There's a new gesture feature called Motion Launch, with which we have something of a love/hate relationship. It takes Nokia's and LG's double-tap-to-unlock and expands upon the concept with swipe gestures. You can still double-tap to wake up the lock screen, but you can also swipe your finger in different directions to bypass the lock screen entirely and take you directly into specific functions (provided you don't have any security locks in place). Swipe up to go into the home screen; swipe right to access BlinkFeed; swipe left to launch the widget panel; and swipe down to activate voice dial for faster calling. If you want to take a picture, hold the volume rocker and lift the phone up in landscape mode.
In theory, the only way you can trigger Motion Launch gestures is when the phone senses movement -- it can tell that you're picking up your phone and assumes that you're wanting to turn the phone on. In practice, however, the gestures were too sensitive; I could wake up the phone when the One was sitting on my desk, resting in my pocket and when my thumb was firmly planted motionless on the screen. I'd also really like to customize the gestures to take me directly into apps that I use frequently, like email. Let's give HTC credit where it's due, though: This new functionality is pretty clever, and it'll likely get even smarter with future software updates.
The reason we're hopeful that HTC will improve its proprietary features is because it's already done a pretty good job fine-tuning BlinkFeed. (Considering our distaste for it when we first reviewed the M7, that's saying a lot.) Ever since BlinkFeed's debut in the original One, HTC has continued to make it more customizable. For instance, if you're interested in any given subject you can do a search for that topic and create a whole feed around it. On top of that, the company now boasts over 1,000 content partners, so there's no shortage of reading material here. Also, HTC tells us it will soon be releasing a developer kit for BlinkFeed, which means developers will be able to add their own feeds and content.
Sense 6 also features a Do Not Disturb mode, and it does exactly what every other DND mode does: It silences your phone so your sleep isn't interrupted by the latest eBay newsletter hitting your inbox. However, HTC's option adds multiple presets, so you can change the hours based on which day it is; this is ideal for anyone who needs to be on call on specific days.
There's also a new battery conservation feature called Extreme Power Saving Mode. This mode, HTC claims, makes it possible to extend the life of your battery by leaps and bounds; it's supposed to last you 15 hours with just 5 percent battery left, and up to two weeks if you're at full. To do this, it cuts all of your connections and background apps, and essentially turns your phone into a featurephone. It even comes with an incredibly basic launcher that gets you manual access to calls, texts, email (on the Sense app, that is), calendar and calculator. You likely won't want to use it all the time, but it can save your skin in a pinch if you're getting low on juice and expecting a phone call. It's not quite ready for US users because it needs to get through carrier testing, but it should arrive in a firmware update soon.
HTC is continuing its tradition of offering cloud storage space, but it's dropped Dropbox in favor of Google Drive. Once you agree to the terms and conditions, you'll get 50GB of space for free for two years. This deal with Google is part of a program called the HTC Advantage, which the company introduced last month; on top of the extra storage, HTC has also committed to updating the M8 firmware (along with the rest of the One family) for two years. If you live in the US, you can also take advantage of HTC's cracked-screen-replacement option, which allows you to swap out a shattered screen for free within the first six months after you buy the phone.
When last year's One came out, we boldly proclaimed it our new go-to camera. Of course, the smartphone industry hasn't stood still over the past year; during this time, we've seen spectacular imaging come from the Nokia Lumia 1020 (not to mention the 1520 and Icon), as well as the Sony Xperia Z1. And soon, in the coming weeks, we'll also be able to take fantastic photographs with the Samsung Galaxy S5 and Oppo Find 7. Has HTC, king of the UltraPixel, done anything new on the M8? (Spoiler: The answer is yes, but we're still unsure if it's enough to best the competition.)
First off, HTC is sticking to its UltraPixel philosophy. In a nutshell, the idea is to take a physically large sensor and combine it with big pixels that are capable of gathering more light than standard-sized ones. Many smartphone cameras feature 1.1µm pixels, while the One proudly boasts a one-third-inch BSI sensor with 2µm pixels capable of absorbing 330 percent more photons. It also uses ImageChip 2 and a 28mm f/2.0 AF lens that helps grab even more light. HTC believes you don't need a high-resolution sensor to take great pictures, and as long as you don't need to zoom in on anything, the quality should remain near the top of its class.
Having used the original One's 4MP camera for the past year, we're still happy with its overall performance. However, we were hopeful that HTC would bump up the One's resolution to something higher (8MP would've been a logical jump), but unfortunately the company didn't increase it at all, opting instead to emphasize the new depth sensor and software optimizations. Even worse, it's also done away with optical image stabilization (OIS). When we asked HTC about why the feature's gone, we were told it was left out due to improvements to the module -- faster autofocus was used as an example -- as well as overall feature cost and the extra space needed for the mechanical component. The company feels that it's less necessary to have this feature on today's advanced hardware. Furthermore, reps explained to us that OIS is also incompatible with its Duo Camera tech (which we'll discuss soon), which uses "smart stabilization" features like anti-shake.
Even if you don't agree that faster autofocus is a valid reason for dismissing OIS, autofocus is still a nice feature to boast. The AF speed is now set at three-tenths of a second, matching what Samsung claims on the Galaxy S5. We'll be intrigued to test the two devices side by side, but so far, we don't see a noticeable improvement in focus time over the original One. The M8 also features a dual-LED flash, which is designed to get rid of glare and make nighttime photos look more natural. This has been done in quite a few smartphones already, such as the iPhone 5s, but HTC's option is actually much brighter and produces more natural skin tones.
Although the rear camera's resolution remains the same, HTC upgraded the front-facing unit to 5MP with an f/2.0 wide-angle lens, BSI sensor, HDR capability and 1080p video capture. The company recognizes that selfies are a critically important element of the smartphone camera experience now -- heck, it even added a "selfie mode" that features the front-facing camera -- and this will give HTC a solid advantage over Samsung's 2MP offering on the Galaxy S5.
Along with Sense 6 comes a new user interface on the camera app. This version is streamlined with fewer options on top: videos, selfies, 360-degree pano shots (like Photo Sphere), dual-camera captures and Zoes are now all confined to separate modes that can be accessed on the lower-right corner. Each corner of the viewfinder has an icon (flash, settings, modes and gallery shortcut), and the only other UI element is the shutter button halfway down the right side. When you choose settings, you're presented with a bar of options along the bottom of the viewfinder. This includes ISO (up to 1600 on the M8), exposure, white balance, filters, random settings and scenes; the latter option lets you choose between no fewer than 11 scenes, including HDR, Night mode, manual, macro, sweep panorama and anti-shake, among others.
Manual mode reminds us of Nokia's fantastic camera app -- it brings up a whole new set of options along the bottom, and each one reveals a slider that lets you adjust white balance (you can customize temperature in Kelvins), exposure, ISO, shutter speed and focus. You can see the results in real time, so you don't have to worry about what the image is going to look like after you take the shot. But that's not all: You can save your manual settings, add it to your list of modes and go back to it any time. If there's a limit to the number of saved settings you can have, we didn't reach it -- we added seven more modes (there are six modes per page) before we stopped. It's one of our favorite features on the camera. And that's saying a lot for a phone that sports an extra lens on the back.
With that, we'll segue into HTC's crowning photography achievement here: Duo Camera. This is the first time we've played with a phone that has two "cameras" on the back yet isn't stereoscopic 3D. We used quotation marks around the term because the one on top isn't technically a camera at all -- it's a depth sensor that, when used in tandem with the main camera lens, is able to calculate the distance of subjects in your image.
So what's so great about that? There are several cool tricks that take advantage of the Duo Camera's depth information, particularly when it comes to post-production effects. Arguably they do nothing to enhance the actual quality of your photos (in terms of overall detail), but you can sure make them look fancy and add some professional flair to each one. We'll give you a few examples.
The first one is UFocus. Devices made by Nokia and LG (and soon to be Samsung) have a way to let you change the point of focus after the pic is taken, Lytro-style. With it, you can change depth of field and add bokeh, but there's a catch: You have to be in a separate mode just to make it do what you want. This is typically because the camera needs to take several pictures over the course of five seconds to achieve the desired effect. When your child is having a cute moment, you rarely have time to figure out the best mode to use for the best picture; you have a split second to pull your camera out, point it and snap the shot before it's too late. HTC's Duo Camera, however, eliminates the need for these separate modes because it takes just one image and uses the image's depth information to determine which part of the photo to keep in focus.
This feature makes it easy to "bokeh" the background of the image and blur out photo-bombers that sneak up behind your friends (friends don't let friends get photobombed). Granted, it only lets you choose from two or three different places on the picture, blurring everything else out in the process, but this action saves you from wasting precious seconds to get into the correct mode -- and you don't have to regret your choice afterward, since you can keep the original photo while editing it as much as you want.
Essentially, the depth info can figure out which objects are in the foreground and which ones are in the background. It also desaturates the image and separates colors. This process makes it so you can add effects to the background while leaving your intended subject intact. Instantly, you could make the Eiffel Tower look like a "Take On Me" music video; the Statue of Liberty could turn into a cartoon; and you could apply motion blur to the Space Needle behind you and your significant other.
The Duo Camera also makes it possible to copy elements of one photo -- say, your best friend Bob at last night's party -- and paste it into a completely different image (how did Bob magically show up at that wedding reception wearing a party hat?). You can also give photos a 3D-like parallax effect by tilting the phone from side to side.
Interestingly, HTC tells us that the Google Play edition of the M8 will utilize the same sets of API codes for the Duo Camera as the Sense version. The company hasn't gone into more detail on how this will be implemented yet -- we don't know if Google plans to add this to the stock camera UI on the phone or if it's just opening the phone up to third-party developers. (As an aside, we're told that HTC plans to eventually release a developer kit for the Duo Camera, but it's not saying when.)