HTC One M9 review: A gorgeous Android phone with a touch of déjà vu

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The Good The HTC One M9 inherits its predecessor's stunning metal design and strong speakers, and has a bright, sharp display. It runs the latest version of Android, and the new Sense 7 software is simple, responsive and highly customisable. It's one of the few flagship phones to still feature expandable storage, and it offers a unique one-year replacement program in the US.

The Bad The M9's camera quality and battery life don't measure up to its competitors. For better or worse, the phone feels like a rerun of last year's HTC One.

The Bottom Line The updated HTC One M9 packs speed and software improvements into a handset that remains lustworthy in middle age, but it doesn't exceed the competition where it counts.

8.0 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 8
  • Performance 8
  • Camera 7
  • Battery 6

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Such seems to be the guiding philosophy behind the HTC One M9, and for the most part, the approach works. The One M9 is a beautiful Android phone worthy of your consideration, unless you already own last year's HTC One M8 (they could well be confused for the same phone). The Samsung Galaxy S6 beats it on most key features you'd care about however, including battery life and camera quality.

HTC's 2015 top-of-the-line phone recycles the same sleek design as last year's M8 , sticking to the luxurious all-metal case and 1080p HD screen while incorporating key spec improvements -- most notably a speedy, state-of-the-art Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor and upgraded front and rear cameras, the latter an attempt to address the M8's biggest shortfall: that its primary camera just wasn't as good as the competition.

If taking a gamble on a conservative design upgrade sounds oxymoronic, consider the current chaos at HTC: the move may have already cost HTC CEO Peter Chou his job. Yes, the earlier HTC One M8 easily ranked as one of last year's best smartphones, but it competed against the small-screened iPhone 5S and the plasticky Samsung Galaxy S5 , each of which felt like me-too throwbacks to their respective predecessors.

The One M9, by comparison, goes mano a mano with the totally redesigned all-metal Samsung Galaxy S6 , the current 800-pound gorilla of the smartphone world, the iPhone 6, plus a gaggle of cheap-but-good Android competitors.

Amid that intense competition, HTC is sweetening the pot (in the US, at least) with its , which offers a one-time, no-questions-asked replacement for M9 models in the first year of ownership, if they've succumbed to a cracked screen or water damage, even if you switch carriers. And if you don't swap the phone, you get a $100 credit toward a new HTC phone in the future.

Meanwhile, while our initial reservations about the M9's camera quality were tempered by various software updates that deliver notable improvements in white balance and outdoor daylight shots -- not to mention adding raw image shooting -- it's still not in the upper echelon of smartphone cameras. Low-light photos, noise reduction and selfies (from the front camera) are problematic, and the M9's overall image quality lacks that of the Galaxy S6 and iPhone 6.

Just as notable is the fact that our battery test results are less than stellar.

The One M9 is priced at $649 unlocked in US, with on-contract pricing starting at $199 and/or no-interest monthly installment plans on most major carriers (Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile). In the UK, you'll be able to find it with Carphone Warehouse, O2, Three and EE, starting at £580 SIM-free.

In other words, the HTC One M9 costs roughly the same as other high-end smartphones, including those aforementioned major competitors, the Samsung Galaxy S6 and the iPhone 6. But, its unimpressive camera and battery performance means it just doesn't measure up to those two models in arguably the most important respects.

HTC fans, meanwhile, can hold out hope that the One M9 isn't the end of the line. Rumours of the HTC One E9, the One E9+ and One M9+ (which may be one, two or three phones) look to be promising M9 variants with a larger, higher-resolution screen and possibly even a fingerprint sensor, among other improvements.

Editors' note, May 13, 2015: This review has been updated to reflect further testing.



LG G4 Samsung Galaxy S6 HTC One M9 Apple iPhone 6 Apple iPhone 6 Plus
Dimensions (Imperial) 5.87 x 2.96 x 0.35 inches 5.65 x 2.78 x 0.27 inches 5.69 x 2.74 x 0.37 inches 5.44 x 2.64 x 0.27 inches 6.22 x 3.06 x 0.28 inches
Dimension (Metric) 149.1 x 75.3 x 8.9mm 143.4 x 70.5 x 6.8mm 144.6 x 69.7 x 9.6mm 138.1 x 67.0 x 6.9mm 158.1 x 77.8 x 7.1mm
Weight 5.4 oz.; 152g 4.8 oz.; 138g 5.5 oz.; 157g 4.55 oz.; 129g 6.07 oz.; 172g

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.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

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 feel roughly the same. One difference you'll see on the back is that there's only one camera lens, instead of the two on the M8. More on 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 -- it's more akin to the earlier M7, in fact. The edge too is of a slightly different colour than 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.

The power button has been moved from the top edge of the phone to the right-hand side, below the volume buttons. Trying to press the power button on the top meant either using two hands, or shifting the position of the phone in your one hand in order to stretch out -- a manoeuvre that makes it very easy to drop your phone. I much prefer the ease of having the button on the edge, although having all three buttons in a line on one side did take a little getting used to.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

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 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.

On the other hand, with its wraparound screen and metal-and-glass body, Samsung's new Galaxy S6 Edge is not only a considerably more premium-feeling device than its plasticky predecessor, but an interesting new design that stands out from earlier models. The One M9 does have stiffer competition here. With similar materials in use on both handsets, the question of which looks and feels better is really just a question of personal taste.

The BoomSound speakers are physically the same as before -- again, that's not a bad thing, as they produce the richest sound I've heard from a phone. HTC has roped in audio specialist Dolby to help tune them to provide a "rich and deep" sound. While the speakers are certainly louder than most smartphones -- and on par with those on the M8 -- they're still a long way from replacing a good set of speakers or headphones.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

If you want to feel properly immersed in a movie or to really rock out in your living room to some Dream Theater you'll want external speakers. But they're well-suited for videos or podcasts that rely on speech; for watching Netflix in the kitchen while cooking, the BoomSound speakers fit the bill. Their forward-facing position means that when the phone lies flat on a table, the sound isn't muffled.

The nano-SIM card slot and microSD card slot are both tucked into the metal edge and both need to be extracted using a SIM tool (or a paperclip). The M9 accepts SD cards up to 128GB in size, but the base model does also come with 32GB of storage, rather than 16GB, which is a very welcome boost. And, notably, the new Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge do not support expandable storage.


Display specs

LG G4 Samsung Galaxy S6 HTC One M9 Apple iPhone 6 Apple iPhone 6 Plus
Display size 5.5 inches 5.1 inches 5 inches 4.7 inches 5.5 inches
Resolution 2,560x1x440 pixels 2,560x1,440 pixels 1,920x1,080 pixels 1,334x750 pixels 1,920x1,080 pixels
Pixels per inch 534 557 441 326 401

The 5-inch display has a full-HD resolution, which is the same size and pixel count as its predecessor. Unsurprisingly then, there's no visible difference in clarity between the two displays. Text looks extremely crisp and icons are displayed with pin-sharp edges. High-resolution photos and videos also have a satisfying clarity.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

There is, however, a noticeable difference in colour. While the M8's screen has bold, vibrant colours, the M9's colour is more restrained. Yellows and reds in particular look less warm, particularly when viewed side-by-side against the M8 and especially against the Galaxy S5. (You'll remember that we found Galaxy S5 to have the best screen -- by a nose -- when we tested it against the new iPhones late in 2014.) While the M9's colours aren't poor, they didn't provide the best venue for the phone's camera (see that section for more details, below).

There are, however, no options on the M9 to alter colour tones on the display -- unlike the S5 and S6 -- so you can't boost the saturation. If you want colours so strong they almost hurt your eyes, Samsung's AMOLED displays on the S6 and Note 4 may be more suitable.

On a side note, it's good to see HTC hasn't opted for a 2K screen as we've seen on LG's G3 and more recent G4 and the Galaxy S6. In our experience, there's almost no discernible benefit to a higher resolution panel on a screen that size. That said, our initial battery tests of the Galaxy S6 show that its battery lasts longer than that of the M9.

Sense 7 software and processor performance

The M9 arrives with the latest Android 5.0 Lollipop software on board and you'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.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

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. Sense was previously my favourite of the Android skins thanks to its simple and responsive design, and I'm happy to report it's just as pleasant to use this time round.

The new version brings much deeper customisation options. There are a range of preset themes to choose from, which alter everything from your wallpaper and colour schemes to app icons and fonts. You can download additional themes, although right now there aren't many to choose from. Once the phone goes on sale and people other than HTC's designers start creating themes, the themes section may start to fill out a little.

You can tweak the themes too, selecting your own app icon style, colours or fonts as you desire. There are loads of fonts you can download -- I don't have an exact number -- which may be a bit too in-depth for many people to bother with, but it does help make the phone fell a little more yours. If you'd rather not dive through settings, you can generate a theme based on the colour palette within a chosen photo.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

An interesting new feature is a home-screen widget which dynamically changes which apps displayed within it, depending on your location. The apps you use most at work, for example -- Google Drive, Mail and so on -- will display in the widget when the phone detects you're at the location you've set as "work". At home, however, it will display apps like YouTube or the TV remote app.

HTC explained the widget will learn over time what apps you use at home, at work or on the go, but I personally found it easier just to spend 10 minutes arranging the apps myself and let the phone simply switch modes when I arrived at each location. It's not a killer feature, sure, but it's admittedly handy to have the apps shuffle around to bring tools I know I use only for work purposes to the forefront.


LG G4 Samsung Galaxy S6 HTC One M9 Apple iPhone 6 Apple iPhone 6 Plus
Processor 1.8GHz hexa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 Octa-core Samsung Exynos 7420 2GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 Proprietary 64-bit A8 chip with M8 motion co-processor Proprietary 64-bit A8 chip with M8 motion co-processor
Battery Removable 3,000mAh Non-removable 2,550mAh Non-removable 2,840mAh Non-removable 1,810mAh Non-removable 2,915mAh

Inside the phone is Qualcomm's 64-bit, octa-core processor, the Snapdragon 810, alongside 3GB of RAM. That's an extremely potent lineup, so it was no surprise that the M9 is a very capable device. Demanding games like Asphalt 8 played very smoothly; image editing in Snapseed and Adobe Photoshop Express was a breeze; and, crucially, navigating around the Sense interface was swift, extremely responsive, and generally free of the sort of annoying lag that can really make a good phone seem bad.

We found the phone getting a bit warm during some of our benchmark testing with an early version of the software, and it was also a bit toasty during our camera testing with the updated software.