Everyone loves an underdog. They’re new, exciting, and upset expectations. In 2013, the HTC One M7 brought that incredible disruptive energy to smartphones, and the following year’s M8 ran neck and neck with the best you could buy. Today, the HTC M9 goes on sale, and it’s no longer an underdog—but it’s not exactly leading the Android pack, either.

What Is It?

The One M9 is the latest 5-inch flagship smartphone from HTC, complete with Android Lollipop, amazing dual BoomSound speakers, and the latest processor from Qualcomm all wrapped in an aluminum chassis—your choice of silver/gold, gold, or gunmetal grey. Although the price hasn’t been determined, you can probably expect to be parting with $650 for an unlocked model (or $200-$250 on contract) with all major U.S. carriers starting April 10th.

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Note: Our review unit was an international version, so I was unable to test LTE connectivity and any additional effects on battery life and general performance.

Why Does It Matter?

HTC’s One series has always been an indicator of what premium Android smartphones will look like in the future. In 2013 when the first One was introduced, most smartphone makers were still making plastic and faux-chrome smartphones—I’m looking at you, Samsung—and now almost all of them have embraced the fancy aluminum way of thinking. A vote for HTC is a vote that smartphones will continue to be fashion statements first and communication devices second.

Design

The HTC One M9 is one of the best-looking smartphones you can buy. It’s one of those smartphones that feels almost criminal to enshrine in a plastic case and obscure its machined metal exterior. It’s a smartphone for show, a fashion accessory, a 5-inch slab of metal that’s practically jewelry. This smartphone be pretty.

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What it isn’t—design-wise—is new, exciting or meaningfully different.

The M7 that wowed us back in 2013 made a big splash in the Android smartphone pond, but last year’s M8 was really just a ripple—slightly bigger, rounded edges, and to some, a design step in the wrong direction. The M9 is also a ripple, another small iteration on what’s come before and strangely more akin to the original M7.

M9 bottom, battle-damaged M8 top

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I complained about this after my initial impressions earlier this month, but one of the M9’s most distinguished design changes is also one of its most perplexing—a small lip that juts out a millimeter around the entire rim of the M9. Three weeks later, I’m still not quite sure why it’s there. It makes holding the phone sort of awkward. Not necessarily bad, but you’ll feel that hardware seam when you hold it.

Also, the M9 feels like an accident waiting to happen. Now, I’m not one to break phones. Unlike some of my colleagues, I’ve never cracked or water-logged a phone, and I don’t plan on starting now. But I fear the M9’s super-slippery finish might break my streak. Whether I’m pulling it out of my pocket or just it picking up from my desk, the phone slides around in my hand, creating that stomach-drop reaction of “oh shit oh shit oh shit.” As of writing this sentence, I’ve dropped the M9—thankfully from short distances—three times already. The M9 is a curse for the clumsy.

Now, if it’s pedestrian jealousy you’re going for, the M9 does wonders. When walking about or standing idly on trains, the M9 pulls inquiring glances. But those glances could mean two separate things—great-looking or gaudy-looking. HTC describes the silver/gold finish on the M9 as “jewelry grade,” which for me is part of the problem. I’ve been going back-and-forth on how I felt about my silver/gold companion, and I think I finally fell into the gaudy camp. But that’s why more colors exist! Maybe gunmetal grey is more my speed.

Using It

Looks aren’t everything. It’s true browsing Tinder, and it’s true for smartphones as well. What HTC has going on under that brushed metal exterior is just as important. And what M9 has going on is... good enough.

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You won’t find any complaints here about the One M9’s performance, that’s for sure. As you’d expect, this flagship has the latest and greatest Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor and 3GB of RAM, which could handle absolutely everything I threw at it with ease. But that’s table stakes these days.

(Though you may have heard that Snapdragon 810 runs so hot it can cook an egg, I’m happy to report differently. I personally didn’t run crazy benchmarks to test that theory because that’s not how people use smartphones, but I did actively try to make the smartphone heat up by playing graphics-intensive games. Sure, it got a little toasty, but it wasn’t like holding a fistful of fire. Just business as usual.)

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And the display—while great!—may not blow you away either. It’s the same exact screen last year’s One: a 5-inch, 1080p display (441 ppi) with Corning Gorilla Glass on top. Some people seem brainwashed that top-of-the-line smartphones need 2K screens, but this LCD panel is bright and vivid with great readability in daylight.

So what’s the issue? Battery life. The HTC One M9 has the biggest battery of any One series smartphone yet and it’s running a 1080p screen, meaning it doesn’t need to push nearly as many pixels as say the G3, Nexus 6, or the upcoming Galaxy S6. All good news, right? On paper, yes, but not in reality. Some days I was able to eke out to about 2 or 3am, definitely not multi-day use but solid all-day battery life. But then other days, I’d be off the charger by 6am and dead by 4:30pm with just 20 minutes of turn-by-turn directions and an hour of recording audio (with the screen off). When we reviewed the M8, we were able to get stellar battery performance with full-day charge peace of mind. The M9 simply doesn’t, and that’s a shame.

What is not a shame are these BoomSound speakers. Damn. I can say, without exaggeration, that these are the absolute best speakers on any smartphone ever created. These speakers are so loud and crisp, I’ve basically stopped using my Mini Jambox completely. In fact, it’s so much better than watching anything on my computer, I chose to whip out the M9 to watch Netflix than mess with my MacBook Pro’s tinny audio nightmare. Even compared to the M8, the M9 outperforms in every way. And the Nexus 6? Forgetaboutit. Seriously.

Software

Another year, another new version of HTC Sense—the company’s custom Android skin. Sense 7 is passable, which isn’t the worst verdict you could give an Android skin, but it doesn’t add anything substantial over stock Android. Even LG and TouchWiz have some cool tricks you’d conceivably use like multi-windowed apps. But with Sense, it’s just gimmicks dressed up as convenience. Here are a couple examples:

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Themes: Long press on the homescreen, and Sense 7 gives you a new “theme” option, a curated “store” where you can browse artistic themes ranging from subtle to absurd. To be clear, these are not backgrounds, these are themes that change everything about the look of the software—from the lockscreen, icon design, and menu colors. Unfortunately, some themes crop icons in weird ways or make using the phone even harder because you won’t recognize the app icons anymore. If you don’t mind skins or even like heavy themes on top of Android, this might be great news. But people who love clean interfaces will consider this new theme option an enemy.

Sense Home: This widget keeps track of your six most used apps at home and at work, using GPS to detect where you are, and offers suggestions for other apps you may find useful. That’s all well and good—if it worked as advertised. But it’s been a week now, and there are still apps Sense Home thinks I used that I’ve never even opened, and half the suggestions it gives me are already on my phone. I love the idea, but this first effort is lacking.

Sense 7 also includes the latest Android Lollipop, of course, though some of my favorite features like the carousel of recent apps have been stripped out for less interesting alternatives like the windowed app switcher you see above. (I find it less easy to navigate.) But Sense 7 isn’t terrible, and importantly, it doesn’t slow down the One M9 one bit. It won’t get in your way.

Camera

The camera has been a big problem for HTC on past smartphones. With the M7, HTC introduced the “4 Ultrapixel” camera, which was HTC’s fancy way of saying “we have bigger pixels which means we can capture light better.” But though the following M8 did decent in low light, it lagged far behind in normal lighting conditions. So with the M9, HTC actually switched the 4 UltraPixel camera to the front and stuck a more standard 20-megapixel shooter on the back, turning that front-facing lens into a great selfie cam.

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What does that mean for your regular rear camera photos, though? Oh boy. When shooting in well-lit situations, the M9 camera is okay—maybe even good. But as soon as you’re working in low-light, expect graininess and discoloration. This is where some optical image stabilization could have eased some imaging woes, as it does on many a top-tier smartphone today... but only digital stabilization is included here. The camera does have RAW support, but you’ll weirdly need a third-party app to access it and you’ll only be getting 1080p recordings out of this guy. Here are a few test shots:

Selfie with front-facing UltraPixel camera in low-light conditions. (Plenty bright but a little on the pink)

Selfie with 20MP rear camera in low-light conditions

This picture of Andrew Jackson Jihad was taken with burst mode and then selected as “the best one” in a bizarro universe where “best” means “terrible.”

Like

Despite a few design concerns, the new M9 still looks as great as the M8 that looks as great as the M7. Looking good is what this phone does. It’s true that you could accuse of HTC of getting lax with dreaming up a new design—or when they do, they make something like the lip—but like I said, design isn’t the One’s problem. Why fix what isn’t broken?

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Navigating through Sense 7 is great and pretty fluid. Not once during my time with the M9 did I have any weird glitches, crashes, or unexpected reboots.

The BoomSound speakers are so good that I want to say they’re the One’s greatest asset aside from its posh exterior.

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HTC offers a free UH OH Protection plan with the M9. If you do damage your new One (it is slippery after all), you can trade it in for a new one free of charge, and if you don’t use your trade-in, you can get $100 off your next HTC One. It’s a way to keep you locked into HTC, but if you’re a devout One user anyways, it’s a nifty little bonus.

Still got the infrared port for controlling your home entertainment system.

Dislike

Objectively, I know the phone’s lip isn’t really going to be a big problem for many people. Subjectively, I hate it. Ugh ugh ugh.

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The battery life here is really disappointing. Before driving the HTC One M9, I had LG’s G Flex 2 in my pocket, which also has a Snapdragon 810 processor and an even bigger 1080p screen. I never had to worry about my phone dying on me in less than a day. I could even get midway through the next, no problem. With the M9 you’ll be toggling on power saving modes (or “Extreme Power Saving Mode” if the situation is dire) to help combat battery woes. Once you start compromising performance just to get a day of battery life, I get annoyed. Oh, and I tested the international model without LTE, which means battery life might be even worse stateside.

Sense 7 is shrug worthy. I would pay more money just to have this thing run stock Android but HTC has no Google Play Edition plans this time around. Bummer.

The One M9 solves your selfie woes by flipping that fancy 4 UltraPixel camera around front, but the rear cam needs some work. Its low-light is pretty bad, and you’d probably be better served by a lot of other smartphone cameras out there.

Should You Buy It?

The One M9 is a pretty great update from the One M7. If you liked HTC’s original flagship, and you don’t mind a slightly bigger smartphone, then the One M9 is good! I think you’ll be happy with it. And if you’re a multimedia fiend—watching Netflix, streaming music, or whatever—the BoomSound speakers make everything better.

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But if you’re looking for the best smartphone bar none, the One isn’t at the head of the pack. This probably isn’t the One for you. HTC played it safe this year instead of pushing things further. Honestly, if you’re willing to settle for the M9, you should also look at the M8 while you’re at it. It lasts longer, it feels just as fast, and it costs less.

Photos by Michael Hession

HTC One M9 Specs

Network: All four major U.S. carriers + unlocked (most likely)

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  • OS: Android 5.0 (Lollipop) with HTC Sense 7.0
  • CPU: Quad-core Snapdragon 810 processor
  • Screen: 5-inch 1920x1080 Super LCD 3 (441 PPI)
  • RAM: 3GB
  • Storage: 32GB + Micro SD up to 2TB
  • Camera: 4 UltraPixel front Camera / 20MP rear camera
  • Battery: 2840 mAh
  • Dimensions: 5.69 x 2.74 x 0.38 inches
  • Weight: 5.54 ounces
  • Price: $200 or $250, depending on carrier/plan/etc. Unsubsidized/unlocked for $650 (most likely)