Hands on with the new HTC One M9
The HTC One M9 is one of the most hotly anticipated phones of 2015, and rightly so. It marries top-notch materials to slick design, and is the latest in a long line of the most desirable phones of recent years.
So, should you be excited? While the M9 isn’t radically different from the One M8, it looks like HTC has addressed all the most serious issues with the M8, particularly with its somewhat inconsistent main camera and its gimmicky Duo camera feature. The HTC One M8 was one of my favourite phones from last year, and on this evidence the M9 will repeat that feat.
Watch our hands-on video review of the HTC One M9:
HTC One M9 Release Date and Price
The HTC One M9 will be available for purchase from 31st March 2015. Pricing has not yet been announced.
HTC One M9 – The cameras are all new and improved
Cameras are one of the most important features on any smartphone, and the innovative yet gimmicky Duo camera on the previous HTC One didn’t deliver. The HTC One M8 was great in low light, but it often didn’t match rivals in other conditions.
HTC has listened and really upped its game in this department. A more traditional 20-megapixel sensor now sits on the rear of the HTC One M9 and there’s a 4-megapixel UltraPixel front-facing camera. That’s the same 4-megapixel camera the HTC One M8 had as its main rear camera. Could this be the best of both worlds? I couldn’t test the cameras fully on the pre-production model I used, but I like the idea.
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The rear camera is now 20-megapixels and has a dual-tone LED flash
The idea behind the UltraPixel camera was to improve low-light performance. And if you think about where you traditionally use the front-facing camera – selfies in dark, dingy bars (or is that just me?) – a camera that delivers in low light makes a lot of sense. On the other hand, that higher resolution rear camera should now deliver detail in a way the HTC One M8 couldn’t.
That much is obvious just using the M9 for a few minutes. Even zooming in on the HTC One M9’s screen showed a lot more detail than we’ve been accustomed to in the past.
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HTC has moved the 4-megapixel UltraPixel camera to the front this time
So what happened to the Bokeh-effect photos the M8’s Duo main camera was capable of? HTC now has a photo app setting that it claims can replicate that shallow depth of field using software alone. Other phones have used similar settings to mixed results, but that’s something we’ll test when we get the M9 for review.
Finally there’s the One Gallery. This aggregates pictures from Facebook, Flickr, Dropbox, Google Drive and other places where you might keep your photos to create one gallery of all your images. It won’t clog up the phone, either. Small thumbnails are stored locally, not the full-size images.
The new camera may be the headline feature of the One M9, but there’s a lot more to talk about.
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Left, the old M8; the new M9 – can you spot the differences?
HTC One M9 – Design evolution, not revolution
You might not think the design is one of those talking points, since the HTC One M9 looks so similar to its predecessor, but even here HTC has made some iterative improvements that will be appreciated.
The volume buttons have been improved. They now have a bit of texture and feel firmer. This may seem like a minor point, but think about how often you use the buttons on your phone. A solid button with good action adds to the feeling of quality.
More importantly, though, the power button has moved from the top to the right-hand side, just below the volume. That makes it a lot easier to access with your thumb or index finger on this tall 5-inch phone.
The sleep button is now just below the volume controls
The only other difference on the design front is a machined edge on the metal surrounding the screen. This gives the phone a two-tone finish. The version I handled was described as “gold on silver” – the silver being this trim.
The HTC One M9’s curved, brushed-metal back is almost identical to last year’s phone. It’s still a pleasure to hold, providing reasonable grip and good heft. The only difference is the slightly raised square that houses the new camera. Just like on the iPhone 6 this doesn’t detract from the design at all. In fact, it breaks up some of the monotony while still being easy to slip into a pocket thanks to the rounded edges. The same dual-tone flash sits next to the camera.
It’s a tiny bit thicker – 0.02mm – than last year’s phone, but you won’t notice the difference. Good ergonomics are preferable to the pursuit of ever-thinner phones, and the One M9 delivers in this respect.
HTC One M9 – Android 5.0 meets Sense 7
Android 5.0 Lollipop is at the heart of the HTC One M9, but it looks very different to the stock version found on the Nexus 6. Sense 7, HTC’s latest version of its Android skin, modifies the look and feel of Google’s OS on the One M9.
In my opinion it’s the best manufacturer-made interface around – faster and slicker than Samsung’s TouchWiz interface, and much more attractive than LG’s skin, though I haven’t seen the latest version of TouchWiz to compare the two yet.
Blinkfeed, HTC’s stream of personalised content, is still a core part of Sense 7, but there are a few new additions to other elements of the operating system.
The most interesting of these is Themes. This lets you customise the M9 from the lock screen all the way to the fonts. Some themes will be preloaded, while others can be downloaded. Have a favourite picture you want to use as your lock screen? Themes can take this and automatically create a theme that spans the whole of the phone, including icons. I tried it using a few snaps I’d taken on the M9 and it worked well – the phone had a consistent look throughout.
Sense Home is another new feature that could be as annoying as it is useful. In essence it’s an adaptable homescreen based on your location. Use the IR blaster when you’re at home but never at work? Then it will pop up on your homescreen as soon as you walk through the door, and disappear when you leave.
Apps you don’t have but might be useful in your current location can also be promoted. For example, a train times app might appear when you’re in a station. I couldn’t take the M9 out and about to see how this worked in practice, but it’s a neat idea.
HTC One M9 – It has a Snapdragon 810 inside
The HTC One M9 isn’t the first phone with the octa-core Snapdragon 810 – the LG G Flex 2 holds that honour. Nonetheless in most of our benchmark tests this processor is the fastest we’ve ever tested, although question marks over its thermal performance haven’t been fully dismissed.
I couldn’t run any quick benchmarks in the time I had, but based on our experience with previous Snapdragons, performance shouldn’t be too different to the results in our Snapdragon 810 tests.
Unsurprisingly, opening apps and scrolling through menus the One M9 feels fast and smooth. Crucially, it didn’t get too warm while I was using it, and there were no obvious hot spots on the back or front.
Once again it should be noted that I didn’t hammer the processor too much. There were no games installed on the phone, or many other apps for that matter, so it’s too early to make any serious conclusions.
The Snapdragon 810 is backed up by 3GB of RAM and 32GB of onboard storage, which can be expanded via microSD.
HTC One M9 – Same screen, better battery life
We’ve not spoken about the screen yet and there’s a good reason for that – there’s not much to say. It’s still a 5-inch LED 1080p display that looks as good on the HTC One M9 as it did on the M8, albeit with ever so slightly thinner bezels.
There’s no jump to 2K as we’ve seen on LG’s handsets, but that shouldn’t bother you. The screen is bright and clear and you’ll have a hard time spotting an individual pixel even an inch from your nose.
A 2K screen leeches battery far more quickly than a Full HD one and HTC is keen on ensuring the One M9 lasts. The same screen, with the more efficient processor and a slightly larger battery – 2,840mAh versus 2,600mAh – and the M9 should outlast the M8, which lasts two days. Not bad at all for a smartphone.
HTC One M9 – Virtual surround sound from Dolby
The HTC One range has always had great onboard speakers. The One M9 has improved these further with virtual surround sound, courtesy of Dolby.
This virtual surround sound applies to headphones as well as the Boomsound speakers, and it will likely be more obvious in the former. It was hard to test the speakers in the noisy room I was trying the One M9 in, but it’s something we’ll look at in the full review.
As with most phones these days, the HTC One M9 is an evolution rather than a revolution and there’s nothing wrong with that. The design, screen and speakers were great last year and remain so in 2015. The weaknesses of the M8 and M7 – the camera and the location of the power button – seem to have been addressed and Sense 7 looks slick and adds some interesting new features.
With the Galaxy S6 looking like a radically different, and more innovative, proposition, has HTC done enough? That’s harder to answer at this stage, but the HTC One M9 makes an excellent first impression and seems to tackle the main problems seen in the already excellent M8.