HTC One M9 Review: An expensive fix-up for the marque

HTC’s mission with the One M9 was clear. Take everything that critics said was wrong with the One (M7) – camera, usability and storage, and with the One M(8) – camera (again) and usability (again), and fix it. Or at least most of it. To its credit, HTC succeeded, the One M9 is a terrific top end smartphone, albeit at a rather crazily high launch price. This turns out to be the otherwise impressive M9’s Achilles heel, with lower priced competition that includes its own sister devices, both old and new.

Front
HTC’s latest One – it’s better than the M8, but is it good enough value?

The basics are as before, with an aluminium unibody. At least, I assume it’s still all in one piece, but the new gold ridge around the outside might be an indication of a two stage design. The ridge is weird – is it to improve grip? Possibly. The feel in the hand isn’t as premium as on the M7 and M8 though. It’s just odd. You know and I know, as AndroidBeat readers and knowledgeable enthusiasts, that the ridge is part of the design, but an average person picking it up might easily just think the phone hadn’t been finished properly!

Ridge
The two-tone step/ridge that runs right around the One M9 – design highlight or abomination? Your call….

I’m quibbling a little, of course, the fit and finish generally is tremendous, as you’d expect for well over £550 SIM-free in the UK right now. Above and below the screen are the usual top notch BoomSound speakers, which put out high and low frequencies that you just don’t hear on any other manufacturer’s phones – they’re that good and continue to set the benchmark for every other phone speaker set.

BoomSound
The BoomSound speakers are still top notch, albeit needing a little working room, top and bottom….

As before, there’s a slight size penalty to pay for the BoomSound speakers – around an extra centimetre, vertically, in total. Each speaker needs a certain physical volume around it, internally, in order to develop some of the frequencies that get output, so you can’t just pack in components to the same degree as on the average Samsung Galaxy.

On the right hand edge is one of the first things that has been ‘fixed’ – the power and screen lock button is now perfectly placed in the middle of a side, rather than being out of reach on the top edge of the design – well done, HTC, even if it took three years to sort this out. The button itself is also beautifully textured, for easy location without looking.

Buttons
The button cluster on the right hand side – you soon get used to – and appreciate – the power button ergonomics… To its left are separate volume buttons and the nanoSIM tray…

In the button’s place up top is a wider infrared window – it’s really not clear what’s behind this, but it must be meaty and I’ve heard from many people who really do use their smartphones to control their home A/V set-up, even if I came a cropper below.

Inside, HTC has followed the trend into the world of the Snapdragon 810 chipset, despite reported problems by all and sundry on how this can overheat if pushed to the limit. The M9’s software throttles the 810 somewhat (by up to 25%) as a result, to prevent issues, but in that case you then have to wonder why HTC didn’t just go with a Snapdragon 805 or 615 in the first place – performance would have been identical in terms of what the user experiences, and the phone would have ended up cheaper to make… and to buy.

Back
A super-shiny metal back hides upgraded internals…

3GB of RAM ensures that there’s plenty of overhead for future updates and ambitious software, mind you. Ditto the storage flexibility, with 32GB of internal space plus microSD. The M9 is looking like it could have a long shelf life, well into 2016 and beyond, though do note that less than 20GB of that initial internal 32GB is actually available for use. Shame on HTC for some serious bloat in its Sense routines and apps, even though it’s unlikely to cause problems – just about every user will surely have a meaty, fast microSD card and that’s the best place for media anyway.

Camera
The traditional (for once) 20MP main camera, with two-tone LED flash…

Imaging

On the shiny, shiny aluminium back is another huge change, in response to criticism from myself and many others. The low resolution ultrapixel camera has been ditched (or at least shifted to the front of the phone, of which more below), ditto the gimmicky depth camera which served the awful kludge that was the U-Focus blurring utility. In their place, a professional 1/2.3” sensor 20MP unit that is used to good effect, as you can see here:

landscape
Super detailed suburbia, courtesy of rare UK sun(!) and some M9 HDR….
Heart
Exposure and focus don’t seem to be a problem now that the One M9’s firmware has matured for its full retail debut….
Macro
A typical still life macro – results are uniformly good…
Low
Low light, indoor shots come out well too, with the usual moving subjects caveats…
Night
Late at night, the artefacts and lack of OIS in the M9 camera start to become evident, but the shots are still decent.

The optics aren’t as high end as those in the iPhone and top Lumias, but results in most light conditions will satisfy most normal users, especially because photo taking is so fast. Snap anything and everything as fast as you like, snap a photo burst or just shoot some 4K video – this has to be manually turned on in settings (the sensible default is 1080p), though it does then stay ‘on’ until further notice – and then use the simple ‘capture’ control at playback time to grab 8MP stills. This latter system does work, though there’s no frame-by-frame nudge capability, so you can’t always get the exact moment you wanted.

Add in advanced capture settings, ISO, white balance and exposure and there really is little to complain about*. Yes, I’d like to see an oversampled mode, doing more with the abundance of pixels to ‘purify’ the photos, Nokia style, yes, I’d like to see faster focussing, yes, I’d like to have OIS included, yes, I’d like to see a brighter or proper flash, but I do realise that I can’t have everything.

* Other (too) early reviews of the M9 around the web have been very critical of its camera, but I had the benefit of newer, fixed firmware, so HTC is clearly still optimising this aspect of the device.

FFC
Selfies are handled brilliantly with the wide angle (slightly ‘fish eye’) 4MP front ultrapixel unit – really clear and with low noise. My ugly visage apart, perfect!

Together with the ultrapixel front camera, which has finally found its niche, the M9 is certainly a huge leap forwards over the disappointing M7 and tragic M8.

Display matters

The form factor, like the iPhone 6 before it, is damn near perfect, in terms of smoothness and width – I can wrap my hand right around it securely. In terms of the physical, smartphones do seem to be converging at last on a genuine sweet spot.

Part of which is a display in the 5” to 5.2” range, depending on bezels. The (2013) Samsung Galaxy S4 arguably led the way here, in terms of introducing 5” screens to the masses in a form factor which was eminently manageable, and that was two years ago, so size advances do seem to have stopped, at least for the mass market. I was very pleased to see that HTC hasn’t been tempted to go down the Quad HD route in terms of resolution – there really is no need at all for Quad HD on a 5” full RGB display, however good your eyes are. Really. Yes, maybe there’s a case for Quad HD with phablet screens and when pentile AMOLED layouts are involved, but here there’s no need and HTC realised that.

Scren2
1080p on the HTC One M9 is perfect – we’re talking RGB pixels on an LCD screen and there’s ZERO need to go higher….

With ‘just’ 1080p resolution to drive, the chipset inside manages to eke battery life out for a full day, though not much more. Again, what if a Snapdragon 615 had been used inside, instead? Oh wait, that’s the brand new HTC One M8s, announced on April 2nd. Which is likely to be quite a bit cheaper (latest estimate as I write this is £380, a full £200 less than the M9!)

Sense 7

The M9 runs Lollipop, of course, with HTC’s Sense 7 additions over the top – and I can report that I felt no need whatsoever to mess around by turning things off or disabling services, essentially part of my first 15 minutes with a Samsung TouchWiz-based phone. In fact, I enjoyed most of what HTC has thrown into the mix.

BlinkFeed is now mature and, once set up with feeds of your choice, provides a super magazine-style interface that always has something interesting to dip into. While the virtual navigation buttons are now configurable, in that you can not only change their order, but also add an extra control, plucked from a larger palette. Are you itching to go back to how Android was controlled four years ago? No problem, HTC has you covered!

Nav
Control over virtual navigation controls is excellent, and worth giving up on physical controls to gain the flexibility…

Themes brings back happy memories of Nokia S60 smartphones a decade ago – maybe it’s harder to theme the all-singing, all-dancing Android, but HTC seems to have managed it at last, doing a better job than Sony in its recent Xperias. The theme manager here is first class, themes take only a few seconds to apply and then bang, it’s as if you have a whole new phone in terms of appearance, iconography, sounds, and more. Great job, HTC.

Themes
There’s a theme browser, populated with hundreds of first and third party offerings – just pick the one you want and apply and – bingo, a whole new look and feel!

One innovation worth noting, even though it’s comparatively low tech, is the location-specific homescreen ‘smart folders’ widget. Essentially it detects where (and ‘when’) you are (‘home’, ‘work’, ‘out’, and so on) and brings up a suggested (and customisable) set of application shortcuts. It’s a really nice idea, though you’d have to live a fairly regimented life in order to benefit very much from it.

Smart folders
The smart folder system at work, switching in banks of shortcuts appropriate to where you are…

Applications

Elsewhere, in addition to the Android basics and Google’s usual app suite, we have a car mode, with big finger-friendly buttons and rewritten interfaces for some core apps, HTC’s now familiar Scribble notetaker, a utility to set up the Dot View series of flip cases (not supplied) and Kid mode. The latter wasn’t actually working, having fallen down the cracks in HTC’s Lollipop plans – an update is apparently due out imminently.

Peel Smart Remote promises much – audio visual bliss, all controlled from my smartphone, but like every other infrared solution I’ve tried, nothing works with any of our equipment. It’s only a two year old (Bush) TV and a newer (Manhattan Freesat) set top box, and yet the app doesn’t like either. I’m quite clearly jinxed here!

Peel
Peel Remote appears comprehensive, even tailoring recommendations to your age and sex, but it fell over for me at the first hurdle, not recognising my newish TV!

Finally, Zoe is now the name of the themed slideshow sharing utility, just pick your snaps or media and let it combine them, with music. It’s fast and works, but unspectacular in 2015, with a dozen other similar options in the mobile world.

Zoe
Zoe has been transmogrified over the last few years to represent auto-stitching of media for sharing in video form online. Nice, but….

The Zoe mode that I was so impressed by in the M7, where photos would be taken in the background, even before I hit the capture icon, is long gone, I suspect that sort of behaviour would be prohibitively expensive in terms of resources with the M9’s chipset and camera. Ah well.

I did hit the occasional freeze and bug, but HTC has pushed two system updates in the last 10 days, so there’s clearly a lot going on in its software labs, and at a frantic pace.

Verdict

Back in 2011, Android smartphones were spread out across the full price spectrum, from £30 to £600, and you knew what to expect from the price. You paid more and you got more, in rough proportion. But the arrival of first the Google Nexus 5 (top specs at £300 or so), then the Motorola Moto G (darned good specs at less than £150) and now an onslaught of Chinese manufacturers undercutting even Motorola, have changed the market. The M9 retails, SIM-free, for around £570 at the moment (in the UK), and I really cannot see how HTC can justify this.

Yes, you’re getting a solid metal design, yes, you’re getting a pair of cracking speakers, but Sense 7-aside, that’s about it. In fact, the 2015 Moto G (2nd gen), which I’ve also been reviewing, has an almost identical form factor, albeit in polycarbonate, presents an interface that’s very nearly as swish and with similar applications using the same OS, has front facing speakers that aren’t that much worse, has a camera that’s only marginally less capable, you get the picture – at a quarter the price.

The world has changed and manufacturers can no longer charge this sort of price unless there’s a damn good unique selling point or an Apple logo on the back. Samsung will learn the same lesson with the S6, of course. The HTC One M9 is a splendid piece of hardware, don’t get me wrong, I’d love to own one permanently, but it’s currently over-priced. It should have launched at £399, SIM-free, or thereabouts.

The M9 just isn’t unique enough to command the current premium. But then a) many people will be getting this on contract, in which case the costs are somewhat obscured, and b) HTC has hedged its bets by producing that aforementioned ‘One M8s’, which is, in many ways, a very similar device, yet priced more realistically, so maybe it’s a case of a design for every wallet?

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Related Topics: Featured, HTC, HTC One M9, Reviews

  • Me

    2014 Moto G (2nd edition) maybe …