Android purists have a common refrain they like to bust out every time a beautiful new piece of hardware comes out: "If only it ran pure Android!" in F-sharp. There's a pervasive belief that unpasteurised Android — and only unpasteurised Android — directly from the great teat in Mountain View is all that's needed to transform a good phone into a perfect phone. That's often true, but hardware is hardware, and great software can't fix everything.
What Is It?
It's HTC's current flagship phone (Q2 2014 edition) running stock Android. It has the same stunning hardware, man-eating processor and terrific battery life.
Why Does It Matter?
It combines arguably the hottest hardware of the year (at least looks-wise) with straight up, no-third-party-skin-having Android KitKat (version 4.4.2). And because it's a Google Play Edition (GPE) it will likely remain among the first to receive OS updates for the foreseeable future.
It's lovely! Everything we said about the hardware of the non-Google Play Edition hardware holds true here. The phone is sleek, and it's hard as a rock. It feels like you thwack an attacker in the head with it and then use it to call the cops while he's still on the ground, badly concussed.
Its screen is lovely (although we slightly prefer the Super AMOLED screen on the Samsung Galaxy S5), and the audio quality coming out of the dual, front-facing speakers is absolutely unsurpassed by any other phone (or maybe even tablet). That said, it's a bit on the big side. Yeah, it has a 5-inch (1080p) display, but there's also a fair amount of black bezel atop and bottom the screen that ultimately seems like wasted space. The result is that you have to stretch your hand much further than you do with other 5-inch phones such as Google's own Nexus 5.
The new One retains the two-lensed HTC Duo Camera, of course, and HTC shared its APIs with Google, so it's able to do all of the special effects that the HTC-edition can, such as background defocusing.
Yep, straight up Android KitKat is just as pleasant to use as you could hope for. It's just a super fast, clean interface. It doesn't waste a lot of time on unnecessary animations, it just looks good, and it gets you to the information you want, quickly. In general, it's very intuitive to use, easy to customise, and it has those little features we like in stock Android, such as the ability to say "OK Google" from the desktop to go immediately into Voice Search, or the Google Now desktop panel (it's on the far left) instead of HTC's news/social-aggregating BlinkFeed, which isn't particularly useful.
At the same time, it's grabbed what it wanted from HTC's custom software. For instance, you can still double-tap the screen to wake the device up. If you want to take advantage of HTC's Duo Camera, no problem. You just shoot the photo as you normal would using the Android camera app, then when you go to edit an image, you can choose to use HTC Photo Edit where you'll get all of the same effects available on the HTC version of the phone. Unfortunately, these features don't really work any better than they did on the HTC version, with features like Background Defocus working very inconsistently, often highlighting the wrong thing, and creating sharp lines that just don't look like natural defocus.
But it's mostly good news here. You still get that beefy battery life, which typically lasted me 30 to 36 hours with moderate use, and would generally make it into the first night even with heavy gaming, calling and streaming. The speakers are loud and clear and missing a call if you're anywhere near it is all but impossible. And the front-facing (selfie) camera is handily the best front-facing camera we've ever used. Not only is it a very respectable 5MP, but it's got a very wide-angle lens, so you can get yourself (and your friends) in without doing painful arm-yoga. Wi-Fi and LTE data speeds were both rock solid, and call quality is excellent.
Stunning design with superb build quality. I still think it's the best-looking phone I've used. Awesome battery life, lovely screen and absolutely unparalleled speakers for a phone (it makes such a huge difference when gaming or when listening to music while washing dishes). Great front-facing cam. It comes with 32GB of built-in storage plus a micro SD card slot is a nice bonus for hoarders of music and video. There's also an IR-blaster for controlling your home entertainment system (though you need to download the app separately). Plus, it's just straight up, vanilla Android with the promise of fast OS updates in the future.
The camera is still this phone's biggest flaw. While I wouldn't go so far as to call it "bad", it's definitely not good enough, especially given the cameras we're seeing from Samsung and LG phones (not to mention Nokia and Apple). The big black bezels make this phone bigger than it should be, and it's not only visually annoying, but it makes the device bulkier than it needs to be and it means your thumbs have to stretch further. No wireless charging isn't ideal.
Should You Buy It
If it cost the same as a Nexus 5, then I would say yes. Yeah, the camera isn't as good as the Nexus 5's, but the vastly better battery life and better audio would make up for that. But it doesn't cost the same. The Nexus 5 is just $US350, while the HTC One (M8) Google Play Edition is $US700. That's simply too much to pay for a phone with a sub-par camera. End of story. It's a shame too, because otherwise it's pretty fantastic.
Here's another thing: It's not really alllll that much different from the standard HTC version of the phone, which means it's not alllll that much better. Yeah, it's definitely laid out a little nicer and more intuitively, and it looks a bit cleaner, but HTC has scaled-back its skin (HTC Sense) enough that it doesn't really get in the way, and it doesn't really slow things down anymore.
The HTC One (M8) Google Play Edition is currently only available in the US.