The third generation One smartphone from HTC has gone on sale in Australia. Changes include a camera that has jumped five-fold in size to 20-megapixels, support for more LTE bands and a meticulous approach to smartphone design.
But are these changes enough to make the M9 the phone of choice in a market where the competition from Apple, Sony and Samsung is savage?
Metal is liberally used for the body of the M9. The fine hairline finish returns and the plastic composite insets — needed for reception’s sake — blend in seamlessly.
If anything, HTC has become masters at manipulating premium materials. It takes twice as long to make an M9 at 300 minutes. The manufacturing process consists of 70 steps and every M9 is hand-polished.
New to the third generation smartphone is a dual-tone unibody. Gold borders the smartphone’s perimeter and a satin mirror finish has been applied so that it glistens in the same way as a fine piece of jewellery.
Kudos goes to HTC for bringing together such fine materials. The only qualm is they have been manipulated to a shape that is less inspired.
Take a look at the older M8. This was a smartphone that looked as though it rested at the core of an aluminium block, and it was there waiting for an artisan to come carve it out. Its entire construction was seamless as it wrapped from one side of the smartphone all the way to the other, uninterrupted and without seams, and, more importantly, it had a shape that was as striking as it was ergonomic.
We fear HTC has fallen from the front of the pack to somewhere in the middle
The succeeding One (M9) doesn’t do enough to uphold this illusion. The front and back are two visible parts. A fat lip highlights where these two parts meet, and it gives the impression these materials, as premium as they are, have been put together. Seeing and feeling this seam makes the smartphone less special.
Then there’s the shape, dictated by function and form, with it resembling more a prism that has had its sides shaved round.
There is a prevailing sense that HTC has been trying to do more with less when it comes to its flagship. Shaking this feeling off is hard because there are other signs concessions have been made.
Stagnating in both size and resolution is the screen. It is remains a large 5-inches and has a rich 1920x1080 resolution. Cramming 441 pixels into each inch means the pixels making up text, photos and videos can’t be seen. When the technology at work disappears into the background, only the content is left.
Clarity doesn’t let down the display of the M9. It’s the brightness that does.
The BoomSound speakers of the M8 led the industry and the M9 upholds that proud tradition
The display settles for mediocrity with its rendition of colours and levels of brightness. Screens drain batteries and companies often discount performance in the interest of battery life. Unfortunately it doesn’t appear HTC has held out on display innovation for the sake of prolonged battery life.
Elevating the viewing experience are third-generation BoomSound stereo speakers. These front-firing speakers are amplified and bear the signatures of the connoisseurs from Dolby Audio. Dolby’s handy work doesn’t make the BoomSound speakers any louder, though the relatively tiny smartphone speakers produce sound with more detail. The BoomSound speakers of the M8 led the industry and those featured on the M9 uphold that proud tradition.
Multimedia in general bodes well for the M9. Older One smartphones relied on low 4-megapixel cameras and the gimmick of re-focussing photos. HTC would’ve poured a lot of money into developing these technologies, and it takes guts to concede they are not working out.
Now a high resolution 20.2 megapixel camera rests on the back of the M9. Unfortunately it is still not enough to compete with the industry’s best.
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Ditching its prior imaging technologies means HTC has had to start again from scratch, when its rivals continue to invest in cameras generations ahead. This is a third generation phone with a first generation camera.
The problem with the rear camera is that it only works well in a specific range of lighting conditions. Take photos under the natural lighting of the sun and you’ll have a good photo. Add shadows and a narrow contrast range exaggerates the colours. Pop it in HDR mode and you’ll have to keep hands dead still for photos to be clear. Step inside and the light shining through the window will wash out the detail. Wait for the sun to set and the colours under fluorescent bulbs will be flat. Take a photo at night and it will be excessively grainy as a result of too much image noise.
Recorded videos tell the same story. The M9 can record videos in resolutions as large as 4K, and they will suffer from image noise and a slow autofocus unless lighting is ideal.
Redeeming the smartphone is the calibre of its front camera, as HTC has been working on its development for more than two years. It is the Ultrapixel camera from former One (M7) and (M8) smartphones, and its 4-megapixel resolution proves competitive when it comes to self photography. It is attuned to a wide range of lighting conditions and is one of the best front-facing cameras on any phone.
Click over for more on software, hardware battery life and the verdict