HTC One A9 review: if you can’t beat ’em, clone ’em
There’s a scene in the 1994 action comedy True Lies that goes like this. Two bad guys are in a truck which ends up perched precariously on a ledge, its front end poised for a long drop to the water below. The truck shakes and shimmies but then eventually rights itself, balancing perfectly on its center of gravity, its occupants breaking out into cheers of relief at their improbable salvation.
Then a pelican lands on the hood, and the now-imbalanced truck plummets to the sea below. (And because this is a James Cameron movie, it explodes.)
The Android stalwart HTC is a truck on a ledge. Following a poorly received smartphone launch last spring and an administrative shakeup that saw longtime CEO Peter Chou replaced by Chairwoman Cher Wang, the company has been struck from a major index on the Taiwanese Stock exchange, posted its worst earnings in eight years, and announced layoffs numbering more than 3,000. While HTC has recently broadened its offerings to include a (mind-blowing) virtual reality gaming system and an action camera, the latter doesn’t seem to have done much for the company’s bottom line and the former has been delayed. The company’s core business –Android smartphones– badly needs a hit.
Enter the HTC One A9 (née Aero), a petite sliver of a smartphone that breaks from HTC’s flagship philosophy in several key respects. It packs a midrange processor, omits iconic HTC design elements like front-firing speakers, and comes in at a price point that’s sure to shock you – twice. Oh, and it looks just like an iPhone.
Can this peculiar offering, branded as a “flagship” in the US and a “hero device” in the rest of the world, bring HTC back from the brink of a grisly conflagration – or is it instead the pelican that will finally send the company over the edge? The answer after the break in our HTC One A9 review.
Video Review · Hardware · Software · Camera · Performance
HTC One A9 Review Video
The sooner we get this out there, the sooner we can move on. HTC –presumably with a straight face– calls the One A9 an evolution of its own iconic design. What it looks like to us (and to anyone with eyeballs, we imagine) is an iPhone 6. Tiny protruding camera module? Check. Medium-radius corners? Yep. Flat front/back aluminum panels with rounded edges? Present. Inlaid antenna bands? Accounted for. In fact, the One A9 looks and feels so much like an iPhone that we found ourselves subconsciously trying to use 3D Touch more than once during our testing. To be clear, HTC’s claim of “First!” is totally valid here: HTC introduced the concept of a unibody aluminum smartphone back in 2013 only to have it crudely ganked by Apple, and that sucks. And in a world without an iPhone, it’s perfectly believable that the company would eventually get around to marrying the design of its Desire line with the material construction of its One series. But we don’t live in that world; we live in the one where the most profitable smartphone in history looks like this. In this world, green-lighting a design as derivative as the One A9’s and then retconning it as some kind of “natural evolution” seems more desperate than defiant.
Design origins aside, the One A9 is proof positive that HTC hasn’t forgotten how to build tight hardware. The phone is available in three shades of 6063 aluminum alloy with either a white or black faceplate protected by Gorilla Glass 3. HTC has taken to heart much of our feedback concerning the One M9: there’s not a hard edge to be found on the One A9, and its power/standby button is so heavily textured that there’s no chance of confusing it with the neighboring volume rocker. The A9 is actually just a hair taller than the M9, but at 7.26mm and 143g, it’s much thinner and lighter – which makes it feel much smaller in the hand. Sadly, HTC didn’t carry over the grippy finish from the M9, so the A9 is quite slippery in the hand.
Following in the footsteps of the One M9+, the A9 boasts a fingerprint scanner contained within a rectangular depression beneath the display, and like most current-generation biometric sensors it’s quite fast and accurate. It’s the lone button on the phone’s faceplate: home, back and multitasking functions are controlled by the typical trio of Android softkeys projected on its display. The screen’s 5-inch diagonal measurement will likely come as a breath of fresh air to anyone who’s bemoaned the ever-escalating scale of the modern smartphone: it makes for a device that’s very easy to hold and operate with one hand. This panel also breaks from long HTC tradition in that it uses AMOLED technology instead of SuperLCD, with the resulting higher contrast and saturation that we’ve come to know and love. HTC has kept the screen resolution high for the size at 1080p, and the resulting pixel density of 440ppi should be more than enough for anyone. While we’re making iPhone comparisons, we may as well point out that in both size and resolution, the One A9’s panel spanks the so-called Retina display of the iPhone 6s.
Running on that screen is Android 6.0 Marshmallow painted over with HTC’s custom interface. With its behind-the-scenes improvements, Google Now on Tap, revised app permissions model and renovated notification scheme, this is a fantastic build of Google’s mobile platform. You can read our in-depth thoughts on Android Marshmallow in our Nexus 6P review.
Like most HTC phones before it, the One A9 sets itself apart from stock Android with a third-party interface called HTC Sense (now at version 7.0). The company says it’s committed to slimming down its software customizations this year: in the most visible expression of this shakeup, both the HTC notification drawer and multi-pane app switcher are gone, replaced by their stock counterparts. But HTC Sense might be the one third-party interface whose customizations we mourn the loss of. For the past few years, Sense has brought an urbane sensibility to the Android experience, a distinguished look and feel to complement the company’s hardware. Best of all, Sense doesn’t impair the smooth flow of Android; in keeping with its predecessors’ tradition of excellence, the One A9’s software experience is as buttery smooth as you could ask for.
Fortunately, HTC’s Sense modifications can be better characterized as “housecleaning” than “gutting.” HTC expects most of its customers to use Google’s services, so it’s struck redundant apps like Email, Internet and HTC Music from the pre-install list in some markets (and the company is pushing hard to make even carrier bloatware deletable on its devices). Core conveniences, though, remain: BlinkFeed still does a nice job aggregating social and news feeds into one single-stream list; you can still wake the phone using a variety of taps and swipes if you don’t want to use the fingerprint scanner; the lock screen will still inform you about local dining opportunities at mealtimes if you want it to; and you can easily change the look and feel of the entire OS by applying a theme. So the soul of Sense remains intact, while the smaller nips and tucks will help HTC deliver on its promise of speedy Android updates – specifically, that it will deliver updates no more than 15 days after Google releases them.
After generations of underwhelming cameras, HTC says it spent more time and effort than ever before to build a solid shooter into the One A9. The spec sheet certainly promises something different for HTC: the hardware here is a 13MP Sony sensor, with an f/2.0 aperture and a pixel size of 1.1μm. There’s also optical image stabilization in tow, making its return to the One family for the first time in two generations. HTC says the refined OIS rig brings refined capabilities as well; it’s capable of detecting movement in 0.125ms and compensating for up to 1.4 degrees of motion.
HTC has also refined its viewfinder software, simplifying the software and moving our beloved photo effects to a separate app. In addition to a new “Hyperlapse” extended motion-capture mode, the viewfinder also incorporates the full “Pro” shooting mode with RAW support that we first saw on the One M9 software update earlier in the year. Sadly, HTC sticks with the same volume-key shortcut here that it introduced on the One M8 nearly two years ago, which requires you first to raise the phone into position and then push the button to launch the camera. In our experience it works a little less than half the time on the One A9, which is about as well as it’s ever done.
On to the photos themselves. If you give it enough light, the One A9 is capable of pictures ranging from pretty to gorgeous. Of course that’s true of almost any high-end smartphone camera these days; with the right lighting you basically can’t miss. And as we proved with a couple rounds of “Guess Which Phone Took These Photos” at Pocketnow, even zealous fanboys can’t reliably tell the difference between phone cameras in a blind test. So if your shooting is confined to Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat posts, you’ll be fine with the A9.
But shooting with this phone in one hand and the Nexus 6P in another, we’re hard pressed to find more than one or two occasions where we prefer the One A9’s shot. In night shooting, where the 6P can pull in quite a bit of light thanks to its oversized (1.55 µm) pixels, the One A9 often struggles to produce a visible subject. The One A9 is sometimes better at color reproduction in low light situations, but often its photos are so dark as to make that a hollow victory. In general, the A9’s pictures are too noisy with too little dynamic range, its colors are often undersaturated, and its focus is usually too slow to keep up with moving subjects. Professional photographers (or advanced amateurs) will likely be able to coax more quality from this camera, but the layperson shouldn’t expect any miracles from these stills.
Video recording maxes out at 1080p, a limitation which will annoy the spec-heads in the audience but one we don’t have much of a problem with. The second-generation optical stabilization earns its pay here; it does a good job of smoothing hand trembles and footsteps, and while there’s a little bit of focus hunting at times it’s not too bad. Again, what relegates this footage to the “meh” pile is the excessive digital noise and flat color reproduction, which often makes scenes look dead or hollow. These are complaints which also extend to the 4MP UltraPixel sensor on the front side of the phone, though here at least HTC gets to bring its low-light prowess to bear for brighter selfies.
On the whole, we’re left with a camera suite that’s only slightly above average at best, and pretty lackluster at worst. HTC is improving its cameras over time, but the One A9 won’t be the phone to change the company’s reputation for underwhelming optics.
With such an undersized battery –just 2150 mAh– you might expect the One A9 to disappoint in endurance as well, but thankfully that’s not the case. Between Marshmallow’s new power-saving features and HTC’s own optimizations, the One A9 usually made it through a full day of moderate use between charges during our thirteen-day test period. Screen-on time varies with use, but we’ve hit the four-hour mark –our unofficial water mark for “acceptable” endurance– on several occasions. Again, that’s with moderate usage; start juggling Asphalt 8 and ten Chrome tabs and you’re going to need to top up before the day is done. Here, HTC offers another convenience in the form of Qualcomm’s QuickCharge 3.0, which should allow for a replenishment rate of 0% to 80% in as little as a half-hour when it comes to the phone via firmware update. In the interim, the One A9 is compatible with QuickCharge 2.0. Sadly, HTC doesn’t include a 3.0-compatible charger (or even a 2.0-compatible one) in the box; instead, buyers will need to plod along at the pokey top-up speeds of a standard 1.5A HTC wall wart.
The same corner-cutting behind that decision was likely also responsible for HTC’s going with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 processor instead of something a little more high-end. But those who call the One A9 a mid-range device based solely on its use of a lower-tier SoC are missing the point. In our nearly two weeks with the One A9, there were no signs whatsoever that we were using “inferior” silicon. While career gamers or professional pixel-pushers might be able to spot the occasional dropped frame in high-demand graphics titles, the vast majority of users will be none the wiser. In nearly every use case, the A9 delivers flagship-level performance.
Really, what we miss more are the BoomSound speakers. The lone bottom-firing driver here is nothing special, and it’s a shame to see one of HTC’s key differentiators sacrificed. On the bright side, audiophiles will appreciate the goodies HTC has built in for earphone mode: the dedicated amplifier supports Dolby Surround and Dolby noise reduction, and the One A9 is capable of up-sampling 16bit music tracks to 24bit, even when those tracks are downloaded from third-party apps like Spotify. For those who prefer the all-Google-all-the-time lifestyle, the One A9 also comes with six months of unlimited Google Play Music.
(Editor’s Note: Our review device is an EMEA model built for the European market. As such, it lacks full North American band support and we were confined to HSPA (3G) rather than LTE for the duration of our testing on T-Mobile US. Accordingly, our conclusions with respect to voice quality, battery life, and network performance should be treated as early impressions pending later verification.)
+ Excellent fit and finish
+ Solid display
+ Smooth performance
+ Quick Charge 3.0 compatible
– Not enough power for the price (after promotional period)
– Camera underperforms in low light
– European pricing is crazy
Pricing and Availability
HTC is using the One A9 as an opportunity to aggressively push its own sales portal at HTC.com, where it’s offering the device in only one SKU for North America: a 32GB model with 3GB of RAM. (Europe will have to make do with a somewhat less-capable 16GB/2GB version, but both models feature MicroSD expansion.) The phone will ship in four colors, with Opal Silver and Carbon Gray leading the way and Deep Garnet and Topaz Gold following later in the season.
For the privilege, HTC is asking just $399.99 for an unlocked One A9 – but only for those who order the phone before it goes on sale at carrier stores. Those who snooze on that promotional price will pay dearly for tarrying: come November 7th, the One A9’s price will rise to its full $499.99 in North America, with suggested European pricing coming in at a truly mind-boggling £429.99 (about $658 at press time). Like prior HTC flagships, the One A9 is covered by the company’s Uh Oh protection plan, which offers a one-time replacement device should a user break the display, suffer water damage, or decide to switch carriers at any time during the first 12 months of ownership.
For those who prefer their HTC phone with carrier branding –and the carrier installment plans that go along with it– the One A9 will be available through AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint, with Verizon support possible via a kind of hacky workaround based on VoLTE.
In the United States, then, the HTC One A9 is in the unique position of being two phones at once. At its promotional price of $399, it’s an excellent combination of beautiful hardware and capable software, a more delicate alternative to the Moto X Pure Edition and OnePlus 2 that makes up for its comparative lack of power with good looks and an exceptionally smooth user experience.
At its actual price of $499, the One A9 is something else entirely. This is the price bracket occupied by the excellent Google Nexus 6P and some versions of the LG G4, a mere $30 away from Samsung’s Galaxy S6. At this tier, the One A9 is the young tough trying to fit in with the older crowd, its middling camera and multimedia chops trying but failing to keep pace, its derivative design now all but impossible to overlook. It is, in other words, a pelican landing on the hood of a truck poised on the edge of a precipice.
Is that an overly dramatic reading of the situation? Probably so. Will ordinary people care about the departure the One A9 represents from HTC’s traditional design? Definitely not. In fact, for those few smartphone shoppers who carefully compare prices and find the HTC One A9 $150-$250 cheaper than an iPhone 6s, the decision will likely be a fairly easy one. We hope for HTC’s sake that there are many such people. But few Android shoppers are likely to have the iPhone in mind when considering the One A9 (at least until they pick it up), and we genuinely believe that HTC has hurt the phone’s prospects by pricing it like a flagship. Accordingly, we recommend that those interested in buying a One A9 either do so right away to take advantage of the promotional price – or wait a few months for the inevitable price drop to arrive down the road.