HTC One M9 review: still the best-looking Android smartphone money can buy

25 Mar 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

HTC One M9 (Unlocked).

It’s five years since Taiwanese phone maker HTC dazzled us with the HTC Desire, a pioneering Android smartphone that was cutting-edge. HTC’s One series set the bench high for premium smartphones, matching exquisite build quality with eye-catching innovations and a superbly elegant version of Google’s Android software.The next major phone from the Taiwanese company is the HTC One M9, a premium device intended to rival the iPhone and Samsung’s upcoming Galaxy S6 phone.

While other companies were chasing high-pixel counts for their cameras HTC chose a fewer-but-better approach with its Ultrapixels – four million of these bigger pixels designed to work better in low light. Rivals created phones with glass or plastic backs but HTC created a phone with an all-metal jacket and still managed to get the signal through the case. And where some Android software looks cartoonish or unattractive, HTC’s exceptional software team routinely create an interface as classy as the hardware around it.

HTC sent us an unlocked, international One M9 with non-final software that doesn’t map exactly to the phone being sold in the U.S. (Any other “review” coming out today will have the same issue, as we’re all waiting for carrier units.) So we’re not rating this phone, but providing an extended preview. That’s dovetailed with a reduction in different units released: In 2011, HTC flooded the market with no fewer than 20 handsets ranging from the squat HTC Wildfire S to the comparatively sleek Rezound. At a time when many smartphones are indistinguishable one from another (big oblong screen, increasingly thin profile, flat back, er, that’s it), HTC’s are unmistakable thanks to that metal rear that’s gently curved and subtly textured.

It’s a solid, all-metal phone at 5.69 by 2.74 by 0.38 inches (HWD) and 5.5 ounces, with a 5-inch, 1080p LCD on the front and Volume and Power buttons on the side. It’s now available in Australia and comes as HTC installs co-founder Cher Wang as its new chief executive, charged with turning around a reported decline to 2 per cent global market share.

There are several colour variants but the silver and gold one has a discreet gold frame curling round from the back and a matte metal piece that connects it to the screen. Let’s see what critics are saying (all emphasis ours). • “I’ve been trying to shake the feeling that I’ve seen this all before, that I’ve acted out this scenario already. I’ve been living in smartphone déjà vu.” — Dan Seifert, The Verge • “HTC says that the design of the M9 is a mashup of the best aspects of the M7 and the M8, and although that may be the case, it has resulted in a phone so familiar that you might mistake it for last year’s model.” — Jacob Siegal, BGR • “In most ways, we’re still dealing with the same One DNA we always have, just peppered with a handful of modifications meant to make the whole thing feel more premium.” — Chris Velazco, Engadget • “It’s a smartphone for show, a fashion accessory, a 5-inch slab of metal that’s practically jewelry.

At first I couldn’t find it and thought the placement crazy, but it means you can switch the phone on and off one-handed, with it lying in the palm of your hand. What it isn’t—design-wise—is new, exciting or meaningfully different.” — Darren Orf, Gizmodo • “While you’d expect the move to a higher megapixel count to equate to a much better experience than found in the M8, we are sad to say this isn’t the case.

This is largely because the way the phone processes picture data is about the same as before, and that’s not a very good thing.” — Joshua Vergara, Android Authority • “The good news is that the M9 captures photos very quickly, letting you capture fast-moving action without missing a beat. … You can make that screen look different from others thanks to a feature built into the HTC Sense software to generate new themes (wallpaper, sounds, fonts, shortcut icons and more).

Within the first year of ownership, HTC will replace your phone once if it has a cracked screen, water damage, or if you’re trying to switch carriers. In particular, the back-facing camera doesn’t handle lower light conditions well without a flash, especially where there’s lots of contrast — for example, a computer screen in a room not brightly lit. That last bit is important because each of the four U.S. carriers has its own model of the phone, which may not be compatible with all of the other carriers’ models. These skins are quite all-encompassing so make sure you know what’s where before you switch to them: it’s momentarily confusing before you settle in to your new phone world. The memory card slot is essentially another SIM card slot on the other side of the device, and it worked just fine with our 64GB SanDisk Extreme card in testing.

HTC has doubled down on its Sense 7 skin this year, with a range of setup and theming experiences that extend the company’s tasteful physical design into the virtual world. It’s a 20.7-megapixel camera – since a phone’s photographic capabilities are so important these days it’s not surprising HTC wanted to have a sensor that’s a contender. Low light is key to smartphones because, though it’s great to take great photos of brightly sunlit holiday destinations, most photos are probably still impromptu portraits in bars and restaurants where atmospheric lighting doesn’t help things. And the front camera – called selfies in the camera software – delivers good shots, especially compared to many smartphones with much lower-resolution, non-Ultrapixel sensors.

You’re most likely to look at it when you’re waiting around somewhere for a few minutes; I found it a bit frustrating because I didn’t have LTE (as I’ll explain below). It includes the Cloudex cloud-storage software, HTC’s Zoe video-sharing app, Zoodles Kid Mode parental controls, and the Scribble drawing-notebook app, to point out a few you might want to replace. It feels like a handy mind-reader, though many will feel it’s just as useful to know where things are because they’re exactly where you left them, thank you very much. It had excellent results on integer and floating-point math measures, but dragged a bit on graphics compared with more arcane processors like Apple’s A8 and Nvidia’s K1. Battery life is good though you won’t find the M9 sailing through a second day’s use, which is a shame as other manufacturers, most notably Sony, are working hard to add life between charges.

Those processors aren’t widely available in Android devices, though, and the Snapdragon 810, for better or for worse, is the fastest mainstream Android processor available right now. Both pre-production versions of the LG G Flex 2 and the One M9 occasionally had overheating issues, and both sets of problems were fixed with software updates. The models HTC sent to reviewers lack both the 1700MHz 3G band and all American LTE bands, which means it underperforms on both AT&T and T-Mobile’s networks. So HTC replaced the main camera with a 20-megapixel Toshiba (HTC had formerly said Sony, and corrected itself) sensor, and flipped the “Ultrapixel” 4-megapixel camera to the front. Outdoors, the Note 4 (and an iPhone 6) had much better-balanced exposure, whereas the M9 tended to throw darker areas into deep shadow unless I manually adjusted the exposure.

The front-facing camera only captured 1080p video at an unacceptable 12 fps in a standalone video, although it had no problem with 24 fps in split-screen mode.

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