, multimedia app, settings, and so on, but these can’t be configured or tweaked by the user, and you have four to choose from. Most people probably won’t try to change them, but the options are there.
Support for FitBit is also built into the unit, as is a TV remote using the infrared port up front, and even the ability upgrade the storage inside the handset using microSD.
And if you decide you want a cover for the phone, HTC will be making the “Dot View” case, which doesn’t just give you a plastic wraparound case to protect both the front and the back, but also lets you see the phone through the tiny dot holes on the front of the case.
When this is on, the lockscreen goes all 8-bit retro, providing blocky text and notifications reminiscent of an 80s video game, and allows you to answer phone calls and touch the screen through the cover, which is a neat feature.
Some of the gestures on the handset are cool, too, making it possible to unlock the phone into different screens with specific gestures. For instance, if you swipe up from a phone on standby, you’ll get the last screen you were on.
Swipe from left to right and you’ll get BlinkFeed, and while the opposite gesture delivers the main home screen. Meanwhile, a swipe on standby from top to the bottom of the screen starts up the voice call function. Double tap the device to switch it on. That sort of thing.
But the camera is one area where it’s clear HTC has been doing some work. An evolution from the product we saw last year, the new Ultrapixel camera seems to be about capturing a little more detail and then tweaking the images with effects.
You’ll find HTC’s Zoe still sitting around, though it’s in a different place and has to be activated through the camera options, and there are more camera modes on offer, with HDR, panoramas, anti-shake, portrait, night, and text modes.
Similar to Nokia’s own camera app, there is also now a manual mode with shutter and ISO settings for those who like to get down to the real nitty gritty, but these extra modes don’t really seem to be the bread and butter of the new HTC One camera.
Rather, an extra lens and new camera technology is the point of this new device.
On the back of the HTC One from 2014, you’ll find not one, but two cameras. The first one is the main one, and this sits in roughly the same place as the old one: below the aesthetic line on the back.
A new camera also sits up top, and it’s the job of this camera to capture extra things such as a wider image and depth information, with all of this used by the camera to allow you to play with the image even more.
For instance, using this depth information, you can refocus an image later, similar to what Lytro does with its Lightfield cameras.
It’s not the same effect, not by a long shot and technically the image is already focused, with HTC simply allowing you to soften everything else except certain areas.
(You can see the difference below with the static HTC One depth image above made from an in-focus shot, compared to the interactive Lytro image below.)
You can also separate the subject in the foreground from that in the background, and apply individual effects to each layer, such as adding line drawing or blur to the back, while keeping the front in focus, or do it the other way around.
HTC has even made animated effects, which grab the image and then apply falling seasonal effects such as leaves, flower petals, or snowflakes to and around the image, with the elements falling both in front and behind the subject.
But these are merely effects, and they won’t work without a decent camera.
Fortunately, the new version of the Ultrapixel rear camera does appear to be better than last year’s one, with decent low light and quality high light image offered beyond the gimmicks HTC has rolled into the new model.
Images were reasonably detailed, but don’t expect to crop too much as, once again, the Ultrapixel size is still technically 4 megapixels, which may well have had redeveloped technology in its sensor, but still bandies the same number for output size.
Touching the screen allows you to not just focus, but also pick what should be well lit, and it’s in this regard that you might find some discrepancies, with images either coming out too light or too dark. If you want a balanced amount of lighting, put the camera into HDR mode for better results.
Overall, the camera seems faster, as you can pretty much hit the touchscreen button and it will fire the shot without any pause between, which is always good to see, and the swipe from the opposite direction still activates the front facing mode, which is now called “Selfie” mode.
The prevalence of self-portraiture seems to have spawned the need for better cameras up front, and not video conferencing (which was what the camera was originally thrown up there for), and so HTC has moved to include a 5 megapixel camera in this position.
It’s not a bad camera, but it won’t offer much in the way of detail, with some soft images. Instagram and Facebook will serve it fine, but don’t expect to become a Cindy Sherman with major works of self-portraiture using the front camera alone.
But we have some reservations about HTC’s new and redeveloped camera, and unfortunately we’re going to have to play the megapixel remark here, because at 4 megapixels, HTC’s new One may not cut it for some people.
Let’s get something straight here: no one will argue against the megapixel myth more than we will.
GadgetGuy is made up of people who are lovers of photography, and nothing gives us more pleasure than to be out in the field taking pictures, although writing can give that activity a good run for its money (and making and consuming ice cream, for what it’s worth).
Last year, HTC tackled the megapixel myth by throwing a 4 megapixel sensor in its One smartphone, changing the concept from “megapixels” to “Ultrapixels,” and moving on from the regular tactic of handset manufacturers to just update the megapixel quantity and look at the sensor altogether.
Rather than just rely on an 8, 11, or 13 megapixel sensor, HTC made its 4 megapixel sensor something special, capable of firing images quickly in succession, with several second video support, Photoshop-like effects, and some extraordinary low light skills.
This year, HTC has taken a look at its one year old Ultrapixels technology and improved on it, but still left the megapixel size the same. New features are included, and a new camera which supports the ability to read depth to a degree, similar to what Lytro does in its Lightfield cameras, but technically, it’s still a 4 megapixel sensor.
Unfortunately, that just won’t be enough for some people, and we actually don’t disagree.
While 4 megapixels will be more than enough for quite a few people, 4 megapixels is still technically just a 4×6 postcard, and barely that. You can get an A4 image out of one, but it won’t be particularly pretty.
But you can always move past the printer argument and say “nobody prints anymore” (which isn’t totally true), commenting instead that for online use, four megapixels is totally fine, and that’s true, at least until you start to play with Instagram, which so many people do.
Instagram, as an example, crops any image to a square, and that’ll mean taking the 4 megapixel shot from the HTC One and bringing it closer to one that’s 2 megapixels. With that sort of size drop, that’s not a lot of room to move, and means that if you decide to crop a little closer for Instagram, you’ll find dottier details, rather than better image quality.
It also doesn’t help that we heard the 4 megapixel logic from HTC last year, and this year, we’re getting more of the same.
Even if this year’s technology is capable of more detail and stronger images (which is probably debatable), HTC should have boosted the Ultrapixel size to something a little more substantial as, sadly, four megapixels doesn’t really cut it anymore.
Especially not when 5, 8, and 11 is the bare minimum you get from manufacturers these days.
Hell, the front facing camera on the HTC One has more megapixels to work with, and while the sensor is better around the back, it’s rather peculiar that HTC has made the selfie camera support larger photos, even if they’re only marginally bigger.
Other things like HTC’s special effects will also seem cool at first, but are mostly a gimmick, and one you’re not likely to use over the course of a year of owning the phone, let alone the two most Australian contracts run for.
We like the idea of being able to make our backgrounds look hand drawn, and add snowflakes or flower petals falling in the distance, and even create the illusion of a true 3D image and perspective, but we probably wouldn’t use the effects beyond the review, and there are some instances where you can’t.
For instance, if you’ve taken a photo up close and HTC’s macro mode has kicked into gear, these options are greyed out and you can’t use them. HTC doesn’t warn you about this, and you generally only find out after you take the photo and try to process them using HTC’s options, only to find that sorry, you can’t do this.
Some of the effects don’t even work particularly well, and while the depth-based effects of separating the foreground from the background can lead to some artistic interpretations of what you saw, it’s not a great example of picking the person from the background because the edges are almost always fuzzy and include part of the background regardless of what you do.
There’s also no 4K support on the video camera, which is something almost every other major smartphone will release will have, but one HTC has skipped on.
Our only other complaint is with the finish, and while HTC has built one of the sexiest and prettiest smartphones with a 90 percent metal body made from aluminium, it can be a wee bit slippery.
The finish is one of brushed aluminium in the one gunmetal grey variety Australia will be receiving, and while it’s gorgeous — seriously, it’s simply spectacular — it can fall out of your hands easily, even more so than the matte black HTC One from 2013.
Obviously, the simple answer for this is to get a case, but you shouldn’t have to, so if you don’t want a case, make sure to remember to grip the phone tightly.
There’s no doubting it: HTC’s new One is one of the best phones we’ve ever seen, and a real contender for phone of the year.
From the excellent internals, upgradeability, speedy performance, and impressive build quality, the HTC One M8 is superb in so many ways, and outside of the phablet owners used to bigger screens and two or three day battery life, this will be a device that few will want to own.
Unfortunately, it also feels like the perfection of last year’s phone, rather than a totally new product for the company.
For many, this will be ideal, as last year’s HTC wasn’t just a brilliant phone, but one of HTC’s best products ever, and perfecting that can only be a good thing. For others keen on more megapixels and something totally new, someone else will have something for you shortly.
Editor’s note: We didn’t include this in the piece because it didn’t feel as if any of the sections warranted it, but we have one other concern for the HTC One in 2014, and that comes from upgrades.
It’s totally normal for Google to release patches and updates for its devices, and HTC — which uses and relies on the Google Android ecosystem operating system — will still be issuing new releases for these phones.
That said, in the 2013 edition of the One, the updates haven’t always made the phone better. We haven’t just heard it from owners of the HTC One, nor have we solely read it online from user complaints, but have even experienced it ourselves in the 2013 One, and after one of the updates — presumably to Android 4.2 — the camera stopped working properly, as its low light support practically went out the window and purple vignetting popped up everywhere.
This effect isn’t really an effect, and is closer to a glitch, one that seems to result from a camera that appears to be overheating, but HTC has previously said this would be fixed in subsequent updates. Unfortunately, in the latest update (4.4), those people with a purple camera in their HTC One are still suffering from it.
And here’s our concern: the HTC One 2014 (M8) currently has a very capable camera, but given that HTC may have accidentally broken the cameras in the 2013 edition of the One smartphone and hasn’t yet recalled them, we are a wee bit concerned that the 2014 version of the One may get stuck with the same, if not a similar issue.
We’re sure people who own last year’s One are probably in the same boat, and are wondering if and when HTC will be rectifying their problem — because they didn’t get the phone with the purple camera problem — but otherwise, here’s hoping our concerns aren’t warranted.