HTC One M9 review: A disappointingly good phone

BY GreenBot Staff

Published 30 Mar 2015

The major Android phone manufacturers have their flagship phone lines locked in. has the G series, Samsung has the Galaxy S Note, Motorola has the Moto X line, HTC has the One M series. Every year, we expect these phones to make major strides in design, features, performance, 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 br, 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 familiar design

The One M9 looks almost exactly like the One M8 of last year, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. HTC’s all-metal phone is a looker, still sts 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. ’re told that this space is needed to house circuitry, maybe that’s the price one has to pay for the pair of amplified stereo speakers at the top bottom of the phone. Other phone makers certainly don’t seem to need this extra space.

htc one m9 side
HTC moved the power button from the top edge to the right side. It’s a little awkward, but better once you get used to it.

ok closely 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, there’s a nice grippy ridge around the edges. So while the M8 was prone to slipping out of your h (especially when trying to hit that power button), the M9 feels easier to hold.

htc one m9 side flat up
There’s a ridge around the edges of the phone, making it easier to grip.

There’s a new color option available, too: a silver finish with a gold b 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 C on the market. Using it felt fast fluid, 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.

htc m9 benchmarks vellamo
The One M9 isn’t appreciably faster than the One M8.

mping around the Sense 7 interface, switching between open apps, scrolling through Twitter or Facebook, it’s all smooth 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, 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.

htc m9 benchmarks pcmark
performance: about the same as last year’s phone.
htc m9 benchmarks 3dmark
The Snapdragon 810 is a great graphics performer, at least.

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. th the display calibrated to 200 cd/m2, the battery test gave the M8 a score of 5 hours, 48 minutes, 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 33 minutes!

htc m9 benchmarks battery
Battery life isn’t as bad as the Geekbench score makes it seem, but it is worse than the One M8.

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, 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: y 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, is likely the fault of early unfinished software. en 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 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 Sony are making strides in phone audio, but there’s still no better-sounding phone than HTC’s flagship.

htc one m9 front bottom
Those stereo BoomSound speakers give you the best sound of any phone on the market.

I wish I could say there’s no better-looking display as well, but that’s simply not true. ile much of the rest of the phone market has moved to 2560×1440 displays, HTC is content to continue shipping its 1920×1080 D. It’s a good display, 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. st 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 “Ultraxel” camera with a gimmicky Duo ns camera. It’s as if HTC said, “okay, people don’t dig our science experiment say 4 megapixels isn’t enough. t’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, 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 easy to underst, puts the most common functions right at your fingertips. You can tap the display to refocus or adjust exposure, or tap–hold to lock exposure/focus. There are plenty of options for enthusiasts to tweak 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.

htc m9 camera
The One M9 has a great camera interface: clean straightforward, with plenty of options tucked away for advanced users.

And sometimes, in well-lit scenes, you get really great photos. They’re sharp, with good color 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.

htc m9 flare
The One M9 has a problem with flare on bright spots.

w-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.

one m9 low light
The One M9 is dark grainly in low light, shutter lag is pretty bad.

But sometimes you just get a really nice, beautiful, 20-megapixel photo.

htc m9 macro
Macro shots in well-lit environments tend to look really good.

The camera now takes video up to 4K slow-motion video at 720p at up to 120 frames per second, but neither is worth writing home about. thout 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 jitters of your unsteady hs. The slo-mo video is exceptionally grainy 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 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.

Sense 7: More like Sense 6 with Themes

A year ago, one of our biggest complaints about Android phones was the heavy-hed “skinning” all the major manufacturers applied to the Android interface. ones were bloated with lots of preinstalled software, interfaces had so many bells whistles that they made the phone feel sluggish. HTC was lauded for its Sense 6 interface, which was fast, simple, clear.

launched Android llipop last fall, bringing with it a whole new design aesthetic a set of principles, guidelines, As developers could use to make apps that look like a cohesive sensible part of the Android ecosystem.

So when I say Sense 7 looks feels almost identical to Sense 6, that’s a huge missed opportunity for HTC to deliver icons, fonts, menus, animations, behaviors that mesh with ‘s Material Design principles. ile the M9 ships with Android 5.0.2, it doesn’t really feel like the Sense 7 interface is a natural extension of llipop’s design. This interface feels like Sense 6.5.

htc one m9 widget
The home screen widget that displays location-based app icons didn’t help me much, I ended up disabling it.

There are three major new features in the Sense 7 interface, two of which I disabled after a few days. The first is restaurant suggestions in Blinkfeed, which use Foursquare Yelp reviews to suggest nearby places to eat around mealtimes. It can even put these on the lock screen. Maybe I’m just not adventurous, but I didn’t want to find a new restaurant so frequently that I needed my phone to push suggestions at me. I’m fine with opening Foursquare or Yelp apps when I get the itch.

The second is a 4 x 2 home screen widget that shows a dynamically changing set of apps depending on whether you’re at home, at work, or out on the go. This is based on your usage—you probably don’t use Swarm at home or at work, but you might launch it often when you’re out. Two of the icons are smart folders: One shows your most recently downloaded apps (hy), the other makes a bunch of stupid suggestions for new apps to download (HTC must be getting paid for this lame idea). Several Android launchers have tried this dynamic app list idea before, none of them really caught on. I think people get comfortable with where they put their app icons don’t have any problem navigating to them. At least it’s just a widget, easily removed.

htc one m9 themes
HTC’s Themes in Sense 7 are a fantastic, fun, way to customize the look of your phone.

The useful addition to Sense 7 is HTC’s excellent extensive theming support. I got lost in the new Themes app for at least a couple of hours. The theme store has a lot of really nice themes (all of them free, though presumably if prices are listed at all there will be paid themes at some point).

You can download individual wallpapers, sound packs, fonts, icons. Use the theme editor to mix match to your heart’s content. Take a photo you can build a theme from it, using cropped parts of the photo for your wallpaper various interface elements, even pulling interface colors from the dominant colors in the image.

Themes have been a feature of a many Android launchers skins, HTC really nailed it with their implementation. It’s fast easy for newbies, but flexible enough to please compulsive tinkerers.

ile Sense 7’s themes are a great addition, HTC didn’t go nearly far enough to make Sense feel like it’s part of Android new design principles. It still feels like “a great KitKat skin” instead of “a good llipop skin.”

htc one m9 hero
The HTC One M9: Good phone. Not great, just good.

HTC takes a small step forward where it needs a leap

It feels like HTC is treading water with the One M9. It tweaks tunes makes minor improvements in a few areas, but doesn’t deliver anything really new, nor dramatically better. The design is nearly identical, with a couple of nice refinements. The display is the same. The speakers are pretty much the same (not that I’m complaining). There’s a new processor, but overall performance is about the same, battery life is actually a little bit worse.

ere are the new technologies? ere’s the fingerprint sensor? The wireless charging? The energy-efficient OD display? The retina-scanning? I’m not saying every new flagship phone needs to be loaded with gimmicks (see: heart rate sensors), but there’s literally no useful new technology on the One M9.

The One M9 is a good phone, but it’s only that: good. From both a hardware software stpoint, this feels like one of the best phones of 2014, not a contender for the best phone of 2015. You wouldn’t be bad off buying one, but you wouldn’t really better off than buying last year’s model. That’s painfully faint praise for a flagship phone.