Following on from our quick hands-on with the HTC One M9 at the launch event in Barcelona, we take an in-depth look at the flagship phone HTC is hoping will see off competition from Apple and Samsung. With the One M8 being one of the most popular Android smartphones of all time, the M9’s got big shoes to fill – so should you buy one? Find out everything you need to know in our HTC One M9 review.
While it’s no secret that this phone looks fairly similar to its predecessors, that’s no bad thing. The One M9 and M8 are like siblings from a ridiculously handsome family: Liam and Chris Hemsworth, perhaps, or Zooey Deschanel and Katy Perry. Similar, but in a good way.
HTC have been pretty upfront about the resemblance, stating that it’s done intentionally to create an iconic look that consumers will recognise. Like the iPhone, in other words. Still, even HTC have struggled to tell the phones apart recently, famously mixing them up on a Facebook ad.
The main difference from the M8 is that big square-ish camera lens at the back, which has resulted in me nicknaming my M9 ‘The Cyclops’. Seriously, the first person to make a Minion case for this phone will be minted.
The buttons have also shifted around a bit since the last iteration, with the power button vexingly moving from the top right to the right-hand edge. This makes it very difficult to find without looking for it, given that it’s just below two very similar-sized volume buttons. It’s got an etched pattern to help you locate it, but my personal feeling is that if you can’t find the power button in your pocket with gloves on, it’s not intuitive enough.
The dimensions of the phone are very similar to before, although it’s lost 3g in weight. It’s 157g, which feels solid and weighty in your hand thanks to the aluminium unibody. That means it’s made from just one piece of metal, which is impressive given the distinctive colour change on the edges of the handset:
HTC describes the craftsmanship on the M9 as ‘jewellery-like’, resembling ‘that of a fine watch’. We can see what they mean, with precision lines rendered in scratch-resistant aluminium, and OCD-grade separation between the gold band and the rest of the phone. We can’t agree with HTC’s description of those edges as ‘mirrored’, though: they’re just shiny. You can’t see your face in them. The elegantly curved back of the phone has the same hairline finish as the M8, and again nestles just perfectly in your palm (although it’s worth noting that it picks up fingerprints easily). The M9 manages to be both utterly smooth without ever feeling slippery or droppable, or even cold: for an all-metal phone, it’s very pleasant to hold.
Currently, only three colours of the M9 have been announced for the UK: gold on gold, gunmetal grey, and gold on silver, which is the one we have. That gold is warm and appealing with no brassy tones – definitely a rose gold hue. Strangely, the US doesn’t seem to be getting the gold/gold version, and the pink edition we saw at Mobile World Congress hasn’t been announced for either country. We’re expecting that to turn up later as an exclusive for a retailer or network, the way the red M7 was exclusive to Phones 4U (RIP).
HTC’s much-loved BoomSound speakers are back on this phone, now with the addition of virtual 5.1 surround sound in partnership with Dolby. The dual speakers sit above and below the screen, and provide the bassy, super-clear, extra-loud sound that led to the M8 becoming the benchmark for smartphone speakers last year. Once again, the speakers provide sound that’s hard to match, even amongst flagships.
Our biggest issue with the M9 handset is the placement of the headphone jack. It’s on the bottom edge of the phone, on the right. Why, HTC, why? Why must I have the phone upside down in my pocket if I want a decent length of headphone cable? Bah.
HTC’s Sense skin for Android is one of the best out there, actually adding useful functionality to stock Android rather than changing things for the sake of being different. Sense 7 is no exception, and includes new features like personalised dining recommendations and homescreen apps that change depending on where you are. The latter feature is clearly modelled after launchers like Yahoo’s Aviate, which personalise content on your phone according to whether you’re at home, work or somewhere else.
The Blinkfeed food recommendation engine seems a bit buggy at the moment, recommending lunch in the evening and areas I’m not in, but to be fair the phone hasn’t launched yet, so we’ll see how it progresses. Either way, it’s a good idea that again cribs from popular apps like Zomato.
The navigation buttons in Sense are customisable, and already look considerably more intuitive than the stock Lollipop ones:
You can’t get rid of the main three buttons (though you can re-order them), but you can add shortcuts to things like Notifications and Auto-Rotate as a fourth button, which is handy.
Sense 7 also includes HTC Themes, which customises the look of the UI to match any photo. It works really well and saves you faffing about with settings. There’s a demo in the video review:
In terms of hardware performance, my One M9 has been flawless. That means not one crash, stutter, pause, hang, freeze, lag or frustration in the time I’ve been using it as my main phone (over a week at this point). The only thing I’ve noticed that might be mildly annoying is that it gets pretty warm during intensive activity.
The One M9 is backed by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 octa-core processor (that’s twice the cores of the M8) – Android is designed for 64-bit processors like this, so it’s no wonder it runs like a dream. (But not an HTC Dream, that would be terrible).
Memory on the M9 has had a considerable upgrade from the M8: storage space has been bumped from 16GB to 32GB, RAM’s gone up from 2GB to 3GB, and the maximum microSD card capacity (for boosting free space) has gone up from 128GB to 2TB.
Maybe HTC knows something we don’t, because as of now the highest-capacity microSD card for mobile devices in the world is SanDisk’s 200GB card, and that was only just announced. To declare that the M9 can accept a 2TB card suggests they’ve tested it with one, which means they’ve got one, which means one exists. And I have just one response to that: GIMME.
Seriously, though, after all the confusion of which phones could and couldn’t take the new 200GB microSD card, it’s good to know HTC have a definitive answer now. And that’s a plus point for the M9 over Samsung’s Galaxy S6, which doesn’t take microSD at all.
We can’t sum up the experience of the HTC One M9 without mentioning the retro-cool Dot View case, which we’ve reviewed separately here. It gets an extra point just for this.
There were plenty of rumours about the One M9 getting a quad-HD screen to match the LG G3, one of the M8’s biggest competitors (and now the Samsung Galaxy S6, which is the M9’s main rival). Well, it didn’t. It still has a 5-inch full HD (1080p) display, as did the M8. This is mildly disappointing, but only on paper: the majority of people I asked (not a scientific test) couldn’t tell the difference, and as with most HTC phones, the screen is plenty bright and beautiful enough for any pair of eyeballs. Plus it’s covered with Gorilla Glass 4, for even stronger protection against cracks and smashes.
There’s a bit of a bezel around the screen, but nothing major – though if there’s a black strip the size of this one at the bottom of the screen, I do usually expect it to come with capacitive buttons. Not in this case: we just get the HTC logo, and the Back, Home and Apps buttons are built into the software. I still hate this part of Android Lollipop, but I’m sure I’ll adapt. Or buy a BlackBerry*.
There’s basically nothing bad to say about the screen on the M9. The brightness goes up to dazzling levels, you can see what’s going on from every angle with barely any darkening, and the picture appears very close to the glass. My main complaint is that a year on from the M8, 5 inches feels too small. 2014 was undoubtedly the Year of the Phablet, and having got used to 5.5-inch screens and above, this feels a bit too mini. But with an HTC One M9 Plus phablet rumoured to be on the way, maybe I’ll get my wish.
*I will never buy a BlackBerry.
The Duo Camera on the HTC One M8 was a depressing example of why it can actually be detrimental to innovate in the tech space. HTC worked incredibly hard on a new type of sensor, which they named UltraPixel. It was designed to capture more light using bigger pixels so that the same size sensor as you might find in another phone would have fewer, but better, pixels packed into it.
The unfortunate outcome of this was that HTC’s camera was rated at 4MP, and then had to be sold in shops alongside phones with considerably higher MP counts. Your average consumer is going to compare the two numbers and plump for the higher, because there isn’t an HTC salesman standing helpfully there to explain why their camera sounds worse but might actually perform better.
I really liked the camera on the One M8, so I was pleased to hear that instead of being scrapped entirely for the M9, it’s just been moved to the front. That means better low-light selfies with a wide-angle lens to squeeze more friends in, and, slightly sadly, a normal 20MP camera on the back of the phone. That camera now has a sapphire glass lens cover, and has received an upgrade from 1080p HD video recording to full 4K. The selfie camera, being the same as the M8’s, can still do 1080p video. Using the same logic as before, some people have actually declared the selfie camera a downgrade, because the previous model had 5MP. But no one wants to hear about UltraPixels, apparently.
The M9, along with the M8, has all the ‘Eye Experience’ options that HTC brought in with the Desire Eye. Those include split-capture reaction shots, voice controls like ‘cheese’ to take a selfie, and the immensely fun Photo Booth feature. You can see more of the Eye Experience features in our HTC Desire Eye review.
The main camera on the One M9 performs solidly, taking clear and colour-rich photos that accurately reflect the scene – even at Muse gigs! (Click to enlarge)
And with fast-moving subjects, like this fountain:
HDR mode works well (before & after):
And the selfie camera takes clear, shareable photos even in lower light settings:
There’s even a Live Makeup mode if you don’t feel like getting ready in the real world, but it tried to turn my hair lipstick-red in places, so we’ll leave that alone.
Reading the specs of the newly-launched M9 at Mobile World Congress, this was the first place I sighed. The 2600 mAh battery on the M8 started to look pretty weak when the 3000-level phones came out (LG G3, OnePlus One and co), so for the next phone up to not reach those levels either is pretty disappointing: the M9 offers a very specific 2840 mAh. That said, the power management software in HTC Sense is very good, and the Snapdragon 810 also helps lower power consumption – so I was willing to believe the battery might outperform its specs.
In short, it doesn’t. It’ll last you the day (my average day involves about 2 hours of listening to downloaded Spotify music – love that London commute – some social media, one or two calls and a bit of faffing about. I’d call this moderate use), but no longer. So again, HTC can’t compete with LG’s two-days-without-charging mantra, and when they’re facing the super-easy wireless charging of the Samsung Galaxy S6, that’s a shame.
The official blurb for the One M9 shows a small increase in talk time from 20 hours to 21.7 on 3G, but a substantial decrease in standby time: from 496 hours on 3G in the M8 to just 402 on the M9. That suggests the new setup is better at handling power when the phone’s active, but drains faster when it’s not.
To test the battery further, we ran our usual test of streaming a fullscreen film over WiFi with screen brightness on maximum and GPS on. From a 100% charge, the HTC One M8 had 66% battery left after this test. The HTC One M9 – the new, improved One – had exactly 50%. Not a great result. In fact, the HTC Desire Eye, which has just 2400 mAh, managed 60%. This proves that the battery is still the area that prevents the One from ruling them all.
If you’ve got an M8 and it’s going to cost you untolds to upgrade, you probably shouldn’t get this phone. Why? Because you won’t enjoy that ‘yay, new phone’ feeling the way you would with a different manufacturer or a bigger step change between models. Hold out for the next one.
For everyone else, this phone is a beauty. The only downsides are the slightly weaker battery and a camera that’s good, but not incredible. In every other way, this is an expertly-crafted piece of hardware that delivers the Android Lollipop experience the way it should be. The performance is superb, it looks beautiful, and the Dot View case gives it that show-off factor that you really want when you’re shelling out flagship-level money. In the M9, the HTC One brand is approaching perfection, and just a couple more tweaks will get it there.
Unsurprisingly, the HTC One M9’s biggest problem is the Samsung Galaxy S6. But it’s swings and roundabouts. The S6 has a quad-HD screen, but the M9 has a microSD slot. The S6 has wireless charging, the M9 has a bigger battery. The S6 edge has that curved screen, the M9 has the Dot View case. Plus the jury’s still out on just how smashable the edge screen will prove to be (even though Samsung says not very) – not to mention a whole lot of people hate the Samsung TouchWiz interface, whereas there’s mostly love for HTC’s Sense.
If you do spring for the HTC One M9, we can promise you won’t be disappointed. HTC’s absolutely nailed it.
1. Utterly beautiful design
2. Flawless performance
3. Even better Dot View case
1. Battery life still isn’t up to par
2. Headphone jack is on the bottom
3. Hard to distinguish buttons by touch
The HTC One M9 is out now in the UK. If you get it from Carphone Warehouse, they’ll throw in the super-cool Dot View case free. Yay!