By Rich W Woods
My time with the HTC One M9 is coming to a close and I’m finding that it is a phone that I will miss. I’ve found the HTC One M9 to be a delightful device; however, I find the general feedback around the device to be very discouraging.
After the HTC One M9 was announced at Mobile World Congress, I went down to the HTC booth to see what HTC had for their next generation flagship. They proudly demoed the new features for me, showing off themes, easy Miracast screen sharing, and of course, “the box”. I asked her why they hadn’t physically redesigned the phone and she told me, “Just like it says on our web site. Why fix it if it’s not broken.”
I left the HTC booth excited. After all, she was right. The HTC One M7 and M8 won awards for their beautiful aluminum design. Why would they change that? I would soon find out.
When I arrived home from Mobile World Congress and started to actually interact with my readers again, I was finding them oddly jaded with the HTC One M9. They called it a minor upgrade; meanwhile, the ultrapixel had been moved to the front, replaced by a 20 MP rear camera, they jacked up the RAM, and they packed in the flagship Snapdragon 810 processor. How could anyone consider this a minor upgrade? Well, those that judge a book by a cover, and let’s face it. We’re talking about the masses here.
Before I go any further, let’s look at specs.
HTC One M9: Specs
|Processor||Snapdragon 810, 1.5 GHz Quad Core, 2 GHz Quad Core|
|Display||5″, 1080p, 441 ppi, Super LC3|
|Body||144.6×69.7×9.6 mm, 157 g|
|Camera||20.7 MP, 5376×3752, 4 MP Front|
|Video||4K – 30 fps, Front 1080p – 30 fps|
|Focal Length||27.8 mm|
|Storage||32 GB, Expandable to 128 GB|
As you can see, on paper, the HTC One M9 is an amazing device; however, you simply can’t tell the performance of a device from a spec sheet.
HTC One M9: Display and Body
Let’s face it. The HTC One M9 is probably the most beautiful phone on the market. They sent me the silver model with the gold frame, which was the one that I had my eye on. It’s stunning and it has a solid feel to it. Anyone who has taken any HTC One out of the box knows the feeling of seeing that brand new aluminum body is just breathtaking.
The display is a complicated matter. At first glance, it’s a beautiful display. After all, a 1080p LCD is really all you can ask for. There are no advantages to 1440p, or 2K, or QHD. Only disadvantages. Like many aspects of the HTC One M9, the display is beautiful, until you put it side by side with competitors such as the iPhone 6, Samsung Galaxy S6, or LG G4.
I hate benchmarks. In fact, I hate all scientific tests. Perhaps it’s because I have been so exposed to the trolls that have read the results of those tests and therefore think they know better than the people that are actually using the phone. Personally, I like to make my judgment based on my actual usage of the device.
I’m going to point you to AnandTech’s analysis of the display, because those tests really did say a lot. The black levels, contrast ratios, grayscale accuracy, saturation accuracy, gamut accuracy, and GMB accuracy are just way off.
After looking at these results, it was like when someone tells you not to think about elephants. All I could see on the display was the fact that something white actually had a bit of a green tint to it. Again, if you look at the phone on its own, it looks beautiful; however, it just doesn’t measure up to competitors.
HTC One M9: Rear Camera
The rear camera on the HTC One M9 is another one that the haters just love to hate. It’s not a bad camera. I promise. It’s really not; however, it probably would have helped if it wasn’t announced on the same day as the Samsung Galaxy S6, which has an amazing camera.
HTC replaced the 4 MP ultrapixel camera that they were known for and replaced it with a 20 MP rear camera, which, if you ask me, is a bit too much. The higher resolution slows down the camera a bit and the smaller pixels hurt low light performance.
I feel like HTC is trying to find their place in the smart phone camera world. I really respected the ultrapixel strategy. The main reason that these companies use these high resolution cameras is because it’s easy to market a 16 MP camera or a 20 MP camera. The uninformed masses just look at big numbers and go “ooooooo bigger megapixels must mean better camera”; meanwhile, one has nothing to do with the other.
I respected the ultrapixel strategy because I hate the specs war. I hate the QHD displays, the octa core processors, and any other spec that OEMs pack into a phone for no reason just so they can have the larger number on the spec sheet, often to the detriment of the device itself. HTC was never one to do that. They were always the one that looked to make the one all around great phone. The HTC One M9 seems to be a bit of a departure from that. But I digress…
Needless to say, the HTC One M9 is a good camera. The biggest problem with it is its competitors. Samsung and Apple both use phase detection autofocus while LG uses laser focus, giving each of them razor sharp images. You’re going to look at the photos here and say “The HTC One M9 has an amazing camera”; however, if you go through some of the comparisons, you’ll see otherwise.
The one feature that the HTC One M9 has that’s key is that the HTC Camera app has RAW capabilities. You can think of RAW as the digital equivalent of a negative. You need to process it in a third party app such as Light Room but once you learn how to do that, it is the greatest tool a photographer can have.
Of course, Google added a RAW API in Android 5.0 Lollipop. This allows for third party apps to take RAW photos, so while the HTC One M9 can do it natively, others can still do it through third party apps.
Please note that in order to enlarge the images, simply click or tap them. To view the full size images, there is a link in the carousel.
As we can see here, the HTC One M9 does take beautiful images, and it’s not too shabby in low light either. Those 20 MP gives you plenty of room to crop the images as well.
There are a couple more things I want to point out. One thing is that while you can record 4K video with the HTC One M9, you cannot record 1080p at 60 fps, a feature that is available in the iPhone 6, Samsung Galaxy S6, Sony Xperia Z3, and the LG G Flex 2 (not in the G3). It is also my preferred method of recording video. I find it to be the perfect balance of resolution and frame rate.
Another thing that I would be remiss to not mention is the lack of Zoe. Zoe was a feature that was available on the HTC One M7 and M8 (until the Lollipop update where is disappeared) that allowed the user to take a short video and take snapshots from that video. I can see why it doesn’t work here. 4K video is 8.3 MP. Trying to pull a 20 MP image from a video is beyond the capabilities of probably any smart phone that exists.
HTC One M9: Front Camera
I have long considered the OnePlus One to have the best front camera on the market; however, I would give honorable mention to the iPhone 6 and the HTC Desire 820. Yes, I know. I just wasn’t a fan of the HTC Desire Eye with its 13 MP front camera; however, the flash was awesome.
I was told that the HTC One M9 was going to change that for me. For all of the negative things that the people that had never laid a hand on the phone had to say about it, this was the one that was universally positive.
And after all, why not? The idea behind ultrapixel was a brilliant one but with one key flaw: there was zero room to crop or zoom in on an image. Putting the ultrapixel camera in the front makes perfect sense, as selfies don’t need to be cropped as much.
Let me explain these photos here a bit. There is a slider in the HTC Camera app when you’re in selfie mode. It’s sort of like an enhancement adjustment slider. The first three images at the top and those two 16:9 images at the bottom were set to the highest enhancement setting, which is the default, while the rest of the images were at the lowest.
That being said, I think that the HTC One M9 has a stunning front camera. I can’t say that it’s certainly the best, but I can say it’s stunning.
HTC One M9: The Snapdragon 810 and Other Techy Stuff
This is what we all have been waiting for, yes? You want to hear about how the Snapdragon 810 overheats. First, a back story.
Remember when Apple announced the iPhone 6? They made a big deal about how the A8 processor was so efficient because it used 20 nm transistors. So efficient, in fact, that it would never heat up to the point where it effected performance. After all, the smaller those transistors get, the more efficient the processor is supposed to be, right?
Now, the Snapdragon 805 uses 28 nm transistors, Intel’s Haswell processors is 22 nm, the Samsung Exynos 7420 in the Galaxy S6 is 14 nm, and of course, the Snapdragon 810 is 20 nm, the same as with Apple’s A8 processor.
I don’t want to say that the phone overheats. If you’ve ever left your phone out on a hot day in the sun and had it lock up, you know that this is not what overheating is. The HTC One M9 does get hot, hotter than the LG G Flex 2, given the metal body.
There are a few things I want to say about this:
- You won’t notice a difference in performance in day to day usage. I sat and I played games on the HTC One M9 for an hour and while the device does warm up, the games play fine.
- The device does throttle. If you run tests on it over and over and over, the score will keep getting lower and lower and lower. Here’s an example.
You can see that the benchmarks start well in excess of 50,000, but in a short span of time they start to bottom out at 40,000. there was one point that it hit 40,000 and it said it was an unverified score, started to climb back up to 43,000 (and it felt like it was cooling off too) and then dropped back to 40,000, where it seemed like it would stay.
We also have battery benchmarks. The battery benchmarks, done in Geekbench 3, show a similar phenomenon to other devices I’ve been testing lately, which is that when the dim screen is toggled on, they actually get a lower score than when the screen is brighter.
Next up we have graphics benchmarks, done in both GFXBench 3 and GFXBench 3.1. Check it out.
I would note that despite the fact that the Galaxy S6 gets much higher processor benchmarks than the HTC One M9, the HTC One M9 gets better graphics benchmarks, as the QHD display of the Galaxy S6 severely effects graphics performance.
I said earlier that I hate benchmarks. I still do. They so rarely show any reflection of what the real world usage of the device is like, case in point being the AnTuTu series of benchmarks I showed you. That being said, benchmarks are still the best tool we have for writing down the performance of a device.
HTC One M9: Sense 7
I am not afraid to say that I love HTC Sense. Well, why should I be afraid to say it? If I said “I love iOS”, everyone would tell me I’m biased; however, I said I love something Android related, so that’s ok, right? Can you tell that I’m becoming bitter and cynical from the Internet? But I digress…
I’m not a fan of stock Android. I feel like the whole “clean and pure Android the way it was meant to be” is something that really only came to pass when people started realizing what an abomination Samsung’s Touchwiz was becoming, as well as HTC’s Sense at the time. After all, let’s face it. Up until Sense 5, Sense sucked. Sense 6 was good and Sense 7 is great.
First up, the box. This was the first feature they showed me at Mobile World Congress. The box is a little box on the home screen that gives you three options: home, work, and out. You set the apps you want to see in these places and it uses geofencing to show you the apps you want to see when you’re at home, at work, or anywhere else.
Personally, I love the box; however, I can see it becoming frustrating for someone that works two jobs or someone who spends three nights a week at his significant other’s house, effectively having two homes. You can only set one home and one work. No additional locations, like if you wanted to set a gym location to show your fitness apps, you can’t do that. I would imagine this might come in a later update, as this just seems like common sense.
Then there’s themes. I love themes. As a OnePlus One user, I’ve seen many a theme in CyanogenMod. It’s great to see other Android skins using themes as well. After all, I’ve always found the beauty of Android to be skins. It’s the fact that you can switch between a Samsung and an HTC and get a different experience across devices without losing the benefit of Google Play.
With themes, you get the same change in experiences, but instead of Google Play being your rock, it’s HTC Sense. You can also make your own theme with a combination of fonts, wallpapers, sounds, and icon packs.
Then there’s Miracast. I couldn’t get this feature to work. Most Android devices have Miracast built into them, but HTC tried to make it easier. When playing a video, swipe in with three fingers and you can easily connect to Miracast. I tried connecting to my Xbox One. It said it was connected, but nothing played on my Xbox One. It could have been my fault, so assuming the feature does work, it’s awesome.
I should note that I am assuming that the feature works. When I swiped with my three fingers, the interface showed that it was connecting to Miracast. The Xbox One Miracast receiving app is still in Preview, so I’m going to go out on a limb and blame it on the Xbox One.
HTC One M9: Speakers
It’s those trademark HTC BoomSound speakers again. I don’t really know how much I can say here because those speakers have always been so damn good. In fact, they have traditionally been the selling point of HTC phones.
The HTC One M9 has an additional feature, which is Dolby surround sound. You can switch between music mode and theater mode and it just sounds great. I can tell you that it doesn’t work as well outdoors but really, would you expect it to?
HTC One M9 Review: Conclusion
I loved the HTC One M9. Really, I had a great time with it and loved every aspect of it. The phone has a stunning build quality, a great camera, and the speakers. Oh God, the speakers.
Unfortunately, all of the physical evidence tells me not to. It’s as if HTC was fixing the few complaints we had about the HTC One M8 that they forgot that Samsung and LG might jump ahead of them.
I don’t think they have to worry much about LG. The LG G Flex 2 is an amazing phone. The curved display is a very intuitive and practical feature; however, until you actually try it, you can’t see how it makes sense. Also, the G4 is just plain ugly. Let’s face it, a beautiful phone does matter here.
That’s why I worry that they may have something to worry about from Samsung this year. Samsung has always sold the most, but those of us “in the know” knew that Samsung makes junk phones. We knew that there was better stuff out there from HTC, Sony, LG, Motorola, and Apple. Now that Samsung has put out a killer phone, where does that leave HTC?
The HTC One M9 really is a great phone. I just feel like HTC got blindsided in a way. They played the specs game, which is a game that no one wins at. They went for the high resolution camera instead of considering a larger aperture and phase detection autofocus and optical image stabilization. They stuck with the same physical body, making consumers feel like the HTC One M9 is just an incremental upgrade.
In many ways, the HTC One M9 isn’t an upgrade at all. We saw from the display tests that the HTC One M8 had a better display. We saw from the processor benchmarks that after about ten minutes of use, the HTC One M8 performs better.
I can’t, with good conscience, say that the HTC One M9 is a phone that I can recommend to anyone looking for a new phone. I can, however, say that I can recommend it to those in specific use cases, such as if you listen to a lot of music from the speakers or if you like to edit your own photos.