When is a flagship not a flagship? When it’s apparently being slotted in just under the proper flagship. It’s time to see what HTC can do with the an update to its 2014 edition One mobile phone.
The 2014 HTC One was a tremendously cool phone — metal body, dual rear cameras, remote control — and while the new variation that theme, the M9, is very nice, it doesn’t have quite the same feeling. It’s still metal and still features the remote control, but it feels more like catch-up than something experimental like the M8 was.
And HTC seems to be aware of this, because with the M8s, the company is taking what made the 2014 flagship great and updating it to a model that this year — 2015 — would probably be proud of.
An update to last year’s 2014 flagship, the M8s is a surprise addition to the One family, which in turn confuses things again with the idea of the range being about one handset, which has now expanded to several.
Now you have a choice between the M9 and this new one, the M8s, so what does it bring to the table?
First things first, you’ll find a new processor, with HTC engaging the Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 eight-core processor clocked at 2.7GHz and comprising of one 1GHz quad-core and another 1.7GHz quad-core section. This chip is paired with 2GB RAM and 16GB of storage, the latter of which can be upgraded with a microSD slot found on the unit.
Google’s Android 5.0 runs here, the version known as “Lollipop”, complete with HTC’s Sense 6.0 overlay here to schmick things up a bit.
Cameras are also found here, and for a surprise, you’ll find three, with a 13 megapixel duo camera on the back — two lenses — while the front camera is a 5 megapixel selfie camera, both of which can record Full HD 1080p video.
Connections on this phone are pretty standard fare too, with 802.11a/b/g/n/ac WiFi, Bluetooth 4.1, Near-Field Communication (NFC), GPS, and 4G LTE, while wired connections are handled through the standard microUSB and 3.5mm headset jack.
You will also find the HTC staple “BoomSound” dual front-facing stereo speakers here, as well as the solid aluminium chassis, both of which have become a signature item for HTC’s flagship smartphones.
Buttons, however, aren’t big here, and you’ll find a power button up top and a volume rocker on the right side, with the rest of the buttons occupied by soft buttons integrated in the screen via Google’s Android operating system.
And then there’s that screen, with HTC providing the same 5 inch Full HD 1080p (1920×1080) display from the HTC One M8 (2014), providing roughly 441 pixels per inch, an amount of pixels that goes over 100 higher than the Apple iPhone 6, and 40 higher than the iPhone 6 Plus.
Ports and slots in the HTC One M8s are pretty much identical to last year’s M8, hardly a surprise given the design and shell are mostly the same, so expect the pin ejectable nanoSIM slot on the left edge, the pin ejectable microSD slot on the right edge, and the ports consisting of a microUSB data transfer and charge port on the bottom edge, just next to the 3.5mm headset jack.
The battery on the HTC M8s is rated at 2840mAh and is not removable.
HTC’s second flagship for the year, the M8s is and isn’t a flagship.
Rather, it’s a curious update that offers up much of what made last year’s phone excellent, and yet changes it to help it perform like a 2015 phone.
First of all, HTC has kept the design and build the same, meaning you’ll find the relatively meaty 9.6mm aluminium casing from before, providing the same cavity for a 5 inch display, complete with the same slots, ports, holes for cameras, and a general feeling that this is the same phone.
It feels like the same phone, so you might think it is, only that it also isn’t.
We’re going to need to put the two side by side to find out what’s different.
You’re probably used to reviews where we say phones are similar, or that various products look the same, but the M8s is quite literally the exact same phone as the M8 from 2014, with only a few changes here and there.
One of changes is the processor, which in this model jumps from the quad-core powerhouse that was the Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 to the more power optimised octa-core (yes, eight cores) Snapdragon 615.
That change hasn’t made a huge impact to the overall performance of the phone, though, and we found the newbie, the M8s to be very much a clone of its similarly named brother.
Little to no lag was exhibited as we used the phone, jumping from app to app and surfing the web, making phone calls, and doing all manner of work, as the phone’s newly updated processor handled its own as it does in the other models we’ve seen this chip used in.
The screen is also the same, with a lovely 5 inch Full HD display used here, the same as what we saw last year, complete with compatibility for HTC’s DotView cases which provide a lovely retro look to your otherwise closed phone case when you pick it up off your desk or take it out of your pocket.
Even HTC’s take on the operating system is the same, with Sense 6 still sitting around on this model, compared to version 7 on the One M9.
That means none of the neat developments HTC brought forth in the One M9 are here, such as the ability to setup custom themes based on your pictures, a remodelled home screen widget, or any of the fun little bits and pieces that made the One M9 a phone customised more for you than generic for everyone.
It still supports a few custom themes like last year’s M8, sure, and HTC’s BlinkFeed news feed page can be turned off in case you don’t want to use it, but it feels so much like last year’s phone, you’d be excused for thinking it was the same.
But it’s not, and that’s not just because the chip has changed, but because HTC has changed a few things, some for the worse, some for the better.
For the worse is the removal of the infrared port, pushing this phone back to the mid-range with that omission. Apparently, if you want your HTC phone to have an IR blaster and work as a remote control for your TV, you’re going to need to splurge on the One M9 because this phone just doesn’t have it.
But you do get something even the One M9 doesn’t have, and what the M8 so desperately needed: more megapixels, and that’s for the better.
For the past few years, HTC tried to convince us that we didn’t want megapixels, but rather “ultrapixels”.
That was HTC’s nice way of saying “we have a bigger sensor than the competition” before mobile makers started getting the hint and doing it themselves. In fact, as good as an ultrapixel sensor was before everyone did it, and as good as it was for handling low light, it still only captured images in 4 megapixels.
They were a slightly better quality than the 4 megapixels you would get out of other phone cameras, but 4 megapixels doesn’t mean much in a world dominated by a minimum of 8 megapixels on a standard mid-range to flagship smartphone.
Now practically every smartphone maker has their own version of “ultrapixels” and HTC’s concept is more or less irrelevant. We’ve even seen what almost constitutes an admission of that with the One M9 where the company ditched the technology and went with a Sony camera in that phone instead of using its own.
So with ultrapixel sensors pretty much history, HTC has had to change the camera previously found in the One M8, replacing that 4 ultrapixel sensor with something more usable, with the M8s sitting at 13 megapixels.
You read that right: 13.
Just like the HTC Desire Eye, the One M8s features a rear 13 megapixel camera, and we suspect that it’s probably the same shooter.
That means the One M8s technically has the megapixels the M8 desperately needed, and the M8s even keeps the dual camera around, something that went missing on the One M9.
“Dual camera?” you say to yourself inquisitively. “I don’t recall a dual camera.”
In 2014, in an effort to not throw attention back to an ultrapixel sensor that hadn’t had a lot of work done to it, HTC included a new camera that could capture a different image at a different focal length and basically provide neato effects to the photography. It was a little like the Lytro “light field” concept whereby you could change your focus points after you had taken the photo, though HTC’s made it more about effects, allowing you to change the background of images to look more drawn, or add falling leaves, bubbles, and snow, with an animated flair.
It did this by taking two photos, each with a different camera lens, and then merging them for what was essentially a dual-mode system, which was definitely interesting and semi-groundbreaking, but not amazeballs useful, and frankly, we’re not sure we know anyone who used it for more than the first five minutes they were playing with the technology.
In the One M9, HTC basically signalled that the dual camera technology was now unnecessary and removed it, opting for a 20 megapixel camera from Sony with only one lens.
But here in the One M8s, the dual-camera is back, paired with a 13 megapixel shooter and providing those two lenses, and it now even sports some new effects.
For this camera, however, you actually get a choice of using a decent but not great 13 megapixel camera in “high-res” mode for regular images or the “duo” mode camera for blended images providing foreground and background control.
Either way, you still get a 13 megapixel shot, but it just becomes a matter of if you like editing it for foreground or background control, with the option for switching found on the left edge.
During our time with the M8s, we were glad to see the technology back — hooray for keeping developments that were only up until recently considered important! — but didn’t care much about the extra effects HTC has been pushing for with the technology.
HTC tried to become one of those image editing players, mind you, and offers “Zoe” for image effects like Instagram and for a modicum of image editing like Snapseed, but Zoe is nowhere near as well built or easy to use as the other apps, so in the end, it will just be a feature you more than likely won’t touch.
At least the camera is decent, but like the One M9, the results often have a glassy and slightly blurry look to them, especially when using the higher resolution mode.
Interestingly, we found better, stronger colours out of the camera when it operated with the extra camera, with the dual camera tech showing better exposure than the single 13 megapixel working by itself, surprising us greatly.
We’re not sure anyone will edit the images to include any of those snazzy effects HTC is still pushing out — because everyone wants snow or falling leaves in their photos, right?! — but at capturing images in the duo mode does seem to offer better quality for some reason.
Interestingly, running in the Duo mode, you’ll find stronger exposures than we found out of the true HTC 2015 flagship, the One M9.
Maybe there’s a reason to keep the dual cameras in the flagship phones after all, HTC.
The battery, on the other hand, feels a little like last year, which is surprising given the processor has been updated.
That said, the eight-core Snapdragon 615 can be a little hit and miss with regards to overall battery life, and that’s the way it felt here, managing a full day, but not much more, which these days is acceptable for a flagship — which this is kind of like — but should offer closer to two days for a mid-range — which this phone technically is.
If you’re cool to charge it daily, that’s the sort of life on offer from this phone, which is adequate for most, though obviously not the best in show.
At least it supports the same style of cases from last year, and that means we can get the DotView case out of retirement for some retro-inspired love.
Oh, how we wish HTC kept that around in the M9.
HTC sure knows how to confuse us, and with the One M8s we are positively stumped.
On the one hand, you have the One M9, a metal thing of beauty that packs all of HTC’s smarts and tech features into one glorious looking package with absolute disastrous battery life, and on the other hand, consumers can find the One M8s, a recycled product that outperforms its high-priced M9 brother in so many ways and supports the DotView cases that don’t work on the M9.
Indeed, this might be a hard decision for some customers.
If you love the bling of the M9 and think its metal case is king, as well as its 4K camera — which can only get better as HTC pays attention and improves the software with each update — that’s the one to go for.
But if you want metal, don’t care about your phone being a remote, and are after a mid-range that looks and feels like a premium, we’d put this phone in your hand and see how it feels to you, because in many ways, this is what the 2015 flagship should have been like.