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HTC One M9 Review: Design Déjà vu?

Is the HTC One M9 too similar to its predecessor, the M8, or can its blazing Snapdragon 810 and clever customisation tools help it stand out from the crowd?

HTC One (M9), smartphone, release, launch, mobile, Samsung Galaxy S6, Sense, Blinkfeed, battery, UltraPixel, camera, Qualcomm Snapdragon 810

Last year, we applauded one of the first devices to arrive from HTC’s new outlook. The HTC One (M8) was not only a thing of beauty, but it outperformed nearly everything else on the market.

However, it was soon swept aside by the juggernaut that was the Samsung Galaxy S5 and HTC were left licking their wounds with sales still not hitting where they should be. A year has passed since then and with further cuts being made behind the scene, has HTC managed to finally release a device that can truly challenge Samsung with the gorgeous One M9? The jury is certainly out on this one.

Design

The word doppelganger instantly springs to mind when you look at the M9. There’s no two ways about it, there’s a little too much similarity between this and the M8.

HTC has plumped for the full metal design that helped the M8 carve its own niche in the market, and while it certainly looks gorgeous from top to bottom, there’s a real sense that there’s been minimal innovation in this area.

The eagle-eyed among you will notice the sharper edges of the M9, a welcome addition to those who were in constant fear of the slippery M8 falling from their grasp, as the new shiny exterior feels vastly superior in hand. All the usual buttons are present; including a much needed microSD port and the same powerful dual-speakers as before.

Arguably the biggest addition to the M9 on the design front is the placement of the power button that now sits beside the volume rocker. Compared to its dodgy placement at the top of the M8, having a side power button just feels natural; although it could do with some distinguishing feel from the volume keys. Upon our initial handling of the device, we thought we were supplied with a faulty device, until we realised that trying to turn on the M9 with a volume button simply wasn’t working.

 

Screen

We’d happily stick our necks out here and say HTC has never been a company to go overboard with the screen technology they look to utilise. With LG looking to equip their latest round of devices with QHD, HTC has played it relatively safe with their full HD offering in the M9, again the same technology was used in the M8. To the naked eye, the differences between these two levels of screen technology are minimal.

All in all, the M9 offers one of the clearest screens we’ve ever tested and while the contrast isn’t perhaps to the same level as similarly priced devices, it isn’t a major fault, but an annoyance for sure. Viewing angles are superb, especially for those wanting to catch a movie or two on the 50inch display and the 441ppi outshines basically everything else currently on the market, bar a few.

Undoubtedly, the comparisons between the M9 and M8’s display are going to be made, but this is the one area that the differences are noticeable. This is a solid upgrade from what we’ve previously seen from HTC.

 

Performance and battery

No matter which way you look at it, 3GB of RAM is always going to keep things moving along nicely, even if it’s partnered with a sub-par processor. The RAM here holds testament to that as it helps make the One M9 an absolute pleasure to use. Moving through menus has a real zip to it and it even has the power to keep boot times to an absolute minimum.

But beyond its RAM, it’s the M9’s Snapdragon 810 octa-core processor that really has us licking our lips. Split between two quad-core processors, one clocked at 2GHz and the second at 1.5GHz, the extra power is split into different areas of the phone usage. It helps just make the phone easier to use, with better multitasking facilities being the key beneficiary to this added power.

In some aspects an octa-core processor could be seen as slightly overkill, especially for casual users, but the more seasoned and power-hungry users out there will certainly see the benefits.

All this power does have a serious impact on battery life, however. The included non-removable 2840 mAh achieved a comfortable day of use with our tests on average use, but through intensive use you can expect to get closer to 6 hours most of the time. Using some of the more battery intensive apps also causes some noticeable heating worries.

Let’s not forget a full metal device looks great, but it’s certainly not the best material when it comes to keeping your device cool. It isn’t as much of a problem with the M9 when compared to the heat issues with the M8, but it’s something to think about nonetheless.

 

Software

HTC One (M9), smartphone, release, launch, mobile, Samsung Galaxy S6, Sense, Blinkfeed, battery, UltraPixel, camera, Qualcomm Snapdragon 810
Customise the look of your M9 with HTC’s new Themer app

HTC’s own custom skin, Sense, has undergone a massive transition the past couple of years. It’s by far one of the worst custom skins on the market still, but the M9 uses the best version of it we’ve seen to date. Most of the same features and menus are included and will be familiar to past HTC owners, but this time around there’s a plethora of customisation options readily available to take for a spin.

Through the new theming menu, M9 owners can adjust the icons and fonts used on the device and we love the inclusion of the colour picker to help decide on the general colour scheme of the phone. As you’d expect, there’s a bunch of themes already preinstalled, but through a new app, it’s entirely possible to create your own from scratch. It’s by no means a groundbreaking feature, but when you consider how other manufacturers hold the user’s hands when its comes to customising, HTC are happy to let you loose and really personalise the M9 to your exact tastes.

We also tip our caps to HTC’s recent updates to Blinkfeed. We’ve been highly critical of the newsgathering system before, but due in part to the processing power and with the M9 running Android 5.0 out of the box, it’s an absolute joy to use.

 

Camera

When the M8 was first announced, the UltraPixel camera they teased was set to be the next big thing when it came to smartphone photography. It flopped, massively. In the M9, the 4-megapixel camera has now been placed as the lead front-facing camera, adding a nice finish to any selfies you want to take, but it still pales in comparison to the whopping 13-megapixel offering of HTC’s own Desire Eye.

Around the back, HTC has plumped for a more traditional 20.7-megapixel sensor, alongside a f/2.0 lens. Where this combination shines is within areas with good lighting. The detail it can capture is incredible and the colours are up there with some of the best on the market, albeit still poor when compared to the iPhone 6.

Although unquestionable improvements have been made, there’s also some room for improvement. Taking photos in low-light conditions is still near impossible for the most part, while certain images come out over-exposed and way too bright for our liking. However, better images tend to be made when using the default camera app’s HDR mode.

 

Verdict

When you consider some of the devices that are newly released and the ones that will be turning up in the next few months, it feels that the M9 is in a bit of a quandary. With Samsung and LG set to release their next big blockbusters, which we’d predict will both sell in their millions, is there enough about the M9 to help it compete?

On one hand, there are a lot of features that make this HTC’s best device yet. It’s certainly the best looking device on the market, and we wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t see a better-looking device until the M10 next year. You’d also be hard pressed to find a better performing device as well and while the octa-core processor won’t benefit the masses, hardcore users will certainly feel the boost.

We also like the incremental changes to both Blinkfeed and the camera, but lets face it, HTC didn’t really have to try too hard to trump last year’s offerings. These upgrades aside, we’re still struggling to see any real reasons why we could recommend this device over what’s currently and about to launch on the market.

For now, we’d recommend you hang fire until we can put the Samsung Galaxy S6 under the knife to see what your next compulsory Android device should be.

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