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Friday, April 24, 2015

HTC One M9 review: Another year, another modest step forward

Let's say you're a smartphone maker and you cook up a formula for a beloved, game-changing device. The next year, you tweak that formula a bit to create a worthy, if slightly less exciting, follow-up of a phone. What do you do after another year has gone by? Try something completely different in hopes you'll catch lightning in a bottle again, or keep plugging away on the mobile DNA that made you such a worthy name in the first place? If you're HTC, the answer is obvious: You keep polishing and polishing that formula until you finally reach the ideal you've been working toward.

That's what we have in the One M9. It's still a ways off from fulfilling the vision that HTC's design wonks had in mind, but in most ways it's a very thoughtful refinement of what made the One series so special. Your pleas and complaints haven't gone unheard. The thing is, when the One M9 does try new things -- be they software features or hardware changes -- it doesn't always stick the landing.
Gallery 35 Photos

HTC One M9 review

One M9

HTC's 2015 flagship was designed to feel more premium than previous models, but it runs the risk of feeling dated two years on. It's sturdy and plenty powerful with its Snapdragon 810 chipset, but the M9's 20-megapixel camera doesn't seem any better than the UltraPixel shooter HTC ditched, and the occasional software quirk raises eyebrows.


Note: I'm working with the international version of the One M9. I'll update this review with new impressions once US units become available.
It's impossible not to compare the M9 to the Ones that came before it, which leads to some simple shorthand for HTC's design work this year: Put simply, it's almost like the M7 and M8 had a baby. Where the M8 was polished and curvaceous like a river stone -- a choice that meant the thing slid around more than some liked -- the M9 channels more of the original One M7's angularity. HTC's newest flagship feels familiar as a result, but that's not to say that everything HTC did was for the best.

Anyway, more on that later. Let's start with the broad strokes. The M9's sloping back would look almost identical to its predecessors were it not for some major camera changes: Last year's Duo Camera UltraPixel setup has been replaced with a single, squarish, sapphire-covered pod that hosts a more traditional 20-megapixel shooter. Thankfully, none of that changes how comfortably the M9 settles into the hand. You'll find the nano-SIM and microSD card slots (the latter of which takes cards up to a whopping 2TB) nestled into the left and right edges, respectively, just where they were last year. The lengthy volume rocker that ran down the previous phone's side has been split into two discrete buttons, though, and the sleep/wake key has been moved below it and was given a neat spiral pattern so you can tell the difference without looking.
At first glance, the phone's face is almost identical too. The only real changes you'll notice when that 5-inch, 1080p screen is off are incredibly subtle ones, like the top BoomSound speaker being a little shorter to accommodate the bigger UltraPixel selfie camera. Hell, you might not even notice one of the quietest structural changes -- the M9 is the first One with a front plate hewn from a single block of aluminum, with holes machined in to hold the screen and speakers in place. It's an impressive feat of production, but it's not like it makes the M9 feel any sturdier than it already is.

Come to think of it, it's that kind of minute change that seems emblematic of the M9's overall aesthetic. In most ways, we're still dealing with the same One DNA as before, just peppered with a handful of modifications meant to make the whole thing feel more premium. Consider the color, for one: My review unit is the same two-toned, rose-gold-and-silver affair I first played with back at MWC, and it's still just as polarizing as it was a few weeks ago. I've grown inordinately fond of the color combination, though others who saw it were less than impressed by the company flinging itself onto a gold-hued bandwagon. Thankfully, you'll soon be able to pick up full-on silver or gunmetal models too.
More importantly, the M9 sits in my hand with just the right amount of weight and gravitas. It's light without feeling chintzy; it screams "solid," maybe even a little more than the M8 did. No wonder HTC's brass has spent so much breath talking up that machined chassis. To hear them tell it, the metal's "jewelry-grade" finish resists scratches and crafting each M9 involves 70 steps and takes 300 minutes to complete. Similar attention has been paid to what wound up inside the phone: We're looking at one of Qualcomm's octa-core Snapdragon 810s (a bit of silicon that pairs a 2.0GHz quad-core processor with another 1.5GHz quad-core unit), 3GB of DDR4 RAM, 32GB of storage and support for super-fast LTE Cat 9 data speeds where they're available. All of that together is enough to make you wonder how well the company can produce these things at scale, but the effect is mostly wonderful.

Yep, that's right: "mostly." The biggest physical offender is hard to miss: The gold edge that runs around the M9's sides terminates in a pronounced ridge that feels completely out of place. Some will mind it less than others -- it does make the M9's body feel less slippery than the M8's -- but a colleague summed up my feelings best when he said it was like having the edge of a butter knife pressed into your palm. Possible butterfinger moments aside, the beauty of the M8's curves was that it made the physicality of the phone sort of fade into the background. Not so this time. At least that edge won't catch on your pockets when you whip your phone out.

All told, it'd be easy to snipe at HTC for playing it too safe this year. I had to fight the temptation to do so myself. Like it or not, HTC's design chiefs have a clear sense of what they want their flagships to look and feel like and they seem more than happy to chip away in a single direction year after year. That's just great for their sense of artistry, but we'll see if people actually flock to a phone that doesn't look like a dramatic improvement over the ones that came before.

Display and sound

While rivals like Samsung and LG have flung their arms open to embrace Quad HD screens, HTC seems more than happy to buck the trend. Need evidence? Look no further than the M9's face -- the flagship comes loaded with a 5-inch Super LCD 3 display running at 1080p, putting it well behind the competition when it comes to sheer pixel density. Thing is, that's far more of a disadvantage on paper than in practice. After all, you'd be hard-pressed to pick out an individual pixel on the M9's display, and viewing angles are still first-rate here. What's more curious than HTC's resolution decision is just how different it is from the panel placed in the M8. Seriously.

The M9's LCD is altogether much cooler than the M8's, which makes for crisper, more neutral whites at the expense of slightly less impactful blacks. I spend more time than I'd like to admit poking around on Instagram every day, but the difference couldn't have been any clearer than there -- colors were much punchier on the M8's screen, while the flower, puppy, graffiti and food pictures Instagram is notorious for came across as less saturated and, dare I say, neutered on the M9. Your mileage may vary (I've always preferred the slight oversaturation of AMOLED screens), but a certain dose of pop that made some photos come alive on last year's model is gone here, and I'm frankly bummed because of it.
If there's one thing HTC knows, though, it's how to shoehorn a pair of speakers into a smartphone. BoomSound is back for a third year running and the dual-speaker setup still mostly sets a high bar for the rest of the industry's high-end wares. Yep, there's that pesky "mostly" again. I've run both the M8 and the M9 through my usual slew of test tracks, ranging from poppy ethereal stuff like Mika's The Origin Of Love album to Sambomaster's furious Japanese rock, and once again found that the M8 usually did a better job of reproducing classic tunes than its successor. Most times, the M8 was a touch louder and shined a little more light on the primary vocal track in the mix; meanwhile, the M9 projected a soundscape that drew me in a little more thanks to cleaner channel separation, but seemed softer in comparison.

That doesn't mean the M9 is necessarily worse, just that it seems to be tuned a little differently. HTC has Dolby Audio running in the background to help give those speakers some more oomph, and I can't help but wonder if that extra software isn't to blame -- too bad there's no way to turn it off. If you're feeling really picky, you can toggle between Music and Theater modes in the settings, but I honestly couldn't make out the difference either way.


Remember the old, overwrought days of Sense? With that gigantic weather/clock widget and HTC's insistence that basically every bit of Android had to be customized to within an inch of its life? Yeah, so do I. Those were rough times. HTC's done a great job of dialing back its influence on Android over the past few generations, and we're now left with a version of Sense that's both smarter and great at getting out of your way when you want it to. If you've spent any time at all with the M8, you'll feel right at home here -- just about all of the software features that made it what it was are back on top of Android 5.0.2, along with a few smart new bits that strive to do more than they actually can.

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