The major Android phone manufacturers have their flagship phone lines locked in. LG has the G series, Samsung has the Galaxy S and Note, Motorola has the Moto X line, and HTC has the One M series. Every year, we expect these phones to make major strides in design, features, performance, and quality. For the most part, they do. This year, HTC’s flagship phone takes a disappointingly small step forward.
The One M9 does bring a few improvements over the M8, but they’re not significant enough to keep up with the rapid pace of improvement in the Android ecosystem. Not every phone has to be a total reinvention of its brand, but we expect these expensive flagship phones to push the state of the art, while the One M9 feels firmly grounded in last year’s technology. It's a good phone, but also a disappointment.
A refined and familiar design
The One M9 looks almost exactly like the One M8 of last year, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. HTC’s all-metal phone is a looker, and still stands as one of the best-built, most aesthetically pleasing phones on the market. The M9 is a couple millimeters shorter than the M8, though still unusually tall for a 5-inch phone thanks to the black bar with the HTC logo that sits beneath the display. We’re told that this space is needed to house circuitry, and maybe that’s the price one has to pay for the pair of amplified stereo speakers at the top and bottom of the phone. Other phone makers certainly don’t seem to need this extra space.
Look closely and you’ll spot a number of small refinements to HTC’s phone design. The power button has moved from its awkward perch on the upper edge to the right side. It takes a little getting used to, but this is better placement overall. The back is still rounded, but slightly less so, and there’s a nice grippy ridge around the edges. So while the M8 was prone to slipping out of your hand (especially when trying to hit that power button), the M9 feels easier to hold.
There’s a new color option available, too: a silver finish with a gold band around the edges. Those in our office who like gold gadgets think it looks great; I prefer the darker gunmetal grey, which is still an option.
Beefy hardware specs that don’t deliver
The One M8 shipped with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor—at the time, the highest-performance mobile CPU on the market. Using it felt fast and fluid, and it topped benchmark charts. The M9 takes the same approach, giving us the powerful Snapdragon 810. The RAM increases from 2GB to 3GB. The 2600mAh battery of the M8 has been boosted to 2840mAh. On paper, it's a big upgrade over the M8. So what’s the problem? The problem is that in practice, it's not any faster than last year’s phone.
Jumping around the Sense 7 interface, switching between open apps, scrolling through Twitter or Facebook, it’s all smooth and responsive…just like it was on the M8. Our benchmarks are all very similar to those on the M8, too. The new phone is sometimes a few percent faster, sometime a few percent slower, but overall very similar. Only in 3D graphics tests did the new processor distinguish itself, and not by an impressive margin. I have a hard time believing there’s some app out that will run well on the M9 but not on the M8.
And the battery life is worse! Even though HTC crammed in a battery with 9-percent higher capacity, it won’t last quite as long. With the display calibrated to 200 cd/m2, the PCMark battery test gave the M8 a score of 5 hours, 48 minutes, and the M9 a score of 5 hours, 12 minutes—a 10 percent difference. The disparity in the Geekbench battery test was much more pronounced. In that test, the M8 lasted 4 hours, 41 minutes, the M9 a mere 2 hours and 33 minutes!
In my regular daily use, the phone still managed to get through an average day without needing a recharge. But if I played games on the bus in the morning, browsed social media throughout the day, and took a bunch of photos, I found myself needing to hit the charger in the evening. So that Geekbench number shouldn’t freak you out too much. The One M9 has what I would call “all-day battery life with moderate use,” but still I’m left wondering: Why isn’t it getting better?
The M9 supports Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 2.0, but HTC only gives you a regular 5V, 1.5A charger in the box. It took about 2.5 hours to charge up with it—not awful, but certainly not what I'd call quick. And who wants to buy a separate charger to take advantage of the fast-charging capabilities?
You may have read reports about the One M9's getting uncomfortably hot. That wasn’t my experience, and is likely the fault of early unfinished software. When running benchmarks it can really get cookin’, but that’s true of many phones with metal exteriors. Under normal use it didn’t feel hotter than any other high-end phone.
Still the best speakers in the business
One of our favorite features of HTC’s One M series is the loud “BoomSound” stereo speakers. That feature is still found on the M9, with a new partner in Dolby. They’re wonderfully loud and clear—not quite as loud as those on the M8 at full volume, but with less distortion. Dolby’s virtual surround sound is supposed to make a wide sound field with either headphones or the phone’s built-in speakers, but it didn’t really impress me.
Still, with either headphones or the phone’s own speakers, this is basically the best-sounding phone on the market. Motorola and Sony are making strides in phone audio, but there’s still no better-sounding phone than HTC’s flagship.
I wish I could say there’s no better-looking display as well, but that’s simply not true. While much of the rest of the phone market has moved to 2560x1440 displays, HTC is content to continue shipping its 1920x1080 LCD. It’s a good display, and the resolution is just fine for a screen of this size. It gets pretty bright, making it easy to read in the sunlight.
Still, this is essentially the same display as we saw last year, only with the white point calibrated a little on the green side. It’s not the highest-res screen around, nor the one with the widest color gamut, or best viewing angles, or most accurate color calibration. It’s good, but that’s all. Just good. Flagship phones aren’t supposed to be just good, right?
The camera: 20 mediocre megapixels
The back of the One M9 is adorned with a single 20-megapixel camera. It seems like an overcompensation for the love-it-or-hate-it camera on the One M8, which married a paltry 4-megapixel "UltraPixel" camera with a gimmicky Duo Lens camera. It's as if HTC said, "okay, people don't dig our science experiment and say 4 megapixels isn't enough. Let's put the highest-resolution sensor in this thing we can find."
But megapixels alone do not great photos make. A really good smartphone camera experience consistently takes great photos in all sorts of situations, with as little waiting around as possible. The camera app should launch instantly, the photo should be taken the very instant you tap the shutter button, and the result should look great. Sometimes the M9 camera delivers, sometimes it does not.
First, the good news. The camera interface is great. It's simple and easy to understand, and puts the most common functions right at your fingertips. You can tap the display to refocus or adjust exposure, or tap-and-hold to lock exposure/focus. There are plenty of options for enthusiasts to tweak and tune, tucked away in the menus. The camera interface live view doesn't update as smoothly as it should—it's sort of choppy at times—but it's not a dealbreaker.
And sometimes, in well-lit scenes, you get really great photos. They're sharp, with good color and tonal range. And of course, they're 20 megapixels big, so there's plenty of room to crop down.
Other times, the shots are ruined by a host of small faults. In bright scenes, hot-spot areas (like reflections on metal bumpers or glass) can throw off serious lens flare.
Low-light photos look worse than with the One M8 (I guess those Ultrapixels were good for something). The white balance is good, but they're significantly grainier. And they don't compare favorably with that other flagship phone shipping at the same time, the Galaxy S6.
But sometimes you just get a really nice, beautiful, 20-megapixel photo.
The camera now takes video up to 4K and slow-motion video at 720p at up to 120 frames per second, but neither is worth writing home about. Without optical image stabilization, the extra resolution of a 4K video feels like a waste, because the phone doesn't smooth out all the little wiggles and jitters of your unsteady hands. The slo-mo video is exceptionally grainy and noisy unless you're in a really well-lit environment.
Smartphone cameras are a big deal for all users. It's the camera you always have with you. A high-end flagship phone doesn't have to have a ton of new gimmicky features, but it does need to take photos and videos that look great, in a wide variety of conditions, with minimal effort. The One M9 camera would have been considered impressive a couple of years ago, but in 2015, it just doesn't compare with other flagship phones.
These tips will quickly have you using LG's new flagship phone like a pro.
Go from newbie to expert in 10 minutes with this collection of tips.
With a ton in the Google Play Store, here are some of the best backup and utility apps around.
A phone that’s more than two years old? The horror!
Sixteen?! Rovio's franchise goes under the microscope as it hits the big screen.
Google's crowns 10 must-try apps in its inaugural app awards ceremony.
You don't have to be stuck shooting with the camera app that came with your phone.