It’s a radical departure in design for a company desperately in need of some change – but for all that’s new here, there’s also a heaping helping of the familiar. Critics call HTC’s new “iPhone clone” evidence of the company’s ultimate surrender, while CEO Cher Wang has positioned it to employees as a well-balanced iPhone alternative. The truth is probably somewhere in between. Whichever side of the debate you fall on, it’s pretty clear that the HTC One A9 announced today is a make-or-break device for the financially troubled smartphone manufacturer, and we went hands-on to see what we could learn about the device formerly known as the “Aero.”
HTC One A9 hands-on
There’s no way to kick this off without coming out and saying it: to anyone with eyeballs, the One A9 is an unabashed iPhone 6 clone. No amount of hands-on time can make the resemblance less obvious, and no honest discussion can reach any other conclusion. From HTC’s perspective, it’s blended the rounded design of its Desire line with the all-metal construction of its One handhelds – and maybe more to the point, HTC says it got there first anyway. The company is absolutely right when it says that it jump-started the era of the unibody aluminum smartphone back in 2013, using an integrated antenna design which Apple essentially ripped off with the iPhone 6 a year and a half later. But Apple used HTC’s design elements as garnishes, whereas HTC has essentially built an iPhone 6 that runs Android.
The good news is that the iPhone 6 is still a fantastic piece of hardware, and HTC has lived up to its reputation for quality in reproducing it. In the hand, the One A9 is a solid but very lightweight (143g) handset that’ll eventually be available in four colors, its grade-6063 aluminum chosen for its broad range of texture and color options. The phone’s backside is dominated by the HTC logo at center and a 13MP camera up above, whose centerline position apparently took a considerable amount of engineering savvy to accomplish. Up front is a sheet of 2.5D Gorilla Glass 4, separated from the metal frame by a thin strip of polycarbonate.
HTC seems to have taken plenty of notes from the feedback it got on the One M9. The A9 doesn’t have a single sharp edge in sight, its wide-radius corners feeling almost satiny on the palm. Its power/standby key is heavily textured so there’s no confusing it with the volume rocker, and those buttons now stand well apart from the SIM and MicroSD trays on the other side of the phone. The A9 is much slimmer than the HTCs of yesteryear at 7.26mm, which helps obscure the fact that it’s nearly as tall as the One M9 it replaces.
To avoid making it even taller, the company says it was forced to make a choice between its trademark BoomSound speakers and a fingerprint scanner. So while it still includes specialized audio hardware and software for high-quality sound through headphones, the One A9 is the first HTC flagship in nearly three years to lack the distinctive duo of front-firing speakers. While that’s a big sacrifice for those of us who don’t want to scurry for earbuds every time we want to watch a YouTube video, the added convenience of a fingerprint scanner will probably be worth it.
Drop your finger on that sensor –it’s very fast– and the 5″ 1080p display flickers on to reveal another big shakeup. For the first time in years, HTC has gone with AMOLED instead of Super LCD, which makes for a big improvement in contrast and color saturation over previous generations. It’s also refreshing to see a manufacturer resist the urge to jump aboard the Quad HD bandwagon; 440ppi is plenty sharp at 5 inches.
The One A9 ships with Android Marshmallow –it’s one of the first devices outside the Nexus family to do so– and as such it brings all the goodies of that new build including enhanced app permissions, Google Now on Tap and battery-saving enhancements like Doze and App Standby (a good thing, considering the anemic size of the A9’s 2150 mAh power pack). HTC says it’s eased up on its third-party UI with this device, eliminating some duplicate features like the homegrown HTC Music and Mail apps, trading in its custom notification shade for the stock Android version, and even working with carriers to make operator bloatware deletable on its devices. Still, this is far from a stock experience: Sense is still very much alive in the form of the BlinkFeed social stream, interface design, and gesture-based controls – and these are welcome additions. Sense has for years been my preferred Android skin thanks to its modern, urbane aesthetic and intelligent features like Zoe (whose “live photos” feature serves as further fodder for the who-copied-who crowd).
Speaking of photos: yes, there’s a selfie camera here to go along with the main shooter, and it’s the familiar 4MP “UltraPixel” module of the One M9, tuned for low-light performance. HTC stressed to us that it understands a lot is riding on its cameras this year; it’s streamlined its viewfinder software for added simplicity and it’s brought phase-detection autofocus, RAW capture and the long-omitted optical stabilization to the 13MP sensor on the backside.
It’s all powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 processor backed up by 3 gigs of RAM and 32 gigs of storage. That mid-tier silicon may not be the newest of the new, but it doesn’t seem to have any trouble making Marshmallow quick and zippy (another reason we’ve appreciated HTC Sense for the past few years). As a special bonus, that Snapdragon 617 also enables QuickCharge 3.0: when it gets the update to enable it sometime after release, the One A9 should be capable of going from zero to 80% charge in just over a half an hour with a compatible charger. Sadly, that charger will be sold separately; the one in the box is the run-of-the-mill 1.5A adapter we’ve seen for a few years running.
We’d be more disappointed in that omission were it not for the HTC One A9’s price point. While the One M9 launched for a steep $650 here in the States just six months ago, HTC finally seems to have taken notice of the rise of the value segment in the Android space. The One A9’s single North American SKU will launch at $399 when it goes up for preorder at htc.com at 12:30pm ET today, Oct 20. That’s $50 less than the Moto X Pure Edition we recently lauded as a big deal. Initial availability will be limited to the Opal Silver and Carbon Gray, with Garnet Red slated for “coming weeks.” (In Europe, the picture is much less rosy: the UK version of the One A9 will launch at £429.99, a far worse deal when you consider that Europe, Asia, and Middle Eastern markets will be stuck with the A9’s less-capable 2GB/16GB trim.)
With the One A9, HTC says it wants to bring a new level of simplicity to the Android experience. On its face, the One A9 certainly seems capable of that with a pared-down software stack and a very accessible hardware build. But it’s tough to escape the feeling that, in its rush to reinvent, HTC has crossed over into conformity, giving up some of the quietly brilliant identity that got it this far. We’ll see whether that tradeoff was worth it –and whether you should consider picking up a One A9 for yourself– in our full review, coming soon.