HTC One M9 review: Classic design but too few improvements

If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it. Or, to put it another way, when your last flagship smartphone helped your company achieve profitability after years in the doldrums, don’t tinker with the formula too much.

Such is the way with the new HTC One M9, the successor to the Taiwanese company’s well- received M8, which hits the shelves in the UAE this month.

HTC’s logic stipulates that the M8’s design and functionality has been so appealing to customers that it’s not worth deviating too much from a winning formula for the M9. But has the company been too conservative?

On first (and second, and third) inspection, it’s virtually impossible to tell the two devices apart. The M9’s beautiful metal block design (available in grey, gold and gold on silver) is virtually identical to its older brother, give or take (literally) two or three millimetres here and there.

So far, so good, given the device’s exceptionally crafted body. Disappointingly however, the M9’s 5-inch display is exactly the same as the M8’s and, while images and videos still look fine on the M9, they lack the wow factor of the LG G3 or Samsung’s newest models.

Happily, the M9 also retains its predecessor’s front-facing speakers, which make a real difference when watching videos.

One area that’s had an upgrade is the camera, with the M9 doing away with its predecessor’s dual lens system and instead sporting a 20.7 MP rear camera. Intriguingly, the M8’s front-facing 5MP selfie camera has now been downgraded to a 4MP set-up.

Taken on its own, the M9 is, with the exception of its outdated display, a very good smartphone. As an upgrade to its predecessor, however, there are not enough improvements to recommend upgrading so soon. What’s more, with a price of about Dh2,749, it comes in slightly more expensive than Samsung’s new Galaxy S6, due to hit the shelves in weeks.

If HTC’s high-end design takes your fancy and you need to have its latest offering, the M9 is for you. But it’s hard to recommend otherwise, given its incremental performance upgrade from its predecessor, and its relatively high price tag.

So how is HTC faring in the great smartphone wars?

Just under four years ago, HTC’s global market share was 10.7 per cent. Now it is less than 2 per cent. But Ramit Harisinghani, HTC’s head of Middle East and Africa sales, doesn’t seem too concerned. He pointed out this month that HTC had achieved triple-digit growth in 2014, and expected the M9 to take them to “record- breaking heights in terms of sales in 2015 and beyond”.

And why wouldn’t it? It’s an even better version of a great smartphone, so it will sell by the bucketload, right?

Maybe, but not necessarily. Let’s cast our minds back to last year’s Samsung Galaxy S5. An improvement on the already great S4, but fewer people bought it, as customers couldn’t tell the difference, which led Samsung back to the drawing board for the S6 and S6 Edge.

Interesting. Maybe someone should put this point to HTC?

It’s funny you should say that, I did put this point to its global chief marketing officer Idris Mootee a few weeks ago at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. He argued that HTC’s strategy is to produce a classically designed smartphone that will inspire people to come back to their products time after time. He drew a comparison with cars by Porsche and Maserati, which sport signature designs that are subject to few changes over the years, but still attract a loyal following.

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John Everington

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