HTC One (M9) first impressions: Better but worse

HTC is no longer trying to make the best smartphone in the world, we think

HTC has been the recipient of some serious flak for its One (M9). Internet pundits are calling the smartphone out for retaining the design principles of the One (M8). We don’t believe timeless design is punishable – and the design of the One (M8) is timeless. And yet our first impression of the One (M9) is tainted by a lining that is sour.

Metal makes a return for the One (M9). HTC has been promoting the two-tone colour scheme of this phone’s body. We always considered it had two tones with the plastic insets clashing against the smartphones metal armour. The dual-metal colouring rings like the gimmick of the DuoCamera.

Stare at it front on and the smartphone looks technically more advanced. The illusion is brought about by having millimetres shaved off the smartphone’s height and width.

The actual display stagnates in both its 5-inch size and Full HD resolution. This is the first time HTC’s flagship has fallen behind in the resolution race against Samsung, which is touting a 5.1-inch, 1440p screen. We remain unphased by the difference because the margin in which Samsung’s is better will scarcely be noticeable. Until high resolution content becomes widely available, that is.

There are benefits in dismissing a 1440p screen. Full HD straddles the fine line between excellent performance and battery life. Choosing the responsible resolution could bode well for the M9’s 2840 milliamp-hour battery.

HTC’s famed BoomSound speakers, which are front-firing stereo speakers benefiting from amplifiers, make a return. This time HTC has partnered with the professionals at Dolby to aid with the hardware and software. Representatives of the company claim the partnership has resulted in audio that is multi-layered.

We entered a quiet room dedicated to showcasing the M9’s audio prowess. Sound remains loud and layered, and ultimately, it is in keeping with the standard set by its One forefathers. Playing set music at the world’s largest smartphone convention, which is endlessly noisy, may have masked the proficiency of the M9’s speakers. Judgement shall be reserved on its sound quality for our final review.

Our review of the older One M8 concluded the low resolution Ultrapixel camera undermined its appeal. Deviating from custom with the M9 is the lack of a rear 4 megapixel camera, which has now been shifted to the front. In its place is a resolution-rich 20 megapixel camera bordered by a dual-LED flash.

Increasing the megapixel count can be advantageous when it comes to cropping a photo because the photo is larger. Unfortunately our test photos were characterised by more image noise than is expected from a flagship.

Captured with the HTC One (M9)
Captured with the HTC One (M9)
Read more: Google Nexus 9 first impressions: Hands on with HTC's first tablet

A crop of the photo above at 100 per cent - Captured with the HTC One (M9)
A crop of the photo above at 100 per cent - Captured with the HTC One (M9)

Redeeming the smartphone is the hardware. The Snapdragon 810 chipset is based on 64-bit architecture, and its octa-core processor bundles four cores running at 2.0GHz with another four clocked at an economical 1.5GHz. There’s 3GB of RAM, 32GB of internal storage and a microSD card slot that can take cards up to 128GB.

Rivalling reviewers have been casting stones at the One (M9) because it looks too alike the One (M8). We’re casting stones because it doesn’t look like its predecessor enough.

It starts with the shape. The slender and curvaceous shape that made the M8 beautiful and ergonomic is gone. Now the shape is no longer round as much as it a solid with rounded edging.

The older One stood well apart from the pack for the craftsmanship of its finish. A single sheet of metal would start from one side and wrap around the curve of the smartphone’s spine until it met the other side.

The One (M9) differs in that it feels more assembled. The front is a separate plate that no longer blends in with the rest of the body. Its metallic overlap stands out like an eyesore of a seam and it no longer feels as though its shape was milled from a single, inanimate piece.

Another downside is the death of HTC’s Sense TV, its proprietary software which turned the smartphone into a program guide and a remote control for home entertainment systems. We wrote in our review of the One (M8): “Sense TV could be the reason people walk away from Samsung and towards HTC”. Now the software is replaced by a third party application that is thematically inconsistent with HTC’s proprietary Sense user interface.

Read more: Flagship showdown: Samsung Galaxy S6 series v HTC One (M9)

Every time we held the One (M9) and we noticed these regressions, we no longer felt the company was trying to make “the best smartphone in the world”. Its seams tell of a company losing market share and struggling financially. The compromises have the interests of a thicker bottom line and not in evoking the same bespoke experience cultivated by the One M7 and the M8. Odds are this is a good smartphone, but our first impression is it is no longer a great one.

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Tony Ibrahim

Tony Ibrahim

Good Gear Guide

@slicktonyi

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