Since Windows Phone’s humble beginnings, Microsoft has been the underdog in the wireless industry. Four years later, nothing’s changed — except, perhaps, a few more percentage points of market share. Even then, it’s got a long way to go before catching up to Android and iOS. Let’s give the company credit for pushing forward, improving its platform and not giving up, though: When I reviewed the last major OS update, I said I could finally use Windows Phone as my daily driver. The one element that Microsoft continued to lack, however, was buy-in from large phone makers. They put more focus on Android products, which meant anyone interested in Windows Phone had a small selection of devices to choose from.
For Microsoft, it’s time to experiment with a new, simpler approach. The software giant has buddied up with HTC to convert the One M8, its Android flagship, into a Windows Phone. That’s all there is to it. There’s absolutely no change to the hardware — and it’s a fantastic idea. If it fails, neither company loses much from the deal; since they’re using an existing phone, the cost of design and engineering is far lower than it would be on a standalone device. If it’s successful, it may inspire other manufacturers to follow suit, resulting in a market with a wide variety of Windows Phones to choose from. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, right?
The hardware section is typically one of the longest in a phone review, but this time, the opposite is true. That’s because the HTC One M8 for Windows, as awkward as the name is, is exactly that: an HTC One M8 that happens to run Windows Phone instead of Android. (Why the name omits “Phone” is beyond me, however.) The aluminum unibody chassis, 1080p display, Snapdragon 801 processor, BoomSound speakers, 2,600mAh battery, even the UltraPixel Duo Camera setup — it’s all there. It comes with the infrared blaster embedded into the power button as before, and all of the buttons, LED flashes and card slots are all precisely in the same place. In fact, if it weren’t for the Windows Phone logo on the back, the hardware would be virtually indistinguishable. Of course, that also means that it’s still just as slippery and just as tall as the Android version, so if you didn’t like it before, nothing about this phone will change your mind.
The version I’m reviewing is the Verizon-exclusive model, which only comes in a gunmetal gray color with 32GB of internal storage (and a microSD slot that handles cards up to 128GB). If Verizon isn’t your thing, AT&T announced that it plans to release the device after the exclusivity period is over. HTC’s been tight-lipped about whether the phone will eventually head to other markets or carriers.
The Verizon version of the M8 for Windows comes with quad-band LTE, which covers both of Verizon’s high-speed frequencies and a couple of bands (3 and 7) friendly to many countries in Europe, Africa and Asia. In case the LTE doesn’t work when you’re traveling abroad, it also comes with quad-band HSPA+ (up to 14.4 Mbps) and quad-band GSM/EDGE. Regardless of where you travel, you’re bound to have some sort of connection, even if it isn’t incredibly fast.
It’s only when you turn the two devices on that you’ll really notice the difference. For the first time since the Palm Treo days, you can choose between two different operating systems running on the same hardware. I want to see more companies try this, but most manufacturers seem wary of dedicating resources to make Windows Phone available on existing Android devices. Of course, this wasn’t even an option until Microsoft introduced Windows Phone 8.1 earlier this year, when it announced that manufacturers could take any Android phone they wanted and just slap on the third-place mobile OS instead. (Sadly, Microsoft and Google aren’t so keen on letting anyone use both at the same time.)
What matters is that it’s here now, and Windows Phone flagships are no longer limited to Nokia’s Lumia series; it introduces more options for fans of the OS, and it gives the platform more visibility for everyone else.
If you’ve used a Windows Phone before, the user experience will be familiar. HTC tweaks aside (I’ll tackle those shortly), the M8 is a Windows Phone 8.1.1 device without a custom user interface. Which makes sense: Microsoft doesn’t allow skins. As you’d expect, then, the phone features Cortana, Live Tiles, quick controls, notifications, folders and the new lock screens, among other things. If you’ve seen one Windows Phone, you’ve seen them all.
The biggest early question about the M8 for Windows was how (or if) it would utilize HTC’s homemade software features from its Android skin, such as Zoe, BlinkFeed, Duo Camera capability, Sense TV and Video Highlights. Fortunately, all but Zoe made it into the phone, although there are slightly different implementations for each feature. BlinkFeed on Windows is its own separate app and Live Tile as opposed to a full home screen panel on Android. Ditto for Video Highlights, which takes the form of a standalone app. The camera UI is the same, but only some Duo Camera editing features made the OS jump. Finally, the HTC Dot View case is supported.
BlinkFeed feels more at home on Windows Phone than it does on Android, primarily because its interface is tile-based. Its functionality is similar on both platforms: You have access to your social network feeds (yes, including Google+) and a wide variety of highlighted feeds (like Engadget!). At present time, the Windows Phone version doesn’t come with a search option or custom feeds, so you’ll just have to stick with what HTC offers. It also comes with an active Live Tile that shows the most recent news updates.
Video Highlights has been around since the HTC One M7 came out in early 2013. It compiles your photos and videos and combines them into a 30-second highlight reel; you can choose from several different themes (akin to Instagram filters) as well as music, including pre-loaded tracks and selections from your own library. Once the clip is created, you can share it however you want. On Android, the video highlight-creation tool is a part of the Sense gallery app, but here it’s a standalone app. The basic setup is the same on both platforms, but their designs match their respective OSes. All told, too, the functionality is the same, though the WP option doesn’t appear to have the ability to choose which images or clips to start and end with.
The on-screen navigation bar is a recent addition to Windows Phone, and a very welcome one, at that (Android has had this functionality for a while). The bar consists of the usual WP buttons like back, home and search. You can choose to have the bar be dark, match the background of the app you’re in (which doesn’t seem to change too often) or match your accent color instead. It’s also possible to hide the bar, in case you’re watching a 1080p video or using another app that wants to take advantage of the full screen rather than getting cut off at the bottom. By default, you can press a small arrow on the left side to tuck it away and swipe up from the bottom bezel to bring it back; however, you can choose to disable the button and swipe up for both actions instead.
The Dot View case is an optional accessory introduced on the One M8 for Android, but HTC’s made it compatible with the Windows Phone version as well. You’ll still get the time on top and a symbol for notifications on the bottom, but there’s a new feature: Swiping down from the top will activate Cortana, who will begin listening to you without any further action.
Unfortunately, this swipe-down functionality isn’t available without the case. In fact, the One M8 motion gestures are limited to a simple double-tap-to-wake option; you can’t swipe your finger in any direction to take it directly into specific apps. Even worse, the only way to activate the camera is to manually unlock the screen and tap on the Live Tile or go through the Action Center. I’d prefer to have a faster shortcut to the camera for quick access.
The M8 for Windows sticks with the same love-or-hate UltraPixel Duo Camera setup as its Android brother, and it even offers a nearly identical user interface. (The only differences are in the settings, which must adhere to Windows Phone UI elements.) In general, HTC’s UltraPixel option takes decent pictures and fares well in low-light settings, though shots tend to be less detailed than on other flagship devices.
But while the camera modules are exactly the same, a quick image comparison between the Windows Phone and Android versions reveals a few minor disparities. The M8 for Windows seems to do better at capturing dynamic range, and the photos are more saturated in color. The default white balance is also marginally colder. The gap between camera performance widens further in low-light situations, in favor of the Android version. The M8 for Windows produced images that were fuzzier and less detailed than those taken on its counterpart. This may be in part due to the length of time HTC’s worked on optimizing its UltraPixel tech on Android versus Windows Phone, and I’m hopeful this can be fixed in a future update.
For now, one version isn’t better than the other in every department; you’ll have to pick and choose the factors that are most beneficial to you. If you want the full gamut of imaging options, however, stick with the Android model for now. HTC’s signature Zoe feature, which takes a few seconds of video and burst-mode shots and converts it into a Harry Potter-esque moving picture, isn’t available; the Zoe app, which is a social network that lets you show off your Video Highlights to friends and family, is also restricted to Android 4.4. Lastly, the Windows edition lacks a few of the M8’s Duo Camera editing tools. It comes with UFocus (which lets you change the area of focus), Foregrounder (adds funky visual effects to objects in the background), Dimension Plus (gives the picture a faux-3D feel), rotate/crop tools, most filters and a few frames. Copy/paste, stickers, draw/flip/straighten tools and seasons (a pointless feature that shows leaves, snowflakes, etc. falling down in front of your picture) didn’t make the cut, but I rarely use those features on the Android version anyway.
Performance and battery life
In its early days, Windows Phone earned a reputation for robust performance that has continued to the present. Until recently, the gap in performance between flagships and entry-level devices had been relatively small because Microsoft imposed restrictions on which processors and other specs could be used on the platform; phones like the Nokia Lumia 520 are cheap, but perform well given their limited processing power and RAM. As Microsoft has slowly lifted those restrictions, flagships have now become even more powerful, possessing the same specs as many top-of-the-line Android devices.
With the One M8 for Windows, you’re going to enjoy all of the same performance benefits as the Android version — on paper, at least. It has a quad-core 2.3GHz Snapdragon 801 chipset with 2GB of RAM, so it’s no slouch. The M8 for Windows runs WP 8.1 Update 1, which is still only available as a Developer Preview on other devices; this is the first time it’s been included on a new device out of the box.
The M8 for Windows runs well most of the time. To nitpick (’tis my burden and duty), the Android version is a little faster when loading apps and multitasking, primarily due to the time-wasting animations scattered throughout the Windows Phone OS. It’s a difference of a couple seconds each time, which likely won’t matter at all to most users. Games run smoothly with few to no frame skips, but the same titles on Android were consistently more fluid. Occasionally, the processor on the Windows version would slow down, making games extremely choppy for around 15 seconds, after which it’d smooth out for two or three seconds before returning to its frozen state. A reboot usually cleared up the problem, but I’ve never run into similar issues on the M8 for Android.
I’ve also noticed that the two 1080p displays aren’t calibrated identically; it appears that both devices use different temperatures (the original M8 is a tad warmer), though the brightness and viewing angles are both good. Images and graphics on the Windows Phone model appear to be fuzzier and have less clarity when looking at the two devices side by side, as if they’re displayed at a lower resolution somehow, but at least text and games look great.
Running benchmarks can be a little tricky when doing cross-platform comparisons, since most Android tests aren’t available on Windows Phone. Microsoft’s OS was slightly better on internet-based tests like SunSpider (609ms vs. 649ms, where a lower time is better) and Google Octane (2,801 vs. 2,666), while the Android version did better on GFXBench 2.7 (28 fps vs. 19 fps). The latter score is the most concerning, as it’s a much larger difference than I’d expect to see on two devices with identical hardware. Compared to the Icon, the M8 does better on Octane and GFXBench but worse on SunSpider and WPBench. So, just like it was on the camera, there’s no clear-cut answer to which phone is the better choice. Since the differences are minor, only a few power users may be dissuaded by the results.
Battery life is a mixed bag. The benefit in testing identical hardware on competing operating systems is that you can compare the two much more easily and closely study the effect each platform has on power efficiency. In my testing so far, it appears that the WP option is better than the Android version in some ways and worse in others. (My tests are ongoing and I’ll continue to add more results as they come.)
First, the good news: You can still get through an entire day of normal usage with a little left to spare when you hit the sack. When using the device for email, taking a few photos, browsing the web and running an occasional app, I was able to get slightly more battery life than on my Android M8. When streaming movies through Netflix, the Windows Phone M8 soundly defeats its Android counterpart. Additionally, it lasted for 12 hours and 10 minutes in our standard video rundown test, an increase of 40 minutes over the Sense-clad version.
I wouldn’t recommend playing games without having a charger nearby, however; titles like Asphalt 8 and Frozen Free Fall (my kids’ favorite) drain up to 30 battery percentage points per hour, as compared to around 15 percentage points on the Android M8. (As an aside, both versions of the M8 get hot when playing graphics-intensive games for more than 10 minutes, the point where it becomes uncomfortable to hold.) Finally, the M8 for Windows lasted two hours and 35 minutes in the standard WPBench CPU stress test, in which it forces the processor to work at high intensity. That’s pretty typical: The Lumia Icon delivered nearly identical runtime of 2:36. (It scored 2:42 on our initial review, which was on older firmware.)
Now that a flagship phone is available on more than one major mobile platform, it’s tougher to clearly define its competition; whether you’re a fan of Windows Phone, Verizon or nothing more than good phone design, there are plenty of factors to consider. The M8 for Windows is available for $100 on-contract, which is half of what the Android edition cost when it first came out. It may have limited appeal at first because of its exclusivity, but Windows Phone users on Verizon will appreciate it because they can now choose among this and two other flagship devices: the Lumia Icon, which is renowned for its 20-megapixel camera, and the Samsung ATIV SE, which is somewhere between a GS4 and GS5 in terms of specs. The Icon is definitely a well-built phone, but the M8 has more curb appeal thanks to its robust aluminum frame and arched back.
Let’s go more into specifics on how it compares with the Lumia Icon, its direct Windows Phone competitor. If you’re looking for a superior imaging experience, go with the Icon; the M8 is in no way a horrible picture-taking device, but Nokia’s had a lot more time and experience to get things right on Windows Phone than HTC has. (And since the Icon still does quite well in low-light situations, the UltraPixel tech isn’t quite as persuasive in this case as it may be on Android.) The screen size is only 0.1 inch smaller on the Icon, but the chassis is significantly shorter and much less slippery. HTC offers a great audio experience with BoomSound; the Icon has a hardware shutter button for faster access to the camera; and you’ll also need to decide between capacitive buttons and virtual ones.
In a way, the M8 for Windows is competing against its Android brother as well, but HTC’s goal isn’t to cannibalize sales. By adding a second platform, it’s allowing HTC to reach a new set of smartphone users without the high cost of designing, developing and producing a brand-new device. I also doubt many people have held off on buying the M8 because it wasn’t on Windows Phone, as fans of the platform will have already looked at other options already available to them.
This is the first time in years that a user can select a device’s hardware and software at the same time; you usually have to choose one and then live with the other. People who already use and love Windows Phone now have a flagship option that isn’t the latest Lumia device. This phone won’t end the platform wars by showing undeniable proof that Windows Phone trumps Android or vice versa; both devices clearly have pros and cons in different areas, and it ultimately comes down to your personal preference.
If your go-to OS is Windows Phone, the M8 is one of the best options, thanks to great design and solid performance. The Lumia Icon still has a bit of an edge, but you’ll be happy with either device. If given the choice between M8s, I’d go with the Android version for now because HTC’s had much more time, experience and flexibility to get things right on that platform. The performance is a bit more optimized in most cases, and it comes with more of the HTC-branded functionality that makes the One M8 unique. But isn’t it nice to finally have a choice?
Filed under: Cellphones, Mobile, HTC, Verizon