72 Hours With the HTC One M9

 Courtesy HTC

In an age of increasing phone sizes and screen-resolution wars, HTC opted for incremental tweaks to its flagship smartphone. We spent 72 hours getting to know it better.

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Day 1: Setup was as simple as entering a Gmail address and password. And it will be simple for you, too, if you’re familiar with Google’s suite of tools. We use Google for personal email, contact storage, and file backup — even on an iPhone 6 — to seamlessly sync across multiple devices and platforms. 

Immediately, we noticed one of the biggest changes to this phone: You can actually keep a firm hold. The rounded edges of the M8 (similarly found on new iPhones) have been replaced with ridges on the side. That slight change gives you tactile feedback so you’re less likely to drop the phone. In terms of size, the phone is almost physically identical to the iPhone 6, and we carried both stacked together in a pants pocket.

We then set out to test one of the much-touted features of this update — the camera. Previously, the main camera featured a 4-megapixel shooter with something the company called “UltraPixels,” larger pixels to capture more data in low light situations. That camera has been replaced with a massive 20-MP camera; the selfie shooter remains a 4-MP UltraPixel type. In a few early shots, we were astonished by the size of the images, but underwhelmed in color tones and clarity. In fact, some images were downright grainy and distorted, especially in out-of-focus areas. But, the camera is loaded with filters that let you tweak white balance, photo levels, exposure, contrast, and more, so snap-happy users will still enjoy this aspect. Plus, a couple custom “cameras” can be chosen to capture special images: Bokeh increases the soft-focus applied to areas behind your subject, essentially creating a shallow depth of field, while a Split Camera fires both the front- and rear-facing cameras at the same time to create a single split-screen image. Cool, but neither wowed us, initially.

Day 2: After shuttling back and forth between work and home, we discovered the neat Sense Home Widget on the second screen. You can customize various locations by setting an address so that you see the more commonly used apps depending on where you are. At work, we find that includes Google Drive and Starbucks (conveniently located in our lobby). At home, the display changes so we have quick access to Sonos, Sling TV, Facebook, Twitter, and reading apps such as NextIssue and Amazon Kindle. There’s also an “Out” screen that displays when you’re somewhere other than home or work. Not shockingly, we see Maps, Music, Kindle, and Starbucks.

We also tweaked the look of the phone. You can choose from a handful of pre-selected “themes” — color schemes, wallpapers, and icon sets — or roll your own. We used a family photo with lots of greens, and the phone automatically chose a matching color palette from the wallpaper to use in the backgrounds and buttons.

Day 3: There’s nothing like using the excuse “I’m working” to sit on your butt and watch TV and YouTube, but we really were — testing out the phone’s speakers and controls. A huge edge over seemingly every other phone are the front-facing speakers. It’s hard to overstate just how much we love having these — the phone has one above the screen and another below it, when held in portrait orientation. Turn the phone on its side to watch a video and you get stereo sound you can actually hear. (Now try that with your own phone, and notice how you’re likely cupping your hand at the bottom of your phone to redirect the sound toward you.) In any case, those speakers are still small so it’s not like you’ll get booming audio quality, but they did make it more enjoyable to watch video on such a small device.

When we flipped on the TV in the living room, we used the M9 as a remote control. It has an infrared blaster built into the top of the phone, so it can beam operations to your television. Fire up the Peel remote control app (pre-loaded on the phone) and, in addition to the basic power, volume and channel controls, you get up/down arrows, plus menu and input controls. Sure, it’s probably easier to use your regular remote, but here’s a totally geeky reason why this feature is cool: You can change the inputs on a hotel room television, for example, when you want to use an Amazon Fire Stick to stream video while on the road (Amazon recently rolled out “captive portal support” — the ability to enter a username/room number and a password — to the Fire Stick). But, more often than not, the input button on a hotel remote is disabled, so the IR blaster may be the only way to switch it and watch video on a big screen.

[From $200 with contract; $649 without contract; htc.com]