HTC One M9 review

HTC One M9 ReviewImage Source: Zach Epstein, BGR

It’s easy to call the HTC One M9 the best smartphone HTC has ever built; HTC outdoes itself each and every year, as we have come to expect, and the M9 is better than its predecessor in nearly every way. It’s also easy to call the HTC One M9 the most important smartphone HTC has ever built; the company continues to struggle against rivals 10 times its size that are currently dominating the smartphone market.

The real task here is to determine whether or not HTC’s new One is real competition for rival flagship smartphones, and that question is more difficult to answer in 2015 than it has ever been before.

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Right from the start, it is beyond obvious that HTC has a difficult road ahead. The company’s new flagship HTC One M9 was announced on the very same day as Samsung’s new Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 edge, and it will go on sale around the same time in early April as well.

There are a few big reasons that this is a problem for HTC.

First, we’re talking about Samsung here. The company spends billions of dollars each year to market its products, and its two new flagship smartphones are among the most important products it will sell in 2015. Meanwhile, HTC’s marketing budget is a drop in the bucket for Samsung.

The new One M9 will also have to compete for display space in carrier stores here in the United States, as well as in most other top markets where phones are sold primarily by wireless service providers. Both companies have great relationships with carriers here in the U.S., but Samsung’s deep pockets will most certainly come into play again on this battlefield.

(And of course, there’s always the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, which the M9 will also directly compete with at the high end of the smartphone market.)

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Moving on to HTC and Samsung’s smartphones themselves, this could be where HTC finds the most trouble.

In 2014, HTC stressed repeatedly that it was well aware of its current position in the market. With the HTC One M8, the company wasn’t looking to “kill” Samsung or outsell Samsung’s flagship smartphones. Instead, it sought to create a phone that was better designed, better built and sleeker than Samsung’s phones. It sought to appeal to the discerning Android phone shopper, the minority looking for something more in a smartphone.

Now, Samsung has unveiled two smartphones that hit all the same notes as HTC’s flagship product. They’re gorgeous, they’re made of premium materials, and they’re remarkably powerful.

What is HTC’s pitch now? Who is HTC’s customer?

Just to finish setting the stage, there is one last major hurdle the HTC One M9 will have to leap if it hopes to find any degree of success. While the Galaxy S6 and S6 edge are completely new smartphones for Samsung — from top to bottom, inside and out — the M9 is a decidedly iterative update. It’s a natural progression from the HTC One M8, providing improvements in many key areas without any tremendous leaps in any direction. But where the M8 was a big upgrade for HTC customers who already owned an M7, the same might not be true this year.

Is there any smartphone capable of overcoming this level of adversity? If any phone has a shot, it might just be the HTC One M9.

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Starting with the design and build of the new One M9, this smartphone is instantly recognizable as an HTC device.

Yes, that’s thanks in part to the fact that the HTC One M9 bears a striking resemblance to last year’s M8. But that’s not the whole story. Like all HTC smartphones in recent years, the HTC One M9 features a stunning design and outstanding build quality no other Android phone maker can match.

In 2015, Samsung has come closer than ever to finally putting its flagship smartphones on par with HTC’s in terms of hardware design and quality, but there is still a divide.

As I noted in my hands-on previews, the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 edge are remarkable improvements over Samsung’s earlier phones. They’re in an entirely new league. While the S6 edge in particular is indeed a sight to behold, the all-aluminum construction of the M9 is still a cut above the metal and glass housing on the Galaxy S6.

And although the HTC One M9 looks quite similar to the M8, the overall design is still a bit more original than Samsung’s Galaxy S6 design.

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The HTC One M9 has an enclosure that is made entirely out aluminum aside from the glass face of the phone, which also has aluminum below and above it where the BoomSound speakers, front-facing UltraPixel camera and sensors are located.

BoomSound has set the standard for on-device speakers since it first debuted, and it’s better than ever on the One M9. It’s still as loud and clear as ever, and now a nifty virtual surround sound feature adds a unique effect that can only be achieved with front-facing stereo speakers.

Regarding that front-facing UltraPixel camera, it’s actually quite impressive, which is not something that is often said about a camera on an HTC phone. Compared to the front cameras on most rival phones, the One M9 takes impressive pictures in normal or even dim lighting. Clarity is decent though resolution is a bit low with UltraPixel units, but selfie addicts will be more than happy with this handset.

The new main camera could be a slightly different story, but we’ll circle back to that.

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HTC chose an interesting color scheme for the unit that I tested. To spice up its M9 a bit, HTC used a two-tone finish on this version that leaves the back and front of the device silver while the edges are gold.

I really didn’t like the look of this model at first, but after a few days it definitely grew on me. I might still opt for the dark gray version for myself, though.

The one negative thing I found with the new M9’s design compared to the M8 pertains to the flow from the front to the back of the phone.

Last year’s One M8 featured a unibody housing with one piece of aluminum that flowed continuously from the front of the phone to the back. The glass face was seated in that aluminum casing, and it looked and felt great.

On the One M9, the back and front of the phone are no longer one piece of aluminum that transitions seamlessly. On the plus side, the seam that is created provides some nice extra grip. On the downside, the front and sides of the M9 don’t look quite as elegant and smooth as the M8.

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The only plastic on the exterior of the handset is the black insert on the top of the phone, which covers some antennas as well as an infrared blaster. This allows the phone to be used as a universal remote, which is controlled by the fantastic Peel Smart Remote app.

I was a big fan of HTC’s Sense TV app, but it was made in partnership with Peel so very little is lost in moving from one to the other. As pitiful as set-top box interfaces are from pay TV providers, I’ve been using the Peel app almost exclusively since I first set up the M9.

Also of note, the power button has been from the top of the phone, as was the case on the HTC One M8, to the side of the phone beneath volume up and down buttons. It’s much easier to reach now, of course.

A charging port and a standard headphone port can be found on the bottom of the handset.

Where charging is concerned, HTC’s new One M9 supports Quick Charge 2.0… but it doesn’t ship with a compatible charger in the box. As a result, you’ll need to purchase an “HTC Rapid Charger 2.0” if you want to take advantage of fast charging on the M9.

And trust me, you’ll want to take advantage of fast charging on the HTC One M9.

The battery life that I experienced while testing the phone was decent, but not great. I got through a full day of usage pretty easily most days, but there were a couple of days that I barely squeaked by. There was also one day of fairly heavy testing where I needed to charge the phone in the early evening after having already charged it fully that morning.

HTC has two different power saving modes available on the One M9, as was the case with the M8. The first is a standard power saving mode that limits battery-hungry functions and dims the display. Then there’s an “extreme power saving mode” that kills almost everything, including the Sense user interface, and limits functionality to just basic things like phone calls and text messaging.

In extreme power saving mode, the M9 can last for hours on standby with a remaining charge of just a few percent.

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Around back, we find a sleek brushed aluminum finish that’s home to the new 20-megapixel camera and a dual LED flash.

Here’s where things start to get a bit shaky.

Smartphone cameras are, without question, one of the weakest points on all of HTC’s recent smartphones. On the One M8, the company invested a great deal of time and R&D money into “Duo Camera” technology that was supposed to be improved and unique compared to rival devices.

Unfortunately, things didn’t work out very well and HTC has gone back to the drawing board with the HTC One M9’s camera.

Rather than try to differentiate once again, HTC moved back to a standard smartphone camera and focused solely on improving image quality. And this time around, HTC has done a good job of moving things in the right direction.

But…

The iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus take phenomenally clear and vivid photos, and the new and improved camera on Samsung’s upcoming Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 edge looks like it might even outshine Apple’s iPhones. Meanwhile, the new 20-megapixel camera on the HTC One M9 is better than its predecessor by a mile, but still not quite on the same level as the latest offerings from Apple and Samsung.

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Photos captured by the M9’s rear camera can be a bit muted compared to images taken by more capable smartphone cameras. Edges are not quite as sharp at full zoom, and colors most certainly aren’t as vivid. The widest gap is low-light performance, which is definitely lacking on the M9 despite its f/2.2 aperture.

In good lighting, however, photos taken on the HTC One M9’s camera are quite good. To compare them to pictures snapped by the M8, you wouldn’t believe the same company produced both phones.

Also to HTC’s credit is the great little photo-editing suite that comes preinstalled on the One M9, making it very easy to adjust photos and add nifty effects.

Here are a few unedited sample images taken with the M9’s rear camera, and they were chosen at random (click to view full sizes):

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There is one final important thing to note. When HTC first delivered its M9 review unit to me, the quality of photos taken by its camera was just awful. Images were grainy and flat, and I was beyond disappointed. A software update last week completely turned things around, however, bringing dramatic improvements to the handset’s photo quality.

This is important to note because we now know the optics and sensor on the M9 were not the biggest problem. Software was the problem, and the software has been significantly improved. This also means that following the M9’s release, additional software updates could bring further improvements to camera performance.

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Circling back around to the front of the HTC One M9, we find a full HD 1080p display that measures 5 inches diagonally.

HTC’s top Android rival Samsung is known for the display quality on its phones, and the upcoming Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 edge feature the best smartphone displays Samsung has ever made. They also sport quad HD resolution rather than “just” 1080p, and I can confirm that they are indeed a stunning sight to behold.

But you know what? They’re really not that much better than the display on the One M9.

Anyone who has held an iPhone 6 can confirm that where user experience is concerned, the benefits afforded by overstuffing a screen with pixels are marginal. The iPhone 6’s screen features what is essentially 720p resolution and it’s still remarkable, because there are many, many factors that impact display quality. Among them are color reproduction, brightness, pixel array and reflectivity.

As with everything else, display quality is not a simple game of numbers.

The HTC One M9’s LCD display is fantastic. Colors jump off the screen and the clarity is very impressive. If you were upset when you learned that HTC didn’t bump its flagship phone up to 2K this year, dry those eyes.

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While the HTC One M9 bares a striking resemblance to its predecessor on the outside, we can clearly see that the phone is new and improved once we move inside.

At the heart of the new One M9 is Qualcomm’s new 64-bit, octa-core Snapdragon 810 processor, which in this case touts a quad-core 2.0GHz CPU and a quad-core 1.5GHz CPU. The chipset is supported by 3GB of DDR4 RAM and 32GB of internal storage, though the phone also includes microSDXC support for removable memory cards up to 128GB in size.

With so many people upset that the Galaxy S6 does not support expandable storage, this could be a nice selling point for HTC among Android enthusiasts.

The M9 also packs all the sensors you need and all connectivity you could hope for, including Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac (2.4 & 5 GHz), Bluetooth 4.1, NFC, DLNA, HDMI MHL 3.0, micro-USB 2.0, 2G, 2.5G, 3G UMTS and 4G LTE, though the unit I tested for this review was an international model, so its LTE bands were not compatible with U.S. networks.

In terms of dimensions, the HTC One M9 measures 144.6 x 69.7 x 9.61 mm and weighs in at 157g. For comparison, last year’s M8 was 146.36 x 70.6 x 9.35 mm and it weighed 160g.

Here is the HTC One M9’s complete spec sheet (click to enlarge):

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Android 5.0.2 Lollipop powers the HTC One M9, and the latest version of HTC Sense sits atop Google’s mobile software. HTC did a good job last year of stripping Sense down so that Android shined through a bit more, and that remains the case with Sense 7 this year.

The difference in 2015 is that the One M9 runs Android Lollipop, and much of the interface has been tweaked appropriately.

While HTC’s Sense UI was already heavy on flat elements and bright colors, other elements of Material Design are now present in the interface as well. Lollipop’s UI changes are apparent in many areas, though HTC definitely did a good job of refining certain things.

For example, two of my least favorite interface changes in Lollipop are the app switcher and the quick settings shade that is accessible with a second downward swipe after you open the notifications shade at the top of the screen.

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Where the app switcher is concerned, HTC used an updated version of its old interface, which shows a grid of up to nine open apps at a time. As I noted in my Nexus 9 review, Google opted for form over function in Lollipop’s new app switcher, and I don’t like it at all.

Then on the quick settings shade, HTC completely dumped Lollipop’s layout and replaced it with a grid of 12 shortcuts that include important things like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, power saver mode, brightness, mobile hotspot and so on. There are 22 available settings shortcuts in all, but only the 12 you select will be displayed.

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Beyond tweaks made to Google’s software, HTC has also added a few things of its own.

To start, BlinkFeed has been updated a bit and the bizarrely named “HTC Eye Experience” can be found in the camera app.

My favorite new features lie elsewhere, though.

Among Android enthusiasts, there are hugely popular apps that allow users to completely change the look and feel of the user interface on their phones. Most people have likely never even come across them, but themes and icon packs are a fun and easy way to personalize your Android phone.

With the M9 and Sense 7, HTC has brought a simplified version of these personalization apps to its users.

The new Themes app on the HTC One M9 allows users to quickly and easily change the theme on the phone. Wallpapers, coloring and even some interface elements are affected, and then there are also icon packs that can be downloaded and applied.

It’s not anywhere near as extensive as the third-party options out there, but it’s also far more accessible because it’s not complex at all.

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One more area where HTC tried to implement meaningful customization is on its new Sense Home widget.

HTC describes Sense Home as an “intelligent widget that automatically arranges apps based on your usage and location.” It works a lot like some other popular Launchers out there, but it’s integrated into the standard interface.

The widget allows you to designate your home and work addresses, and it then presents a grid of app shortcuts based on where you are. There is also a third configuration for “Out,” and all three adjust dynamically based on the apps you use in each situation.

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If there are apps you always want access to in a certain location, you can pin them in one or all of the three configurations so they’ll never be removed.

In practice, I had mixed results with the widget. I love the concept but it’s a bit rough around the edges. Often times when I’m home it displays my “Out” profile, for example.

There is also an available folder in the widget that shows app recommendations, and so far those recommendations have been pretty bad. It’s supposed to be based on apps you’ve downloaded but none of the recommended apps have come anywhere close to piquing my interest.

Sense staples such as “Zoe” are new and improved as well. A Zoe, for those unaware, is a highlight reel automatically assembled from photos and videos taken in a certain location. The phone’s software automatically adds music and effects, and then things can be fine-tuned manually if you don’t like the result.

Zoe also now has an accompanying social network where people can share the highlight clips they make, though it’s still a work in progress, as you can see from the usernames in the image below.

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The HTC One M9 is far and away the best smartphone HTC has ever made. It will also be the most difficult to sell.

Competition has never been fiercer at the high end of the smartphone market, and HTC chose the worst possible year to release an iterative upgrade.

Yes, we know the phone features much more impressive guts that push performance well beyond anything achieved by its predecessor, but most consumers won’t see that from afar. They’ll see a smartphone that looks almost exactly like the One M8 with the same display, the same battery life and a camera that has been improved, but still isn’t on par with the iPhone or with Samsung’s premium smartphones.

This puts HTC in a tricky position.

That said, the One M9 still has a lot going for it. While it doesn’t sport an entirely new design like the Galaxy S6, the sleek aluminum and elegant styling is still a cut above anything else. The gap between HTC’s new flagship phone and the new Galaxy S handset is narrower than it has ever been, but the sleek aluminum housing still looks and feels more premium than Samsung’s glass flagships.

The advantage is slight, but it is still there — aluminum trumps glass.

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Novelty is where the One M9 is sorely lacking, and where the Galaxy S6 and S6 edge have the biggest advantage. Consumers who have never seen an M8 will absolutely be blown away by the new M9. It’s gorgeous. But those familiar with HTC’s phones will be far less impressed — the image above shows how similar HTC’s M8 and M9 designs are — and the sleek new Galaxy S6 will have an even more dramatic impact as a result.

But here’s the thing: if you choose to buy an HTC One M9, you’ll love almost everything about it. And if you choose the M9 over Samsung’s new Galaxy S6, you’ll miss almost nothing of consequence.

There is precious little to complain about with the One M9. Camera quality and battery life are the phone’s two weakest points compared to some rival phones, but they’re still fairly strong. The battery is easily on par with Apple’s iPhone 6 and will carry you through the day with no problem, with an exception here and there for extremely heavy use. And the camera is now capable of taking good photos, though HTC still hasn’t reached the same level as Apple and Samsung with its cameras.

The camera, then, is the biggest area of discrepancy when it comes to pitting HTC’s new flagship phone against the comparable handset from Samsung. The S6’s new camera is nothing short of a class leader. While the M9’s camera is a huge improvement over the M8, it’s just not on the same level as the Galaxy S6.

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HTC’s new One M9 is a strong offering from the scrappy Taiwanese company. It’s the strongest phone HTC has ever made. The hardware is sleek, the performance is smooth, the power is there and it has been improved in almost every way compared to its predecessors.

The biggest difference this year is that the M9 doesn’t sell itself with discerning smartphone fans, like the M8 did.

By that, I mean that if you wanted a truly premium Android phone in 2014, HTC was basically the only game in town in America. The Galaxy S5 was a nice phone, but it felt like a cheap plastic toy. This year, the M9 has real competition from Samsung at the high end, so smartphone shoppers looking for style and build quality to match performance and power now have more than one option.

There is still no question, however, that the HTC One M9 is among the best Android phones the world has ever seen, and smartphone shoppers in the market for a new phone would be crazy to not consider it.

The One M9 will be released on April 10th in the U.S., and will be sold by all four major wireless carriers.

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