HTC One M9 review: Refining beauty

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The HTC One was unveiled two years ago with a considerable amount of fanfare, and for good reason. It was the first Android phone that could go toe to toe with the iPhone in terms of quality. The full metal unibody screamed sexy and blew away every reviewer. Unfortunately it didn’t translate into the kind of success that HTC was hoping for as the company continued to lose money.

Back then, it was the One M7, signifying the 7th flagship phone since HTC embarked on their own brand. Last year’s version, the M8, did help bring the company to profitability, but it still wasn’t enough.

Now we are on the third iteration of the One, which is now referred to as the M9. The third chapter generally is a good time for a redesign, but HTC feels they already have something special. Instead, they chose to refine it rather than redefine it. By combining some of the best of the M7 along with the best of the M8, HTC is hoping the third time is a charm.

There is no question that the M9 is one of the best looking phones in the world. But as I said in my review of the M8, beauty is only skin deep. There is a lot more to a phone than sexy metal. There’s the battery, the camera, the display, the software, and so on.

Is the M9 more than just beauty or is this beauty starting to feel tired and old?

Design

If there is one manufacturer in which I would love to sit in on their engineering meetings, it would be HTC’s. I referred to the One M8 as the Rolex of smartphones, and the M9 continues that tradition. The level of detail and precision is incredible. There is no question that the M9 looks very much like the M8, but there are some enhancements.

For starters, it isn’t as slippery as past renditions thanks to a more super fine brushed finish. As HTC explains it, it’s on the same level of a hand finished luxury watch production line.

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The other major change is the new dual tone design as the edges are mirrored and more polished. My review unit is the Silver on Gold version, which has a silver main body, but the sides are all gold. It’s not a gaudy gold. It’s a true accent, and depending on the light, you might not even notice the distinction between the two. While the back is brushed and the sides are shiny, the front is more matte giving three different looks.

One thing to note about the new dual tone design is that there is a an extra lip along the sides about 1/3 from the top that wasn’t present on the M8. I am not sure I am a fan of it as it looks a little quirky and will be prone to collecting dirt. You can see what I am talking about in this image.

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A more obvious difference from the M8 is the rear camera lens, which is larger and more square like. It’s also covered with sapphire crystal glass, which will protect it from other things in your pocket, such as keys,  that scratch lens covers resulting in lower quality pictures over time.

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After seeing the lower profile BoomSound speakers on the Nexus 9 and Desire Eye, it was believed that HTC would do the same with the One M9. However, HTC feel’s those BoomSound speakers mean as much to their branding as the HTC logo. Considering the M9 is their flagship, they felt that “branding” was important and decided to keep the look.

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One of the biggest complaints about BoomSound has been that they add to the overall size of the device. That is probably true, but HTC managed to make the M9 smaller than the M8, even though they both sport the same exact 5-inch display. The M9 comes in at 144.6 x 69.7 x 9.61 mm, while the M8 came in at 146.4 x 70.6 x 9.35 mm. The M9 is also a tad lighter at 157 grams vs 160 grams. If there is one negative, it would be that the M9 is a little thicker than the M8, but it’s not noticeable. That extra thickness supports a larger battery, which is always a good thing. I really like the overall size and it’s very comfortable to hold.

As far as buttons and ports go, HTC made a change with the power button, moving it from the top to the right side just below the volume buttons. This is exactly what they did with the Desire Eye. Now that might seem like a small change, but if you look at any of my past reviews of HTC phones, I have always complained about their lack of consistency. They are always moving things around. Mainstream consumers crave consistency and it’s something that HTC has a hard time with. Samsung, on the other hand, figured this out long ago because they always place the power button and volume rocker in the same spots. Going back to the power button on the One series, it started at the top left side on the M7, then moved to the top right side on the M8, and now it’s on the right side below the volume buttons on the M9. Furthermore, instead of a volume rocker, it’s now two separate volume buttons (up and down). So now you have three buttons along the right side. They did give the power button a different texture to differentiate from the volume buttons at least.

Are they changing to change or is this progress? It think moving the power button to the side (from the top) is progress, but placing it below the volume buttons is a mistake. Most other manufacturers place it above the volume rocker (or buttons). HTC feels the middle of the side is more at reach, but I disagree. So can we expect another switcheroo with the M10? I know many of you might be thinking that I am complaining about senseless stuff, but it’s this lack of consistency that holds HTC back because it radiates through their other experiences.

Other than the power button, volume buttons and rear camera lens, HTC left everything else intact. The top has the same plastic black bar, which houses the IR blaster and the bottom has the microUSB slot to the right along with the microphone jack. The left side has the SIM tray towards the top and the right side has the microSD slot, also towards the top.

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There is no denying that the HTC One M9 is a thing of beauty, but one has to question if there should have been a redesign for the 3rd generation. HTC tends to think that the One is already gorgeous so they chose to refine it rather than fix what isn’t broken. They see the One as something like a classic Rolex watch in which the design doesn’t change all that much over the years. However, smartphones might be personal, but not the same as jewelry. Smartphones are very functional devices in which people don’t put a huge emphasis on the quality and they crave change since they want to feel like they have something new after 2 years of using the same thing day in and day out. It’s very much like cars. Take any awesome looking car, and in a few years the manufacturer redesigns it. Since people hold onto cars for longer periods, redesigns usually take place every 4 or 5 years. Consumers generally don’t keep a phone longer than 1 or 2 years, so redesigns are needed more swiftly. Let’s put it this way, Samsung continued the same boring design for the Galaxy S III, Galaxy S4, and the Galaxy S5 (three generations). Sales weren’t so good with the Galaxy S5, and it wasn’t because of the quality, it was because it was the same old same old. If we didn’t know of the One design before today, it would be incredible, but just like anything else, if you have seen it for the past 2 years, it gets old. It’s just human nature.

With all that said. the One M9 is gorgeous and would delight those that never owned an HTC phone. You simply won’t find a more hand-crafted phone in the universe.

Hardware

The HTC One M9 features a 5-inch 1080p (1920 x 1080) Super LCD 3 display (441 ppi), a Qualcomm MSM8994 Snapdragon 810 octa-core consisting of a quad-core Cortex-A53 clocked at 1.5 GHz and a quad-core Cortex-A57 clocked at 2 GHz, Adreno 430 GPU, 3 GB of RAM, 32 GB of internal storage, microSD slot for up to an additional 128 GB of storage, 20.7 MP rear camera with dual-LED flash and 4K video capture, 4 MP Ultra Pixel front-facing camera, BoomSound with Dolby Audio, Bluetooth 4.1, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, and 2,840 mAh battery.

Radios (USA)

2G/2.5G – GSM/GPRS/EDGE: 850/900/1800/1900 MHz
3G UMTS: 850/900/1900/2100 MHz
4G LTE: FDD: Bands 1,3,5,7,8,20,28 TDD: Bands 38, 40, 41

Performance

The HTC One M9 sports the Snapdragon 810 with 3 GB of RAM. The 810 is the latest from Qualcomm, but it has also fueled much controversy with overheating. In talking with the designers, they don’t think overheating was ever an issue with the said processor. In my testing, I didn’t notice anything in particular either, but I didn’t get to play with any pre-production units. The 810 is obviously very fast and the M9 is one of the fastest phones I have ever tested. With that said, the real test is over time. Many Android phones start lagging several months into their life, and how the 810 factors into that is a big question.

The display is basically the same as what you had on the M8. It’s a 5-inch Super LCD 3 panel with 1080p (1920 x 1080) resolution. The reason HTC didn’t make the change to Quad HD (2K) is because of battery life, and consumers don’t really notice a difference. I agree with HTC here. Battery life is too vital than to worry about a few more pixels that most won’t appreciate all that much. HTC’s Super LCD 3 has fallen behind the likes of Samsung’s Super AMOLED offerings, but they are still brilliant with sharp colors and fantastic viewing angles.

I never thought BoomSound would need an upgrade, but HTC threw in Dolby Audio this year. You’re going to need a keen ear to notice a difference, but the bottom line is that you won’t find better speakers on any other smartphone. They also offer two listening modes: Theater and Music. I didn’t notice too much of a difference between the two other than the level of audio. The question I still have is whether consumers really want or need this amazing sound from their smartphone? According to Kantar, HTC One owners listen to music more than other smartphone owners. Are they listening to that music through BoomSound, Bluetooth or headphones? The good news is that it’s not all about the BoomSound speakers because the M9 is one of the few phones that support high res audio at 24-bit/96kHz. That means that you can play that quality through the headphone jack or through HTC Connect (more on that later).

Battery

HTC has been improving the size of the battery with each One. The original M7 sported 2,300 mAh, followed by 2,600 mAh on the M8. Now the M9 has 2,840 mAh. Couple that with the efficiency of the Snapdragon 810, and you should have decent battery life. Let’s start with our video rundown test in which we run continuous video while the phone is connected to LTE. The M9 didn’t fair too well in this test as it only lasted 7 hours and 22 minutes. Last year’s M8 came in at 11 hours and 40 minutes. Why the sudden drop off? The only thing I can deduct is that my review unit is a T-Mobile device, and since I live in a fringe area, it might have switched from LTE to 2G every so often during the test. Now the good news is that in my regular use, I was able to get about 16 to 18 hours when using Wi-Fi for most of the time. However, if you get into heavy use, like gaming, using navigation or not being able to connect to Wi-Fi, you will probably only be able to get 12 to 14 hours. The M9 is compatible with Qualcomm’s QuickCharge so you should be able to juice up rather quickly. Unfortunately they don’t include a compatible charging cable in the box.

Software

With every new version of the HTC One comes a new version of Sense, HTC’s user interface built on top of Android. Under the hood is Android 5.0.2 Lollipop and it’s frosted with Sense 7. Appearance-wise, Sense 7 looks and acts very much like Sense 6, but HTC wanted to personalize it by giving users more customization, and at the same time, provide information that might be useful.

Probably the coolest feature is the new Themes app. There is a huge community of themers for all of Android, but unfortunately mainstream consumers never get to enjoy such fun since it either involves installing custom ROMs or installing third party launchers. Installing a third party launcher and downloading icon packs isn’t all that hard, but most people don’t have the time for that. HTC is offering something simple that everyone can enjoy. They have various stock themes that include a wallpaper for both the main home screen as well as the lock screen, along with color palettes that match it and various icon designs to choose from. They even kick things up a notch by allowing you to select your own picture for the wallpaper and the Themer application will analyze the colors in it and offer you a coordinating color palette.

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You will be given a few choices to choose from, but you can also tweak things a little as in change the font, the colors, the sounds, and/or even the icons. There’s even a Themes website where you can share your creations and download other’s masterpieces. One of the negatives is that the Themer app can only change the icons of HTC core apps, and it can’t fundamentally change other third party apps. So for example, if you choose a round icon theme, all of HTC’s core apps will have round icons, while third party apps, such as YouTube, will still be square but with a round boarder. However, if you’re the creative type, you can make your own icons in Photo Shop and upload them through the Theme Maker Pro tool on HTC’s site. One thing that I found surprising is that users can’t upload and share themes created from the app on the phone. Only themes created online can be published. HTC is betting that Theming will be a hit, and it just might be since it’s so easy to use.

Next up is the Sense Home widget that arranges apps by usage and location. There is Home, Work, and Out. You can set the locations for both your Home and Work, and Sense will keep track of the apps that you use the most in those locations, as well as when you’re anywhere else. So for example, you might use Foursquare and Swarm when you’re out and about so those apps appear when you are at a restaurant, but they won’t appear when you’re at home or work.

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HTC also included a Downloads folder, which will house every app that you download (in the app launcher too) instead of placing icon shortcuts all over your home screen. The Suggestions folder will suggest apps that you might want to download based on the apps that you are using. Both the Downloads and Suggestions folders are found in the Sense Home Widget, but can be removed if you don’t want them.

HTC has included the new Lollipop notifications on the lock screen, but they also added BlinkFeed-powered suggestions for restaurants from Yelp and Foursquare. These will appear at mealtimes. HTC will continue to build on this by adding more suggestions. They are already working on something called “The Morning Water Cooler” in which it will show you the news that’s trending.

BlinkFeed is also back and works very much the same way. It resides at the left most home screen, and you can customize it with whatever types of news you’re interested in.

I think HTC has done a very good job with Sense, and the best part is that they don’t force you to use or even look at their custom features. If you don’t like BlinkFeed, you can easily remove it. If the Sense Home widget is annoying, then remove it from the home screen like any other widget. And of course, if you don’t want to theme your phone, you don’t have to. However, I think a lot of users will find these new features very useful, so give them a chance before removing anything.

HTC has brought back HTC Connect, which lets you connect to compatible devices such as Qualcomm AllPlay speakers, DLNA speakers and TVs, Miracast compatible display devices, Bluetooth speakers, or HTC certified devices. Assuming the device (TV or speaker) is already setup on your Wi-Fi network, all you have to do is swipe up with three fingers from any media app on the M9, choose the device to connect to, and the video or audio will start playing on the remote device. You can even control the volume, pause, and resume playback. This will work with HTC apps as well as most other third party apps like Pandora, Spotify, etc.

Since the M9 includes Lollipop, you will find a lot of other new features that are from stock Android itself. One thing I was very happy about was that HTC kept Lollipop’s Restore Apps feature when turning on the device for the first time out of the box. You will be given the option to use Tap & Go by linking your old phone to your new M9 via NFC or by selecting the apps to restore from another device associated with your Gmail account. This makes setting up your M9 an absolute breeze.

You will also find Smart Lock, which allows you to automatically bypass your security lock by location or when connected to a particular Bluetooth device. I should note that I had a very difficult time setting up a Trusted Location as Google Play Services constantly stopped working, and even when I was able to set my home as a location, it still didn’t work. I finally got it working by setting my Home location and manually adding my address as a separate location. I don’t believe this is an issue with the M9 software, but more of an issue with Google Play Services since so many people are having this problem with other phones on Lollipop. You will also find Screen Pinning, which lets you lock an app on the screen for guests or kids. However, there is a Kids Mode that HTC provides that is more sophisticated. Finally HTC has incorporated Lollipop’s Material Design theme in their core apps such as the Dialer, Music app, and so on, but you won’t find the new Action Buttons.

I think with the power of Lollipop and Sense, the overall experience is fantastic. Sense has always been my favorite manufacturer UI skin because it’s not overpowering. With Sense 7, HTC has kept the majority of it the same as Sense 6, but added some useful enhancements.

Camera

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HTC put a huge emphasis on the camera with the One M7, but things went backwards with the M8 when optical image stabilization (OIS) was omitted. At the same time, the 4 MP Ultra Pixel for a second straight year didn’t excite anyone either. Now it seems that HTC has learned their lesson on the whole Ultra Pixel thing by giving us a 20 MP rear camera and moving the Ultra Pixel lens to the front of the device on the M9. The thought is that Ultra Pixel was needed two years ago for better low light performance, but now the technology has caught up allowing for more megapixels. That is all well and good, but the lack of OIS is a big time Debbie Downer. They eliminated it on the M8 because they supposedly couldn’t make it work with the Duo Camera setup. Now that’s gone, and they still didn’t bring it back. As HTC touted two years ago, it isn’t about the megapixels, and that still holds true today. A flagship phone in 2015 needs OIS for not only keeping things steady, but also aiding those low light shots.

Let’s start with the software. HTC hasn’t changed too much here. They still allow you to just point and shoot or make a ton of adjustments if you know what you’re doing. And just like last year, you can save various profiles for easy retrieval by placing them on the modes screen. Speaking of modes, you will only find Selfie, Camera, and Panorama out of the box. They do offer three other modes that you can download: Bokeh, Photo Booth, and Split Camera. Since there is no Duo Camera setup, Bokeh will give you the ability to blur part of your photo. Photo Booth and Split Camera is part of the Eye Experience that debuted on the Desire Eye. One glaring omission is Zoe (the original Zoe), which is now the new name for Video Highlights. Zoe (originally) would take up to 20 burst shots and video at the same time, but HTC found that most consumers didn’t use it. I actually thought Zoe was one of the coolest features, but I am in the minority I guess.

HTC always offered numerous ways to edit your photos, and they have some new stuff with Sense 7. Shapes, Photo Shapes, Prismatic, and Double Exposure are all new this year. Shapes allows you to add colored shapes to your photos, while Photo Shapes allows you to overlay a shape filled with a second photo on top of the current photo. Prismatic gives you the ability to create a kaleidoscopic effect with prismatic shapes. Finally, Double Exposure allows you to layer and edit two photos blending them together.

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Back is Elements, which allows you do add animated effects like snow and bubbles, and Face Fusion, which blends two faces together.

Also back again is Video Highlights, but it has been re-branded as Zoe. This is probably the best proprietary software HTC has done over the last couple of years. It will make a fully edited movie with music from your videos and pictures. Now that the Zoe app is available for all Android users, other’s can collaborate on your movie as well. Plus, it’s coming to the iPhone soon.

I like what HTC has done with the camera software. It’s simple enough for the beginner, but it offers a lot of features for the pro. It’s by far my favorite manufacturer camera app.

Where the M9 fails is not in the software, but in the ability to take great photos. Just like most cameras, it gets the job done in daylight, but even in decent light, the colors are dreary or don’t pop. Things get even worse in lower light when you will see a lot of noise and blurriness. Focusing was hit or miss as it had a hard time locking in.

Since low light is more of an issue, I included a lot more of those in the example photos below.

Outdoors

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Low Light

Closing

The HTC One M9 might be one of the best looking smartphones, but does that make it a great phone? It has great specs and software, but the battery life is average and the camera fails to compete with other flagships. I know a lot of people don’t put a huge emphasis on the camera, but if you want to be a “flagship” phone, then you need a top notch camera to not only compete with the Galaxy S6, but also the iPhone.

There is also the design issue. The M9 is beautiful, but we have already seen this design with the M7 and M8. High end luxury watches can be timeless, but not smartphones. If this design was introduced for the first time, we would applaud it, but it’s now the third generation, and unfortunately that gets old for those that already own an M7 or M8. It was already proven that designs in the third generation fail from what we saw happen with the Galaxy S5. Samsung might have sold a lot of phones, but not as much as anticipated because it was boring. The M9 might be great for the person who never owned an HTC One phone, but then again, you have to ask yourself if the camera is important. The M9 is a definite upgrade in terms of specs for those that own an M7, but it doesn’t feel different which is important. After using the same phone day in and day out for the past two years, consumers want something different.

So where does the M9 fit in here? The M9 is hand crafted with precision and is gorgeous, but unfortunately that might not be good enough. Things haven’t changed much from when I said the M7 was the best smartphone on the planet, but is it good enough? Actually, things have changed because this most recent One probably isn’t the best Android smartphone on the planet.


About the Author: Robert Nazarian

Robert lives in upstate New York where he was born and raised. Technology was always his passion. His first computer was a Radio Shack TRS80 Color that used a cassette tape to save programs, and his first laptop was a Toshiba T1200FB that sported a CGA greyscale screen and two 720kb floppy drives (no hardrive). From the early 90’s through late 2011, he only owned Motorola phones starting with the MircroTAC all the way through to the Droid X. He broke that streak when he bought the Galaxy Nexus. Now he's sporting a Galaxy Note 4, and absolutely loves it. He has a wonderful wife and a 6 year old son. In his free time he enjoys sports, movies, TV, working out, and trying to keep up with the rapid fast world of technology.


  • Dan Kenney

    As always, first rate and thorough analysis. Living in Glens Falls, the pictures you used for your write up look awfully familiar, Rob. Are you close?

    • RobertNazarian

      Thank you and Yes, I am about 50 miles south of you in the Albany area.

  • Chloe Coates

    ㅋㅋㅋㅋㅋ ☛

    ???

  • Emelia

    Very nice phone and good job on that. Hope more from you will be coming soon. Is this HTC m9 in Ghana?

  • Matt Josephson

    HI Robert and All, I am a new M9 owner. I bought mine at Costco 3 weeks ago. I replaced mySamsung Note 2. I do miss the bigger screen when doing landscape texting but other than that I’m really enjoying the M9. I liked the look of the new Samsung phones, but all that glass and the lack of SD card was a deal breaker for me. I am carrying a lot of music on my phone via a 64 gig sd card. The speakers sound great and I use them in the morning when I get ready for work. The camera may not be the best in low light, but it has improved with recent software updates. Best of all the HTC M9 can be found at great prices, especially if you have to re-up a contract. I paid $165.00 and I will keep a phone for 2-3 years typically. The HTC Dot View case is really fun too.