The followup to the HTC One M8 is here, the not-so-cleverly called One M9, but is it really all that different to what has come before?
From a design standpoint, the M9’s body is an incremental upgrade over the M8’s. Fortunately that means it definitely has that “premium” feel, which is something fans have come to know and expect, but it also means HTC played it somewhat safe.
As a result the M9 is hefty without being heavy, the finish is scratch-resistant and there’s a very attractive ribbon of gold-coloured metal running around the phone’s edge that makes it look quite nice. The body also has a good mix of hard edges and soft rounded curves which complement the screen’s tiny bezel and flat 5-inch 1080p screen. It’s certainly a looker, is the M9.
Even though it looks quite similar to the M8, the M9 is different in that it has separate volume up and down buttons, and a standalone Power button. Having volume separated like this is handy, but the position of the Power button right in the middle of the right edge means we often bumped it inadvertently when picking the phone up, and when just moving it around.
While quite nice to look at, the M9 is, ultimately, clearly just another One. That’s great if you liked previous Ones, but those hoping for something a little less samey will be disappointed.
Under the hood, the M9 is an absolute beast. HTC has made good use of Qualcomm’s octa-core Snapdragon 810 chipset, 3 gigs of DDR4 RAM and an Adreno GPU and produced a phone that lights up the performance charts both in terms of synthetic benchmarks and a sense of speed in everyday tasks like opening apps, emailing and surfing the net. As a result, Android Lollipop (5.0.2) absolutely flies.
Running the latest build of Antutu, a popular mobile benchmark app, the M9 came out right on top with a score of over 55 600. Granted, neither the S6 nor the S6 Edge have weighed in yet so that victory may be short-lived, but still, it’s at the top of a chart populated by such performance behemoths as Samsung’s Galaxy S5 and Note 4, which is mighty impressive indeed.
HTC ditched the “Ultrapixel” camera of the M8 and went with a 20MP snapper instead for the M9’s rear-facing camera, with rather middling results which I’ll get into further into the review. On the front is a 4MP camera intended to capture good-quality selfies, which fares somewhat better.
And when it comes to connectivity, the M9 is covered. It has a Cat 9 LTE radio – the fastest available today – along with Bluetooth, NFC, AC-class WiFi and a radio receiver. It’s about as future-proof as it can be right now.
So as far as hardware goes, the M9 represents the very pinnacle of HTC’s smartphone design capabilities that delivers superb real-world performance. But is that enough to get you to ditch your S6 ambitions in favour of the M9?
This time around HTC went with a 5-inch, 1080p, super-capacitive LCD touchscreen protected by 4th-generation Gorilla Glass, and it looks pretty damn good in addition to being nigh-on scratch-proof. Colours are rich and pop off the screen and visuals are smooth everywhere whether you’re browsing a website or playing a game, with nary a pixel to be seen. Watching 1080p movies is a particular pleasure on the M9’s screen, as everything is crisp and sharp and colours look amazing.
There’s no problem seeing it in direct sunlight, either,on its brightest setting. So all round, the M9’s display is excellent.
Despite an impressive-sounding 20MP sensor, the M9’s camera isn’t very good. It struggles in low-light situations with pictures coming out looking somewhat washed-out even with some tweaking, and it doesn’t take very good-looking videos either. But to be fair it performs somewhat better in well-lit scenarios, like when you’re outside, but even then the images it takes are just “okay”. The pics won’t win any photography competitions, but they’re certainly good enough to post to Facebook.
And then there’s the Panorama function that doesn’t want to work as it should. I started the process five times in a row, with none of my attempted shots completing the capture process because the camera was “Unable to capture because there is too much vertical movement”, implying that the camera wasn’t being kept level enough for the panorama to take.
But not even when I went as slow as I was able to, keeping the phone as stable as I could while still holding it in my hands, did the phone manage to capture a complete panorama. Very disappointing.
What I got was this, which I suppose is close enough, but that’s still not great.
Fortunately the front-facing “selfie camera” is pretty good for its stated purpose, and all “selfies” I took were nicely detailed and my skin looked much as it does in real life, so some points there for HTC.
The M9 runs the latest version of Android’s Lollipop operating system, 5.0.2, but over top of almost everything sits HTC’s own Sense 7 user interface. HTC has done a lot of work on version 7, but the changes are more of a nip and tuck than a truly significant overhaul.
That’s not a bad thing, because HTC has focused on taking things out that didn’t work and tweaking those that did, plus they’ve emphasised customisability to the point where nearly everything about the interface can be changed in some way. Including, even, the order of the Back, Home and Recent Apps buttons – handy for operating the phone with a preferred hand, and keeping the most-used buttons within convenient reach.
The most noticeable new addition is the option to change everything using Themes; simply open the app, choose the Theme that appeals and it installs. That changes everything from your font to your default apps to your background image, and each element can be tweaked individually.
That’s not all – Sense 7 now also lets you create your own themes quickly and easily by analysing the colour highlights of any photo or picture you’d like to use for your wallpaper and adjusting colours across the phone accordingly. You can even name your theme and share it with other HTC owners.
Perhaps the handiest change is the way Sense lets you customise the apps that show on your Home screen according to where you are. So when you’re at work, moving around or at home, your phone shows you the apps you use most in those situations. They change according to your usage patterns as well, populating the lists with the apps you access most frequently when in specific locations.
And then there’s Blinkfeed, one of HTC Sense’s best-known functions that aggregates stories from all popular social media services, making them easy to locate with a swipe to the right.
In all, HTC Sense 7 is a surprisingly welcome Android interface overlay that leaves the phone with that Android feel bogging people down with too much guff. What’s there, is there for a good reason, and should you not like anything, chances are it can be changed.
We haven’t had the M9 for a full work week yet, but signs are promising that you’ll get at least a full day’s worth of operation from it, even if you hammer it with videos, tons of calls and even some games as we did on Friday and over the weekend; by sundown on Saturday, the M9’s battery was at 24% after being fully charged overnight.
The M9’s battery is bigger than the M8’s (2 840mah vs 2 600maH) so that sort of lasting power is to be expected.
Interestingly, HTC claims the M9 can recharge pretty quickly – a 30 minute session connected to the mains restores 60% battery life thanks to support for Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 2.0 technology – but we can’t test this claim as, guess what, the special adapter that’s needed to do that is not included in the box, it’s an additional purchase.
Phone calls made with the M9 connected quickly, and sounded really clear, to the point where several callers actually remarked on it without me prompting them. The phone also appears to do an admirable job of filtering out background noise, to the point where it’s possible to have a phone conversation even in a busy restaurant. If you like phones that make good calls, the M9 definitely qualifies.
HTC likes to throw its BoomSound technology into its high-end phones, and the M9 is no exception. Having used it extensively this weekend, it is hard to say anything but “Wow!” – this is one loud but clear phone! Watching 1080p movies streamed across a home network was actually pleasurable, with gorgeously rich and deep sound coming from the M9’s speakers accompanying the sharp visuals.
And music sounds nothing short of incredible. If you find yourself listening to your phone’s music without headphones, and wished your sound was better, then the M9 is most definitely for you. The volume and clarity HTC manages to squeeze into the M9’s body is nothing short of astounding, and easily our favourite feature.
The included in-ear headphones are also fairly good for a free set, but they don’t do the bass of bass-heavy songs justice.
HTC has refined what worked so well in the M8 for this phone, and the result is this very good but not particularly exciting phone. That said, if you’re not looking for something that reinvents the wheel, but rather is the best wheel you’ve seen for the asking price, it’s a great choice.
What it isn’t, though, is an S6-killer – by most accounts Samsung’s latest is definitely its greatest – but it’s a phone that delivers performance in the S6’s range for the most part, but for a good few thousand rand less. And that’s worth a lot to some people, so there’s definitely a place for it among the flagship phones of 2015.
As you may know from reading our launch story last week, the HTC One M9 will only be available for sale in South Africa from the 1st of June, and carry a prepaid price of around R10 000.
Price: R10 000
Chipset: Qualcomm MSM8994 Snapdragon 810
CPU: Quad-core 1.5 GHz Cortex-A53 & Quad-core 2 GHz Cortex-A57
GPU: Adreno 430
Display: 1080p Super LCD3 Capacitive Touchscreen, 16m colours
Storage: 32GB, expandable via microSD
Operating System: Google Android 5.0.2
Communications: AC-class WiFi, Bluetooh, GPS, NFC, Infrared Port, MicroUSB with MHL 3.0 TV-out
Battery: 2 840maH
Cameras: 20.7MP Primary @ 5 376×3 752 with dual-LED flash, 4MP secondary
Audio: Stereo speakers with BoomSound and Dolby tech
SIM Format: Nano