HTC One (M9) Review

OVERVIEW

Just half a year ago, HTC released the One M8. The M8 was an amazing phone, but now it is time for its successor, the One M9, to pick up the mantle as HTC’s flagship. The One M8 tied up many of the M7’s loose ends, but there were still some aspects HTC overlooked. If the One M9 carries on that trend of excellence, it could turn out to be the phone of the year. Unfortunately, however, we found that the M9 isn’t much of an upgrade over the M8. Although it does present some solid specs and a lovely user interface, it doesn’t warrant an upgrade over any of last year’s flagships. That being said, it is still an enjoyable phone to use, and may well be the right phone for you if its shortcomings don’t bother you. IMG_9958 So what exactly does it lack? Read on to find out.

PROS:

  • Stunning design
  • Well-developed Sense 7 UI
  • Stellar front facing camera
  • BoomSound is even better

CONS:

  • Disappointing quality from the back facing camera
  • CPU heats up (and consequently throttles) very quickly

INTRODUCTION

On paper, the One M9 presents some impressive specs. Sporting an octa-core Snapdragon 810 CPU as well as 3 GB RAM, a 20 megapixel main camera, it looks like the smartphone we’ve all been waiting for. The spec sheet would make any Android enthusiast drool.

HTC One M9
Display 5”, 1080p SLCD3 display
Camera F/2.2 20.7 MP, 1/3 inch sensor, 4.7 MP front facing camera
Video Recording 4K/[email protected]/[email protected]
Processor 2.0 GHz Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 810
GPU Adreno 430
RAM 3 GB
Storage 32 GB, micro-SD expandable up to 128 GB
Battery 2840 mAh, Extreme Power Saving mode
Other BoomSound front-facing speakers, NFC, LTE, IR Blaster,

DESIGN AND BUILD QUALITY

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But there are some things that everyone agrees is beautiful. Like Emma Watson. And the M9. You can’t help but agree that this phone is a work of art. IMG_9985 The phone comes in silver+champagne, champagne, or the classic gunmetal black. The dual colour features a silver back with champagne-colour sides. And yet it’s still a unibody chassis. HTC claims to have put in huge efforts to get a single aluminium block anodised in two colours, one for each face. The mono-colour versions sport smooth sides instead of the brushed texture, but, likewise, are unibody. However, press hard enough on the bottom left corner on the phone and sometimes it seems to cave in, breaking the whole unibody feel. The chassis is otherwise rock solid. What’s more, the problem of these metal-bodied phones slipping out of your hand (a big annoyance with the M8) is a thing of the past, or at least HTC claims. The One M9’s back has a special coating that makes it extra grippy, and it literally sticks to our palms, for a while. One of our two reviewers felt the coat losing its potency after just one week. We hope this is an isolated issue. Another potential downside to this is that the back feels slightly plastic-y, because the coating smooths out the brushed aluminium texture. IMG_9969 Also, HTC has finally moved the power button to the side. Alas, while it’s much more ergonomic than the One M8’s (which was right at the top), it’s still not ideal. Besides being a little too low, it is also exactly the same as the two volume buttons above it, so reaching for the power button without looking the first few times is like playing roulette. Sure, it has a different texture, but you can hardly tell it apart through touch. However, we did get the hang of it after a day, and also found it easy enough to reach. On the other hand, MotionLaunch, a convenient feature that turns the screen on with a gesture, negated the need for a power button. Unlike the other flagships on the market, the M9 isn’t waterproof, but in all honesty waterproofing doesn’t make too much of a difference to most of us. And if you do need waterproofing HTC is offering an IP67 certified waterproof case. It seems, unfortunately, that HTC’s obsession with looks got in the way of making the M9 THE flagship. In fact, it seems like HTC spent 90% of their development process on the design – and consequently skimped on many of the other upgrades most were hoping for.

DISPLAY

The 5 inch 1080p display is crisp, bright and produces vibrant yet accurate colours (just like all the other HTC phones). It is in fact the same display as the M8. Although HTC’s choice not upgrade to a QHD display may draw some criticism, we do agree with HTC’s rationale; the increase in sharpness for that upgrade is negligible, but the increases in price and power consumption are not. While it may not be cutting edge, it is tried and tested technology, with consistent results. IMG_9976

BATTERY LIFE

With the One M9 rocking Android 5.0 Lollipop, coupled with a 11% larger battery than the M8, we were expecting substantial improvements in battery life. Talk time has been improved over the M8, but unfortunately just about everything else has taken a hit thanks to the power-hungry octa-core CPU at the heart of the M9. Still, it will get through a day with moderate usage with some juice to spare. However, if you are a power user, you might just need to bring along a portable charger. The CPU and GPU eat through the battery at lightning speed when they’re running at their maximum. The most extreme example of this is when we were benchmark testing, the battery dropped almost 10% in about 10 minutes. However, we are glad to announce that the processors don’t ever work nearly as hard in real life applications, so you needn’t worry about battery drain on such a massive scale. And in idle, the does last fairly long, taking, on average, 2 hours to lose 1% (with WiFi and mobile data enabled). If you’re running short of juice, there is a Power Saving mode that lowers the brightness and slows the CPU. And if you’re really running short of juice, there’s an Extreme Power Saving mode that radically alters the user interface to use the least amount of power. These two are not new, and were in fact present on the One M8 (where it did extend the battery life considerably). We haven’t yet tested how the octa-core and Android 5.0 have affected its performance, though.

Extreme Power Saving mode on the M9
Extreme Power Saving mode on the M9

USER INTERFACE, APPS AND AUDIO

Despite running Android 5.0 and HTC Sense 7, the M9’s UI looks largely similar to the M8’s, especially within HTC apps. (You may want to check out the M8’s UI here.) But there are a few changes here and there, like Android’s new Heads Up Notifications. The resemblance to the M8’s UI is by no means a bad thing however, since HTC’s Sense probably looks the best among the OEMs’, and even ousts stock Android in some regards (with features like Blinkfeed). HTC has added a few more features, and we are pleased to say they aren’t just gimmicks (ahem, Samsung!). For one, it now has a mini tray that stores your most used apps…based on your location. The rationale behind this is that you’d use different apps in different contexts. For example, mail at work, Instagram at home. It observes the apps you open and soon learns your favourite apps for each location. And it works! Right now, however there are just 3 profiles; Home, Work and Out, but we may see more flexibility coming in the future.

The mini app-drawer that changes based on location
The mini app-drawer that changes based on location. Also note the pretty icons (see below).

Besides that, HTC has revamped the themeing engine. The only way you could get more customisability than this would be to install a custom ROM. You can now change accent colours (the colour scheme of Android), keyboard colours, icons and even the font. And to top things off, there is a vibrant marketplace for (completely free) themes. HTC’s sense UI has just gotten stronger.

Bear in mind, too, that the One M7 and M8 would probably also get the same UI as they receive their Android 5.0/Sense 7 update. In fact, HTC has already begun rolling out the update. One of the HTC’s strong points is BoomSound, and they have made sure that the M9 continues that legacy of excellent audio. BoomSound is now coupled with Dolby Audio, and the results are pretty stunning. The M9’s BoomSound features both a Music mode for normal audio and a Theatre mode which delivers a surprisingly good surround sound experience for such a small device. Sure, it is no match for an actual home theatre system, but it rivals many small speaker sets in both loudness and quality, which is no mean feat for a mobile phone.

PERFORMANCE

The 2 GHz octa-core Snapdragon CPU and Adreno 430 GPU, coupled with 3 GB RAM leave nothing to be desired in terms of performance. This phone is fast. One thing to note is that few Android apps are optimised for muti-core devices, in other words the apps’ performance is actually dependent on each core’s performance, not the number of cores. (The per-core performance of the M9 is lower than most other 2015 flagships.) But what an Octa-core truly benefits from is the ability to multi-task without hiccups. This is especially so when coupled with the M9’s 3 GB RAM running on the 64-bit Android system. We could toggle between multiple (more than five) open apps instantaneously, something unimaginable with Android (or even iOS) a short while back. Alas, the M9 is too fast (for its own good). Besides being so battery hungry, the powerful chipset heats up really quickly under stress. And to save itself (and your hands) from heat damage, the CPU throttles down. This was evident from our benchmarking tests, where our GeekBench score fell from over 1200 per core after its first run to an average of 800 after a few continuous runs as the phone got hot. With thermal throttling in action, we did see the occasional hiccup in apps, but still nothing too major. Despite throttling, the phone still gets really warm under stress, and this escalates to it getting worryingly hot when stressed while charging. (Note: It is a bad idea to run any phone under high load when it is charging. It degrades the battery performance greatly over time.) That being said, I did not find it uncomfortably hot, except when charging. Ultimately it boils down (pun not intended) to your tolerance level toward a hot phone. Have a look at some benchmarks if that’s what you fancy. AnTuTu In what is the most comprehensive benchmark, The HTC One (M9) performed really well compared to the 2014 flagships, beating each one comprehensively. However, a quick look on Google shows that it is quite far behind the Galaxy S6. BrowserMark 2.1 In BrowserMark 2.1, the M9 again bested the 2014 flagships but again, quick Googling will reveal the S6 to be miles ahead. Vellamo Finally, for Vellamo, the M9 actually performed the worst even between 2014 flagships, indicative of how far backwards a step the Snapdragon 810 is from the 805.

CAMERA INTERFACE

The camera interface is quite similar to that of the previous HTC flagships. It contains many features with the same (slightly difficult-to-navigate) placement of options. For a complete review of the interface, be sure to head over to our HTC One M8 review. Like the M8, it includes a manual mode for photography enthusiasts which gives you control over the shutter speed, ISO, white balance and focus. However, like its predecessor, the sliders spread across the whole screen, partially obstructing the image and making it difficult to tap to focus. Just today, however, an update to the HTC camera unlocked RAW photo shooting on the M9. This is good news for photography enthusiasts, since it provides a much greater latitude for editing.

One long-standing quirk about the camera is that the default image aspect ratio is 16:9 although the native aspect ratio of the sensor is 10:7. In other words, you don’t get the full 20.7 MP resolution until you dig into the menus to change that option. Instead, you end up shooting at about 16 MP.

CAMERA PERFORMANCE

In bright light, the M9’s back facing camera is possibly the sharpest mobile phone camera (other than the Lumia 1020’s), thanks to its high-res 20.7 MP sensor. But only in bright light. In dim light, the situation is quite the opposite. Despite having our apprehensions about cramming 20 megapixels into a mobile phone sensor, we didn’t think the image quality would be that bad. If the scene is dark enough, the photo looks more like a watercolour painting, thanks to the in-built noise reduction algorithms. So you end up with an in-built watercolour filter that can’t be disabled when you shoot indoors. Not good. Colours are average, but not on par with the Xperia’s and the iPhone’s, even in bright light. Luckily, HTC has some saving grace for its camera in a variety of different modes and effects. The dedicated bokeh mode works very well despite only have one camera this time around, and the Fx features are easily accessible as well as fun. image Surprisingly, the HDR mode was able to control noise much better (especially in the shadows), and even showed an improvement in colour rendition, producing some really pleasant looking photos even in sub-optimally lit conditions. The following 3 photos were lit under a fluorescent tube at night. The catch here is that the camera must be kept still for quite a while.

And then there’s RAW mode. We mentioned earlier that the noise reduction algorithms, which made a mess of dark photos, was permanent. But not when one shoots in RAW. Which may allow us to salvage the noisy photos with heavy editing. So when HTC pushed the RAW-enabling update to our M9, we jumped at the chance to test it out.

From the sample images, shot at ISO 800, we got a glimpse of just how hard the image processor has to work on the noisy data that comes off the sensor (compare the JPEG to the unedited RAW file, preferably at full res). However, we were able to get quite a decent picture with some quick processing in Adobe Camera RAW (see the Edited RAW file). Unfortunately, for most of us, we don’t have the patience to edit the 10 or so photos we take each day. And so the much noisier JPEG’s will sadly remain as the de-facto shooting method. The back camera can do 4K video, which was sharp in bright light. But in low light, it looked no different from 1080p video because of all the noise reduction. Also, the lack of OIS left the videos quite shaky. If fact, there wasn’t even any (noticeable) software stabilisation in place either. The front-facing camera, however, is a game changer. In fact, we’re surprised that HTC didn’t market the M9 as a selfie phone. The front facing camera is conclusively the best on the market right now, with a great preview system and face editing software that makes crow’s feet or acne a thing of the past. With no doubt, it is better than the Xperia’s, and better than the iPhone’s. Moreover, employing the same UltraPixel technology that went into the M8’s main camera, it delivers amazing low light photos. Fancy that – the front facing camera having better image quality that the main camera in the dark! In short, if mobile phone photography is your thing, then you’d be better off choosing another phone, unless 1) You take a lot of selfies or 2) You only shoot in bright light (for example, landscapes). UPDATE: We tested out the RAW capabilities of the One M9 in bright light and we are delighted to inform you that the image quality from the RAW shots (after editing) is outstanding. While the JPEGs may be unimpressive, the RAW photos put out a level of detail that rivals low-end DSLRs outdoors.

Upon viewing the JPEG, we frankly didn’t expect much out of this shot. So you could imagine our surprise when we started playing around with the exposure in Adobe Camera Raw. What we thought were clearly unrecoverable highlights (the sky just above the tree of the right) held quite a bit of detail. And the shadows had surprisingly little noise (especially considering the terrible low-light performance of this sensor). And, to top it all off, Adobe’s compression surpassed the M9’s built in compression (see the close-ups). And so we were left with an image that looked like it was taken on a dedicated professional camera, not a mobile phone. Unfortunately, however, getting such a picture requires some post-processing (and experience), and editing RAW images (as of now) can only be done on a computer. So shooting everything RAW ins’t really feasible, unless you have a great deal of time, or you’re really serious about your photography. Still, it’s nice to know that you could get some truly amazing image quality if you needed.

Still Image Quality:

Day Samples:

The pictures taken in the day are razor-sharp thanks to the 20.7MP sensor.

Night Samples:

This is where all hell breaks loose. The noise reduction algorithms wreak havoc to the image (though I did manage to get some decent shots in manual mode).

Video Quality:

Day Sample:

With high amounts of shake, the lack of image stabilisation, be it optical or digital, is clear. While the following is an extreme example of such (filmed with one hand while biking down the Bishan Park connector), it just goes to show how important Image Stabilisation is for a good video.

Night Sample:

CONCLUSION

In all, we’d say that the M9 isn’t as good as we had hoped it would be, given HTC’s track record of improvement last year. Sure, it is an improvement over the M8, but excepting design it is only marginally better. Nonetheless, for all that we’ve criticised it, the fact remains that it sports a head-turning, eye-catching, dual colour aluminium unibody design with impressive crunching power under the hood. And with the well-designed Sense 7 + Android 5.0 combo leveraging that hardware, it does make for a great device. Unfortunately for HTC, its competitors are working just as hard. Samsung’s Galaxy S6 and LG’s G4, both retailing at S$998 off contract, have similar specs but both feature better cameras than the One M9. If you take your mobile photography seriously, it is worth checking out these two handsets too. But if you’re all for a beautifully designed phone, then the One M9 is the mobile to pick.

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