• Paul Fingleton

HTC One M9: Review

The HTC One M9, announced at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this year, is a premium phone. Almost everything about its appearance silently screams that the team designing this phone knew how they wanted it to look, to refine a design that first began in 2013 with the HTC One M7 and evolved through the M8.

Appearances can be deceiving.

In our first impressions article on the HTC One M9 we covered at length the details and thought that have gone into this handset. The design language means that it is unmistakably a member of the HTC One family, the body made from a single piece of aluminium with its gentle curved back. This is a beautiful looking smartphone and is designed to sit comfortably in your hand while in use and not to be in the way when in your pocket or bag.

The changes between the HTC One M8 and M9 are subtle at first glance, and this is one of the reasons that some commentary on the internet has claimed that HTC has not done enough with the M9 to warrant an update. Some corners of the internet disparaged the new handset by calling it an M8 's', similar to Apple's iPhone 's' series of phones that are last year's model with a minor spec bump, and not a truly new handset.

HTC had the last laugh in that argument when it released an actual HTC One M8s a few weeks after the launch of the M9.

Side-by-side with an M8, however, you can see and feel the difference in the M9.

Tooled from a single block of Aluminium, the process taking almost twice as long as last year's M8-series, leaves a sleek and stylish finish. The dual adonised aluminium is now available in a two-tone effect in addition to more traditional Gunmetal Grey. Our review copy in the premium gold on silver colour scheme certainly caught the eye of many an on-looker as we were using it in testing.

The rounded back of the device finishes with a thin, sharp edge that makes it much easier to grip. The phone is less likely to slip from your grasp than its predecessor, however some may find this edge just a little too sharp if they are used to holding their phone tightly. It is something that you quickly adjust to, and holding the phone slightly more gently than you usually would means that it is comfortable to hold.

A scratch resistant coating on the rear of the phone ensures that the phone is somewhat immune to scratches from keys and other pocket items and also resists the urge to slide from your grasp.

When it comes to holding the phone, it is amazing what can be packed into a device of this size and weigh only 157g (about three Mars bars).

How good is it as a phone?

The more advanced our phones become, the less we use them for the purpose for which they were originally created, making calls. How does the HTC One M9 handle itself as a phone? Very well. The call quality was pin sharp and talking to the person on the other end was as clear as if they were standing next to me. Overall network reception was better than with our usual day-to-day phone, a Lumia 920.

SMS and other messaging options were on par with experiences of similar Android Phones.

What Features does it have?

Smartphone technology has perhaps reached a point similar to the car market, there are certain features that everyone will expect as standard on a new model and the premium brands need to do something to convince you why their model is better.

On a bargain smartphone users will expect GPS, multi-touch display, forward and rear facing cameras as standard. So, what does the HTC One M9 offer above this to warrant the Flagship phone label?

The design and crafting of the phone instantly show that some considerable effort and thought has gone into the aesthetic of the phone. The scratch resistant shell, carved from a single block of aluminium, houses a beautiful 5-inch Full HD display that sits behind toughened Gorilla Glass 4 and itself is sandwiched between two forward facing BoomSound speakers.

The speakers have been a feature since the HTC One M7 was released in 2013. This year they are boosted by Dolby Audio processing and the speakers really shine when listening to music. During our tests classical music fared best with warm tones from the string sections in addition to vocals of a group such as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir surrounded you with a clear sound that belies the size of the speakers on the handset.

Keeping up with the recent Slane Castle concert, we tried out various Foo Fighters tracks and even on full volume the sound was clear, with little to no distortion of sound at the loudest, although it felt as if it overall lacked a little bass.

The headphones that come with the M9 appear to be similar to those from previous years models. They are comfortable to wear, thanks to the silicone coating (in various sizes) and sound is clear and handles high and mid-range sounds very well but has no discernible bass at all which leaves music or movies sounding very tinny. For our tests we replaced the packed-in headphones with a basic set of Apple Earpods and they performed much better for louder and deeper sounds or music.

Picture Perfect?

Gone from the rear of HTC One this year is the Duo Camera Ultra Pixel combination, and replaced with a more traditional shooter. A 20 Megapixel camera protrudes slightly from the rear of the device, protected by a sapphire screen this is likely to resist scratches and keep it safe.

Under normal lighting conditions we found the pictures taken with the rear camera to be very good. Picture-to-picture time was quick, and you are not likely to miss a moment because the phone is processing the previous picture before you want to take the next one.

Colours are reproduced well, and look amazing on the HD screen.

HTC have crammed their camera and photo software with lots of options that will make it easy for users to tinker for ages to set up a shot the way they like it - the camera even allow files to be saved in the RAW file format used by professional photographers. The file size for RAW photos will be significantly larger than normal files, so it would be recommended to have a large, fast MicroSD card to hand when using this mode.

The front-facing camera uses the Ultra Pixel lens from last year's M8, and makes a great deal of difference when used in low-light conditions - a condition when most selfies or video chats are likely to occur.

The Panorama feature is really quick and smooth to stitch pictures together in a beautiful panoramic shot without unnecessary fish-eye effect or jarring angles in the photo.

Post processing receives a lot of attention, with special effects such as snow, dust, star fields and even kaleidoscope effects being possible with an abundance of ease.

Video is also a high standard, although the lack of Optical Image Stabilisation means that some pictures turned out blurrier than we would have liked and videos can tend to be very shaky if motion or panning occurs while recording.

Does it make Sense?

Google has an idea, a design philosophy, of how it would like Android to look and feel. The Nexus range of devices come with stock Google Android installed and are meant to show how it should be done. Phone manufacturers are free to add their own skins or customisations to the OS. Samsung's TouchWiz often comes in for much ridicule for being unnecessarily bloated and slow.

It is refreshing, then, that HTC's own customisation HTC Sense 7.0 is very light and does little to interfere with Android 'as it should be'. Anyone moving from another Android device will be able to pick up this phone and quickly get around it's UI.

Front and Centre in the UI is the new Sense Home widget, it tries to learn when you are in certain locations and surface the apps that you use most often at that location as quick links. This is a very useful feature and within a day or so of using the phone it had already learned Home and Work locations, automatically switching the featured applications for these locations - e-mail, OneNote and Calendar for work; Facebook, Twitter and Asphalt 8 for home; Messenger, Google Maps and such for everywhere else under the category 'Out'.

This is a really useful feature, well implemented a subtle personalisation feature that should not be overlooked. Although some valuable space on the widget is taken up with "Downloads" and "Suggestions" folders that attempt to recommend apps that may or may not be relevant to the apps you already have installed.

BlinkFeed also lets you receive a personalised feed of information which you may find interesting. A quick swipe right from the home screen opens a tailored list of headlines and topics from your likes and customised list of sources for information on Facebook, Google+ or specific web sites. The list updates quickly and is useful for keeping up to date on related topics.

Gestures are a welcome addition that Sense bring to Android. Through various tap or swipe combinations on your home screen, the phone will unlock or jump straight to your desired action - even when the screen is off. For example, a swipe right on your screen when you take it out of your pocket will bring you straight to BlinkFeed, another gesture gets you to the camera, and so on.

Another example of the small, yet very thoughtful, improvements with the HTC One M9 is the option to enable an extra soft button in the Navigation Bar. It is a simple step that can make a frequent task that little bit quicker.

Performance

The HTC One M9 is fast, very fast. The 64-bit octo-core Snapdragon 810 chip is more than capable to handle the average tasks sent to it in our tests - generally trying to mimic average day-to-day usage rather than a specific scientific method.

HD Video, both local and streamed via Netflix appeared beautifully and smoothly on-screen, although the screen can be susceptible to reflection or glare and when watching a darker video (such as Marvel's Daredevil) when commuting can make it difficult to follow the action.

For web browsing, the Chrome browser is fast to render everything we could send to it and correctly rendered most sites natively in the mobile web form factor.

Gaming, likewise, benefits from the processing power of the HTC One and the 3GB of RAM. 3D intensive games like Asphalt 8: Airborne run without any glitching or buffering and are immediately responsive to touch controls.

Something we noticed with the phone, however, was after a short period of using it for processor intensive applications such as 3D gaming or even using a GPS application that the phone became very warm, almost to the point of uncomfortably so. Reviews on another site actually highlighted that you can melt chocolate on the back of the device when it gets this hot.

Battery

HTC have managed to put a higher capacity battery in the HTC One M9 than in last year's M8. A 2840 mAh battery should get you around 20 hours of talk time according to HTC documentation.

In our real world usage tests - on a 1 hour commute by public transport. The phone lasted through about 6 hours of varied faffing about.

  • Took 5-6 photos, panoramas

  • Watched 10 mins Netflix (3G / 4G)

  • Listened 20 mins Spotify (3G / 4G)

  • Downloaded 42 app updates (3G / 4G)

  • Downloaded FIFA 15 (1.2 GB) - (4G / WiFi)

  • Browsed Web, 60-90 mins

HTC does have two power saving methods: Power Saving and Extreme Power saving that really try to squeeze the last bit of juice from that large battery. These switch off extra settings on the phone in an effort to keep the phone running until the next recharge - the digital equivalent of taking the batteries out, rubbing them on your jeans and putting them back in a different order. But this really seems to work effectively to conserve the battery for that last few percent.

For other days of testing, when there weren't as many app updates, we managed to go from 7am to 6pm arriving home with the phone at 1% battery left.

The feeling is that if you steer clear of a lot of processing intensive tasks, such as 3D gaming or multiple downloads, you should easily get a full day between charges, and the Extreme Battery Saver really wrings every last percent out of the battery.

Summary

Overall the HTC One M9 is a very well designed, high quality phone. It feels comfortable to hold and fits neatly into a jeans pocket or handbag without worrying too much about scratches.

The audio quality of the handset is without doubt the best we have heard from smart phone speakers. The display is crisp and highlights that at 5-inches you can survive without a Quad HD screen, as it will save your battery life.

HTC Sense 7 brings some nice customisations to your Android experience and with some slight tweaks could really be outstanding. The automatic change between Home, Work and Out feels like the phone is trying to help you get where you need to go, faster.

The HTC One M9 is an excellent phone that refines and improves on its predecessor in almost every way. These changes are subtle and may often be overlooked until you use the phone. But are they worth the upgrade price?

That is perhaps the best way to summarise the HTC One M9. If you are in the market for a beautifully crafted, high-spec Android Smartphone, the HTC One M9 is worth your consideration. Unless you have the HTC One M8, that is. Owners of last year's model would do well to upgrade, and will like each of the improvements, but only if money is no option.

We liked:

  • BoomSound Speakers provide truly excellent audio for phone speakers. Dolby adds to the experience.

  • Call quality is pin sharp. Mobile-to-Mobile, Mobile-to-Landline.

  • Pocket friendly size - fits well into jeans, no noticeable bulk.

  • Camera is easy to use, nice panorama function.

  • Customisation and personalisation is easy.

  • Touch Gestures - unlock screen, launch apps from switched off.

  • Adding an Extra button to the Navigation Bar

We Didn't Like:

  • The phone becomes very warm after continued usage.

  • The earphones included with the phone are not great for bass. It sounds good for vocals and treble range, but otherwise sound tinny.

  • The screen is very reflective, watching dark video (e.g. Netflix Daredevil) can be difficult.

HTC One M9 Specs at a Glance:

  • 5" Full HD Screen.

  • 20MP Main Camera.

  • 4 UltraPixel slefie (Front facing) camera.

  • Dolby Audio Surround Sound.

  • Qualcomm® Snapdragon™ 810, octacore.

  • RAM: 3GB32GB User Memory, microSD™ up to 128GB64-bit, 4 x 2.0GHz + 4 x 1.5GHz

Availability

The HTC One M9 is available in Gunmetal Grey or Gold on Silver from all the major Irish mobile networks with prices ranging from Free on bill-pay up to €749 if you buy SIM-Free directly from HTC.

Disclaimer

Our tests were performed on the Three Ireland network using a review HTC One M9 handset provided by HTC Ireland. The handset was running Android Lollipop (5.02) and HTC Sense 7.0

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