Two years ago, it was a marvel that anyone but Apple could make a gorgeous phone out of all metal and glass.
Most non-iPhones were still made of flimsy, cheap-feeling plastic. They were thick and ugly. They had some neat features like removeable batteries, large screens, and expandable storage, but it all came at the cost of design.
HTC was the first major smartphone maker to change that when it launched the One, a gorgeous Android phone that was arguably more beautiful than the iPhone. The company didn’t sell the most Android phones, but it certainly did make the best.
HTC’s new One, also called the M9, is a minor update to last year’s model. It will sell for $US650 for the 32GB version on April 10. All four major wireless carriers will sell it using various payment plans and cheaper on-contract prices.
The M9 is a great phone, but the improvements over last year’s model are either too minor or too inconsequential to make a big deal out of them.
It’s thinner. It’s lighter. It comes in a slick silver-gold colour. The camera is better.
Other than that, the M9 is the same phone HTC gave us last year. That doesn’t make it a dud. Not at all. Last year’s M8 was a fantastic phone, and the M9 builds on it in a lot of ways. But I see it as proof that the high end of the Android smartphone market has reached the point where innovation appears incremental year over year.
Still, there are a few key areas to go over.
The first is the design, which is a clever evolution from last year’s model. It feels more comfortable in the hand and less slippery. And even though I’ve never been a fan of gold phones, I don’t think HTC’s looks kitschy or corny like the gold iPhone. It’s the perfect size too with its 5-inch screen. Not too big, not too small.
At a time where smartphone makers are still looking to the iPhone for design influence, HTC has made a device that’s unique and beautiful on its own.
Next is the camera, which has been improved to a 20 MP sensor. That means the photos you take come in a larger resolution, which is good for printing or editing. But in my tests, the quality of the photos weren’t as good as two other top phones on the market: The Samsung Galaxy S6 and the iPhone 6. It’s good enough for a lot of people, but if you’re already spending this much on a phone, a camera probably matters a lot to you. You should go for the best.
Here’s a photo I took with the HTC One M9:
Here’s the same photo taken with the iPhone 6 Plus:
With so many phones running Android, it’s become difficult for manufacturers to differentiate their phones from each other on a software level. The M9 runs Lollipop, the latest version of Android, but has a few extras packed in. The most important is a special app launcher on the home screen that displays different apps based on your location.
Over time, the app launcher learns where you are: Home, work, or out and about, and displays the apps it thinks you need based on your usage history. So, for example, if you open up your calendar a lot at work, the icon for the calendar app will start to appear in the “work” section of the launcher. Of course, you can tweak the apps that appear in the launcher and it only uses your location if you give it permission to.
I found the launcher more frustrating to use than helpful. I’d rather configure my home screen the way I want it to look, not rely on an algorithm. It did learn most of the apps I like to use in certain locations, but it took a few days. (Luckily, if you don’t like the feature, you can remove the launcher from the home screen and arrange your apps the old-fashioned way).
The M9 also has deep integration with Yelp. If you opt in, the app will ping you with notifications around lunch and dinner time with suggestions for nearby places to eat. I wasn’t a fan of this feature. I eat out more than I should, but not enough to get a notification for every meal. I think most people will ignore the Yelp integration like I did.
Finally, HTC added a new theme store where you can download new backgrounds and icon sets for your phone. This is a popular feature for phones outside the US, and it’s nice to see it make its way here too. There are a bunch to choose from, and HTC lets anyone handy with Photoshop take its templates and build their own themes.
If you’re not a Photoshop expert, you can create themes by uploading one of your own photos for a background image and HTC’s software will automatically change the other theme colours to match. If you like customising your phone, the themes are a great feature.
A nice bonus
As an extra bonus, HTC offers every M9 owner one free replacement during the first year if you accidentally damage your phone. You just call a special number, give them your information, and the company will overnight you a brand new phone along with an envelope so you can ship back your busted device. It’s totally free.
The protection plan definitely solves a major pain point a lot of people have with their phones (how many times have you cracked your screen and put off paying about $US100 to fix it?), but I’m not sure the offer will be enticing enough to make people choose the M9 over something else.
The HTC One is also missing a few things its high-end competitors have. There’s no fingerprint sensor for unlocking the phone. And most carriers block Google Wallet, Android’s answer to Apple Pay, although that is likely to change in the coming months with a software update. The smartphone industry is clearly moving in that direction, so it’s disappointing to see HTC’s best phones missing those features.
For the last two years, I’ve called the HTC One the best Android phone. I can’t do that this year. Not because it’s a bad phone, but because the competition has caught up and surpassed HTC in some key ways. When I was at the Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona a few weeks ago, the show floor was littered with really nice Android phones, including Samsung’s new Galaxy S6, which is an impressive device.
The M9 is a wonderful phone, and certainly one of the best. And if you value design as much as I do, it should be one of the first phones you consider this year. But two years can make a lot of difference. There are a lot of great Android phones out there to consider as well.