Review: New HTC One phone is strong contender

31 Mar 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

HTC One M9 (T-Mobile).

As the smart phone race rages on, you’d expect runner-up mobile companies to impress us with new features and design to tempt us away from Apple and Samsung. 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. 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. The design is quite similar – a 5-inch 1080p HD screen with top and bottom bezels for a navigation bar and impressive BoomSound speakers (now with Dolby Audio). 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. 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.

The One M9 — $649 unlocked directly from HTC and available on all four major U.S. carriers including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon with varied pricing — is very similar to the One M8. Spec-wise, the M9 runs a Snapdragon 810 processor, 3 gigabytes of RAM, 32 gigabytes of internal storage, and has an improved battery that can run up to a day of normal processing. It has a 20-megapixel rear-facing camera with a sapphire lens, and it moved its UltraPixel feature to the front-facing camera (read: better night selfies). 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.

The top of the phone is still occupied by an infrared sensor (for controlling TVs and entertainment systems), but you’ll notice the power button has moved to the right side. There are a ton of little editing tools, some that they kept from the last round (the “Zoe” camera that automatically makes mini montages of your multimedia events) and some new (like the ability to take front and rear facing images at the same time). 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. The M9 is also part of a new breed of Android smartphones capable of playing high-res music encoded at 24-bits, but like Neil Young’s PonoPlayer, you’d be foolish to buy into it. 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. All smart phone users should be jealous of this feature. “The smartphone market is a race—you’ve got to come up with better designs and ideas faster than everyone else,” writes Ron Amadeo in a review for Ars Technica. “If you’re in the back of the pack, you can never catch up to the leader if you’re running slower, and that’s what’s so frustrating about HTC. 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? Its response to losing the race is to move even slower.” “HTC One’s have a strong pedigree, and I don’t think anyone who buys this evolutionary device will come away disappointed,” writes USA Today’s Edward C.

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. 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. 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.

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 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. 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. 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.

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. In a few taps, you can create your own theme from an image or download and install one made by someone else in the Themes app. (In the future, HTC says it hopes to let creators sell their themes.) For those who want more control over their theme creations, HTC has a tool called Maker Pro. 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.

Thankfully, I didn’t see any erratic behavior as a result of the heat, and the M9 never dialed back the screen brightness or issued any warnings during my tests. 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. 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.

HTC’s embellishments don’t actually matter, though, because the most important thing it did to the new One was give you complete control over your software design. 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. The M9 comes with a suite of preloaded themes and a curated theme store that changes everything from icons to system sounds, completely modifying the look of your phone with a single tap.

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. 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.

And honestly, Google Now is so good at delivering timely and location-aware information that shuffling a bunch of apps in a widget isn’t all that useful anyway. 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. 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.

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