HTC One M9 hands-on: Improved craftsmanship, camera, and HTC Sense are compelling

Matthew spent over 24 hours using the new HTC One M9 and it exceeds the emotional appeal of the M7. HTC improved where it needed to and the One M9 is sure to be a popular phone.

htc-one-m9-hands-on.jpg
HTC One M9: Hands-on photos and screenshots

HTC's new HTC One M9 will be available starting in mid-March. I was able to spend 24 hours with an early production unit this week and it looks like the M9 may top the M7 as my favorite smartphone.

While I liked the M8 for the most part, there were a couple areas I wanted to see improved. With the M9, HTC looks to have improved in these areas, primarily in way of the in-hand feel and camera capability. Battery life should also be increased while the internal specs are top notch.

I will soon have a retail unit for a full review and with just 24 hours of use under my belt, I cannot comment on battery life or longer term performance.

That said, as soon as you take the new HTC One M9 out of the box you will understand what HTC means when it states the M9 is designed and built like a piece of fine jewelry.

Hardware

I fell in love with HTC One M7 the instant I held one in my hand. On the other hand, I nearly dropped the HTC One M8 as soon as I picked it up; the M8 never inspired the level of passion for me that the M7 did.

HTC has reached a high level of emotional appeal again with the One M9 design. While the edges may be a bit sharp for some, the M9 feels much more secure in my hand than the M8. The dual color schemes, solid front panel, and premium materials set the bar for smartphone design.

CNET:HTC's One M9 polishes familiar metal with fresh camera tech

HTC moved from it UltraPixel rear camera to a more traditional 20 megapixel single lens variation. While I saw improvements over the M8 and my Sony Xperia Z3, HTC continues to tweak the final camera software and we are sure to see improvements over what I was able to capture this week. The rear UltraPixel was one reason I kept using other smartphones when I knew I would be capturing landscapes and I can now go with the HTC One M9 and rest assured I will capture good quality photos.

One aspect of the camera that I need to further evaluate is the lack of optical image stabilization (OIS). I find this helps on the iPhone 6 Plus and Note 4 and wish HTC would have fit in some physical OIS technology.

Back in October at the HTC Frequencies event, I recommended that HTC consider moving the UltraPixel to the front since people taking selfies don't need to zoom in and see great depth and detail. Several other attendees chimed in to say that was a good idea and it turns out HTC was considering that internally. Thus, I was very pleased to see the M9 roll out with an improved UltraPixel camera on the front. If you are in a low light situation and are not satisfied with the 20 megapixel rear camera, just turn the M9 around and use the UltraPixel front facing camera for your photo.

I wrote an article about HTC likely sticking with a 1080p display and am pleased they did not give in to the specs war and attempt to one up the competition with a higher resolution display. HTC kept the same five inch size with 1080p and I am perfectly happy and support that decision. The display looks great and there is no need to sacrifice battery life for more pixels you can't even see.

The M9 is also slightly shorter than the M8, by just 2 mm, but HTC also moved the power button from the top to the middle of the right side. While this will likely please many users, I don't like that the volume buttons are separate, one for up and one for down, so I hit them more often than the power button.

  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 octa-core CPU
  • Display: 5 inch 1080p LCD
  • RAM: 3GB
  • Storage: 32GB with microSD expansion card slot
  • Cameras: Front facing UltraPixel and rear 20 megapixel with sapphire glass lens cover
  • Speakers: HTC BoomSound front facing stereo speakers with Dolby Audio
  • Battery: 2,840 mAh with Quick Charging support
  • Dimensions: 144.6 x 69.7 x 9.61 mm and 157 grams

HTC did provide support for customizing the software buttons, much like what LG did in the past, so you can have your notifications appear as a software button on the bottom and not have to stretch all the way up to the top.

There are a couple things the HTC One M9 doesn't have that I would like to see in my daily smartphone, but I understand they are technically impossible and there are alternatives that I hope satisfy my needs.

The HTC One M9 is not water resistant and while HTC could have incorporated some coating solution for a few areas, it was not possible with everything that is contained in the metal shell. However, HTC is releasing an Active case with IP68 rating and drop-resistant protection so there is a way for me to take it running in Washington State.

The HTC One M9 doesn't have wireless charging due to the full metal casing. Granted this is more of a convenience for me than anything else and like my MoTR podcast co-host, Kevin Tofel, I am coming around to the belief that Quick Charging is a better solution than wireless charging. It is faster and easier to implement in today's smartphones.

Software - HTC Sense 7

HTC Sense has always appealed to me and the few improvements in Sense 7 add a level of customization that I think will appeal to the masses who like to personalize their phones.

It is now very easy to download or create your own theme, including the ability to share that theme with the community. I love how you can select a photo you have captured and apply that as the wallpaper while the HTC software creates several color, icon, and font options based on that selected photo. This is a rather brilliant way of helping people create completely personal devices in less than a minute.

In the past HTC Sense has had the ability to select scenes (I think it was with Sense 3 or 4), yet I never knew a single person that actually switched scenes. HTC Sense 7 has a new widget, loaded out of the box, that acts as a 'smart launcher' where application shortcuts change based on your location. By default, there are work, home, and out locations, but you can customize this with places like the gym, commute, and more.

The smart launcher widget can be resized and includes the applications you use most often in those particular geographic areas. You can pin apps you always use so they do not change in the future when you are in that location and also remove apps, although I have to test if those are removed permanently when I get a review unit. Since I have specific apps I use during my commute compared to when I am at home or work I look forward to using this dynamic launcher widget.

A download folder and suggested apps folder are also included by default in this smart launcher, but these may have limited utility for those reading this blog. Thankfully, there is a setting to quickly and easily hide these folders from appearing.

In addition to improvements in the camera hardware, HTC spent some time improving its photo editor. New effects include double exposure, prismatic, particle elements, and mirroring. I used some of these and look forward to getting artistic with my photos. You will also be able to create and order photo books and cards right from your HTC One M9.

There are other minor changes in HTC BlinkFeed, lock screen notifications, and other areas, but I will go into more detail when I have a review unit in hand. You can see some of the new HTC Sense 7 aspects in my screenshot gallery.

Final first impressions

I dropped the HTC One M8 quite a bit and still find the need to carry it in a case since it is very slippery. The M9 fixed that with less back curvature and sharper edges while also improving the rock solid feel of the hardware. You can't bend an HTC One M9 and may actually hurt yourself trying.

The M9 is extremely responsive, the display still looks fantastic, BoomSound speakers perform well, and the improvements in the design are easily worth an upgrade from a M7. If you own a M8, upgrading to the M9 may be harder to justify and I will have to spend more time with the M9 to make that determination.

Some may have wished for a radical change in the design, but I think HTC's strategy of improving an iconic design is the right approach. You can't mistake an HTC One you may see sitting on a table and the latest continues the evolution.

With Samsung looking to launch a flagship without its signature removable battery and microSD card, Android enthusiasts may get behind the HTC One M9 with its continued support for microSD expansion combined with nearly everything else one may want in a high end smartphone.