Monday, 9 March 2015

HTC One M9: The devil is in the details (hands-on)

HTC One M9: The devil is in the details (hands-on)

The HTC One M9 has probably been the most leaked handset in recent history, but it isn't until you have this device in your hand that you can appreciate the quality it brings with it.
HTC's aim with the new M9 was to address the weaknesses of the One M8, rather than going back to scratch and coming up with something entirely new. While Samsung might be undergoing that process of reinventing the SGS6, HTC is coming from a position of design strength. And that's exactly what the HTC One M9 hangs on to.

Exquisite build

HTC's design has been impressive for a number of years and the One M9 really takes the best of the M7's profile and applies it to the full metal body of the M8. This is the better of both devices, a best of both worlds.
In one sense, the tight zero-gap construction remains, but HTC has now looked to other luxury products for inspiration. The watch industry has played its part in industrial design inspiration and there's a lot in the fit and finish of the M9 that's more like a luxury watch than a smartphone.
The M8, despite the metal unibody, hung on to a plastic display surround, which is now gone. So too are the plastic covers that housed the BoomSound speakers. Now there's a tight metal front piece that meets the metal back. 
The finish is interesting too. Again harking to the watch industry, you can have anodised, dual tone finishes, allowing two colours to be used together seamlessly. The model we got our hands on was silver, trimmed with gold edges, but it's the same piece of metal, there are no unsightly joins or seams. 
The other colours are gunmetal grey, gold, and pink and gold. Gold is very much on trend at the moment and the quality of finish should win a lot of fans.
HTC One M9 preview
It's through that attention to detail that the M9 elevates itself as a new device. At first glance it's similar to the M8, but in the hand, it feels like something greater, a true successor. 
Those who found the M8 a little slippery will be relieved that the M9 now affords better grip, thanks to the profile of the edge. It might be a little sharp even, but it feels tighter and better in all respects. 
Across the back, the profile is very much as it was before, so it sits nicely in the hand. The dimensions are similar to the previous handset, at 144.6 x 69.7 x 9.61mm. It weighs 157g, so there's a reassuring heft to it.
HTC One M9 preview
HTC has shifted the buttons around on the M9. The power button is now on the side, rather than on the top. This means that you no longer have to reach to the top to hit that button, but we found it a little too low down. It's in the centre of the right-hand side, but we feel it could be a little higher to make it slightly easier to hit.
We suspect the power button has been pushed down slightly because there's one of the card trays at the top too. We can't help feeling that the card trays should have both been on the left, leaving more space for the power and volume.

Upgrading the internal hardware

Stepping beyond the exterior aesthetics, the HTC One M9 comes with the latest 64-bit 2.0GHz octo-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 chipset. There's 3GB of RAM and from the time we've spent with the phone so far, it's been slick and fast in operation. There's a very definite snap to Lollipop and Sense 7, showing a distinct step forward over the M8.
We might have found the LG G Flex 2 wasn't a step forward, but the HTC One M9 feels like a better showcase of Qualcomm's new hardware.
HTC One M9 preview
There's 32GB of internal storage, expandable via microSD, giving you plenty of space. Naturally you get all the connectivity you'd expect of a flagship smartphone, wrapped in that IPX3 protected body.
HTC doesn't shout about weatherproofing, but IPX3 means that it's fine when it gets rained on. It's just not comprehensively designed to be dunked in water like the Sony Xperia Z3, but you don't need to worry about glancing at Google Maps when it's raining.

Display stays realistic

Although there are internal hardware updates, many will be interested in the display changes, or lack of them. HTC has stuck to 5-inches, which we think is the right decision, meaning that this phone isn't expanding just to keep up with rivals.
Where we've seen others ramping up the size and the resolution, HTC has stuck to 5-inches, 1920 x 1080 pixels, 440ppi. Some will undoubtedly dismiss this as not being progressive enough, but at this size, we think it is the right decision.
HTC One M9 preview
HTC has used some great displays on it's devices over the past few years, sticking to LCD panels, offering realism over the aggressively saturated look of some rivals. The M9 is full of colour, but the tone looks a little greener than the M8, although this might change before the handset comes to market.
It still has great viewing angles and that visual pop that you'd expect from a good quality display.

Sense 7 brings a few new treats

HTC Sense is now in its seventh iteration, and with it comes a focus on personalisation. You might think that HTC has been the master of personalisation dating back to the HTC Hero, but the new Themes turns that on its head. 
Sense 7 will let you quickly and easily customise just about every element of the homescreen environment. There are pre-set themes to download, you can create your own theme from a photo you take, as well as go through and tweak everything from the shape of the icons or the highlight colours, to the colour of the keyboard.
HTC One M9 preview
If you get bored of the look of your phone and don't want to switch launchers, Themes gives you an easy way out. You can also now change the control buttons from the normal back, home, recent apps, with the option to add in another - like notifications or display off. That's something that LG has been doing for a while, and it's likely to be popular for HTC.
Aside from Themes, Sense 7 looks to enhance BlinkFeed further and take over your lock screen, bubbling up information that you'll need. Meal suggestions recommend places you might like to go and have lunch, for example.
Another area where HTC wants to take over your phone is on the home screen, with a widget that will change your apps based on your location and what you're doing. Rather like the Cover app, it learns your pattern of use, offering three sections for home, work or when you're just out and about.
HTC One M9 preview 
There's an unfortunate "recommendations" folder here too that aims to draw your attention to new apps, but you can customise what you see, or completely remove this widget. 
There are some other changes across Sense, changes to Zoe and the Gallery - with lots of editing options - as well as some changes to the camera which we will talk about shortly.
HTC One M9 preview 
Overall, the step to Sense 7 is a series of refinements, rather than a huge reworking. It sits over Android 5.0 Lollipop, and as we've come to expect from Sense, it was slick and fast to use. 

Dolby BoomSound

HTC has kept the BoomSound speakers on the M9, this time partnering with Dolby to enhance the audio offering. There's now a "theater" mode, which widens the sound stage to make your movies more immersive. The results are good from the mode, adding a noticeable separation.
There's then a music mode too, which flattens things out again for better delivery. As before, the BoomSound speakers sound excellent, offering some really good quality audio.
HTC is also making a play for multiroom audio, adding support for more wireless speaker systems into HTC Connect. Using the three finger gesture, you'll be able to throw your music to AllPlay speakers. We haven't seen this in action, so don't know exactly how the implementation will work, but it's another string to the M9's bow.

Cameras: All change

Sticking to the theme of fixing problems that the M8 encountered, the M9 has a switch around in the cameras. 
There's now a 20-megapixel rear camera with f/2.2 lens, sitting under a sapphire glass cover. The front camera is HTC's UltraPixel camera that used to be its rear camera.
Talking about the front camera first, this is a smart move. UltraPixel is capable in low light and has enough resolution for the sort of job you're asking of it - which is a win for good quality selfies.
The rear camera offers 4K video capture now, as well as having plenty of resolution. The camera app is pretty much the same as previous editions, so most things are easy enough to find, and you still have manual settings if you want them. There's no auto HDR, which we find a little irritating, as you still have to dig it out and hit the button.
But there are other changes afoot for the camera, including future options that will let you be able to capture raw and jpeg, meaning more advanced users will then be able post-process those raw files for better results. In the future HTC plans to launch a camera store to make it easy to add new features, but we're yet to see how this will be integrated.
HTC One M9 preview
When we used the camera, the software wasn't final, so we can't pass any judgments on it at this time: we'll have to wait for a final review unit.

First impressions

The HTC One M9 really excels in design. It's taken the M8 - a phone that we really liked - and made improvements to the fit and finish that really make a difference when you have this phone in your hand. 
It isn't a huge change from before, however, and the software experience is very much as it was, so in many ways, this is HTC sticking to familiar territory. If you're an M8 owner then you might be tempted to hold off - Sense 7 will probably be coming to your device anyway and there isn't a huge step change delivered by the M9. For those with an M7 the design improvements will be immediately noticeable.
For some, however, it might look as though HTC hasn't changed enough about the HTC One and with the Samsung Galaxy S6 launching on the same day, this great handset finds itself pitched straight into adversity.
We will bring you our full HTC One M9 review as soon as we can. The HTC One M9 pricing hasn't been announced, but it's expected to be similar to the M8. It will be hitting shelves at the end of March.
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