HTC One M8 review: The best Android handset on the market just got better

Bigger screen, better camera and same amazing all-metal body: although it might not fit all budgets, the updated HTC One is a wondrous device

David Phelan
Friday 28 March 2014 18:19
The HTC One M8 comes in Gun Metal (pictured),  Gold and Silver.
The HTC One M8 comes in Gun Metal (pictured), Gold and Silver.

There’s no doubt about it, the new HTC One (M8) is one of the best-looking phones yet. But is that enough? After all, with flagship phones from rival manufacturers arriving thick and fast (Sony’s Xperia Z2 and Samsung’s Galaxy S5 will be on sale next month) HTC needs something special.

Last year's phone, then called the HTC One and now rebadged as the HTC One (M7), was gorgeous to look at, felt amazing and was a real performer. This year's model is arguably glammer still and feels even better in the hand thanks to a smoother, glossier metal back. Like last year's model, the new phone has an all-metal back. It is something of a technological achievement to be able to send a mobile phone signal through metal, and it is as impressive this year as last.

But this phone is substantially bigger than the HTC One (M7). And last year's phone wasn't small. Although, it's true, the tactile, curved back means it fits more comfortably in the hand that you'd have thought. The increased size is partly down to the big screen, which is now a five-inch model. The screen's resolution is the same as last year's (1920 x 1080 pixels, or Full HD) and the Home and Back buttons that previously sat beneath the display are incorporated into it so that although the screen doesn't feel that much bigger, the handset does.

There's also a larger battery in the phone, which can only be a good thing. Battery life is crucial now we're using our phones for emails, games, web browsing, navigating and all the other energy-sapping activities that they are so good at. Smartphones run out of juice by late afternoon, it sometimes feels, but the HTC One (M8) has really great battery life, enough to get you to the end of a day easily and some way into the next. Assuming you can recharge each night, this is all you need. Is this enough to justify the extra size? Pretty much, I’d say, but you should feel the phone in your hand before you buy.

The main other visual difference between this year's and last year's model is round the back. As well as the glossier finish and the absence of any Beats Audio branding (a definite improvement), what stands out is the camera. There are two lenses now and a matching dual flash alongside. The second lens gathers extra data, adding more natural colour (just like the dual flash in the iPhone 5s) but also measuring depth. This means you can adjust the focus of the shot afterwards so the foreground is suddenly sharp or out of focus, say, although unfortunately you can't use this feature if the flash is on.

Last year, sales of the HTC One (M7) got off to a slow start, not least because the company opted for their unique 'Ultrapixel' take on camera resolution, a decision which serious supply issues. These seem to be solved and the sensor (still a four-megapixel model) has been tweaked to improve it. The idea behind a smaller number of pixels is that fewer but bigger pixels are more capable of measuring light and so deliver better results. Certainly last year’s model was pretty good in low light, but the new camera sensor now copes better with brighter lighting, too. You certainly don’t feel that the phone needs more pixels - the only barrier to liking four megapixels is purely psychological.

The camera is capable of lots of effects: you can create a moderately good 3D effect in your images thanks to the stereoscopic lenses, or watch maple leaves floating down the screen, for instance. But the really impressive element of the camera is the shutter lag. There just isn't any. Like the iPhone 5s, the HTC One (M8) has a super-responsive shutter so you should never miss the shot you want. Actually, in certain modes you’re even more likely to catch that special moment with this snapper - the camera starts recording frames before you press the shutter button so you have multiple shots to choose from.

The HTC One M8 with a dot-matrix case in orange

Phones are more than just flat, portable cameras and the HTC One (M8) has more innovations to delight, including Motion Launch, which lets you use gestures to control the phone. You can wake the screen by lifting the phone and tapping the screen orr launch the camera by tapping the volume button as you raise the display to your eyes.

Other features are carried over from last year. BlinkFeed, the social networking and news aggregator presented in a ribbon of images, has been improved, though it may still be too much information for some users. Still, it's easy to minimise your contact with this if you don't like it - it's not the default home screen as it was last time around. HTC Sense, the company's Android visual take on classic Android, has also made a return and is now in its sixth version (so, yes, they named it 'Sixth Sense'). Thankfully it looks great, and everything from the shortcut icons to the way the apps has been carefully thought through. Purists may prefer the forthcoming Google Play editions that will be pure Android, but really HTC have done a great job in making the OS their own.

This is a dazzling phone in every way: its design is hugely appealing and classy; the camera is tremendous; and the fast, powerful processor means this phone never dawdles. It even has remarkable battery life. True, some of the improvements are less groundbreaking than might have been hoped for, and smaller hands may find their fingers stretched, but the overall package is pretty compelling.

Whether this will be enough to make the phone a serious competitor to the Samsung Galaxy S5, with the multi-billion marketing budget that phone brings with it is hard to say, but it certainly deserves to shine.

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