HTC One M8 for Windows and Windows Phone 8.1 review

HTC box

My first smartphone was an HTC Excalibur that ran Windows Mobile 5.  If you missed out on that whole generation of smartphones – the ones with physical keyboards that predated the first iPhone – you didn’t miss much.  The phone hardware wasn’t stellar, and Windows Mobile was a huge pile of garbage – and that’s putting it nicely.

But that was a long time ago.  Back when you could have a smartphone without a data plan on AT&T, and back before Steve Jobs prank called that employee at Starbucks.  The reigning kings in those days were Windows Mobile, Palm OS, and Blackberry.  Ah, how the times have changed.  Now Android is the best-selling mobile OS, and Windows holds somewhere in the ~3.5% marketshare range.  Yikes.

Judging from that number, you can probably tell that Microsoft missed the ball on mobile.  However, the case here is interesting; it’s not that their foray into the space is awful, it’s just that they were late to the game.  Whereas Windows Mobile was more aimed toward enterprise, Windows Phone is more aimed toward consumers, which means Microsoft didn’t even have a hand in the game until their Windows Phone 7 operating system launched in October of 2010, slightly more than 3 years after the first iPhone, and 2 years after the HTC Dream – the first Android smartphone – hit the market.

To put that in perspective, the general consensus on the HTC Dream – also known as the T-Mobile G1 – was that it sucked.  In fact, that was the consensus on Android for a while.  So even if you were of the opinion that Android wasn’t a real competitor to iOS until 2009, Windows Phone still missed the boat by a whole year.  But hey, Microsoft isn’t exactly known for their foresight.  Who were they to be able to predict the rise of mobile?  Or that desktop OS users without a touchscreen wouldn’t like being forced to use a touchscreen interface?

That’s your tech history lesson for today.  But the story doesn’t stop there, of course, otherwise this would be a pretty terrible review of the HTC One M8 for Windows.

Yep, it's pretty.

Yep, it’s pretty.

The hardware for the HTC One M8 was originally released as an Android phone, and for whatever, reason, they decided to port Windows Phone 8.1 to it and release it with a longer name about 4 months later (or 7 months later if you didn’t have Verizon).  Most reviews have been positive about the hardware, and I’d generally agree with those.  The phone is easier to hold than the iPhone 6 due to the flat sides and the curved back, but it is also slightly more difficult to remove from some pockets (and I mean slightly).  Build quality seems absolutely exceptional.

One of the most important things to many people looking to buy a smartphone is the camera, or more importantly, the quality of pictures the camera takes.  I know image quality is an issue with many Android phones, but not with iPhones and most Windows Phones, by which I mean Lumias.  But the M8 isn’t a Lumia.

HTC back

Two cameras, double LED flash, and one nicely etched “Windows Phone” logo.

I am the wrong person to ask about cameras, so I’ll only say that the duo lens camera system seems to work pretty well, despite the low 4 MP spec on the rear cameras (the front camera is 5 MP).  That said, I understand that there are far more important things than Megapixels past a certain point, but I don’t take enough pictures with my M8 since I always have my iPhone 6 on me, and the iPhone is widely considered to be the best way to capture pictures with a phone (by many even better than the Lumia 1020) due to some kind of fancy image processing that I won’t pretend to understand.

 

 

 

 

So, rather than typing more about it, I’ll let you decide.  The following pictures were taken at the same time, at the same place – one with my iPhone 6, and the other with the M8 – with the phones held side-by-side.

iPhone 6

iPhone 6

HTC One M8 for Windows

HTC One M8 for Windows

Looking at those pictures side-by-side on their respective phones, I thought the iPhone was the clear winner.  Looking at them side-by-side on the same display, I think it’s interesting to note that the iPhone 6 photo looks better overall, but truth be told, the color of the paint on the wall is more accurate in the M8 picture.  The clarity appears the same to me, it’s just that the HTC’s lighting feels off.

I am of the (probably unpopular) opinion that speakers on phones (and also on tablets) should go wherever they need to go to make the device as thin as possible or some other functional reason, so HTC’s BoomSound speakers are kind of lost on me.  Do people really sit around watching movies or listening to music on phone/tablet speakers?  It’s almost a given you’re going to use headphones for that, and it doesn’t really matter where the speakers are if you’re just watching a 2 minute clip on YouTube.  Maybe it helps if you use speakerphone a lot, but I use that on my iPhone with no issues, and I can hear my Nexus 7 just fine.

M8 bottom

The headphone jack is weirdly close to the edge.

The bottom of the phone has the microUSB port for charging and syncing, as well as the headphone jack.  As much as I love and am willing to pay for the iPhone’s lightning cable simply because it’s reversible, microUSB isn’t particularly bad.  Of course, the best thing it’s got going for it is that it isn’t proprietary and I can use my Nexus 7 charger on my M8, or vice versa.

One of my favorite features about the HTC hardware besides the all metal body is the tap-to-wake feature.  Hold the phone, double tap the screen, and the phone wakes up.  On the flip side, that feature doesn’t work too well if the phone is lying on a desk.  I kind of feel like HTC is screwing with us by putting the sleep/wake button on the top, where every other manufacturer with a phone over 4″ has moved the button to the side, which is where the M8’s volume rocker button is.  I have frustratingly hit the volume and sleep buttons at the same time far too many times, and on Windows Phone, that just so happens to take a screenshot.  So I take a lot of accidental screenshots.

M8 top

Sleep/wake button and the IR port.

The M8 has a microSD slot on the side, which I’ll never need since this thing has 32 GB of internal storage, and I don’t keep music on it.  So, it’s there if you need it; however, if I could have more battery life, or if they could’ve slimmed down the phone a bit by not including it, I’d rather it not be there.  That’s kind of also how I feel about the IR port at the top, but I think I’d feel differently if Windows Phone had a bigger marketplace.  I kind of almost have to use the included HTC Sense TV app, and it doesn’t appear to have support for changing inputs on a TV, which is really the #2 thing I need a TV remote for, right after power, and right before volume control.  But on the other hand, even if it’s convenient to have, if you’re sitting next to a remote control, why would you pick up your phone, unlock it, open an app, swipe over to the proper control screen, and then finally have access to what you need?  That’s as opposed to picking up the remote control and pressing a button.  Heck, it’s probably easier to use the remote even if you have to walk across the room to get it.

Finally, before I touch on the software, I wanted to touch on the 5″ screen.  The M8 has 441 pixels per inch.  If you’re more familiar with the iPhone side of things, the 4.7″ iPhone 6 has 326 ppi, and the 5.5″ iPhone 6 Plus has 401 ppi.  Holding the M8 side by side with my iPhone 6 and looking at the same content, or just casually browsing different content on each phone, I cannot tell that there’s a difference in ppi.  In fact, the only difference I can see is that the iPhone 6 is brighter with both phones set to maximum screen brightness.  I won’t touch on color accuracy, because to be quite honest, colors have to be way off for me to notice that sort of thing.  The M8 screen appears to accurately display colors, and overall it presents a pleasant viewing experience.

And a final note on resolution and ppi that is less about the M8 and more about this new wave of Quad HD Android phones:  at a certain ppi, you literally cannot tell the difference.  As long as a screen maintains a ppi above the level that the human eye can distinguish pixels from each other, there’s really no reason to go higher unless you’re just looking for a good way to decrease battery life.  720p/1080p is cool, but I’m not seeing a good reason for QHD to exist on phones.  If battery life wasn’t such an issue to most people, sure, why not?  But battery life is an issue, and adding useless pixels to a display provides an overall net loss to usability.  And on that note of battery life, my M8, which is synced with Exchange, seems about on par with my iPhone 5 that was also synced with Exchange.  I only mention Exchange because that seems to decrease battery life a good bit from my experience.

And that brings me to the Windows Phone 8.1 portion of this review.

iOS grid

The relatively boring iOS 8 grid of icons.

One of my least favorite things about iOS is the “grid of icons” paradigm: a fixed grid with static icons that you can’t even leave space between.  It’s like Apple has the mentality of a school assembly, making kids fill in all the chairs, as if it would be so terrible to be able to place an icon wherever you want, rather than having to put it after whatever the last icon is.  But really, that’s the least important of the reasons that I dislike Apple’s approach to the home screen.  The problem there is that it is completely static and treats every app that isn’t in the dock as an equal.

I can’t glean any information from the home screen.  Any useful information is in the notification area, which I have to swipe down to see.  It’s also just incredibly boring.  Android solves this problem by allowing widgets right on the desktop.

The tile paradigm is simply beautiful.

The tile paradigm is simply beautiful.

Windows Phone, on the other hand, tackles this issue with Live Tiles.  The tiles are icons that launch an app, and you can resize them from small to large.  If the developer has enabled a live tile for that app, the tile will display some relevant information to you.  For example, the email tile will display part of an email message.  The weather tile will display the weather.  Better yet, these tiles aren’t bound to single, static grid.  They’re still on a grid, but it’s customizable.  You can skip spaces, you can skip half-spaces, you can make groups of small tiles together next to a medium tile, you can surround a large tile with small tiles…really, it’s the best implementation of a home screen that I’ve seen.  For more important apps like email, you give it a large tile so you can see more information in the live tile or access it more easily, and for less important apps, you give it a small tile so it won’t take up as much screen real estate.  Also, you can set a nice wallpaper and make your icons transparent, which can make for a really aesthetically pleasing home screen.

iOS and Android both group settings by commonality.  Windows Phone also does this, but the difference is that iOS delimits the sections with spaces and Android delimits the sections with headings.  Windows Phone is just one massive list of settings, which makes it more difficult than it should be to find whatever it is that you’re looking for.

Windows Phone 8, Android Kit Kat, iOS 8 settings menus side-by-side

Windows Phone 8.1, Android Kit Kat, iOS 8 settings menus side-by-side

Strangely enough, Android is probably the winner here because the sections are labeled.

I don't understand the design decision here at all.

I don’t understand the design decision here at all.

Windows Phone has three screen brightness settings: low, medium, and high.  There is no in between, no granularity.  This is…puzzling.  On my iPhone, I usually leave my screen brightness as high as it’ll go and manually turn it down as necessary, so while it’s bothersome, it’s not a huge deal.

The design language that Windows Phone encourages makes for a lot of wasted space.  I like the larger headings strewn throughout the OS, but this language has translated over to developers using it in ways that takes up screen real estate in unnecessary ways.  I am totally unfamiliar with Microsoft documentation/APIs or how/if they encourage third party developers to follow this design language, but to make an app that looks like it belongs on Windows Phone, it’s kind of what you’d have to do, so that’s why I say that Windows Phone encourages it.

Windows Phone has a navigation bar like Android on the bottom of the screen, but Windows Phone lets you hide it by default.  Also, instead of a multitasking button (or whatever your fragmented or skinned version of Android has for the third button in the bar), Windows Phone has a search button that you can use to type or speak questions to Cortana, which is Microsoft’s virtual assistant, like Siri or Google Now.  Cortana is, of course, the AI from Halo, which is pretty cool if you ask me.  I haven’t used Cortana much, but I also don’t use Siri or Google Now much.

To activate multitasking, you hold down the back button in the navigation bar.  This is how you can close apps, but apparently if you press the back button after you open an app, that’ll also close it.  I’m not sure that all apps behave like that from my experience, but that’s what I read when I first got the phone.

And speaking of apps, I guess that brings me to what is the most disappointing thing about Windows Phone – not only the lack of apps, but the lack of love that the apps get.  It’s not solely Microsoft’s fault, but it is a part of the platform that is hard to ignore.  The big names are there – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Hulu Plus, Netflix – but the Instagram app is still in beta, Microsoft makes the Facebook app, and neither Hulu Plus nor Netflix support Chromecast – a feature that iOS and Android have had on their respective Hulu and Netflix apps since Chromecast launched.  Google won’t make apps for Windows Phone because they don’t want to legitimize the platform, and when Microsoft created a really stellar YouTube app, Google flat out broke the app on their end for what amounts to bullcrap reasons (“Don’t be evil,” right Google?).  So Windows Phone doesn’t have an official YouTube app.  Microsoft did the best they could and released an app that is essentially a launcher for the YouTube mobile site, and there are many third party YouTube apps (and that’s also the case for Instagram and Snapchat apps), but many of these third party apps are lacking and just aren’t as good as the official apps are on other platforms.

It’s really sad, because despite what Google would have you think, Windows Phone is is a truly legitimate platform.  Google is playing the game though, and so is Microsoft, which is why nearly everything Microsoft is releasing these days is cross-platform.  I have OneDrive installed on literally every device that I own and use: my desktop that runs Windows 8.1, my Surface Pro 3, my MacBook Pro, my iPhone 6, my Nexus 7, and of course, my HTC One M8 for Windows.

I’ve always thought of phone operating systems like this: people that want the cheapest thing available or that love to tinker with their gadgets buy Android phones, people that want something that just works buy an iPhone.  This is also how Microsoft apparently sees the market, as almost all of their Windows Phone marketing targets the iPhone and touts how great Cortana is and how it “just works.”  And, honestly, I’d agree.  If I were buying a smartphone for my parents (who do not currently and have never used smartphones), I certainly wouldn’t buy them an Android phone.  They both have iPad experience, so I know they could easily learn to use an iPhone, but with a Windows Phone, I could make 2 giant tiles – Phone and Messaging – and there would be nothing to confuse them, nothing unnecessary on the screen.  It’s the perfect phone OS for simplicity, while maintaining its ability to satisfy the needs of a power user (but probably not a tinkerer).

So at the end of the day, if you asked me to switch to Windows Phone and completely give up my iPhone, I couldn’t do it.  Not because of some shortcoming of the Windows Phone OS, but simply because the app ecosystem is just so utterly lacking.  Truly, if Windows Phone had an app ecosystem as big as Apple’s or Google’s, the matter of switching to Windows Phone would be a much more difficult one to make, but as is, I just couldn’t – and man, is that a disappointing thing to have to admit.  Microsoft has done a really excellent job at crafting a fantastic consumer phone operating system, but they just can’t seem to get proper acknowledgement from third party developers.  And who can blame those developers, with Microsoft’s tiny marketshare?  Small marketshare > less reason to develop apps > consumers don’t buy Windows Phone because of poor app marketplace > repeat.  It’s an unfortunate cycle.