HTC One M9 and the missed opportunity of good first impressions

Initial reviews of HTC’s One M9 phone hit the airwaves last night and I’ve read through them all. I’ll take a look at the company’s new flagship and form my opinions when I can but for now I — like so many others — am relying on first takes from reviewers. I see a general commonality among most of the write-ups and am reminded of that old adage: You only get one chance to make a first impression. As far as I can see, HTC didn’t remember that bit of wisdom.

Improve upon the last model and all is well

HTC’s approach with the new One is admirable: Take and keep what works from the prior model or two, and then improve where the older versions may have been lacking. So the new M9 looks much like the old M8 it replaces — which had an attractive design and metal build — but appears easier to hold with fear of it slipping from your hand. The unique BoomSound dual speakers are reportedly louder and HTC’s Sense software has some tweaks.

That’s all well and good, but expected. So too is performance from the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor. That’s not a differentiator though as other flagships have or will use this chipset. Sure, some software optimizations might eke out a bit more performance from the same chipset in different phones; the difference will be negligible at best though.

So far, then, HTC has take the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” strategy. The challenge is, what has HTC fixed from the prior generation?

The biggest pain point from M8 owners has been the camera output. For many, it just didn’t compare to what you could get from an iPhone, Galaxy S5 / Galaxy Note, or other competing flagship. Therein lies the opportunity for HTC’s One M9. And the company did make a major change here, moving its well-intentioned but somewhat mediocre 4-Megapixel Ultrapixel camera from the rear of the M8 to the front of the M9.

A picture is worth a thousand sales, er, words

The new phone has a higher resolution 20-Megapixel camera sensor from Toshiba on the backside and yet, it hasn’t impressed most reviewers based on these review excerpts:

The Verge:

Unfortunately, this new approach doesn’t result in any better pictures, and in many cases, images taken with the M9 are worse than they were last year. The M9 has the pixel count the M8 lacked, but all too often the images are fraught with noise reduction and smearing of details. Low light pictures often have odd color casts and there’s unpleasant blooming in highlights. In well lit scenes, the M9 has trouble exposing wide ranges of light to dark areas.

Android Central:

It’s not not as impressive as we’d like it to be all of the time. Backlighting continues to pose problems. And it almost feels like it gets a little confused when trying to focus on images in the distance. Or maybe it’s like the imaging software is struggling to figure out what to do with the extra data the 20-megapixel sensor gives it.


Sometimes the M9 comes through with crisper details; other times the M8 seems to do a better job. Sometimes the M9 has richer, more accurately exposed colors; sometimes it doesn’t. You get where I’m going with this. It’s such a mixed bag that I’m honestly surprised HTC gave in to the simplicity of advertising a camera based on its megapixel count at all.

The only positive impressions of the HTC One M9 camera came from my podcast co-host, Matthew Miller, in his ZDNet review:

My wife and I both judged each photo and came away with scores nearly equal for the HTC One M9, Sony Xperia Z3, and iPhone 6 Plus. The M9 offers truer colors than the iPhone 6 Plus with more capability for zooming in, obvious since it has more megapixels.

HTC was clearly working on the camera software while reviewers had the phones in hand, as a number of writers reported a major software update push late last week that improved image quality. That’s good because it indicates that HTC can further improve image processing over time. Unfortunately, that’s not what potential buyers want to hear; they’ll be looking at the initial wave of reviews and many will be left wanting more from the one area that was most lacking on last year’s model.

Battery life challenges too

It appears there’s another area where the M9 is actually worse than its predecessor as well: Battery life. I haven’t found a single review suggesting the battery life on the new phone is better than the old model. That’s not a problem in and of itself, provided the battery life is no worse.

Unfortunately, controlled benchmark reports are pretty consistent here: The phone doesn’t currently run quite as long as last year’s flagship. Tests from the always meticulous AnandTech folks show that browsing time over Wi-Fi decreased by 18 percent from last year’s model, for example.

It does support QuickCharge technology, so with the right charger, you can get a few hours of extra run-time in as little as 15 to 30 minutes. That’s a plus but it won’t appease everyone who reads that the M9 battery life is less than the M8. One caveat: HTC provided international review units which don’t support U.S. LTE frequencies so perhaps run-time on U.S. models will be different.

Two steps forward, one step back isn’t a good approach

HTC really needs a hit with the M9; the company has faced several quarters of declining phone sales. And the approach of taking what works on the last phone to build upon makes sense. Unfortunately, you have to actually deliver on that strategy and do so right out of the gate to maximize sales potential.

Look to Apple for this: The company tweaks and improves features in each new iPhone model. You don’t see image quality decrease from one iPhone to another, for example, and battery life generally stays the same or even gets a little better.

To have the M9 arrive with reviewers disappointed in the one key area of potential improvement is less than ideal, regardless of the other features and functions that are better.

Again, HTC can potentially address the negatives with software optimizations for image processing and power management. In fact, I’m sure it will at some point. The problem is, that point in time should have been before reviewers got their hands on the new HTC One M9. Now the company’s efforts have to go from marketing the new phone with a clean slate to managing expectations that are already out in the wild.

One final note: I’m not suggesting that the HTC One M9 isn’t worthy of your consideration. That would be ludicrous since I haven’t use the phone myself and because only you know what features are most important to you in a handset. My main point here is in the challenges of missed opportunities when trying to create a new flagship phone based off of a prior model: It’s a smart strategy if, and only if, you can deliver on it.