Evolution, not revolution. That’s clearly the plan behind the HTC One M9, which has just officially been revealed at MWC 2015. After two years of bold new designs with the One line, the Taiwanese company has set to refining last year’s One M8 for the 2015 flagship. It’s another impressive device going by the brief hands-on preview time I had with the smartphone, but you’ll have to dig a little deeper to find the biggest improvements.
Design and Specs
A 5-inch phone with a full HD display, you’d be forgiven at first glance if you saw no obvious differences between the HTC One M8 and HTC One M9. Sticking closely to the metal build of the One M8, the One M9 has a slightly more angular look and feel compared to last year’s model. While the back still has a notable curve to it, the edges of the phone are sharper and closer in style to that of the M7. While it’s not as clean a housing as that of the M9, it’s a practical change -- the M8 had a tendency to slip in your hand, whereas the One M9 is far easier to grip. The volume rocker is now split into two buttons, with the power button sensibly sitting on the edge. An IR blaster for controlling your TV and home cinema devices remains along the upper edge.
With a chassis that takes 70 steps to create, from a machine-drilled power button to an anodised rear finish, HTC says it’s taken inspiration from high-end jewellery for the M9. Mirror-polished edges give the handset a subtle two-tone look, with the One M9 set to come in three colour schemes: Gold on Gold, Gold on Silver and Gunmetal Grey on Grey.
Under the hood sits Qualcomm’s top-of-the-line, 64-bit octa-core Snapdragon 810 processor, backed up by 3GB of RAM, while there’s 32GB of storage space built in, expandable by microSD cards. That’s all happily to be expected and, from a quick whisk around the phone, just as zippy as you’d hope from a flagship, racing through homescreens, the returning BlinkFeed and the Sense 7.0 UI that sits on top of Android Lollipop.
Apps and Sense 7.0
It’s within Sense 7.0 that perhaps the most interesting additions have been made, with HTC offering deeper customisation tools and location-aware features.
For those that like tweaking the stock look and feel of Android, there’s the Themes feature. This allows you to take a photo which is then analysed by the software, before building a makeover for your phone around it.
Everything from icons to fonts to sounds can be changed on the fly in this way, with the image recognition tech intelligently creating an attractive look automatically from your chosen image. You can, of course, manually tweak each individual component as well. Themes extend to the lockscreen too, allowing for a seamless feel across the device.
While Themes is a purely aesthetic addition, the new Sense Home feature serves a more practical purpose. Building on Android’s already-stellar location awareness and IFTTT potential, Sense Home is a location-aware launcher for your home screen. Once you’ve set home and work locations, it can learn to show the apps you use most at those places in a prominent position on the homescreen. Over time you shouldn’t need to have to organise your apps at all, with the device in theory becoming capable of knowing which apps you’re most likely to need at any given moment.
The location and situational awareness features don’t stop there. Additionally, the phone will recommend apps for you based on your current activity -- the example a HTC spokesperson gave me was that the smartphone could offer up a train timetable application as you approach a station. The lockscreen will also present intelligent information based on your habits and preferences too; for example, those that cycle home from work will benefit from a prompt telling of the time of sunset, reminding them to pop their bike lights on before heading out onto the roads. It all sounds great -- my only concern would be that these situational features could become a drain on the battery.
BoomSound Speakers and Camera
Audio has been a standout point on the One line since the introduction of the front-facing BoomSound stereo speakers, and HTC has made a few improvements in this area of the One M9 too. It’s partnered with Dolby this time around to give the outputted audio (whether using the loudspeakers or headphones) a “5.1 esque feel”. You’ll have to wait until we get some quality alone time with the handset to assess this claim, as it was too noisy at the press event revealing the phone to judge the claim’s merits. What was a neat trick though was the addition of a three finger flick gesture to push songs to a Bluetooth speaker -- HTC is using the Blackfire protocol and partnering with Harmon Kardon to deliver bespoke speakers for the feature, while the BoomSound Connect application will let groups of friends queue up tracks from their individual handsets.
The true curveball (well, curveball if you’ve not been following the flood of leaks surrounding the handset) is HTC’s decision to remove its much-trumpeted Ultrapixel camera technology from the rear of the device in favour of a standard 20MP sensor. Instead, the Ultrapixel camera has been arguably relegated to the front of the device. I say “arguably”, as HTC believe it’s now the best place for the system; with the selfie craze showing no signs of abating, the low-light champion that is the Ultrapixel sensor is considered a perfect fit for narcissistic nightclub snappers.
While HTC stressed it was still finalising the performance of the rear camera, both delivered satisfyingly rich and detailed images. This will in part at least be down to HTC’s new “Dynamic Exposure” algorithm, which attempts to mimic the human eye by recreating details at multiple exposure points in the image.
With the Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 onboard, video shooters will benefit from a 4K recording option too. The benefit, however, will only be noted by those with a 4K screen, as the 1080p display in the HTC One M9 can’t do the high-resolution footage justice.
Picture editing and organising options look to be robust. As well as the clever Themes tool, you can play about with a wide array of filters and animated overlays, as well as new double exposure options and a kaleidoscopic prismatic effect (which proves particularly good for generating weird looks with the Themes feature). Coming with one year’s worth of 100GB Dropbox storage, the handset also features a “One Gallery” picture storing hub, aggregating images from both local phone sources and online albums at Dropbox, Google Drive, Flickr and Facebook. Displaying only thumbnails unless otherwise selected for offline viewing, you’ll have access to all your photos no matter where they’re stored, without taking up too much valuable storage space on your phone.
However, the quirky, interesting Duo Camera features have been dialled back now that a conventional sensor sits around the back.
Dot View Gaming Case
Finally, HTC’s updated its smart Dot View cases that debuted with the M9. As well as letting you swipe the cover to take calls and check notifications, the cases now let you do a little light gaming without exposing the screen underneath. Breaker is a block-breaking Breakout clone that uses the light shining through the case’s small perforations to let you play a motion-and-gesture based take on the classic. It’s not particularly advanced, but it’s still the most excited I’ve ever been by a case, and shows potential for more innovative uses of the revised wraps further down the line.
HTC’s also put together a handful of IP67 water resistant cases too, should you be planning on taking your handset anywhere wetter and wilder than the local high street on a rainy day.
It’s not a massive departure from what was seen in the HTC One M8, but that’s no bad thing given the pedigree that the One M9 is building on here. In my opinion, the HTC One M8 was as close to perfection as Android had come at that point, and the M9 looks as if it’s edging even closer with some sensible revisions and additions on this latest model. I’m sad to see the Duo Camera go, though undoubtedly a more straightforward camera system will be an easier sell for HTC.
The HTC One M9 goes on sale on March 31st. HTC has yet to set pricing from the handset, but expect to pay somewhere in the region of £550, SIM free. Check back soon for our full review.