HTC has been heavily criticised since unveiling its new flagship – the HTC One (M9) – at MWC in Barcelona this week. Complaints centre around the usual things: too similar a design, only incremental hardware upgrades, and a ‘low’ screen resolution.
While the One (M9) sounds like it’s far from the perfect phone, it probably doesn’t deserve so harsh a reception. The (M8) was a fantastic phone with a few flaws, all of which HTC has specifically tried to address with the (M9).
Where the (M8) excelled – look, build quality, minimalist UI, smoothness, sound quality – HTC has made either minimal, or no changes. While we hesitate to say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, it’s understandable that HTC would want to move towards as flawless a phone it could make, before taking risks by changing the features it knows we love.
Why the (M9) is not a disappointment
The (M8) was a few issues short of being the objectively best phone of 2014. Here are the issues that HTC has, by all reports, fixed with the (M9).
The One (M8), and its little sibling the One Mini 2, both paid a high price for their beauty: lack of grip. Not to put too fine a point on it: they were downright slippery. A smoothly-finished surface may look nice, but it makes it very hard to hold on to your shiny new phone, meaning it’s likely to go from new to broken very quickly. The rounded edges didn’t help, either.
The (M9) is less smooth, but still rocks the same beautiful brushed aluminium design. The edges are also squarer, adding to the newfound grip.
It’s just as pretty, but now you won’t drop it, or have it slide silently out of your pocket, on a weekly basis.
1080p is not a dirty word
Quad-HD 2560x1440 screens may be all the rage, but they’re not entirely necessary on a 5 inch display. 1080p (1920x1080) still looks superb in a regular-sized phone screen. Even holding each side-by-side is hard, or impossible, to tell the difference between unless you have perfect vision.
On the other hand a Quad-HD screen resolution is a huge drain on battery resources when compared to 1080p.
Admittedly, HTC has demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding in how marketing works for smartphones. The general rule of thumb, one mastered by Samsung, is that bigger numbers = a more-impressive sounding phone.
If you take a moment to think about it, though, which would you prefer: a screen that you may or may not be able to see the benefits of, or significantly improved battery life?
Rear-mounted ultrapixel cameras are dumb
For two years HTC has unsuccessfully tried to convince the world that a 4MP camera is a fantastic idea by calling them “Ultrapixels” (UP). While more MP does not necessarily mean a better image, 4MP is a very low amount to be using.
The reason behind this seeming illogic is that, the fewer megapixels you have, the more light you can capture. HTC endlessly hammered this fact home with marketing campaigns and at press events. Real-world use was a different story. The (M7) and (M8) barely handled low-light better than the average flagship in 2013 and by the time 2014 rolled around it was looking like last year’s tech.
During the day things weren’t much better. Thanks to the low resolution, if you blew a photo up larger than you’d see in a Facebook stream the lack of quality was immediately apparent.
This time HTC has ditched the rear UP camera for a 20.7MP one. No gimmicks this time, except for perhaps going a little too far in the other direction.
Intelligently, the UP tech hasn’t been removed all together. That same 4UP camera that HTC pushed on us for two years is now the front-facing camera. It’s not going to blow your mind, but it should be one of the better ‘selfie cams’ on the market.
Lock button relocation
This isn’t nit-picking. Button location is far more important on a smartphone than may seem intuitively apparent. That is, unless you’ve had a phone with poor button placement, in which case you're well acquainted with the concept.
The Galaxy Note Edge is a prime example. It’s a huge phone with a curved-edge display. The curved screen means that there was no space on the right side for Samsung’s regular lock button placement. In a careless move it was relocated to the top. The Edge has a 5.6 inch display. Shuffling such a big, expensive phone around in your hand every time you want to lock it is, at best, a frustrating experience.
HTC made the same mistake with the (M8). It’s not as large a phone as the Note Edge, but the aforementioned slipperiness made daily use an operation in dexterity and more than a little luck. Relocating the lock button to the side of the phone is a move that users will appreciate dozens of times a day, even if they don’t realise it.
Why the (M9) is a disappointment
We could wax lyrical about how we’d have preferred more aesthetic changes, or newer features, or a bigger shake-up of the user interface (UI), but really HTC had one job to do: fix the rear camera.
Sure, we don’t have to suffer through the tyranny of the ultrapixel anymore, but every report coming in from MWC corroborates one thing: the 20.7MP shooter on the One (M9) is lacklustre.
The One (M8) was so close to being the best phone of 2014. If there was a great camera on there it probably would have been. Honestly, if all HTC had done was add a fantastic camera and slapped on an (M9) badge we’d probably have bought it. Yet here we are, the third year in a row and still the same on problem.
HTC, hire some new camera staff and maybe 2016 will be your year.