When you start with something exceptional, subtle refinements can go a long way.
That seems to be HTC's philosophy with its One line of flagship phones. From the first One (M7) device to last year's One (M8), the company kept the same critically praised foundation and introduced numerous iterative enhancements. And now, that same tactic is in play once again with this year's One M9, which sees HTC sticking to its guns and working to fine-tune the phone ever closer to perfection.
The One M9 goes on sale at all the major U.S. carriers on April 10 (the same day Samsung's Galaxy S6 debuts -- coincidence?). It'll generally cost $200 on contract or $600 to $700 unlocked, either up front or spread out over a monthly payment plan. HTC is also selling an unlocked version of the phone directly for $649.
So what's the new One actually like to use -- and has HTC done enough to make it worth buying? After using it as my main phone for the past several days, here's what I've discovered.
Body and display
Let's get one thing out of the way first: Yes, the One M9 looks a lot like its predecessor. But aside from people who spend their time studying smartphones, who really cares?
It's easy to get caught up in the tech-blog bubble that tells us every new device needs to reinvent the wheel and introduce a dazzling new design. The truth, though, is that last year's One (M8) was a spectacularly well-designed phone that's held up remarkably well over time -- and while refining something that works may not excite pundits, it's not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to real-world usage.
I realized that quickly when I took my M9 review unit out of its box last month: Familiar as it may be, the new One shows a level of sophistication and attention to detail that few other electronics can match. This is one thoughtfully designed phone, and the changes from last year's flagship -- while undeniably subtle -- add up to make a meaningful difference in what the device is like to use.
To wit: The One M9 is a touch shorter and narrower than last year's M8, at 5.7 x 2.7 x 0.38 in. and 5.5 oz. Factor in a less slippery finish on its back and a newly added "lip" along its perimeter, and the phone is significantly more comfortable to hold than its predecessor. At last, the One no longer feels awkwardly tall or annoyingly slippery. The improvement is evident from the moment you pick up the new device.
The M9's all-aluminum exterior gives it a classy, luxurious look -- and a premium feel to match. The smooth metal is a pleasure to run your fingers over and feel against your hand, and the phone's gently curved back makes it fit naturally into your palm (unlike the flat nature of glass-backed devices, which look nice but are never terribly ergonomic). HTC calls it a "jewelry-grade" material, and it really does seem precious.
The phone's power button, meanwhile, has moved from its top edge -- where it was always awkwardly out of reach on previous One models -- to the device's right side, which should be a far more user-friendly location.
Note that I said "should be." The issue is that the One's power button now sits directly beneath the volume buttons -- and since all three buttons are roughly the same size and shape, it's tough to tell which is which by touch alone. (The power button does have a slight texture to it, but it's not pronounced enough to be immediately obvious.) The buttons are also frustratingly recessed into the device, which makes it tricky to find them with your fingers.
After several days, I've been able to more or less get used to the setup and remember where each button resides, but it's still anything but ideal -- such a simple thing to get wrong on an otherwise artfully designed device. On the plus side, HTC has built some gestures into the phone that can help you get around having to use the power button much of the time: You can double-tap the screen to turn it on, for instance (though not to turn it off, unless you're on the lock screen), or swipe up on the screen to power it up and unlock it in one fell swoop.
Speaking of the screen, the One M9 has a 5-in. 1080p LCD panel that looks great indoors and out, with sharp detail, rich colors and ample brightness. It's an excellent demonstration of the fact that, for most practical purposes, Quad HD resolution on a screen this size really isn't necessary and doesn't add anything to the user experience.
One thing the M9 has that does add to the user experience is its superb set of front-facing stereo speakers, known as BoomSound. The dual speakers sound loud, crisp and full, and make the experience of watching videos or listening to music on the device a noticeable cut above the rest.
It's worth noting that along with the One's top-notch hardware comes a new "Uh Oh" protection plan that entitles you to one free full phone replacement if you get any screen cracks or water damage within your first year of ownership. HTC will also swap your phone out once during that same period if you decide to switch carriers -- and if you don't take advantage of either of those offers, the company will give you a $100 credit toward the purchase of a future HTC One phone if you want it down the road.
Performance, storage and stamina
The One M9 runs on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 octa-core processor along with 3GB of RAM. As has been the case with other recent HTC flagships, performance isn't something you'll have to worry about: The M9 is consistently smooth and snappy, and I've yet to experience even the slightest bit of lag anywhere in the system.
Some reports leading up to the M9's launch suggested heat might be a problem with this phone. I've felt the device get somewhat warm during especially intensive usage, but it's never been particularly bothersome or alarming.
Battery life on the M9 is best described as passable. With moderate use, the phone should be able to get you from morning to night most of the time -- but if you tend to use your device a lot during the day, you might see that dreaded "low power" warning before you reach bedtime. I've safely made it through most days with three to four hours of mixed-use screen-on time, but I've often cut it closer than I'd like. The One does not support wireless charging. And the phone's battery is not removable.
The M9 does support Quick Charge 2.0, which allows you to boost your phone's battery by as much as 60% with just half an hour of being plugged in. There's just one caveat: The charger HTC ships with the phone isn't Quick Charge-enabled, so if you want to take advantage of the accelerated charging, you'll have to buy your own Quick Charge accessory. You can find off-brand Qualcomm-certified chargers for as little as $15 on Amazon, but it's still pretty lame that HTC doesn't just give you one with a $650 phone.
How about storage? The M9 comes with 32GB of internal space, of which about 22GB is available to use after factoring in the operating system and various preinstalled applications. The phone also has a micro SD card slot that lets you add up to 2TB of additional space (theoretically, at least -- cards that large aren't yet readily available, but anything smaller will work as well). And on top of that, it comes with 100GB of cloud-based Google Drive storage for two years -- a $48 value.
Call quality on my T-Mobile-connected review unit has been fine: Voices are loud, clear and easy to understand, and those with whom I've spoken have reported no trouble hearing me. Data speeds over T-Mobile's LTE network have also been A-OK and in line with what I typically see from that network in my area.
Perhaps the biggest criticism of HTC's previous One devices revolved around the phones' cameras: While the UltraPixel system present in the past two flagship phones worked wonders when it came to capturing light, it was less versatile than other smartphone shooters, and its low resolution made images less flexible for editing.
HTC has attempted to answer those complaints by equipping the new One with a 20-megapixel primary camera, and the results -- well, they're mixed. The M9's camera is more versatile than the UltraPixel shooter of yore, and its images are significantly larger, which makes them easier to edit.
Their quality, however, is just okay. Shots often look a bit muddied, details aren't always as crystal-clear as they could be and low-light performance is nothing to write home about. The camera also struggles to capture moving objects without adding in a fair amount of motion blur.
(Want to see for yourself? Check out my One M9-Galaxy S6 camera shootout for a variety of samples and side-by-side comparisons.)
Depending on how important photo quality is to you, the M9's camera may be good enough -- which is still the best you can hope for with many Android devices these days. Especially with a little post-capture processing (or even just some help from Google's Auto Enhance feature), most of the phone's images can look perfectly decent and be fine for online sharing or even printing. If you have a discerning eye and are expecting consistently great-looking photos, though, you're going to be disappointed.
On the plus side, the One snaps photos practically instantaneously, with virtually no detectable shutter delay between shots. It also allows you to hold down the shutter button to take a series of rapid-fire photos and then save only the best picture from the bunch.
HTC's camera app remains relatively simple and easy to use, too, with only the basics on screen by default and more advanced options tucked away in menus if you want them. The companion HTC Photo Editor app has a wide range of filters, effects and editing tools for enhancing your images, while a third app called Zoe (a term that's meant several different things on HTC phones over the years) makes it easy to create compilation videos from your camera collection. Zoe is also now the name for a silly HTC-run social network to which the app pushes you to publish your videos -- a mildly annoying and utterly pointless touch, but one that's easy enough to ignore.
The One's camera captures video at 1080p by default and can go all the way up to 4K resolution. The phone's front-facing camera, meanwhile, is the aforementioned UltraPixel camera that used to serve as the One's main shooter. It continues to offer the advantage of unusually good low-light performance -- so if you plan on taking lots of selfies in the dark, you're in luck. It can also capture video up to 1080p in quality.
The One M9 runs HTC's custom Sense software atop Google's Android 5.0.2 Lollipop operating system. HTC's user interface has long been one of the more polished and palatable manufacturer-modified versions of Android, and its presentation on the new One is very much in line with the company's recent past efforts.
That being said, I can't help but feel that HTC's UI is starting to seem just a teensy bit stale compared to the fresh and modern design introduced in Google's base Lollipop OS. It's the old case of change for the sake of change -- and as the base Android OS gets more and more visually compelling, it gets increasingly difficult to justify the benefit of sticking with an arbitrarily different alternative.
HTC does, at least, offer options in some areas. For instance, while the grid-based design of HTC's app-switching interface feels dated and clunky next to Lollipop's more elegant card-based layout -- and is oddly glitchy, too, with apps sometimes flickering briefly when you switch between them -- HTC provides the ability to ditch its approach and go with Google's instead.
Similarly, HTC's app drawer defaults to sorting apps in a somewhat random order, with lots of icons hidden in folders that aren't always obvious. You can switch to a more logical alphabetical approach, which makes things immensely easier to find, but only if you go out of your way to track down and toggle that setting. It's nice that such choices exist, but you shouldn't have to work to get a good user experience; excellence should be the standard everyone sees out of the box.
Still, the M9's software is generally tasteful and cohesive. And basic UI aside, HTC has added in some nice features, like a new advanced theming center that makes it fun and easy to tweak the look of your phone's environment. You can browse through dozens of options for changing things like icons, fonts and the style of system-level elements. You can even have the phone create a theme on demand to match any photo or image you want as your wallpaper, with complementary colors and icons throughout the system.
The M9 also allows you to change the order of the main Android navigation buttons, if you get the urge. You can even add a fourth button into the mix, though the usefulness of that is debatable. (The options for an additional button include shortcuts for turning off the screen, opening the notification panel, hiding the navigation bar, opening the Quick Settings panel and toggling the phone's auto-rotate feature.)
More useful is the ability to customize what functions appear in the One's Quick Settings panel. That capability allows you to fill the menu with things you actually need and eliminate those you don't frequently use.
BlinkFeed -- HTC's Flipboard-like news-reading panel that lives at the left side of the home screen -- is also back on the M9. I find I rather enjoy flipping over to it and scrolling through stories when I have a few minutes to kill, but you can always remove it if you don't agree. The same goes for HTC's new home screen widget, which attempts (with varying degrees of success) to predict what apps you might want to use based on whether you're at home, at work or out and about (and also offers some questionable suggestions for new app downloads).
The One M9 has an Easy Mode, too, which simplifies the home screen to a small series of large buttons. I could definitely see that being valuable for less savvy smartphone users -- though somewhat ironically, the option to enable Easy Mode is buried in the system settings and difficult to find.
Last but not least, the M9 has a smattering of bloatware, though less than what I saw on the T-Mobile version of the Galaxy S6. Most of it can be disabled and hidden from view but not completely uninstalled.
With years of refinement, HTC has managed to create one of the world's most beautifully designed and well-built smartphones. The One M9 is truly a luxurious object, and its exceptional form alone is enough to make it worth considering. Factor in its excellent display, best-in-class speakers and accompanying perks like HTC's free phone replacement plan, and the M9 has some very compelling qualities.
As impressive as those elements are, however, other parts of the phone leave something to be desired. Despite all the fine-tuning from year to year, the device's camera is still just okay. Battery life is similarly so-so, and the power and volume buttons are bafflingly difficult to find by touch alone.
Ultimately, no phone is perfect -- and it all comes down to what strengths and compromises make the most sense for you. If you want the best possible camera or the longest possible battery life, the M9 isn't going to meet your needs. But if you can live with a phone that's decidedly average in those regards, HTC's new One will give you an experience that's delightfully extraordinary in others.