We’re in beautiful Barcelona, Spain, where HTC took the wraps off its newest flagship model, the HTC One M9. The M9 is an iterative improvement over the already excellent One M8, but the fact that changes are minimal doesn’t take away from the intrinsic quality of HTC’s design. With that said, we’ve been spoiled with fast upgrade cycles, and few companies can pull off using the same basic design over several years. Will customers love the refinement of the M9 or will they look elsewhere for a fresh take?

We were privileged to get early access to the device ahead of today’s press event, and this is our hands-on preview of the new HTC One M9.

Design and build quality:  refinement all around

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From the get go, it’s obvious that HTC was happy with the design of the M8 and not shy to reuse it, in a refined form, on its newest device. Whether that’s a sensible choice or not it’s up for debate, but few will deny that the One M9 is a very compelling device. On the front, the M9 is almost identical to the M8, and yes, that black bar that many people seem to hate so much is still present. The large BoomSound speakers are present and accounted for, and the only subtle difference that could help you recognize the M9 is the slightly larger sensor module.

The M9 features “edgier” sides, which really helps to improve the grip – due to the rounded edges, the M8 was slippery and hard to handle at times, but that’s no longer a problem. In this way, the M9 is a combination of the M8’s front and the M7’s back. Coupled with the less slippery texture, grip is improved.

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Turn the phone around, and the single biggest novel design element will pop right up. The camera module is now a rounded square and there’s no secondary depth sensor. HTC said it wanted to get back to offering users quality, rather than extra features. It’s safe to say that few will miss the depth sensor, and without it, the M9 looks a bit more balanced.

All in all, there’s almost nothing new and newsworthy, but HTC still managed to make the M9 better than in its predecessors from an ergonomics point of view.

Hardware and performance: smooth sailing

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It’s the same story on the inside. There’s not much new stuff to talk about in terms of hardware features, aside the obligatory improvements in the processing department. With that said, the M9 delivers all the essentials you may need from a flagship phone in a well optimized package.

Joining the ranks of the G Flex 2 and the (unreleased) Mi Note Pro, the One M9 is one of the first devices to be powered by the new octa-core 64-bit chip from Qualcomm, the Snapdragon 810. There’s been a lot of talk about alleged overheating issues with this chip, but if they are any, they don’t seem to affect the M9. From our time with the device, we can say that the M9 really flies, with no sign of stuttering whatsoever, though software optimization may play a big part in this. The 3GB of RAM and the Adreno 430 GPU inside the S810 should ensure solid performance in multitasking and mobile gaming.

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There’s 32GB of built-in storage, and a microSD card slot that lets you supplement memory by up to 128GB. That’s significant because the other big device launching today, Samsung’s Galaxy S6, does not support microSD, in a stunning reversal of the situation from a couple of years ago.

Battery capacity has been amped up to 2840 mAh, a 10 percent increase over the M8. Like most modern flagships, the M9 supports fast charging, however, there’s no wireless charging.

The 1080p display should be good news for those who prefer optimized performance and battery life over record PPI ratios. At 5-inch, few will be able to tell the difference between Full HD and Quad HD, so we’re actually happy to see HTC keeping it simple.

Camera: a step up, but questions remain

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One of the biggest issues with the One M8 was its flaky camera performance. The 4MP UltraPixels was ultimately not up to par, with lacking performance in areas like the level of detail and even low-light shots, while the depth sensor added little real value.

For the M9, HTC is again trying to offer a great camera experience, as opposed to adding features of questionable usefulness. The 20MP sensor on the back of the phone should make possible large, detailed pictures that weren’t simply possible with the UltraPixel camera. Unfortunately, there’s no optical image stabilization, which is almost standard on Android flagships these days.

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The One M9 does a great job in good lighting conditions, but it has a major weakness in low light. We’ve tested it in many low light areas, including inside Barcelona’s famous Sagrada Familia cathedral, and we were disappointed by the results. However, HTC made it clear to us that the software on the devices we tested was not final, so some improvements could come by the time the M9 reaches consumers’ hands.

The UltraPixel camera lives on as the front shooter of the M9 – coupled with a wide angle lens, the 4MP sensor should be more than capable of handling selfie duty.

Software: Sense, now with more context

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From a visual perspective, HTC has not brought lots of changes to the Sense recipe, but Lollipop elements like the new notifications style, the settings dropdown, and the (optional) card view of recent apps are present.

Sense 7 brings some contextual intelligence to the table, most noticeable in the Sense Home widget, which is an area on the homescreen that displays shortcuts to apps you are likely to be interested in at a given time and place. So, at work, you may be shown productivity apps, while music or podcast apps could take over during your commute home. BlinkFeed has also become a little smarter, as it can recommend places nearby with good reviews in addition to just news or social feeds.

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Another big addition to Sense 7 is a theming app that lets you change lots of UI elements; a nice touch is the ability to select a picture and get palette suggestions based on the predominant colors of the image.

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As we mentioned earlier, the M9’s software is impressively smooth and fast, even if it’s non-final software. Overall, Sense 7 has reached a level of refinement that we really appreciate.

Final thoughts

There you have it – our first look at the much anticipated next iteration of the One series, and in this case, iteration is a particularly good term to describe the M9. From our time with it, we can say that HTC really did manage to improve on an already great concept, adding refinement and thoughtfulness to the solid pre-existing base. Whether that’s a wise approach, in this day and age, it remains to be seen.

Our biggest question mark concerning the M9 is still the camera, and particularly the low light performance. Keep it tuned for more on the new M9 and other MWC 2015 content!