Review: HTC One M9

Fashion is technology; technology is fashion. Over the last 12 months, that idea has gone from new and strange—“so, like, Chanel is going to make smartphones?”—to blindingly obvious. HTC, though, figured it out before almost anyone. All the way back in 2012—an eternity ago, in smartphone years—it was building beautiful phones while everyone else was still shipping boring black slabs. The One X, the One, and the One (M8) all stood as paragons of smartphone design.

HTC built a big lead in design chops a couple of years ago, but the rest of the market has caught up fast: Samsung, Motorola, and Apple all make beautiful, big, high-resolution phones now. Honestly, so do lower-end brands like Alcatel, Blu, and OnePlus. Lovely hardware design isn’t novel anymore. It’s table stakes. HTC needs a new edge.

The company had two options: try to level up its design game yet again, or make a phone with new or exceptional features. With the new One M9, which is available now on all four major US carriers for the same price as your average high-end smartphone, HTC took the latter approach. The new One looks the same as the last, but it has a new high-res camera, a homescreen that adapts to where you are and what you’re doing, and an incredible number of customization options. While it sounds promising, unfortunately once you use the M9, that all doesn’t add up to much. The One is still an excellent phone, but while its competition rushed ahead, HTC stayed too still.

Let’s start with the device itself, which is a gentle refinement of the two previous One models. The power button is now located on the right side of the phone instead of on top; it’s much more reachable, but it’s also really easy to confuse with the volume-down key, which is basically the same button positioned one inch higher. The sides of the phone have been dulled slightly, so it doesn’t curve as dramatically from the edge of the screen to the back. It makes the M9 feel a little thick, but also far less likely to slip out of your hand and shatter on the sidewalk. I call that an upgrade.

For the most part though, the M9 and its predecessor are physically One and the same. If you’ve seen One, you’ve seen ‘em all. (I could keep going.) And that’s a good thing! This slab of cold, clean aluminum feels as dense and impressive as ever. It’s gigantic next to the iPhone 6 and Galaxy S6, but I love how it feels in my hands. HTC’s not trying to build a super-thin phone that’s nothing but screen and camera lens; it’s trying to build something significant. Important. And especially in its new silver color with gold accents, it’s just unabashedly luxurious.

The One M9 is unabashedly luxurious

In between all that gold and silver (or gunmetal gray, if you’re not ready for a life of buying tigers and naming an armada of superyachts) is a 5-inch, 1080p screen. It’s essentially the same panel from last year’s model, but it still looks great. And above and below that display are the two front-facing BoomSound speakers that help make a One a One. This year, they’re tuned with Dolby to be wider and fuller than ever, and still blast the best sound you’ll find on a smartphone.

Oh, and I should mention: if you do break your phone, HTC’s got your back. Its new Uh Oh Protection plan (that’s really the name) will just straight-up replace your broken, cracked, or soaked phone once in the first 12 months, no questions asked. It’s amazing.

It makes sense that the M9 is mostly just tweaks and tune-ups, given how much HTC got right with last year’s M8. The new One upgrades to a brand-spankin’-new Snapdragon 810 processor and 3GB of RAM, which makes it super-fast. (It does have a tendency to get warm during particularly fervent République sessions, but not so much as to be a problem.) There’s still a micro-SD card slot for adding more storage, unlike the Galaxy S6. Its slightly-larger battery easily lasts a day, even a day and a half with some babying. There wasn’t much broken here, so there wasn’t much to fix.

On your home screen, there’s a folder full of apps your phone thinks you might like based on what you’ve already downloaded. It’s actually really useful, even if it does seem to think that downloading a to-do list app means I must want to download several other to-do list apps. There’s also a widget on the home screen that will learn when you’re at home, at work, or elsewhere, and try to guess and show you the apps you’ll need in each context. So when I’m out, I have easy access to Maps, Instapaper, and the car-friendly interface; at home, apparently, YouTube is all I need. Thing is, though, I don’t have a car. And when I go from work to home, the apps in the widget don’t change so much as just rearrange. This Sense Home widget is a clever idea, but right now it’s still just faster to just open up the app drawer, where I don’t have to just hope apps will appear.

I love the idea that my phone will change based on where I am and what I’m doing. Show me different apps, different themes, different sounds—a phone that automatically acts appropriately in every situation is a hugely powerful thing. But much though HTC wants the M9 to be that phone, it doesn’t quite get there. And honestly, Google Now is so good at delivering timely and location-aware information that shuffling a bunch of apps in a widget isn’t all that useful anyway.

That’s the problem for HTC. Its last big idea was to build an incredibly beautiful phone, one you’d want to buy and hold and show to your friends. The original One was exactly that, and some of its flaws were easy to overlook in favor of this beautiful object in your hand. This time, yeah, the One is still beautiful—but so are lots of phones. If it was to stay ahead of the pack, HTC needed to do something else. The M9 doesn’t. The camera’s not good enough, and the software can’t quite live up to its aspirations.

The One M9 is a very good phone, and with the new camera HTC at least improved its most glaring flaw. Lots of people will be very happy with this phone. But the thing I used to love about the One was that it was special. It looked special, it felt special. It’s not special anymore.

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