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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The HTC One M9...refined, refocused, remarkable

The One M8 was HTC's flagship phone for 2014 and a huge design win.  It officially positioned them among the ranks of top smartphone providers, especially for those who had overlooked the magnificent M7.  Rather than implementing a complete design overhaul for the new M9, as expected despite the praise given for the M8, HTC chose a strategy based more on refinement and refocusing by keeping what worked well and making improvements as needed.  Here's a brief summary of the key specs of the new HTC One M9, followed by my detailed review with personal insight into why I highly recommend this device for any smartphone user.  Allow me to preface my review by clarifying that I am not reviewing the M9 based on how it compares to anything else; my feedback is directly tied to the user experience it provides.

Device specifications (simplified summary):
Size: 144.6 x 69.7 x 9.61 mm
Weight: 157g
Battery: 2840 mAh
Chassis: Dual-tone metal unibody
Display: Super LCD3 5.0" 1080p, 441ppi, Corning Gorilla Glass 4
Performance: Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 octa-core CPU with 3GB RAM
Storage: 32GB (21GB available); microSD expansion up to 2TB
Audio: HTC BoomSound dual front-facing stereo speakers, Dolby audio profile
Software: Android 5.0.2 Lollipop with HTC Sense 7.0
Camera: Primary 20MP, dual led flash, autofocus with 4K video; Front 4MP with 1080p video

HTC obviously focused a lot of attention in regards to design based on how this device feels in the hand in addition to overall appearance, which exudes premium quality with its two-tone metal unibody design.  The gold on silver model has a platinum finish on the back, with a jewelry-like quality to it and a brushed metal look with a gold-colored band around the edge; the gunmetal option is less "two-tone" and more of an overall charcoal gray.  The outer band, which houses the physical buttons, distinctly separates the front and back.  The nanoSIM tray sits alone on the top left edge of the phone and the physical buttons all rest on the right edge of the phone below the microSD slot.  There are separate volume up/down buttons and a power/lock button with an etched design to help distinguish it by feel.  The phone definitely has some weight to it, but this won't come as a surprise to anyone coming from its predecessors or many of the other flagship phones released in the last few years.  While I wish HTC had ditched the logo bar across the bottom of the display which once housed the capacitive touch navigation buttons, I’m still very pleased with the look and feel of the M9 and I think HTC proudly stands on its own by keeping their identity with a uniquely high-end aesthetic.

Just as HTC did not cave in to pressure for a more thorough overhaul of an already winning design, they also kept the trusty 1080p screen while many others are going quadHD.  Personally, if for no other reason than battery life or practicality, I find it pointless for any portable media device to have resolution greater than 1080p.  This is a stunning 5" full HD screen with remarkable clarity and very good color reproduction.  Text is sharp and detailed so people who enjoy using Blinkfeed to its full potential for reading material are in good hands; YouTube addicts should be very pleased as well.  The screen sits beneath Gorilla Glass 4, which provides ample resistance to scratching and damage from normal usage.  If that's not enough peace of mind, HTC offers 1 year of Uh Oh replacement protection (see below for further information).  Considering the vast availability of screen protectors and cases that provide an extra sense of security, without impeding on the magnificent design, I still recommend a small investment towards protection (especially for those with a loose grip).

While many users rely on earphones for audio/visual media with their phones and tablets, HTC remains in a league of their own with BoomSound.  A pair of front-facing speakers, powered by Dolby Audio, creates an unparalleled and immersive experience that isn't far off the mark from many Bluetooth external speakers.  BoomSound is like a home theater's center channel speaker that makes all media very enjoyable on the M9 when using it without earphones.  The Dolby enhancement feature offers some options based on what type of earphones you’re using, or for listening through the integrated speakers there are two sound modes, Music and Theater, with Theater basically simulating a "surround" effect.  I typically leave mine on Music as the Theater effect usually makes the audio sound a bit "hollow", however gaming apps and movies tend to benefit from it.

The camera was the one universally disappointing feature of the M9’s predecessor(s), and HTC definitely took that into consideration.  They moved the UltraPixel technology to the front-facing selfie shooter and upgraded the primary camera to a straight 20MP shooter with 4K video recording, dual LED flash and autofocus.  I'm not a selfie addict but I've taken a couple of pics just to test out the front camera and the pics are very good, but the real victory is the improvement to the main shooter.  Pics are sharp and detailed; I've taken a variety of pics in bright settings and low light and I think HTC’s efforts have made significant improvement through the hardware changes.  Beyond the hardware upgrade, the software allows you to change a variety of settings and even create a custom shooter based on your preferences.  With this level of control, the only disappointment should come from users who don't understand how to use the settings to optimize the main camera’s performance.  I'll admit that the strength of the camera is the last priority for me when purchasing a smartphone, but even when judging harshly I’m very impressed with the detail and quality in pics taken with the M9.

Obviously, battery life will depend greatly on your typical usage habits.  The bulk of my usage is tied to music listening, which is fairly gentle on battery use, followed by occasional YouTube viewing, social media and gaming, then calls/texts.  So far with normal use I've gotten mostly through the day but I do plug my phone in on my commute home (~40 minutes) to help recover a decent amount of battery life for the rest of the evening.  I have made a few tweaks to help it along though, such as conserving CPU power in the Power Saving mode, which is always on, and turning off animations (Developer Options/Advanced).  Neither setting will cause a noticeable lag in performance.  I also never leave Wifi/GPS/Bluetooth on, only as needed.  Let's face it…with the release of each new generation of flagship devices, we become more tethered to our phones than ever before.  The need to be constantly connected demands better battery life but it also requires some common sense.  A micro-USB charge/sync cable, with or without an extra wall adapter, is very inexpensive and can be used whether you’re stationary at work (desk) or mobile (car).  For heavy users, the variety of charging options available exists to help you get through the day so it’s up to you to take advantage of them rather than live off the limitations of your device’s battery capacity.

HTC uses Sense UI to optimize the user experience, and the new Sense7 with Sense Home and HTC Themes allows for a more seamless customization process than ever before.  The themes app is an all-inclusive design center which puts the user in control of wallpapers, icons and fonts and a gallery of user-published themes incorporating those elements as an all-in-one makeover option.  Blinkfeed remains HTC’s answer to the popular third-party news readers available from the Play Store, offering a very intuitive layout that incorporates all of your social media as well as a vast selection of news/media outlets and your favorite RSS feeds.  It took me a while to appreciate Blinkfeed and Sense UI, as I’m a bit of an Android purist, but once I did a little research and explored some handy tips/tricks tutorials, I’ve embraced all that HTC’s Sense offers, especially the Themes interface.  A new feature that’s also available for M7/M8 users is Sense Home, which offers location-based suggestions for most frequently used apps.  Once you provide your home and work locations, a Sense Home widget will change the apps shown based on your current location.

In addition to everything the M9 has to offer, you get HTC’s new Uh Oh protection, which provides free replacement coverage for the first 12 months of ownership, or $100 towards your next phone if you don’t use it.  Additionally, HTC is working diligently to close the gap in the software update process and they’re the most transparent OEM in terms of communication and customer relations, at least from my personal observations and interactions.

I’ve had phones from Samsung and LG (and an iPhone) before my previous phone, the HTC One M7.  In my humble and honest opinion, the One M9 is not only the absolute best phone I’ve ever used, but virtually impossible to beat for all that it (and HTC) offers.  This is the first time since being a smartphone user that I have a device with every feature and quality I’ve wanted or seen out of every phone available.  Does it have the best resolution or highest pixel density of any device available?  No, but what it does have is a stunning display that will never leave you wanting more and that doesn’t drain your battery for the sake of having eye-catching specs.  Does it have the BEST camera of any phone out there?  No, but it takes excellent pictures, and allows enough user control that even the most demanding users can tune it to take stunning photographs far beyond what the default settings are capable of.  Does it have the best sound quality?  ABSOLUTELY, and that’s the undisputed truth across every review of today’s hottest flagship devices.  Does HTC support their devices better than other Android OEM’s?  With Uh Oh Protection and impressive social media presence, I believe so!  I’ve watched Apple and Samsung battle each other for years, borrowing design elements from each other (or others).  I’ve seen Apple lose its identity and sell-out to win over Android users with screen size and a thinner all-metal profile, while Samsung has now adopted the metal and glass look of the iPhone6’s predecessors.  I’ve seen the way Apple and Samsung use slick advertising to entice the crowds and push sales, while HTC relies on the quality of their products and the support of their fans to help spread the word about the level of quality they admire from HTC’s lineup as well as the support they receive.

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