In 1993’s Groundhog Day, weatherman Phil Connors finds himself stuck in an endless time loop, living the same terrible day over and over. But in time, and after some truly appalling hedonism, Collins begins to re-evaluate his priorities, and finally starts on his journey toward self-improvement.

That’s what I feel like HTC is going through with its One flagship, in a kind of Groundhog Day limbo. For the past three years, the device has remained virtually unchanged, with only minor differences introduced along the way. Software has evolved, and there’s been a great debate over megapixels. But, for the most part, the company’s M7 and M8 handsets are both eerily similar to the M9.

I’m sure you’ve heard the adage by now, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with the M9. But HTC seems to have found itself stuck in a time loop, at that stage where it’s still in the middle of its self-improvement process. The M7 was a terrific device, and the M8 was slightly better. But now we’re in the superphone age.

This year, the M9 is the best One phone we’ve seen yet, no question. But it’s nowhere near the best phone available, and with handsets like the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge on the horizon, it almost seems as if the M9 will quickly become a really good “midrange” device, just without the price that comes along with it.

Design

For two years, the HTC One has arguably been the best-looking Android phone on the market, the epitome of beauty and grace. This year’s model is no different. Made of a lovely brushed aluminum, the M9 ups the ante with a dual-tone, scratch-resistant finish that’s an absolute delight to look at, and, more importantly, to hold.

We got the silver on gold version, and the two distinct hues make it look even more luxurious and elegant than it did before. It glints and sparkles with an assured shine, like a meticulously crafted piece of fine jewelry. HTC says the manufacturing process requires over 70 steps and 300 minutes per device, and that thorough craftsmanship shows at every angle. It’s a marvelous design, to be sure, and still among the best there is.

I will say that it’s a tad heavy at 157g, and it certainly isn’t the thinnest phone out there. However, the contoured back and overall size make the M9 a very comfortable phone to hold. It’s just 5.96-inches tall — the screen itself is 5 inches — which is fairly small by today’s standards. For me, the footprint is just about perfect — at just the right size to easily use with one hand without seeming unwieldy.

Most of that extra real estate is taken up by a bottom bezel stamped with an HTC logo (yes, it’s still there), along with BoomSound speakers that flank both the top and bottom. I don’t have much to add about the BoomSound speakers that hasn’t already been said. Yes, they sound very crisp, and very loud, and the addition of Dolby Audio gives them some extra oomph. But I still don’t see (or hear?) enough of a value to crave BoomSound speakers.

HTC One M9-20
HTC One M9-4
HTC One M9-3

Put it this way: If I had to choose between BoomSound speakers or a physical home button with fingerprint sensor, I’d take the fingerprint sensor every time. Something like that improves the experience in a number of ways, and doesn’t just serve a single purpose. There will certainly be times when you appreciate the loudness of BoomSound, but I typically found myself using headphones or a Bluetooth speaker anyway. Functional? Yes. Necessary? Debatable.

The only real knock — and it really isn’t a big deal — I can lob at the design is that it seems as if the M9 has been placed into a very snug case. When you run your fingers over the device’s flat edges, the front portion isn’t quite flush with the back, and the edges themselves are sharp-ish (not cut-you-and-make-you-bleed sharp). But I caught myself absent-mindedly running my fingers back and forth across the sharper contours more than once. It looks slick due to the two-tone color scheme, but less comfortable than the M8.

Adding to the ergonomics, however, is the placement of the power button on the side. In my time with the phone, I thought the placement was just fine, and I liked the added texture to the button. But Jon felt it was placed a little too low, and because it’s in such proximity to the volume buttons, mis-presses were common. Not an issue for me, but an issue for him. It ultimately adds to a more reliable single-handed experience, and beats having the power button up top.

While it doesn’t look much different aesthetically compared to its predecessors, the M9 does pack in some major spec upgrades. You get the much-ballyhooed Snapdragon 810 processor (quad-core 1.5GHz Cortex-A53 and quad-core 2GHz Cortex-A57), 3GB of RAM, 32GB of expandable storage (up to 128GB), a 2840mAh battery and the same 5-inch 1080p screen (441 ppi) from last year.

The screen, by the way, is still a very good 1080p display. Colors are vibrant, text and content is sharp, and it’s really bright; at its brightest, you can easily see what’s on-screen in broad daylight, while viewing angles both in and outdoors are great. This was among the best 1080p displays last year, and the story doesn’t change in the M9. Some people — Jon included — voiced their disappointment that the M9 doesn’t sport a 2K display, but at least you get an awesome 1080p screen. Something, it must be said, that will probably be in the minority as newer flagships hit the market in 2015.

The One M9 also sports a 20-megapixel sensor (which does protrude ever so slightly), protected by a piece of sapphire glass. This was one of the bigger changes HTC made to its flagship this year, and an underlying acknowledgment that maybe its UltraPixel technology couldn’t quite hang with its biggest rivals. That 4 UltraPixel sensor, by the way, is now the front-facing camera — a smart move considering our penchant for selfies.

While it doesn’t look much different aesthetically compared to its predecessors, the M9 does pack in some major spec upgrades.

Performance

We didn’t initially have the final shipping software when the M9 first showed up, and performance certainly reflected that. It wasn’t awful — most of the time it was zippy — but I did encounter more than a few instances when performance came to a crawl; I remember one occasion in particular when I jumped into multi-tasking, and it was not a smooth experience. Not smooth at all.

That said, once the final software did come in, the M9 was discernibly faster. And it should be quick considering the specs it’s packing. It handles simple tasks like Web browsing with ease, and running more intensive apps (Netflix, for example) didn’t present any major hiccups. There will be instances where you’ll notice minor hesitations the longer and harder you push it, but otherwise the M9 is silky smooth.

As you can see in the benchmark tests Jon ran (below), the scores are mighty high, so you can rest assured that the phone is fast, and with Lollipop under the hood, you’ll be getting the best possible experience. And, just so we’re clear, HTC’s update also fixed whatever lingering heat issues people had when units were first seeded. We pushed the One M9 hard, and it didn’t get any hotter than a device normally would, which means you won’t need a pair of oven mitts just to handle the device.

I spent a solid chunk of time gaming on the One M9, and it ran every last one without breaking a sweat. A game like Monument Valley looks absolutely stunning on the bright, vibrant 1080p display, while Five Nights At Freddy’s posed no issues (except for the fact that it scared the bejesus out of me). It also breezed through plenty of YouTube videos, so, again, you’re not going to notice any significant performance issues.

m9-benchmarks

What you might notice, however, is that battery life is just so-so — not worse than most top flagships on the market, but not any better, either, which is slightly disappointing considering HTC said it made some big decisions based on battery life.

We don’t typically run battery tests with phones, because real world usage is what really matters. But, with the M9, we did both. With the battery fully charged and the brightness cranked to 100-percent, we were able to watch just over 4 hours of continuous video (the volume was muted) before the phone died. Chances are you won’t go on any marathon Netflix benders, but bear those stats in mind. (It’s worth noting that this test was performed before HTC’s shipping software was rolled out to review units).

It was different with regular usage. After a busy work day of email, calling, social media, pictures, games and other normal phone activities, we left work (5 p.m.) with the M9’s battery in the 30- to 40-percent range. Not terrible, and certainly respectable for how much usage it provided with the screen cranked up all the way.

It’ll absolutely be fine for 95-percent of consumers. But you have to remember that the M9 only sports a 1080p screen. We tried to mirror our usage during testing on a Nexus 6, for example, and found that battery life was pretty close between the two. It’s certainly not a like-for-like test, as the Nexus 6 sports a 3220mAh battery, but the M9 has an advantage in that it’s not pushing out as many pixels as some of its biggest rivals — something HTC purposely did to ensure battery life wouldn’t take a hit.

There are some handy features to help extend battery life, so you should be good to go when you really bring the M9 into the doldrums. It’s worth noting that HTC’s new device doesn’t support wireless charging, though it does support Quick Charge 2.0 (although the phone itself supports Quick Charge 2.0, the adapter the unit ships with doesn’t support it; you’ll have to buy that separately to take advantage of the technology). That means you should get plenty of juice in a short amount of time (about 60-percent in 30 minutes). Personally, I’d take that over wireless charging any day, but phones like the S6 and S6 Edge now support two different wireless charging standards, so it’s certainly poised to become mainstream.

Software

HTC’s Sense has always been considered among the better manufacturer skins, and Sense 7 atop Android 5.0 is pretty terrific. If you’re coming from Sense 6 running over KitKat, you won’t necessarily find a major overhaul. Elements are flatter, and the UI overall better matches the Material Design of Lollipop. But, for the most part, it’s instantly recognizable as an HTC product (as is the hardware), which, in my opinion, is a good thing.

Some of the more familiar carry-overs from earlier Sense iterations include things like BlinkFeed, which still lives in the left-most home screen. It’s a handy way to stay connected, and certainly convenient if you want to quickly glance at the latest news. But I found myself mostly avoiding it. It’s not that I didn’t find it helpful, but I suppose it just wasn’t the most engaging software addition. If you didn’t use it before, there’s very little reason to now.

There are other familiar HTC apps: you have Zoe, which combines pictures and video together with the press of a button; Cloudex, which consolidates all your photos from social media and cloud storage into a single place; and HTC Backup, which is essentially like Apple’s iCloud service, giving users the ability to save phone settings to the cloud. Otherwise, Sense is a fairly bloat-free and inoffensive experience. HTC did, however, add a few new software additions to keep Sense feeling fresh.

The first big one is Themes. Android users know that a big part of what makes the platform so great is customization, and HTC is fully embracing that on the M9. If you’e ever downloaded a launcher and icon pack from Google Play, Themes is a lot like that — just now more accessible than ever thanks to HTC’s own curated store.

Using Themes is pretty straightforward; launching the app will bring you to the Recommended section of the store, which shows you the most popular themes, icons, wallpapers, sounds and even fonts you can apply to the M9. There are several different sets to choose from right now, and it’s growing all the time over at the company’s Theme store. If you don’t like the themes that are already there, you can even create your own. And, to our surprise, the experience is really powerful.

HTC One M9-11
HTC One M9-10
HTC One M9-14

When you do create your own theme, you’re not just limited to picking out your own wallpaper. The feature actually personalizes the entire look of Sense based on the colors in the wallpaper you base your theme off. So If I were to upload an image with a lot of different blue hues, Themes gives me the option to choose the color palette I want, as well as the main color. That means when you search through your app drawer, settings, and things of that nature, your new color palette will be reflected all throughout the UI.

The icon packs provided by HTC mostly just change the stock apps found on your device, which means Google’s suite of apps, and other services such as Instagram and Snapchat, will remain unchanged. They’ll fit the overall look of your new theme — if icons are changed to circular, all of them will be circular — but they won’t necessarily look any different. You’ll have to go to the Google Play store if you want to completely change every icon on your phone.

What’s cool, though, is that HTC lets anyone create and publish a theme, which every one can then download. That’s a neat trick by HTC, and makes the fun world of customization available to absolutely everyone; creating a new theme takes around 5 minutes, too, and applying them is just as easy. Themes does a great job of highlighting one of the strongest parts of Android while still retaining the spirit of Sense. It creates a community, too, and I can’t wait to see what themes people come up with.

HTC One M9-8

The second new addition is a widget called Sense Home, which dynamically changes depending on where you are. If I’m at work, for example, Sense Home will show me a grid of apps it thinks I’ll use for work. Same goes for “home” and “out.” You can pin apps in this little widget, and also remove them if you don’t think you actually need something like Scribble for work.

Sense Home is a seamless little widget, and works as expected, but I wound up just removing it altogether. Not because it’s not useful, but because I’d rather just lay out my home screen how I want, not based on context — and I certainly don’t want apps constantly recommended to me by HTC. Some of the suggestions are on point, but they mostly serve as free advertising on your home screen, which people might find intrusive.

Other than that, Sense is pretty understated, and does a good job of keeping what’s great about Android Lollipop in tact. There are other features, too, like the ability to change navigation buttons, change the layout of the quick settings pulldown menu, and several different motion launch gestures, such as double tap to wake, and pressing the volume button to instantly launch the camera. These all help to improve the experience without overwhelming users.

While these ideas help refresh the software experience, they don’t necessarily add anything that Android users didn’t have access to already. The community of Android customization is already alive and thriving, while the Sense Home widget is just a remix of other similar launchers in the Google Play store.

Camera

For the past few years, HTC has made valiant attempts to differentiate itself from competitors by championing an “UltraPixel” philosophy. In other words, it took itself out of the megapixel race, and instead focused on giving users a sensor the company claimed was better for lowlight, and just as good outdoors. We all know the images its UltraPixel sensor produced were just OK, and it seems HTC agreed. Thus, the M9 sports a brand-new Toshiba-made 20-megapixel sensor and Dynamic Sensing Engine.

The good news is that the M9 captures photos very quickly, letting you capture fast-moving action without missing a beat. HTC’s cameras have always been fast, and you’ll continue to get that same instant experience here. Using modes like HDR and Bokeh will add processing time, but otherwise you should expect to capture a rambunctious child without issue.

If only the images themselves were any good. This is easily the most disappointing part of the M9, continuing a kind of problematic trend that started with the M7. All the pieces are there, and pictures initially look good on the M9’s screen. But look at them blown up on a computer, and you realize that images are noisy, not very detailed and pretty poor in lowlight. Even in ideal lighting conditions, the noise is just astonishing when you crop in, and there’s no real sharpness to pictures.

For the purposes of the review, I mostly shot in auto mode (something I imagine 99-percent of consumers will do), though there are a ton of more granular controls. For example, you can tweak shootings modes, and change a ton of settings, including ISO, exposure compensation, white balance and more. There’s no optical image stabilization, though that won’t really be an issue unless you shoot a lot of video. If you do, well, the M9 is a bit of a mess, producing shaky and unsatisfying results.

HTC One M9-12

Shots taken with the front-facing UltraPixel camera were OK. I took a lot of selfie shots indoors, and as you can see in the samples above, they aren’t anything to get excited about. The selfie camera fared better outside, and, if we’re honest, don’t look any better or worse than what the 20-megapixel sensor on back is capable of producing. Somewhat of a disappointment, especially since HTC made such a big deal out of using a 20-megapixel sensor this year. It doesn’t beat out anything Samsung or Apple can produce, let’s put it that way.

Software can be tweaked to improve the quality and experience as a whole, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see some changes made in the weeks and months to come. When HTC first gave us the M9, the software it was running took some pretty unimpressive pictures, but quality improved noticeably when a software update was rolled out. Proof that the camera can continue to get better as time goes on. And, hey, throw a VSCO filter onto these images, and suddenly they don’t look so bad.

I suppose it really comes down to how you plan on using/sharing your pictures. I wouldn’t rely on the M9 (or any phone really) to be the device you use to print out large pictures. But share them over social media and whatnot, and they’ll be perfectly serviceable. The pictures I shot, however, largely just did not look good.

Like I said, maybe over time and with more careful execution (using manual controls), the M9 can produce some high-end results. For the overwhelming majority of people, it will be just fine. I’d just be curious to see what something like the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge can produce, because Samsung has been pretty excellent with its recent flagships as far as camera quality is concerned.

Conclusion

Rating

7.0
The HTC One M9 is a great phone, but it’s so much more of the same. In a lot of ways, this is simply a One M8+.

HTC One M9

The HTC One M9 is a great phone, but it’s so much of the same. In a lot of ways, this is almost like a One M8+, which would be fine, except we essentially saw this same device when the M7 came out two years ago, too. The specs are better, and HTC added some neat software tricks. However, if you were looking for a major upgrade over last year’s model, you won’t find it here, especially if you plan on cozying up with a lengthy contract.

That said, I’m not upset the hardware hasn’t changed, though I would prefer a home button with fingerprint sensor rather than BoomSound speakers. The two-tone color scheme does give the M9 a more elegant look, and the brushed aluminum and flatter sides means it’s not quite as slippery as last year’s M8. Good news if you don’t use a case on your device. But the strong design is no longer a standout feature when many of the top OEMs have their own aluminum wonders.

During a chat with TechnoBuffalo’s Deputy Managing Editor, Todd Haselton, he summed it up best: If you were to compare the M9 to the S6 on paper, Samsung’s device wins out every time. The S6 has a better display, terrific metal design, Samsung Pay, fingerprint sensor, wireless charging, and, more than likely, a better camera; superior in all ways, save for the fact that the M9 has a microSD slot, and the S6 does not. That gives you an idea of the competition the M9 will face this year.

The M9 is beautiful both inside and out, there’s no denying that. But, like Phil Collins in Groundhog Day, it hasn’t yet made a big enough improvement to get out of its self-inflicted time loop.

Disclaimer: Jon used the HTC One M9 for 4 1/2 days before recording his review; Brandon used the device for 4 days before writing his review.