(Pocket-lint) - The HTC One M9 is, in every sense, an evolution of the flagship M8 smartphone that came before it. It offers a similar design, a similar feature set, similar specs and a similar user experience.
It is, therefore, a similar overall experience. But the HTC One M8 was already a great phone, widely lauded for its design and praised for its slick and mature software experience, seeing it win many accolades as a result.
In the M9, HTC is looking to refine, to brush away those elements of the M8 that didn't quite work, and to push the HTC One towards smartphone perfection. Has it pushed things forward far enough in light of the competition, or are its nips and tucks in its latest flagship too subtle to make the necessary impact?
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HTC took some inspiration from the luxury watch industry for the precise and high-quality finish of the HTC One M9. Visually, it's very close in the design to the M8. The biggest change is that the front section which houses the display is now a single metal piece that fits into the metal rear casing. That does away with the plastic flange that ringed the front previously.
There's a sharper finish in many senses. Physically, there's more of a lip on the rear edge, so the M9 is easier to grip than the M8. It feels harder as a result with that sharp rear line. Because of how the two halves fit together there's now a ridge around the sides too. That shows precision in manufacturing that you don't always associate with a smartphone, but it's also a seam that can catch pocket debris.
Mercifully, the M9 stays free of fingerprints, thanks to the use of anodised aluminium, which means it's pretty easy to keep it looking clean.
The front of the phone is much tidier than the M8, but we're not entirely convinced by the gold-on-silver finish of our review model. HTC tells us that this precision dual-tone finish involves plenty of hours and hand polishing, but we prefer the rather more understated gunmetal grey, which feels a little softer in the hand.
The HTC One M9 feels smaller than the M8, but not by much at all. It measures 144.6 x 69.7 x 9.61mm and weighs 157g, so it's only a minor difference between the two devices - 2mm shaved off the height, 1mm from the width, and 0.2mm added in thickness.
Flip both M8 and M9 devices over and there's an obvious difference in the cameras. The M9 features a single square feature which, in our view, is larger than it needs to be - and we couldn't figure out why. But set it alongside the SGS5 or Note 4 and you'll notice they both have square cameras too.
For those wanting something more compact, the BoomSound speakers top and bottom eat into a lot of space. Whether that's a trade-off you're willing to accept or not will come down to how much you appreciate the sound quality. But bear in mind that this handset isn't very different in height to the Samsung Galaxy S6 and it remains one of the more compact flagship devices of the current generation.
In terms of build quality, we can't fault it. However, this does feel a little like déjà vu. Little has changed in the grander scheme of things since the HTC One M7 launched in 2013. And while Apple is notorious for maintaining design across 2-year periods, this HTC feels like the third year of the same design.
Above (left to right): HTC One M7, M8, and M9
That brings with it an inkling that the new phone is slightly over engineered compared to its predecessor; it's as though the focus on refinement has lead to a preoccupation that didn't allow for change. The adage goes that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", but at the same time, there's the sense that this is the very same phone as before.
Some will love that consistency - this is a refinement of the One family - but others might be wishing that the change was a little more dramatic, resulting in something that felt new. For us, we're not as blown away by the design as we were with the M8 when that first hit the shelves, and we suspect that might be a barrier to M8 owners upgrading.
Standby goes sideways
One of the design changes in the M9 is the shifting of the standby button from the top to the right-hand side. As phones have got larger this has become necessary to save stretching to the top to hit the button when holding with one hand.
We initially felt that it was slightly too low, but as with all things, you'll adapt over time and it's now perfectly comfortable to use. Remember that you also have double-tap to wake, so you don't need to use that button all the time.
But one thing that does seem off is the placement of the SIM card and microSD card trays on opposite sides. To have the microSD tray above the volume buttons disturbs that otherwise clean design and we can't help wishing it was on the opposite side, out of the way. But, to its credit, HTC is still offering storage expansion, something that others have dropped - most notably Samsung.
The HTC One M9 has a 5-inch 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution display, not a higher resolution Quad HD (2560 x 1440 pixels) screen like some competitors. That means the LCD3 panel topped with Gorilla Glass has the same pixel density as the M8 at 440ppi. It's nice and sharp to look at and we've found it great for viewing all types of content.
Sticking to a 5-inch panel means that this is one smartphone that hasn't grown in size. It's smaller than the LG G4 and Sony Xperia Z3+ rivals, with Samsung offering a fractionally larger 5.2-inch display in the Galaxy S6. Samsung has notably upped the resolution on this flagship model with great results no just in resolution, but in quality too. That leaves the M9 feeling a little less progressive.
The M9's display produces clean whites and is generally more realistic than AMOLED rivals when it comes to colours, but side-by-side with our M8, the colours are a little more muted, slightly less rich than the older phone.
Viewing angles are good, though, and there's plenty of brightness, as well as a new glove mode that enables you use the phone with gloves on, similar to Lumia devices.
We sometimes talk about polarisation on displays, which can affect the visibility of the display if you're wearing polarised sunglasses. On the HTC One M8 this was a problem when holding the phone in portrait orientation, causing it to black-out. On the One M9 the axis is flipped, so it's an issue when holding the phone in landscape orientation.
Overall the M9 has a great display. It lacks some of the richness of the previous handset and can't tick the Quad HD resolution box off its checklist either, although at this size, we're not sure that's a huge loss.
Under the hood HTC has stuck with Qualcomm to provide the chipset, here the Snapdragon 810 chipset paired with 3GB of RAM. That's the latest octa-core chipset, offering hardware support for Android Lollipop's 64-bit compatibility.
In use it's a slick and fast experience and nothing we threw at the M9 fazed it. Apps and games snap open, hardcore games run smoothly and everything happens with pace.
We were already happy with the performance of the M8, until we got accustomed to the M9's added snap. It isn't a huge leap forward, but for those with an older device like the SGS4 or One M7, it's a noticeable improvement. We found the M9 to be a better performer than the LG G Flex 2 we recently reviewed, which we suspect is down to better software.
There have been reports about the Snapdragon 810 chipset overheating, as well as some wild reports about just how hot the M9 gets. We've had no troubles with excessive heat in the time we've been using the One M9 (nor the LG G Flex 2).
However, the metal body does heat up when you push it: install all your apps when you first start the phone and you'll feel it getting warm. Play an intensive game like Real Racing 3 and it will get warm. We've previously seen other handsets issuing heat warnings, or the camera refusing to open because the phone is too hot, so this isn't uncommon on flagship phones, but isn't an issue we've experienced with this HTC thus far.
HTC has recently updated the M9 software to limit the heat levels during charging. It gets noticably warmer than something like the SGS6. We've never found it too hot, but in the current generation of flagship devices, it's the M9 that feels the warmest in use.
Also tucked away inside is 32GB internal storage, plus that microSD card slot that we mentioned earlier. So plenty of scope to store your photos, games and other content.
We also noticed improved network reception on the M9 over the M8. In a local notorious network dead spot we found that the M9 gave us a connection and we've found good performance on the connectivity front overall. There's also ANT+ compatibility, meaning it will work with sports sensors and the like.
The HTC One M9's battery life is similar to that of the M8. It will get you through an average day without much of a struggle. If you're out and about you'll want to engage the battery saver mode to prolong things a little more, but this hasn't changed from earlier devices and doesn't come close to Sony's excellent granular battery controls, as found in the Xperia Z3 for example.
On busier days, however, the M9 will need a top-up by mid-afternoon. With a 2,840mAh battery, it isn't the largest capacity around, but we found it typically outlasts the 3,000mAh battery of the LG G3, so capacity isn't everything. At the same time, with battery being a prime concern for many users, it's a shame that M9 doesn't take a step forward in its offering.
We're yet to see how new flagship rivals compare, but we'd hoped that SD810 would bring greater efficiency with it. As it is, it doesn't feel different to the M8. Having used the SGS6 for several months, we can say that the M9 beats it on battery endurance fairly easily.
However, the M9 is equipped with Quick Charge 2, which means much faster charging - although you'll have to buy a Quick Charge 2 charger to take advantage of that, something we think is worth the investment. There's no wireless charging, however.
Despite eating into space, the speakers are one of the defining features of HTC's phones. For the M9, BoomSound has been supercharged with Dolby Audio. That's resulted in two different sound modes: theatre mode for surround sound effects; and music mode for a flatter audio delivery.
This iteration of BoomSound speakers don't sound quite as loud as those on the M8, but they're appreciably better than any other mobile device out there. In theatre mode there's real separation between left and right. For ad hoc movie watching, there isn't the need to add headphones that some other single-speaker smartphones might push you towards. It also means rich, clear calls, with plenty of volume to hear callers.
The M9 has also been tuned by Dolby for HTC's headphones. You can select the headphone type to get the best performance, with HTC offering accessory headphones with corresponding settings. You don't get any other sound tweaking options, however - it's either use the preset, or turn it off.
BoomSound continues to be one of the features of HTC devices that we almost take for granted: it adds that extra dimension that other phones don't really offer.
There will also be a BoomSound Connect feature that allows you to control multiroom AllPlay speaker systems natively, although we're yet to see it in action.
Software: Android Lollipop and Sense 7
With a new flagship comes a new version of HTC Sense. Although Sense 7 isn't hugely different to Sense 6, it moves closer to the Android Lollipop experience, integrating some features that were skipped over on Sense 6.
For example, HTC has now adopted Android's interruptions system, instead of the incumbent Do Not Disturb feature. HTC's handling of volume control avoids many of the pitfalls of stock Android too, namely that you can set media volume prior to opening a noisy video or game.
We've drilled through Sense 7 in a lot of detail in a separate software review, which is worth reading for a deeper picture on the user interface. Follow the link below for the full lowdown.
We'll also detail some of the significant changes here. There are some minor visual tweaks and changes to the tab layout, icon revisions and tweaks on most of HTC's apps - including the removal of some bloat, like HTC's own internet browser.
But the biggest introduction is the new Themes app. HTC has always offered a great deal of personalisation, and Themes cleverly allows you to automate theme setting from any picture, before offering you control of colours, fonts, icon shapes, styles and more. It's should be popular with the Android set.
The second big addition is a new widget called Sense Home. This is designed to contextually serve up your most commonly used apps in the widget. There are three locations - home, work, out - and the apps you use in these locations will automatically populate the widget.
If you're a creature of habit, this might save you time searching for apps in the apps tray. If you're used to creating home screen folders anyway, you might find it unnecessary. At any rate, Sense Home can be deleted if you just want to gaze at your wallpaper.
The Gallery feature will integrate your online albums using the HTC Cloudex service and serve up a variety of views for all your images, like calendar view. When it comes to viewing photos, the editing options have been redesigned for the better - with the Photo Editor now having its own proper app.
There are a wide range of options, from filters to frames, to some more whacky options that can merge images or impose shapes over your photos. One of the most fun is face fusion, which was available previously, but it's so good it's always worth a mention.
But here we get the feeling that there's almost a bit too much on offer. We like playing with the kaleidoscopic effects, but, ultimately, we can't see that the novelty will last. Perhaps the biggest gripe we have is that a simple "auto enhance" option for photos isn't front and centre, it's buried in the "custom effects", where you get all the manual tweaks.
The changes might not be huge, but Sense 7 is still as slick, fast and stable as Sense has been in the past. We think it's a great user interface, with plenty of refinement, plugging holes in Android without squashing Lollipop's personality.
Sense 7 is likely to roll-out to the M8 in the future, so the M9's uniqueness might be short lived, but it certainly betters the sort of user interface you get from LG and Huawei, it's less overbearing than Samsung and less interested in pushing it's own services than Sony. However, we know that Samsung has made big changes, and LG will too, so HTC will face a bigger challenge this year.
Camera: Can it cut it?
The camera was arguably the most criticised element of the HTC One M8. Its Duo Camera - comprising an UltraPixel sensor for capturing images and a second sensor to capture depth information - was innovative in concept, but not perfect in delivery by any means.
With rivals offering better and more consistent performance with minimal fuss, HTC has taken note in the M9. The result is a 20-megapixel rear sensor with a sapphire lens cover, a 27.8mm equivalent lens, and video capture steps up to 4K resolution. There's no optical image stabilisation, however, but it does have a dual-tone LED flash.
A 20-megapixel resolution isn't the silver bullet you might want it to be though. It might look good on the spec sheet, but more pixels don't automatically equate to better results. It also runs counter to HTC's previous messaging around UltraPixel, namely, that cramming in more (and smaller) pixels onto a sensor isn't the route to great performance.
The result is that, once again, the HTC One camera isn't best in class. In bright conditions the M9 can capture some nice photos, but we found some had a slightly yellow/green tinge to them and blue skies were often textured with image noise in all but perfect conditions.
In lower light conditions that image noise is often smoothed away by the processing, resulting in the loss of detail. Although the performance in dim conditions, such as when indoors, is reasonable, it isn't great. When it gets darker still the performance is yet weaker, with heavy image noise making low-light shots worse than many rivals.
HTC does have a manual mode and a night mode - the latter which boosts the exposure, not necessarily with great results - but smartphones should principally be about pointing and shooting, not fiddling with settings. The same applies to HTC's additional RAW mode, which was added via a software update. It reveals that the colour cast that's typical on the M9 is due to post-processing, rather than the lens, but shows other problems. The lens, for example, doesn't give even exposure across the image (there's darker edges), all of which are corrected before you look at the final image.
There's been a subsequent software update to address this colour cast, as well as low light performance, but these are small steps to better performance, rather than bouncing up to rivalling the best smartphone cameras out there, like the Samsung Galaxy S6.
Focusing seems slightly slower than previously, but touch focusing quickly reacts when you want to take control. There are a range of functions on offer like HDR (high dynamic range) to give better results from tricky scenes, but there's no option to make it automatic.
You can switch cameras between front and back with a swipe down the screen. This also gives you access to panorama and split screen capture, but it's now a customisable feature. If you don't want panorama, you can remove it, for example, while if you save a custom camera setup this is added. It's a great way to add HDR or other options to your swipe menu for instant access and we really like this change to the camera app.
The front camera adopts HTC's UltraPixel sensor, which is well suited to the task. UltraPixel is a respectable low-light performer, is great for grabbing selfies and we've had some excellent results with the M9. We'd go as far as saying that we've had some of the best quality selfies yet (in daylight) from the M9.
In lower light the performance is good in terms of detail, often much better than rivals, but there's a tendency for selfies to be a little pink, especially as things get darker.
The two photos above, both by the river on the same day, demonstrate the inconsistency between front and back camera. The photo with the ducks (top) is greener from the rear camera and the sky is more turquoise; the selfie is richer, with a much bluer sky, but awash with magenta/pink cast.
We get the feeling that HTC's previous commitment to UltraPixel means it better knows how to handle the sensor, resulting in its better performance (aside from the pink hue). The rear sensor, however, isn't as well managed. In a straight shootout with the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 and LG G3, we found the M9 delivered worse results in almost all situations.
Is the HTC One M9's camera terrible? No, it isn't. But the rear camera is weak compared to rivals and that's a problem for HTC, as this is where the M9 needed to excel to stand out. If camera performance is the most important aspect of your smartphone, then the M9 isn't the device for you.
On the flip side of that coin you now get 4K video capture (sample here) which means HTC is keeping up with the Joneses. Again, as the light dims, video is rather riddled with image noise.
The HTC One M9 is the third iteration of the HTC One, coming from strong stock: we loved the M7 and the M8, with both devices delivering premium build and a metal body that was unmatched. However, while the HTC One M9 offers plenty to love, it doesn't really move forward.
As a flagship device it's very well put together, and sticking to a 5-inch display makes it one of the smaller and more manageable devices. That display is sharp enough at Full HD, although on our review device, not as punchy as the M8 we've been using over the past year. BoomSound speakers continue to be best in class.
On the software front Sense 7 offers a great user experience. It's slick and fast, aided by that powerful hardware making it a pleasure to use day-to-day. But it hasn't moved on much from Sense 6. Like the design, it's a subtle evolution, which some will see as being little more than incremental.
If you're an HTC fan, the M9 is HTC delivering what you love, with power, precision and sophistication. But with the overriding aim of refinement, of correcting the parts of the M8 that didn't quite work, HTC has focused attention on its camera. It's here that the M9 stumbles.
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While the front UltraPixel camera performance is mostly good, the rear camera isn't a strong performer. The leap to 20-megapixels seems to be for spec sheet rivalry only, without delivering the results to come out on top - even against existing devices. It feels like innovation has been lost for the sake of the numbers and the M9 is a weaker flagship for it.
Overall the M9's focus on manufacturing precision feels like something of a distraction: were smartphone fans demanding increasing precision in manufacture, or were they calling for better battery life and an improved camera experience? As pretty as it is, the HTC One M9 doesn't feel like it's taken a big enough step forward.