Just before this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona kicks off in earnest, HTC let us have a hands-on preview of its latest flagship – the One M9. In short, the new model can be described as an advanced One (M8): Just about all of the major gripes regarding that handset have been addressed in some way. Indeed, the One M9 looks almost identical to the M8 (and thus the One M7 as well), but it includes notable improvements in its cameras, button placement, audio playback, and display, all of which is aided by a general specs boost.
More specifically, the HTC One M9 comes with a5-inch, 1080p Super LCD 3 display that’s covered in Gorilla Glass 4. It’s powered by Qualcomm’s new Snapdragon 810 chipset, and includes a couple of quad cores – one running a 2 GHz clock and the other running a 1.5 GHz clock. It also features an Adreno 430 GPU and 3 GB of RAM, alongside 32 GB of storage, which can be expanded with microSD cards.
The most significant upgrades here are in the cameras, which were the primary source of complaints with last year’s model. The One (M8)’s controversial UltraPixel camera offered great results in poor lighting conditions, but had an extraordinarily low resolution for a flagship at just 4 megapixels. Market trends today hint that that kind of unit would be ideal for a selfie camera, so HTC’s done the sensible thing and moved it to the front. The cam didn’t feel too different in our demo, but given the improving yet still abysmal state of front-facing smartphone shooters, it should still take some of the best selfies on the market.
The rear-facing shooter, meanwhile, has received a huge resolution boost, as it’s now powered by a 20.7-megapixel sensor. We can’t make too many declarations given our limited test time, but having five times the resolution as before should make for some step forward – although low-light performance will be something to monitor without the UltraPixel tech in tow. Still, camera quality has been the One line’s only major Achilles’ heel, and it’s good to see HTC finally address it in earnest.
From afar the new One looks almost identical to its already good-looking predecessors, but it becomes clear that the M9 feels even more premium when held in the hand. We tried a silver model accented by gold metal edges, and despite the differences in color and texture of the two sides, the whole device is constructed in a unibody frame. This particular craftsmanship, combined with slightly slimmer front bezels and the kind rigidity we’ve come to expect from this line, suggests that the One should continue to have one of the highest-quality builds of any Android device this year.
Other slight but noteworthy improvements include the power key moving from the top to a much more natural position on the right edge, and a new coat of glass that covers the IR blaster, antennas, and sensors on the upper side of the phone. Interestingly, the phone is a millimeter shorter and narrower than its predecessor as well.
It does seem a little heavier in the hand, but not significantly so, which is impressive given that HTC has installed a larger 2900 mAh battery within the device. (By comparison, the One (M8) featured a 2600 mAh pack.) Paired with a new chipset, updated software, and the same display res as last year’s model, it’s probably safe to assume that the One M9 will last a little longer than before.
It should also run smoothly, as you’d expect from a phone with the newest Snapdragon chipset and the latest version of Android (version 5.0.1) and HTC’s Sense UI skin (version 7.0). As the chipset supports LTE Cat 6, there should be less lagging when connecting to a carrier’s network as well. Either way, the device was exceptionally swift and responsive in our time with it, so there should continue to be few concerns there. Audio playback has also improved, with HTC’s trademark BoomSound speakers now aided by Dolby technology.
The upgrades to the One M9’s display are particularly interesting. On paper, it’s practically the same panel we saw last year, with a pixel density of 441 ppi, but some improvement is clearly visible in practice. Last year’s HTC flagship had some minor issues staying completely sharp during animations or anything other than static images, and occasionally there’d be some flickering when text was moved up or down. Now, though, this unpleasant effect appears to be gone, keeping the display exceptionally sharp on a more consistent basis.
As for the rest of the screen, it still seems to have solid contrast, wide viewing angles, and very bright white tones, but not entirely dark black tones. The latter isn’t too significant of a distraction, though – some will prefer the fuller colors of an OLED panel, but the not-as-intense LCD display here could at least be less straining on the eyes.
Finally, the HTC One M9 has also had a software facelift. As mentioned above, it comes with the newest version Android underneath the latest Sense UI from HTC. For the most part, there’s little difference between this UI and the one from the M8 outside of a handful of minor yet practical updates. One of the most useful is the ability to hide the display’s capacitive keys with a quick swipe upwards, allowing users to finally get the most out of the available screen space.
Based on our short while with it, we feel confident saying that the HTC One M9 is something like a perfected One (M8), an evolutionary progression aimed at improving an already successful formula. It may not be terribly exciting, but it’s still high-quality all the same. It will be available in markets throughout the world this month.