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Testing: HTC One (M8) Android Smartphone

By Norman Chan

Testing the new HTC One has helped me recognize my own priorities and preferences when it comes to smartphones.

We published our video review of the new HTC One (M8) phone last week, but I wanted to elaborate on some of the points we made in our discussion, taking into account another week of testing and some additional thoughts that didn't make it into the discussion. Like I said in the video, this HTC One is an important phone for HTC, given the company's struggles to catch up to the likes of Samsung in the Android handset marketplace. But it also doesn't seem to have the impact of last year's HTC One, which was a radical redesign from HTC's earlier Android phones. While it does have a completely new body design, this year's HTC One really feels like a mid-cycle upgrade, akin to Apple's 3GS/4S/5S phones. That's not a bad thing at all. In fact, it allows me to better evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of HTC's design choices, having had another year to live with Android and more recent phones like the Nexus 5. Testing this phone helped me recognize my own priorities and preferences when it comes to smartphones.

Let's jump right into my thoughts on those distinguishing attributes, and why they've led me to stay with the Nexus 5.

Size, Weight, and Build

The new HTC One is a big phone. It's not as massive as the Galaxy Note or that silly curved LG Flex, but it reaches the limit of what I would consider a reasonable size for a phone you keep in your jeans pockets. Though the HTC One technically has the same 5-inch LCD screen as the Nexus 5, it feels substantially heftier due to its weight and body design. Even without he dedicated Android buttons of last year's HTC One, the M8's metal chassis is taller and its edges less beveled. So not only is it actually physically bigger than both its predecessor and the Nexus 5, it does a worse job hiding that bulk too.

Reviewers have commended the HTC One's build quality as being solid and sturdy, and there's no doubt that it is. The brushed metal back of the HTC One feels more rigid than the Nexus 5's plastic casing, and it doesn't attract finger smudges like the Nexus 5. But I can't help but choose the slimmer build, tighter bezel space, and lighter weight of Google's phone. That's how good a job LG did building the Nexus 5 for Google--it feels like a 4.5-inch phone with a 5-inch screen. It's similar to how I felt about Apple using an aluminum back for its iPhone 5/5S instead of the glass back of the 4/4S. The glass back is nicer and more aesthetically pleasing, but the weight advantage of the metal back makes a big difference.

Physical vs. Software Buttons

I don't really miss the dedicated buttons of last year's HTC One, especially since the newest version of Android automatically hides the navigation bar (and notification bar too) to go full screen in certain apps. Software buttons don't take up much screen real estate on these 5-inch phones, but it's unfortunate that HTC had to keep the extra bezel "chin" space below the screen--the part with the HTC logo--on the new HTC One, even though there are no dedicated buttons there. I also have realized that I am only comfortable using software buttons when there's some form of haptic feedback. Some people don't like the vibration associated with the nav buttons, and you can disable it in Settings>sound.

1080p LCD Screen

Both the HTC One and the Nexus 5 use LCD panels, and I still believe that HTC sources better panels that LG for their phones. Viewing angles and brightness on both phones are comparable, but like with the original HTC One, the M8's LCD screen is slightly more vibrant than the one on the Nexus 5. The color temperature is also a little cooler on the HTC phones; when going back to the Nexus 5 after a month with the HTC One, white backgrounds looked red-tinted.

The optical bonding on HTC's screens is also better than that on the Nexus 5, making images look closer to the surface of the glass than below it. I'm not sure if this is because the glass on the Nexus 5 is edge-to-edge, but I definitely have noticed more backlight bleed on the edges of the Nexus 5 screen. Both panels are still fantastic, and their differences are only noticeable under direct comparison. 1920x1080 is also the highest resolution/pixel density I can see a 5-inch phone using--no amount of squinting will let you discern individual pixels with the naked eye. Keep in mind that the iPhone's resolution is still lower than 720p for its 4-inch screen. Rumors of a 2560x1440 version of Samsung's Galaxy S5 sound absurd.

HTC One's UltraPixel Camera

Curiously, the UltraPixel camera in the new HTC One has been both praised and lambasted by other reviewers. The people who like it credit the large pixel sizes in the 4MP sensor for taking good low-light images, and the ones who hate it say that it's been far surpassed by the cameras in the iPhone 5S and Galaxy S5. I initially was really impressed with the images taken on the HTC One--they're far better than what I've been able to take with the Nexus 5--but my opinion of the camera soured when I transferred those photos to view on my desktop monitor. The HTC One's photos, when blown up on 30-inch panel, look grainy and compressed. But that doesn't diminish the fact that they still look good on the HTC One's screen. And after thinking about it for a while, I think that's perfectly acceptable. A cameraphone's photos should look best on the phone they're taken with, since that's where they'll most likely be reviewed and enjoyed. These aren't photos I'd ever blow up and print--I wouldn't do that with any smartphone's photos--but they look great on the HTC One and when shared on social networking apps.

Something else that's changed since we shot the video review is that Google updated its native Camera app. I didn't like the radial menu dial on the previous stock camera app, and the new app simplifies controls while adding a bokeh simulation feature. I installed it on the HTC One, and it's still nowhere near as useful or versatile as HTC's own camera app. HTC's camera lets you adjust exposure compensation by half-stops (very useful since I almost always step-down), set manual ISO, and tweak white balance. There's actually a full "manual" mode that lets you tweak every setting (even shutter speed!) independently, making me wish there was an easy way to mount the phone on a small tripod. HTC's panorama sweep and 360-degree modes are smoother than Google's, and the image stitching more accurate. The better camera app alone is why I wouldn't choose the Google Play version of the new HTC One over a carrier model.

A few more sample photos from the HTC One below, which you can click for the full-size version.

Stock Android vs. HTC Sense

Speaking of the Google Play version of the new HTC One, it's a really tough recommendation given that it's twice the price of the Nexus 5. Google has put enough of its core apps on the Google Play store to let you download and run them on OEM phones, and HTC's new Sense UI (version 6) has a good mix of useful features and proprietary apps. The Blinkfeed screen is probably the most blatant app that you're forced to use, and I still think it's not as useful as Google Now for displaying new and relevant information at a glance. It's fine if you're a feed junkie that wants your latest Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and RSS updates in one stream, but I don't browse the web that way. Other Sense elements like the customizable app drawer and quick settings menu are things I wish Google would integrate into stock Android.

Using the Dot View Case

Cases are for the careless! My stance on cases is well-known: I don't like the extra bulk they add to phones. But given that the HTC One is already a pretty bulky phone, I gave the Dot View case accessory a try, and was charmed by its lite-brite screen effects. The case works with the HTC One's capacitive gestures cues, so it knows to display information when you tap the screen twice, even through the front flat of the case. You can swipe up and down to answer calls too, which was useful for using the phone while driving.

One thing I didn't like about the case was its hinge, which resisted being flipped back. You can't flip the front flap behind the phone and keep it flush on a table, and holding the cover open while taking a photo was awkward, since the cover doesn't have a hole for the camera to see through.

Battery Life

The HTC One has far better battery life than the Nexus 5. That's due to both a larger capacity battery, and smarter energy usage with customizable power-saver modes. This is a phone that you can use normally for almost two full days without recharging, and lasted me one full busy work trip without having to plug into an external battery pack. That's with incessant Twitter checks during taxi rides.

In the end, it really came down to which I valued more: the HTC One's better camera app and long battery life, or the Nexus 5's slimmer chassis and lighter design. I wound up back with the Nexus 5 because size and weight are a big deal to me. I carry my phone in jeans pockets, not jacket pockets or backpacks (which hold USB chargers anyway). The HTC One is bulky and doesn't hide it well--I think it's actually a step back from last year's tapered design. An all-plastic version would be more compelling to me. And even if the Nexus 5 feels like a cheaper phone HTC's new flagship, that's because it is literally cheaper. The HTC One simply isn't $350 more phone than the Nexus 5. I would recommend it on-contract, but not for the full $700 HTC is asking through Google Play.