Hands on: Getting to know the HTC One M9

30 Mar 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

HTC One M9 (T-Mobile).

NEW YORK — It’s a compliment to HTC’s standing as a producer of handsomely designed — if not always top-selling — smartphones that I was somehow expecting more out of the HTC One M9 that will be widely available April 10. For sure, the Taiwanese phone maker’s latest Android flagship is a solid 5.5-ounce all-around handset, one crafted with a dual-tone metal body that is supposed to evoke fine jewelry. That’s where HTC is right now and, while it would be a fine place to be if there was no strong competition in the smartphone market (just ask Samsung), it’s not a great position for a company facing Xiaomi and other smartphone players on the prowl.

HTC brags that the manufacturing process required more than 70 steps and 300 minutes per device, resulting in a phone that in my opinion looks and feels really nice. All the way back in 2012—an eternity ago, in smartphone years—it was building beautiful phones while everyone else was still shipping boring black slabs.

HTC built a big lead in design chops a couple of years ago, but the rest of the market has caught up fast: Samsung, Motorola, and Apple all make beautiful, big, high-resolution phones now. I’ve cited American photographer Chase Jarvis’s famous quote before in many of my camera reviews and I’m going to do so again: “The best camera is the one you have with you.” For just about everybody, that camera is now our smartphone.

The One M9 does bring a few improvements over the M8, but they’re not significant enough to keep up with the rapid pace of improvement in the Android ecosystem. The M9 is a couple millimeters shorter than the M8, though still unusually tall for a 5-inch phone thanks to the black bar with the HTC logo that sits beneath the display.

With the new One M9, which is available now on all four major US carriers for the same price as your average high-end smartphone, HTC took the latter approach. We’re told that this space is needed to house circuitry, and maybe that’s the price one has to pay for the pair of amplified stereo speakers at the top and bottom of the phone.

In terms of connectivity, the dual-SIM phablet supports both FDD-LTE and TD-LTE network bands along with dual-band Wi-Fi a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.1 and NFC. But while no one outside of a geek will moan about fewer pixels, the fact is that HTC didn’t go to the nth degree on the screen like such Android rivals as Samsung and LG. Tags: HTC, HTC One E9+, HTC One E9+ features, HTC One E9+ India launch, HTC One E9+ launch, HTC One E9+ price, HTC One E9+ smartphone, HTC One E9+ specs, HTC smartphones HTC spent the last few years trying to convince folks that its so-called “UltraPixel” approach—the use of fewer but larger pixels on the camera to let in more light—was a superior solution compared to cameras that had a larger pixel count.

It runs a Snapdragon 810 processor with 3GB RAM and is snappier and simply better than last year’s “best new Android smartphone.” I am consistently impressed with this series and the effort HTC put into creating a clever galaxy of accessories as well as their effort to streamline and improve stock Android. A new double exposure photo editing feature lets you blend two separate pictures into one—though my tooling around with it rarely led to a satisfying final image.

Some stunts will be familiar to the HTC crowd, including the Zoe feature that mixes photos and videos you’ve shot and turns them into mini-movies backed by a soundtrack. I dug it up from our gadget chest, factory reset it, then updated it to Android 5.0.2 “Lollipop” and installed my usual apps (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Feedly, etc.) and you know what? Therein lies the rub: do you invest in a larger, solid phone with a clean user experience or do you remain with your current manufacturer be it Samsung, Apple, or anyone else.

The bottom-mounted headphone jack has some serious power behind it, driving my usual pair of headphones noticeably louder than the maximum volume I’m used to. I wouldn’t buy it over the Galaxy S6 Edge or trade in an iPhone for it but that’s me — you may have different reasons to own an aluminum smartphone with nice internal speakers and excellent styling — and I feel that when comparing this against other mid-level phone the HTC wins it. As part of its own custom HTC Sense interface (over Android Lollipop) there’s a new “Home” widget that arranges apps differently if you’re using the phone at home, work or out on the road.

On T-Mobile, the M9 supports GSM (850/900/1800/1900MHz), UMTS (850/1700/1900/2100MHz), and LTE (Bands 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 12, 13, 17, 29, 30) network connectivity. In between all that gold and silver (or gunmetal gray, if you’re not ready for a life of buying tigers and naming an armada of superyachts) is a 5-inch, 1080p screen. While most other manufacturers typically will drop in a few differences, HTC has quite simply upgraded the innards and pushed a new phone out the door.

Late Thursday afternoon, it sent me to a coffee shop about 15 minutes away by foot. (I went to a pub instead.) HTC is offering U.S. customers an extended protection plan for one year. Jumping around the Sense 7 interface, switching between open apps, scrolling through Twitter or Facebook, it’s all smooth and responsive…just like it was on the M8. That’s just fine, there are many who don’t want curved screens or new designs and the M8/M9 “water-worn pebble” aesthetic is extremely beguiling. Mashable Tech Editor Pete Pachal didn’t notice any unusual heat issues on the LG G Flex 2, which also uses the same chip, and neither did I while testing the M9.

Noise cancellation was simply average in my tests; on an especially loud street corner, I could still hear a good deal of background noise as cars whizzed by, and my voice sounded wobbly on a voicemail test. If that’s enough to get a few hundred thousand units off the shelves and into pockets then I’m sure HTC will be happy – and I think you’d be happy if you felt this aluminum-clad beauty weighing down your front pocket. Its new Uh Oh Protection plan (that’s really the name) will just straight-up replace your broken, cracked, or soaked phone once in the first 12 months, no questions asked. If that’s not enough, you can expand the storage through the microSD card slot, which takes memory cards up to 2 terabytes (TB), although those aren’t actually commercially available.

With the display calibrated to 200 cd/m2, the PCMark battery test gave the M8 a score of 5 hours, 48 minutes, and the M9 a score of 5 hours, 12 minutes—a 10 percent difference. Like the hardware, Sense 7 doesn’t mess too much with the established formula; BlinkFeed, HTC’s Flipboard-like news reader, is still a swipe in from the left on the main homescreen and the widgets, icons and notification shade still look very HTC-like. But if I played games on the bus in the morning, browsed social media throughout the day, and took a bunch of photos, I found myself needing to hit the charger in the evening.

When you’re at work, you might want to show productivity apps like email, Google Drive and Google Calendar; at home, music, YouTube, the Kindle app and perhaps some games; and outdoors, Google Maps, Yelp and maybe a fitness-tracking app. The Note Edge is still the Wi-Fi king thanks to its MIMO antennas, which enabled speeds that averaged a blazing-fast 111.18Mbps down and 76.99Mbps up. HTC’s new built-in editing tools are a perfect microcosm of its camera: you can do all these crazy things to your photos, like overlaying one on another or warping your subject into oblivion, but there’s not much to just make your photos better.

CPU-intensive tests showed the greatest leap over Snapdragon 805-powered devices like the Note 4, while GPU-intensive results weren’t as dramatically different. HTC invented the “UltraPixel” camera to go against the grain — to take low-light pictures to the next level at a time when all smartphone cameras sucked at shooting anything with even a hint of darkness. Heat is a bit of an issue here, but it’s not debilitating—the M9 got pretty hot after a round of benchmarking, but it was only mildly uncomfortable to hold to my face at peak heat.

It also never approached peak heat during normal use, only getting its hottest after running back-to-back graphically intensive tasks for about 30 minutes. The design is mostly just change for its own sake—skins used to be necessary bandages for the problems in Android, but the software is now excellent in its own right. Still, Sense has improved a lot over time, flattening out and simplifying to mesh much better with Google’s Material Design, and it does add some smart tweaks, like the multitasking grid that makes switching between apps much easier. In a battery rundown test, where we streamed a YouTube video over LTE with screen brightness set to max, the 2,840mAh cell was good for 5 hours, 3 minutes of continuous streaming.

Don’t just take my word for it, check out these comparisons between the M8 and M9: By default, the back camera records video in full HD resolution (1,920 x 1,080). That can be cranked up to 4K resolution (3,840 x 2,160), but unless you’ve got a 4K TV or monitor, you’ll probably want to leave it at 1080p just to conserve battery life. You can simply take a picture and let the app pull colors out of it to re-skin your phone, or you can go nuts, download the Photoshop template, and build something from scratch. This isn’t unique to HTC, of course—it’s easier here, maybe, because there’s a dedicated app and community, but there’s nothing here you can’t do elsewhere. There also seems to be a thriving community already, as new themes popped up with surprising frequency during my test period, which was before the phone was even released.

It seems like an overcompensation for the love-it-or-hate-it camera on the One M8, which married a paltry 4-megapixel “UltraPixel” camera with a gimmicky Duo Lens camera. One is the BlinkFeed screen HTC’s been installing just to the side of your homescreen since the first One, which provides everything from personalized news to the local weather. Sense Home is designed to learn your habits, preferences, and most-frequented locales to serve up relevant apps that change based on what it thinks you need or want. HTC’s starting to push some of that info to your lock screen as well, starting with Yelp: when you’re out and about, and it’s almost meal-time, you’ll get recommendations for where to go.

I’m all for creating an iconic design language and product design that withstands the tests of time, but the smartphone competition is more relentlessly aggressive than ever. Still, I found the suggestions for apps to download to be way off-base—I have no interest in a streaming mixtape app called DatPiff, contrary to what HTC and my co-workers might believe.

It’s actually really useful, even if it does seem to think that downloading a to-do list app means I must want to download several other to-do list apps. There’s also a widget on the home screen that will learn when you’re at home, at work, or elsewhere, and try to guess and show you the apps you’ll need in each context. This Sense Home widget is a clever idea, but right now it’s still just faster to just open up the app drawer, where I don’t have to just hope apps will appear. Show me different apps, different themes, different sounds—a phone that automatically acts appropriately in every situation is a hugely powerful thing. With final firmware in place, results from the 20-megapixel main camera are dramatically better than the mess produced by the international model we tested initially, but still far from class-leading.

Without optical image stabilization, the extra resolution of a 4K video feels like a waste, because the phone doesn’t smooth out all the little wiggles and jitters of your unsteady hands. Camera performance isn’t going to necessarily hold the M9 back like last year, but if you want superlative imaging prowess, you’ll have to look elsewhere. A year ago, one of our biggest complaints about Android phones was the heavy-handed “skinning” all the major manufacturers applied to the Android interface. The theme store has a lot of really nice themes (all of them free, though presumably if prices are listed at all there will be paid themes at some point). Take a photo and you can build a theme from it, using cropped parts of the photo for your wallpaper and various interface elements, and even pulling interface colors from the dominant colors in the image.

While Sense 7’s themes are a great addition, HTC didn’t go nearly far enough to make Sense feel like it’s part of Android new design principles.

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