HTC’s One M9: Subtle improvements, but in the end, superb

April 6, 2015, 9:00 PM UTC
HTC One M9 rose gold side
Courtesy of HTC

HTC, the embattled smartphone maker, is still struggling to find its place as it faces stiff competition from Apple and Samsung.

While the Taiwanese company recently reported better than expected sales for the first time in three years, there still hasn’t been any lasting sign of a turnaround at the company; a fact supported by a recent leadership shakeup that saw former chairwoman Cher Wang named CEO in March.

Its tumultuous history makes the release of its new flagship phone, the HTC One M9, all that more important. The phone’s release on Friday coincides with the launch of Samsung’s popular Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge.

Here’s a closer look at HTC’s new model, which is set to retail at approximately $649.

The 2015 version of the HTC One must have borrowed a page from Apple’s playbook when it comes to updating its appearance. Like Apple products of years past, the newest HTC incarnation looks nearly identical to its predecessor, the One M8. Finding an exterior difference between the two phones is far from easy—both are similar in shape, and the newer model weighs only three grams—a tenth of an ounce—less than the old one.

On the new model, you’ll find that the power button has been moved from the top of the device to just below the volume buttons. It sounds minor, but it’s a move that was long overdue, removing the awkward thumb stretching needed to reach the top of the 5-inch, high-definition screen.

The phone is now a little smaller and thinner (5.7 inches tall, 2.7 inches wide, 0.4 inches thick) but easier to handle thanks to a new “jewelry-grade” finish that makes it less slippery and therefore harder to drop. Its metal exterior is available in various shades of silver and gold.

Its rear-facing cameras have been replaced with a 20-megapixel sensor that allows for high-resolution—4K, as it’s called—video recording options. The package is complemented by HTC’s imaging software enhancements—you can now crop photos before sharing them—and its Zoe app, which allows for zoetrope-style creations. Its UltraPixel camera has been moved to the front of the phone to presumably improve low-light selfies, though it may create problems when its zoom function is used.

HTC's One M9.
HTC’s One M9.Courtesy: HTC
Courtesy: HTC

HTC’s latest One runs the latest version of Google’s mobile operating system, Android 5.0 Lollipop, which is accompanied by Sense 7, the company’s proprietary Android skin. The software enhancements translate to a better notification system, a better theme application (which is easily customizable), playful animations, and a generally minimalist interface.

For all intents and purposes, the HTC One M9 is an “s”-release—that is, an Apple-like internal upgrade that largely leaves the exterior unchanged. Still: Is it good enough to compete with its rivals?

I think so. As my first day using the phone came to an end, I was disappointed. I felt let down by the lack of a radically new design or prominent new features. The new One appeared to be everything I loved about its predecessor and nothing more. But over the course of my time with the device—just shy of a week—I’ve come to appreciate its subtlety.

The only feature HTC didn’t carry over or improve from last year’s model is its battery life. Instead of getting through an entire day on a single charge, I’ve been forced to top-up the device before heading out to dinner in the evenings. It’s possible the extra battery drain was due to T-Mobile having practically no coverage at my house (HTC didn’t make an AT&T model available), but I experienced the same battery performance when I spent the bulk of the day in an area with acceptable T-Mobile coverage.

However, one thing is clear: HTC didn’t take the last year off to do nothing. The M9 is a superb phone, though the battery life could be improved.

Do I feel this new model still lives up to last year’s label of being the “best Google Android phone on the market”? I can’t answer that until I spend some time using Samsung’s latest devices—the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge. But it’s fair to say it has a shot at the title.

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