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New 3D camera is onboard; gorgeous metal body phone bests Samsung's GS5 in some features

On Tuesday morning, HTC Corp. (TPE:2498) marked a close to weeks of buzzing rumors, unveiling its highly anticipated Android smartphone sequel, the flagship 2014 HTC One (M8).

I. The Launch

The Taiwanese device maker took the wraps off the fresh metal body superphone at a pair of 11 a.m. EST press events in New York City and London, England.

Last year the HTC One was announced prior to top Android phonemaker Samsung Electronics Comp., Ltd.'s (KRX:005930) (KRX:005935) Galaxy S4.  Despite garnering better reviews than the GS4, Samsung's timing coupled with legal headaches and supplier issues culminated in the HTC One underperforming in sales, a major disappointment for such an impressive device.
This year HTC has smoothed over its legal troubles (albeit at a cost) and smartly timed its flagship announcement to be after Samsung's February unveil of the flagship Galaxy S5, a device that largely underwhelmed and was met with lukewarm reviews.

HTC One M8
The second-generation HTC One (M8) (2014)

HTC CEO Peter Chou boasts:

HTC One was the best phone of last year.  We went the extra mile to do [the followup] the right way at the hardware level.  The HTC One (M8) is the best phone we have ever launched

As it did last year, HTC continues to differentiate itself by adopting unique and bleeding edge hardware features.  The highlight of the new phone is a shiny new 3D camera, a technology HTC has been dabbling in the smartphone space for some time now.  
In addition to the new 3D camera, implemented by a pair of CMOS backface sensors based on ultrapixel technology, the hardware and firmware have received other serious tweaks as well.

The camera allows for non-3D images to undergo post-processing refocusing to create bokeh (background or foreground blur) artistic effects.  The multi-frame high-speed shooting and selection proprietary tech is still onboard as well.  For those familiar with the boxy Lytro adjustable focus digital camera, the idea is pretty much the same.  While the 3D itself is somewhat gimmicky, the ability to refocus in post-processing at last arguably elevates the feature as more than a parlor trick.
The flash uses a dual-color LED for better light and tone balancing, a technology that Apple, Inc. (AAPL) first used in last year's iPhone 5S.  The phone trails the best of its peers like the Apple iPhone 5S and Nokia Oyj. (HEX:NOK1V) Lumia 1020 in daytime camera performance, according to AnandTech.  But with the 3D and unique post-processing options HTC arguably still remains competitive with the best daytime cameras on merits of its exclusive features.

Peter Chou
HTC CEO Peter Chou and HTC North American President Jason Mackenzie pose at the unveil event.
[Image Source: The Verge]

The battery has been enlarged 13 percent, which will likely be necessary to keep pace with the larger 5-inch screen (same resolution -- 1920x1080 pixel (1080p)), up from last year's 4.7-inch screen.
The phone has a faster processor and swaps the LPDDR2 found in last year's device for the faster, more energy efficient LPDDR3.  One of the most welcome improvements is the inclusion of a microSD slot, a feature present in some international versions of the first generation One, but lacking in the U.S. release.  The built-in NAND has shrunk in half, but that's a small price to pay for the inclusion of expandable memory.  The phone also supports the new nanoSIM standard, which replaces last year's microSIM.
The phone's exclusive stereo speakers have improved since last year, particular in the bass department, but the overall sound quality has also benefited from a new amplifier chip and digital to analog converter (DAC).

II. The Full Spec
The full spec can be seen below.  The good bits we highlighted in green, things that seem bad are highlighted in red, things that are a matter of opinion (e.g. screen size) or unchanged are left black.


III. Externals

The downsides of the HTC One are that it's grown a bit heavier and thicker with the new battery and larger screen.  It remains substantially thicker than the GS5 and iPhone 5S, as well as other Android OEMs' flagship phones.  But some are willing to deal with a little bit of extra weight and thickness in exchange for such an eye-and-hand-pleasing brushed aluminum metal unibody.
Given the tendency of metal-body smartphones to experience screen cracks if dropped, HTC is kindly offering a single courtesy screen replacement if the screen shatters within six months of purchase.

Externally the phone will be available in several body colors, including gold, silver, and black, all based on the same underlying brushed metal chassis.
The phone will also be paired with a unique peripheral/case, the Dot View case, which has small holes exposing some of the screen pixels, to deliver low-powered notifications in Lite Brite fashion.  
HTC Dot View
As these notifications are the actual screen pixels, they're freely color capable, and there's the potential for compatible third party apps.  It's unclear how HTC is selectively deactivating most of the screen and showing only some pixels, something typically only possible with OLED displays. HTC is keeping tight-lipped about the new screen, merely saying it was "LCD based".  Whatever the technology it is clearly crucial to the Dot View case and it replaces the SuperLCD 3 display used in the first-generation HTC One (M7).
On the firmware front HTC is introducing Sense 6 and a new set of apps including a prettier, more efficient version of its BlinkFeed content stream UI element.  Perhaps the most important firmware tweak, though, is Extreme Power Saver -- a power saving mode similar to those offered by Apple and Motorola Mobility.  The mode progressive scales back processing speed and usage allowances, eventually disallowing app use when you get to a few percent of your battery.  The phone can last several hours on the mode, though, allowing brief phone calls, texts, and emails to continue to stream in and be read.

HTC One girl
By the sound of it, HTC managed to solve its battery life issues of its first-generation model with firmware, not by bloating the battery.  In this regard HTC borrows one of the smartest aspects of Apple's design philosophy, a principle Samsung has largely failed to learn from.

IV. Gary Oldman Ads and Launch Dates

HTC has aired a couple of interesting commercials for the device, starring Breaking Bad star Gary Oldman.  The commercials are a little obtuse, but in our eyes Gary Oldman being a bit obtuse is much more tolerable than those bizarre Robert Downey, Jr. commercials.

Verizon Wireless -- America's largest carrier and subsidiary of Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ) -- appears to be alone in having the smartphone in stock at stores today.  But AT&T, Inc. (T), Sprint Corp. (S), and Deutsche Telekom AG's (ETR:DTE)) T-Mobile USA will all have the device in stock later this week.  It is available to order on those three carriers immediately.  Canada's largest carriers -- Rogers Communications Inc. (TSE:RCI.A)(TSE:RCI.B), Telus Corp. (TSE:T), and Bell Aliant Inc. (TSE:BA) -- also have the device up for order, which shipments starting this week.
The phone will be online exclusive, except at Verizon, until the first two weeks of April, when they'll arrive at carrier stores.  Still this early debut gives the HTC One a 17 day sales lead on the Samsung Galaxy S5 -- a potentially dangerous scenario for the world's largest phonemaker, given the market slide in sales of the Galaxy S4 in the last six months, a slide which may signal waning consumer interest.
Release timetables for Europe and Asia were not discussed, but are expected to follow a similar format, with online sales ramping up to a full storefront launch in early April.

Sources: HTC, HTC on YouTube, AnandTech, The Verge

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Looks pretty sweet
By hypocrisyforever on 3/25/2014 12:40:49 PM , Rating: 5
It's hard not to root for HTC. They refuse to throw in the towel even with one setback after the other. They also keep putting out top notch products that are seemingly overlooked by the market. Hopefully they'll put some dollars into marketing this new one.

RE: Looks pretty sweet
By retrospooty on 3/25/2014 12:44:41 PM , Rating: 1
Most of their problems have been well earned by ineptitude in the past, poor marketing, poor quality, etc... But I do agree, the current One and this new One are actually great phones. It's a tough hill to climb though, once people have a poor impression of you as a company.

RE: Looks pretty sweet
By ipay on 3/25/2014 1:15:05 PM , Rating: 2
I consider myself in that group. I have and OLD HTC Windows Mobile Phone that still runs (even with it's current duty as a toddler button smash toy), however I had a few awful Android units since then that left a very bad impression. With other quality choices, I don't have any Desire (get it?) to own another HTC.

RE: Looks pretty sweet
By retrospooty on 3/25/2014 1:17:29 PM , Rating: 1
Yup... They had a reputation for poor quality long before they even had their own brand on the market, all those old Palm Treo's that had 6 or more repair cycles were built by HTC as well.

RE: Looks pretty sweet
By Mint on 3/25/2014 1:41:32 PM , Rating: 3
I'm not a fan of their ultrapixel "technology". I have yet to see compelling evidence that in low light it's superior to a 16MP camera downsampled by 2x in each direction and equal processing.

In good light, the HTC One's images are way behind the competition. Even for web publishing you'll notice if you do any substantial cropping.

RE: Looks pretty sweet
By JasonMick on 3/25/2014 7:17:04 PM , Rating: 3
I'm not a fan of their ultrapixel "technology". I have yet to see compelling evidence that in low light it's superior to a 16MP camera downsampled by 2x in each direction and equal processing.

In good light, the HTC One's images are way behind the competition. Even for web publishing you'll notice if you do any substantial cropping.
Er, you're half right.

Four back-side illuminated 1um CMOS pixels could certainly be downsampled to a single 2 um x 2 um CMOS pixel in terms of the light being absorbed. That's more a function of the lens/camera structure, and sensor size. In that regard the GS5 and HTC One are pretty similar camera wise.

However, by building larger pixels Ultrapixel improves upon a far more tricky issue to solve -- cross-talk between pixels (sort of the leakage of the CMOS sensor world) by bumping them back to a larger size.

Now there are other ways around this. For example Samsung has a technology called ISOCELL that uses a pair of technologies to build the trench the sensor different to mostly silence the cross-talk.

Both Samsung GS5 and HTC One M8 will likely be downsampled at some point when they're posted online. The GS5 has a marginally larger sensor, but not big enough to make a difference.

As you point out both downsample, but both also have proprietary technologies to fight cross-talk/noise, a key problem in a variety of lighting scenarios. Sony and HTC's Ultrapixel solution does it by building a more monolithic pixel. Samsung does it by building a highly structured vertical pixel.

But your comment is misleading as it would imply if HTC just used smaller pixels (without new technologies such as ISOCELL) that it would get equivalent results. It would not, due to crosstalk.

A more interesting question is -- "Which solution prevents crosstalk more effectively -- monolithic pixels or ISOCELL structured smaller pixels??"

The answer could well determine who has the better camera considering the spec is otherwise relatively similar.

*Note: also remember pixels' surface area isn't always perfectly square, so it's a bit more complicated than this basic description.

RE: Looks pretty sweet
By jharper12 on 3/25/2014 9:45:28 PM , Rating: 3
I work in an industry where we take a lot of indoor pictures for proof of performance, and I routinely am complimented on the quality of my photos since upgrading to the HTC One. I have plenty of coworkers with the latest Galaxy and iPhones, and they envy this feature of the HTC One. They wouldn't switch for just this feature, but I can assure you, all of my coworkers agree that the HTC One takes the best low light pictures. Here's the deal, my Samsung Instinct could take an excellent daylight picture, so to me, all I care about is low light performance.

I guess it just depends on who you are and how you use your camera, but I would argue that more people take and do not crop their pictures, and share them online, than those who use cropping routinely. I'm certainly in that camp.

Here's another great feature of 4.1 MP images. My average picture is just short of 1 MB. I sync my camera with my dropbox account, so ALL of my pictures are automatically uploaded, which uses a decent amount of data. In the month of March, I have so far taken 849 pictures. Using the HTC One, that requires just over 800 MB of data. Using the Galaxy S5 images are closer to 3.5 MB. Data is typically sold for around $15 per GB, so for me the question is, even if I believe the S5 takes better pictures, does it take $31 a month better pictures?!? Definitely not.

So I think HTC did a brilliant thing here. Most of us view these images on monitors with a resolution lower than the pixel count. I personally downsample to 1920 longest edge for my reporting. With that in mind, why not take in more light and drop the extra pixels? You get a good quality picture for a low data cost. Say what you will, I'm convinced, and I'll be purchasing the new HTC One as well :-D.

RE: Looks pretty sweet
By techxx on 3/25/2014 1:12:37 PM , Rating: 2
Well said. It makes me sad to see a company selling a superior device to not push the same volume the Galaxy series does due to lack of marketing and and societal ignorance. The 2014 model will beat the GS5 as the 2013 model beat the GS4. Excellent job on the 2014 model HTC. I hope it can take a bigger chuck of Samsung's pie this time!

RE: Looks pretty sweet
By stm1185 on 3/25/2014 4:15:40 PM , Rating: 3
It does look pretty sweet, but not $300 sweeter then a Nexus 5. $650 off contract is too high, bring that down to $450.

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