HTC One M9 review
The HTC One M9's successor, the HTC 10, is now available
HTC doesn’t have the same enormous marketing budgets as Apple or Samsung to help propel its phones into the public consciousness. Despite this, it has still managed to sell plenty of HTC One and HTC One M8 phones thanks to their flat-out quality.
The HTC One M9, as its name suggests, is a relatively sober refresh of the One M8 which was itself an update of the original One. This conservative approach stands in stark contrast to the Samsung Galaxy S6 range which is a comprehensive retooling of the market leader.
HTC One M9 latest news
21/06/2016: The HTC 10, successor to the HTC One M9, is now available. HTC has ditched the 'One' designation, opting instead for a much simpler sequential model.
The phone is, thankfully, a vast improvement over the HTC One M9. Battery life is superb, performance is suitably nippy, and the casing and build quality remain two of HTC's major strengths.
The camera has also been given an upgrade, which was one of the M9's weak points. Photos were sharp and well-lit, even in poor lighting conditions.
HTC is still overlaying Android with its own-brand Sense UI, but the implementation is not as cluttered and egregious as it has been in the past. Still, there are features - like the blinking notification light - that we'd like to be able to do away with.
All in all, the HTC 10 is the phone that the company should have released a year ago. It's a credible rival to the current champion of Android flagships, the Samsung Galaxy S7, but it may struggle in such an oversaturated market.
08/03/2016: The HTC 10 - successor to the HTC One M9 - is almost here, according to rumours.
Notorious leaker Evan Blass has said that 19 April is "nearly a lock" for the device's launch.
He has also shown off leaked renders of the handset ahead of its official announcement.
The pictures show that the phone has an interesting design, retaining the traditional curved back but adding a chunky chamfer around the rear.
This could be an effort by HTC to distance its visual design from companies like Samsung, which have since imitated its signature curved shell.
On the front, it has a fingerprint scanner and a 5.1in display that, according to French leaker Steve Hemmerstoffer, will have a 2560x1440 resolution.
Hemmerstoffer, who also goes by OnLeaks, also claimed that the device will be fitted with a Snapdragon 820 CPU, 4GB of RAM and a USB Type-C charging port.
If the rumours are accurate, this could see HTC regain its place as one of Android's heavy hitters.
08/02/2016: HTC has been rolling out Android 6.0 Marshmallow upgrade to One M9 owners, but currently this is limited to those on the Sprint network in the US. It is hoped taht other users will also get the update in the coming weeks. The release build number is 3.51.651.3 and sports Marshmallow features such as Doze, which puts the device in a very low power mode to preserve battery life. and Google Now on Tap.
05/02/2016: The HTC One M9 could soon be surpassed by the HTC One M10, rumours suggest.
The company is reportedly planning to launch a new flagship device in March, according to Know Your Mobile, arriving on shelves in April.
The event will deliberately be scheduled after February’s MWC, in order to avoid competing for attention with other manufacturers.
The device will apparently stick to a metal unibody chassis as seen in previous phones, with the added benefit of IP78 waterproofing.
However, the M10 could ditch the curved design of the rest of the M-series, and opt instead for an iPhone-style aesthetic. That’s according to the notorious leaker Evan Blass, who tweeted that “if you like the A9, you’ll love the M10”.
In terms of hardware, the M10 looks to have a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 CPU, with 4GB of RAM to back it up. Also rumoured is a fingerprint sensor and MicroSD support as standard.
HTC One M9: casing
Upon first meeting the HTC One M9, it’s clear this is no poor relation to its rivals from Cupertino and Korea. Like the HTC One M8, the M9 is made of brushed aluminium and so looks very classy and feels exceptionally robust.
The HTC One M9 is 9.6mm thick, which may appear chunky next to the 6.8mm Galaxy S6. But as that measurement only applies to the centre of the M9’s rear, it doesn’t come across as remotely obese. One of the smartest practical moves is something that sounds incredibly basic. The power button has moved from the top of the phone to the side, within easy thumb reach.
HTC has also added a ridge running around the edge of the screen giving your fingers extra grip. It’s a small change, but it helps a lot. This is still a very big phone though - if you have small hands then you’ll still find it unwieldy to use single handed.
The One M9’s colouring is also a little different from its predecessors. The version tested has a two tone finish, using a copper-inflected gold for its sides and silver for the back and front panels. A darker metallic grey version is also available. The One M9 is every bit as striking as its predecessors, although its impact is naturally reducing by looking so similar to last year’s HTC One M8.
HTC One M9: Connectivity and Screen
Not every conservative move is bad, though. Where Samsung has removed microSD slots from the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge, the HTC One M9 still has its storage card slot. Being a unibody phone, the microSD and nano SIM cards get their own trays, on either side of the device.
A design decision likely to attract a lot of superficial criticism is that the HTC One M9 has a 1080p screen, where most of its high-end Android rivals have higher-resolution 2560x1440 resolution displays. The HTC One M9’s resolution is more than good enough though – in a 5in screen, you’d be very hard pressed to tell the difference between the two resolutions. Pedantry is needed to make a big issue out of the resolution difference. Resolution alone is not a good enough reason to pick a Galaxy S6 or LG G4 over the HTC One M9.
Actual image quality is very good, only limited by the characteristics of the LCD-based panel. Black level on an LCD is always going to be slightly limited. However, it’s only obvious in dimly-lit rooms.
Backlight brightness was good enough for outdoors visibility, although the Galaxy S6’s Super AMOLED display is better at coping with very strong sunlight.
HTC One M9: Software
The HTC One M9 runs Android 5.0 and has a fast, tasteful custom interface called Sense 7.0. It’s similar to the version used in previous HTC phones, but has introduces a few new features. First, it embraces the Android 5.0 Lollipop-style look as well notifications and animations so Sense doesn’t feel out of place.
It also embraces themes. These are often used to ruin a phone’s look and usability with gaudy, overblown visuals, but HTC has packed some fairly tasteful ones into the One M9.
The Smart Home widget appears designed for people who want to use their phone as a dual-purpose work and personal phone. This changes which apps appear on the lead home screen depending on your location – ‘home’, ‘work’ and ‘out’.
However, this only really works well if you only ever use certain apps at work and never use them anywhere else. Most people’s habits are likely to be more nuanced than this – especially if you sometimes work from home or check your personal social media at lunch. As a result, we found that the Smart Home widget never got it quite right and we ended up disabling it.
BlinkFeed makes a return too. This is a long-standing full home screen app that offers an update stream featuring content from your social networks, calendar and news feeds. While designed more for idle browsing, if you’re already a dedicated news follower or a serious social media user then this lightweight Flipboard clone is unlikely to replace the apps you already use.
Like the One M8, there’s a Kid Mode app designed to give little ones a restricted space where they can only access apps and content that you choose thereby protecting your own valuable data.
HTC One M9: Performance
The HTC One M9 uses the current Qualcomm flagship processor, the Snapdragon 810. This is an octo-core CPU clocked at 2GHz, with four top-performance Cortex-A57 cores and four slower but more power efficient 1.5GHz Cortex-A53 cores.
It comfortably outperformed older Qualcomm processors in our benchmarks. However, it did struggle with heat a little more than the Galaxy S6. The metal body conducts the waste heat of the internals easily, making the phone appear to get hot quite quickly under stress. The Snapdragon 810 throttles performance slightly after a short while to mitigate this heat issue though, so in most everyday use cases overheating wasn’t a major issue.
HTC One M9: Battery Life
Battery life was underwhelming, lasting just under 24 hours when used for calls, photography, web browsing and Google Maps when connected to O2’s 3G network in London’s West End. When playing videos continuously, it lasted just over nine and a half hours. These are very average scores. Unless some of the more extreme power-saving measures are used, two-day stamina is a distant dream.
The HTC One M9 has two main power-saving modes. One for general use limits screen brightness, throttles the processor a bit and can cut off background mobile data if necessary. It cuts down the phone’s smarts without radically changing the experience, while Extreme power saving mode uses a bespoke, cut-back UI that only gives access to the most basic phone features. In return it’ll make the last few per cent of the battery last for hours.
HTC One M9: Sound Quality and Camera
The HTC One M9 uses the same BoomSound front-facing speakers as previous One phones, providing much better sound quality than any other phone we’ve seen. They sound much richer with a less harsh-sounding mid-range. This made them particularly well-suited for voices, whether those of podcasts or handsfree calls.
The HTC approach to cameras is less successful, though. For the past couple of years, HTC has used UltraPixel cameras in its phones. UltraPixel cameras had sensors that were comparable in size to those found in other high-end phones but used fewer megapixels for greater image fidelity, if lower detail.
After much criticism for its low-res images, HTC has switched the 4-megapixel UltraPixel sensor around to the front, using a (reported) Toshiba 20-megapixel sensor on the rear. This makes it one of the highest-resolution cameras around, although when shooting in the default 16:9 aspect ratio, shots are cropped resulting in roughly 16-megapixel images.
This is a lot, of course, but it’s important to assess the numbers before claiming the HTC One M9 camera is in any way superior to the Galaxy S6’s. We bring this up because it is still a problematic camera, suffering from some of the same problems as the HTC One M8.
It struggles to exposure scenes that have much contrast in light levels, resulting in shots that are frequently under or over-exposed. While photos taken in dim conditions had minimal noise, they were prone to blurriness and fine details were lost. Flesh tones in portraits, even those taken with plenty of light, were a little smeared and unnatural-looking. The HTC One M9 can produce some stunning pictures, but its hit rate is significantly worse than the iPhone 6 or Galaxy S6.
While the front camera also struggles with exposure, the good low light performance of the UltraPixel sensor makes this one of the best ‘selfie’ cameras to date.
HTC One M9: Is it worth it?
We don’t mind that HTC has only lightly changed the casing of the One M9 - it is a strength of the One series after all. What’s more unforgivable is that the camera and battery life are so mediocre. Performance, screen and build quality are up to scratch, but many other phones also share these advantages. Unless looks are everything, you can get better elsewhere..
Update: Since publication, the HTC One M9 has received a major software update. Among the improvements are a better auto-mode in the camera app to improve overall dynamic range and pictures taken in low light.
There are also improvements to battery life to decrease consumption by social apps and YouTube.
Smart charging has also been improved to keep the phone cooler when charging.
Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 2GHz octo-core
GPU: Adreno 430
Memory: 3GB RAM
Storage: 32GB on-board, expandable via microSD
Connectivity: 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, 4G, IR
Ports: MicroUSB 2.0, headphone jack, microSD, nano SIM
Dimensions: (WxDxH): 144.6 x 69.7 x 9.6mm