DNA Test: HTC takes the safe but boring route with One M9
By Keith Liu May 18, 2015
HOW do you follow up on one of the best Android flagship smartphones in the market? That’s a question that plagued HTC for two years, ever since it launched the HTC One (M7) back in 2013.
After winning the ‘Best smartphone of 2013’ award at Mobile World Congress 2014, as well as receiving numerous awards from the tech media and blogs, HTC was under pressure to deliver something that would live up to the One name.
The result was the HTC One M8 (pic above), which, once again, won numerous awards from various publications in 2014, although some criticised the Taiwanese handset-maker for not innovating on the design, while others highlighted the lacklustre camera.
So here we are in 2015, and once again, HTC has – in timely fashion – launched its flagship One M9 to take on the likes Apple and Samsung.
The expectations are clearly very high, considering that the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus are selling like hot cakes thanks to the pent-up demand for a larger-screen Apple flagship, and a resurgent Samsung with its high performance, high-style pair of Galaxy S6 devices.
Does the One M9 then, succeed in raising the bar again in this ruthlessly competitive industry? That’s what this DNA Test aims to find out.
Design and hardware
Throughout its long history, HTC has developed a reputation for design innovation, and the One series is one of the reasons why. Moulding the chassis from a single block of aluminium is no mean feat, and that helped the company differentiate its flagship from the rest of the Android pack two years ago.
For the M9, the aluminium unibody design language remains unchanged. It wowed the market back then, and while it doesn’t surprise us anymore, it still bears the hallmarks of a stylish, meticulously crafted, metal-clad premium device.
The back has that same gentle curve, with a rear camera lens that sits on the centre, near the top, and a dual-tone LED flash next to it. The HTC logo is emblazoned smack in the middle.
The power button and the volume keys are found on the right side – an improvement from the M8 where the button was placed at the top.
Unfortunately they felt a little too recessed, making it harder to instinctively know which button we were pressing without actually looking at the phone.
The microSD slot is placed above the volume keys while the nano-SIM slot is symmetrically placed on the left side.
On the front, the 5-inch display is flanked by a pair of ‘BoomSound’ speakers, while the front camera and proximity sensor share the space above the screen with the speaker.
At the very top of the M9 you’ll find the Infrared (IR) remote sensor, which can be used to control your home entertainment system; while along the bottom you’ll find the micro USB port and the 3.5mm audio jack.
HTC tried to take the design a step further by using two different colour finishes, one on the back and another for the edges. Our review unit has a brushed silver back while the sides are tinted in rose gold. The Gunmetal Grey option is also available.
During the media event in Singapore (before the company passed us the review unit), HTC spent a fair amount of time explaining how complex it was to achieve this dual tone effect on the device, stating that it takes far longer to manufacture the M9 compared with the M8, due to the additional colour.
Truth be told, this design flourish is quite unnecessary. Since the silver back reflects light easily, especially indoors with warm lighting, the dual tone effect isn’t that noticeable. The silver shows up as a gold hue, and it’s not visually obvious enough that there are two colours at play here.
To add insult to injury, whenever we showed off the dual tone effect to someone who had never seen the M9 before, we received a puzzled “So?” in response. In fact, most of them thought this was the previous M8 model.
Staying true to the original design is partly a brand-building exercise, to create an iconic, recognisable look in the long run – and to that effect, HTC has succeeded.
What it has failed to do is show how this new colour scheme is a design innovation that actually matters.
So much for the look, how about the feel? On the previous model, the sides were rounded and smooth, but that made the device feel slippery.
HTC solved this issue with the M9 by designing a ridge on the sides, so that the plastic enclosure around the screen isn’t flush with the main chassis.
While it does provide a better grip, the M9 is less comfortable to hold, and certainly took some getting used to. It won’t be an issue if you’re using a protective case, but make sure you get a good feel of the device before plonking down your cash.
Display and camera
HTC decided to stick with a 5-inch screen on the M9. Unlike Samsung and LG, HTC didn’t utilise a Quad HD display (1440 x 2560 resolution), preferring to stick to a Full HD (1080 x 1920 resolution) screen instead.
There are good reasons for doing so, including a longer battery life. It’s hard to tell the difference with the naked eye, anyway. But in a highly competitive landscape, this doesn’t put the M9 on par with other Android flagships.
Comparisons aside, it remains a very decent screen. The Super LCD3 display offers realistic colours and wide viewing angles. It’s also nicely visible under bright sunlight.
The camera department is where HTC has made the most significant change, eschewing the M8’s ‘UltraPixel’ rear camera for a single 20-megapixel shooter, and moving that ‘UltraPixel’ technology to the front.
HTC has argued in the past that getting good photos isn’t about having more megapixels (the ‘UltraPixel’ sensor only has four megapixels), but ultimately it caved in to consumer pressure and fitted the M9 camera with five times the number of megapixels.
Don’t expect a 5X improvement in image quality, though. In fact, under normal circumstances, the image turned out slightly underexposed and we weren’t able to just shoot and expect to see a great picture all the time.
Thankfully, we were able to tweak the settings to get a better image, and importantly, save these settings under the ‘Custom Camera’ option. But this is all extra work.
The rear camera delivered average pictures in high contrast and low-light situations, with the pictures sometimes turning out grainy – but there were decent ones too.
We believe that software, rather than hardware, is to be blamed here. HTC has updated the camera software twice since the launch, and we expect more improvements to come.
The latest update opens up the RAW camera option, allowing you to capture photos in a digital negative format, so you can tinker with all aspects of the image using a RAW file editor like Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.
Mind you, this is targeted at photo buffs – but at least the option is there.
The UltraPixel front camera however, is nothing short of amazing. Thanks to the larger pixels and ability to capture more light, it delivered significantly better selfies especially in low-light environments.
Additionally, the software lets you use a smile or voice commands to activate the shutter, with plenty of options to touch up your mugshot.
Performance and battery life
Powered by the latest high-end processor from Qualcomm, the 64-bit octa-core Snapdragon 810 chipset, along with 3GB of memory and 32GB of storage, the One M9 expectedly performed very well.
It’s very responsive and all our apps and games installed quickly and ran without any hitches. Browsing the Web was a breeze and videos played flawlessly, even with more than two dozen apps running in the background.
However, things did get quite hot, especially when playing graphically-intensive games like Ridge Racer Slipstream, and this is partly due to the metal surface of the M8 as well, which transfers the heat to our paws almost instantly. The upside here is that the heat also dissipates very quickly.
The audio performance is a real highlight of the M9. The BoomSound speakers, enhanced with Dolby Digital’s audio tweaks, sound brilliant, and safe to say, are still the best smartphone speakers in the market.
The high and mid-range notes are well defined, and although the bass doesn’t match the levels coming from a standalone speaker, the M9 is excellent for conference calls or sharing music and video clips with someone else in the room.
Plug in pair of headphones and you can select from a number of pre-set Dolby equaliser settings that improve the output, but if you want true Dolby Surround sound, you will need to use a music or movie file that has been encoded in the Dolby audio format (AC-3).
The HTC One M9 is an average performer when it comes to battery life, lasting between 10 and 11 hours on a full charge – although our usage pattern leaned on the heavy side.
We had mobile data, WiFi and GPS turned on throughout as we browsed the Web, communicated on WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, answered e-mails, played a couple of games, listened to music, watched half a movie and took about 30 photographs.
We don’t mind the fact that HTC didn’t include a larger capacity battery, but we’re disappointed that it didn’t bundle along the quick-charging power adapter, since the M9 supports this feature. You’ll have to purchase this as an optional accessory.
The One M9 runs on Google’s Android 5 Lollipop operating system, with HTC’s Sense 7 interface laid on top.
Like Samsung’s TouchWiz, you’ll either love it, learn to live with it, or completely just replace it with any of the alternative launchers available from Google’s Play store.
What we had to learn to live with, is that the app drawer icons scroll up and down but the home screens scroll left and right – causing us to change the way our thumbs move each time we called up the app drawer.
Blinkfeed (pic above, left) continues to be there, bringing you the latest updates from your social media accounts and newsfeeds of your choice to the home screen. It can be removed if you find it too distracting, but otherwise it can be quite useful.
New to Sense 7 is the predictive widget called ‘Sense Home’ (pic above, centre and right) that offers up apps that you may probably use based on your location (Home, Work, Out) – but this seemed to work only part of the time.
What’s more interesting is the new Theme engine which lets you customise the interface to your heart’s content, based on your choice of wallpaper, icons, fonts, sounds and colour scheme – all of which can be downloaded, mixed and matched.
It’s super easy to create your own theme based on your own photos as well, since the engine will pick the right colour scheme to go along with that image.
If you’re not feeling that creative, there are a ton of well-designed themes that are available for download. It’s a great way to personalise your HTC One and better than anything we’ve seen so far.
Aside from that, HTC also lets you adjust the software-based menu keys to suit the way you use the device.
Other notable software additions include One Gallery, which helps to link your photos from Facebook, Dropbox, Flickr and Google Drive; Zoe, which helps you create short movie clips with your photos; Fun Fit, a health app; and an updated photo editing software.
The other flagship – HTC One M9+
If the M9 so far hasn’t rocked your boat, well, HTC has another card up its sleeve. In some countries like Malaysia and India, HTC isn’t making the One M9 available. Instead, it launched the HTC One M9+, a model that’s in many ways better than the M9.
In terms of design and software features, the M9+ is almost identical to the M9, but when it comes to hardware specifications, the M9+ is superior and compares well against what its rivals are offering at a premium price point.
It comes with a larger 5.2-inch display and the screen resolution is sharper (1440 x 2560), matching the Galaxy S6 and LG G4. It has a fingerprint reader. There are two cameras on the rear, one of which is a 20-megapixel camera, while the other camera acts as a depth sensor, similar to the M8’s dual camera system.
One could argue that the new MediaTek Helio X10 processor which powers the M9+ is an unknown quantity and possibly inferior to the more established (and more expensive) Snapdragon 810 chipset that powers the M9 – but early reviews have shown there aren’t significant differences in performance between the two.
Pricing and availability
The One M9 is available in Singapore for S$1,008 (non-contract). At this price, HTC’s flagship is underwhelming when compared against Samsung’s Galaxy S6 and S6 edge, or even the upcoming LG G4 (assuming a similar price point).
Compared against the Asus ZenFone 2 or Xiaomi Mi Note Pro, the M9 seems overpriced.
For those who have been using the original One (M7), upgrading to the M9 once the two-year contract expires is a logical move, and there are enough differences between the two to justify that upgrade.
But for M8 users, stick with what you have for now as the improvements found on the M9 just aren’t worth the extra cash.
In Malaysia though, the M9+ presents better value despite the RM2,599 price point (inclusive of GST). The Quad HD display, upgraded cameras and fingerprint reader, along with HTC’s software enhancements, provide better reasons to warrant a purchase.
Hopefully HTC will make the One M9+ available in Singapore at some point, if not via operators, at least through the open retail or online channels.
It’s definitely the more exciting product, and one that should keep the HTC flag flying for a bit longer.