The hustle and bustle in the Android scene is slowly settling to a simmer, as most of the notable flagships have hit markets worldwide. A few are still trickling out, attempting to shine without the need to directly compete in the week – with the HTC One M9 being a prime example. A flagship device that is still a month away from launch (locally, at least), the HTC One M9 has an almost insurmountable task of improving on last year’s M8 – widely considered the best smartphone of 2014. A task which is just isn’t up for.

Let’s get one thing straight though – the M9 is a phenomenal phone. It is so because it’s nearly identical to last year’s M8, a phone which the likes of Samsung and LG were playing second fiddle to up until this year. The only real problems with the flagship were its sub-par camera and odd, slightly slippery finish. At the very least, one of this problems have been eradicated with the M9, and it’s the easier of the two.

The M9 is an absolute stunner, and lines up perfectly with HTC’s mantra of not only powerful, but also luxurious, premium devices. The all-metal finish comes in a three variants, and the two-tone silver and gold one I had for a few weeks definitely turned some heads. I’m very much against gold on pretty much anything, but the subtle lining paired with a brushed silver finish made me re-think that. This finish coincidentally also takes aim at one of the few problems with the M8. The matte finish on last year’s model made the device a little awaked to hold, but the brushed aluminum give you a greater grip on the M9 – which means far less scary falls to the ground; a big plus given the price of handsets.

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The M9 features the same 5-inch, 1920×1080 display, which is just as vibrant and bright as it was last year. It’s still lagging a little in terms of raw pixel count, but manages somehow to still come off as a looker – even in direct sunlight. The two front-facing speakers are also back, joining an improved UltraPixel front-facing camera (a little more on that later though). The only real gripe I have with the ultimately similar design in the placement of the power button. Now located on the side, the button is indiscriminate in terms of touch to the volume buttons, which it’s also far too close to. I often ended up adjusting the volume rather than locking the phone, which was slightly annoying from time to time.

Otherwise, you’d be hard pressed to find any actual visual differences between the M8 and M9. The square camera lens on the rear aside, the M9 is only slightly shorter and a little thicker to the M8 – and that’s really where the differences end.

It’s a slightly different story with all the things that keep the M9 ticking underneath the stylish finish. With Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 810 processor and a now staple 3GB of RAM, the One M9 is staggeringly fast. Apps never take a moment to load, and the phone never once slowed down during all the time I had with it – even with my terrible habit of not properly closing apps after use. Actually using the M9 is, as it was last year, an absolute joy, bolstered by a decent battery life that never had me reaching for a charger during the day. Forget to charge it at night though, and you’ll have a problem.

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My favorite part of HTC in general though is their light, expertly-designed Sense UI that is delightfully layered over the stock Android software the M9 ships with. Android Lollipop 5.0 is great, but the new version of Sense UI makes it better – keeping it ahead of the pack in terms of the competition. It’s funny though, because it doesn’t often feel like HTC is throwing its software in your face. Fan favourite features like Blinkfeed, Zoe and more make a return with their own sets of little tweaks and changes, never slowing down the rest of what you’re trying to do on the phone.

The new Sense UI also allows you to get really creative with theming, allowing you to easily change icons, colors and fonts seemingly on the fly. If you really want to get personal, you can create your own theme on HTC’s official website – or just download one of the many fantastic ones already there. It’s a welcome change to, say, the experience on my iPhone 6 – which doesn’t really allow much flexibility from inside the OS itself.

Another nifty feature is a living widget bar that attempts to predict what apps you’re going to use based on your location. These are stock choices when you first boot the phone up, but as you start using it the M9 will learn what apps are open where, and attempt to populate the widget in real-time. When it works, it’s great – with apps you’re naturally going to use being a little fewer taps away from reach. However, the teething days it takes to get to this stage are annoying, and the M9 often expelled my WhatsApp app to the main menu for no real reason. It’s easily the app I use the most – why does it not deserve a spot on the front page?

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I also had an incredibly difficult time coming to terms with the stock keyboard – a problem I don’t recall having with the M8 last year. After calibrating it twice, my inputs were never truly accurate, which became infuriating on a daily basis. It got better the more I used it, but even after three weeks I was still making weird and wonderful typing errors – none of which I make on most other handsets I have to review.

This small blemish aside though, the software all-round is pretty fantastic, and that includes the tech behind the Photo app. Snapshots are fast and responsive, with an array of filters and modes all just a button press away. Panoramic photos are a breeze, transferring to video and photo is quick and logical and it’s generally an easier experience to some unnecessarily, over-complicated app designs that some Android handsets are far too often guilty of.

That is not, however, enough to make up with the biggest issue with the M9 – the camera is still sub-par, and there really is no reason it should be. Last year HTC went all in on its UltraPixel technology, turing their noses up at high megapixel counts in favor of a more refined experience. It didn’t pay off, and even with the added gimmick of a second lens for 3D data, the M8 camera fell flat. This year, the UltraPixel technology is exclusive to the front-facing camera (which it works extremely well actually), while the rear camera has gone back to the raw basics. The 20MP camera is slightly better than the M8, but still trails far behind even aging competition.

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While shots have slight better details, they’re still riddled with noise reduction messiness and terribly low light performance, especially when held up against what the competition is pulling off. As a point of reference, I compared the shots to my iPhone 6 – which achieved more colorful, vibrant and “alive” stills than the M9. That’s a phone essentially a generation behind, and it poses an even bigger problem for HTC in their immediate Android competition. The Galaxy S6 has already staked its claim in the camera department (with an incredible performance), and early reports suggest LG’s G4 is set to exceed it. That leaves the M9 in a weird position – even though HTC had a full year just to focus on this one big problem.

And that’s really where things start to fall apart for the M9 in the current climate. Last year, I would hands-down recommend anyone looking for an Android device to pick up an M8. It wasn’t even a question with the failings of Samsung and the comparisons to the G3. This year is extremely different though, and the M9 simply doesn’t do enough. Yes, it’s a phenomenally quick phone with brilliant software, but it’s essentially the same, distilled experience that the M8 was. Meanwhile, Samsung might have just outdone their S3 impact with the S6, while preliminary impressions seem to indicate that the G4 won’t be a slouch either.

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That’s the biggest problem with the HTC One M9 – it’s an incredible phone that I’ve already used, with all my likes and dislikes seemingly making the transition. It’s a joy to use – with incredible performance and a pleasant software experience, but it hasn’t evolved past the problems of 2014. The camera needs a lot of work to start competing with the rest of the pack – a category which can easily make or break a sale when things start getting this expensive. Still, if you’re coming for your flavoured HTC experience wrapped up in a luxurious, attractive package, you won’t be disappointed. All you can really hope for is some evolution (or, at least, refining) on next year’s device.

 

Last Updated: May 4, 2015

HTC One M9
Summary
A still incredible Android handset that retains everything that was good from the M8, but sadly also not able to shake off the worst of last year's standout flagship. A step to the side, while everyone else is taking two massive strides forward.
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