Finally, HTC’s flagship smartphone for 2015 has arrived in Malaysia. But it isn’t the HTC One M9 that was announced at MWC 2015, instead, it’s a bigger and HTC says, a better version – the HTC One M9+ that was first unveiled in China in April 2015. We’ve been using the phone for several weeks now, and here’s what we really think of it.
HTC has maintained the same design for its One series of smartphones since the M7 and I agree with them on that; why fix something that is not broken? Phones made with metal unibodies are becoming a trend now and HTC shouldn’t be blamed for being years ahead of the rest – though there will be others who feel HTC is holding on to a design that is starting to look rather dated.
The HTC One M9+ is unashamedly hefty and solid, unlike others that try to pack everything into a very slim body, resulting in phones that feel like they might fall apart with little force. In short, the One M9+ feels very solid to hold on to. Sure, it measures 9.61mm thick, significantly thicker than its competitors (the iPhone 6 measures 6.9mm thin, Samsung Galaxy S6 at 6.8mm, Xiaomi Mi Note at 6.95mm just to name a few), but it feels very solid to hold on to.
The curve at the back is a bonus to make the phone sit nicely in your palm. This may not be appealing for all, but since I leave my phone in my bag all the time, its weight and size doesn’t really bother me.
The biggest grudge I have with the design of the One M9+ is how HTC puts the volume buttons directly above the power button. Actually, it’s probably more on how all buttons are located lower than they should be. Sure, the power button has a texture on it presumably to let you recognise the button without having to look, but I always end up pressing the volume buttons whenever I want to wake or lock the device.
The SD card and nano-SIM slots are located on either side of the device, and needs to be ejected using a pin. This can be a bit tricky though, when trying to eject the trays, they don’t come out completely, which means I’ll need to use my nails to pry it out.
I may be nit-picking on this, but the SIM tray doesn’t seem to fit properly in its place. Part of the tray sticks out a little from the frame of the phone, and it really drives the OCD in me crazy (but it also may just be this review unit).
The fingerprint sensor located right below the HTC logo isn’t a button. It’s a touch-based sensor that also acts as a home button when tapped while the phone is unlocked. For those who are not used to the idea, the home button feature can be disabled in the settings menu.
Everything about the HTC One M9+ is great; it looks and feels like the bigger and better sibling to the HTC One M9, but there’s only one problem – its processor. The HTC One M9+ uses a MediaTek helio X10 “true” octa-core 2.2GHz processor (also known as the MT6795T), while its closest competitors are all using the Qualcomm Snapdragon 810.
The MT6795T chipset uses all eight Cortex-A53 cores simultaneously, unlike the Snapdragon 810’s big.LITTLE architecture which uses up to four cores at a time. That said, the Cortex-A53 cores on the MT6795T are power-efficient cores that are significantly overclocked – compare that to the Snapdragon 810’s performance Cortex-A57 cores mixed with four Cortex-A53 cores.
Now, we’re not saying that MediaTek is bad, but as a company that has a reputation of making affordable chips with average performance, this definitely impacts the way people feel about the One M9+. Even the HTC One M9 is powered by a Snapdragon 810, so it is a wonder why HTC didn’t opt for the same processor this time round.
The rest of the hardware is pretty top-notch, with 3GB of RAM, 32GB of expandable storage (up to 128GB), 20MP Duo Camera at the back, 4MP UltraPixel front camera, and a 2,840mAh built-in battery. There’s also space for an IR blaster at the top of the device, too.
Still, using a China-made SoC doesn’t mean that the One M9+ is slow. I’m not a heavy mobile user, I only use my phone for the camera, social network, and an occasional game or two and the HTC One M9+ has been working flawlessly. It does get hot though, but only when I run intensive apps like Maps, or when my son gets a little too hooked on YouTube.
On the rare occasions that I use the device heavily, especially when I travel, the helio X10 is actually pretty impressive, cycling through the camera, maps and social media apps without a fuss. I’ve been using the phone for a few weeks now, and it’s still as snappy as the day I took it out of the box even with hundreds of pictures stored on the device.
The HTC One M9+ runs on Android 5.0 Lollipop with HTC Sense 7.0 UX. Apart from getting a flatter Material Design, everything still feels very familiar. There’s still a Blink Feed menu on the left most homescreen, HTC Zoe app, and a remote control app that can control your appliances via infrared.
One of the most visible changes is the addition of a fourth capacitive button, where users can edit it to set between four different functions, such as Lock, toggle auto rotate, or to hide the navigation bar altogether.
HTC has also updated its Themes store for the M9+, though compared to theme stores on Chinese smartphones like Xiaomi, Oppo and such, there are not much selections for you to pick from. Fortunately though, HTC has a new feature on Sense 7.0 that lets you customise your own theme, simply by picking a wallpaper.
You can download themes, wallpapers and such in the theme store
Or create your own theme
Just choose your favourite photo as a wallpaper, and Sense 7.0 will find a matching colour for you, along with different icon packs to pick from. It’s a nice little feature and while I don’t use it much, I can see how it’s perfect especially for photographers who have plenty of beautiful pictures to select from.
Another notable feature is the Sense Home widget that can detect when you’re at home, work or on the go, and change the displayed apps accordingly. When I reach home from work, it’ll automatically change the apps to display the most frequently used ones when I’m at home. It’s dynamic, so if you’re hooked to a new app recently, it’ll show up and take the place of an app that you haven’t used in a while.
As for the fingerprint sensor, the one on the HTC One M9+ works just like Apple’s Touch ID, or the one on the Samsung Galaxy S6 – and not the dreaded swipe-based one from the old One Max. Just register your fingerprint at the settings menu (you’ll need to key in a pin before you proceed) by constantly tapping your finger in different angles on the sensor until it’s complete. You can register up to 5 fingerprints.
To unlock the phone, simply place your phone on the touch-sensitive fingerprint sensor in any directions, and it’ll unlock. Like the other smartphones in the market with this feature, it is very reliable – though it has on a few occasions failed to recognise my fingerprint. Not that it’s a big issue – a second tap usually does the trick. It can unlock even when the display is turned off and you’ve disabled the use of the fingerprint sensor as a home button.
One very annoying thing with the software is when you take a picture when the phone is locked, you can’t preview that image unless you unlock the phone. Other devices, like an iPhone or even the Samsung Galaxy S6, will at least show you the pictures you took without unlocking it.
The battery life of the HTC One M9+ is decent, and can usually last for an entire day. After a normal working day, I’ll usually come home with about 40% of battery left. You can actually leave it uncharged till the next day if you’re not going to use the phone much, but if you’re going to have a full day the next day, it’s best to plug it into the charger for the night. For heavy usage – Google Maps, camera, YouTube and a bit of games throughout the day, the battery bar will be glaringly red before the day is over.
HTC has improved the interface of the battery, showing you more information than before. It breaks down the battery usage to how much battery was consumed while the screen is off as well as while it’s turned on. It also breaks the details down to usage for apps and system so you can have a better understanding of how the battery gets drained.
While HTC packs an higher resolution 2K (2560 x 1440) display on the M9+ over the standard Full HD resolution on the M9, the core technology remains the same: the excellent Super LCD 3 developed by HTC themselves. It is one of the best we’ve seen on mobile devices, and complemented by the 2K resolution, the M9+’s display is crisp and has accurate colour reproductions.
However, screen legibility under bright sunlight is quite horrible, making it almost impossible to see the screen. I tried maxing up the screen brightness and also setting it to automatic, but it’ll still turn out like the image above. It definitely does not help that the display was pretty reflective as well.
After using so many phones in the past few years, I think that front-facing speakers makes most sense. Sure, bottom speakers are great, especially when you put your phone into a cup to enhance the sound, but when you’re playing games in horizontal mode, your hand tends to get in the way of the speaker, muffling the sound. For front facing speakers, that wouldn’t be a problem. HTC BoomSound is an added bonus for a nice and loud volume.
It says a lot that BoomSound has been a standard bearer for quality smartphone audio, and has remained that way since it was first introduced.
The HTC One M7 and M8 were heavily criticised for offering only a 4MP UltraPixel rear camera. On paper, the UltraPixel concept sounds promising, but the result proved otherwise. Even on the HTC Butterfly 2, when HTC swapped the 4MP UltraPixel camera out for a standard 13MP rear shooter, the image quality was rather disappointing, especially in low light conditions. Focus was slow, and most of the time, my pictures would come out really blur.
So I started the review with zero expectations for the camera, and I’m very glad to be pleasantly surprised. First up, focus is a lot faster than before. Previously, especially in low-light conditions, the HTC Butterfly 2 would take up to a second to focus before capturing an image. If you have an active child who can’t sit still, you would understand the pain I had trying to take a picture of him. The One M9+ on the other hand, seems rather snappy. The focus isn’t always correct, but I’d rather capture a blur picture of my son rather than a blur picture of where he used to be because he has already run away.
Performance in bright conditions, as with most top-tier smartphones, is very good. It can capture images very quickly, and I’m very happy with the pictures I’ve taken so far, even of a running child. Landscape pictures taken of the bright outdoors are very good too. But as you can see above, an auto-HDR mode like on the Galaxy S6 would have been a very useful addition; instead, users would have to go through several steps just to enable HDR.
When it comes to night scenes, the One M9+ is still lacking compared to the competition. Trying to focus on a night scene can be quite challenging and when it does focus, pictures turn out rather soft and the colours are quite washed out. Some pictures can be quite noisy too.
Click on images for full resolution
Just like with previous versions of Sense, the M9+’s camera app offers full manual controls, offering plenty of options to customise the camera’s settings for moments when Auto mode just doesn’t cut it.
As for the front camera, thanks to HTC’s UltraPixel sensor, it performs very well, especially in low light conditions. There is a live beauty feature that lets you manually select how much you would like the software to enhance your face (smoothens and brightens skin tone). If that’s not enough, once you capture a selfie, it’ll show you a preview for a couple of seconds whereby you can opt to edit the image further to give yourself bigger eyes, slimmer face, brighter skin and more.
Finally, one thing to note about the camera: Duo Camera is now an opt-in feature and not turned on automatically. A toggle on the camera app UI switches between “High Resolution mode” and “Duo Camera” mode. As their names suggest, High Resolution mode captures images using the full 20MP sensor, making it useful to capture panoramic views and landscape images. Duo Camera mode lets you capture depth information for plenty of post-processing options – but is limited to 4MP stills.
In short, having to switch between the two modes have made Duo Camera mode rather useless. It is so easy to forget to snap pictures using just High Resolution mode, which I did for a majority of the review period. The only consolation here is that if you have been using HTC’s Duo Camera on your HTC One M8 or HTC Butterfly 2 and you like it, you can be glad that HTC hasn’t forgotten about it.
To be honest, while the camera performance is a lot better on the M9+ than its predecessors, it still somewhat lags behind the two smartphones which are its strongest competitors: the Galaxy S6 and the iPhone 6. Both offer exceptional camera performance, while in low-light, the S6’s 16MP Sony sensor is capable of really great shots.
Priced at RM2,599, the HTC One M9+ isn’t cheap. It also competes directly against other big players in the market, notably the the Samsung Galaxy S6/S6 edge, the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, the newly announced Sony Xperia Z3+, LG G4 and such. Where HTC was leading the pack in terms of design, both Samsung and Apple have worked hard in creating something new with their latest smartphones.
More importantly, having just a good camera doesn’t quite cut it anymore for a top-end smartphone. The Galaxy S6 and iPhone 6 have raised the bar exceptionally high for mobile photography, and it’s a tough battle for HTC in this area as well.
Finally, they say reputations are difficult to change, and that’s one of the toughest battles HTC faces: convincing users that the Mediatek chipset used is just as good as the Qualcomm Snapdragon 810. It is definitely a curious decision (that may or may not be due to the 810’s overheating issues), but time will definitely tell the outcome.
I think the HTC One M9+ is an excellent phone overall. It gets a lot of things right, like a handsome exterior, snappy software and an improved camera and fingerprint sensor. However, “improved” doesn’t necessarily mean “the best”, which is what HTC falls short of.
And, using a MediaTek chip is bound to raise questions about the M9+’s performance, even if the M9+ runs very smoothly. Finally, a big factor is also its price. At RM2,599, the One M9+ is priced the same as the Galaxy S6 – though Samsung spends significantly more on marketing to maintain visibility and hype for its flagship smartphone to ensure consistent sales of the device. HTC, however, does not.