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Hands-on: HTC One M9

The HTC One solidifies its position as a top Android phone with the M9

With small tweaks to an already beautiful look, the One M9 will go down as one of the best phones of 2015.

Like the Apple iPhone, LG G series, Sony Xperia Z phones, and Samsung Galaxy S line, the HTC One is consistently one of the best phones available, year after year. At the 2015 Mobile World Congress, the Taiwanese company unveiled the One M9, the fourth generation of its “One” designs. HTC isn’t rocking the boat with a radical new design, yet the One M9 is nevertheless one of the best phone’s you’ll see on shelves.

Hands-on video

Still metal, but with a step

HTC has been making metal phones as beautiful as — or even more beautiful than — the iPhone for two years now, while many of its Android competitors are still playing catch-up. The One M9 looks almost identical to last year’s handsome One M8. It has the same brushed-metal rear design, industry-leading front stereo speakers (now with Dolby audio), beautiful 1080p screen (LG and Samsung are embracing 1440p screens, but 1080p still looks great to us), and infrared sensor up top. Nevertheless, there are a few differences, if you look closely.

The M9 looks like a plastic phone that’s wearing a pair of metal pants.

Like many new high-end phones, the volume rocker has been split into two buttons and the power button is now on the right side of the phone, making it easier to press without having to adjust your grip.

Oddly, the front of the One M9 feels cheaper and more plasticky than the M8. The phone has lost that seamless unibody feel it had last year. Instead, the M9 looks like a plastic phone that’s wearing a pair of metal pants. Yet as much as design purists will complain about this detail, this is still one of the better looking phones on the market.

Camera and power upgrades galore

The outside of the One M9 may not look different, but on the inside, it has some serious upgrades. It runs the fanciest new Qualcomm processor, the 64-bit quad-core Snapdragon 810, for starters. It also has 3GB of RAM, 32GB of memory storage, a 2,840mAh battery (good for about a day and a half), and a 1,920 x 1,080 pixel 5-inch LCD screen. It’s also one of the only phones around that has a MicroSD slot for expanded storage. Did I mention it runs the gorgeous Android 5.0 Lollipop? HTC’s new “Sense” interface looks lovely and won’t get in your way.

There aren’t a ton of new software features this year, but you can heavily customize the colors and themes in the phone’s interface, download custom themes, and even upload and share themes you create with others. A fun new widget suggests apps to use or download based on your location as well. If you’re at home, it suggests certain apps relevant to that space, and does the same when you’re on the move or at work. For instance, you may want to watch Netflix at home, but use your calendar app more at work. There are some Android launchers that do this, but it’s a nice feature to have built in.

HTC One M9 front angle
Jeffrey Van Camp/Digital Trends

Here’s a feature to get excited about. HTC took its 4-megapixel “Ultrapixel” camera, put it on the front of the phone (upgrade!), and slapped a new 20-megapixel shooter on the back, covered in sapphire glass so it won’t scratch. Photos looked amazing in our first hour with the device, putting the One M9 back in the running for best smartphone camera. The camera app also has some built-in filters that look neat, including the ability to take two photos and double expose them, one on top of each other, as well as an effect called “prismatic,” which offers 10 to 15 ways to create prism-like patterns out of a photo. Really, it’s neater than it may sound.

HTC’s Zoe software, which lets you share moving pictures, is also present. Anyone with any Android phone can download this app, actually.

A BoomSound upgrade

HTC seems to be the only smartphone maker that takes speakers seriously. The two front-facing speakers on the M9 are probably the best sound you’ll hear on a phone in 2015 (they certainly were in the earlier products in the One lineup). Most companies only offer a single speaker, and place in a terrible spot. HTC offers stereo sound instead — and aims it right at you. This year the company has added Dolby filtering upgrades, so those wonderful speakers should sound even clearer in some scenarios.

With the M9, you can also use a new BoomSound Connect app to play different media on connected speakers through Qualcomm AllPlay. The app lets you connect with other standard wireless methods of playing audio on external speakers as well.

A great phone, modest update

HTC didn’t rock the boat this year, aiming to hone a proven design instead. But the One M9 will nevertheless go down as one of the best phones of 2015. It isn’t a “must upgrade” for owners of the One M8, but those with 2013’s One M7 will find a lot to love in HTC’s latest. We don’t have release details or pricing yet, but we expect the M9 to reach all major carriers in the United States and cost around $650.

Highs

  • 20MP rear camera, 4MP front camera
  • Powerful Snapdragon 810 processor
  • Best speakers on a phone, period
  • Runs Android 5.0 Lollipop
  • MicroSD card slot

Lows

  • It’s not waterproof
  • Design slightly worse than last year
  • One M8 owners don’t have a reason to upgrade

Available at: AT&T  T-Mobile  Verizon  Amazon