Retrospect: HTC One M9

Loud auditoriums, ballet dancers, camera flashes, YouTube video reviews and then silence. This is the short, floodlit, winding road that is universally traversed by all global players in the mobile industry when unveiling “the next big thing”. Sooner or later – usually sooner – the bandwagon then moves on to the next, “next big thing”. So, nearly six months after launch, we look back at the HTC One M9, in Retrospect.

In April 2015, HTC unveiled the latest device to bear the moniker “One”. It might sound a little ridiculous to have multiple devices named as such, but make no mistake, it’s served HTC well so far. Whilst they might not have hit the dizzying heights of Samsung or Apple market share in terms of units shipped, it, coupled with some high-profile marketing campaigns – some hits, some misses – have put HTC back at the top table in terms of brand recognition for smartphones.

With this device, the HTC One M9, HTC looked to iterate rather than innovate, just as they had in March 2014 when the HTC One M8 was released. It’s clear that many R&D dollars were thrown at developing unique design to align with their effective re-launch back in 2013, and the result was the HTC One (M7). HTC look set to milk this design aesthetic for a few iterations to come.

Optics

So what’s different, improved, or new in the HTC One M9? For starters, let’s talk about the camera. HTC has become synonymous with camera technology in their recent devices. The HTC One M7 introduced us all to Ultra Pixels, whilst the One M8 gave us the Duo Camera and latterly the Desire Eye delivered a front facing 13MP selfie camera with flash. Both previous HTC One optical technologies were widely reported to be a little underwhelming overall with various issues ranging from colour tints and heat issues on the M7 to poorly implemented software on the M8. Both were known for their low light performance over and above any clarity.

The HTC One M9, you could say, goes back to basics with a “standard” 20MP rear facing camera with dual-LED flash. You won’t find any specific marketing campaign waged around the optical prowess of the M9’s rear facing camera this year. The Ultra Pixels are once again out in force however on the 4MP front facing camera.

With so many interesting camera deployments on smartphones in 2015, it’s tough to stand out. Samsung’s Galaxy S6 a 16MP optically stabilised camera capable of 120fps 720p video recording, whilst both Oneplus and LG deploy laser auto focus and OIS on the Oneplus 2’s 13MP and the LG G4’s 16MP rear shooter respectively. It’s a tough crowd indeed. The HTC One M9 ups the ante on its competition in terms of sheer resolution and in clear day lit shots, quite frankly shines. Colours are decent and look nice on the crisp 1080p display as well as off-phone. Focusing and shooting speeds are very quick; a must in 2015. The front facing camera, again in good lighting conditions, can produce some of the nicest selfie pictures you’ll find. That 4MP ultra pixel camera is put to good use, and whilst peripheral detail is let down, the focal subject is usually crisp and well exposed.

Speaking of the auto-exposure, upon first focus it’s usually pretty good,. However when choosing a different focal point it seems the HTC One M9 also uses the selection as a spot metering point. This is particularly annoying as, as you can see in my landscape and flower shots, focusing on the hills/flower itself and/or brighter areas of the scene, blow out the overall shot. A little infuriating for those wishing to take a quick snap.

Unfortunately for HTC, the seemingly inherent “noise” or “grain” is back once again. It’s only visible at when cropping nearer to 100%, but it’s more noticeable the lower the light dims as can be seen from the shots above.

So, the camera is capable of some brilliant shots, but it’s a roll of the dice at that crucial moment whether the auto mode will strike it lucky and capture the scene in glorious detail or not.

Design

HTC continues it’s similarities in the builds quality of its device, arguably somewhat improving on it in some areas. The device continues to sport the aluminium uni-body of its predecessors and feels just as premium. With Samsung also opting for a metallic chassis in its flagship this term, HTC finally has some competition on the smartphone beauty pageant front.

The M9 is shorter and narrower that the 2014 flagship, whilst being slightly thicker. It’s shed a little weight too, now weighing in at just 157g. Whilst these dimension trims help to achieve a higher body-to-screen ratio, and even provide a slightly more comfortable in-hand feel, there is little (read; almost nothing) to differentiate the device from the HTC One M8. There is no denying its beauty though. It’s as beautiful to look at as it is to hold; it really is one of the nicest looking designs on the market, still. HTC fans will have been shouting about the industrial design from the rooftops since early 2013 and the One M7, and just like an attention seeking sibling, consumers are also starting to ignore their testimony despite it’s truth. The Apple iPhone 6 (and 6 Plus), the Samsung Galaxy S6 (and S6 Edge, along with their larger plus variants), and many more 2015 devices are all courting similar all-metallic designs and manufacturing techniques. What once delivered a blood curdling roar in the battle for smartphone market share as a unique selling point now carries much less vehemence and, as the sales numbers back up, weight with the consumers. There are just too many options that are close enough in industrial design for HTC to make the waves it once did.

All that aside, and on the merits of the device itself, the HTC One M9 will not disappoint any consumer in the looks department. It just remains to be seen how often its beauty will hold the gaze of consumers under increasing competition from other manufacturers in 2015.

Software

The once maligned HTC Sense makes a return in the HTC One M9. Many consumers will be happy with Sense 7’s deployment on the device and, like the design, won’t really notice much difference. Sense is, at this point, almost an operating system of its own. It’s so deeply embedded into the HTC devices upon which its deployed that it’s sometimes very hard to see any traces of Google’s pride and joy lying underneath.

Perhaps the biggest change here is Themes. Sense 7 delivers a truly thorough theme engine with the ability to change the look and feel of almost every aspect of the device’s software experience. Where Sense 7’s Themes go slightly further however is with the ability to create whole new themes based existing pictures. Pick a photo from the gallery and the M9’s software extracts colour elements from picture and creates new themed scheme based on those shades captured. Very neat.

The Navigation bar is now somewhat configurable with a fourth button available to be added if required, and with the implementation of the Sense Home widget, HTC have at least made some attempt to deliver incremental changes to their skin.

Cloudex is one piece of bloatware that consumers might well be happy to see. Cloudex delivers a crucial piece of functionality that many gallery applications built-in to software deployments seem inherently forgetful of. The application is simple enough, and allows photos and videos stored on other Cloud services to be viewed and organised from the One M9. A deal-sealing point? No, but a welcome addition nevertheless, and something of a 1-up on other 2015 flagships at this time.

It remains the case that, as with the design of the HTC One M9, the software deployment is little more than iterative.

Internal Hardware

The HTC One M9 utilises a much maligned Snapdragon 810 chipset delivering 8 core CPUs running at 1.5Ghz and 2Ghz. Addressing this first, it has to be said that the overheating problems that plagued many a reviewer at launch, for us, don’t seem to be too prevalent any longer. Of course, under extreme load, there is still some heat, but nothing to worry about. Of course, the heat output of the 810 was the least of the issue. The fact that when overheating, thermal throttling would reduce the clock speed of the CPUs included, providing poorer performance to the end-user, was the real story.

Well, it’s still the case, and we didn’t think this would improve. You don’t notice it often, but when you start to feel that little heat creeping up, it definitely correlates to a slightly deterioration in app performance. Unlike other reviews, we don’t see this occuring all too often. It’s still worth bearing in mind what with Snapdragon releasing a v2 of the 810 to attempt to combat this issue in some of the latest smartphones, and others still, like the Samsung Galaxy S6, opting to go in-house with completely different chipsets altogether.

Other inclusions consist of 3GB RAM, 32GB of internal storage with a micro SD card slot allowing up to 128GB cards, NFC, and fast charging which claims and delivers a 60% charge in just 30 minutes.

The package is still compelling six months on, but the CPU throttling does remain a worry for hard-core users.

Conclusion

Most of what was written about the HTC One M9 back during those frantic few days and weeks post-launch and in the leak-riddled pre-launch period also, are still relevant. The phone is gorgeous. HTC have continued with the design aesthetic that brought them back into the fold in 2013, and with the One M9, have refined it a little. The optics are also a little more relevant. Furthermore, battery life has improved slightly as well, as has screen clarity. The key word from these sentences, and the word that seems to dog the HTC One M9 is “little”. Every change on the HTc One M9 is a subtle, incremental change, for the better mostly, but not always, over its predecessor, the HTC One M8.

There is absolutely no denying the quality of the craftsmanship, the attention to detail in the chassis in general, and the choice of materials to showcase that body. We’re just seen it before haven’t we?

That’s not to say this phone a) wasn’t ever a great device and b) isn’t still. Specifications wise its up there with other flagship launches in Q3 2015, mainly thanks to it’s Snapdragon 810 SoC, 3GB of RAM, and its 20MP camera. On paper that stands the test of the last six months admirably. Still pricing strong at anywhere from £450-499 depending on the store though, there are alternatives that might fare slightly better in the next six months and in the same price bracket. The older, but still able iPhone 6 will provide better optics and battery life for a similar price, whilst the LG G4 can be obtained for anywhere from £350 upwards brand new and will definitely provide better optics thanks largely to optical image stabilisation, a feature lacking on the HTc One M9, as well as ,QHD screen resolution. Sure, it might hit the battery life somewhat, but it’s Snapdragon 808 SoC might not provide the heating issues either.

The HTC One M9 continues to divide opinion. Not as to whether on its own it is a good device. It is. However judged against its previous product line up, HTC didn’t seemingly improve enough to deliver compelling reason for HTC One M8 users to upgrade. Six months on it’s still a good package, and if you can find the device at the right price it’s still a good device. It just has more evolved competitors that it’s fighting against in the price point it still sits. Ironically this is a very similar to the situation it found itself in at launch.

Let us know your experiences with the HTC One M9 and how it’s held up for you? Do you find the optics perfectly fine? Have you had issues with the Snapdragon 810 chipset? Let us know in the comments.

For pricing and availability, check out Vodafone UK.

About Craig Bradshaw

Tech enthusiast and Editor-in-Chief of MobileTechTalk

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