The One M9 is the latest flagship device from HTC. It’s design language remains the same, and we’re glad it does. HTC has stayed true to its roots and made what is sure to be one of the best built phones of 2015. But did they play it too safe?
The HTC One M9 is a better version of the One M8, and I’m not saying that to be negative. The M9 is an evolution of a very solid device. At first glance, it is easy to mistake the One M9 for the One M8. HTC didn’t release a drastically different handset; anyone familiar with the One series would recognize the distinct HTC phone in a heart beat.
We’ve got a detailed written review for you here, but if you’re a more visual person, we’ve also got an awesome video review:
Refinement was the the name of the game and HTC nailed it. It’s a little narrower – enough to make it easier to handle with one hand. It got a little shorter but it didn’t get any thinner! The corners are a little more square, which makes it much more comfortable to hold. It also feels a lot more secure when you’re holding it with one hand. There is something to a phone with substance; it feels more firm in your hand and, though I know it’s not rational, the cold metal does make it feel a little luxurious.
If you found the One M8 to be too slippery, you’ll be very pleased with the One M9. The two-tone is more then just a visual division: the gold band is raised and there is an edge that is sharp. This little lip provides you with a solid surface to grip the device. The finish is slightly different than the One M8. It’s not rougher, but it does offer some amount of texture to the touch, unlike its predecessor which was silky smooth.
This change is very welcome, as I ended up throwing my One M8 into someone face (with some vigor, I might add) when I was drinking and talking with my hands. If I had the One M9 in hand, I know I would have been less of a menace.
One of the biggest design changes is that the power button has moved from the top of the phone to the right-hand side. It’s just below the volume controls, which have also gone from a rocker to separate buttons. The power button has a spiral textured design so you can, in theory, feel that it’s the power and not the volume. It hasn’t been an issue, though I do feel that it’s a little low. My hands aren’t that big and still I end up on the volume button more easily. It’s not hard to adapt to this change, but I know some people will moan about it. Go on – I’m here to listen.
Personally, I could never tell, so I’m glad it’s on the side. My only complaint is that it might be a little low. I more easily end up on the middle button and my hands aren’t particularly big, it wasn’t hard to get used to the placing, but I wouldn’t have minded it being a touch higher.
The body is carved out of one piece of aluminum made in over 70 steps. That takes over 300 minutes to make, and only 5% of the raw materials from the single block of metal survives the crafting process. What is interesting is that the device is actually finished by hand. HTC says it’s ‘Master Craftsmen’, but that just means that it’s hand finished by a person. Over all, the device weighs in at 157 grams and is 9.61 mm thick.
This new design actually has fewer seams and individual parts. However, it takes nearly twice as long to produce as the One M8. The dual-tone anodized finish took
HTC quite a bit of ingenuity to scale and the final steps are done by hand. I’m a fan, I think Silver and Gold is subtle and classy.
Hardware – One of the Best Built Smartphones of 2015?
The HTC One M9 remains 5 inches with a 1080p Gorilla Glass display. Under the hood we’ve got a Snapdragon 810 processor with a 64-bit infrastructure, running 4 x 2.0 Ghz + 4 x 1.5 Ghz cores. It also has 3 GB of RAM and 32 GB of storage. A MicroSD card slot is also available and it’s got a massive capacity of us to 2 TB, the cards aren’t cheap and it’s not the first time we’ve seen this being offered; the LG G3 has the same claim to fame.
HTC has finally upped the resolution to 20 MP on their camera and given it a Sapphire lens. They haven’t abandoned their beloved Ultra Pixel, they’ve simply moved it to the front… giving the M9 the best low-light front facing camera.
Sensors include ambient light sensor, proximity sensor, accelerometer, compass sensor, Gyro, magnetic and sensor hub. Connectivity-wise, we’re looking at a 3.5 mm audio jack, a micro USB 2.0 (5 pin) port with mobile high definition video (MHL for USB or HDMI with special cable), NFC (3), Bluetooth 4.1 and CIR (aka IR Blaster) for remote control support. If you haven’t checked out the HTC TV remote application, Peel Remote, it’s pretty awesome.
HTC One M9 specs
- 5-inch 1080p Gorilla Glass Display
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 octa-core processor
- 3 GB of RAM
- 32 GB of internal storage
- MicroSD card slot up to 2TB
- 20 MP rear-facing camera with Sapphire crystal lens cover, auto focus, BSI sensor, f2.2 27.8mm lens 4K video recording
- Android 5.0 Lollipop with Sense 7.0
- 2840 mAh battery with Fast Charge
- 144.6 x 69.7 x 9.61 mm
- 160 grams
I’ll Take a Good Quality 1080p Display Any Day
A Rant Against QuadHD Display’s
I can respect that HTC didn’t enter into the specification race and decided to go pop a Quad HD display into their device. It’s a matter of cost and battery life (even if you don’t think higher-resolution display’s don’t eat more battery, respect that the topic is still under debate). I would, any day, take a great quality 1080p display over a QuadHD display. I’ve been an LG G3 user and I’ve made my stance known about preferring the panel on the LG G2.
So I’m not one of those LG G3 owners that will tell you once you go 2K you can’t go back… you can. There are two schools of thought: one that needs the highest specifications they can get and those that will argue that you can’t really see the extra pixels. A nice display is a nice display, even if it’s 720p (ok..maybe I’m taking the argument a little far with 720p, but you get my point).
What I am much more worried about sunlight visibility and outdoor use, as well as how dim and bright a display can go. I have found at night when I’m reading only by the light of my phone (I know it’s terrible for your eye’s), it’s a little bright but not too bad. In the sunlight, I haven’t had any issues with seeing the display. Once, when I had it turned down and not on auto, I really struggled to bump up the brightness. Perhaps after a while muscle memory will have me navigating it with my eyes closed, but that day seems far.
Boom Sound Never Disappoints
The HTC One line has a signature move, and that’s a couple speaker grills at the top and bottom of the handset. This offers killer sound quality. Boom Sound is more than just a buzz word – it is sound you would never expect to come out of a smartphone. The two front-facing speakers come with a built-in amplifier that sends out 24-bit HD sound. Dolby Audio offers multi-channel 5.1 surround sound, which you’ll need the right headphones to enjoy.
HTC Connect let’s you connect using a 3-finger swipe to pair a device, this is an easy way to look for your Bluetooth speaker or connected devices. You’ll also be able to let other people join in by sending their own music to the stream. Unfortunately you’ll need another HTC device to take advantage of this feature. There is no app you can download to any handset. For this to work, the device you’re connecting to must offer BlackFire, AllPlay, Miracast, DLNA and a few unnamed others. It’s a useful feature – when my Bluetooth Speaker disconnects, three fingers seems much easier than 4 clicks.
HTC has made a name for themselves making sure they’ve got the best sound quality available on a Smartphone. This claim to fame comes at a cost, if you find their phones are a little long, the dual front-facing speakers that line the top and bottom of the device contribute significantly to its length. We could sit here and wish that HTC had just made a smaller phone, or accept that I took the One M9 into the hotel bathroom and took a bath with music that was too loud!
The advantage to having a phone that has a bit of substance is that it offers you something substantial. I use my phone on a daily basis to get ready in the morning. I bring it with me from room to room getting ready, my apartment isn’t big, but I still do it anyways. So music listening is very important to me and the audio quality is very high and very loud.
But there are other questions HTC must face. For example, would you want your device to be easier on the pocket and to handle with one hand? The answer is yes, and I would be willing to take a slight hit on sound, especially since the average person is more likely to just connect to a Bluetooth speaker these days. (I do both…but I’m not sure if that’s normal).
Performance – Snapdragon 810 The Way We Hoped it Would Be
I’m not a huge believer in benchmarks. The manufacturer can just set the temperature threshold higher to get a higher score, or they can just game them like we’ve seen in the past. I’ll run them for you so you can check them out, but what I’m talking about when I say that the Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor performs the way I hoped it would is that it doesn’t hiccup or lag like we’ve seen in the LG G Flex 2. It runs smoothly with out a sign of slowing down in daily use. Since the recent updates I have yet to see the phone falter. I saw a hiccup or two in the early software, but this is exactly what you expect before final software. Even in the early stages, I was impressed about how smoothly everything ran.
Under the hood we’ve got the Snapdragon 810 processor, with a 64-bit architecture and running 4 x 2.0 Ghz + 4 x 1.5 Ghz cores and 3 GB of DDR4 RAM. If you want to see how it stacks up, we’ve got a few of the benchmarks here:
Camera – Disappointingly Average
The camera is one of the most important items in a Smartphone these days, and the question on everyone’s mind is: did HTC step up? The early shots from MWC 2 weeks ago would say no, HTC has issued final review software and it’s a big step up, so if you wrote off the One M9 from the early sample shots, it’s time to take another look.
It’s still not great, but it’s not the disaster that we saw a few weeks ago. Which bring me around to a point that I feel must be made: the one thing that HTC had to do on the One M9 was to give it a really great camera. A camera like we’re seeing on the iPhone 6 or Galaxy S6. They needed to do more than just give their camera components that looked good on paper. They needed more than these fancy effects, they needed great picture quality and that is only delivered in great lighting.
The upgraded camera is greatly improved from the camera we saw two weeks ago, but low light still isn’t great. And though what we are seeing now definitely is good enough, it’s not good enough to take on the Samsung Galaxy S6 or the Apple iPhone 6. It’s much better, don’t get me wrong, but when you put the shots side by side with the Galaxy Note 4 (which has the best Android camera currently on the market) and the iPhone 6 you’ll see that though good it does fall a little short. The depth and texture that you see in the below photos probably wouldn’t be immediately obvious if you didn’t have them side by side.
One thing that HTC has done quite well on the camera is the speed of photo taking. During my time with the Galaxy S6 & S6 Edge, I found myself moving the phone before the shot was taken. This was because I’d gotten used to the speed in which the One M9 can take a picture. In auto mode it feels as if the photo is captured nearly instantly. Turning on HDR mode does add processing time, but you do get much better results when the photo you are trying to take has both a light and dark area.
HTC has let us know that they’re planning on issuing several camera updates. We’re going to be seeing an application launch into the Play Store next month that will give you the ability to take RAW photos with the M9. Each snapshot will be around 10 MB, but if you’re a Lightroom user you’ll know what a joy it is going to be to be able to work with RAW files.
For those of you who aren’t graphic designers (or are actually Baristas), you’re going to be able to do much more interesting manipulations to the photos and you’ll be able to make prints. Along with this update, look for a service called Printhole Press, which will let you send images for some old-school prints on actual paper.
This update will also include an interesting aspect ratio. Forget 4:3! Instead you’ll find an option for 10:7.
HTC will, of course, keep issuing updates. We’re very curious to see how this develops, as the improvements that have been made over the past 2 weeks are pretty significant.
What can’t be fixed in a update is the total lack of OIS or Optical Image Stabilization. This is a feature that is desperately needed if they’re going to go head to head with other flagship devices. This spec race factor, coupled with that OIS, allows you to take faster and clear photos and smoother video. It seems like a huge draw back to not have included this.
Sense 7.0 – Love it! Even Though I’ve Never Really Liked Sense
It could be that what I love most of Sense 7.0 is having the ability to make it look nothing like Sense. If you were a fan, it’s got all the elements that make it distinctly Sense. The vertical app navigation drawer (my least favorite sense feature), Blinkfeed and the familiar quick launcher.
What I’m talking about is the ability to completely change the way the UI looks and feels. Sense 6.0 wasn’t my cup of design language tea. It was too focused on maintaining their vision for how the UI should look. I was left with the feeling that I couldn’t personalize my device. Sense 7.0 has come to my rescue.
I was ready to throw down on HTC if I didn’t see them add in the ability to customize the interface on the One M9. What they’ve done is given us that with a theme store. Its most amazing feature is that you have the ability to One-Click Theme. Choose a photo for your wallpaper and a theme is generated based on the colors found in the photo. It happens in just one click, which is pretty unreal. You can get into into granular tweaking, which includes a choice of fonts, color scheme and iconography.
This can go really perfectly, or it can be weird. You try to set a theme around someone face and it gives you a strange flesh theme, which isn’t HTC’s fault. It’s more to the point that when you allow people to customize it can be surreal and wonderful or tacky and terrible. But I guess that’s point of individual expression.
This is a huge step forward for HTC. If we remember, the One M7 didn’t even come with the ability to change a single UI element. HTC is hoping to build a community around this. Theme shops are all the rage on Chinese handsets, so it’s surprising that HTC is so late to the party. You can upload your theme to a shop to share with the community. The next iteration will allow people to sell their themes.
I am still shocked that HTC left out the ability to change the direction you navigate inside the app drawer. Right now you move through apps in a vertical manner when Android offers up a horizontal search. I understand that when surfing a website we are consuming in a vertical nature, but it has never felt natural for me to switch from a horizontal search on the home screen to a vertical one in the app drawer.
I’m searching for apps in both locations, so I’m not sure why I have to change the direction of search in different areas of the device when the goal of the task is ultimately the same. I wish HTC allowed me to customize direction of navigation as well. Telling me this is a user interface style that HTC is known for and that’s why it remains unchanged goes against the entire philosophy of the theme generator.
HTC has taken a very new approach to home screens with its Smart launcher, which is basically a location-aware widget that populates a list of useful apps in that specific location. The locations that are suggested are Home, Work and Out. But it starts to get interesting when you can set one location as the Gym. All your workout-related apps will then appear on the home screen when you come near the gym.
The Smart launcher will show you the apps that you use the most in different contexts. One good thing about it is that if you don’t like it you can just get rid of it. The same goes for the suggested applications folder. You can simply delete it. This is feature that could use a bit of an update, since the words cut off. Regardless, some people will actually find it useful. Right now it’s being populated based on your apps in Google Play, but in the future HTC would like to get a little more involved.
Sense also threw in a couple of “smart folders”: one for downloads, the other for suggested apps. When you download an app from Google Play, it will go into a “Downloads” folder in the Sense Home widget. This folder will remain in all of the different locations (Home, Work or Out). The apps you use the most will end up being at the top of this list. Seems like an easy way to access the app drawer from the home screen without actually leaving the home screen. I didn’t download too many apps, just my bare minimum so this folder is actually working quite well.
The one thing I wasn’t keen on was that the list changes based on which apps get used most. Sounds good right? Well, to some (mainly me) what is annoying about this is that you loose the muscle memory to quickly tap apps you use often. You look but you know where you’re going. When apps move you have to look, think and decide. I dislike when apps change around on their own. Those that will like this are ones who never take the time to customize their home screen, which are actually quite a few.
Let’s move on to the more controversial of the two folders, “Suggestions”, which is styled differently than other folders on the home screen. It shows the names of apps who developed them and a brief summary. There are 4 apps shown and the presentation feels incomplete, since the names and descriptions are cut off. You might find something useful in there, but nothing that I would want really came up. In fact, I hate Candy Crush. I have never downloaded that, or any puzzle game like it, in over a year (addiction issues). So that when I first opened it up, that the top games in Play were my default wasn’t a good start for me.
I usually download benchmarking apps when I get a new device (…hazard of the job), which made the suggestions for apps that all contained an element of spam and I wouldn’t recommend that you download (Clean Master is one of them). In the future HTC would like to include sponsored apps, I see it as a way of trying to add value and offset the cost of the device. It’s not my cup of tea, but HTC does give you the ability to remove the folder, so at least it’s not Bloatware you’re stuck with.
Blinkfeed has also seen an update. There is going to be a higher focus on location-specific information. You’ll sometimes see recommendations pop up for places to eat nearby (the suggestion is being populated by Yelp). The lock screen now provides the ability to push news, events and messages to your lock screen. HTC’s home screen newsreader is powered by Mobiles Republic (aka Appy Geek), which provides you with highlights from your social networks, as well as a list of sources you can subscribe to. Notifications can also include your day’s agenda.
All of this location-aware personalization sounds good in theory, but I have yet to see any useful information come out of it. This could be because I have been on the road traveling since I got the review unit. One reason I have keenly been aware of this lack of information is that I’ve been constantly Googling for places to eat and I haven’t seen a useful recommendation yet. You would think with so much search data going into that, I would start to see recommendations that I might use.
The other drawback is that when you’re traveling in a country where the language isn’t your own, the suggestions can sometimes actually be meaningless, providing information in the location language left me feeling like it was pushing utter randomness my way. Having said all of this, this isn’t the scenario that most people will typically find themselves in, so the One M9 didn’t have a chance to understand me.
My life to it may just seem totally nonsensical. I wasn’t getting up at consistent times, going to the same types of restaurants, traveling to the same places or even sleeping in the same place every night. There really was no way for the phone to start to get to know what I’m all about and to start to feed me information around my patterns.
Like I mentioned earlier, HTC is going to be pushing some updates to the camera, but in April the camera is also going to get a significant feature upgrade. The upgrades are going to be available for download through the Google Play Store and what we’re getting in April has the potential to be amazing. HTC will be providing the ability to shoot RAW. Each photo will end up at around 10 MB, and to make up for this space hogging activity you’ll be able to sync to the 100 GB of Drive space you’ll get for free for 2 years.
One more thing, software-wise, that I just can’t let go is the HTC’s on-screen keyboard isn’t great. It’s very inaccurate and will make tons of random errors. The Trace keyboard is much better, if you don’t have a keyboard of choice that you always download. I would go straight to Trace and avoid the confusion of auto correct fails.
New Navigation Buttons Help with the Phones Length Issues
Not being able to reach the notification bar at the top of the device is the reason why many people don’t like bigger phones. That HTC has kept the phone a little too long, thanks to the onscreen navigation buttons alongside the dual BoomSound speakers, will stop many from picking it up. It’s narrower body makes it feel more manageable, but not being able to access the notification bar has been a problem for many until now.
HTC has added the ability to change the navigation buttons adding in the notification bar as an option as well as being able to reorder the buttons. It’s something you could never do with hardware buttons, and we’re glad that HTC has included this feature. The ability to pull down notification bar from anywhere on the homescreen is something that almost all Chinese manufactures are offering, and putting on an entirely new launcher just to have easy access to the notification bar is something most people won’t think to do.
The HTC One M9 comes with a 2840 mah battery that supports the ability to quick charge. The MicroUSB 2.0 port also offers mobile high definition video like (MHL for USB or HDMI with special cable). What is disappointing about all this is that HTC does not offer the correct charger or cable that would support this, you’re left picking it up on your own if you want it. It’s such a great feature I can’t help but wonder why HTC wouldn’t enable it’s customers to take advantage of it.
The Verdict – The HTC One M9 is Good, but not Great
I was rooting for HTC, so it is pretty disappointing that the One M9 doesn’t knock it out of the park. And if I’m going to stick with a baseball metaphor, I’d say they made it to third base. The One M8 was widely considered to be one of the best designed handsets of 2014 and the One M9 builds on that. The software is dramatically improved. I’ve never been a huge Sense fan but Sense 7.0 has me reconsidering my stance. Building on the best design of last year and great software doesn’t exactly sound like a bad device. And it’s not; the HTC One M9 is a Good device. It’s just not Great.
Two things that stop the One M9 from being a home run and that its camera is not great and the body is too long. Adding in the notification button to the navigation row helps the device feel less long (hardware buttons would be god sent), but it doesn’t aid with it’s pocket-ability.
What I love about the One M9 is it’s stunning design. Some might argue that it looks too similar to its predecessor, but after spending the past few weeks with it, they look quite different. The two-tone design isn’t very obvious – it’s subtle and classy. The problem here is that the raised lip is somehow very visible to me now. From the front, the slightly more boxy corners make it feel more secure in your hand, and somehow more comfortable.
What makes the M9 great isn’t in your face like Galaxy S6 Edge, it’s more about that solid feeling in your hand that isn’t in any other device currently on the market. You’ll get a camera that is good enough (and may get better with further updates), alongside a battery that lasts all day. If you go with the HTC One M9 as your daily driver, you’ll be purchasing a device that will “age” well and still look quite sexy in two years, when your contract is up… and it’s also got the chops to last that long.