Review: the HTC One M9 smartphone (video)

27 Mar 20151 Share

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The HTC One M9 smartphone, HTC’s flagship device, went on sale overnight in the US and hits the UK and Ireland next week. John Kennedy put it through its paces.

When I first laid eyes on the HTC One M9 smartphone at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona earlier this month and spoke to HTC vice president Peter Frølund about craftsmanship, I had a sense that this would be the device that would divide the critics.

On one hand the device has been welcomed as a return to form for HTC and one that bodes potential new directions for the company in terms of follow on devices like an M9 Plus tablet, but on the other hand critics have rounded on the camera on the device.

HTC’s struggles have been well documented, with the latest change of management that involves chairwoman Cher Wang taking the reins of CEO from Peter Chou, intended to put HTC on the right path.

When HTC threw off the yolk of being a contract manufacturer to being a seriously ambitious brand it was welcomed with rapture at Mobile World Congress in 2010 and devices with the names Desire and Hero set the tone. But what followed was a confectioner’s mess in terms of too many varying devices before HTC decided to rein it all in and concentrate on fewer flagship devices.

The return to form with the M7 was marred by delays in getting the phone to market in time.

But the tempo has been set with last year’s M8 and if anything the clamour for the new flagship M9 device bodes well for HTC.

First impressions

There was a three week gap between the moment I first beheld the HTC One M9 in Barcelona and eventually unboxing it at home. My very first impressions in Barcelona were tempered by the metallic look of the device. The night before rival Samsung unveiled the all-metal S6 and S6 Edge, dabbling with an array of sheens and finishes that were dazzling to behold.

The next day I strolled over to HTC’s massive stand and studied the array of M9s that in the glaring green light of HTC’s branding, glowed in mysterious finishes that suggested there was alchemy at play. There were three colours: gold-on-gold, gold-on-silver and gunmetal grey.

The winner for me is the screen – 5-inches of perfectly proportioned smartphone display – I have to say as screens go this really stands out for me – allied with the Boom Speakers I’m imaging the old sensation of a 1980s Grundig TV set, only designed to sit in my hand.

The speakers are pretty awesome and use Dolby sound and that allows you to actually tweak the settings to suit what you are doing, whether listening to music or watching movies

The device weights 157g, only slightly heavier than the M8 and in all respects from the materials and the brushed aluminium is almost identical – the only difference is the 20MP camera at the back which is of a squarish shape and bigger than the camera

Design

One of the big things to come out of Mobile World Congress this year was an emphasis on design and craftsmanship and a senior HTC executive informed me that the HTC One M9 involved taking a block of aluminium and the result is the unibody that is 10pc of the original metal – he assured me that the wasted metal gets recycled and reused.

The device’s brushed aluminium appearance is also denser than the previous M8 device.

How it compares to rivals like the Samsung S6 and the Apple iPhone 6 is that it is very much its own machine. It is heavier than the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 and from memory is also heavier than the S6, but there’s a good heft and feel to the device – it just feels like it has substance.

Function

The device runs Android 5.0 Lollipop and features HTC’s Sense user interface and I have to say this is an area that HTC has always been praised for. You get lots of features but not so in-your-face or annoying as you will find on rival devices.

Where I think it wins is battery life. I have only had to charge it once or twice in the week that I’ve had it which says a lot.

Another big win is storage. The device comes with a reasonable 32GB of storage which can be expanded up to 128GB because HTC – unlike Samsung with its S6 – has decided to keep the SD card slot

Under the hood the M9 comes with all the bells and whistles that its rivals boast, including an octa-core processor that is capable of 64-bit processing

This no doubt leads to a speedy performance but that’s pretty academic for the ordinary user – the ordinary smartphone user today expects as much and no less. But I have to say everything on the M9 feels solid, reliable and quick.

HTC maintains that its antenna design has effectively been mimicked by everybody else and while we’ll leave that to the lawyers to fight out, this is truly a universal phone that will work anywhere on any network across Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, 2G, 3G, 4G and it comes with DNLA technology to stream media from your phone to your TV or computer. In fact HTC has created its own HTC Connect software to make this happen really smoothly

Unique to HTC is the Dot View cover and while I hadn’t used it before I have to say I’m smitten. I think it is really cool that tweets, messages and calls interact with the cover so you can swipe up to answer calls or you can see what messages are coming in. I had dismissed Dot Cover as a gimmick but now I think it is a really clever way of matching material with technology

Camera

A lot of the negative reviews I’ve read so far relate to the camera on the device. The HTC M9 comes with a 20MP camera on the back capable of recording in 4K and a front camera that uses HTC’s UltraPixel technology and can record in 1080p

One of my problems with camera technologies on smartphones is that there are almost too many settings and for that reason I consider HDR mode a blessing because I don’t have the patience to be messing with settings like exposure and what not.

In terms of editing pictures, HTC has mercifully curated the software to be intuitive and the popular Zoe feature for making little movies out of your photos is a handy and fun tool to have.

But all of this technology means that at times the camera feels slow and often the pictures don’t have the same result and impact as the screen suggests.

But this is like splitting hairs. It’s a camera that sits on a smartphone and has all the bells and whistles its competitors have and still produces decent shots. If you really want professional camera results buy yourself an SLR.

Verdict

If the iPhone 6 is the Mercedes-Benz of smartphones, the HTC One M9 is its BMW rival. It is classy, distinctive and powerful. And while it feels slightly heavier than its current generation rivals, it has substance and grips reassuringly in your hand. It is definitely a device that will inspire envy.

As I said earlier, the winning factor for me is the screen. Out of all the devices currently on the market the 5-inch screen on the HTC and the 5-inch screen on the Sony Xperia M4 Aqua are the best-proportioned and I look forward to seeing how the Samsung S6, which has a 5.1-inch screen will compare.

HTC’s Sense technology once again sets devices like the M9 apart from the Android clone army of sameness. This will stand to HTC in the face of mounting competition from fast-emerging manufacturers like Xiaomi, Huawei and OnePlus.

However, what will surprise you is the price – not cheap at a recommended retail price of between €699 and €749 (see PriceSpy for live pricing info).

Just how many people will be able to afford to pay so much for a block of intelligent aluminium is anyone’s guess but there are those who can’t wait to get one and I don’t blame them.

The device is already available in the US and is going to be available in Ireland from Tuesday 31 March from Vodafone, Three and Carphone Warehouse.

I give this device four stars out of five – it is a thing of perfection that is only marred by a very high price.

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com