For the third year in a row, HTC is kicking off the Spring season with a smartphone called the One. And for the third year in a row it’s an aluminum powerhouse built to make the world take notice. The company brought us to Barcelona for some HTC One M9 hands on time, and we’ve come away with some first impressions on the world’s next metal-encased Android flagship.
HTC One M9 Hands On
HTC cited the Porsche when explaining its approach to building the One M9, drawing a parallel to small iterations on a successful design. The company also said it wanted to strike a balance between the precision look of the One M7 and the ergonomic feel of the One M8, and in this regard HTC succeeded. While the curves of last year’s phone remain, there’s definitely more of the M7 in the new phone’s feel in hand: The anodized sides and back meet in a sharp corner –a little too sharp, as far as my palms are concerned– and they’re visually separated by a dual-finish construction that leaves the sides chromed and glossy while the back retains the familiar brushed-hairline finish. Fortunately for those who found the M8 too slippery, the M9 sports a more grippy satin coating, and that combined with the thicker sides makes it a bit easier to hang on to.
In a broader sense, the overall design is very familiar. The new single-piece polycarbonate bezel frames a 1080p SLCD3 display (the same size and construction as last year) flanked by BoomSound speakers top and bottom that now incorporate support for Dolby multichannel 5.1. Like the M8, the M9 is rated IPX3 for the occasional freshwater splash, so you don’t need to fear every rainstorm. Also like the M8, it comes in several colors, with an added emphasis on gold for 2015. Unlike its predecessor, the M9 finally moves the power/standby key from the top of the phone to the side – and gives it a textured finish to better differentiate it from the volume keys above. It’s mounted a little low for my taste, and it’s still plenty easy to confuse buttons on such a crowded siderail, but at least it’s not hidden way up on top anymore.
Beneath the casing, the M9 gets a sizable boost in specs: a Snapdragon 810 processor backed up by 3GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, and MicroSD expansion, all of it powered by a nonremovable 2840 mAh embedded battery.
That hardware stack powers the latest revision of HTC’s interface, Sense 7, which runs atop Android Lollipop. After a bad experience with the Snapdragon 810/Lollipop combination on another handset, I was worried we might see some software lag; fortunately, I found the opposite was true during our HTC One M9 hands on period. Like Sense 6 before it, Sense 7 is responsive to a fault – and while it looks about the same, it comes packing more than a few new features.
The most obvious is the smart launcher, part of HTC’s effort to make the M9 more personal and to “break out of the 80’s desktop model of the app drawer.” It does this by predicting what apps you’re likely to need based on the time of day and your location, and displaying only those titles it thinks might be helpful at the moment. It also brings a dedicated folder for downloads and a suggested-apps folder as well – both smart ideas, though the potential of the latter to someday push app spam is slightly worrisome. HTC is also making more use of the lock screen, partnering with Yelp to push local restaurant suggestions at mealtimes and also offering up a curated newsletter once a day called the Morning Bundle. We’ll see if all this ends up being more useful than intrusive (or vice versa) in our full review.
Probably the most significant upgrade to the new version of Sense is the addition of theming options that make the One M9 the most customizable HTC phone ever. Everything from trim colors to icon shapes to keyboard look and feel can be customized either manually or via downloaded packages from HTC, with themes ranging from the professionally designed to the community-sourced. You can even let the phone build its own theme by extrapolating colors from a photo, a pretty neat trick even if it’s one we’ve seen before. And speaking of things we’ve seen before: HTC has also finally brought a fourth-button option to the home key row. Since the M9 is still a pretty tall phone, I use it for triggering the notification tray so I don’t have to stretch my thumb so often.
With this year’s camera, HTC addresses one of the biggest criticisms of the One M8 and the M7 before it: low resolution. The new shooter uses a 20MP, f/2.2 sensor from Toshiba that’s capable of 4K video recording, with an optics module that protrudes slightly from the phone’s casing. Sadly, despite the hump there’s no optical stabilization here – but at least the cover glass has been upgraded to a sapphire material to prevent the kind of scratching we saw on the One M8. The viewfinder and the whole shooting experience is very familiar, and HTC has shifted its software focus from cutesy tricks to … well, more fun and more streamlined cutesy tricks, like applying tasteful patterns and parallax effects to photos, applying decidedly tasteless face-fusion effects, or “double-exposing” one picture onto another. For selfies, HTC has moved last year’s UltraPixel module to the front, and it’s finally at home here. The UltraPixel technology has always been very good at pulling all possible light from a scene, and on the M9 it’s capable of revealing faces even in the darkest environments.
If you’re wondering about the main camera’s output, Im afraid you’ll have to keep wondering a bit longer: while I shot plenty of photos with the M9, performance was inconsistent. HTC made it clear that the camera software is still being tweaked, so the sample photos shown here may not be indicative of what we see on the finished product. We’ll see what actual performance is like in our full review coming soon.
The HTC One M9 won’t satisfy those looking for a dramatic departure from HTC’s established look and feel – and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. For years, we’ve been saying that HTC makes some of the best-looking, best-built Android handsets you can find, and everything I’ve experienced in my brief HTC One M9 hands on time leads me to believe the new flagship will continue that legacy. Stack on the improvements to Sense (an already-excellent third-party UI) and HTC’s trademark BoomSound speakers, and the One M9 has a lot going for it. For me, what will make or break the phone in the coming battle with the competition is the camera – historically one of HTC’s weak points and thus potentially the biggest disappointment of the M9. As we have yet to see the camera perform as it will on the HTC One M9 production version, it’s impossible to say how this will play out; all I can say for now is that I’m excited to give it a try out in the real world.