The HTC One M8 has a Google Play edition, but how is it different? (hands-on)

HTC's latest flagship device, the One M8, is one of the best Android smartphones now available on the market, but what would happen to it if Google stripped the phone of some of its customizations? That's essentially what the Google Play edition of the new One offers. Plunk down $699 and you'll have access to an unlocked and (mostly) unadulterated version of the M8 with stock Android 4.4 (also known as KitKat).

Of course, we've been curious to see what will happen to the features that make the new One unique. HTC told us that the Google Play edition will be able to take advantage of the Duo Camera, for instance, but does it still offer the same functionality? Additionally, can we use the Motion Launch gestures to wake up the phone and access different features? And how about that clever Dot View case that comes in so handy on the Sense version? Look no further for the answers.

We won't spend much time on the GPe's hardware, because it's exactly the same. You're still going to get the same 5-inch 1080p display, 2,600mAh battery, BoomSound speakers, rear UltraPixel camera and 5MP front-facing selfie shooter. This particular model is a silver-colored 32GB version and comes with dual-band LTE (700MHz and AWS), which gives you next-gen speeds on AT&T and T-Mobile; no word yet on if we'll see any regional variants outside the US. Finally, the GPe also has quad-band HSPA+ 21 Mbps (850/AWS/1900/2100) and quad-band GSM/EDGE.

Let's move onto the software, which is what makes the GPe unique and interesting. First, we'll tackle the Duo Camera. If you've read our review, you'll have a good grasp on what it's all about. The M8 comes with two cameras on the back: There's HTC's 4MP UltraPixel sensor on the bottom and a smaller sensor on the top that's primarily used for depth imaging. This setup gives you the ability to mess with a few more post-processing editing tricks than are offered on most other smartphones. HTC will also be throwing in options for developers to take advantage of the two rear cameras.

Frankly, it'd be silly to have extra hardware on a phone that's completely unusable, so the Google Play edition will still take advantage of the Duo Camera functionality. Predictably, the app itself is the stock Google version, but the HTC magic comes out as soon as you enter the Photos app and try editing your shots. You'll be prompted to open up "HTC Photo Edit," and you'll see a screen that looks much like what you'd find in the Sense gallery, but with fewer options: UFocus, Dimension Plus and Touch Up are the only Duo Camera-esque effects listed, which means the Foregrounder, Seasons and Copy/Paste functions didn't make the cut. (Filters, frames and tools are still hanging out on the right sidebar.) UFocus is our favorite of the Duo Camera options, so we're glad to see it there, but Dimension Plus is a useless and gimmicky feature that we just don't use very often.

Motion Launch is also around and it's still pretty useful, but there's one caveat. You can still double-tap to wake, press the volume button and lift the phone to activate the camera and swipe the screen in any direction to unlock it -- all of the core features remain. The only thing it lacks is the ability to swipe in different directions and have it do different things (e.g., swipe down to activate voice dial).

The Dot View case also works, but again, it doesn't get the full functionality it enjoys on the Sense version. On the Google Play edition, you can view the time and weather, but from what we can tell, there are no other notifications to take advantage of.

There's one other nicety about the phone that shouldn't go unnoticed: Despite its Google branding, HTC still includes the device as part of its Advantage program, which means HTC will replace your screen for free if you break it within the first six months.

If you love the HTC One M8 hardware, but prefer a stock Android experience (and one that will likely get updated sooner), this is where the Google Play edition comes in handy. Interestingly, this particular version is a little unique compared to others of its kind, mainly due to the extra camera and motion gesture capabilities built into the hardware; there are certainly still some HTC features that you wouldn't normally find on, say, a Nexus phone. Whether or not this makes it any less of a vanilla Android device may be up to your own interpretation, but this kind of differentiation at least gives it a little more flavor than it otherwise would have. The best part: If you don't like the extra features, simply turn them off.