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With the One M9, HTC tries to build a 'timeless piece of design'

Curious why the One M9 looks so similar to its predecessor? HTC's Peter Chou says it's intentional.

Here's the M9 alongside its predecessor, the M8. Can you tell them apart? (Spoiler: the M9 is on the left.) Andrew Hoyle/CNET

BARCELONA -- HTC's Peter Chou wants his One family of smartphones to be the Range Rovers of the mobile world.

That's not to say Chou -- who on Friday stepped down as HTC's chief executive to take over the company's development of future products -- has any desire to turn his flagship smartphone line into a selection of rugged, all-terrain devices. Rather, he wants to establish a distinct look that makes an HTC One phone immediately recognizable, just as the Range Rover's iconic traits have done for the vehicle throughout the years.

"Sometimes, like in the car industry, you need to keep some of your signature DNA," Chou said during a 30-minute interview at the Mobile World Congress trade show earlier this month. "Smartphones sometimes are moving too fast, and not really creating a timeless piece of design."

Coming up with an enduring design is exactly what HTC set out to do with the One M9 , the latest version of its premium smartphone, which bears more than a striking resemblance to its predecessor, the One M8. The Taiwanese smartphone manufacturer is betting that consumers still like the metal-clad body enough -- along with some under-the-hood improvements -- to give the One family a second look. The One M9 hits the market later this month.

"The response has been overwhelming, people like our design," Chou said.

But critics and hardcore HTC fans may be disappointed by the lack of significant change in aesthetics from a company known for its design chops. "A very similar overall design means the One M9 is much more of an evolution of an existing breed, rather than a new species altogether," said CNET editor Andrew Hoyle .

The One M9 still features an all-aluminum body, which has been slightly tweaked for a better grip. The smartphone has the familiar face with the large "forehead" and "chin" above and below the display, allowing for the front-facing "Boomsound" speakers. In addition to the gunmetal color, HTC offers new colors including a silver-and-gold version that Chou said was modeled after similarly two-toned luxury watches.

HTC's Peter Chou at the company's Mobile World Congress press conference. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Similar to the design of many cars and watches, creating a consistent look is what will help the HTC brand stand out over time, Chou said. Think Movado's minimalist watch face, or the classic Porsche sports car design. He complimented rival Apple for keeping the overall look of the iPhone similar over time. Apple takes the unusual route of making more-significant design changes every other year, in the meantime opting to polish an existing device with better specifications and new features under the "S" name. The iPhone 5, for example, was followed by the iPhone 5S and then the iPhone 6.

HTC, however, isn't Apple.

"I am not sure I buy the 'signature mark,'" said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Kantar WorldPanel. HTC may have played its hand already with the introduction of a unibody metal smartphone three years ago, she added.

HTC's choice to make modest improvements to the body of the M9 also comes as Samsung Electronics made drastic improvements to the design of the Galaxy S6, and its more unique sibling, the curvy Galaxy S6 Edge. Samsung ditched the plastic material in favor of a metal frame and glass on the front and back, creating an eye-catching new smartphone.

Chou said he hadn't had a chance to check out Samsung's new smartphones and declined to comment on them.

While HTC's smartphones are critically lauded, the company's market presence pales relative to Apple or Samsung. HTC held just 1.6 percent of the global market in 2014, down from 2.2 percent in 2013 and a peak of 8.8 percent in 2011, according to IDC.

The shortfall hasn't been with the quality of HTC's smartphones, but its inability to be heard over the trumpeting of louder marketing campaigns from deeper-pocketed rivals.

"Just like in any commodity, it's about the marketing, not the technical features," said Ken Dulaney, an analyst at Gartner.

Chou, ever the design-fixated executive, believes he can build up HTC's brand through the consistent look and feel of its products, but he couldn't help taking a shot at his rivals.

"You just need to keep on your own DNA and your own design," he said. "It took us a long time to build that instead of some copycat."

Now Playing: Watch this: Hands-on with the sumptuous metal HTC One M9
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