HTC One M9: Australian Hands On

It’s no secret that HTC has struggled in the Android space next to Samsung’s marketing might. Can the HTC One M9 reverse that tide? Here’s my early impressions.
I’ve only had a limited amount of actual hands-on time with the HTC One M9, so consider this a very early appraisal indeed; a full review will have to wait until I’ve had a handset to use on Australian networks for a reasonable amount of time.
For a start, here’s the raw specifications:

  • Processor: Octa Core 2GHz Snapdragon 810
  • Display: 5 inch full HD Super LCD 3 display with Gorilla Glass
  • Rear Camera: 20MP. f2.2, 27.8mm sapphire lens with dual colour LED flash
  • Front Camera: 4MP Ultrapixel
  • Speakers: HTC BoomSound with Dolby Audio Surround
  • Power: 2800mAh battery with quick charge
  • Storage: 32GB internal, microSD support, 3GB RAM
  • Connectivity: 3G, 4G LTE (CAT6) including TDD-LTE, NFC
  • Physical dimensions: 144.6×69.7×9.61mm, 159 grams

All the leaks suggested that it looks a lot like the HTC One M8, and they were fundamentally correct, but I’m not entirely sure that’s a bad thing. Every single phone vendor has locked in their particular design style by now. iPhones look like iPhones, Xperia phones look like Xperia phones, and so on and so forth. It’ll take a radical reworking of the design elements of a smartphone, especially screens and batteries, before we see much in the way of genuine change here.

HTC’s pitch is that the HTC One M9 is meant to be a highly personalised, luxury style phone. That makes good sense for a premium phone, because there’s no shortage of budget and mid-range devices, even in HTC’s own catalogue that can cover off the basics of Android functionality.
It’s a very nice phone to hold in the hand, although it’s not quite as large as some may like. The two tone metal finish looks very nice, and the smooth back tapers off in a way that does lessen the likelihood that you’ll drop it.

HTC One M9. Grip it. Grip it good.
HTC One M9. Grip it. Grip it good.

The handset I’ve had hands-on time with at the moment didn’t have a lot that I could test performance with, although the combination of an Octa Core 2GHz Snapdragon 810 and 3GB of RAM should give it a fair amount of grunt. HTC’s assertion with the HTC One M9, as related to me by HTC representatives is that “anybody can put together the parts for a smartphone these days”, so the play they’re going for is luxury personalisation.
The unibody design of the HTC One M9 is still quite striking. Sure, it's a smartphone, but it's distinctive in the premium pack.
The unibody design of the HTC One M9 is still quite striking. Sure, it’s a smartphone, but it’s distinctive in the premium pack.

This manifests itself a couple of ways. HTC’s Sense UI has in recent times been reasonably easy to get to grips with, but not everyone liked the physical style of it. HTC’s solution to this is the introduction of themes that allow you to customise the UI to your taste, right down to using colour selection from a pre-existing photo to automatically create a theme style on the fly. Again, I haven’t had the ability to fully test this to see how well it works, but it’s a neat idea. Likewise the way it’ll set apps depending on location, or suggest apps you don’t already have. Neat in theory, but I’ll need real testing time to make — pun not intended — sense of it.
The HTC One M9's speakers GO ALL THE WAY UP TO LOUD.
The HTC One M9’s speakers GO ALL THE WAY UP TO LOUD.

I liked the “BoomSound” speakers on the HTC One M8 quite a bit, and the HTC One M9’s speakers, from a very brief bit of music playback are even better. They offer Dolby Audio Surround sound for a virtualised sound experience, at least in theory. Again, I’d really need more testing time, and the demo I’ve had was via HTC’s own choice of music. Like most virtual surround sound it’s more of an audio trick than actual rear speakers that suddenly fly behind your head. Although that would be cool. Get onto that, HTC.
One nice aspect of the BoomSound experience is that HTC’s working to make audio output to networked home speakers simple from the HTC One M9. The claim is (again, I haven’t had a handset long enough to fully test) that you’ll be able to do a three finger swipe to send audio out to home components. HTC hasn’t announced any particular brand or network connection methodology for this, although HTC representatives did tell me that they plan to get it working “with everything”. That’s a bold move if they can pull it off.
HTC One M9: A complete change of camera strategy. Ultrapixels are apparently now only cool if they're pointing at your face.
HTC One M9: A complete change of camera strategy. Ultrapixels are apparently now only cool if they’re pointing at your face.

The camera swap is perhaps the most striking change in HTC’s strategy, with the Ultrapixel camera that used to be at the rear now used as a selfie camera, while a 20MP, 4K video capable sensor sits at the back. HTC can do quite good cameras — I remain essentially impressed with the HTC Desire Eye, for example — but beyond the interesting strategy I haven’t had enough time to really test out the HTC One M9’s camera chops.
Blinkfeed is still part of the HTC One experience, although I’m told you can omit it from the launcher if it’s not to your taste. That’ll cost you a display screen, however. The big upgrade here is “Mealtime” bundles, a marketing effort that’ll use GPS to suggest nearby restaurants and eateries based on your location and the time of day. An interesting idea, no doubt, but one that’ll rely heavily on HTC either getting decent Yelp-style data on board, or a lot of commercial partners willing to pay for Mealtime positioning.
It’s a little disappointing that HTC hasn’t gone for waterproofing in what is still a unibody design, although HTC will sell an IP68-rated case for the HTC One M9 that should lessen that problem. Predictably as will all rugged cases, you lose some of the good looks of the phone itself.
The Dot View case also makes a return. I was torn on that one too last year, because while I loved the basic design idea, it was a very ugly case from the rear. HTC’s solution to this problem has been to make the rear of the Dot View II case entirely transparent. Based on the simple cases I’ve seen, I’m still not entirely sold on the overall visual impact of the case, but it’s undeniably a unique selling point.
HTC Australia representatives have indicated that they’ll be offering the HTC One M9 through all three major Australian carriers on contract, as well as for outright sale, but declined to mention a specific price scale for the device when it hits our shores.
So what’s my preliminary verdict? The HTC One M9 is a very solid premium phone, and I do get where HTC’s pitching it as a luxury device, because pretty much all premium phones these days are priced as luxuries, given the lower floor for a simple Android smartphone. I’m not entirely certain that HTC can unseat Samsung from its near market dominance in the Android space, but having other choices in the premium market is no bad thing.

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