Hands-on with the HTC One M9, an evolutionary 'S model' update

If you look at this year’s Porsche 911, it looks a lot like last year’s. It looks a lot like the one Porsche made 10, or even 40, years ago. Though the car continually undergoes major improvements, inside and out, it maintains a look that is easily distinguishable and iconic. This is what HTC is attempting to do with its One line of flagship smartphones.

Brace yourself, then, for a new One M9 phone that, for better or worse, looks a lot like the One M8. Yes, there are substantial improvements in hardware and software, but at a glance, you’d be forgiven for mistaking this year’s model for last year’s.

If this were an iPhone, it would be the every-other-year “S” model.

Subtle refinements outside

A quick look at the gunmetal grey M9, and I swore I was looking at the M8 (the M9 will also be available in a two-tone silver and gold color scheme). After holding it in my hands for a few moments, I started to notice some welcome refinements. The Duo Camera setup on back has been replaced by a single camera lens.

HTC one m9

The power button has been moved from the top to the right edge, making it easier to press without holding the phone in an awkward position.

The wide “HTC” bar beneath the screen is still there, but it’s thankfully a little shorter. This makes the whole phone a couple millimeters shorter, but really, HTC needs to go further. It’s still almost as tall as an LG G3, a phone with a larger 5.5-inch display. It’s good that the HTC logo space beneath the screen is smaller, but it needs to be gone.

The brushed aluminum case is slightly less curved on the back, making the phone feel a little less slippery—your hand tends to naturally grip the sides a bit more. The power button has been moved to the right side, beneath the volume buttons, making it easier to turn the screen on and off without holding it in an awkward position.

These are welcome tweaks, but holding the phone side-by-side with an M8, I can’t help but feel disappointed. It looks and feels great, but there is plenty of room for improvement, and the competitive world of high-end Android phones moves way too quickly to settle for subtle refinements.

Big upgrades inside

Inside, the M9 gets a nice bump in specs. The Snapdragon 801 has been replaced with a Snapdragon 810, a considerably faster processor with greatly improved graphics and video performance and more robust connectivity. RAM has been bumped up from 2GB to 3GB, and the 16GB storage option has been dropped; the only model on offer has 32GB of storage, with a microSD card slot for more. The battery gets a slight bump from 2600 mAh to 2840 mAh, which might buy you another hour of use.

HTC one m9

BoomSound is still around, and this time it's backed by Dolby Audio. HTC may have once again made the best-sounding phone of the year.

HTC continues to invest in premium audio, and the wonderful stereo BoomSound speakers of the M8 make a return appearance. This time they’re backed by Dolby Audio technology, including virtual surround sound with either speakers or headphones. High-resolution 24-bit audio is supported, and the HTC Connect app supports more wireless speaker technologies, making it easier to stream your sounds around the home. Speaker quality is next to impossible to test in a demo environment, but my brief initial impression was really positive. The other phone makers are going to have to pull a rabbit out of their hat to beat the One M9’s audio game.

If you were hoping the M9 would feature a Quad HD display, I have some bad news. It appears the 5-inch 1080p display is unchanged from the M8. Frankly, this resolution works well at this screen size—there’s really no need for more pixels until you move up to larger screen sizes. The tradeoff in battery life and brightness may not be worth it until you enter into phablet territory. The display on the M8 looked great, and it still looks great on the M9, but the competition in the premium phone market is clearly moving to Quad HD.

Duo camera is no more, but UltraPixel lives on

Last year, HTC tried to give us something new with its Duo Camera. It paired a 4 megapixel “UltraPixel” camera sensor with a secondary depth sensor to enable lots of neat photo tricks, like selectively de-focusing parts of the image after you take the shot. These gimmicks were cool, but not really the sort of thing you run out and buy a phone for.

HTC one m9

The Duo Camera experiment is over, and HTC instead opted for a single 20-megapixel rear camera.

And that UltraPixel shooter...yeesh. A paltry four megapixels, all for the promise of excellent low-light performance? The M8 didn’t really perform that much better than other premium phones in low light, and that low megapixel count made it nearly impossible to crop a photo and wind up with something usable. On the M8, the front-facing camera, at 5 megapixels, was higher-res than the rear camera!

HTC has learned from its mistake and dumped the Duo Camera in favor of a reliable high-end 20 megapixel camera on the rear, with a sapphire glass lens cover to resist scratches. I snapped off a few shots in the demo room, and shutter lag seems much reduced, though there was still a bit of a focus delay. White balance and color seem accurate, though that sort of thing is best tested in a controlled environment.

The M9 shoots 4K video at 30fps, 1080p at 60fps, or 720p at up to 120fps for a nice slow-motion effect. It’s a big improvement over the M8’s video capabilities, but I can’t say I’m thrilled with the quality of the slow-motion mode. It wasn’t really bright where I was shooting, but it wasn’t exactly dark, and the 720p 120fps video was quite visibly full of noise. This is the sort of problem I’ll want to reassess when I have the shipping phone with final software in my hands.

The new camera app is still easy to use, but I would love to see a few more options for enthusiasts, like manual focus control, or the ability to save raw images. HTC is focusing on easy image editing, going beyond crops and filters to more advanced stuff like double exposure. It’s cool, but I don’t know how frequently it will be used by most consumers. I sometimes scratch my head when manufacturers dive into features like photo editing—which third-party apps handle so well—instead of focusing on a better picture-taking experience. Maybe someone will become a big Instagram star with their neat double exposure images, but I kind of doubt it.

UltraPixel isn’t quite dead yet, though. This year, HTC has moved the 4MP UltraPixel camera to the front. This makes a lot of sense: with no flash up front, you want the best possible low-light performance for your selfies. And the limited 4-megapixel resolution is actually quite good for a front-facing camera.

Sense 7 is more dynamic than ever

HTC is especially proud of its Sense 7 interface, built atop Android Lollipop. It looks a lot like Sense 6, but with a big emphasis on personalization.

BlinkFeed has been enhanced, and will optionally suggest locations to visit from Yelp and Foursquare, even putting them right on your lockscreen. Just glance at your phone to see if there’s a taco joint nearby that you just have to try.

HTC one m9

The M9 comes in two colors: gunmetal grey, and a two-tone silver-and-gold finish.

The default home screen is dominated by a large widget that offers a couple rows of dynamically-changing app icons. Sense 7 uses your location to show a different set of apps for work, home, or on the go. It’s not a new idea—I’ve tried several Android launchers that do the same thing—but it can be a time-saver and if you don’t like it, you can just remove the widget.

The most exciting feature of Sense 7 is its support for themes. You can choose a background image and easily build a color palette from the dominant colors in the image. But the theme gallery is the real star of the show. Pick a theme from the gallery and it changes the colors, font, clock, even the back/home/multitasking buttons. I tried three or four themes at random, and they were all striking.

Unfortunately, it looks like Sense 7 doesn’t really dive head first into the Android Lollipop pool. The multitasking screen is a grid of screen images just as it is on Sense 6, ignoring the new Lollipop “rolodex cards” effect for running apps. The quick settings screen looks a lot like the old one, too. Custom themes aside, the colors, fonts, use of negative space, and core OS features (like settings menus) don’t feel like they mesh with Google’s new Material Design guidelines. As more apps take on the Material aesthetic, they’re going to clash with HTC’s interface.

The good news is, the interface is still as fast and fluid as ever. Everything instantly snapped open, scrolling was smooth, and switching between apps was lag-free.

The competition is fierce

Last year, the HTC One M8 took home our overall phone of the year award. It wasn’t perfect (especially the camera), but it delivered what a lot of other premium phones didn’t. Everyone has great specs, but the M8 gave us quality craftsmanship. HTC pared back the overblown custom interface stuff in favor of a lag-free experience, and gave us software features we found genuinely useful. It wasn’t necessarily the best phone in any one category, but we use our phones for everything, and it was the best at doing it all.

One might expect, then, that a successor that focuses on refining that experience, with few monumental changes, would be first in line for winning phone of the year this year. But we expect other phone manufacturers to step up their design game, fix their software flaws, and come out swinging with lots of new features.

As much as I like the M9, I can’t help but feel that it’s missing something. A new-generation fingerprint sensor, brand new display technology, or perhaps new universal wireless charging support. Instead, it “only” has the latest Qualcomm SoC and improved camera together with a bevy of small-but-welcome hardware and software tweaks. That makes for a fine phone, but I’m skeptical about its ability to top this year’s best efforts from Samsung, LG, Sony, or Motorola.

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