"The sexiest smartphone I've seen all year," "a powerful performer" and "elegantly crafted hardware" are just some of things we said about HTC's beautiful One M8 when it launched last year.
Replacing such a highly regarded phone is no easy task, but by sticking to the luxurious all-metal design and making a few key spec tweaks, HTC is hoping it has sufficiently armed its new flagship, the One M9, to hold its ground against the onrushing Samsung Galaxy S6.
Those of you hoping for a completely new generation of phone from HTC will be disappointed, however. 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.
It maintains a 5-inch display, with a full HD (1,920x1,080-pixel) resolution and it comes equipped with Qualcomm's latest Snapdragon 810 octa-core processor. The "Ultrapixel" camera from the back of the M8 has become the M9's front-facing camera, with a new 20-megapixel snapper on the back.
HTC has yet to officially announce how much the phone will cost, but given its position as a top-end flagship, coated in metal, you can bet it won't come cheap. It's due to go on sale globally at the end of March, so we'll no doubt get more information on prices in the coming weeks. So far, AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile have committed to carrying the phone in the Unites States. In the United Kingdom, you'll be able to find it with Carphone Warehouse, O2 and EE.
HTC hasn't exactly strayed far from the design scheme it used a year ago for the M8. It has an all-metal body, with the bombastic "BoomSound" speakers sitting above and below the display. The back of the phone is gently rounded and inset plastic lines traverse the body at the top and bottom -- exactly as you'll see on both the M8 and the M7 before it.
With the same 5-inch display inside the M9, the overall body size is roughly the same too, and the weights of the two phones felt comparable to my hands. One difference you'll see on the back is that there's only one camera lens, instead of the two on the M8. I'll come back to that later.
There are some small changes to note, however. The metal back still meets the display at the front, but the edges are now angular, rather than smoothly rounded. The edge too is of a slightly different colour to the back panel, giving a subtle two-tone effect. The colour variations include a gold edge around a silver body, a dark grey body with a polished silver edge, and a polished gold edge with a gold back.
While it's easy to argue that a new flagship phone requires a new design overhaul every year -- though Apple would dispute that -- the fact is that the One M8 was already a stunning piece of kit. The M9 may not be visually much different, but it still feels every bit as luxurious as its predecessor and is likely to maintain its position as the most premium-feeling Android phone around. Why change it if it isn't broken?
The BoomSound speakers are physically the same as before -- again, that's no bad thing, as they produced the richest sound I've heard from a phone. HTC has apparently roped in audio specialist Dolby to help tune them to provide a "rich and deep" sound. Small speakers in a phone can really only be so loud, so I'm certainly not expecting them to be a replacement for a good set of headphones, but anything that makes watching Netflix in the kitchen more immersive is fine by me.
The 5-inch display has a full HD resolution, which is the same size and pixel count as its predecessor. Unsurprisingly then, it looked every bit as crisp and bright, although I'll leave the final verdict on the display's quality for the final review. I'm glad to see HTC hasn't opted for a 2K screen as we've seen on LG's G3, and which is rumoured for the Galaxy S6. In my experience, there's almost no discernible benefit in a higher resolution panel on a screen that size, and only results in the battery being drained faster.
Software and processor
The M9 arrives with the latest Android 5.0 Lollipop software on board and I'd expect nothing less from a top-end phone. HTC has heavily customised the overall look of Android, however, with the latest version of its Android skin, Sense 7.
On the surface, Sense 7 looks pretty much the same as Sense 6 found on the M8. It's a neat layout, with simple, well-spaced app icons in the app tray, an easy to use settings menu and the BlinkFeed news and social network aggregator sitting off to the left of the home screen. The new version brings much deeper customisation options though, including a range of preset themes, as well as being able to choose fonts, icon styles and colour schemes. If you like putting your own stamp on a phone, the M9 may be right up your street.
An interesting new feature is the home screen's ability to change what apps are displayed there, depending on your location. HTC explained that the phone will learn what apps you use most at work, for example -- Google Drive, Mail and so on -- and will display these right where you need them. At home, however, it will display apps like BBC iPlayer or the TV remote app. You can tell it what apps you want to appear and when, so you needn't risk it getting it wrong and showing Crossy Road as your most-used work app.
It's running on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor. That's Qualcomm's latest chip and is in fact a 64-bit, octa-core processor, and it's backed up by a meaty 3GB of RAM. It seemed very swift and responsive in my hands-on time, but I'll have to reserve final judgement on how it compares to its rivals for the full review.
Camera and battery
Both the HTC One M8 and the One before it had 4-Ultrapixel cameras on the back. HTC reckoned these Ultrapixels were physically larger than regular pixels and were therefore able to take in more light. The camera was bright, but I was never that struck with the quality of its images. On the M9, that Ultrapixel camera is now found on the front, where improving images in low-light situations -- selfies in dingy bars, for example -- is more important.
The back of the phone is now home to a 20-megapixel camera with a dual-LED flash. HTC says it's tinkered with the software to improve overall dynamic range, stopping bright skies being completely washed out and improving detail in the shadows. Whether these changes make any difference remains to be seen in the full review.
The phone is powered by a 2,840mAh battery, which is a slight improvement from the battery in the One M8. HTC reckons it should keep you going for a whole day of use, but that of course totally depends on how demanding you are of the phone. Streaming video constantly with the display at max brightness will no doubt drain the juice faster than a thirsty toddler.
With only slight changes to the overall design and some tweaks to the specs, the HTC One M9 isn't the mobile revolution some may have been hoping for. It is building on an already stunning phone, though -- one that we were extremely keen on -- and completely overhauling an already good product isn't always the right decision.
While it may not offer enough to justify upgrading from an M8, the One M9's slick design, its no-doubt powerful processor and some cool-sounding software tweaks mean it'll certainly be in the mix as an upgrade option for those of you with older handsets. How it fares in the coming battle against the Galaxy S6 remains to be seen.