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If hardware quality was the only factor in buying a phone, you could stop reading right here and go out and buy the HTC One M8 – it is the best looking, best built (AFAICT after 3 days) phone out there, bar none.

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The front will look familiar, if elongated, to current One owners. It still has separated stereo speakers which incidentally are again the best you’ll hear in a phone by a long shot, but the screen is bigger and unfortunately so is the bezel around the screens.

That extra length tallies to a centimeter taller than its predecessor making an already big phone now almost phablet-like in stature. Add to that HTC’s insistence of putting a power button on top of the phone which you must shimmy up and down to reach and you’ve got yourself some usability experience issues before you even turn on the phone.

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The back of my gray “stainless steel” unit matches up nicely with my fridge in the kitchen. I mean that in the nicest possible way. It looks gorgeous, though I’m not sure I’d say the same for other color variations offered, particularly the gold model. The improved curves are super nice in the hand and also look the part. You’d almost forgive how long this thing is…almost.

The M8 may not be terribly repairable by iFixit standards, but HTC has your back with a pretty impressive repair plan called HTC Customer Advantage. In it, you get a free screen repair within 6 months, a somewhat vague promise to keep Android updated to the most recent version (the website says “We are committed to keeping you current” but at the show they said 2 years of upgrades), and 25-50GB of extra Google Drive space.

Besides the length coupled with the power button, I’m still a huge fan of the exterior. But then there is the interior with HTC’s insistence on Sense 6.0 and this new 3-camera system…

I’ve never liked Sense as an add-on to Android, and as much as I try I don’t think I ever will. It isn’t just Sense, mind you. I also dislike Samsung’s Touchwiz and LG’s overlay as well. I was a big fan of what Motorola did under Google –all but eliminating Blur from the OS experience, choosing instead to add value in functionality via apps– and I would’ve hoped HTC would follow this trend. They didn’t, doubling down on HTC’s vision of Android.

So basically the phone is kind of a mess when you turn it on. Mine was from AT&T so it had things I’ll never use on the front like Isis Wallet and some pay-per maps, Wild Tangent Game Store, and other carrier BS.

I’m a ‘techie’ so I can just delete or hide all of this stuff, but I imagine normals who buy this have a pretty horrific first impression, especially if they don’t know how to get rid of all of it. HTC also changes the density of the icons in the apps folder and makes nested folders here. You must now scroll down instead of sideways like Vanilla Android. Zero steps forward, two steps back.

I know folks that are used to the HTC’s Sense are probably pooh-poohing all of this as normal, but HTC needs to grow if it is going to survive and this is not how to do that.

I should say here that Sense didn’t seem to slow down Android at all, nor did it eat up battery life like it has in past phones. I guess that is a good thing. Battery life for me was well over a day which is something when you are driving a big, beautiful 1080P display and getting fast LTE data.

I also like the move to MicroSD card which ups the theoretical maximum capacity of storage to over 140GB with a 128GB MicroSD card. MicrosSD cards are coming down in price and it makes storage upgrading easier. I have no idea why the industry is moving away from this, but it does explain why Samsung’s Galaxy line, which include SD card access, are so popular.

As for the touted 3 camera system? This may appeal to some folks, but I just want to take really good, quick pictures. The 4 megapixel shooter does a very nice job, but for all of HTC’s work in this department, I think they added a lot of complication without much benefit.

It isn’t a bad camera at all, and I’d even say it is flagship phone-worthy, but given the attention to all of the stuff you could do with the camera setup, I was expecting miracles.

My home is at a pretty unique location as far as AT&T connectivity is concerned. Sometimes I can get LTE and sometimes I can’t. That makes my location a great testing ground for HTC’s antennas and I can report that they came through with flying colors. Even in my basement, I was seeing LTE on the M8 where other phones would drop down to HSPA. The GPS is also pretty quick to pick up a signal.

Phone quality was fine. I didn’t go nuts here – I made a few calls and they went through fine, didn’t drop off and sounded great. Speakerphone is impressive with the Boomsound stereo speakers.

Bottom Line:

I really want HTC to succeed. I really do. They have always made great, cutting edge hardware. In fact, that’s how they got where they are today. But if they want to see market share growth, they need to sell to normals who are now also smartphone customers. Average consumers don’t need speed and feeds, they want efficiency and ease. They’d rather get a quick picture that looks good than have all the dials and widgets to control the camera. Unfortunately, HTC is still designing for that early adopter. They take a very usable Vanilla Android and plop a confusing interface on top of it.

And the real shame is that if HTC would release their Google Play Edition version on parity with the Sense edition, they might actually see some growth. Instead, the GPE will come in 2-3 weeks via Google Play and a shipping charge, unsubsidized for $700 and it probably won’t work on Verizon.

Even then, I’d still recommend you wait for it.

 

 

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11 Responses to “Review: HTC One (M8): Excellent hardware improves, confusing software worsens”

  1. David Eagle says:

    This just kind of reads like a guy who doesn’t like Sense and is used to vanilla android. Honestly, I think if you actually used it for a prolonged period of time you’d actually start to prefer it. Stock android is boring and isn’t as nice design wise. I like that HTC has themes and allows you to change system level fonts. Also, blinkfeed is a much more useful add on than swiping left for google now (which can still be accessed via holding the home button).

    The only complaint people used to have against Sense was that it slowed the experience down. Now that that’s not the case, I don’t see why there’s still haters.

    Fact of the matter is, when it comes to having a solid understanding of design (both software and hardware) HTC seems to be the only company who gets it (along with Apple, of course).

  2. hu? you claim you’re a “techy” and then complain the software is confusing? sense 6 is so easy, it’s ios-like and thats a great thing. easiest android skin to use.. i’d say, on par with vanilla, if not easier

    • I agree with “easiest Android Skin to use” but not as easy/fast/intuitive as Vanilla. That’s just my opinion tho. If you’ve been using Sense for a year, it probably beats Vanilla.

  3. So Tu says:

    Great review, and true to my experience using the M7. Thanks Seth.

  4. dwightk says:

    it seemed odd to use your own tweet about this article as a pull quote

  5. I hate reviewers that only loves vanilla Android and slams Sense or TouchWiz. I never understood why Vanilla Android was ever considered the benchmark that all launchers must be compared to. I have used Vanilla Android, Sense, and TouchWiz and prefer Sense or TouchWiz over plain, boring Vanilla Android.

  6. Nolan says:

    I actually like Sense…