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A safe choice: HTC’s One M9 (2015) reviewed

By Leigh D. Stark | 3:23 pm 26/03/2015

HTC’s 2015 flagship is here, and it’s speedy, shiny, and supremely solid. Can HTC out-do the Samsung Galaxy S6 before it even comes out?

Features

A new year means new phones, and there are quite a few on the way in the next few months.

First off the rank is HTC, getting in a week or two earlier than Samsung with the HTC One M9, a new smartphone that packs in 4G connectivity, lots of storage and space, high-speed insides, and more of that full metal jacket that impressed people when it first started appearing on some of HTC’s other handsets, such as the aluminium-clad Legend and the first generation of the One “M” range of phones.

This year, it’s all about the HTC One M9, which takes last year’s M8 and evolves it again, bringing back the metal body and 5 inch Full HD display, but changing what’s on the inside.

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On the inside, HTC has opted for Qualcomm’s 2015 flagship octa-core processor, the 64-bit Snapdragon 810, which itself is made from two quad-core sections, one clocked at 1.5GHz and the other clocked at 2GHz. Qualcomm’s most recent graphics processor also sits on this handset, with the Adreno 430 used here.

Memory on this handset sits at 3GB RAM, above the 2GB sweet spot Android tends to prefer, with storage set to 32GB on the inside and upgradeable via a microSD slot that will take the standard 16, 32, 64 and 128GB cards, but which also has the ability to read a 1 and 2TB microSD if you can find one.

And you’ll also find one of the most recent versions of Android on the One M9 out of the box, with version 5.0 or “Lollipop” found on this handset.

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Connections are all pretty standard fare for a flagship phone, with Category 6 4G LTE supported on this handset (though we’ve heard rumblings it can also pick up some Category 9 signals, which isn’t yet supported locally), with Bluetooth 4.1 with apt-X and A2DP found here, GPS, Near-Field Communication (NFC), infrared, microUSB with MHL, and of course WiFi, running at 802.11a/b/g/n and even 802.11ac.

Cameras can be found here, with a 20 megapixel shooter on the back of the M9 and HTC’s “Ultrapixel” camera from last year’s M8 used instead as the front-facing selfie camera. Both of these should capture video in 1080p Full HD, but only the rear camera on the One M9 has the ability to record video at 4K Ultra HD.

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This is all encased in a metal body, just like last year, held tight with a 5 inch Full HD screen capable of showing 441 pixels per inch, and covered with Corning’s Gorilla Glass 4. Two of HTC’s BoomSound speakers can also be found on the front, one above and one below the 5 inch display.

Few buttons and ports are located on this phone, with individual volume buttons (up, down) and a power button found on the right edge, and on-screen buttons doing the rest, and with ports catered for all at the bottom through the microUSB charge and data transfer port as well as the 3.5mm headset jack.

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Two trays can still be found on the body, with a nanoSIM tray ejectable from a pin-ejector tool on the left side of the body, while the microSD slot pops out using the same method on the right side.

The battery is rated at 2840mAh and is not removable.

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Performance

If you can believe it, it’s March, and while we’ve yet to get a book published (one of these days…), the 2015 smartphone fight has officially begun.

First out the gate in Australia is HTC, ready with its One M9, a continuation of the “One” branding HTC first launched in 2012, with the focus shifting from plastic to metal and an emphasis on high-end sound and well-made cameras being a big part of the package.

In fact, the moment HTC moved from its One X to the metal “One” (also known as the M7), we saw a new template for the company to evolve. That handset drew rave reviews, not just from us, but everyone, and last year, the company banged out the edges, smoothed the body, and upgraded some areas to make it better than before.

HTC M series over the past few years, with the One M7 (2013) on the left, the One M8 (2014) in the middle, and the One M9 (2015) on the right.

HTC M series over the past few years, with the One M7 (2013) on the left, the One M8 (2014) in the middle, and the One M9 (2015) on the right.

This year, the feeling from Mobile World Congress was HTC was doing the same, albeit in a more subdued way, with updates applied to the system specs, the camera, and the software, but much the same screen and body design, though the latter was firmed up and made more shiny.

In the flesh, we can tell you that in some ways, it feels like HTC is going for that perfected look, with a style that evolves what we saw in last year’s HTC One M8, making it more luxurious and closer to what you apparently get if you buy jewellery.

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Beyond a wedding ring, this journalist doesn’t wear much of that, so he really can’t say, but the metal here is definitely highly polished and very durable, chiming in with what HTC told us it was doing to this phone, which apparently includes over 70 steps to make the body, 300 minutes to make, and with every phone being hand polished.

The steps show, and there really isn’t another phone like it. Apple’s iPhone 6 and 6 Plus happen to look fantastic, as do Sony’s glass-encased Xperia Z3 and Z3 Compact bodies, but HTC’s One M9 looks premium, like a ring and necklace that had merged, and high quality ones at that.

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Pick up the handset and you’ll feel that premium quality, too, a big chunk of metal that has the M9 ringing in at 157 grams, 12 grams heavier than Samsung’s Galaxy S5 from last year, and yet three grams lighter than HTC’s M8 before it.

It’s a noticeable weight with a noticeable heft, likely coming from the metal body, but it’s one that screams “this phone was made very, very well” and literally can’t be ignored.

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Button locations on this phone are better than they have been before, with all pushed to the right edge and more easily found within grip.

No longer do you have to stretch your digits to the top of the phone to switch it on, and you can grip the textured middle button — textured with a spiral pattern reminiscent of a fingerprint, even (below) — to bring the phone back from standby, while the separated metal buttons above it control volume up and volume down.

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We’re grateful for HTC’s repositioning on this one, but there is an aspect to the design we’re not too sure about: the lip.

HTC’s design for the One M9 doesn’t feel like the one-piece metal unibody we saw for the past two years, with the M9 looking more like it was made from two portions and providing a lip to the design. It’s not uncomfortable to hold and it does offer you a little more to feel than just another slick edge, but it’s not as smooth as we’d have liked, and comes across almost like there’s another case around the back of the phone, even if there isn’t.

Not everyone will love this element of the design, that’s for sure, but beyond that, it’s hard to see the One M9 as anything other than pretty. Really pretty.

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The screen is the next major element, and HTC hasn’t made much of a change here, keeping the Full HD 5 inch display with excellent viewing angles, and a pixel clarity number of 441 pixels per inch, still lower than what the 2013 HTC One M7 offered with 468 ppi on its 4.7 inch screen, but more than enough for the human eye, so good luck peeping those pixels.

Corning’s fourth-generation Gorilla Glass protects this (Gorilla Glass 4), bringing a little more scratch-resistance and drop protection, though don’t expect the phone to survive a smash with the ground, so try to stop that from happening if you can.

Performance is next, and here in this model, we’re seeing Qualcomm’s latest and greatest make an appearance, hardly a surprise since HTC has been using the Qualcomm processors in its phone for so long, we’ve lost count.

In the M9, we’re seeing the 64-bit Snapdragon 810, a processor backing two quad-core components clocked at 1.5 and 2GHz separately, making it into an eight-core chip inside of a phone which is fairly impressive just on a “spec on paper” level.

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With performance, the impressive glances continue, clocking in at a score of 30535 in Quadrant’s benchmarking app and practically blowing our eyebrows off in this synthetic benchmark. In comparison to some of last year’s top devices, that’s a score of 10,000 points higher, telling you what a difference the eight-core processor has against last year’s top-end quad-core chips.

And granted, benchmarks of this kind are really only useful for telling you how much power the system innards have to work with, but operation of the One M9 reveals much the same impressive performance.

Turn the phone on, load up apps, jump between software, and use the phone in general, and you find the phone handles its own, without so much of a speed bump except in one area, with the camera the only area we noticed delays, usually in loading up and firing off photos. The camera was the only section where lag was discernible, noticeable especially when shots weren’t fired when we pressed the shutter.

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Beyond that, however, the system is fast, snappy, and a pleasure to use, and we suspect part of that is due to Android 5.0 “Lollipop” appearing on the phone out of the box.

Yes, just like the Motorola X2 from earlier in the year, Lollipop is the operating system, with support included for multi-tasking being the way you jump around tabs inside the Chrome web browser, more settings options, and a cleaner notification drop down with cards that appear over everything else you’re doing that can be swiped away with ease.

Just like we experienced in that phone, Lollipop is a joy to use, and HTC’s changes to its Sense overlay can be noted, also, thanks in part to the level of customisation applicable to this phone.

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For starters, there are some interesting changes to the bottom bar of Android, the software buttons that let you go back to home, go back out of an app, and play with multi-tasking. Those are the general shortcuts you find on every Android phone from 2013 on-wards, and depending on who makes the handset, they’ll appear in different ways.

In the M9, however, HTC is making it possible for the shortcuts to appear however you want them, allowing you to not only move them about and rearrange the icons, but also add your own power shortcuts.

There can only be four at a time — sorry, but filling the bottom bar with tons of icons probably would just look ridiculous and be totally unusable — but this extra personalisation can be found in the “change navigation buttons” part of the personalise section, with options for switching the screen off, showing notifications, hiding the navigation bar, auto-rotate being turned on and off, and a quick way to get at settings.

This is a neat inclusion, and something we’ve yet to see on other Android phones. Some devices have gotten close, with LG’s G3 revealing a few extra and semi-controllable shortcuts in the past, though we never really wanted to use its extra note-taking features, and so we just left things the same. In the choices offered on the One M9, HTC is really letting you customise until your heart is content.

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The customisation continues in other ways on the HTC One M9, with themes finally added beyond a few made by HTC, with these able to be made by you based on photos or images you take or find.

Within a few days of launch, you’ll already find quite a few themes available to download, some by HTC and others by, well, other people, but you can always make your own.

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It’s worth pointing out that themes aren’t just a basic wallpaper, with the font for your phone able to be changed, as well as icon packs, sound effects, and the colours for header sections of apps.

Some of these themes will changes these areas, and others won’t, but you can easily make themes from an image and even have HTC’s software analyse a photo to get you started, which means your phone doesn’t have to resemble the same stock standard design everyone else uses if you don’t want to.

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And being Android, if you really wanted, you could replace the launcher with something else if you desperately wanted to, but we found HTC’s Sense 7 a refreshing take on what HTC had been doing in the past.

Menus are much the same as they have been with a couple of colour changes, two grid sizes (3×4 or 4×5), and a few choices for how apps are sorted, but for the most part, Sense 7 is a tightening up of how an HTC phone looks and operates with some customisation brought into the picture, and we think people will like it, and respond well to it.

BlinkFeed, however, hasn’t changed much, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

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Originally introduced with the first metal-bodied “One”, the M7 that we fell in love with a few years ago, BlinkFeed essentially wrapped up a Flipboard style of news reader into your home screen, providing news and social notifications on the left-most screen of your several-strong widgetised home screen choice.

Here you could read your life in a frequently updated system that in the beginning wasn’t able to be removed, but later on was, when HTC unlocked that functionality.

What HTC never unlocked, however, was the ability to let you subscribe to any website, with BlinkFeed relying on content from a company called “Mobiles Republic”, offering feeds from lots of websites, but not necessarily the ones you read.

Still today, that hasn’t changed, and in the HTC One M9, if we want to use BlinkFeed, we can read articles from news.com.au, but not the Fairfax equivalent. If we have other websites that we regularly check out, they might be on the BlinkFeed subscriber system, and they also might not be, and the unfortunate reality of this system means you can’t actually add your own RSS feed, so if you have a website that you regularly read, you may not be able to view it in BlinkFeed.

It’s frustrating and a little irritating, because HTC has made social networking available through the system, so you can see your Twitter and LinkedIn and Facebook and Instagram feeds in a long flowing magazine-like tile system on the left-most page of your home screen, but you can’t necessarily check out news from a webpage you regularly read.

At least you can remove the BlinkFeed page altogether, so that’s something.

Blinkfeed offers more news sources, but still can't be customised by you all that much.

Blinkfeed offers more news sources, but still can’t be customised by you all that much.

There are other aspects to HTC’s changes worth checking out, including a gallery update called “Cloudex” that allows you to browse through other galleries of other services, bringing in what you’ve uploaded on Facebook, Google Drive, Dropbox, and Flickr, browsing your images shot from other devices and putting them under the same umbrella.

For people who have owned multiple devices in the past, maybe one per year, this will help unite those images provided they were uploaded to various services and not left on the phone to do nothing.

HTC’s image editing application “Zoe” is also included, though without last year’s way of adding depth-sensing camera effects thanks to the spare camera (that’s not in this phone), as is the remote control functionality, which now appears in the app “Peel Smart Remote”, telling us HTC thought it was easier not to rebrand an app and just let Peel handle it by itself this time.

No worries, because it led us to finding out that HTC has apparently taken a page of out of Motorola’s book and made the HTC apps very modular, and not just total integrations to an operating system like it is with other smartphones, an action that should lead to more efficiently rolled out operating system updates.

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We noticed this when we started trying to find the HTC Watch app, which was nowhere to be seen, though other HTC apps were on the Play Store, many of which had already been installed on the One M9 handset, including HTC Video Chat, HTC Connect, HTC Guide, HTC Gallery, HTC Weather, HTC Camera, HTC File Manager, and so on and so on. These all appear to be fairly integral elements to the operation of the M9, suggesting to us that the Motorola approach to releasing its functionality as apps on top of the operating system is what HTC is doing here, too, though you can’t remove the apps.

As we’ve previously noted, we hope this means operating system updates will be faster, as HTC won’t have to make the updates as large, changing the apps only when needed and rolling out those changes through the Google Play store when they’re required.

Phone calls sound great on this phone, too, and regular operations are great, too, with gesture typing included using the built-in “Trace” keyboard, a car mode, and an easy home screen for people who don’t really need complicated and want everything in a big easy to press form.

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We stick to the regular home screen, the one with widgets, and if this is you, you’ll find a new Sense widget (above) included with program shortcuts that change based on where you are — home, work, out — and what you use most.

In use, the home widget is supposed to offer apps you use on a regular basis when you’re in these environments, similar to other launchers that do the same thing, only in a widget form. Our experience with this widget revealed that it wasn’t changing shortcuts until we forced it to, which often meant seeing apps that we never used, though it’s entirely possible we didn’t spend enough time fiddling with it.

You might use it, you might not, though it’s definitely not a requirement, and you could easily just get by with your own shortcuts outside of a widget and just on the home screen.

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Mobile download performance is also strong, hardly a surprise given the Category 6 LTE chops it has, and through our testing on the Telstra network in Sydney’s CBD, we found speeds as high as 105Mbps, with the majority of speeds averaging between 25 and 45Mbps.

Those speeds are definitely fast enough, and depending on the network you’re on and where you are, you may end up pulling even faster download speeds than we did.

Audio is also changed on this model, and with Beats now owned by Apple, it’s not only HTC that can’t tap the company’s expertise.

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Instead, HTC is leaning on Dolby for the One M9, with Dolby’s understanding of sound able to be switched on and off depending on if you’re listening to audio using your headphones or the phone’s speakers.

On the former, you’ll find a reasonable amount of line volume here, though we found the audio quality better from the One M9 when Dolby was switched off and used with headphones, as it tended to make headphones sound a little too bright, the Dolby technology changing the sound-space for headphone types.

Interestingly, there are presets made for three headphones made by HTC — headphones we’d be surprised anyone will use outside of those buying the handset, and possibly not even them — and yet nothing else.

Seriously, it’s easier and better if you just switch Dolby off when plugging in headphones.

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When you’re listening through the speaker, you’ll have some of HTC’s BoomSound technology to contend with, not just the Dolby support.

We’re not entirely sure the “surround” technology we had hinted at us from the launch is all that noticeable, and the idea that anything other than two channels could be pushed out from two forward-facing speakers is a little bit odd, but technically, Dolby Surround is here working away, making everything sound just that much better, which in turn translates to being able to leave a small Bluetooth speaker at home. Fancy.

High resolution audio support is here, and if the song has lyrics, the audio player will even try to find them, displaying them on the visualisation screen.

You can also hear 24-bit audio files in FLAC, something we first saw on the LG phones, but has since made its way to models from other manufacturers, too.

HTC is now part of this club, and with compatible headphones, you can hear high-resolution audio provided you have the files to begin with.

Over to the world of cameras, and while we’re a little baffled by HTC’s decision on this one, it’s nice to see a solid camera, if not one that’s a little slower than we’d like.

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You see, for the past two years, HTC has been banging on about “Ultrapixels”, the homemade technology aimed at making smartphone cameras better with a larger image sensor.

This special camera was called an Ultrapixel camera, and it dealt with low-light better than other modules, and generally included video and image capturing technology able to let you erase elements from a scene.

HTC's One cameras through the years, with the One M7 from 2013 on the left, the One M8 from 2014 in the middle, and the One M9 (the phone this review is about) from 2015 on the right.

HTC’s One cameras through the years, with the One M7 from 2013 on the left, the One M8 from 2014 in the middle, and the One M9 (the phone this review is about) from 2015 on the right.

Last year in the M8, this was expanded to use another camera, with both rear cameras used to combine depth data and make images that would let you move around them, almost as if they were 3D, with similar effects to what the Lytro lightfield camera could do.

But this year, the dual-camera concept is gone, and the Ultrapixel camera — which itself relied on four megapixel images — has been moved from the back to the front, becoming merely a selfie camera.

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In its place and on the back is a 20 megapixel shooter with the sensor provided by Sony and the glass made of sapphire so it doesn’t scratch.

This combination of technologies results in a camera that will suit most situations, offer a decent size image (with 16:9, 10:7, and 1:1 aspect ratios), and includes software for automatic and manual exposure control, as well as downloadable camera modes catering to simultaneous front and rear capture modes, panorama, and soft focus via a “bokeh” mode.

Image sample from the HTC One M9's rear camera

Image sample from the HTC One M9’s rear camera

In use, the 20 megapixels offered here are far more useful than the 4 megapixels we had last year, though the camera interface can be a little slow, not just for firing, but also for focus, noted earlier in the review.

Picture quality isn’t the best in the business, either, with details mostly missing and soft instead when viewed up close, and an overall exposure issue, with both under- and over-exposing applied to many of the images.

Image sample from the HTC One M9's rear camera

Image sample from the HTC One M9’s rear camera

This last one could easily be fixed up in firmware, though HTC hasn’t always nailed camera firmware.

Some shots work perfectly, though, and there are some manual camera modes thrown in for good measure, just in case you don’t trust the automatic software to do its thing.

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On the other hand, we didn’t think too much of the selfie camera, with the images out of the Ultrapixel camera up front lacking clarity and feeling soft, even with the included beauty mode turned down, a feature that generally seeks to soften up skin tones to remove blemished or the look of, well, skin.

Image sample from the HTC One M9's front-facing Ultrapixel camera

Image sample from the HTC One M9’s front-facing Ultrapixel camera

At least the rear camera has the potential to handle itself well enough — in some situations, anyway — and we’re happy to see that HTC has brought 4K to a smartphone camera finally, a year after Samsung did, so that’s something.

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Let’s talk battery life, because it seems like we might be going a little backwards with this one. While the HTC One M8 managed a day and a half, the most you’ll really find on the One M9 is a full day, with the battery conking out before the full 24 hours is reached.

In our test, we found a rundown of making phone calls, sending messages, surfing the web, listening to music, taking photos, and general use of a phone provided life from 6.30am to 11.30 pm that day, where we killed the test at 16%.

A day of life is acceptable, but mediocre, and not enough to really cite an improvement over what HTC released in last year’s flagship smartphone. In fact, it actually goes a little backwards.

With fairness to HTC, the One M9 does include a few little power saving software options, so you might be able to squeeze some more life out of the handset, but in general, a day is all you’ll find for this phone.

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Heating can also be a little bit of a problem with this phone, or rather, overheating. Use the phone regularly and you’ll find it can get a wee bit toasty, which we suspect might be something Qualcomm and HTC will iron out over time.

It’s not an uncomfortable amount of heat, but it’s definitely noticeable, and the metal used in the construction of the handset doesn’t do much to keep the warmth down.

There’s also no ruggedisation, which isn’t a huge deal since HTC has never included that feature, but is noticeable since we’re beginning to see more phones take on a degree of water and dust resistance. Just not this phone.

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Conclusion

HTC’s latest take on the M9 feels like a firming up of what we’ve already seen, as HTC makes the One series of phones a little more mature, rather than make a stab at something new altogether.

Really, if you had to say nine things to say about the handset about the M9 with an emphasis on the letter “M”, you’d say it was meticulously crafted thanks to it’s machined metal make, meaty in weight, modifiable, emphasising multimedia, making a case for megapixels over Ultrapixels (a surprise given the push from the M8), and in general being a meagre update, if not one that shows HTC knows how to mature devices, rather than going for a full-out remake.

Was that nine things? We’re not even sure.

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What we are sure of is that the HTC One M9 is stylish yet safe. It’s still an excellent phone, and there is a lot to admire about what HTC has made here, but if you’re looking at the new handset and expecting an evolution, a revolution, and more of that panache HTC has brought for the past few years, you’ll get some of it, but not likely all.

For the first shot in the 2015 smartphone race, there’s certainly a lot to like here, and customers will likely love just how well made and finely tuned the One M9 is, but there’s more to come, and we think HTC could have done a little to make it a little more remarkable, rather than being merely memorable.

Price (RRP)

$1099; Available on plans from Telstra, Optus, Vodafone, and Virgin;

Pros & Cons

Product Pros

Very, very solid; Aesthetically pleasing; Easy to customise; System performance is mighty snappy; Fast 4G speeds; HTC's front-facing BoomSound speakers are still awesome; Infrared port still included, and yes, it can control a TV; Upgradeable via microSD slot; High-res audio support included; Supports DotView cases for that retro look (and will fit in old cases-ish, but not load the DotView when closed on these); 

Product Cons

Chassis lip can feel a little strange in the hand, and removes the slick unibody feeling of the prior two models; The M9 can get mighty warm over use; Mediocre battery life; Camera can be a little slow to start up and doesn’t offer the best image quality out of the box; No ruggedisation; Screen hasn’t changed dramatically to keep up with the times;

Ratings

Overall

Features

Value for money

Performance

Ease of Use

Design

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