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We spent a day using the HTC One M9 as a camera (hands-on)

HTC's latest flagship smartphone has an all-new rear camera, but is that a good thing? We tried an early version out in Barcelona with very mixed results.

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BARCELONA -- The HTC One M9 may not look new from the outside, but it has all-new cameras compared to last year. Is that good or bad? Well, it's a whole different story depending on whether you're looking at the front or the rear.

The One M9 is a spectacular-looking phone and feels good, but let's face it: a lot of people are buying smartphones for the camera quality. I got a chance to take a pre-release early version of the HTC One M9 around for a day and a half through Barcelona to snap some shots, and discovered that it's not quite the killer camera I hoped it would be...especially from the rear. But keep in mind this is early software, and elements may be addressed before launch.

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(Editor's Note: this hands-on was done with a pre-release model of the HTC One M9 using non-finalized software. Elements of the software may indeed be improved before launch, especially in terms of the camera. The following impressions are what we felt thus far, but as always, things could change when CNET reviews the final model of the HTC One M9.)

Rear camera: 20 megapixels, but...

HTC's newest rear camera isn't an "Ultrapixel": it's a 20-megapixel, instead. That, unfortunately, removes a lot of what made the One M8's camera unique. It also removes the Duo camera, which took innovative (but not always great) two-level focus photos.

Sample shot with rear camera in Sagrada Familia, Barcelona (click to enlarge). Scott Stein/CNET

Sounds disappointing, maybe? Well, it is. The problem I had with the M9's camera over a day and a half playing with it casually -- as, well, a regular phone-owner would -- is it just isn't that good. The 20-megapixel camera captures a fair amount of detail, but it's got some issues.

To compare, I took shots against what's the best phone camera out there, arguably: the iPhone 6 Plus. The Plus takes great, crisp shots, has excellent low-light exposure, is super-fast, and also records phenomenal video. Maybe I was spoiled by it. The M9's camera, well...it's a step down.

Click to enlarge. Scott Stein/CNET

The M9's photos, which you can see throughout this post, are grainier, but they're not that bad. Some are actually very good, and turned out better than I expected. But I had a harder time dealing with low light, blew out more photos, and the camera had a much slower auto-focus than the 6 Plus. Acceptable? Maybe, but there are so many good and better phone cameras out there that this doesn't feel like one people would opt for.

It's weird, because the HTC One M9's new camera uses a Sony sensor. It might be similar to the one in the Xperia Z3, but to my eyes it didn't seem as good.

Click to enlarge. Scott Stein/CNET

Close-up shots turned out well with some fiddling in camera settings. The M9's rear camera allows for HDR, ISO and white-balance adjustments, but leaves out cheesy photo effects. Instead, those have been pushed off to a separate Fx app that includes novelties ranging from double-exposure effects to layering photo-filled shapes to putting animated hearts over everything.

What I don't show samples of here is video recording. It's is capable of 4K -- much like Sony's Xperia Z3 phones -- and generally handled well, but much the 4K element for many will be a little hard to appreciate. The camera's stabilization didn't always offer up a smooth video.

Sagrada Familia's ceilings could have looked sharper (click to enlarge). Scott Stein/CNET

20 megapixels is a largely useless term: speed of photos, blur-free photos and quality shots matter most to me. The M9 doesn't cut it for low-light situations compared to superior smartphones. But, as you can see, the M9 still took some pretty good shots. It's not a terrible camera, but it's disappointing.

And it's probably going to be pretty annoying for people who loved and used the M8, because the rear camera tech going on here doesn't use the same features. It feels new, and not in a good way.

Front camera: Ultrapixel is pretty great

The front-facing Ultrapixel camera uses similar tech to last year's rear One M8 camera, and is a lot like the high-quality selfie cam in the HTC Desire 826 I peeked at at CES. It's wide-angle, has great light sensitivity, is super-crisp, and is generally one of the best front cams I've seen. It's better than the iPhone 6 Plus' FaceTime front camera, easily.

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Wide angle: better for church than my face. Scott Stein/CNET

I was able to fit more in frame, see everything around me, and still have a decent-looking face (which isn't a given for me). With a wider-angle lens there's more distortion at times, but being able to fit so much in frame is a big plus.

I liked elements of the front-facing camera, sometimes even more than the rear camera. But that's not a good thing. What I would have loved is if the Ultrapixel technology, which seems to allow for a greater range of low-light sensitivity, could have extended into the rear camera too. That didn't happen. The HTC One M9's cameras aren't utterly disastrous, but for a phone of this caliber and expectations, falling short is a big problem in such a competitive landscape.

Look at the photos for yourself, above: some are good. Some really aren't. The HTC One M9 feels like it'll be a very good phone, but it didn't feel like a supremely fun travel camera, unless you're planning on spending your vacation with a selfie stick permanently attached. The HTC One M9 might be a good selfie phone, but not a good camera phone. And that's a huge problem, because phones need to be excellent cameras now more than ever -- front and back.