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Featured Review: HTC One M9

March 31, 2015 - Written By Alexander Maxham

In Barcelona, HTC held their press conference for the HTC One M9. We entered the building basically knowing what to expect, given all the leaks we’ve seen of the device ahead of time. But HTC did still surprise us, as there was no HTC One M9 Plus at the event. So our attention was on the HTC One M9. While the HTC One M9 was exactly what we expected, that didn’t mean it was boring. Sure it looked similar to the HTC One M8 and M7 ahead of it, but HTC has improved on a winning combination for them. But is it enough?

HTC has been struggling for a few years now, and with Samsung putting out some amazing looking smartphones in the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge. Can HTC really compete with a device that looks just like last year’s? We’ll know soon enough. HTC also has done minimal changes to Sense 6, and introduced Sense 7 to us on the HTC One M9. And that’s a good thing. As Sense 6 was already pretty well built and didn’t need a whole lot of changes. More on that in the software section.

HardwareHTC-One-M9-Review-AH-57

The look and feel of the HTC One M9 will look familiar, especially if you had the HTC One M8. A lot of people have called the look of the One M9 “boring”, because it does look so similar to its predecessor. It’s still a great looking smartphone, that also feels great in the hand. HTC has actually been able to shrink the One M9, in comparison to the One M8. Which is a little strange, considering the phone is the same size, well the display is the same size. However, you will likely only notice the difference if you put the One M8 and M9 side by side.

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Two of the bigger changes in the design of the One M9 compared to the M8 is the camera. Instead of there being the DuoCamera and being round, we just have a square lens on the back of the device with a dual-LED flash back there. It does stick out a bit, but not by much. The other change you’ll notice is the “shelf” that was added on the sides. It almost looks and feels like there’s a case on the sides, that doesn’t cover the entire side of the device. While it may look weird, it makes the One M9 feel great in the hand. And it also makes it less slippery. The One M8 was very slippery, and I dropped it a few times. I haven’t dropped the One M9 once…yet.

One of the more subtle changes here is the power button. HTC has finally followed the cool kids and brought the power button over to the side of the device. Now you have the volume rocker on the right side, above the power button. Definitely a better place than having it up top. However, if you’ve used HTC devices in the past, this might be a little tough to get used too. I don’t use HTC devices often – mostly just for reviews – and I still keep looking for the power button up top. It’s called muscle memory, I think. The power button up top has been a huge complaint from users for years, and it’s nice to see HTC finally listening to their critics.

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The iconic front-facing speakers are back and better than ever. HTC introduced their front-facing speakers in 2013 with the HTC One M7. It’s part of the reason that their devices are so tall. Heck the HTC Desire EYE is the same height as the Nexus 6, but the screen is around 5.2-inches. Anyways. BoomSound is back and powered by Dolby Audio this time around. Furthermore, Qualcomm has a hand in these speakers too. Qualcomm introduced something called Immersive Audio this year, which I got to demo at Mobile World Congress, and it’s pretty amazing. I have a video down below comparing the front-facing speakers on the HTC One M9 vs the Xperia Z3. There’s a huge difference.

When using the speakers on the HTC One M9, you can use theater mode or music mode. Theater mode sounds way better to me. But to be honest, both modes sound really great. If you decide to buy the HTC One M9, the first thing I’d suggest you do is to play a video from YouTube or elsewhere that has a lot of explosions – maybe a clip from the Expendables? – in theater mode. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

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HTC took a chance on the M9, and decided to stick with a 5-inch 1080p IPS display this year. While everyone else is going with a QHD display on their devices. While a QHD display does look amazing, especially at 5-inches, I feel that a 1080p display is still just as good. I’ve been using the HTC One M9, as mentioned already, for about a week, and the display hasn’t bothered me one bit. While Anandtech might say that it’s a pretty terrible display, based on all their tests (and props to them for doing all of those tests). But based on normal day-to-day usage, the display looks great. So long story short, no issue with the display here.

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Here is we get into the hot stuff. Get it? So there’s been rumors about the HTC One M9 getting warm, and overheating. Not that I don’t believe that it’s getting warm, but in my usage, I haven’t seen it get that hot. And I have installed System Monitor to check the temperature. The hottest I got was about 108 degrees Fahrenheit, and that was when I was using the device connected to a Turbo Charger. By comparison, the Xperia Z3 hits about 106 degrees Fahrenheit under the same circumstances. So overheating is not a concern of mine, and shouldn’t be one of yours either.

If you’re going to run benchmark apps on the HTC One M9, then yes it’s going to get hot. But so does every other device that you run a benchmark app on. The reason being is that it’s using all of its cores. All of them. So it’s working harder, and putting out more heat. So it’s natural that it’s going to be warmer when running benchmarks. And, again, this is why we say that Benchmark scores do not equal real world usage. Especially with all the manufacturers that “cheat” on benchmarks.

With that said, HTC has gone and used the Snapdragon 810 chipset in the M9. It’s a 64-bit octa-core processor. It’s Qualcomm’s first chip – in quite a while – that was an ARM-based design, and not their own custom design. While the Snapdragon 820 will likely be leaps and bounds ahead, the Snapdragon 810 isn’t to shabby when it comes to performance.

Along with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 810, HTC has also opted for 3GB of RAM, which is more than enough. Even with plenty of apps open, and plenty of Chrome tabs open, I never had less than a gigabyte of free RAM. It was always closer to 1.4GB of free RAM. So you won’t need to worry about RAM on the HTC One M9.

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One of the things I dislike about HTC’s software is that the battery section doesn’t show you how long your screen has been on for. So it’s tough to compare to other devices. So I’ll just tell you what a normal day with the HTC One M9 has been for me. Mostly on WiFi, with about 4-5 hours on LTE and about 1-2 hours of that streaming Spotify on LTE. All on Auto-Brightness at about 25%.

Coming from the Sony Xperia Z3, I wasn’t to impressed with the battery on the HTC One M9, but the Xperia Z3’s battery is just insanely good. For me, I was able to get through a full day, everyday on the HTC One M9. But that doesn’t mean that I didn’t have to take some battery saving measures to make sure that happened. Long story short, the battery life is pretty mediocre for me. I’m sure it’ll get better with time though, as it usually does.

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HTC is using the One M9 to debut Sense 7. While Sense 7 does look pretty similar to Sense 6, HTC has made some awesome changes this year, and implemented parts of Material Design which is a part of Lollipop. We still have Blinkfeed, but its been materialized. I feel that HTC has done a pretty good job implementing Android 5.0 Lollipop into Sense 7. They do have material design throughout the entire device. And many of their apps look amazing in Sense 7, including their themes app. Sense 7 is also really snappy, something we aren’t used to on skinned devices.

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When you first open up your brand new HTC One M9, you’ll find some apps on the homescreen that appear to be just icons. But it’s actually a widget. What HTC has attempted to do here is give you a widget of apps that you normally use at home, work and when out and about. Which you can change throughout the day. It tries to learn what apps you lose when you’re at home or work as well as out. Additionally, there’s a folder for recently downloaded apps, and another one for “recommended apps”. The funny thing about the recommended apps is that it recommends some apps that are already installed. For instance, it recommended Facebook and Snapchat for me, and both are already installed on the device.

But don’t worry, that widget is easily removable. I actually moved it over to the second screen on my launcher, just to see how well it works. There’s also a few new clock widgets in Sense 7. Of course the iconic flip clock is still available, which is still one of my favorites.

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One of the bigger features that HTC added or changed in Sense 7 is the themes. HTC is really proud of what they’ve accomplished here. Which includes being able to customize every bit of your HTC One M9. This includes the wallpaper, sounds, fonts, icons and everything in between. Not only that, but you can also take a picture from your gallery and create a theme for it. Which is pretty amazing, I think. Finally, for those that are more advanced, you can download a Photoshop template and create your own theme. Pretty sweet, right?

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Blinkfeed didn’t get a huge update, but it has been redesigned a bit. It’s now flatter, and a bit more material design. It looks really nice, in my opinion. It also is themed by the theme that you are using on your device. With Blinkfeed, you can add in all of your social media profiles like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Flickr, Foursquare, Tumblr, Linkedin, and Zoe. You can also customize the news feeds that are included in Blinkfeed. Obviously, you’ll want Android Headlines in there. But you can add other sites, based on their niche as well. When reading an article or looking at a post, you can add it to your reading list to read later on, or share it using the regular sharing menu in Android.

Blinkfeed is really great, and it seems to have gotten faster over what it was in Sense 6. But it’s a really great way to keep with all of your social media profiles as well as news you care about. As it is fully customizable, many users may like it more than Yahoo’s News Digest, which does a great job of giving you great news in the morning and in the evening.

On-screen buttons

This sorta ties into the themes part above. But in Sense 7 now, you can add other on-screen buttons, and with the themes you can actually change the buttons. There are some pretty sweet ones in the themes app, you’ll definitely want to check that out. You can now add a power button, auto rotate, notifications, hide navigation bar, and quick Settings. They can also be rearranged how you like. But you can only add a max of four buttons, unfortunately.

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Probably the biggest part of this review is the camera. HTC has finally realized that their customers want a 20MP camera, instead of a larger 4MP sensor in their camera. So this time around, they decided to jump on the 20MP camera bandwagon with everyone else. While I absolutely loved the features that the Duo-Camera provided on the HTC One M8, HTC did need to put in a higher megapixel camera in their next flagship. And they did. We now have a 20MP shooter from Toshiba. In my time with the HTC One M9, it performed pretty well. No real issues at all for me, and the shutter is really fast. I’d say the fastest on any Android phone I’ve used. Period.

But the pictures is only half of the story when it comes to a review on a camera. The other half is the UI. HTC has really kept their camera UI pretty minimal, which I like. Being able to swipe between camera modes quickly, access and change settings quickly and take pictures quickly is always one of their stronger things, I feel. The HTC One M9’s camera is no different. If you’ve used Sense 6, the UI will look very familiar.

When looking at the camera, in the top left corner, you’ll see the flash. It’s set to auto-flash by default. Below it in the lower left corner is the settings. Tap that and you’ll be able to edit the settings for the camera, and video, as well as ISO, White Balance and more. So you can manually change settings now. Which is great for the professional photographers out there. Moving to the right side, at the top is your most recent picture, followed by your shutter button. Below that is the video record button, and at the bottom is the switcher for changing modes. By default you have Selfie, Camera, and Panorama. But you can add Bokeh (which gives you that background defocus look) as well as split capture and Photo Booth.

We’ve taken plenty of pictures and video with the HTC One M9 over the past week, and have it all down below for you to take a look at. While these aren’t the full resolution images, I do have them posted on my Google+ account here, for you to check out.

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Just a few more tidbits and thoughts on the HTC One M9, before we finish up on the review:

  • We’ve been using the M9 connected to a few Bluetooth devices like the Moto 360. No issues with Bluetooth.
  • When it comes to GPS, it works great as well. Actually used Google Maps a few times this past week, doesn’t happen often unless I’m traveling.
  • This is the T-Mobile variant we have here. So, obviously, connectivity on T-Mobile’s network is about the same as any other device on T-Mobile in this area. That said, speed tests and signal were about the same as my Xperia Z3 that’s on T-Mobile.
  • Sense TV is gone. Enter Peel Smart Remote. Nothing wrong with that. Peel makes a great smart remote and it works really well here. It’s also found on many Samsung devices, mostly tablets.
  • HTC’s Dot View case is still pretty cool. But you might want something that will protect the M9 a bit more.
  • Video Highlights are still here, just renamed to Zoes, and are now edited in the Zoe app. Still well done here by HTC.
  • Quick Charging. It’s here, but no Quick Charger. Kinda ironic right? The bundled HTC charger actually charges really slow (or maybe I’m just so used to the Motorola Turbo Charger?).
  • We did test it with the Turbo Charger, so yes, Quick Charge is enabled. Thanks Qualcomm.

Editor’s Note: We’ve been using this HTC One M9 for about 7 days on software build 1.32.531.25 (which consists of Android 5.0.2 and Sense 7.0). This is the T-Mobile variant, and we’ve been using it with a T-Mobile SIM card inside.

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With each iteration of the HTC One, HTC has improved on a great smartphone. But the changes in the HTC One M9 may not be enough for everyone. Not everyone agrees on the camera. I feel that if you need something that takes better pictures than this, that you just need a DSLR, or even a Sony RX100 – which is pocketable by the way. So we have a smartphone here from HTC that looks a lot like its predecessor, which also looked like its predecessor. And that’s okay. Because the HTC One is a beautiful smartphone, with a great camera and great performance. Yes, the HTC One M9 has flaws, but name a phone that has zero flaws. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Since announcing the HTC One M9, HTC has gone through some restructuring, naming Cher Wang as CEO, and losing their VP of Industrial Design just a few days ago. So it’s obvious that the sinking ship is still sinking, but can the HTC One M9 help keep it afloat? All we can do is wait and see.