“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Such seems to be the guiding philosophy behind the HTC One M9, and for the most part, the approach works. The One M9 is a beautiful Android phone worthy of your consideration, unless you already own last year’s HTC One M8 (they could well be confused for the same phone). The Samsung Galaxy S6 beats it on most key features you’d care about however, including battery life and camera quality.
HTC’s 2015 top-of-the-line phone recycles the same sleek design as last year’s M8 , sticking to the luxurious all-metal case and 1080p HD screen while incorporating key spec improvements — most notably a speedy, state-of-the-art Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor and upgraded front and rear cameras, the latter an attempt to address the M8’s biggest shortfall: that its primary camera just wasn’t as good as the competition.
If taking a gamble on a conservative design upgrade sounds oxymoronic, consider the current chaos at HTC: the move may have already cost HTC CEO Peter Chou his job. Yes, the earlier HTC One M8 easily ranked as one of last year’s best smartphones, but it competed against the small-screened iPhone 5S and the plasticky Samsung Galaxy S5 , each of which felt like me-too throwbacks to their respective predecessors.
The One M9, by comparison, goes mano a mano with the totally redesigned all-metal Samsung Galaxy S6 , the current 800-pound gorilla of the smartphone world, the iPhone 6, plus a gaggle of cheap-but-good Android competitors.
Amid that intense competition, HTC is sweetening the pot (in the US, at least) with its , which offers a one-time, no-questions-asked replacement for M9 models in the first year of ownership, if they’ve succumbed to a cracked screen or water damage, even if you switch carriers. And if you don’t swap the phone, you get a $100 credit toward a new HTC phone in the future.
Meanwhile, while our initial reservations about the M9’s camera quality were tempered by various software updates that deliver notable improvements in white balance and outdoor daylight shots — not to mention adding raw image shooting — it’s still not in the upper echelon of smartphone cameras. Low-light photos, noise reduction and selfies (from the front camera) are problematic, and the M9’s overall image quality lacks that of the Galaxy S6 and iPhone 6.
Just as notable is the fact that our battery test results are less than stellar.
The One M9 is priced at $649 unlocked in US, with on-contract pricing starting at $199 and/or no-interest monthly installment plans on most major carriers (Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile). In the UK, you’ll be able to find it with Carphone Warehouse, O2, Three and EE, starting at £580 SIM-free.
In other words, the HTC One M9 costs roughly the same as other high-end smartphones, including those aforementioned major competitors, the Samsung Galaxy S6 and the iPhone 6. But, its unimpressive camera and battery performance means it just doesn’t measure up to those two models in arguably the most important respects.
HTC fans, meanwhile, can hold out hope that the One M9 isn’t the end of the line. Rumours of the HTC One E9, the One E9+ and One M9+ (which may be one, two or three phones) look to be promising M9 variants with a larger, higher-resolution screen and possibly even a fingerprint sensor, among other improvements.
Editors’ note, May 13, 2015: This review has been updated to reflect further testing.
HTC hasn’t exactly strayed far from the design scheme it used a year ago for the M8. It has an all-metal body, with the bombastic “BoomSound” speakers sitting above and below the display. The back of the phone is gently rounded and inset plastic lines traverse the body at the top and bottom — exactly as you’ll see on both the M8 and the M7 before it.
With the same 5-inch display inside the M9, the overall body size is roughly the same too, and the weights of the two phones feel roughly the same. One difference you’ll see on the back is that there’s only one camera lens, instead of the two on the M8. More on that later.
There are some small changes to note, however. The metal back still meets the display at the front, but the edges are now angular, rather than smoothly rounded — it’s more akin to the earlier M7, in fact. The edge too is of a slightly different colour than the back panel, giving a subtle two-tone effect. The colour variations include a gold edge around a silver body, a dark grey body with a polished silver edge, and a polished gold edge with a gold back.
The power button has been moved from the top edge of the phone to the right-hand side, below the volume buttons. Trying to press the power button on the top meant either using two hands, or shifting the position of the phone in your one hand in order to stretch out — a manoeuvre that makes it very easy to drop your phone. I much prefer the ease of having the button on the edge, although having all three buttons in a line on one side did take a little getting used to.
While it’s easy to argue that a new flagship phone requires a new design overhaul every year — though Apple would dispute that — the fact is the One M8 was already a stunning piece of kit. The M9 may not be visually much different, but it still feels every bit as luxurious as its predecessor.
On the other hand, with its wraparound screen and metal-and-glass body, Samsung’s new Galaxy S6 Edge is not only a considerably more premium-feeling device than its plasticky predecessor, but an interesting new design that stands out from earlier models. The One M9 does have stiffer competition here. With similar materials in use on both handsets, the question of which looks and feels better is really just a question of personal taste.
The BoomSound speakers are physically the same as before — again, that’s not a bad thing, as they produce the richest sound I’ve heard from a phone. HTC has roped in audio specialist Dolby to help tune them to provide a “rich and deep” sound. While the speakers are certainly louder than most smartphones — and on par with those on the M8 — they’re still a long way from replacing a good set of speakers or headphones.
If you want to feel properly immersed in a movie or to really rock out in your living room to some Dream Theater you’ll want external speakers. But they’re well-suited for videos or podcasts that rely on speech; for watching Netflix in the kitchen while cooking, the BoomSound speakers fit the bill. Their forward-facing position means that when the phone lies flat on a table, the sound isn’t muffled.
The nano-SIM card slot and microSD card slot are both tucked into the metal edge and both need to be extracted using a SIM tool (or a paperclip). The M9 accepts SD cards up to 128GB in size, but the base model does also come with 32GB of storage, rather than 16GB, which is a very welcome boost. And, notably, the new Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge do not support expandable storage.
The 5-inch display has a full-HD resolution, which is the same size and pixel count as its predecessor. Unsurprisingly then, there’s no visible difference in clarity between the two displays. Text looks extremely crisp and icons are displayed with pin-sharp edges. High-resolution photos and videos also have a satisfying clarity.
There is, however, a noticeable difference in colour. While the M8’s screen has bold, vibrant colours, the M9’s colour is more restrained. Yellows and reds in particular look less warm, particularly when viewed side-by-side against the M8 and especially against the Galaxy S5. (You’ll remember that we found Galaxy S5 to have the best screen — by a nose — when we tested it against the new iPhones late in 2014.) While the M9’s colours aren’t poor, they didn’t provide the best venue for the phone’s camera (see that section for more details, below).
There are, however, no options on the M9 to alter colour tones on the display — unlike the S5 and S6 — so you can’t boost the saturation. If you want colours so strong they almost hurt your eyes, Samsung’s AMOLED displays on the S6 and Note 4 may be more suitable.
On a side note, it’s good to see HTC hasn’t opted for a 2K screen as we’ve seen on LG’s G3 and more recent G4 and the Galaxy S6. In our experience, there’s almost no discernible benefit to a higher resolution panel on a screen that size. That said, our initial battery tests of the Galaxy S6 show that its battery lasts longer than that of the M9.
Sense 7 software and processor performance
The M9 arrives with the latest Android 5.0 Lollipop software on board and you’d expect nothing less from a top-end phone. HTC has heavily customised the overall look of Android, however, with the latest version of its Android skin Sense 7.
On the surface, Sense 7 looks pretty much the same as Sense 6 found on the M8. It’s a neat layout, with simple, well-spaced app icons in the app tray, an easy to use settings menu and the BlinkFeed news and social network aggregator sitting off to the left of the home screen. Sense was previously my favourite of the Android skins thanks to its simple and responsive design, and I’m happy to report it’s just as pleasant to use this time round.
The new version brings much deeper customisation options. There are a range of preset themes to choose from, which alter everything from your wallpaper and colour schemes to app icons and fonts. You can download additional themes, although right now there aren’t many to choose from. Once the phone goes on sale and people other than HTC’s designers start creating themes, the themes section may start to fill out a little.
You can tweak the themes too, selecting your own app icon style, colours or fonts as you desire. There are loads of fonts you can download — I don’t have an exact number — which may be a bit too in-depth for many people to bother with, but it does help make the phone fell a little more yours. If you’d rather not dive through settings, you can generate a theme based on the colour palette within a chosen photo.
An interesting new feature is a home-screen widget which dynamically changes which apps displayed within it, depending on your location. The apps you use most at work, for example — Google Drive, Mail and so on — will display in the widget when the phone detects you’re at the location you’ve set as “work”. At home, however, it will display apps like YouTube or the TV remote app.
HTC explained the widget will learn over time what apps you use at home, at work or on the go, but I personally found it easier just to spend 10 minutes arranging the apps myself and let the phone simply switch modes when I arrived at each location. It’s not a killer feature, sure, but it’s admittedly handy to have the apps shuffle around to bring tools I know I use only for work purposes to the forefront.
Inside the phone is Qualcomm’s 64-bit, octa-core processor, the Snapdragon 810, alongside 3GB of RAM. That’s an extremely potent lineup, so it was no surprise that the M9 is a very capable device. Demanding games like Asphalt 8 played very smoothly; image editing in Snapseed and Adobe Photoshop Express was a breeze; and, crucially, navigating around the Sense interface was swift, extremely responsive, and generally free of the sort of annoying lag that can really make a good phone seem bad.
We found the phone getting a bit warm during some of our benchmark testing with an early version of the software, and it was also a bit toasty during our camera testing with the updated software.
The camera is one area that’s had a big change since the previous model. The 4-megapixel Ultrapixel sensor — which used larger pixels to apparently take in more light — has been moved to the front of the phone and a 20-megapixel camera now sits on the back. When we first went hands-on with the phone, we weren’t too impressed. HTC has since updated the camera software, which also includes the ability to shoot pictures in raw format. While the updates have certainly improved the camera, some problems still remain.
First, the good. Its back camera delivers really good daylight photos with saturated but neutral colours and solid automatic white balance. Close-ups are sharp, even viewed at full size; scaled down they look as sharp as the iPhone 6 Plus’ because of the M9’s extra resolution. Those extra pixels also help when using the digital zoom. Up close, zoomed photos look mushy, but if you view them at the same size as an iPhone 6 Plus’ 8-megapixel photos they look fine. ( Download the full-resolution HTC sample. Download the full-resolution iPhone sample.)
There’s one important caveat, though. The photos don’t look as good on the camera’s display, because the screen doesn’t seem as neutral (by eyeballing it). The photos look slightly washed out and the colours aren’t as accurate. In contrast, the iPhone has an accurate display, so its photos look correct on its own screen as well as on a computer.
One of the more annoying aspects of the camera is the way it handles backlit subjects. It consistently blows out the whites in auto mode. Instead, you have to switch into HDR (high-dynamic-range) mode — which really shouldn’t be called “HDR.” HTC uses this mode for what’s better known as backlight compensation, combining two shots so that it can hold the detail in the bright areas while using a brighter-exposure shot for the subject. And it works pretty well for that, though it takes a little too long to process.
However, if you try to use it for true HDR imaging — to simultaneously bring out detail in shadows and highlights — you get bad results. The photos will look low in contrast with too-bright shadow areas and too-dark whites. The iPhone 6, LG G4 and Samsung Galaxy S6 have HDR modes that provide much more balanced highlights and shadows in a scene — I took all three phones for a spin around Paris and found the HDR functions to be very helpful in some situations.
In bright, moderately oblique light you also have to watch out for lens flare. All cameras experience flare under these circumstances to one extent or another, but wide-angle lenses are more susceptible than narrower ones. The HTC’s 27.8mm equivalent is wider than most, and that’s one of the tradeoffs.
We’re also not thrilled with the low-light photo quality. The M9 has a slightly compressed tonal range compared to the iPhone 6 Plus (whites don’t get as white and blacks don’t get as black), so it frequently blows out the whites and clips the blacks. As you get into lower light situations, where all cameras suffer from decreased dynamic range, it gets worse.
The other problem is HTC’s decisions about noise reduction. In a noise-reduction algorithm, you can either preserve detail and sharpness, and suffer from what looks like a lot of black graininess, or you can blur out the noise and lose detail but have no grain. The latter produces a smeary look on edges, so it’s not great for detailed images, but flat colours will look better. HTC chooses the blurring, while Apple opts for the grain, which I think is the more popular choice.
Selfies and groupies are a mixed bag. On one hand, the wider angle of view allows you to fit more into the background — or more friends into the photo — and it’s possible without too much wide-angle distortion. It’s also a good resolution, and captures foreground details (like the lines on your face, unfortunately) better than the iPhone 6 Plus. However, the front camera is the old “Ultrapixel” camera, which was formerly the back camera on the older HTC models, and thus has the same white-balance problems — namely, that pink cast.
The M9 has recently been given a software update that, among other things, allows the camera to shoot in raw mode. Raw format images are made up of information taken straight from the camera’s sensor, without any image processing, white balance or sharpening applied. They typically save more detail in the bright and dark areas than jpegs too, allowing for greater flexibility to edit afterwards.
This shot of a canal has come out fairly well as a jpeg, although the sky is a little washed out and the shadowy areas have lost a lot of detail.
The extra detail saved in the raw file has allowed me to rescue those highlights and brighten the dark areas, not to mention add a little extra contrast and tweak the white balance slightly. Shooting in raw does mean you will need to export your photos from phone to computer, then process them in software like Adobe Lightroom, but if you’re serious about photography, it’s a good step to take to capture better photos. A jpeg image is saved every time you take a raw image however, so you can edit and share the jpeg on your phone, saving the higher quality raw for processing when you’re back at your computer.
Similarly in this second shot, the original jpeg file displays quite flat tones and a lot of shadows in the trees. The detail in the raw image has allowed me to lighten the shadows, increase the overall contrast and add a small graduated neutral density to the sky, creating a more dramatic image without sacrificing quality.
The addition of raw to the camera has helped in getting good shots from the M9, but it does take a significant amount of extra time to process them. It’s still the case that jpegs directly from the camera don’t hugely impress, but you do at least now have the option to spend some time tweaking your images in Lightroom when you get home to make them stand out before you post them to Facebook.
It’s also important to note that when shooting in raw mode, you’ll also be shooting in manual mode, where you can change shutter speed and white balance settings manually. Although you can leave them on auto, you can’t use features like HDR or other scene modes to have the camera automatically suggest the best settings. The image sizes too are significantly bigger (around 40mb per file, as opposed to around 4mb for a jpeg), so you’ll certainly want to pop in a microSD card.
HTC’s camera app still includes various scene modes, manual controls, image effects and the panorama, which does a good job of stitching together a wide scene and smoothing exposures.
The bokeh mode softens the background, but only works if you’re less than 2 feet (about half a metre) from the subject, and doesn’t seem to soften all that much. Photo booth serially shoots four selfies and then arranges them in a square. Split capture takes a top/left photo with one camera — location depends upon whether you’re shooting horizontally or vertically — and a bottom/right photo with the other for a half-and-half shot.
We don’t miss the M8’s duo-lens, which is no longer seen on the back of the M9. This extra sensor was designed to create unusual images with 3D effects. Sure, they were a bit of fun, but they were definitely a novelty and one that quickly wore off. We do miss a few other things, though. It could really use optical image stabilisation (OIS), which helps physically smooth bumpy shots; not only does OIS help at slow shutter speeds, but when you’re steadier there are fewer low-light artifacts (noise processing exacerbates the effect of camera shake).
The video looks acceptable, though you’ll really notice the jitter in bright light, when it chooses a fast shutter speed. Without image stabilisation, the combination makes the rolling shutter (that ugly wobble) look even worse. In low light, it suffers from the same lack of tonal range that’s in the photos.
The phone is powered by a 2,840mAh battery, which is slightly more capacious than the battery in the One M8. HTC reckons it should keep you going for a whole day of use, but from my own testing, I’d say that’s ambitious. After taking the phone off charge at 7:30 in the morning, the phone had dropped to 50 percent by lunchtime, after fairly heavy use.
Bolstering that less-than-stellar impression were the multiple runs on our CNET video loop playback test, which all yielded around 8 hours, 40 minutes. That’s almost 80 minutes less than the results we got on the HTC One M8 last year, and is also far behind recent Android marathoners like the Sony Xperia Z3 (almost 12 hours) and Motorola Droid Turbo (almost 15 hours). Notably, those phones were running the older version of Android — but the M9 didn’t hit the playback time on two Android 5.0 competitors, either. We got better playback time on both the LG G Flex 2, which uses the same exact Snapdragon 810 processor, and the new LG G4. The Samsung Galaxy S6 managed a little over 12 hours on the same test as well.
Video playback isn’t the end of the story though as the M9 does hold its power well in standby mode — which it likely will be in your pocket for a large part of the day. When the display is on and you’re actually doing things, the power trickles away quickly. How much battery life you can get from the phone then will really depend on what you do with it.
If, like me, you play podcasts over breakfast, listen to Spotify and play a lightweight game (Crossy Road, if you’re interested) on your commute, and take some pictures as you wander into the office and then regularly check the screen every time it vibrates with a notification, it’s unlikely you’ll get to bedtime with power left. Giving it a boost in the afternoon will be critical, particularly if you’ll need to use your phone on a night out and want battery left to call a taxi.
Keeping the screen brightness down is a great way to preserve the phone’s power, however, and avoiding demanding tasks like video streaming when you’re away from a plug is good advice too. However, if battery life in a phone is your main concern, larger phones like the Samsung Galaxy Note 4 , which pack huge cells, are worth checking out.
Versus the Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge, LG G4 and iPhone6
Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge: Although Samsung replaced the plasticky design of the Galaxy S5 with a slick metal frame for the S6 and Edge, the all-metal build of the One M9 feels undeniably luxurious and is the phone to look towards if aesthetics are your number one priority. The M9’s Sense software too is much more smooth to use than TouchWiz on the S6. The S6 has the M9 beaten in most other respects however, including screen quality, camera performance and even battery.
LG G4: Compared to the plastic version of the LG G4, the M9 is unquestionably the better-looking and more premium-feeling phone. With the G4’s leather back attached however, both phones look stunning and choosing between the two comes down to a matter of personal choice. Screen quality is comparable however — even considering the G4’s higher resolution — although the G4’s camera and battery both outperform the M9.
iPhone 6: I’ve previously called the One M9 and the One M8 before it the ‘iPhone of the Android world’ thanks to the metal body and simple interface. Choosing between the two then will largely come down to whether you’re an iOS or Android user. If you’re yet to settle on an operating system, the iPhone 6’s superior camera is the better choice for photography enthusiasts, but the screen and processor performance are roughly on par.
HTC’s flagship One M8 was one of our favourite phones of last year, thanks chiefly to its gorgeous metal design. With the M9, HTC hasn’t done much to change that look and while some will argue that makes it less exciting, I’m glad HTC hasn’t made its phone any less stunning. The M9 really does look and feel extremely luxurious.
Its software is equally well-designed too, providing a simple, customisable and very responsive interface that’s quite user-friendly in my opinion.
But for the two smartphone features you probably really care about — battery life and camera quality — the M9 doesn’t rise above its two main competitors, even with the new addition of raw shooting. Unless you’re really in love with the physical design of the One M9, the Galaxy S6 and iPhone 6 look to be better bets.
Senior Editors Lori Grunin and Josh Goldman contributed to this review.