Review: HTC rivals Apple and Samsung with new phone but lacks a big feature

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TORONTO – For some longtime smartphone users, Apple’s iPhones and Samsung’s Galaxy phones are starting to feel a little boring.

Sure, the newest models are always packed with a good number of incremental upgrades that keep the devices top of mind for most buyers.

But it’s been a while since the tech giants have released a new killer feature that’s really taken the world by storm.

HTC is hoping that represents an opening for its new smartphone, the HTC One M8, which is officially available through Bell, Rogers and Telus next week.

Problem is, it’s a crowded battleground for HTC, which is also competing with the likes of BlackBerry, LG, Microsoft, Motorola and Sony.

And while the HTC One M8 is a very capable high-end smartphone that ably matches up against the big-name front-runners, it too lacks a game-changing selling feature that really sets it apart.

Since just about every top tier smartphone nowadays is built with very similar hardware, tech companies have to go beyond a device’s nitty gritty specifications in marketing their devices.

And so the first thing HTC highlights in its guide for reviewers and journalists is the phone’s design, notably its “wrap-around, high quality, all-metal frame.” It’s certainly a slick phone with excellent build quality and has a very sharp five-inch display that won’t disappoint.

Next is the so-called Duo Camera feature, which uses two lenses on the back of the phone to give shutterbugs some interesting creative tools to work with. After taking a photo, users can play with the depth of field and choose to blur out the background of shots, or make something in the background the focus and blur everything else. It works surprisingly well considering it’s a technique more typically used on DSLR cameras. Some of the built-in Instagram-like filters are also quite good.

But it’s a shame that quick snapshots taken with the HTC One M8 sometimes disappoint. It’s not impossible to coax good results out of the phone’s camera but compared to my experience with the iPhone 5S, it wasn’t quite as reliable in producing a good shot on the first attempt. That said, consumers who are upgrading from a three-year-old phone will likely find the HTC One M8 is miles better at snapping photos and high definition video. It just isn’t top of its class.

HTC also highlights the device’s BoomSound speakers, which face the user and are placed just above and below the screen. The speakers are plenty loud, sound fairly rich with good bass, and work well when no other external speakers are available. But they’re still just phone speakers, albeit very good ones.

All smartphone makers seem to be struggling to come up with the next great breakthrough that truly wows jaded tech addicts.

The buzziest feature of Apple’s latest iPhone 5S is a fingerprint reader, which many users quickly found didn’t work consistently.

Samsung has shaken up the smartphone market by pushing forward the “phablet” concept with its oversized Note and Mega phone-tablet hybrids. But none of the newer software features packed into its Galaxy phones have really stood out.

It’s admirable that HTC is putting some heat on its much bigger rivals by engineering strong products, like the HTC One M8, which are just about as good as anything else on the market.

But in the end, they too haven’t solved the boring problem.

The HTC One M8 will be available for about $230 on a two-year contract or $700 outright.

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