2015ís batch of Android flagship includes formidable competitors like the Samsung Galaxy S6 and the LG G4. So, it should be interesting to see how well HTCís latest flagship the One M9, measures up.
The M9 I'm testing is running on TELUS' LTE network.
vs HTC One M8:
The specs indicate that the M9 is a substantial step up from the M8. You get a 64 bit processor with more RAM. The camera resolution and sensor size have been given a big bump so its numbers are all now class leading. Battery capacity has also increased.
However, while the individual parts are good, the execution leaves something to be desired. Thereís a saying that something is ďmore than the sum of its partsĒ, unfortunately the opposite is true of the M9; Itís less than the sum of its parts.
I get the feeling that the M9 would have been better if they had put a slower processor in with a smaller camera sensor with less megapixels.
HTC stuffed a Snapdragon 810 SoC into the M9 and as it turns out, this really affects everything. Battery life, performance and even the camera all suffer because of the 810.
If you already have a M8 youíre not really missing out on anything with the M9.
vs Samsung Galaxy S6/S6 Edge:
Aside from price, the only advantage the M9 has over the S6 is that it comes with a MicroSD card slot and to a much lesser extent, the battery life is better. Or to put it more accurately; the battery life sucks less.
The S6 pair is faster, itís louder, itís better as a phone, the camera blows the M9ís out of the water, you get the idea.
Thereís no reason to pick the M9 over the S6.
vs LG G4:
I like the G4 even more than the GS6 so itís no surprise; unless you must have a metal body thatís been glue together or you absolutely positively must have HTC Zoe and Blinkfeed, stick with the G4.
- 5Ē 1920x1080 Super LCD 3 display, 441PPI
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 SoC (4 x 64bit Cortex A57 @ 2Ghz + 4x 64bit Cortext A53 @ Ghz)
- 3GB RAM
- 32GB Storage (~22GB Available)
- 2840mAh battery
- Android 5.0
- 20 megapixel rear camera with 1/2.4Ē sensor with autofocus and dual tone LED flash
- f/2.2 lens, 28mm equivalent
- 4 megapixel ďUltrapixelĒ front-facing camera
- 144.6 x 69.7 x 9.61mm
At a glance, the M9ís body is identical to the M8ís but there are 2 big changes.
First off, the back feels different. The M8 had a very thick clear coat which, if Iím honest, made it feel cheap and slippery. The M9ís is much more matte and feels a bit more expensive.
The other is that the power button has migrated to the right side of the phone. The M7, M8 (and their predecessors) all had their power buttons located on the top. When phones werenít that large, a top-mounted power button was perfectly fine but as the screen size grew the having it on top started to become a nuisance since many people tend to grip their phone on the lower half which made reaching for the top inconvenient. So Kudos to HTC for finally getting with the times.
While the button is conveniently placed, I wished it was just a tad stiffer. I found I hit it by accident a few times since it doesnít require much pressure to press.
I also noticed that the M9 is a bit shorter and narrower than the M8 which makes it fairly compact among its flagship competitors.
Like previous HTCís, the M9 has an off-center MicroUSB port. I get that too much symmetry is boring but having an off-center charging connector just isnít intuitive.
HTC is still using glue to stick the front and rear of the phone together. This time around, the front half is noticeable smaller than the back half. This makes assembling the M9 more forgiving since this makes small variances in alignment less noticeable.
Itís worth pointing out that since the M9 is glued together, replacing its battery is going to be quite an ordeal. This is something to think about if you plan on keeping the M9 past 2 years when the warranty expires since that's usually when people begin to notice that the battery is deteriorating.
The not-that-large 5Ē screen and curved back make the M9 a nice phone to hold. However, the curved back also means the HTC doesnít sit still on a table unless you put it face down. I mention this because mine fell off a table and sustained some minor damage.
Headphone jack, MicroUSB port
MicroSD, volume, power buttons
Nano SIM slot
The display also doesnít look all the different from the M8. Itís a 5Ē, 1920 x 1080 LCD. It looks plenty sharp to me and it doesnít bother me at all that itís not a QHD 2560x1440 display like the competition. Unless youíre going to use them as a VR headset, thereís no practical difference in sharpness between the M9ís 450ish PPI display and the 550+ PPIís on the competition.
Color is pleasant. Black levels arenít quite as deep as the LG G4 but theyíre similar to the iPhone 6 Plus.
I donít have an M8 around to compare with directly but the M9 loses a lot of brightness off-angle.
Itís similar to the G4 in this regard and really annoys the hell out of me when Iím trying to take pictures of my kids since it makes it difficult to frame shots outdoors.
HTC shook things up a little with the M8. They kept the same 4 megapixel sensor as the M7 but they added a second camera which was used to record depth. One reason why people carry around large cameras is because their large imaging sensors all their photos to have shallow depth of field. That way only your subject is in focus while the background is blurry and not distracting. Photographers call the shallow depth of field "Bokeh".
The problem with camera phones is that they have very small imaging sensors which have a very depth of field - let's just call it "Nokeh".
Since the second camera recorded depth, the information could be used to with post processing to simulate a Bokeh
It was an interesting idea but there were 2 problems; first off when I had the M8, I found that the Bokeh effect was hit and miss. Secondly, shallow depth of field wasnít a feature only reserved for a M8, you could add bokeh to pretty much any picture from any camera phone after the fact. The second camera was really just a gimmick that had questionable utility.
While the second camera was an interesting feature, it helped to hide the fact that HTC removed one of the M7ís best features; optical image stabilization. As it turned out, the OIS was one of the reasons why the M7 had better than average low-light performance.
HTC would have been better off trading the OIS for some magic beans instead of the second camera.
Personally, I was never a fan of the Ultrapixel camera. While itís true that megapixels arenít a good measurement of image quality, a lot of the time I wish my M7 had a little bit more. Further, while the M7ís decent low-light performance allowed it to take many shots you simply couldnít with other phones, I was never satisfied with the image quality. Pictures were always kind of gritty looking and the M7 tended to overexpose shots.
That said, to me, the best thing about the Ultrapixel camera was how fast it was. It was able to fire off a burst faster than any other phone.
Now we arrive at the M9 and HTC has switched gears. First off, theyíve moved the Ultrapixel camera from the rear to the front which if Iím honest, sounds like an excellent idea. While I thought that the Ultrapixel camera made a lousy rear-facing camera, its low light capabilities make it an excellent choice for a front-facing one.
Secondly - the rear camera now has a 20 megapixel, 1/2.4Ē sensor which is one of the larger sensors youíll find on a Ďregularí Smartphone.
Unfortunately, the OIS which I loved on the M7 is still missing on the M9.
So how well does all this work? Unfortunately, not well.
If youíre an M7/M8 user, youíll find the M9ís camera experience is completely different. First off, the M9 camera is slow. Iím talking shot-to-shot speeds and start up times. Unfortunately for the M9, the last 2 Android phones I reviewed were the GS6 and LG G4, which completely wipe the floor with the M9 in this regard. Thereís nothing flagship about the M9ís speed.
The lack of OIS really hurts the M9. The GS6 and G4 produce much cleaner pictures and more importantly, their pictures are usually free of any shaking from my hands.
Outdoors, when there is plenty of light, the M9 camera works fine. Color is nice and thereís plenty of detail.
Indoors, color looks fine but the M9ís pictures are very grittier looking. If you look closely, youíll notice how noisy (grainy) and splotchy they are, plus thereís almost no fine detail. It's just a hot mess.
Here's a close-up of 2 pictures from my LG G4 review. It's a crop of a shot of my family room built-in. It was taken at night time with the room lighting (a chandelier with six 25 watt equivalent LED bulbs):
Make sure you right click each image to view it at full resolution. The difference is dramatic.
While the GS6 missed the proper white balance (this doesn't usually happen), the rest of the picture is much cleaner than the One M9.
The noise is probably a result of 2 factors; first off, I suspect that the M9 is not able to keep up with the heat from the large-ish 1/2.4Ē sensor and thus canít cool it efficiently. This segues into my next point. The M9 itself puts out too much heat. A hotter sensor will have more noise. Thatís why generally speaking, longer exposures usually result in more artifacts in the picture.
I also found that I often had to take multiple shots because most of them are blurry because I couldnít hold the camera still enough. In case youíre wondering, yes, I do know how to hold a camera steady.
To make matters worse, the autofocus isnít all that great. It tends to miss completely which requires you to tap to tell it where you want it to focus.
One interesting feature is the ability to shoot in RAW mode but to be honest, it doesnít fix any of the problems I just mentioned and is more of an attempt at distraction from how awful the camera is.
Video quality isnít much better. Indoors video is really noisy and messy looking plus the lack of OIS is really noticeable.
The HTC heats up really quickly. Heat is the enemy if you want clean images. If youíre able to keep the sensor cool chances are youíll get less noise. So if youíre taking a long video, youíll notice that it actually gets noisier after a minute or 2.
Itís too bad, one by one HTC has gotten rid of what made their cameras special. First off, they got rid of OIS, then they traded the Ultrapixelís low-light performance for a messy looking sensor. Finally, they ditched all the speed of the M7 and M8ís camera for the M9ís slow camera. Donít forget that speed makes anything more intuitive so the M9ís camera isnít as easy to use.
Itís quite a stunning reversal, while I never thought the Ultrapixels were class leading, they were at least an interesting alternative. Now HTCís competitive advantage is completely gone and we just have a phone with a very unremarkable and mediocre camera.
Did HTC completely give up on the camera?
The M9 ships with Android 5.0. It comes with HTC Advantage which, in Canada, means you get: ďget the latest software updates for up to 2 years automaticallyĒ. The fact that they say ďup toĒ means that thereís the possibility you wonít get any updates at all. That's like me offering to give you up to a million dollars.
Still, if I may be less cynical, my M7 which came out 2 years ago is currently running on Android 5.0 so thereís a good chance the M9 will still be getting updates in 2017 - assuming HTC is still around of course.
Also included with HTC Advantage is 100GB of Google Drive space for 2 years (anyone think Google will give this away for free in 2 years?), HTC backup along with phone and live chat support.
Inside you get HTC Sense - itís not all that different from Sense on the M7 and M8 - just a few tweaks here and there. Since the camera is so much slower than the its predecessors HTC has de-emphasized their Zoe software and Blinkfeed - a feature which I never used can be disabled (actually I think the M8 had this too).
Hereís something interesting; HTC, which Iíve never thought of as shipping excessive amounts of bloatware, actually doesnít have a lot of free storage space out of the box compared to the competition. It ships with 32GB of storage but when you start using it only around 22GB is available. Where did all the extra space go?
Thereís still an infrared blaster at the top of the phone but unfortunately, HTC is still using Peelís completely useless infrared software. If youíve cut the cable like me, itís canít really do anything unless you subscribe to cable or something similar.
Inside is an 8 core, 64-bit Qualcomm Snapdragon 810. You get four high performance, Cortex A57 cores clocked at 2Ghz and four energy sipping A53 cores.
One problem Iíve noticed with A57 cores is that they run incredibly hot. When youíre forced to use them, they are absolutely devastating to battery life. Be it the GS6, G4 or the M9, I get the feeling that theyíre completely unready and only got pushed out the door due to competitive pressures.
Anyways, the M9 runs very hot. One time, when I was shooting some 4K video it stopped shooting and complained that it was overheating. According to my infrared thermometer the back was a toasty 115F. Yikes. Fortunately, once it hits 115F, the M9 will throttle the speed of speed and slow down so it never gets warmer than this.
Too much heat is not good for a phone because itís not good for the components and can reduce their life.
As it turns out, the M9 canít handle the heat the 810 turns out. While itís theoretically able to run at 2Ghz, it rarely goes past 1.5Ghz due to the heat. Thatís why the M9 and its supposedly faster processor is sometimes outperformed by the LG G4 and itís more pedestrian Snapdragon 808 which only has half the number of A57 cores which have a slower maximum speed.
I guess sometimes less is more. I mean the G4 has 2 cores than run at up to 1.8Ghz while the M9 has 4 cores that can hit 2Ghz.
Then again, itís harder to market a device with fewer cores so I understand why HTC decided to stuff a 810 in the M9.
Perhaps M9ís relatively compact dimensions make it a poor choice for a fiery chip like the 810. It's better suited for a larger phablet device.
If itís ďwarmed upĒ, it will sometimes stutter. Youíll really notice this when surfing the web. Sometimes the M9 appears to pause and become unresponsive. In that sense, while the M9 should be faster than its predecessor the M8, sometimes itís not.
With all this in mind, I benchmarked the M9 like I do all my phones; on my desk is my basement office.
I included its main competitors; the LG G4 and Samsung GS6 along with the Google Nexus 6 - still current but with a more modest Qualcomm Snapdragon 805 and a Samsung GS5 (Snapdragon 801 - same as the M8).
For GFX bench gaming benchmark, I ran the Manhattan test (OpenGL 3.0). Since I ran the on-screen test, the M9 and its lower resolution 1920x1080 display are at a tremendous advantage over the GS6, Nexus 6 and G4 and their Quad-HD displays.
Peacekeeper is a browsing benchmark which runs in any browser. I ran it in Chrome which is available for pretty much any Android phone. Here the M9 does well with a score that's in the same ballpark as the G4 and GS6.
Here are the Antutu scores:
I figure these scores are affected by the heat. To test this I recorded 3 more Antutu scores, one where I ran Antutu immediately after gaming for 10 minutes so that it was even hotter and the other after sitting in my freezer for 30 minutes - yes, my freezer where I store my frozen peas along with countless other forgotten foods.
When the M9 is warmed up scores actually drop around 10%. The really interesting part is that when the M9 is frozen it actually scores approx 15% higher. So I guess all you have to do to unleash the Snapdragon 810ís full potential is some Arctic Silver and a giant heatsink.
One thingís for certain, if you shake someoneís hand and find that itís all clammy, chances are they own a M9. Conversely, if you live in the Arctic and donít like to wear gloves than the M9 may be THE phone to get.
Benchmarks are great but you're probably wondering how fast the M9 is in real life.
As it turns out, when it comes to tasks like launching the camera app and Chrome it's a step behind the G4 and GS6. The difference is exasperated if you've been using it and it's warmed up.
As a Phone:
Earpiece volume is above average - itís louder than my iPhone 6 Plus. Incoming sound quality is clean.
The speakerphone volume is also above average.
RF performance is average.
Battery life varies a lot depending on how much you use the phone. The Snapdragon 810/Cortex A57 are just a death sentence to battery life. Still, the 2840mAh battery is well sized for the class - the GS6 has a puny 2550mAh while the G4 has a meaty 3000mAh. I think average users can make it through a regularly day without having to charge while power users will have to top off.
Like the M7 and M8, the M9 has stereo speakers which have very good sound quality. Still, while I didnít compare them side-by-side, I donít think there has been an improvement in terms of volume which is kind of disappointing since many of the competition have caught up in terms of sound quality and volume.
In fact, the G4 and GS6 are both noticeably more powerful than the M9 and they only sounds slightly worse. In fact, Iíd say than the M9ís maximum speaker volume is merely adequate.
This time around, the M9 comes with Dolby Audio, all this means is that it comes with a useless setting that add excessive amounts of reverb to the speakers. The first thing you want to do when you fire up the M9 is to turn it it from ďTheater modeĒ to ďMusic modeĒ. This essentially turns the Dolby setting down.
These days, HTC is mostly a one phone company. Sure, they have lower end devices like a few Desires and depending on where you live maybe a phablet but HTC is mostly about their One line. With that in mind, the M9 just isnít a big improvement from the M8 - I hate to say it but with the M9, HTC has really become irrelevant.
I mean the M8 is a decent device and while the M9 should be an improvement, in many areas, itís actually a step back.
On paper, the M9 should be a contender. Itís got all the right ingredients but unfortunately, HTC botched the recipe.
2.5 Howies out of 5.
- Metal Body
- Nice sounding speakers
- Runs hot
- Performance is hampered by heat
- Noisy (grainy) camera
- No optical image stabilization
- Battery is not removable
- Speakers are not powerful enough
- Power button is too easy to press