HTC One M9 Review
- Brilliant design
- Powerful innards
- Poor early camera
- Minimal evolution from M8
The HTC One M9 is a tricky phone to talk about, as it’s a beautiful, well-crafted and powerful device, yet it’s also not offering a huge level of detail compared to the One M8.
The reason it’s difficult to talk about is because it’s such a well-made device, and to criticise it seems almost childish when HTC has clearly thought hard about how to make the best-feeling phone feel even better.
But there are some limitations that have to be butted up against when making the best phone on the market, as HTC has done for the last two years, and the lack of places to improve upon is quite apparent with the One M9.
The HTC One M9 doesn’t really need to be explained, it needs to be felt. To speak about it, or even show it in pictures, doesn’t really do justice to the premium finish in the hand, to the well-balanced design, to the way everything feels weighty and solid.
There are some tweaks from the One M8, with the power key moving to the side of the phone, despite the brand sticking with a 5-inch screen and actually shrinking the height of the device.
The power button sits below two volume keys on the right-hand side, and it’s actually irritating that all three are the same shape as it’s not always easy to tell where your hand is hitting at times.
The power key is slightly ridged to help that, but it would have been better to have the volume keys on the other side – or move the microSD slot to the left-hand side below the SIM tray, thus giving more room to move the volume buttons up.
This may seem pedantic, but given you’ll be pressing this button tens, if not hundreds, of times a day, it needs to be right. You can use the double tapping of the screen to open the One M9, or swipe from the sides, but the general need for a well-placed power key is paramount.
The HTC logo still exists at the bottom of the screen in its own little black stripe, which will annoy some users who have complained to me about this feature in the past. It does add to the already-long length of the phone, but it holds important components, according to HTC, so it needs to stay.
This is likely down to the BoomSound speakers, added to the mix here once again, as they need the extra chambers to be able to make that boomy sound that’s great for watching videos or playing music on your phone around the house.
In the hand, the HTC One M9 is a little chunky, but in an oddly positive way. The rounded back makes it sit nicely in the palm, and the weight and depth both seem to dovetail nicely with the premium feel.
There’s something weird going on with the early builds that I got my hands on for a couple of days: the first option, a silver and gold combo, was quite sharp and abrasive at the edges. But the gunmetal grey choices were much smoother, with a feeling closer to the One M8 which gives me hope that everything might be OK.
HTC has taken its craftmanship and pushed it to the next level. The body is more metal than ever, the screen fitted snugly inside, and while I’m really not a fan of the two tone look (HTC tells me this adds to the premium look, something similar to high end watches) it does at least have some class about it.
The screen on the HTC One M9, on my hands on sample at least, is both great and a little disappointing in one. The resolution of 1920 x 1080 on a 5-inch footprint is absolutely fine, and looks bright, colourful and rich.
However, the disappointing part comes when considering the colour temperature. It’s very cool, with a slight green tint compared to its predecessor.
HTC hasn’t done a huge amount to screen it seems, offering a very similar thing to last year’s model, but it’s fine and still looks the part – plus by not going for a QHD resolution it’s certainly got a good chance of saving battery
Features, spec and performance
The HTC One M9 is a phone that didn’t really have much room to innovate into, given the brand has done so much of it in the past. The One M7 from 2013 was well designed but flawed in terms of power and battery life, and the One M8 solved those issues.
HTC has repeated that again with the One M9, adding in the high end chipset du jour, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 810, to power things along.
The need for this might seem like a simple ticking the box in terms of spec (no bad thing for the smartphone phone) and with an octa-core power unit with 3GB of RAM, this phone doesn’t want for grunt.
And that’s borne out under the finger, with everything feeling a little snappier again compared to the mode from last year. It’s clean, fast and apps are almost infallible in opening and closing.
I was hamstrung by using the One M9 in places where there was very little connectivity, which made trying to work out how fast it was in day to day use almost impossible, but when doing native tasks it flew along
The rest of the spec sheet is pretty impressive… on paper at least. The 2800mAh is pretty big indeed for HTC, a brand that usually likes to lag behind the rest of the world when it comes to battery power in its flagships.
The 20MP camera will impress (as will the Ultrapixel sensor from the phone last year now living on the front) and the BoomSound speakers are now imbued with Dolby power, for a virtual surround sound experience both with and without headphones.
I can’t say I noticed much improvement in my tests, but without trying the phone with proper headphones it’s hard to say whether the audiophile will enjoy the upgrade.
The HTC One M9 is excellent in terms of performance, with everything zipping along, and while it doesn’t have a real headline spec like in years gone by, it does everything you’d expect it to and more. Proper LTE, carrier aggregation and VoLTE might sound like pointless titles to some, but they keep the new HTC at the cutting edge.
A note should go out to the new themes element on the One M9, as it’s a really nifty idea that users will really like. Take a picture, press theme when checking it out in the gallery, and you’ll be presented with a cropped section.
When accepted, the One M9 will analyse it and then create a theme based on the colours and style in it, with multiple options for you to choose from. It’s really personal, the pictures are always clever if you think about composition, and instantly the M9 feels like its yours – a key thing for any brand this year.
Camera and battery
Now, this is a sore point, and should be brought to you with the caveat that the phone I was using didn’t have the final software. But the camera performance simply wasn’t good enough.
HTC has spent two years trying to tell the world that more megapixels aren’t needed, that more light is a better thing. However, the Ultrapixel sensor on the One and One M8 wasn’t great in bright light, with a lot of bleed.
I was really hoping that this year we’d finally get an 8MP Ultrapixel sensor, with Duo Camera again but instead it’s a stock 20MP sensor from Sony. And the pictures are noisy, lack depth and colour, and simply don’t impress in any way (except in bright light and simple conditions… and most cameraphones are good in that scenario).
The Ultrapixel camera on the front is the sensor from last year, and it’s a lot better in terms of performance compared to the back option. The selfies are generally of good quality and low light snaps are obviously great.
But this isn’t enough. The rest of the phone camera needs to be brilliant too, and it’s really not. There are some cool effects, like double exposure and the option to add prism effects to things, but they’re just gimmicks and too hard to enable for the average user’s attention span. Four menus is too many.
The battery life in my two days of use was actually pretty good. The first day was terrible, but that’s because the One M9 was downloading loads of updates in one go.
The second day it held on very, very well to battery charge, and comes with the power saving modes from last year that really do work – I got 8 days of battery life when I used the Ultra Battery Saving Mode.
I’m quietly confident that HTC has solved its battery woes once and for all – the numbers seem to add up (lower res screen, higher efficiency and larger power pack) so it could be that this when HTC finally sheds its tag as the worst flagship brand for battery.
The HTC One M9 isn’t a huge jump forward from the One M8, and it will disappoint some as a result. It’s a tremendously well made device though, and I’m glad HTC didn’t change things for the sake of it.
If you’re upgrading from an HTC One M7, then you’ll love this model… it’s night and day better. It’s very much an ‘S’ variant of the One M8, but improves in nearly every area (camera aside). It’s not got the impressive clout of years gone by, but then again HTC needs to consolidate its place as a real craftsman of phones in a year when the rest of the competition is going to be gunning for the same space.
I’m sad about the camera, as HTC usually innovates throughout its phones, and here it feels like it decided to just placate those slavishly begging for megapixels by plopping in an off the shelf solution.
But with a new version of Sense, a good selection of treats and hopefully better battery life, it’s hard to see where HTC could have done better… it’s just not as much of a leap forward as in years gone by.