HTC One A9 review: This is not Android’s iPhone

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Forget about waiting around until February or March 2016 to see what the next flagship from HTC brings. The One A9 is here and it wants to be everything in a slim, compact piece of aluminum. Actually, if you ask HTC what the One A9 is meant to be, the company will tell you that this is the pinnacle of brilliance. That last word is defined by HTC as bringing personal control, function, and innovation into a single product, one that goes against the grain of popularity. Oddly though, the One A9 seems like a familiar device. Once again is HTC implementing an all-metal unibody design, its HTC Sense overlay, a seamless photo experience, and high-end audio. The original One M7 donned an incredible aluminum frame; the One (M8) packed serious stereo speakers; the One M9 refined the entire package. All pieces for HTC to draw upon. So it all comes down to execution for the One A9.

This is what’s supposed to lift HTC out of the dark and place it in the spotlight.

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Where the One A9 differs from the last three HTC flagships is pricing and availability. This is a phone that can be bought at an off-contract price that doesn’t completely break the bank. And, unlike some off-contract phones, quality is not sacrificed despite not paying north of $600. The One A9, which works on each of the Big Four U.S. carriers’ networks, costs $399 for a limited time off-contract. Aside from the unlocked variant, there will be variants that work solely on Sprint’s network and another for AT&T and T-Mobile customers. The latter variant will also be able to travel over to Verizon; however, do realize that you’ll be limited at it does not support their infamous CDMA network.

Design

The One A9 is coming at a time when no one really questions the fact that HTC can make beautiful devices. Since the One series’ reboot in 2013, the company has earned countless design and engineering awards. It’s not very surprising that the One A9 is just as beautiful the One M9. The two, though, do have their differences statistically and aesthetically. HTC’s flagship from earlier this year measures 144.6 x 69.7 x 9.6mm, weighing 157g, while the One A9 — the company’s current flagship — is thinner and lighter at 145.7 x 70.8 x 7.26mm and 143g. You can tell that this belongs to the famed One series.

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HTC says that this phone’s design is “subtle yet distinct.” I can agree with them because its design is unassuming. There really isn’t anything that makes the One A9 stand out, not that being unassuming is a bad thing. Compare the One A9 to another phone from HTC and any person will likely understand that the same company is behind their designs. Then compare the One A9 to the Galaxy Note 5, Moto G, or Nexus 5X. They’ll recognize HTC did not make those phones. HTC figured out a way to be unapologetically different. The One A9 is attractive even if it’s not groundbreaking. Here, there’s an all-metal unibody that’s smooth and cold to touch, meeting the front glass panel at a slightly curved edge. All of this allows the phone to sit so comfortably in your hand. Holding the One A9 is far more pleasant than any other phone I’ve used this year.

As good as having an aluminum phone is, gripping can be difficult. If you have hands that are perpetually moist (which you may want to get checked out), an aluminum phone is probably not for you unless you put a case/cover on it. It’ll slide right out of your hands and greet the floor at the end of its trip through midair. Fortunately for the One A9, HTC used a dual brushed and bead-blasted finish, similar to what was refined with the One M9. This means that the phone is not as slippery in the hand. HTC did throw polish on the sides and, yes, that can be a problem. However, the One A9 is compact enough where you can have a really good grip on it whether you’re using one or two hands.

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The front of the One A9 is pretty plain, as is the case with most phones. The color of the frame encasing the display comes in black or white. It’s an average size on the top and sides, but the bottom chin of the One A9 is rather large. That’s because HTC included a purposeful physical home button. For the first time since the HTC One Max, the company has a device with a fingerprint scanner available in the United States. Don’t fret! The One A9’s fingerprint scanner is nothing like that of the One Max. Nonetheless, it does add to the size of the bottom chin. Had it not been there, people would finally be happy to see an HTC phone that doesn’t have such large bezels. HTC also insisted on squeezing its logo between the physical home button and the display.

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Flip over the phone and things don’t really get any more exciting. The center of the rear has the HTC logo and near the top is the camera and LED flash. It seems like the fingerprint scanner would have been better on the back considering its compact size naturally places your index finger just below the camera at the center.

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Other physical buttons included on the One A9 are for power and volume. Everyone is still split on the placement of these and here HTC has put the volume rocker above the power button. It’s not exactly my favorite spot for any phone and definitely not with this one. The One A9 isn’t tall enough, so your fingers are naturally on the volume rocker instead of the power button. I constantly pressed the volume rocker down thinking it was the power button. Perhaps HTC knew about this because two things combat how annoying it is to mistakenly press the wrong button. The power button is textured in order to differentiate it from the volume rocker, so you should know whether or not you’re about to press the appropriate button. Or, tapping the physical home button wakes the phone. Regardless, I really wish the volume rocker was on the left side or swapped positions with the power button.

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Two slots are on the One A9, both situated on the left side near the top. The one closest to the top is for a microSD card that can bring in an additional 2TB of storage while the lower one is the SIM card slot.

The bottom has two ports, the usual micro-USB (sorry USB Type-C!) and auxiliary. They are aligned to the right of the lone speaker grill. Front-facing stereo speakers with BoomSound are not present.

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So after seeing the phone from various angles, I’d like to ask you a question… Does HTC’s One A9 look like Apple’s iPhone?

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HTC One A9

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Apple iPhone 6S

Ask HTC what they think about people saying the One A9 is a copycat of the iPhone and you’ll get a response that equates to not so fast. Jack Tong, HTC North Asia President, told a publication that it is Apple who is copying HTC:

“We’re not copying. We made a uni-body metal-clad phone in 2013. It’s Apple that copies us in terms of the antenna design on the back.”

Look at the rear on both devices and you’ll see bands at the top and bottom. This was first implemented by HTC with the original One M7 that was released in March 2013. Apple didn’t start using the same strategy to improve antenna quality until the iPhone 6 of 2014. But to be honest, other companies are using bands like this on their phones, too. HTC and Apple are being caught in the middle because of how similar the One A9 and iPhone 6S look. Move the camera on either phone to the opposition’s location and they look strikingly similar if you hide company logos. At some point, you’re going to have similarities. Everyone needs to accept that.

Color options for the One A9 include Opal Silver, Carbon Grey, Deep Garnet, and Topaz Gold. Depending on carrier and/or region, the color options you get to choose from may vary. The unit that I was sent by HTC was Opal Silver, which really adds to the iPhone-like look. To me, the One A9 is yet another beautiful phone that the engineers at HTC should be proud of. It’s well-made and no parts of it feel inherently cheap.

Hardware

The One A9 features a 5-inch Full HD (1920×1080) AMOLED display covered with Corning Gorilla Glass 4, Snapdragon 617 octa-core processor, Adreno 405, 3GB of RAM, 32GB of internal storage, a microSD card slot for up to 2TB, a 13MP rear camera, a 4MP front camera, a 2150mAh battery (non-removable), a fingerprint scanner, WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, and Bluetooth 4.1.

Bands:

4G LTE (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 12, 13, 17, 20, 28, 29)
3G UMTS (850, 900, AWS, 1900, 2100)
GSM/GPRS/EDGE (850, 900, 1800, 1900)

Performance

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Not much has changed over the course of the last three years with HTC’s displays. Their displays haven’t grown or evolved dramatically. Display resolution has never changed since the original One M7 and size has only increased once, moving from 4.7 inches to 5 inches with the One (M8). Like the two HTC flagships before it, the One A9 has a 5-inch Full HD display. The company still does not feel compelled to make the jump to Quad HD (2560×1440) with a display spanning 5.5+ inches. Samsung, Motorola, and LG have all released one or more phones with displays surpassing HTC’s offerings in both size and resolution. With the One A9, HTC at least decided to change its technology. The company really dropped their loyal use of LCD technology in favor of Super AMOLED. What you get here with the One A9 is a wider range of colors that really pop. This phone, like many of Samsung’s Super AMOLED devices, masters vibrancy. Colors look so rich and warm, unlike the coldness offered by some LCD displays. And it’s really needed on the One A9 because of how HTC uses its own wide range of color throughout HTC Sense. I didn’t notice a loss in sharpness moving from the Moto X Pure Edition’s Quad HD display to the One A9’s Full HD. The former’s 520 pixels per inch is better than the One A9’s 441 on paper, but your eyes won’t pick up on the drop.

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The One A9’s display (and entire front panel) is also really durable as its covered with Corning’s Gorilla Glass 4, a technology twice as durable as its predecessor.

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My sole gripe with the One A9’s display is the black border surrounding it. I understand that all phone’s with white fronts will likely show and emphasize a thin black border; however, the black border on the One A9 isn’t thin. It’s actually pretty thick, and it’s visible at all times. If you purchase the Opal Silver or Topaz Gold version of the One A9, prepare to notice that black border. The Carbon Grey and Deep Garnet versions do a better job hiding it.

I’m also baffled, and not necessarily bothered, by the inclusion of on-screen buttons since the One A9 has a physical home button. Capacitive buttons for Back and Recents should have been placed on the left and right sides of the home button. If HTC explains the current setup is a result of the fingerprint scanner, the component should have gone on the back of the One A9. Then HTC could keep its beloved on-screen buttons and the extra layer of authentication that comes with Marshmallow. Believe me, you’re going to run into problems where you forget that the physical home button is a home button and accidentally tap it when resting a finger there.

HTC touts its phones as multimedia wizards, which is partially true with the One A9. The speaker, while not a front-facing stereo speaker with BoomSound, is very powerful. Sound comes out of the bottom of the phone with depth, but that quickly disappears if you cover the speaker grill. I put my finger over it and the One A9 was essentially muted. The same thing happens with the Galaxy Note 5. The Nexus 5X, however, does not face the issue of being silenced. HTC tries to make up for it all by including BoomSound with Dolby Audio for compatible headphones, 24-bit / 192KHz audio, and a dedicated headphone amp. The catch is that you’re going to need specific equipment and audio files. Audiophiles will love the One A9 for this, but others will likely be unaware of the extra features.

This flagship lacks a traditional flagship processor. Rather than rolling with something from Qualcomm’s primary Snapdragon 800 series, the One A9 is operated by a processor from the Snapdragon 600 series. The good news is that the One A9 has the fresh Snapdragon 617, and it’s paired with 3GB of RAM. As I mention with any review, I’m not a power user by any means. I rarely push my phone to its limit. But I sure made it my job (quite literally) to so with the One A9. I was trading messages on Hangouts, playing Minecraft: Pocket Edition, and streaming music from iHeartRadio to see if the phone’s performance would be hindered. It turns out that the phone would only slow down slightly and just briefly if I left Minecraft to do something like scroll through Twitter. When not playing a game as heavy as Minecraft, the One A9 was fine throughout the day. It’s not as fast as the LG G4 or even the Nexus 5X, but I’m not going to complain and call the One A9 slow; HTC Sense or a lack of software optimization could be to blame for this.

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So how well does that fingerprint scanner work? Perfectly. HTC followed Google’s requirements to implement a proper fingerprint scanner, giving the One A9 a premier security measure. Place a digit on the fingerprint scanner that has been saved and the One A9 will unlock instantly. There is some leeway to allow your finger to be placed at various angles to unlock the phone.

Battery

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The One A9 is able to be so thin and light because of its small battery. A non-removable 2150mAh battery is stored within that all-metal body. Of course you can find a bigger battery in other phones; however, HTC seemingly optimized the One A9 to get the most out of 2150mAh because I consistently approached a full twenty-four hours before hitting 0%. I’ll admit that, again, I’m not a power user. My day-to-day activities on the One A9 included checking Twitter, sending/receiving emails, using Hangouts, and streaming music from iHeartRadio. In dire situations, use HTC’s Extreme Power Saving mode to stretch the One A9’s battery life further.

Here’s the expected battery life:

  • HD video playback: up to 12 hours
  • Audio playback: up to 60 hours
  • WiFi browsing: up to 9 hours
  • Talk time: up to 16 hours
  • Standby time: up to 18 days

I’m begging you to not head down into the comments and whine about this phone not having a removable battery. Save yourself the time. They’re going away whether you like it or not.

The One A9 supports Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 2.0 technology, so you’ll be able to charge it in a short amount of time using a compatible charger. It takes way less than sixty minutes to get a charge that will allow you to leave the house without worry about your phone’s battery life. HTC also notes that the One A9 will support the upcoming Quick Charge 3.0 technology that is 38% more efficient than what is currently out there.

Software

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Anyone who has used an HTC device in the last eighteen months will feel right as home. HTC Sense has only grown for the better since the introduction of the One (M8) in 2014. The company has never had to overhaul or scrap its overlay. HTC Sense continues to be tweaked. It never gets in the way like Samsung’s TouchWiz or LG’s UX 4.0 tend to. This overlay is beautiful and adds value to HTC devices. It’s interesting that HTC has not transitioned to an overlay that resembles Material Design. I can’t blame them. HTC Sense gets things right in its own way — never cluttered, clunky, or ugly.

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Aside from the beautiful user interface and intuitive user experience, HTC Sense stands out with its customization. The Themes app gives you control over wallpapers, colors, icons, sounds, and font. Motorola may be the only company allowing vast external customization, but no one does software customization like HTC. HTC Sense is built around you because of this customization and its adaptive nature. Through the Sense Home widget, the One A9 will show which apps are most useful at work, at home, or on the go. Pretty cool that your phone can think about which apps you could use before you even start searching for one.

HTC Sense is clearly the best overlay as no one comes close to what HTC does on top of Android.

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For those of you who I know are wondering, the One A9 has the company’s underrated Motion Launch gestures. I’ve missed them when using other phones. HTC BlinkFeed is back, too, but I’m not really sure many people are rushing to use it anymore. Most people now use Twitter for seeing what’s going on in the world. The advantage of BlinkFeed is being able to add in calendar events, social media accounts, and other services for an integrated, personalized news feed.

Note: Read our review of the One M9 for more in-depth analysis of the software due to the One A9 being practically identical in this area.

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The biggest selling point for the One A9 could be HTC’s promise to deliver software updates within 15 days of a Google pushing them out to Nexus devices. A similar promise was made by HTC when Android 5.0 Lollipop came about last year but the company dropped the ball. That was with a 90-day window to provide the latest version of Android to devices. Being cut down to 15 days, HTC’s software developers are going to have their work cut out for them. At least they won’t fall behind with a major version of Android as the One A9 runs Android 6.0 Marshmallow from the get-go. This is indeed the first non-Nexus device to ship with Marshmallow.

Camera

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Although it’s not HTC’s strongest area, cameras are something that this company is not afraid to experiment with. UltraPixel? Duo Camera? Both terms were coined by HTC, but the extra marketing fluff was toned down with the One M9. The One A9 is no different and continues the trend in being straightforward in photography. The only HTC-made term attached to the One A9 is UltraPixel for the front-facing camera. The 13MP rear camera, covered with sapphire glas, has a BSI sensor along with optical image stabilization (OIS). Need more control over your photography? Switch over to the Pro mode to gain access to advanced settings like ISO, aperture, and focus. Then switch the format from JPG to RAW. These are all things that a professional photographer plays around with to capture the perfect picture.

The camera is passable and not much else. The extra controls are helpful if you know what you’re doing, but people buying the One A9 aren’t going to care. The average person needs to use Auto mode and get good pictures, something that happens most of the time for the One A9. In low-light or shadowy conditions, the One A9 is hit-or-miss. Sometimes things go over well for the camera; then you’ll see a very cold image and wonder what happened. The pressure is building for HTC to release a phone that can consistently take good pictures.

The following pictures were all captured with the preset settings in the Auto mode.

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Closing

Companies in the mobile industry have been shortening product life cycles more in the last two years than ever before. Blink and you’ll probably see a new flagship from Samsung, Huawei, Sony, or another hardware manufacturer launch. But HTC, like Apple and Motorola, has always remained optimistic that a lone flagship can survive on the market and generate viable revenue for twenty-four months.

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Now, after experiencing financial woes in recent quarters, HTC finally looks to be moving toward the more popular approach by having a new flagship launch every six months. Consumers are constantly looking for the latest and greatest, so having a new phone launch in the spring and fall seasons is becoming a requirement to maintain interest. The One A9 is HTC’s move to take the company into the holiday season and right up until the next flagship arrives.

Although it’s not as flashy as the One M9, the One A9 is decent phone if you hide its price. Because at $399 (which will rise to $499), you might as well consider the Moto X Pure Edition or Nexus 5X. You’re getting a better phone in almost every area that’s also a lock to get swift software updates at the same price or less.

HTC built another phone that deserves praise for design, a pat on the back for performance, and a sigh for competitiveness.

[HTC]


About the Author: Justin Herrick

Born and raised in New Jersey, Justin is a graduate of Fairleigh Dickinson University where he studied marketing with a focus on digital marketing. He's very talkative and enjoys discussing anything from technology and sports to video games and television. As for Justin's current device rotation, he carries around the Google Pixel and Nexus 9. In the rare case that his phone or tablet is not in his hand, he is either flicking through cards on his Moto 360 (2015) or typing away on the Microsoft Surface Book. Justin is patiently waiting for the day that Google replicates the Galaxy Nexus with modern day specifications.


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