Today’s best smartphones don’t joke around. It’s no longer enough to have a good camera, high-grade bright and colorful display, plenty of available memory, strong build, and other features; they have to stand out. Some of my favorites do this in interesting ways: the Samsung Galaxy Note 2 had a huge, colorful screen. The iPhone has regularly provided excellence all around. The Droid HD MAXX reigns supreme in battery life. Each and every device provides something special that users can not just enjoy and appreciate, but also share and exclaim why their phone is so great. Because, after all, it’s the device you’ll use more than anything else for at least the next two years.
HTC released the next-gen One, dubbed the One M8, to much fanfare. Just like the previous One, the M8 has a aluminum body that’s like a big iPhone: metal, strong, and hefty. Not like so many competing Android smartphones that are made from cheaper plastics. The M8 features the latest components: a 5-inch 1080p display, dual 4MP cameras that combine to take better shots, a 2.3GHz quad-core CPU and 2GB of RAM, plus either 16GB or 32GB of onboard storage with up to 128GB more through a MicroSD card slot. For top-of-the-line, few devices compete.
Audio and Multimedia
The M8 may be set apart from it’s high-end parts, but this model is a bit different. In conjunction with Sprint, this HTC One is the M8 Harmon Kardon Edition, a music-friendly model that comes with a pair of Harmon Kardon headphones, built-in audio equalizer software, and stereo speakers from the device itself. That’s pretty exciting for anyone who uses their smartphone for watching videos and listening to music with or without headphones; the latter because it provides actual stereo sound instead of fabricated stereo, manipulated by software through a single speaker. And the former because instead of the typical cheap earbuds, the headset included is a $130 pair that’s actually free with the device.
Unfortunately my experience with the headset has been poor. From opening the box to twenty minutes of trying to make use of it, the tiny earbuds failed to fit in my ears regardless of the size of the included buds. This has never happened to me; I’ve tested dozens of different earphones and typically use the smallest buds, but this set failed to stay in my ears regardless of size. I’ve attempted the same with other people, several of whom had the same issue; the rubber buds just don’t fit and stay.
Front-facing stereo speakers, however, are exceptional. The only trouble with them is the 5-inch display feels too small for long-term video use; a larger 5.5-inch or 5.7-inch screen, like on the OnePlus One or Galaxy Note 3, would provide a better viewing experience. With this M8, there’s no need to cup your hand over the speaker like on nearly all other smartphones. For video, it’s wonderful. The screen size is the only actual limitation…ultimately a bigger screen will always win out compared to speaker and audio quality.
For listening to music, the stereo speakers are good but not great. There’s no quality loss noticeable, but it’s almost unnecessary to have audio pointing upward instead of bouncing off the flat surface that the phone rests on. For sharing music with a group, the phone’s just too small, though it certainly works. And realistically, few use the phone as a boombox.
Hardware and Design
The M8, like Christen pointed out in his review of the standard edition, feels good in the hand, though for me the rounded back is strange because of the anodized aluminum. It’s too slick: it catches fingerprints instantly, so much that out of the box mine looked ugly and disfigured instantly. It also doesn’t promote confidence in grip; mine has slipped out of my hand several times, though thanks to the excellent build quality hasn’t broken, cracked, or shown any signs of wear.
Onboard software with Sprint’s model is atrocious. It’s bad enough that HTC’s built-in software is pretty bad, especially compared to years past where they clearly had an upper hand over Samsung. HTC includes its own version of Google Now that users cannot exchange except by rooting the device, and the data therein has been completely useless to my interests. It’s a combined social media feed over useful data that Google provides.
Further, the menu system and drop-down options are so massively overcomplicated that a new Android user would instantly be confused, and anyone switching from an iPhone would want to go back. The Navigation bar includes so many things that when you actually receive a notification, it has to display an overflow icon so that you can actually see what’s just come in. It’s ridiculous.
HTC’s included software, like HTC Backup, HTC Gude, HTC Mobile Guide, and a half-dozen others will be completely useless to the majority of smartphone owners. Backup is good…if you don’t already use a Google service for backups. Others are superfluous: Qualcomm’s IZat does nothing for users, a Setup app never disappears, and out of the box the phone comes with at least 20 apps that do nothing but clog it up.
Battery and Camera
Christen’s review of the M8 talks about the battery life and camera quality dead-on, so I won’t talk too much about it here. From a full charge, I managed roughly eight hours of 720p streaming video with audio and screen brightness at 50%, which is great. Overall I’ve found the phone lasts very well with about an hour and a half of GPS usage per day, an hour of video streaming, half an hour of call time, and general web browsing for about a day and a half before it requires a charge. With the world cup on, I’ve been streaming games via ESPN’s Go app on the M8 and, aside from ESPN’s issues, had an exceptional experience. Ironically, my biggest problem is that there’s no kickstand for the phone.
In the Los Angeles area, specifically in Santa Monica, Malibu, San Fernando Valley, Calabasas, and Westlake areas (through the busy areas of the 101), the M8 has good call quality, generally fast download speeds, and provides clear, crisp audio. The speakerphone is also great considering the stereo speakers.
However, Sprint’s quality has been between mediocre to unusable at times. On my daily commute, I drop the cell signal regularly; maintaining a call is next to impossible through certain canyons and even along PCH, which is a known problem area for Sprint. I’ve also run into a number of other problems, like how their growing LTE network stops in certain places along Santa Monica (my former office actually is on the fault line for LTE coverage…one side of the building has it, and the other drops it). LTE speeds, even with one bar, are great. In downtown LA and within the surrounding area, data speeds and coverage are exceptional. Further west in LA county, reception fades frequently in many areas.
Thankfully most streaming services provide a decent buffer for data, so even when dropping a signal when driving the music doesn’t stop. For calls though, it drops instantly. These areas have in the past been bad for all networks, though AT&T and Verizon have improved it to nearly no drop areas. T-Mobile has improved as well, though not as quickly. Sprint is the only major carrier, in my testing, that has lost coverage in these areas of LA.
HTC has done a great job with the M8, and this Harmon Kardon edition is even better. It gives everything that the standard model should have for multimedia users and more. I’ve sat and watched video on the bright, high-quality display for hours thanks to excellent visuals and great audio quality.
There are a lot of nuisances though, some particular to all M8 models, some to this one specifically. The software from both HTC and Sprint, the fingerprint-catching back panel, the wonky camera…these are all strange things that make daily use with the phone less than what it can and should be. They’re the sort of things that iPhone and stock Android phone owners (like the Nexus 5 or any Google Play-purchased phone) don’t have to deal with, which is wildly confusing.
My experience with the HTC One M8 Harmon Kardon edition is very positive. It’s powerful, well built, and it’s far and away the best multimedia smartphone you can get. If you love video and music and want that content on the go, there is no better phone.