Friday, 28 March 2014

HTC One (M8) initial impressions

Image: HTC
Now that all they hype has died down and I've had some time to gather my thoughts, here's the follow up to my first impressions of the Xperia Z2 and the Galaxy S5 - my first impressions of the HTC One (M8), which from here on out will just be called the One. This post will actually be easier to write, as the press embargo on the One has already been lifted. While my thoughts on the Z2 and S5 were all based merely on hands-on videos and early impression articles, my thoughts on the One will be based on actual reviews, which are already on the web thanks to HTC's eagerness to quickly release the One in select markets (more on this later). So what do I think of the successor to the best smartphone of 2013? Can the best be improved? Or is it all downhill once you achieve "perfection?" My thoughts after the break.

The good

Immediate availability
To my knowledge, only Nexus devices have been available for purchase immediately after the official unveiling (feel free to correct me if I'm wrong). Most other devices are always available for purchase only after a month or two. The Z2 and S5 were announced back at MWC, but the One is already available for purchase. Not only that, but we also have the GPE One as well, making it the first GPE smartphone of 2014, beating out Samsung whose S4 was the first GPE of 2013. Yes, the One is available only online for all US carriers and in store for one, and the GPE is still US-only, but I'm not sore about that. HTC are focusing on the most important market in the world, where all the global press coverage comes from, and I think HTC need that. Besides, the One will be available in more global markets next month, putting it in the market at roughly the same time as the Z2 and S5, which still means HTC will be quickest out of the gate from announcement to availability. How many people are still excited about the Z2? It's been so long since the announcement that all the hype for it has died down. HTC did a good job with making the One immediately available for purchase (albeit in select markets).

Better build-quality, better BoomSound
If there was one thing everyone raved about in regards to the original One, it was the build quality. But there was a second thing too. The second thing was the front facing stereo BoomSound speakers. Together, these two aspects of the phone probably contributed the most to all the awards the HTC One won in 2013. Based on all the reviews I've watched and read, the new One has improved both, making it highly likely that this phone will also win over enthusiasts, reviewers and critics this year, picking up where its predecessor left off. HTC was smart to play to its strengths, and it might actually pay off for them.

On-screen navigation buttons
Finally! One of my biggest annoyances with the Android ecosystem was the inconsistency in nav bar button layouts and inputs. Software, physical, capacitive. Back button on the left, back button on the right. Three buttons, two buttons. I am so glad that HTC not only reverted back to the traditional 3-button layout, abandoning their ridiculous two-button setup, but that they also left behind capacitive keys and put software buttons on the One. Hooray! That now leaves Samsung as the only major Android OEM who is still stuck in the past with capacitive and hardware nav buttons. Welcome to Android 4.0, HTC.
Finally on board with Android 4.0. Image: GSM Arena
Motion Launch
I'm a big fan of gesture input. Our phones have large screens, so why should we be restricted to tapping on buttons? Or swiping a certain (restricted) area of the screen to unlock our device? Sense 6 brings Motion Launch to the One, which allows a double tap on the screen while the phone is in standby to wake the device, a swipe up to unlock, swipe to the right to get BlinkFeed etc. What's even more amazing is that HTC brings this functionality to their official Dot View case as well. You can still interact with the One even though the flip cover is closed! Double tap the cover to see the time and weather, swipe down when you receive a call to reject it, swipe down in standby to activate voice dialling, this is really good stuff by HTC.
Gesture input is a great feature to have. Image: Pocketnow
Decoupling of apps to the Play Store
Google, as the owner of Android has a responsibility to lead the industry as far as software goes. It's Google's responsibility first and foremost to come up with smart solutions to problems that all Android users face, regardless of what phone they use, and what version of Android the phone is on. One of the ways Google has done this is by decoupling apps from the Android OS and releasing them into the Play Store. This allows apps to be independently and most importantly, frequently updated without needing an entire system update. Motorola followed Google's footsteps by releasing core features as apps into the Play Store, like Touchless Control, Motorola Assist and Active Display. With the One, HTC are also following in Google's footsteps, by releasing stock Sense apps like the Gallery and SenseTV to the Play Store, but the biggest of them all has to be the BlinkFeed Launcher. Again, Google led the way by releasing the Google Now Launcher into the Play Store, and I believe HTC is the first OEM to release their stock launcher into the Play Store as well. More frequent updates will be a great thing for HTC users.

The bad

HTC's camera philosophy
I'm not the kind of guy who thinks the camera is the most important part of the smartphone. To me, it's just another component, like the battery or the processor. Having said that, I am a little dumbfounded by HTC's decision to stick to their 4MP UltraPixel camera. Not only did they stick to 4MP, they also removed OIS, which to be is a huge loss. The addition of the secondary lens for depth perception is a nice touch, but I think increasing the MP count on the main shooter should've taken priority over it. I'm not saying it needed a 13MP shooter or anything that high. Just a small bump to 5MP or 8MP would've been nice. Maybe it just couldn't be done because of the whole UltraPixel thing, I don't know. What I do know, is that with a front camera that has a higher MP count than the "primary" camera on the back, the One is more like a selfie phone than anything else.

That black bar though
When images of the device first started leaking, the first thing I noticed was the presence of the black bar with the HTC logo on it. What made it so disappointing was the fact that the device has on-screen buttons, which should negate the need for such bezel. Some people have said that it's there to house the BoomSound speakers, and it may be so. I just think it's a bit of an eye sore, and it makes the entire bottom "bezel" (speakers, logo, nav bar) just huge. It might not be a problem in actual usage though, most people might not even notice it, but looking at it, I don't like it.

Too big
Similar to the Z2, the One is just a little bit too big for my preference. My current phone, the Nexus 5 is the same size as my previous phone, the HTC One X. And it's a size I'm comfortable with. Larger phones just don't appeal to me. The G2, despite having a larger 5.2" display is still much smaller (in height) compared to the One. BoomSound is great sure, but for me, I'll be holding the device much more often than listening to the speakers, so size is more important for me.
If the black bar wasn't there, the phone would be much smaller, and prettier too. Image: PhoneArena
Lower storage options
I was genuinely surprised to see that HTC added microSD card support to the One after two flagships without it. While I'm not a fan of SD cards (I've never had it in my phones, iPhone 4, One X, Nexus 5), I can understand why HTC did it. Other OEMs have it, and HTC even did it with their One Max last year. But what's disappointing is that expandable storage has come at the expense of internal storage. Last year's One came in both 32GB and 64GB options. This year? Just 16GB and 32GB. So you got more space for your pictures and videos (microSD), but less space for apps (internal). Storage as far as I know isn't expensive at all. So why HTC decided to revert back to offering a 16GB model is beyond me.

All in all, the One looks set to continue where its predecessor left off. It does have a few quirks that irk me personally, but HTC built on the strengths of the original One, added a few great features, and if early indications are anything to go by, the new One looks like it'll be a critical success for HTC yet again in 2014. Now if only HTC can backup this great device with some great marketing, and let people know that the best selling brand in the market is not the only brand in the market, they could have a good year ahead of them.
A sight we'll likely see at Mobile World Congress 2015. Image: HTC