HTC One M9 review: A disappointingly good phone

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Sense 7: More like Sense 6 with Themes

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

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

So when I say Sense 7 looks and feels almost identical to Sense 6, that’s a huge missed opportunity for HTC to deliver icons, fonts, menus, animations, and behaviors that mesh with Google's Material Design principles. While the M9 ships with Android 5.0.2, it doesn’t really feel like the Sense 7 interface is a natural extension of Lollipop’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, and 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 and 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 (handy), 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, and none of them really caught on. I think people get comfortable with where they put their app icons and don’t have any problem navigating to them. At least it's just a widget, and easily removed.

htc one m9 themes

HTC's Themes in Sense 7 are a fantastic, and fun, way to customize the look of your phone.

The useful addition to Sense 7 is HTC’s excellent and 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, and icons. Use the theme editor to mix and match to your heart’s content. Take a photo and you can build a theme from it, using cropped parts of the photo for your wallpaper and various interface elements, and even pulling interface colors from the dominant colors in the image.

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

While 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 Lollipop 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 and tunes and 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, and battery life is actually a little bit worse.

Where are the new technologies? Where’s the fingerprint sensor? The wireless charging? The energy-efficient OLED 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 and software standpoint, 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.


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At a Glance
  • The One M9 is a modest update of last year's One M8. It's a good phone, but doesn't advance the state of the art.


    • Excellent build quality and all-metal design
    • Fantastic stereo speakers


    • Unreliable camera
    • Mediocre performance and battery life for a flagship phone
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