Until recently, buying a Windows Phone probably meant buying a Nokia phone. But it doesn't need to be that way. HTC has just turned its flagship Android smartphone, the HTC One (M8), into the best all-purpose Windows Phone you can buy.
Shedding its Google coil and migrating to Windows, The HTC One (M8) may be the first flagship phone in history to double-dip on its operating system. But more importantly, it tests the faithfulness of iOS and Android devotees who might be willing to switch to the Windows Phone way of life if only "the right device came along." Does that describe you?
What Is It?
In 2013, HTC dropped jaws with the original HTC One, also known as the M7, primarily because of its design. Machined from a single solid block of aluminum, we lauded the M7 for its stunning appearance and performance. A year later, HTC notched up the screen size and updated the specs with the HTC One M8, creating one of the best smartphones you can buy.
Now, that very same M8 is available for Windows Phone on Verizon for $100 on-contract. (It will also come to AT&T and T-Mobile once that exclusivity expires.) Basically, the M8 for Windows is the same as its Android twin, despite a few branding birthmarks. And it's not just their similar facades. The phones run on the same Snapdragon 801 processor, with the same 4 UltraPixel camera, same lovely 1080p display, same BoomSound speakers, same battery, same everything underneath the hood. But after you press the power button, it's all Windows, whether you like it or not.
The M8 may represent a big moment for Windows Phone. HTC's design chops could possibly entice people to finally purchase a Microsoft device. According to IDC, only 2.5 percent of smartphone owners worldwide have a Windows Phone in their pocket, and that's not likely to change so long as foreign-looking Nokia phones are the only possible choices. Here's the plan: Put Windows Phone on a device that some may recognize as an Android phone—or just recognize as well-designed—and see what happens.
Here is What Happens
Powering up that same great M8 but seeing the Windows Phone logo is a strange sight. In some ways, Microsoft's OS makes me feel more at home than Android. Maybe it's Windows Phone's highly customizable home screen and Live Tiles—those active little icons constantly displaying relevant news, weather, and social media happenings— that makes the One feel more personable to me. HTC's Android skin, Sense 6.0, feels less lively and aesthetically in sync with the One's aluminum exterior. As far as I'm concerned, Windows Phone just looks slicker on the One.
Until the One M8, Windows Phone woes also extended to its monotonous hardware design. Luckily, this is now the best looking Windows Phone you can buy. The Lumia 930 (Icon), Nokia's current flagship, looks bulky and simple compared to the M8's elegance. Plus, the phone's aluminum frame and curved back makes it incredibly comfortable to hold.
That doesn't help if it's a gigantic pain to use, but I actually found that Microsoft's third-place OS doesn't require as painful a transition as it did just 12 months ago. Now equipped with its own virtual assistant, Cortana, and a Swype-like keyboard, the operating system feels more competitive with Android than ever before.
Strangely, Android still feels a little bit snappier than Windows Phone on the exact same hardware. Windows tile animations just take a little bit longer than the competition. But it's not something I noticed until I sat down with both devices side-by-side for an extended period, and it wasn't much of an annoyance.
What might annoy you is the lack of app selection, even though Windows Phone is doing better than before. With the HTC One for Windows in hand, I did the ceremonial Downloading Of The Apps as one does when getting a new smartphone. Twitter: check. Crunchyroll: perfect. Spotify: great. Instagram… Beta? Well, that's weird but okay. Where is SoundCloud? Flickr is MIA. The Windows Phone email client is also kind of terrible if you're coming from a multiple Gmail existence, and I wasn't able to find an unofficial client that worked well. Mobile work correspondence just became much more taxing for me, and for many that's reason enough to look elsewhere.
And, as always, prepare for app envy every time you read about a wonderful new app in the pages of your favorite gadget blog. "Available for iOS and Android" is still the boilerplate that developers tack onto their app store releases, and that's not likely to change anytime soon. While the Windows Phone community is doing a decent job of playing catch-up, I don't really want to settle for unofficial clones of many programs I want. If you plan on signing up for Windows Phone (and still, there's many reasons you might like it), just know that you will walk down a road with fewer doors.
Despite housing the same 2600mAh battery, HTC claims the Windows Phone M8 actually gets two hours more talk time. Since I didn't have anyone to talk to for 22 hours straight, I can't confirm that, but I did get through a day and a half of mixed usage on a full charge. Since I habitually forget to plug in my phone overnight, that was just about perfect.
When HTC announced the M8 for Windows, the company also re-introduced the Dot View Case, a neatly designed wrap cover that displays information like weather, battery life, and calendar events through its pixelated design. With Windows Phone, you can launch the Cortana voice assistant even when the case is closed. The process takes some getting used to, but after a couple of days I was returning a Cortana Activation Success Rate — which I totally just made up — of about 90 percent. Not bad.
Unfortunately, you just can't do a lot with Cortana that way. You can only issue one command through the case before she's done listening. For example, if you ask "Cortana, what is the weather like today?" she'll joyfully give you an answer. But if you were to follow up with something like, "Do I have any appointments?" she'll just sit there and make you feel like an idiot. Slowly, the nuisance begins to outweigh the convenience. I ditched the case entirely.
Windows Phone Refined, But Not Redefined
The HTC One M8 may be a solid Windows Phone, but it isn't a universally better one. For one thing, Lumia phones with AMOLED screens make pitch-black backgrounds blend seamlessly into the bezel, whereas the M8 for Windows' IPS LCD keeps that screen disappointingly visible. For another, the Nokia Lumia 930 absolutely mops the floor with HTC in the photography department. One of the prime reasons to get a Windows Phone is to have access to a Lumia camera and applications, and HTC's weird Duo Camera just doesn't cut it for me. HTC isn't bad, but the best Lumias make me want to throw away my point-and-shoot cameras.
Top: HTC One M8 for Windows; Bottom: Nokia Lumia 930
By Android standards, the Duo Camera was just OK, and it's painfully obvious when pitted against the Nokia Lumia 930's superior 20-megapixel PureView sensor. In comparison, the HTC One M8 can't match the 930's color reproduction and contrast. The red door looks much more red and the blue sky is actually blue, not a strange aqua color. The Lumia 930 also has a dedicated physical shutter button, and I also never noticed how essential it was until it was gone. During a particularly rowdy moshing session at a punk show, I had to fumble with my Dot View Case, type in a passcode, find the right Live Tile, and then line up my shot. By then, the song ended. A shutter button would've helped me avoid stinging disappointment.
HTC gets an A for effort for keeping all the Duo Camera's features in the Windows Phone transition. If you're not familiar, "Duo" refers to the camera's dual-lens setup that captures not only the normal flat image, but also how far away objects are in the scene. This allows for debatably useful features like Dimension Plus, which distorts photos to give them a 3D-like effect you can see when you tilt the phone back and forth. Still, that experience only lives on your phone. It's just a neat trick to show friends. More useful is UFocus, which can artificially apply camera blur for a really neat bokeh effect, but it only works well if there's a dominant subject in the foreground.
However, HTC does brings some of its own apps to Windows Phone which are quite welcome. We get Blinkfeed, a excellent replacement for Microsoft's stock news aggregator, which I permanently removed from the home screen as soon as possible. This app blends in well with Windows Phone due to its Live Tile support and tile-like design within the app, which always felt a little misplaced on Android. It can also integrate with your social media accounts, making more of a one-stop shop for news. The One M8's included IR blaster can also turn your smartphone into a TV remote with HTC's Sense TV app, a feature uncommon for Windows Phone in general.
Have I mentioned that this phone looks really great? I've fallen in love with the Windows Phone customizable home screen and Live Tiles set up, and they fit this phone so well. Somehow the marriage of HTC's physical design and Microsoft's elegant mobile OS made the overall experience more enjoyable than navigating yet another Nokia phone. Although the app drawer and email client need some attention, when I look at the HTC One M8 for Windows I see an all-around great Windows Phone that shows it can hang tough with Android.
I also cannot stress enough that dual BoomSound front-firing speakers are the best speakers on any smartphone ever, with the possible exception of the new Moto X (which I've yet to test). Often I'd have to cup the end of my Nexus 5 with my hand (and my iPhone 5 before that) so I could actually hear videos. The One makes that hand origami unnecessary. I still have no idea why more manufacturers don't put speakers on the front of the device. It hurts my brain just thinking about it.
When I first turned on this device, I bemoaned having to set up my front-page Live Tiles, dig into the Windows Phone Store to get what apps—official or unofficial—that I could, and reorient myself to a statistically third-place OS. Now, only a week later, I don't want to say goodbye to this handset.
Ultimately, I will leave the M8 for Windows behind. For all the great additions HTC brought over to Windows Phone, the camera is just mediocre—much like it was for Android—and the camera app has even less functionality here. Compared to Lumia, the HTC One falls short in both editing options and quality. There's also no quick access to the camera app, like with the 930's physical button, or even a gesture on the lock screen.
Then there's the app problem, but at this point, that's just a permanent addition in the fine print when you sign up for Windows Phone. It's just a part of the deal. For me, it's a dealbreaker.
Should You Buy It?
If you like apps? No. Then again, if you do like apps I'm not sure why you're reading a Windows Phone review in the first place. But if you want eye-candy hardware, wrapped in a well-designed OS, then this phone could be a great pocket companion.
The only other Windows Phone in the running is the Lumia 930 as it offers comparable performance at the same-ish size. Luckily, both appeal to different people. The 930 and other Nokia high-end phones are much more friendly for dedicated camera users, folks who want higher-than-average quality in their photos. But if you're mostly slapping on Instagram filters and posting to social, the One M8 for Windows will do a fine job.
One M8 for Windows Specs
- Network: Verizon (T-Mobile and AT&T coming soon)
- OS: Windows Phone 8.1.1
- CPU: 2.3 GHz quad-core Snapdragon 801
- Screen: 5-inch 1920 x 1080 LCD display (441 PPI)
- RAM: 2GB
- Storage: 32GB
- Camera: 4 "UltraPixel" rear / 5MP front
- Battery: 2600 mAh Li-Po
- Dimensions: 5.76 x 2.78 x 0.37 in
- Weight: 5.64 ounces
- Price: $100 (32GB) on contract with Verizon