(Pocket-lint) - The HTC One M9 was met with a muted response. HTC's efforts in refining design felt like a distraction and the new flagship felt like it was slightly adrift, facing completion from all sides.
It was only a few weeks later that HTC announced the HTC One M9+, a higher-spec device that was pitched at China. It turned the heads of those in the rest of the world who wouldn't get it, but wanted it. Surely, the One M9+ was the flagship that we all should have got?
HTC One M9+ design, oh so refined
There's no doubting that the HTC One M9+, like the M9, exhibits some of the highest quality of smartphone build around. That full metal casing, neatly broken to ensure you get a good signal, with precision finishing, is excellent. Sure, it isn't up to the standards of Vertu's handmade devices, but it's still dripping with quality. .
One of the headline features that HTC showcased with the M9 was the dual-tone finish. As much as we appreciated the manufacturing precision, we never really liked the results. So it's with some enthusiasm that we caress the gunmetal grey version of the M9+. You might think that this just about colour, but the feel is different.
It's not a huge thing, but the angle from back to side feels softer on the gunmetal version, so it's nicer to hold. The dual-tone version feels sharp by comparison. If you're someone who likes to carry your phone naked (by which we mean with no cover) then it's worth holding both to see which you prefer.
True enough, the M9+ is an expanded version of the M9; it's a bigger phone. Measuring 151 x 72mm compared to the M9's 144.6 x 69.7mm face, both devices are a slender 9.6mm and the larger M9+ only adds 11g to the weight, raising it from 157g to 168g. The size isn't hugely different between the two - this isn't a case of wildly different iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus sizes, which makes the M9+ all the more confusing.
But the design incorporates an important future-leaning component: a fingerprint scanner in the centre of the bottom BoomSound speaker.
Flip the phone over and there's an obvious difference on the back too, with the M9+ carrying two camera sensors, pairing up the M8's Duo Camera skills with the M9's 20-megapixel main camera.
Otherwise the design is roughly the same as the M9 at a glance, making it unmistakably HTC. There's still a slight sense that, yes, things could have been a little different, that design could have evolved - but that's what we said about the M9 too.
HTC One M9+ display: Step into the future
The HTC One M9+ steps things up the display department. It measures 5.2-inches on the diagonal and comes with a 2650 x 1440 pixel resolution, delivering a sharp 565ppi panel. That's possibly where the "+" in this phone's name comes from, as where the M9 sported a 5-inch Full HD (1920 x 1080 pixel) display, the M9+ is Quad HD.
On paper, then, that makes the M9+ more competitive with the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S6 and the LG G4, both of which offer this high resolution. Arguably, the actual pixel numbers don't make a huge difference unless you've got very keen eyes, but the display has more potential to deliver more detail and more functionality.
When we reviewed the M9 we said that sticking to a lower resolution at 5-inches sort of made sense, especially if it preserved battery life. But as both the display and the battery performance on the M9 was worse than the M8, it felt like a step backwards. The M9+ escapes that fate to a degree, because it's not trying to reproduce the excellent results of the M8.
However, when put next to the M9 we have in the office the M9+ display easily looks better. It's brighter for starters, there's more punch to colours, the whites are brighter and cleaner, and the contrast is better. Viewing angles are equally great on both M9 and M9+.
There's also a slight change to the direction of polarisation. If you wear polarised glasses then the M9 is practically invisible in landscape. The M9+ is visible, dimming slightly in portrait, but nothing like the extreme dimming you'd get on the M9. If you wear polarised glasses, the M9+ is an obvious choice.
HTC One M9+: Hardware change
One of the areas we see a change in the M9+ is in the internal hardware. It comes with a MediaTek Helio X10 chipset, which delivers a 64-bit octo-core processor, clocked at 2.2GHz. There's 3GB of RAM, resulting in a powerful loadout.
With many criticising the Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 chip found in the M9, some will see this MediaTek alternative as a good thing. Both are powerful and will skip through daily tasks with ease and when pushed. The M9+ also doesn't get as warm as the M9 in use, but you'll still feel it warm some when charging.
If there's one area where the M9+ doesn't seem to be quite so adept as the M9, it's graphics handling. We noticed it on panning, where the M9+ can to judder a little, but when it comes to playing Fallout Shelter, that's not going to matter too much. However, should games step up in resolution in the near future, you might find that the M9+ isn't quite as future-proof as the earlier M9.
In most of your daily tasks apps snap open, the device is fast to navigate and everything is slick and smooth. Perhaps one of the downsides is fast charging. The HTC One M9+ took longer to charge than the M9 when we hooked it up to a QuickCharge 2.0 charger (the MediaTek chipset doesn't work with Qualcomm's system, but should support something called Pump Express Plus, a MediaTek equivalent, although we couldn't test this.)
The One M9+ comes with the same 2,840mAh battery as the M9, but we found it to last just as long if not longer. The M9 isn't great at getting through a busy day, although it's much better than the SGS6, it has to be said. The M9+, surprisingly, hasn't taken a hit by providing that higher resolution display. On a busy day you'll still need to top up mid-afternoon, but on average days you'll make it through to bedtime to charge overnight.
The M9+ comes with 32GB of internal storage and can be expanded via microSD, which is a great advantage over some rivals, with competitors such as Samsung now dropping the mSD slot from devices such as the Galaxy S6 edge+.
Giving the M9 the finger
One of the important hardware changes on the M9+ is the inclusion of the fingerprint scanner. If there's one feature that's looking hot on Android in 2015, it's fingerprint scanners. The SGS6 benefits from it, it's something that's supported in Android 6.0 Marshmallow and we're expecting to see it on both the of the 2015 Nexus devices.
The One M9+ places a fingerprint scanner on the bottom BoomSound speaker, splitting that speaker grille in half. Unlike the Samsung implementation, it isn't a clickable button, but it can be used as a home button when your phone is unlocked, something we've found really useful.
It's an excellent fingerprint scanner too. We've found that it is fast to unlock the device, doing away with the need to type in passcodes or a PIN. You simply have to touch the scanner after registering your fingers. It will support more than one digit, so you can register the fingers and thumbs you might normally use to unlock, and off you go.
We've little negative to say about it. We love the double-tap option that the Galaxy S6 offers to launch the camera, and we think TouchID is excellent on the iPhone, but now HTC joins those ranks by offering a physical ID system that doesn't get in the way of phone usage.
If there's a downside, it's that BoomSound seems to have lost some of its depth, but that's a trade-off we're willing to make.
HTC One M9+ software
The One M9+ comes with the same Sense 7 software overlay and additions as you'll find elsewhere in the HTC family, making it the same as on the One M9. The only difference that we can discern at the time of writing is that the regular One M9 has been upgraded to Android 5.1.1 and the M9+ hasn't (yet, but will follow).
That means there are some minor differences, such as the arrangement with volume controls and setting notifications, but otherwise this is very much the software experience from the M9, with exceptions in the camera and for the fingerprint scanner support.
There's a lot of refinement in Sense 7. The highlights for this version really revolve around Themes, making it easy to customise every aspect of your phone, changing the colours to match wallpapers, changing icon styles and so on. It's simple to do with an easy guided process.
You can read all about Sense 7 in its own dedicated review, but you'll find that this version is less singular package bundle than previously, so HTC can update the Sense Home launcher, Gallery, Camera and much more without needing a larger system update.
Sense 7 is a mature skin on Android, but we get the feeling that Android in its native form is making faster gains than ever before. Again, that poses no problem. We prefer Android's strong material design in the stock Calendar and Messages app, and it's easy enough to switch to using those.
Also, you can just install Google Now launcher if you want that stock look and feel on the M9+, as you can with the stock Google keyboard. HTC's keyboard feels a little cluttered and slow these days, so it's worth trying something else for the best experience.
Overall, it's a great software experience, and much as we've praised Samsung in 2015 for the simplification of TouchWiz, HTC Sense is still great.
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HTC One M9+ camera conundrum
HTC seems to be perplexed about what to do with cameras on its phones. Having pushed UltraPixel's benefits on the M7, it jumped into Duo Camera's quirky features on the M8, before jumping to a 20-megapixel camera on the M9.
In the HTC One M9+ you get all of the above. This is the device where everything HTC has tried in the past three years sits in one phone.
First of all, there's the UltraPixel on the front, giving you good quality selfies. We've been impressed with UltraPixel's ability as a front-facing camera, offering good results with plenty of detail. There can be a pink hue in lower light, as we found with the M9, but overall, you'll get some of the best quality selfies around from this phone.
When it comes to the rear camera, things are split into two. Unlike the M8 which offered Duo Camera features all the time, the M9+ has a separate Duo Camera mode where it uses the second sensor. If you're not using the Duo Camera mode, the experience is the same as the M9, just a regular 20-megapixel camera experience.
Not only is the experience the same, but the results are too. We put the M9 and M9+ side-by-side and have photos that are very close. The performance is middling, and fails to hit the high standards we've been seeing from LG, Samsung, Apple and even companies like Huawei or OnePlus of late.
In bright conditions the M9+'s front camera outperforms the rear, which can often exhibit a yellow or pink cast to images. The low-light performance is weak, with a failure to focus quickly, producing dull images with noticeable image noise. There's been great gains made elsewhere and HTC hasn't kept up here.
For the Duo Camera, simply tap the button to capture images with the added depth data. This can then be used to create a number of effects, like mock 3D, blurring backgrounds and so on. Like the M8, you can create some interesting results, but we've found the novelty quickly wanes.
There's a great photo editor on board too. You can create some diverse picture effects (including some arty kaleidoscopic stuff), but it's better used to correct some of the flaws through the "essentials" section. Within the filters there's a "custom" option, that includes contrast tweaking and that can often give photos the bite they need to have a little more impact.
Overall, don't buy the HTC One M9+ for the camera. You'll get some outstanding good-weather selfies, but otherwise, it's hardly as competitive as HTC once was.
The HTC One M9+ is an improvement on the regular One M9 in a number of areas. It runs cooler with barely any difference in the daily experience when it comes to performance. The battery life is similar or better, despite the boosted display, but the lack of Quick Charge 2.0 compatibility is a shame.
The display is larger at 5.2-inches, so suitability will come down to personal preference, but its qHD resolution means it's sharper and looks better, which is reason enough to opt for this phone over the M9. Then there is the high quality build and the addition of a fingerprint scanner, plus speakers that are amongst the best out there, with a mature software experience bringing everything together.
There are weaknesses, though, with the M9+'s camera being the biggest downside. If that's the most important thing to you, then you don't want this phone. Then there's MediaTek's handling of graphics not matching up to that of Qualcomm. Oh, and availability: HTC announced that the M9+ is going to be available in Europe, but we haven't seen it stocked in the UK anywhere, so you're likely to have to import if you really want one.
Undoubtedly, the HTC M9+ is the phone that HTC should have given to the world at the start of the year instead of the M9. But while it's better than its smaller brother, the smartphone world has rolled on considerably in the last few months too.