HTC One M9 review: HTC phones it in with a pretty (minor) upgrade
As an aspiring naval cadet in my senior year of high school, I was placed in charge of my ROTC unit’s drill team. It was a well-regarded outfit, but it had used the same choreography for years; no matter how cool a 12-person team looks spinning 16-pound rifles, anything gets monotonous if you don’t change it up. Seeking to leave a lasting legacy while bringing home a trophy or two, I told our unit’s Chief of my plans to completely overhaul our stale performance routine.
“Fisher,” he said, his face wrinkling with impatience, “you’ve got a good routine already. Don’t go reinventing the wheel.”
In other words: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Don’t change a winning team. Stick to the plan, man. Leave well enough alone. Don’t rock the boat.
With the new One M9, HTC takes a page right out of my old Chief’s playbook. The company’s 2015 flagship bears a look and feel right out of 2014 –and for that matter, 2013 as well– building incrementally on a solid design that, to be fair, has won the company plenty of awards. Iterative improvements are certainly nothing new in the smartphone space, but in a period of startling reinvention from the competition, was “sticking with what works” the right move? The answer below, in our HTC One M9 review.
HTC One M9 Review Video
Specs & Hardware
There’s something to be said for sticking to your roots, assuming you’re starting from a good place to begin with. In our pre-review briefings with HTC, the company defended its iterative approach to the One family by invoking the legacy of the Porsche 911, a classic car which has evolved exceptionally slowly over the course of its 50-year history. HTC said it wanted to leverage its mastery of materials to “build an icon” with the One M9, retaining the advantages of its predecessors while ferreting out the shortcomings.
The company has largely succeeded in this goal, albeit in the most conservative manner possible. Like its forerunner, the One M9 bears an IPX3-certified rain-resistant aluminum chassis, and here the metal is double anodized as part of a 70-step process that takes twice the manufacturing time of 2013’s One M7 (300 production minutes vs 150). The result is a familiar brushed finish on the back cover but a more chromelike gloss on the sides – sides which shine a ruddy gold on our silver review unit. HTC says the added gold is partly an effort to make the One line less overtly masculine. If it’s not your speed, other colors are available including the old standby, gunmetal gray.
Like most metallic phones, the One M9 is often cool to the touch and its 157g mass feels reassuringly rigid in the hand. It also feels more likely to stay in your hand than its slippery predecessor, thanks to a refined anti-scratch coating that offers substantially more grip than the One M8’s Teflon-esque finish. That simple change would have been enough for us, but HTC also replaced the One M8’s wraparound curves with pronounced, sharp edges to further improve handling. The result is a phone that’s better-looking perhaps, but also less comfortable to hold. Similarly, the move from a top-mounted power/standby key to a side button is a welcome change, but the decision to bunch it together with the newly-separated volume keys and MicroSD slot isn’t. Despite the texturing HTC put in place to differentiate the buttons, we’re constantly making the mistake of trying to unlock the M9 with the volume keys, or inadvertently putting the screen to sleep while trying to adjust the volume.
That screen is one we’ve seen before. It’s a 5-inch Super LCD3 display protected by a sheet of Gorilla Glass, with a pixel density of 441ppi. The only thing setting it apart from the panel on the One M8 is a slightly bluer/greener tint and the new single-piece bezel surrounding it; otherwise, it might as well be the same screen. That sounds like a condemnation in a world of super-high-resolution QHD displays, but it’s not: over eight days of testing I never once found myself wishing for more pixels. What I did want was something a little more adaptable in terms of brightness and a little more forgiving in its viewing angles, but overall the display is fine.
The BoomSound speakers flanking that screen have gotten even more capable in the One M9 with the addition of Dolby 5.1 surround sound. The price HTC pays for this sound quality hasn’t changed; the M9 is still taller than many smartphones due to the gap beneath the display, which accommodates hardware displaced by the speakers’ large chamber size. The tradeoff is absolutely worth it, though: against other smartphones with front-firing speakers like the Moto X or Nexus 6, the One M9’s sound isn’t always louder, but it is better. Those improvements carry over to private listening as well, with the increasingly common 24-bit/192 kHz audio support bolstered by a dedicated amplifier whether you use the included earbuds or not.
The M9’s biggest improvements are also its least visible. The hardware humming along under its aluminum armor is top-of-the-line, with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 system-on-a-chip (4 x 2.0GHz / 4 x 1.5GHz) backed up by 3GB of DDR4 RAM and 32GB of onboard storage, expandable to 128GB via MicroSD (2TB theoretical). Cellular connectivity has been expanded to three times what was available on the One M8, with up to 21 LTE bands supported across the various One M9 builds. The embedded battery has also seen a boost to 2840 mAh from last year’s 2600 mAh, and it retains support for Quick Charge 2.0 to reduce replenishment times. About the only spec category the One M9 doesn’t beat its predecessor in is the sensor package: the barometer has been removed, so fans of digital altimeters will need to look elsewhere.
That capable spec sheet powers an equally robust software package. The One M9 ships with Android 5.0.2 running underneath HTC’s latest custom interface, Sense 7 – and the result is the best fusion of aesthetics and performance you can find outside of stock Android.
The Sense 7 experience starts with the screen off. Pull the phone from a pocket or pick it up from a desk and double tap the display with your thumb. If it’s the first time you’re using the phone that day, you’re shown what HTC calls the “morning bundle,” a distillation of top news stories and upcoming calendar appointments to kick off your day. Later on, you’ll periodically be shown mealtime recommendations for nearby lunch, dinner, or coffee venues (complete with Yelp reviews from your friends, if applicable). You might also occasionally see quick tips like sunset or sunrise times hovering under the lock screen clock. These little touches aren’t accompanied by alerts or other prodding, and like almost everything within Sense 7, they can be disabled if desired. Leave them on though, and you get a much “smarter” smartphone experience than you would otherwise.
HTC isn’t as successful when it tries extending this thinking beyond the lock screen. In theory, “Sense Home” is a futuristic alternative to the antiquated Android app drawer, a smart window that displays only the apps you’re likely to find useful based on your location (Home, Work, or Out). In practice though, it’s a fussy widget that’s usually more hindrance than help. After a week of blasting music every day during my morning shower, it finally learned to keep Spotify in the Home folder … but no matter how many tens of times I access Twitter or Facebook while at “Home,” these apps never show up. The irony is that while you’re waiting for it to learn, you’re getting to your apps via the app drawer – precisely the thing Sense Home was designed to render obsolete. There are some great ideas at play here: consolidating recently downloaded apps into one folder keeps the home screen clean, and the underlying notion of predicting useful apps based on location is actually a really good one. It’s the execution that needs work.
In brighter news, BlinkFeed is still here, the persistent string of tiles that blends social and news updates into one stream, and people seem to have warmed up to its presence on HTC phones in the two years since it was first introduced. The company now claims 16 million total BlinkFeed users, 6.5 million of whom are considered “active” (those who click on at least one BlinkFeed article every day). This is unsurprising once you’ve used BlinkFeed for a while; while it’s by no means an indispensable part of the HTC experience, it’s an efficient way to get a quick feel for what’s happening across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and your preferred news sources.
One of our few quibbles with Sense 6 was its limited customizability. HTC apparently took our complaints to heart, building an entire theming engine into Sense 7 so you can tweak and tailor much more than just the wallpaper. Apply a new theme and everything from the keyboard style to accent color to icon shape to typeface gets a makeover – and each of these elements is independently customizable as well. So if you love a theme but hate its font, you can fix it. If that sounds like too much work, you can download a whole collection and apply it as a package, or have the M9 create its own theme based on the colors in a photo you take. Even though we’ve seen that latter trick before, this is an impressive level of customizability, with no launcher swap or rooting necessary.
Taken together, all the new theming capabilities make HTC Sense one of the most malleable Android skins out there – a big surprise from a company formerly so rigid about maintaining a cohesive visual language across its phones. Just be prepared to tweak some elements you might not otherwise expect to: the Sense keyboard is attractive, but if you’re anything like us, its limited word-prediction engine will drive you up a wall. Also, Android Lollipop’s inconvenient volume controls remain in force in Sense 7, which is a shame. It’s understandable that HTC wanted to preserve some of stock Android’s look and feel, but duplicating one of its dumbest interface oversights probably shouldn’t have made the cut.
Some of the most impassioned arguments in our little corner of the internet have stemmed from the relative worth of HTC’s alternative approach to smartphone photography. For two years in a row, the company has eschewed the megapixel race in favor of doing more with less: its UltraPixel sensors were only 4MP in resolution, but their large pixel size meant they pulled in a lot of light in dim environments. Yet despite being shown time and time again that the UltraPixel sensors typically yielded better results than higher-resolution cameras in other HTC phones, spec-obsessed consumers still clamored for moar pixels.
With its newest smartphone, HTC finally caves to these demands.
The One M9 packs a 20MP shooter with an f/2.2, 27.8mm lens protected by sapphire cover material. The latter point is important: we spent our last few days in Barcelona with a useless smartphone camera thanks to severe scratching of our One M8’s cover glass, which the One M9’s new design should prevent. The One M9’s camera also protrudes slightly from its casing, making its cover glass more vulnerable than ever. While we’ve gotten used to bulging cameras on today’s ever-slimming smartphones, they usually bring something worthwhile to justify the protrusion, such as optical image stabilization. Not so in this case. Once again, HTC (one of the first to adopt OIS for smartphones) has opted not to include hardware stabilization in its flagship smartphone. Last year we had the dubious Duo Camera to blame for the lack of OIS, but the One M9 brings no such excuses. It’s tough to see the omission as anything less than a major oversight on a phone that, at 9.61mm, is more than thick enough to include it.
On the cooler side of the pillow, the camera software has been revised and now includes a full suite of manual controls, as well as a host of more modern photo effects that’ll keep creative types entertained for hours. Blending a photo of your face with someone else’s is fun enough –and creepy enough– with a friend, but get celebrity screenshots in on the action and watch the LoLs flow. Double Exposure is a neat trick too, allowing you to blend elements from two separate photos to create something entirely new. Photo Shapes does the same thing, except using sharply defined silhouettes for a more abstract feel. Combine those with prismatic distortions, flying particle effects (the snow flurries are particularly convincing), Split Capture, faux bokeh, and you get the coolest effects suite available out of the box in a modern smartphone. The M9’s got itself a very fun camera.
But is it a good camera? Well, that depends on what time of day you’re taking pictures. If it’s a bright morning or afternoon and you’re outside snapping away you’ll really appreciate the high resolution, which delivers crisp detail and fairly nice color (particularly on the cooler side of the spectrum). Move indoors and as long as the light keeps up, the photo quality usually does too. The viewfinder is as snappy as ever.
Here comes the other shoe. With an f/2.2 lens and no optical stabilization, photo quality diminishes dramatically as the light gets dimmer. The phone has trouble getting and keeping focus in darker environments, and the propensity to favor the cooler side of the spectrum gets much worse. Comparing low-light shots with last year’s One M8, it’s discouraging just how cold and lifeless colors can be on the One M9’s photos. Switching from Automatic into Night Mode makes for much brighter pictures, but the longer exposure time paired with no optical stabilization leads to motion blur more often than not. Despite its much higher resolution, details are much harder to resolve on the M9’s low light photos versus last year’s M8.
Things stay pretty much the same on the video front. While it’s nice to have the option of shooting in 4K, color is wildly inconsistent depending on what lighting condition you’re filming in. Digital noise is a persistent problem and gets heavy enough to be a significant distraction in low-light. Any jitters or trembles (even steps taken during a leisurely stroll) show up as significant shakes, and getting and keeping focus is much harder than it should be. Also frustrating is HTC’s decision to make “lock focus in video” the out-of-box default; we spent an entire afternoon shooting riverside video before realizing this, resulting in many wasted clips of Blurrytown USA instead of Boston, MA. Do yourself a favor if you pick up an M9: set the phone to continuous autofocus in the camcorder settings before you do anything else.
Fortunately, HTC hasn’t completely put its UltraPixel technology out to pasture: the M9’s front-facing camera is basically a repackaged version of the main camera on the M8, which makes for awesome face capture in low light. Also, the wide angle lens from the past two generations has been retained, making group selfies much easier.
At the end of the day, what makes the M9’s camera worthwhile is the feature load, not the raw performance. This is a very fun shooter to play around with, whether you’re using manual controls to snap a quick macro shot or spamming Instagram with double-exposures; if that’s all you’re planning to use it for, you’ll be fine. But it’s underwhelming in low light, it’s often outright bad in camcorder mode, and it’s inferior to its predecessor in a surprising range of situations. We shouldn’t be seeing issues like these on a flagship smartphone in 2015, especially not from a manufacturer that’s come up short in the camera category so many times before.
What makes it especially frustrating on the M9 is how many sacrifices HTC has made to get to this point. Last year, the company dumped optical stabilization in the move from the M7 to the M8; this year, it’s sidelining UltraPixel technology in the jump to the M9. The compromises would be worth it if the end result was a better all-around camera, but that’s not the case here. Instead, after years of trying to shift the conversation away from the shallow megapixel race, HTC has done a complete about-face with the M9 – and gotten a pretty mediocre camera for its trouble. That’s a shame.
Fortunately for HTC, there’s great salvation to be had in the performance category. After our time with the first Snapdragon 810-powered smartphone to cross our review desk, we weren’t sure what to expect from the HTC One M9. Given the 810’s widely-reported tendency to “run hot” and the One M9’s all-metal construction, we were concerned that the new phone would turn out to be a better pocket warmer than pocket communicator – or that aggressive thermal throttling would slow software performance to a crawl.
After eight days of testing on T-Mobile US in the Greater Boston area, we can report that neither is the case. The One M9 got no hotter than any other phone during normal, low-impact use; only graphics-heavy games like Sky Gamblers Air Supremacy could get the casing temperature to rise, and even 30 minutes of flying only got the chassis up to 99 degrees Fahrenheit (37.22º C). A half-hour of Asphalt 8 immediately afterward managed to push it just past 103º F (39.4º C), but that’s still far short of what we’ve seen on some older devices. And regardless of phone temperature, Sense was as responsive as ever. Version 7 remains one of the snappiest Android skins around, with no apparent ill effects from making the jump to the Snapdragon 810.
Those games did blast a pretty sizable hole in battery life, as you might expect: it took only an hour of gaming to knock our battery down by almost 50%. With more typical use including everything from social surfing to turn-by-turn navigation, we were able to get between 14 and 16 hours between charges on the M9.
HTC Sense doesn’t break power consumption into screen-on/screen-off time, so we can’t provide more detail on exact usage at the moment. Still, we went an entire week of using the phone for an average of 13 hours per day, several of which included brief car trips with GPS navigation turned on. Despite also streaming media over Bluetooth and playing music on the external speakers almost constantly during the demo period, we almost always made it to the end of the day without having to resort to HTC’s Extreme Power Saving mode. It was nice to have that latter option available, though; one night out on the town, we hit the 3% mark while still twenty minutes from home. Extreme Power Saving mode activated automatically and kept us connected (albeit only via SMS) for the entire ride home, with seeming power to spare. Quick Charge 2.0 also provides for rapid replenishment with a compatible charger (not included with all units).
There were a few voice calls lumped in there too, and results were good on the whole. Even taking the One M9 out for a walk on the Charles River on one of the windiest days of the year, callers could hear us clearly and only reported minor muffling. Quality on our side was fine, though as always we’d like to have had more volume from the BoomSound speakers in loudspeaker mode. Be advised that our review unit is a European model; we’ll have more details on voice quality, endurance, and network performance once we test a US-branded sample.
+ Exceptional hardware design and construction
+ Outstanding audio quality
+ Best, most customizable HTC Sense version yet
+ Smooth performance
– Underwhelming camera
– Iterative design with some reused components
– Not as comfortable to hold, use as One M8
– Some software features not fully baked
Pricing and Availability
At presstime, the HTC One M9’s global rollout is underway in HTC’s native Taiwan, with European markets to follow shortly. The M9’s US launch won’t kick off until April 10; HTC tells us we can expect the SRP to fall in line with the One M8’s launch pricing (around $650 without subsidy) when that happens. As with the One M8, all four major US carriers have committed to carrying the One M9. Available colors at launch will include the silver/gold and gunmetal/black editions pictured above; an all-gold “Amber” trim and a pink/gold variant will roll out later, with specific availability determined by carrier agreements.
Additionally, each One M9 sold in the US will be covered by HTC’s new “Uh Oh” protection plan, which the company recently announced as an extension of its older HTC Advantage perk. This program entitles buyers to one free cracked screen repair or one free device replacement in the case of water damage. Additionally, HTC will replace your One M9 at no cost if you decide to switch to another carrier (each US variant has its own SKU with its own unique cellular bands). And if you use none of these options during the first 12 months, the company will give you a $100 credit toward the purchase of a new HTC One when the time comes to upgrade.
Back to high school for a second. I ended up following my Chief’s instructions: we attended the drill competition using a small variation on the same routine we’d trotted out for many years, and it worked out just fine. No one stepped out of formation, and no one dropped a rifle.
No one won a trophy either, though.
As with most smartphones, there’s more than one way to look at the HTC One M9. As a sequel to the One M8, it’s definitely a letdown: the new camera is worse in low light; the aesthetic changes are subjective; and most of the software improvements will probably come to the M8 anyway. As the flagship product to set HTC apart from the Apples and Samsungs in the inevitable market-share slugfest of 2015, it’s no better – especially considering the latter’s widely anticipated Galaxy S6.
But only M8 owners care about the first thing, and only phone geeks care about the second. For the regular Joes and Janes shopping for an Android phone, the One M9 still stands out amid a sea of plastic-clad rivals. Its metallic fuselage catches the eye, and going hands-on is like a firm handshake: reassuring and not soon forgotten. The M9 is for these folks – people who haven’t owned an HTC phone before. Like an S-model iPhone, it’s meant to be familiar rather than groundbreaking, accessible rather than revolutionary. It’s no Porsche 911, and it’s certainly not going to propel HTC to new heights all on its own … but it is, for now, a worthy custodian of the company’s iconic smartphone legacy.
Scored For Me
Looking for something a little different to chase this monster review? Check out how HTC blew our minds with the HTC Re Vive, the only Virtual Reality headset ever to give Michael Fisher goosebumps! Then take yourself on a trip back in time with a throwback review of a Sony PDA from a decade ago, and round it all out with a jump into our post-smartphone future with the Runcible!
Pocketnow’s Adam Z. Lein contributed to this review.
Disclosure: This review was made possible by HTC, who provided travel and lodging for our One M9 pre-release briefing as a part of the HTC Frequencies program. More information is available at the 1:18:15 mark here.