A third-party flagship device breathes new life into Windows Phone.
Solid, professional construction
Creative elements — camera, creative apps, speakers — set it apart
“App gap” pronounced when compared against Android
Low-resolution camera may turn off some
Shorter battery life than Android version
HTC’s latest Windows Phone is thoughtful, inspiring, and well-constructed. Unfortunately, some hardware and software limitations hold it back.
Lumia, Lumia, Lumia. Lest you forget that Microsoft’s Windows Phone business is more than a single Nokia product line, HTC has released the One (M8) for Windows. It’s just as much a flagship phone as the Android version of the One (M8), and in some ways it feels even fresher thanks to the fact it runs Windows Phone 8.1, a veritable OS curiosity.
In fact, the HTC One (M8) for Windows might be the best Windows Phone available—but that’s simply because not many Windows Phone devices have been released lately. And let’s not lose perspective: Most people will probably conclude that the Android version of this phone is the better choice.
From a hardware perspective, both versions of the HTC One (M8) are virtually identical: its weight and dimensions (160 grams; 146.36 by 70.6 by 9.35 mm); its display (5.0 inches, 1080×1920 resolution); and its guts (2.3GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 801; 2GB RAM; 32GB of storage plus a microSD slot). You’ll also find the same dual UltraPixel camera on the back, and the 5-megapixel selfie camera on the front. HTC hasn’t forgotten its powerful BoomSound internal speakers, either.
About the only difference in hardware is that the One (M8) for Windows ships standard with 32GB of internal storage, as opposed to the 16GB and 32GB options that HTC offers for its Android version. The HTC One (M8) for Windows will be sold by Verizon for $100, and by AT&T for an undisclosed price at a later date.
The case for Android
The One (M8) for Windows is definitely a solid WP8.1 device. But it’s the lesser of HTC’s nearly identical phones, if only because Android has a stronger software ecosystem, and appears to be a more efficient OS. Sure, a number of third-party alternatives can compensate for Windows Phone’s lack of productivity apps, but Microsoft’s ecosystem still suffers a serious dearth of entertainment apps. We also compared HTC’s new Windows Phone to the One (M8) Harmon Kardon Edition, and that Android phone just flew, snappily loading apps. It felt much faster than the One (M8) for Windows. And oddly, the Windows Phone version of the One (M8) took far longer to boot.
Oddly, we found that the Android One (M8) delivered substantially better battery life than its Windows doppleganger, playing a looping video for 6 hours and 46 minutes under full brightness. The Windows Phone version died after 5 hours and 39 minutes—almost a 20 percent difference. Nonetheless, HTC says that the One (M8) for Windows delivers 10 percent more talk time than the Android model.
Between the One (M8) and the Icon
Microsoft’s recent decision to address “affordable segments” has left slim pickings for people looking at high-end Windows Phones. Indeed, if you’re committed to the Windows Phone platform, you really have only two respectable choices: the Verizon-exclusive Lumia Icon and the One (M8). Both phones are solid, quite literally, as Nokia and HTC each chose to use aluminum, rather than plastic, bodies. And in terms of industrial design, the Icon feels more like a no-nonsense work phone, while the HTC One (M8) more adroitly bridges the gap between work and play.
Unfortunately, Microsoft doesn’t allow its hardware partners to redesign its Live Tiles interface in the way that Google allows OEMs to reskin Android. As a result, HTC services like BlinkFeed are just like third-party apps on Windows Phone.
Even as just an app, however, BlinkFeed is a serviceable substitution for Flipboard, which hasn’t yet made it to the Windows Phone platform. BlinkFeed mashes up social media updates with news stories from your favorite sources, arranging everything in a scrolling patchwork quilt of clickable images. The updated version of BlinkFeed finally lets you add your favorite RSS sources, making the service much more useful, even if it’s not directly integrated into the OS.
The phone also includes an app for Sense TV, a well-designed remote control for your set-top box. It’s a nice service for browsing content if your provider is still saddling you with an archaic channel guide.
Fortunately, the One (M8) for Windows is relatively free of bloatware. I was annoyed that Verizon bundled VZ Navigator, its $5/monthly navigation service, when anyone can download the free (and superior) HERE Maps from the Windows Store. Still, I was mollified a bit when I found I could uninstall VZ Navigator from our review unit.
A contentious camera
The One (M8)’s camera features will likely polarize consumers choosing between HTC’s latest model and Nokia’s Lumia phones. HTC likes to trumpet how its “UltraPixel” camera sensor lets in more light, resulting in better image quality when shooting in dark environments. This rear camera also includes a second lens, enabling a wide range of perspective effects. I also found that the One (M8)’s selfie camera has a competitive edge: It captures 5-megapixel images, offering far better clarity than virtually all other front-facing smartphone cameras, period.
On the flipside, HTC’s rear camera is limited to just 4 megapixels, its light-gathering prowess notwithstanding. Nokia’s Lumia phones, meanwhile, prioritize megapixels; the Icon, for one, captures 16-megapixel images. The upshot is that Nokia fans will likely find it hard to let go of their Lumia cameras, if only because of their increased resolution. The One M8’s camera delivers perfectly serviceable images up close, and delivers evenly lit photos in low light. The shutter lag is about half a second or less, much shorter than the Lumia cameras. But you can still notice a lack of detail in cityscapes, and in zoomed-in images and video.
A vote for novelty
The One (M8) doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself to receive my unconditional recommendation for Windows Phone users. Neither BlinkFeed nor SenseTV justify the purchase, leaving the One M8’s camera technology as the primary reason to buy the phone.
Still, the idealist in me hopes that there’s more to come from HTC’s Windows Phone vision. Microsoft recently loosened its grip on Windows Phone hardware, a policy decision that was instrumental in allowing the HTC One (M8) to come to market. That breath of fresh air makes me yearn for something more. Cloning my existing Windows Phone apps and settings onto new hardware is appealing. But I’d like to see HTC interpret Windows Phone with its Sense aesthetic, too.
The bottom line is that I still see the Lumia Icon as the premiere Windows Phone for work and productivity, while HTC’s selfie camera, BoomSound speakers, and novel dual-camera approach justify a purchase for more creative types.
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