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HTC One M9 Review: In Depth

The Good

  • Premium design
  • Responsive, intelligent UI
  • Decent battery life
  • Great AV experience

The Bad

  • Incremental improvement
  • Disappointing cameras
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The HTC One M9 hasn’t yet hit store shelves but some critics are already scolding the company for releasing a flagship that doesn’t meet the people’s expectations. Whether that’s actually the case is yet to be decided, but we’re welcoming the M9 into Recombu’s review gauntlet with an open mind and strong curiosity.

Design: When an M7 and an M8 love each other very much…

For the last few years HTC has been the unquestionable king of metal-bodied phones, but the switch from polycarbonate to harder stuff didn’t arrive onto a flagship until the HTC One (subsequently rebranded the ‘One M7’). At first appearance the M9 is almost unchanged cosmetically from its metallic predecessor and that’s OK.

If you want a premium feeling and looking handset, the One M9 can go toe-to-toe with the likes of the iPhone 6, Xperia Z3 or the new Galaxy S6 Edge. As we mentioned in our initial hands on, the chassis of each M9 takes twice as long to produce as the M7’s bodywork did and whilst we can’t see exactly where all that extra time goes, the end product is nonetheless a fantastic blend of function and form.

M9 front M9 back

The curved back of the unibody features an attractive brushed finish and a comfortable curvature in the palm, whilst the sides meet at stepped, finely milled right angles. It might not be quite as curvaceous as last year’s M8, but it still looks good and is easier to hold as a result.

HTC’s three colourways for the M9 are certainly eye catching too; the Gunmetal Grey version is the tamest of the options whilst the gold on silver variant (the one we tested) actually features three colours with a rose tint to the back panel, a deep gold edge and a lighter shade on the grilles covering the phone’s front-facing (excellent) BoomSound speakers. If you want to turn the volume up on the bling-o-meter a little further, the gold on gold choice will satiate your desire for the yellow stuff.

M9 profile

Another ergonomic tweak sees the power button move to below the volume rocker on the phone’s right side (instead of on top) and what’s more it’s knurled, allowing for more convenient operation. In fact the only real sticking point comes from the black plastic camera surround, which is not only sizeable but also squared, dating the aesthetic style somewhat. It wouldn’t be so much of an issue if it was large for functional purposes, such as housing an optical image stabilisation system, but it’s purely cosmetic.

Screen: No 2K is still OK

As a manufacturer of screens in its own right, we weren’t all that surprised when Samsung dropped the 2K bomb that is the Galaxy S6’s insanely pixel-rich 5.1-inch display, allowing it to join the ranks of high-end handsets offering up sharper, crisper images, the One M9 cannot.

For the most part the 5-inch Full HD Super LCD that HTC’s latest flagship uses is practically unchanged from the panel on last year’s One. That’s not to say this is a bad decision; at 5-inches, 441ppi is more than ample for delivering a detailed, clear image.

M9 screen

The M9 uses a cooler colour gamut than the rest of the market, which gives even familiar Android experiences an interesting feel, but on the whole apps, images and video look great, so whilst we’re glad the S6 pushes the envelope, we see no reason as to why HTC needs to chase extra pixels for the sake of extra pixels.

HTC’s Sense UI also features gesture control, such as double tap to wake, which works like a charm and double tap to sleep, which outside of the lock screen is damn near unresponsive. A three-finger swipe upwards is a nice easy way to connect the One M9 to media-savvy devices too.

OS: A fresh coat of paint

As with the current competition, HTC instilled the One M9 with Android Lollipop and then coated that in its own Sense 7 experience – the latest incarnation of its skinned user interface. Truth be told, it’s difficult to discern where the differences lie; the similarities to Sense 6 on the surface are striking, but then again it seems that it’s a case of ‘if it ain’t broke…’

Personalisation is a big part of the M9 user experience with the Themes application letting users customise everything from system fonts to wallpapers and app iconography. You can have the phone pick a theme based on a picture of your choosing or browse from professionally and user-created themes online.

The location-detecting home screen widget is the other most notable addition to the Sense experience. By default it sits on the homescreen and offers up apps that it anticipates the user might need using location information. At home, work or in between it’ll switch from offerings like YouTube, to Google Drive to a tube map respectively, provided they’re installed on your phone, and if it thinks you might like a particular app that you don’t already have it’ll recommend it to you as well, although these suggestions aren’t always as useful as we’d like.

The return of the DotView Cover (sold separately) lets you enjoy new functionality like gaming and a ticker tape scrolling feature, alongside mainstays such as BlinkFeed, but we’d have been disappointed if these features hadn’t evolved in a year.

Performance: Got it where it counts

Check passed the verdict section for the full spec rundown, but understand that for a flagship packing Qualcomm’s latest flagship octa-core, 64-bit processor, we were a little surprised. Overall the M9 operates without issue, 3D games like Asphalt run with the buttery-smooth goodness you expect from a top-tier handset and aside from a little (not excessive as some rumours suggested) heat build up, we’re mightily impressed.

Perhaps it’s the software where we should place the blame, but we just weren’t expecting to see icons redrawing themselves so frequently, typically when leaving an app to return to the home screen. Folders would sometimes pause awkwardly for a moment too, layering awkwardly against the interface elements underneath. These are small quirks, but just something we didn’t expect to see from a high-end device, something regular updates will no doubt remedy however.

Elsewhere the phone’s sizeable 2840mAh cell will see you through a day and a half of use without too much stress, placing it on par with its key Android competition. Storage is a big strength with the M9 (as it was with the M8) letting you slot in an additional microSD card of up to 128GB in size to bolster the 32GB of on-board storage and the additional 100GB of Google Drive cloud storage HTC’s wrangled for new users.

Camera: Give with one hand, take away with the other

The camera or rather cameras, we’re on the whole, the biggest sticking point with the otherwise flawless One M8. We commended HTC for trying something different and at the time that was enough, but it soon became apparent that the additional functionality two rear-facing cameras brought to the table could easily be recreated with software, sometimes to greater effect.

When HTC pulled the wraps off the M9 and we spotted a more conventional single rear-facing snapper, we were at least pleased we could make more even comparisons with the other flagship crop. So how is the 20-megapixel snapper on the M9? In a word – uninspiring.

As much as we wanted to love the M9’s camera, it’s as if HTC ousted one point of contention (in the M8) and replaced it with another that featured its own foibles. The 20-megapixel sensor is better, primarily thanks to the sheer increase in resolution, but whether it’s our conditioning to the over-processed images of social media, the One M9 produces shots that are simply flat and lacklustre.

The new internals give you 4K video recording in addition to the wealth of modes we’ve seen previously, such as fast motion recording (60fps), slow motion recording and the EYE camera interface, which is clean and simple. The lack of image stabilisation is detrimental to the phone’s low light performance and when trying to capture video whilst moving too. If all you wanted to change from the M8 was the desire for larger pictures, then the M9 delivers, in other avenues its rear camera doesn’t stand up to the competition.

The front-facer is a little more promising, packing HTC’s own-brand UltraPixel technology for notably better low-light performance and a wide-angle lens on the hardware side as well as a beauty mode on the software side.

Verdict: On the verge of greatness

Writing this review I kept finding myself saying something along the lines of, “little has changed since the M8, and that’s OK,” which it is, but ‘OK’ just isn’t going to wow people when the likes of Samsung really have something to shout about.

From a technical standpoint this phone has been brought up to date to fall inline with the other 2015 flagships, but on the whole the differences in experience between the M9 and last year’s M8 are nearly imperceptible. It’s more of a refresh than a true successor.

M9 verdict

It’s as if the M9 were created to specifically address the minor shortcomings of the One (M8), but nothing more and whilst to some extent the company achieved its goal, the new camera module in particular presents its own set of problems, especially when you stack it up against its new rivals.

As with every One flagship, HTC has created a good phone with the M9, it offers a balanced overall experience and plays to its strengths in design, battery longevity and usability, but good might not quite be enough for those laying down the notable amounts of cash such handsets demand, even on a two year plan. We like the HTC One M9 a lot, we just haven’t fallen in love with it this time around.

Specification

Screen size5-inches
Screen resolutionFull HD (1920x1080)
Weight157 grams
OSAndroid 5.0 Lollipop
Rear Camera20-megapixel w/ dual LED flash
Front camera4-megapixel
Processor2.0GHz/1.5GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 810
Memory3GB RAM
Storage32GB. Expandable via microSD up to 128GB
4G LTEYes
Bonus featuresHTC Sense 7.0, adaptive home screen widget, IR blaster, UltraPixel camera

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