HTC One M9

The Android Central HTC One M9 review is our collective, in-depth guide to HTC's 2015 flagship, covering everything from hardware to software to camera quality. However with a major Android device like this, it's worth presenting a second opinion.

The HTC One M9 is the latest in a line of highly successful phones for HTC. 2013's M7 and 2014's M8 were among the best Android phones available at the time, and the past two generations of HTC One hardware hold up well to this day.

There were a couple of things about last year's M8 that held me back from using it more, however: The anxiety-inducing slipperiness of the curved metal body, and the generally disappointing Ultrapixel camera.

I've been using the M9 on and off this past month, and for the most part I've found it an enjoyable phone to use — certainly HTC's best to date. However the Taiwanese company hasn't overcome all of the shortcomings of its previous flagships. And with Samsung finally upping its game in a few important areas, not to mention the prospect of another strong LG flagship on the horizon, the M9 could have its work cut out.

With that in mind, let's take another look at HTC's 2015 flagship.

The HTC One M9's hardware

HTC One M9

If you've spent any length of time with an HTC One M8, the first thing you'll notice upon picking up its successor is how completely different it feels in the hand. The M8 was elegant yet highly droppable; the M9 strikes a more pragmatic balance between looks and ease of use. The flatter sides of the metal body, combined with the new nano-coating HTC's using on the back of this thing, means it's much more secure in-hand and far less prone to slippage.

The M9 I've been using is the two-tone silver-on-gold model, and the sharp corners of the joins between silver and gold also provide a little extra purchase, in addition to visual flair. It's also worth pointing out that the gold section is nowhere near as gaudy as it might appear in some photos — in person, the effect is actually pretty subtle.

The M9 strikes a more pragmatic balance between looks and ease of use

It's true that the aluminum shell's new coating makes it feel a touch more plasticky than its forerunners, but that's a trade-off I'm willing to make. It's also supposed to help the M9 resist scratches and other minor cosmetic damage, so it'll be interesting to see whether this HTC One stands up to long-term use any better than previous models.

HTC One M9

For this year's flagship, HTC has ditched the chamfered edges in favor of a "shelf" on the phone's side where the metal unibody joins the plastic screen border. It's another design characteristic that makes the phone it easier to grip, but in my view it also makes the M9 look a little less special than the M8. The plastic portions of the M9 are more obviously plastic, whereas its predecessor did a better job of keeping them low-key. It's a very small design point, but one that stands out now that Samsung has completely done away with the polycarbonate.

Other nagging design gripes? It's way too easy to confuse the new side-mounted power key with the volume down button, even after a few weeks of using the M9. There's always Motion Launch as an alternative way to wake the phone, I suppose.

Besides that, I'm pretty happy with the M9's design overall. I'm sure I'm not the only one looking back at this leaked render and wondering what might've been ... But HTC's trademark "One" design still looks great, and the external changes made from M8 to M9 are mainly positive.

HTC can no longer boast of having the best displays in the business.

As for the display — well, that's kind of a mixed bag. The M9's 5-inch 1080p LCD is perfectly decent, and easily bright enough to use in direct sunlight. But in other areas it seems to have taken a step back from the M8, which included a screen of the same size and resolution. With an M8 and M9 side by side, the colors of the newer phone appear somewhat washed-out, while also being noticeably cooler. Maybe that's just display tuning. Whatever's causing it, though, the result is a screen that doesn't come close to reaching the high bar set by its main rival, the Galaxy S6.

In years past, HTC flagships always shipped with the very best LCD displays. With the M9, unfortunately, that's no longer the case.

Thankfully HTC hasn't ceded any ground when it comes to audio performance. While many Android phones now offer front-facing speakers, HTC's remain the best, offering an unmatched balance of clarity, bass and sheer volume. I'd question whether any of the new Dolby software tweaks make that much of a difference, however.

HTC One M9 performance and battery life

HTC One M9

And then there's the question of the M9's processor, Qualcomm's slightly controversial Snapdragon 810. So much ink has already been spilled over whether it's a flawed design, whether it overheats, how much it throttles and exactly what kind of foodstuffs you can cook by looping benchmarks on an 810-powered phone. Instead of beating that very dead horse, let's focus on what the M9 is actually like to use.

As I'd been disappointed by the performance of the LG G Flex 2, the first Snapdragon 810 phone I used, I approached the M9 with cautious optimism. Generally, I've found this phone's performance to be perfectly smooth and utterly lag-free, just as I've come to expect from HTC handsets. Is it noticeably quicker than the M8? That's hard to say, but as we approach the point of diminishing returns for smartphone performance, responsiveness from the user's perspective depends much more on software than hardware. (Or to put it another way: depending on the quality of your software, any device can seem fast or slow.)

Like a lot of high-end smartphones, the M9 can get pretty toasty with heavy use — and when used with a quick charger — but mine hasn't become noticeably hotter than the M8 I was using last year.

Qualcomm's Snapdragon 810 is powerful, but also power-hungry

More than heat or throttling, my main concern with the M9's internals has to do with battery life. Compared to the M8, you're not going to see any tangible improvement in longevity, despite the 240mAh bump in battery capacity and the use of a comparable LCD display. It seems that extra capacity is being used just to keep pace with the previous year's phones.

On the upside, though, I've found that the M9's regular (not EXTREME) power saving mode, which disables its high-powered A57 cores, can conserve a great deal of battery power with only a negligible impact on performance.

Better still, quick charging makes it easy to translate just a short time on the charger into a meaningful boost in battery level. That's why it's all the more disappointing that HTC doesn't bundle a Quick Charge 2.0 plug in the box.

How to improve your HTC One M9's battery life

Despite boasting a slightly higher-capacity battery than its predecessor, the HTC One M9 hasn't brought about a huge jump in battery life compared to the M8. There's still a lot of power-hungry hardware to run, and as such the M9 is good for about a day of use most of the time. Like most phones, more intensive use might have you reaching for your charging cable before the end of the day.

Be sure to check out our HTC One M9 battery tips for some pointers on how to make your phone last longer.

HTC Sense 7: The HTC One M9's software

HTC Blinkfeed

A lot of people, including our own Phil Nickinson, have said HTC's new Sense 7 software is more like Sense 6.5. And they're not wrong — the core experience here will be very familiar to M8 owners, especially those who've updated to Lollipop. Sense is as fast as ever, with lightning-quick app load times and a total absence of scrolling lag.

I'm still using BlinkFeed, though my attitude towards HTC's home screen reader hasn't changed all that much over the past two years — it's a nice addition to my home screen, but not something I particularly miss when switching to another phone.

Aside from a handful of icons and a new, italic clock widget, the biggest change in Sense 7 is the expansive theme engine. Themes let you completely customize just about every aspect of the way Sense looks, right down to the graphics used for on-screen keys, the style of that iconic clock widget, and the accent colors of HTC's various apps.

HTC's theme engine makes it easy to customize in a way that actually looks good.

HTC One M9 themes

Most Android phones allow UI customization of some sort — the difference is HTC's setup makes it easy to customize in a way that actually looks good. (Samsung phones are particularly guilty of offering customization at the expense of aesthetics.) With just a little bit of tweaking, the M9 lets you combine wallpapers, color schemes and icons in a way that looks unique, but not like a hodgepodge of different visual styles. There's already a ton of content waiting in the HTC Themes app — a good thing given the enormous amount of quality wallpapers and themes it brings to M9 owners, but also a slightly bad thing because it's arranged somewhat haphazardly.

So Sense isn't just Sense anymore — there's no single overarching theme that defines the M9, instead there's a smorgasbord of different toppings for the same software foundation.

If anything, the core of HTC Sense is what now needs the most attention — not necessarily a total visual overhaul, but something to bring it in line with the modern, animation-focused designs of Google, Apple and Microsoft. Historically, Sense's short animation transitions have given a sense of speed and fluidity to the UI. But as Material Design and other modern touch interfaces have shown, clear, meaningful transitions between apps, menus and windows can make a device seem more alive.

Inside themes in HTC Sense 7

One of the more exciting (yet imperfect) features on the HTC One M9 and a major part of the new Sense 7 is the use of themes. Back in the day it would take some pretty serious hackery to theme a phone. Then custom ROMs started to bake in theming. And finally the manufacturers have gotten into the game.

If you've never been into theming your phone, this is a good time to take a look.

The HTC One M9's camera

HTC One M9 camera

It's no secret that the HTC One M9 doesn't have the very best camera. Nor, unfortunately, is it entirely unexpected to fire up an HTC phone and be underwhelmed by the photos it takes. The Ultrapixel era never really delivered on its promise to trade sheer resolution for improved overall image quality, and so HTC returns with a traditional 20-megapixel smartphone shooter. As you might expect, daylight shots turn out pretty well, with a decent amount of detail. (Though HTC still lags behind the competition when it comes to dynamic range and color quality.)

The problem for HTC isn't that its camera is particularly bad, but that everyone else is starting to get really good.

Low light is where things start to fall apart, though, and when the light starts to fade, the M9 is roundly outperformed by most high-end smartphones. Low-light photos come out blotchy and noisy, to the point where they look worse than comparable shots taken on the M8's Ultrapixel camera.

There are ways to work around the M9's camera limitations, though, many of which we've detailed in our guide to taking better pictures on the device. With the right combination of skill, persistence and settings, it's possible to produce some really fantastic photos from the M9's rear shooter. The problem, however, isn't that HTC has a particularly bad camera. It is bad in some areas, sure. But the real issue for HTC is how good Samsung and Apple's cameras are this year. (And we've still yet to see what LG's been working on in the G4.)

You could spend all day setting up a perfect shot on the M9, adjusting the settings and fine-tuning your image after the fact. Chances are the Galaxy S6 will still take a better photo in auto mode. HTC has more neat artistic and photographic software features than ever this year, but they're hamstrung by the lack of a great camera to feed them. This is one of the main problems the company has to solve as it develops its next high-end smartphone.

For the moment — and for a third year running — the camera is probably the biggest reason not to buy an HTC One.

Take better photos on the HTC One M9

The M9's 20-megapixel shooter has been one of the main points of contention among HTC fans and critics since the phone's arrival. It's not a bad camera, but it does require a little tweaking in order to get the best results.

Check out some basic tips for getting the most out of your HTC One M9's camera in our M9 camera tips and tricks article.

The Bottom Line

HTC One M9

As good as the HTC One M9 is, it's ultimately yet another imperfect smartphone — and arguably a little more imperfect than the M8 was 12 months ago. As the competition hots up, Samsung addresses its longstanding weaknesses and new challengers emerge from China, HTC will have to work harder than ever to maintain its status as a tier-one manufacturer.

This year, HTC's weaknesses are perfectly aligned with Samsung's strengths.

As we've come to expect from HTC, the M9 delivers an attractive design, solid build quality, crazy good audio and the fastest software around. Most, but not all the pieces of the puzzle are in place. For me personally, the camera in its current state is the closest thing to a deal-breaker here — though it strikes me that there's probably more HTC can do to improve things through firmware updates. It's also surprising to see the company shipping a somewhat lackluster display this time around. Those two things — camera and display — make up a huge part of the smartphone experience. They're also the two points Samsung has absolutely nailed in the Galaxy S6.

It's clear what the manufacturer needs to address as it prepares the HTC smartphones of the future. But even with its imperfections, I've enjoyed using the HTC One M9. It's a solid all-rounder from a company with a strong history in design and user experience. And while it's not the home run I was hoping for, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it.

MORE: In-depth coverage in our HTC One M9 review