BARCELONA, SPAIN—Believe it or not, this is the HTC One M9. It’s nearly identical to the HTC One M8, so much so that HTC handed out the M9 with an M8 so that we could play “spot the differences.” Still, this is going to be HTC’s flagship for 2015, so it’s time to break out the magnifying glass and see what’s new.
For starters, there’s a new SoC. HTC has upgraded from a 2.3GHz Snapdragon 801 to the 2 GHz Snapdragon 810, which brings 64-bit support and a whole lot of heat—these are toasty little phones. The Adreno 330 is now an Adreno 430, and the RAM has been bumped from 2GB to 3GB.
The other big change is the rear camera: the gimmicky Duo Camera system is gone. HTC has replaced it with a conventional 20MP camera. The M8 used the two camera system to apply some Photoshop-esque effects to pictures, the headline effect of which was a fake depth of field effect. A few weeks later, the fake depth of field filter was replicated by Google, but without the need for a whole extra rear camera. The front camera is the rear camera from the M8—it’s a 4MP Ultrapixel camera. Also the lens cover has changed shape—it’s a square now.
The device is still metal, but HTC has applied a different-feeling finish to the back. It’s similar to the brushed metal look of the M8, but the finish isn’t as high-gloss as its predecessor. There’s a coating on it that makes it not as cold as bare metal but we’ve got to say among the M7, M8, and M9 we still prefer the bare-metal approach of the M7.
The oddest change is the uneven side design—imagine if the front and back of the M9 were separate pieces, but the bottom was a few millimeters bigger than the top. It looks like the M9 has a case on the back of it that stops halfway up the sides—so much so that many people at the event were trying to pull the back off.
HTC revamped the power and volume buttons, but the end result leaves a lot to be desired. first the good change: the top mounted power button is thankfully gone—Power is now an oval button on the side of the device along with the volume buttons. Now the bad part: the volume rocker was replaced with two separate oval buttons for volume up and down, so the side has a strip of three identically-shaped buttons. So while feeling your way around the side of the device, you have to ask: was the power on the top or the bottom? Is that middle button “volume up” or “volume down”? HTC tried to address this by giving the power button a concentric circle pattern, so it feels different than the other two buttons, but you still have to have a map of the buttons in your head to use the M9 by touch.
The M9 still has massive bezels for the “BoomSound” speakers, which HTC now says have “Dolby Audio.” The dimensions of 144.6mm x 69.7mm x 9.61 mm are nearly identical to the previous model, meaning it is still the bulkiest 5-inch phone you can buy. Our biggest complaint about the One M8 was the size of the bezels, and it’s the same story with the M9.
The screen is the same size (5-inches) and resolution (1080p) as the M8. The battery is a little bigger (2840mAh versus 2600mAh), and the M9 still has a Micro SD slot and an IR blaster.
HTC’s Android skin, Sense, has gotten a few new features. There’s a “Smart Launcher” which seems to be a widget of app shortcuts that changes based on your location. You can have a set of app shortcuts for home, work, and on-the-go, so, for instance, Netflix and entertainment apps could show at home, Email at work, and Maps and Yelp while you’re on-the-go.
The other major addition is a theme store. Sense has had theme support for a while, but now there’s a central, HTC-run repository of all these apps, which users can browse. Users can follow their favorite theme creators and be notified of updates and new designs, and change the look of their device whenever they want.
A flagship update on a budget?
There isn’t much to say about the One M9, but that’s because HTC hasn’t given us much to talk about. It’s an odd choice in the hyper-competitive smartphone market to change so very little from year to year, especially for the One, where design was supposed to be a selling point. When we reviewed the HTC One M8 last year, we were disappointed by the company’s lack of ambition, but this year, even less has changed.
“Don’t change was isn’t broken” is a fine slogan when you’re winning, or at least doing well in the market. Is HTC doing well, though? The company’s market share is so small that most research firms just put HTC in “other” and forget about it. Globally it has something like 2% market share, which, needless to say, puts it behind most smartphone brands you can name.
We would hope that such a low market share would light a fire under the company, and that it would fight back with radical designs and new ideas. HTC seems like it’s on autopilot though. It’s not winning the smartphone wars, and it doesn’t seem to be doing anything about it.
It’s possible that HTC (the world’s former #1 smartphone vendor) doesn’t care about market share though—the company has posted a small profit for three straight quarters now. The M9 doesn’t feel like the best possible phone HTC could make, but a phone that was updated on a shoestring budget. HTC seems to not want to rock the boat much, addressing only the M8 problems that were low-hanging fruit, like the camera system and power button placement. Spending less on flagship development will help the company’s profits in the short term, but HTC’s profits came from demand of its smartphones. If it starts turning in lackluster updates, that demand might dry up.