Hands on: What the HTC One (M8) Google Play Edition is actually like to use

HTC One (M8) Google Play Edition

For years, Android enthusiasts called for "pure Google" versions of popular flagship phones. Now, with its Google Play Edition devices, Google is making that dream a reality.

The latest phone to get the GPE treatment is the HTC One (M8), available now unlocked and off-contract for $699. The One (M8) GPE is a GSM device and will work with either AT&T or T-Mobile in the U.S.

I've been spending some time getting to know the HTC One (M8) Google Play Edition (whew -- try saying that name five times fast!). Here are some scattered thoughts on the device and what it's like to use:

• In terms of hardware, what you're getting here is identical to what you'd get with the regular One (M8) -- same exact body and insides, only without any carrier branding. Everything from the premium aluminum design to the standout screen and outstanding front-facing speaker setup is present.

I'll refer you to my deep-dive One (M8) review for a detailed look and the pros and cons of all that stuff; since nothing has really changed on that front, there's not much new I can say about it.

• As you'd expect, the One (M8) GPE runs a near-stock version of Google's Android 4.4.2 KitKat operating system. I say "near-stock" because the user interface is basically the same as what you'd get on a current Nexus device -- the standard KitKat-level Google Now Launcher and the clean and minimalist UI that surrounds it -- but there are some HTC-specific features that have been added into the mix.

HTC One M8 Google Play Edition UI

• First up is BoomSound: HTC's audio optimization software is very much present on the One (M8) GPE, which is a good thing. The only place you'll actually see it is in the system settings under "Sound," where a BoomSound enhancement option can be enabled or disabled when you plug headphones into the device.

HTC One M8 Google Play Edition BoomSound

• HTC's handy motion gestures are available in the GPE version of the device, too -- at least, to a certain degree. Like on the regular One (M8), you can double-tap the display while it's off to turn the phone on. You can also swipe up, down, left, or right on the screen to turn it on and unlock the device to whatever process you were using last.

HTC One M8 Google Play Edition Motion Gestures

The difference is that the up, down, left, and right gestures all do the same thing here instead of unlocking to specific apps like they do on the regular One (M8). That's presumably because the specific apps involved on the non-GPE model are all HTC apps that aren't present on this device.

One other distinction: I've noticed that the display seems to be less sensitive to motion gestures on the GPE model than it is on the regular One (M8). While the lightest tap or swipe works consistently for me on the regular phone, I find I have to apply a lot more pressure to get the commands to work on the GPE version. Consequently, I usually end up having to perform the commands a few times before they work. No idea what's up with that.

Taps and swipes aside, the One (M8) GPE also allows you to pick up the phone in landscape orientation and press the volume button to open the Camera app. Works just as advertised.

• Speaking of the camera, the One (M8) GPE uses Google's basic Android Camera app instead of HTC's custom alternative. If you ask me, this is a step down in functionality, as HTC's Camera app is faster, more robust, and easier to use.

HTC One M8 Google Play Edition Camera

So what about the M8's unusual dual camera setup? It might take you a while to find it, but the GPE version of the device does actually have a bit of software available to take advantage of that feature. You have to first take a photo, then open it from the Camera app and tap the small pencil icon at the bottom of the screen. The system will then ask if you want to open the image using HTC Photo Edit or the regular Photos tool. Not exactly an elegant or user-friendly approach.

HTC One M8 Google Play Edition Photo Edit

Once you select HTC Photo Edit, you get a limited version of the dual camera editing tools present on the regular M8 device. The bokeh-like UFocus option is there, but many of the other options -- like the "Foregrounder" tools that let you create "Sketch," "Zoom Blur," "Cartoon," and "Colorize" effects -- are M.I.A.

HTC One M8 Google Play Edition Dual Camera

• HTC's unique Dot View case does work with the GPE phone, although once again with limited functionality. The phone will still display vintage-style graphics showing you the time and weather when you double-tap it with the case attached, but that's pretty much it -- no notifications and no swipe-down gesture to make calls.

Incoming calls do show up through the case, but as far as I can tell, you can't swipe up or down to accept or reject a call -- even though the on-screen graphics suggest that you should. Instead, you have to open up the case and use the phone's regular UI.

• A couple of final notes: The One (M8) GPE gives you about 26GB of usable internal space, which is a touch more than the 23GB you start with on the regular M8 (and yes, there's still an SD card slot available). And last but not least, the GPE version of the phone does appear to include HTC's one-time screen replacement offer, which is valid for the first six months you own the device.

Bottom line

All in all, the One (M8) Google Play Edition is quite nice to use, which is no surprise as it's essentially just HTC's M8 hardware with Google's near-stock Android software (and the accompanying guarantee of superspeedy future upgrades). The fact that the M8 uses on-screen buttons makes it an ideal candidate for this sort of treatment, too, as there are no awkward attempts to make physical and/or capacitive buttons fit into an OS designed for virtual keys.

If you want the M8's hardware with a Nexus-like user interface -- and (a) don't mind giving up some of the features built into the regular One and (b) don't mind paying literally double what you'd pay for a "pure Google" experience on the Nexus 5 -- the One (M8) GPE might be just what you're looking for.

For the vast majority of people, though, I'd recommend looking at the regular One (M8) instead. HTC's user interface honestly isn't half-bad at this point, and the regular version of the phone comes with some nice perks that aren't present on the GPE -- including a superior overall camera experience. As for upgrades, HTC's been doing a commendable job at getting software out fast lately, so while the GPE phone will likely get future updates ahead of its non-GPE cousin, that area is far less concerning than it used to be.

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Ultimately, these GPE devices are designed for a small and very specific niche of Android users. Whether you're in that niche or not, one thing's for sure: It's pretty damn awesome that we have this option.

More One (M8) coverage:

HTC One (M8) deep-dive review: Smartphone sophistication made better

In pictures: Here's what the HTC One's dual cameras can do

Hands on: 6 interesting things about HTC's Sense 6 software

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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