Rivals to HTC created phones with glass or plastic backs but the One has an all-metal jacket and signal still manages to get through the case / HTC

Speedy, beautiful, elegant and effective — the M9 is ready to take on Samsung

HTC’s One series set the bench high for premium smartphones, matching exquisite build quality with eye-catching innovations and a superbly elegant version of Google’s Android software.

While other companies were chasing high-pixel counts for their cameras HTC chose a fewer-but-better approach with its Ultrapixels – four million of these bigger pixels designed to work better in low light. Rivals created phones with glass or plastic backs but HTC created a phone with an all-metal jacket and still managed to get the signal through the case. And where some Android software looks cartoonish or unattractive, HTC’s exceptional software team routinely create an interface as classy as the hardware around it.

The HTC One M9 is the third in this series and is, as you’d expect from previous years, high-end and attractive. At a time when many smartphones are indistinguishable one from another (big oblong screen, increasingly thin profile, flat back, er, that’s it), HTC’s are unmistakable thanks to that metal rear that’s gently curved and subtly textured. This time, the edge has two materials to it. There are several colour variants but the silver and gold one has a discreet gold frame curling round from the back and a matte metal piece that connects it to the screen. It’s an emphasis on the phone being made of two halves, though you can’t take them apart. The gold part sits proud of the matte bit, with a join that’s deliberately noticeable – not sharp to the touch but noticeable. Not everyone will like this new design but it looks simultaneously solid and graceful. And it’s still arguably the best looking Android phone – though Samsung will be hoping to challenge this in a week or two’s time.

There are big speakers on the front at top and bottom of screen – another HTC speciality called BoomSound, designed so the phone actually sounds good when you’re playing back music. This year’s model is loud and bassy (though headphones will almost always sound better, probably). Since this year’s model includes Dolby support, it’s no surprise that music and video playback both sound superb, through speakers and cans. The video looks good, too, thanks to an attractive HD screen that is bright, detailed and rich without being over-saturated or gaudy.

You can make that screen look different from others thanks to a feature built into the HTC Sense software to generate new themes (wallpaper, sounds, fonts, shortcut icons and more). You can download ready-made themes or by choosing a photo let the phone’s Theme Generator come up with something new. It’s fun to use and comes up with striking results. These skins are quite all-encompassing so make sure you know what’s where before you switch to them: it’s momentarily confusing before you settle in to your new phone world.

Flip the phone over and the distinctive HTC back cover is as recognisable as ever, with white lines crossing sideways at top and bottom. But the two-lens camera from last year’s M8 is replaced by a single camera. This time HTC has gone for a conventional, higher pixel-count snapper. It’s a 20.7-megapixel camera – since a phone’s photographic capabilities are so important these days it’s not surprising HTC wanted to have a sensor that’s a contender. The iPhone 6 has an 8-megapixel sensor, Sony’s Xperia Z3 matches the resolution HTC includes here. Meanwhile, the 4-Ultrapixel camera is on the front to make selfies in low light a snap, as it were.

Low light is key to smartphones because, though it’s great to take great photos of brightly sunlit holiday destinations, most photos are probably still impromptu portraits in bars and restaurants where atmospheric lighting doesn’t help things.

The rear camera delivers strong results, though sometimes it took a moment to collect its thoughts before shooting. And the front camera – called selfies in the camera software – delivers good shots, especially compared to many smartphones with much lower-resolution, non-Ultrapixel sensors.

There’s no physical home button on the One M9 so to wake the screen you must press the side-mounted power button. However, you can also double-tap on the display and the lock screen awakes. Nokia put this into its Asha budget phones several years back and now Microsoft and LG do it too. It’s very handy. Additionally, if you lift the phone up you can swipe up the screen with your finger to go straight to the home screen from standby.

Along with the theme generator, HTC’s Sense software includes another new feature called Sense Home which moves things around for you. Not in the way that your significant other moves the very thing you’re looking for without telling you, but in a more useful, effective way. It notices how you use your phone and ensures the home screen is adapted to put the apps you need front and centre. It adjusts what’s there based on where you are, learning what you most use at work and what’s more useful when you’re out.

So if you use the phone as a TV remote, it’ll know to make that easily accessible when you’re at home. If you only change your phone theme when you’re on the bus, it’ll flag that up appropriately, when it recognises you’re “out”. That’s when mapping and travel apps you use frequently will also appear here. It feels like a handy mind-reader, though many will feel it’s just as useful to know where things are because they’re exactly where you left them, thank you very much.

The M9 is a speedy phone thanks to generous active memory and fast processor set-up on board. In everyday use you shouldn’t find it sluggish at all, and even more power-hungry demands are met with ease. Battery life is good though you won’t find the M9 sailing through a second day’s use, which is a shame as other manufacturers, most notably Sony, are working hard to add life between charges.

The One M9 hits stores in the next few days. The truth is that the imminent arrival of Samsung’s latest Galaxy S6 will provide tough competition for HTC, more so than in recent years.

Still, this is a handsome, effective premium phone, just as HTC usually delivers. The camera is improved and selfies are great on the Ultrapixel front-facer. As always, HTC’s software is as elegant as the hardware (which is saying something) and the phone performs like a dream.