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    HTC One M9 review: Another year, another modest step forward

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    Let's say you're a smartphone maker and you cook up a formula for a beloved, game-changing device. The next year, you tweak that formula a bit to create a worthy, if slightly less exciting, follow-up of a phone. What do you do after another year has gone by? Try something completely different in hopes you'll catch lightning in a bottle again, or keep plugging away on the mobile DNA that made you such a worthy name in the first place? If you're HTC, the answer is obvious: You keep polishing and polishing that formula until you finally reach the ideal you've been working toward.

    That's what we have in the One M9. It's still a ways off from fulfilling the vision that HTC's design wonks had in mind, but in most ways it's a very thoughtful refinement of what made the One series so special. Your pleas and complaints haven't gone unheard. The thing is, when the One M9 does try new things -- be they software features or hardware changes -- it doesn't always stick the landing.

    Gallery: HTC One M9 review | 35 Photos

    Engadget Score
    Poor
    Uninspiring
    Good
    Excellent
    Key

    from $431.99+
    84
    Pros
    • Great performance
    • Top-tier build quality
    • Sense 7 is lightweight and thoughtful
    • Quick charging works well
    Cons
    • Main camera is lackluster
    • Screen isn't as vivid as last year's model
    • BoomSound speakers lack some oomph
    • Battery lifeishit-or-miss

    Summary

    HTC's 2015 flagship was designed to feel more premium than previous models, but it runs the risk of feeling dated two years on. It's sturdy and plenty powerful with its Snapdragon 810 chipset, but the M9's 20-megapixel camera doesn't seem any better than the UltraPixel shooter HTC ditched, and the occasional software quirk raises eyebrows.

    Hardware

    Note: I'm working with the international version of the One M9. I'll update this review with new impressions once US units become available.

    It's impossible not to compare the M9 to the Ones that came before it, which leads to some simple shorthand for HTC's design work this year: Put simply, it's almost like the M7 and M8 had a baby. Where the M8 was polished and curvaceous like a river stone -- a choice that meant the thing slid around more than some liked -- the M9 channels more of the original One M7's angularity. HTC's newest flagship feels familiar as a result, but that's not to say that everything HTC did was for the best.

    Anyway, more on that later. Let's start with the broad strokes. The M9's sloping back would look almost identical to its predecessors were it not for some major camera changes: Last year's Duo Camera UltraPixel setup has been replaced with a single, squarish, sapphire-covered pod that hosts a more traditional 20-megapixel shooter. Thankfully, none of that changes how comfortably the M9 settles into the hand. You'll find the nano-SIM and microSD card slots (the latter of which takes cards up to a whopping 2TB) nestled into the left and right edges, respectively, just where they were last year. The lengthy volume rocker that ran down the previous phone's side has been split into two discrete buttons, though, and the sleep/wake key has been moved below it and was given a neat spiral pattern so you can tell the difference without looking.

    At first glance, the phone's face is almost identical too. The only real changes you'll notice when that 5-inch, 1080p screen is off are incredibly subtle ones, like the top BoomSound speaker being a little shorter to accommodate the bigger UltraPixel selfie camera. Hell, you might not even notice one of the quietest structural changes -- the M9 is the first One with a front plate hewn from a single block of aluminum, with holes machined in to hold the screen and speakers in place. It's an impressive feat of production, but it's not like it makes the M9 feel any sturdier than it already is.

    Come to think of it, it's that kind of minute change that seems emblematic of the M9's overall aesthetic. In most ways, we're still dealing with the same One DNA as before, just peppered with a handful of modifications meant to make the whole thing feel more premium. Consider the color, for one: My review unit is the same two-toned, rose-gold-and-silver affair I first played with back at MWC, and it's still just as polarizing as it was a few weeks ago. I've grown inordinately fond of the color combination, though others who saw it were less than impressed by the company flinging itself onto a gold-hued bandwagon. Thankfully, you'll soon be able to pick up full-on silver or gunmetal models too.

    More importantly, the M9 sits in my hand with just the right amount of weight and gravitas. It's light without feeling chintzy; it screams "solid," maybe even a little more than the M8 did. No wonder HTC's brass has spent so much breath talking up that machined chassis. To hear them tell it, the metal's "jewelry-grade" finish resists scratches and crafting each M9 involves 70 steps and takes 300 minutes to complete. Similar attention has been paid to what wound up inside the phone: We're looking at one of Qualcomm's octa-core Snapdragon 810s (a bit of silicon that pairs a 2.0GHz quad-core processor with another 1.5GHz quad-core unit), 3GB of DDR4 RAM, 32GB of storage and support for super-fast LTE Cat 9 data speeds where they're available. All of that together is enough to make you wonder how well the company can produce these things at scale, but the effect is mostly wonderful.

    Yep, that's right: "mostly." The biggest physical offender is hard to miss: The gold edge that runs around the M9's sides terminates in a pronounced ridge that feels completely out of place. Some will mind it less than others -- it does make the M9's body feel less slippery than the M8's -- but a colleague summed up my feelings best when he said it was like having the edge of a butter knife pressed into your palm. Possible butterfinger moments aside, the beauty of the M8's curves was that it made the physicality of the phone sort of fade into the background. Not so this time. At least that edge won't catch on your pockets when you whip your phone out.

    All told, it'd be easy to snipe at HTC for playing it too safe this year. I had to fight the temptation to do so myself. Like it or not, HTC's design chiefs have a clear sense of what they want their flagships to look and feel like and they seem more than happy to chip away in a single direction year after year. That's just great for their sense of artistry, but we'll see if people actually flock to a phone that doesn't look like a dramatic improvement over the ones that came before.

    Display and sound

    While rivals like Samsung and LG have flung their arms open to embrace Quad HD screens, HTC seems more than happy to buck the trend. Need evidence? Look no further than the M9's face -- the flagship comes loaded with a 5-inch Super LCD 3 display running at 1080p, putting it well behind the competition when it comes to sheer pixel density. Thing is, that's far more of a disadvantage on paper than in practice. After all, you'd be hard-pressed to pick out an individual pixel on the M9's display, and viewing angles are still first-rate here. What's more curious than HTC's resolution decision is just how different it is from the panel placed in the M8. Seriously.

    The M9's LCD is altogether much cooler than the M8's, which makes for crisper, more neutral whites at the expense of slightly less impactful blacks. I spend more time than I'd like to admit poking around on Instagram every day, but the difference couldn't have been any clearer than there -- colors were much punchier on the M8's screen, while the flower, puppy, graffiti and food pictures Instagram is notorious for came across as less saturated and, dare I say, neutered on the M9. Your mileage may vary (I've always preferred the slight oversaturation of AMOLED screens), but a certain dose of pop that made some photos come alive on last year's model is gone here, and I'm frankly bummed because of it.

    If there's one thing HTC knows, though, it's how to shoehorn a pair of speakers into a smartphone. BoomSound is back for a third year running and the dual-speaker setup still mostly sets a high bar for the rest of the industry's high-end wares. Yep, there's that pesky "mostly" again. I've run both the M8 and the M9 through my usual slew of test tracks, ranging from poppy ethereal stuff like Mika's The Origin Of Love album to Sambomaster's furious Japanese rock, and once again found that the M8 usually did a better job of reproducing classic tunes than its successor. Most times, the M8 was a touch louder and shined a little more light on the primary vocal track in the mix; meanwhile, the M9 projected a soundscape that drew me in a little more thanks to cleaner channel separation, but seemed softer in comparison.

    That doesn't mean the M9 is necessarily worse, just that it seems to be tuned a little differently. HTC has Dolby Audio running in the background to help give those speakers some more oomph, and I can't help but wonder if that extra software isn't to blame -- too bad there's no way to turn it off. If you're feeling really picky, you can toggle between Music and Theater modes in the settings, but I honestly couldn't make out the difference either way.

    Software

    Remember the old, overwrought days of Sense? With that gigantic weather/clock widget and HTC's insistence that basically every bit of Android had to be customized to within an inch of its life? Yeah, so do I. Those were rough times. HTC's done a great job of dialing back its influence on Android over the past few generations, and we're now left with a version of Sense that's both smarter and great at getting out of your way when you want it to. If you've spent any time at all with the M8, you'll feel right at home here -- just about all of the software features that made it what it was are back on top of Android 5.0.2, along with a few smart new bits that strive to do more than they actually can.

    Gallery: A tour of HTC's Sense 7 UI | 39 Photos

    Sense 7's look is pretty vanilla (and pretty Material Design-y) right out of the box. A clock widget stares back at you like it always has; BlinkFeed lives to the left of the home screen; and your app launcher is set up vertically with a customizable grid. Typical. The first new addition you'll see is the Sense Home widget, and its raison d'etre is simple -- it wants to show you apps you actually want when you're at home, work or just out somewhere. Once you've defined your home and work locations, it does a solid job of remembering what apps you tend to use where, even if it does take a while for your preferences to stick. Thankfully, you can just drag and drop your most-used apps right into the folder.

    HTC has expanded BlinkFeed's reach, too. In addition to giving you a grid of news and social updates to thumb through when you're bored, it'll now offer up Yelp recommendations (devices in different markets will lean on different services) when it thinks you might be jonesing for coffee or dinner. Those suggestions live atop your grid of stories to consume by default, but they'll also take over your lock screen too given enough time.

    It's actually a pretty great idea, but a feature like this is only really worth a damn if it knows what you like. Alas, the suggestions BlinkFeed has offered up so far haven't been earthshakers -- they just point out highly rated eateries near you, and there doesn't seem to be a way to connect it to your Yelp account to give it a sense of your tastes. Missed opportunity, HTC. If you're anything like me, though, you'll be so used to unlocking a dark screen with a swipe up that the in-your-face recommendations might go completely unnoticed anyway.

    To complete the "all about you" philosophy at play here, you can create and apply your own visual themes if the stock look is just too milquetoast for you. Fonts, icon sets, wallpapers, color schemes, sounds; all of them can be mixed and matched in HTC's Themes app, and to my utter surprise, making a Myspace-circa-2006-style train wreck is harder than you'd think. That doesn't mean it's impossible, though, and a few minutes spent poking around HTC's Themes hub is proof enough of that. After downloading and installing a slew of themes from 75 or so available at the time of writing, I got to work -- after just a few minutes of agonizing over the right Hong Kong skyline wallpaper and icon set, I created a gold-and-silver aesthetic I've been looking at with a funny sense of pride ever since. If your well of inspiration is running a little dry, you can load up an existing photo and have the app work up a color scheme straight from that.

    My only complaint is that you can't go as far as you might think. Some themes you download from HTC's hub come with stylized clock widgets and Android navigation keys, but you can't swap those in and out of your theme the way you can with basically everything else right on the device. Like it or not, you'll have to pop over to HTC's dedicated theming site on a desktop or tablet to get it done.

    Really, though, these three features are just the most blatant changes to Sense as we know it. All of Lollipop's niceties are here too, like the ability to pin apps and filter the notifications you get by priority. You can change what quick settings panels appear when you drag down your notification shade. Oh, and the traditional Back-Home-Recent Apps order for Android's navigation keys? You can finally rearrange them, add to them or swap them out for screen toggles and quick settings access. Clearly, nothing is sacred anymore. Throw in a very, very useful Help app that'll help diagnose what's up with your ailing phone, and you've got a thorough suite of software at least tries to be there for you.

    I haven't enjoyed a Sense-ified build this much in years, but it sure isn't perfect. For me, the biggest immediate sin is the keyboard, or more specifically, its auto-corrections. They're terrible. I'm normally willing to cut these international units some extra slack on this front, but even with the input language set to United States English, the auto-corrections and assumptions it made led to countless errors that seem puzzling in their stupidity. Is "Im" so frequently used that the keyboard never tries to swap in an "I'm" instead? "Thjng" was never, ever successfully corrected, even though I clearly meant "thing". Having an Enter key right below Backspace also meant malformed messages went out almost as frequently as proper ones. Thankfully, the Google Keyboard is just a few quick taps away in the Play Store.

    The Sense Home widget also recommends new apps to you in a special folder by default. It's easy enough to ditch completely, but it rubs me the wrong way for two reasons. First, HTC hasn't ruled out the possibility of sponsored suggestions, and I don't really want HTC's financial partnerships getting in the way of my carefully cultivated home screen. Second, and more important, some of these suggestions are just awful. For some reason, about a week into testing, it suggested I download an app for the Turkish equivalent of Seamless and an apparently Korean-made app that links to YouTube videos of Billboard Top 100 songs. Just... what? I'm willing to chalk this up as some quirk inherent to international models, but man, is this just silly.

    Camera

    Here's where things get a little tricky. HTC spent the better part of 2014 arguing that yes, UltraPixels were the future of mobile photography and talking up situations where that bigger pixel size is a plus. With the M9, though, that message is even more muddled. Sure, there's an UltraPixel camera up front (more on that a little later), but the primary shooter 'round the back is a 20-megapixel affair and it didn't leave much of an impression the first time I used it. Actually, scratch that. It did leave an impression, just not a very good one. Due to some sketchy pre-production software, the M9's early photos took on a peculiar greenish cast and generally looked worse than what the M8's year-old UltraPixel camera came up with in the same situations. Thankfully, most of those issues have been killed off with a patch, and we're now left with a primary camera that doesn't make me want to cry.

    Gallery: HTC One M9 camera samples | 23 Photos

    In bright, consistent light, the M9 fires off detailed photos with nicely reproduced colors -- they can be a little washed out compared to the M8, though, and the cooler screen on the M9 doesn't help them look any better. Here's the rub: You'd expect this thing to be uniformly better than the UltraPixel shooter HTC's been pushing, but that's just not always the case. I'm not just talking about low-light situations where the UltraPixel camera truly shines, either. Sometimes the M9 comes through with crisper details; other times the M8 seems to do a better job. Sometimes the M9 has richer, more accurately exposed colors; sometimes it doesn't. You get where I'm going with this. It's such a mixed bag that I'm honestly surprised HTC gave in to the simplicity of advertising a camera based on its megapixel count at all. When the company dropped the news, I think we were all hoping the company's megapixel gamble would pay off in spades. Well, not so much. At least the UltraPixel selfie camera still works the way you'd expect. The lens is wide enough to capture most of your crew come Groufie time and, as usual, it excels in darker climes like bars and clubs (though you might come out looking a little pink for your liking).

    On the plus side, HTC's Camera app is still one of the more in-depth we've seen ship on a smartphone, and it's easy enough to dismiss gritty technical bits like exposure control, ISO and white balance if you'd rather not bother. Oh, a quick heads-up to all those serious mobile photographers -- the M9 technically supports shooting RAW photos, but good luck getting that to work without a little dedicated developer support. Swiping to the left and right still lets you hop among Panorama, Selfie and standard Photo modes, and they're actually labeled this time too! It's all about the little things sometimes. Delve deep enough into the settings and you'll discover that HTC has finally put together a phone that can shoot video in 4K, though it'll only record 6 minutes of super high-def footage in a go. Sadly, most of my test recordings suffered from the same washed-out look that the M9's photos had trouble with during most of my weeks testing.

    Speaking of the little things, HTC's full suite of image-editing tricks are back too, from mainstays like red-eye removal to body-horror playthings like Face Contour (seriously, run it on the same photo a few times and tell me you're not terrified). Feeling really festive? You can festoon your pictures with floating particles, be they snowflakes or cherry blossoms or shapes of your own choosing. I have no earthly idea why anyone would need this, but it's cute, so someone somewhere will surely have a blast with it. Too bad you can't save the resulting tableau as a GIF; it'll wind up being saved as a static JPEG or a video file. You'll have an easier time indulging your artsy side with the editor's new double exposure and Prismatic features, too. The former does pretty much what the name says (with occasionally freaky results like the shot above), but the latter takes a cue from apps like Fragment by letting you stick trippy polygons and line art on top of your photos. Trust me, it's cooler than it sounds.

    Performance and battery life

    HTC might not have been the first to out a Snapdragon 810-powered phone, but make no mistake: There's some seriously powerful silicon thrumming away inside the M9's metal frame. The surest sign of a strong performer is its ability to make you stop thinking about its performance altogether, and that's almost completely the case here. I've spent the better part of two weeks basically treating this thing like crap -- furiously firing up and cycling through apps, wiling away hours crashing into walls in Asphalt 8, watching high-res videos until I was bored stupid -- and I haven't yet found a scenario where the M9's combination of lightweight software and speedy hardware let me down.

    Now about that elephant in the room. Yes, the M9 can get almost uncomfortably warm if you make it a point to push it hard -- I noticed it mostly during my repeated benchmark testing, which most average users will never, ever have to worry about. The M9's all-metal chassis still gets warm during more normal hardware-intensive tasks like bashing zombies in the face in Dead Trigger 2, but considerably less so than during benchmarks and never to the point where I was worried about hurting myself. By now, it's more than clear that the 810 isn't a particularly cool customer, and HTC gets some props for trying to mitigate the issue before the M9's official launch. That said, the company's approach to thermal throttling seems to have had an effect on the numbers the phone put up -- the One M9 and the G Flex2 were just about neck and neck throughout the whole process, save for a few tests where the M9 scored consistently lower.

    HTC One M9 LG G Flex2 Samsung Galaxy Note Edge iPhone 6 Plus
    AndEBench Pro 7,404 7,167 8,886 N/A
    Vellamo 3.0 2,874 4,684 1,882 N/A
    3DMark IS Unlimited 21,409 22,207 19,912 17,902
    SunSpider 1.0.2 (ms) 706 667 788 388
    GFXBench 3.0 1080p Manhattan Offscreen (fps) 22 21 18.4 18.2
    CF-Bench 53,579 68,426 40,143 N/A
    SunSpider: Lower scores are better.

    You won't be left wanting for horsepower, but the 2,840mAh battery was more of a mixed bag. In the standard Engadget rundown test (with a video set to loop endlessly while the screen's set to 50 percent brightness), the M9 stuck around for eight hours and 19 minutes -- a decent increase over the original One M7, but far short of the 11-plus hours we squeezed out of the M8 last year and the 10-plus hours the G Flex2 put up. That seems abnormally low, especially considering that the M9 did just fine when it came to average daily use: It regularly hung around for 13 to 14 hours of continuous work use (including a few spells as a mobile hotspot during press events) without batting an eye. Using the thing judiciously could obviously pump up those numbers even more, as would firing up its Extreme Power Saving mode (though you'll lose access to all but the most crucial apps as a result).

    The competition

    I've been spending all this time with the international version of the One M9, and by the time you read this it'll have started trickling onto store shelves in a few far-flung markets. All four major US wireless carriers have pledged to carry it (no word on price yet, but the usual $650 sans contract/$200 with seems likely), so it won't be long before M9s will be all over the place. What else should you be looking at? We're starting to see the first batch of Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 edge reviews make the rounds, and while we haven't spent more than a half-hour with the things to date, there's no denying that they're going to be two of the M9's fiercest Android competitors this year. We're looking forward to seeing how the Snapdragon 810 in the M9 stacks up to Samsung's homespun silicon, but the M9 already seems to have a leg up on the S6 when it comes to eye candy. The S6 edge is a completely different story -- I still maintain it's the best-looking phone Samsung has ever made -- but you're going to pay a hefty premium for a phone that's functionally identical to the S6.

    If you need a high-powered competitor right now, there's always the G Flex2. LG beat HTC to the silicon-studded punch by bringing the Snapdragon 810-powered device to Sprint earlier this month (it'll hit AT&T soon, too) and it's strikingly pretty to boot. You'll miss out on Sense's occasional thoughtfulness and a rock-sturdy body, but LG's light touch with Android 5.0 and the sheer "wow" factor of a curvy phone just might be worth it for you. HTC's older One M8 is still no slouch either, and the punchier display, plus some slightly louder BoomSound speakers, might make it a contender for another year if you're persnickety about your media and don't absolutely need the latest and greatest.

    Wrap-up

    It might sound maudlin, but I really wanted to love the One M9 as much as I did the One M7. This seemed like the year HTC would nail it again. They came close! I'm still surprised that it's Sense that I'm most impressed with. BlinkFeed is a first-rate time sink, and theming is a lovely, awfully personal way to kill a few minutes and make your M9 really feel like yours. Sure, the app suggestions are so bad they're almost great for a laugh, but I can ditch them whenever I feel like it. Alas, the M9 is let down by a camera that isn't as good as it should be, strangely tuned BoomSound speakers and the occasional questionable design decision. And yet, despite those quirks, the M9 is still a very, very good phone. It's an utter powerhouse even with thermal throttling in the mix and the now-traditional One aesthetic is as attractive as it's ever been (strange metallic edge aside). That doesn't change the fact that it's still the biggest question mark of the One trio to date, and now I -- along with others, surely -- are left wondering where HTC goes next.

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