How can a fading smartphone maker regain consumers’ attention in a market dominated by Samsung and Apple? Maybe by adding a third camera. That’s one new feature that HTC hopes will make people want to buy the 2014 edition of its flagship phone, the HTC One.
Last year, the first HTC One was much praised by reviewers. I myself advised people to consider it instead of Samsung’s Galaxy S4. But the Taiwan-based phone maker lacked the marketing muscle of the Big Two and, in the U.S., wasn’t able to get all four major carriers to release the One roughly simultaneously, as Samsung and Apple can.
So, for 2014, HTC is back with a redesigned One, officially called the HTC One (M8) — and with higher hopes. It has a slightly bigger, five-inch screen; a curved, all-metal body; that third camera, on the rear; a better front camera, for better selfies; and new software features, like “launch motions,” that let you swipe on the screen when it’s off to launch certain things.
And this time, HTC says, the One will be available immediately online at the three biggest U.S. carriers, and in April at T-Mobile. The phone will also be in carrier stores in April. Subsidized prices will range from $199 to $249 with a two-year contract, with an unsubsidized, no-contract price of $649. HTC is also planning more and better marketing.
It even has a cool, optional $50 “Dot View” case, whose perforated, flip-open cover lets you see notifications in large type, and even accept and conduct calls.
I’ve been testing the 2014 version of the HTC One, and while it’s clearly evolutionary, not revolutionary, I can recommend it to Android fans looking for a first-rate phone, or to iPhone owners looking for a well-built, high-end phone with a bigger screen. It’s a handsome, solid product with very good battery life, a beautiful display, fine photo quality and great call quality.
But there are some downsides. It’s noticeably heavier than last year’s model — about 12 percent heavier. And it’s longer. I preferred the feel in the hand of the original HTC One, and wouldn’t have traded that for the slightly bigger screen — up from 4.7 inches — or the added metal in the case.
Also, while HTC avoided most of the duplicative, gimmicky software Samsung has loaded onto its phones, the Verizon model I tested included at least a dozen preloaded apps from that carrier, including a texting app that was one of three preloaded texting programs.
The new HTC One is a metal phone that comes in gray, gold or silver. In the U.S., it will have 32 gigabytes of internal memory, plus a memory card slot that can expand that amount by up to 128GB.
Its most unusual hardware feature is that added camera, which sits above the main rear camera. This third camera doesn’t take pictures by itself, but gathers depth information on the subject of a photo to allow things like refocusing a shot after it has been taken by the main rear camera. HTC calls the two rear cameras, together, the Duo camera.
As in last year’s One phone, the main rear camera doesn’t boast a megapixel rating, but uses larger pixels called “Ultrapixels” to let in more light. In my tests, it took brilliant pictures and videos both outdoors and indoors.
There’s also a new wide-angle front camera, with an unusually high five-megapixel resolution for taking better selfies. It, too, worked well.
One of the strongest features of the original model was dual front-mounted speakers, and the 2014 version has improved even further on the phone’s excellent sound. Music sounded terrific in my tests.
While I didn’t run a formal battery test, the new HTC One lasted 29 hours for me, in light to moderate use, and about 18 hours in heavier use. But those figures were achieved using a setting that turns off all connectivity during long periods of inactivity, such as at night.
There’s also a new version of HTC’s Sense software, the company’s take on Android, that features a new camera app and launch motions that allow users to quickly perform certain actions by swiping the screen when it’s dark.
The camera app allows you to select among six different cameras, including a selfie camera, a dual-capture camera that inserts a small selfie into a larger picture, and what HTC calls a “Zoe camera,” which makes short videos, and debuted on last year’s model.
You can also create and save custom cameras that reflect whatever manual settings you prefer.
Using another app called Gallery (not to be confused with the standard Android photo Gallery), HTC puts the Duo camera’s depth data to use. On photos taken with the standard camera, you can change the point of focus or create a parallax effect. But I was frustrated that these kinds of edits weren’t available for photos using filters, or those taken with the high-speed burst mode.
HTC has also included a more readable, more customizable, version of its BlinkFeed feature. This is a full-screen reader for news feeds and social media. I was able to set up a feed for the Boston Red Sox.
The launch motions worked nicely. From a blank screen, if you swipe from right to left, the standard Android home screen appears. Swipe in the opposite direction, and BlinkFeed appears. Swiping from top to bottom lets you make a phone call via voice command.
There’s also a TV remote control app, which worked perfectly with my aging Pioneer plasma TV and my TiVo.
The new, 2014-model HTC One is another strong offering by HTC. I just wish it hadn’t gained weight.