Last year, the original HTC One turned heads. It packed surprisingly decent speakers and one of the sharpest screens we'd ever seen into a gorgeous chassis. True, it didn't quite offer Apple's level of hardware polish, but it was certainly the best-looking Android phone you could buy. It had its flaws – the camera, for example, was pathetic – but it still impressed. It was a contender.
This year, HTC has released a new One. Officially called the One (M8) – parentheses and all – the new variant fixes almost every fault of its predecessor, and improves on those things the former model already did well. Its build quality, for instance, is superb, with a chassis every bit as impressive as what's coming out of Cupertino. Its speakers are the finest we've heard from any phone, ever. We've never once experienced a slowdown or stutter while using it, no matter what apps we've tried or games we've downloaded. Even its HTC Sense variant of Android has been improved, and is a pleasure to look at and use.
The HTC One is, quite simply, one of the best smartphones we've ever reviewed.
It's not perfect. It has its flaws. Despite packing in some fun and unique new features, the rear-facing camera is still a huge disappointment, capturing soft or even blurry photos that are passable, but don't pack the same punch you'd get from a Lumia device. But an underwhelming camera isn't enough to scare us away from an otherwise brilliant phone.
There's a subtle excellence about the design of the HTC One, an elegance that turns what should be an oversized phablet into an eminently holdable pocket companion. It's still big, of course – any 5-inch, 1080p screen will demand a hefty form-factor – but we never minded. The phone's gentle curves and soft edges are endlessly comfortable, while its dark aluminum-and-glass build is every bit as visually pleasing as Apple's iconic handsets.
The screen itself is bright, crisp, readable from almost any angle, and comfortably visible under direct sunlight. HTC has incorporated a slew of gestures that will wake the phone and take it to different apps depending on how you tap or swipe, without your needing to touch the power button. You can wake the phone to your home screen by either double tapping the display or swiping a single finger up from bottom to top. A swipe from left to right opens the screen to HTC's Blinkfeed (new and improved with more news sites to follow, but you can easily turn it off if you don't like it), while swiping from right to left opens directly to your widget panel. If you need to make a quick call in the car, you can wake the phone to a voice dialer by swiping from top to bottom.
Any of the gestures – which HTC calls "Motion Launch" – can be customized or disabled, and some even work through the company's specially designed Dot View case. If you've seen an ad for the new HTC One, you've probably seen this case in action: a delightfully retro flip-cover with a series of translucent dots on its front. With the right software installed (easily downloaded from the Google Play store if your model doesn't come pre-loaded), the One will display the time, the weather forecast and notifications through the case. You can even swipe through the cover to clear notifications or answer calls, and since the dots are translucent instead of empty holes, the display will be kept free of grease and grime as you hold it to your face.
If the HTC One's design is its best feature, the device's rear camera is unquestionably its worst. As it did with last year's model, HTC has traded megapixels on the camera's sensor for pixel size. Instead of having a 13- or 20-megapixel shooter, you only have 4 megapixels to work with. The more megapixels in a photo, the bigger the photo – megapixels are simply a measurement of size. They directly correlate to the number of individual pixels on the camera's sensor, with each sensor pixel drinking in a tiny bit of light and converting it to a piece of color data on the final photo.
According to HTC and even Apple, high-megapixel cameras have diminishing returns, because in order to squeeze more pixels onto its sensors, manufacturers make those pixels smaller. Smaller pixels capture less light, which means low-light photos can look awful. HTC has opted for far fewer, but much larger, pixels on its sensor. Ideally, this would mean it captures decent photos in both daylight and low-light conditions, but in practice, HTC reduced the megapixel count too far. The photos you take with the HTC One's main camera are soft instead of crisp, blurry instead of sharp. They're certainly passable – indeed, you can see for yourself the quality of the photos we took in our gallery – but photography junkies may cringe.
Fortunately, we're not photography junkies, so we don't mind the less-than-stunning quality of the One's photos; they were perfectly usable for our everyday needs. Instead, we found ourselves excited by two camera features unique to the One: a truly superb front-facing lens, and a depth camera on the back of the phone.
Whether you love or hate selfies, front-facing cameras can be very useful, and the HTC One's is the best we've ever seen. Where every other smartphone we reviewed has a camera between 1.2 and 2.1 megapixels above their screens, the HTC One's is a whopping 5 megapixels – more even than its rear camera. The result: selfies that are crisp, well lit, and can stand with other phones' rear-camera shots in terms of quality.
On the back of the One, next to that underwhelming primary camera, sit the phone's dual-tone LED flash and its dedicated depth camera. The flash matches the color of its light to the color of the environment, so you get higher-quality indoor pictures. But the more interesting feature is the depth camera, a dedicated lens that captures depth information every time you take a picture. This data can then be used to do fun things with your photos, like dynamically shift focus targets or play with 3D effects.
The battery in the new HTC One isn't the most powerful we've seen, but it's more than adequate, easily blowing through a full day of heavy use and making it into most of the second without a charge. Officially, the numbers put its standby time at almost three weeks, with 20 hours of solid talk time or 11 hours of continuous video playback. In practice, it's nigh impossible to drain the One of battery life before you plug it in at night. Even if you miss a nightly charge, you'll make it through the second day without hassle.
The HTC One is a powerhouse. We ran every processor-intensive app we could think of on it, and the device's quad-core, 2.3GHz CPU didn't hiccup. A year ago, you couldn't find an Android phone that wouldn't stutter to some degree as you navigated its basic menus; the new One laughed at what we threw its way and kept on sailing.
We were happy to note that, unlike its predecessor, the One (M8) has a microSD slot to complement its internal storage, letting you load cards up to 128GB in size. Given that the base model comes in either 16GB or 32GB variants, the extra storage can be a blessing if you take many photos or want to keep a massive music collection in your pocket.
As you might expect from an HTC flagship, the new One has all the features you'd demand of any top smartphone, and a few you might not expect. From Bluetooth 4.0 compatibility to the full lineup of sensors – gyroscope, magnetometer, accelerometer and proximity – to an ever-useful NFC chip, the One is packed to the brim with the hardware components that make life easier. But it’s the phone's other extras, such as an integrated FM radio for tuning into local stations, that make it truly enjoyable to keep at hand. The entire top edge of the phone is a dedicated infrared blaster, which when combined with HTC's remote app, lets you control your TV with the very device that travels everywhere you do.
There are hundreds of smartphones on the market right now, from major corporate flagships to independent afterthoughts. And while many of those phones are perfectly adequate devices, few can manage the build quality, the aesthetic beauty, the ease and the simple pleasure of use exuded by the new HTC One. HTC used to be the company that quietly made Google's earliest Android phones, without branding or marketing. They were simply a manufacturer. Today, the One (M8) is proof that HTC is one of the finest smartphone developers in the world.
No, it's not perfect. It could be better, especially in terms of the device's utterly disappointing camera. But the mark of a great phone is the joy it instills in you when you use it, and the HTC One found us smiling whenever we picked it up.
Superb build quality, a gorgeous screen, excellent built-in speakers, a long-lasting battery, a processor that keeps on giving, and a feature set that will warm anyone's heart – these are just a few of the long list of things the HTC One does very well.
Its rear-facing camera is almost as much of a disappointment as the camera on the original HTC One.
The new HTC One (M8) is one of the best smartphones you can buy. A few hiccups keep it from being perfect, but they didn't stop us from falling in love with this otherwise brilliant mobile device.