The HTC One M9 introduced earlier this year was a disappointment, both to fans of high-end smartphones and, consequently, to HTC itself. Stung by criticism of that device's camera and feeling an ever-greater urgency to change its ways, the Taiwanese company today introduces its second hero handset of the year in the One A9. This 5-inch smartphone will be among the first to ship with the latest Android Marshmallow software on board, and it will be available to buy unlocked for an attractive price of $399.99. It's also the most blatant and highest-profile iPhone ripoff since Samsung's original Galaxy S.
Having spent the past two years cultivating a signature aluminum unibody look with its One series, HTC has now abandoned much of that heritage in favor of some unabashed iPhone cloning. Gone are the prominent BoomSound stereo speakers on the front, replaced by a capacitive home button with an integrated fingerprint reader. Gone is the subtle curve spanning the rear of the phone, replaced by a flat back that's punctuated only by a pair of antenna lines, a circular two-tone flash, and a slightly protruding camera module. The resemblance to the iPhone is only extended once you pick up the One A9, which feels for all the world like the middle child between the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus.
Please don't infer any disapproval. HTC's changes have all been for the better, and what's more, this phone seems to have also copied the iPhone in feeling like more than the sum of its parts. The One A9 has a 2,150mAh battery, a Snapdragon 617 processor, and a 1080p display, but it makes the absolute most of them. Performance is delightfully fluid and quick, which for me has been a revelation having recently suffered through Sony's flawed and stuttery Xperia software. Notably, HTC lists the One A9's software as "Android 6.0 with Sense," which signifies the hierarchy of priorities with this phone. With the A9, HTC isn't adding more cosmetic changes, opting instead to cut down the number of preloaded apps and put the focus on delivering all the features of Marshmallow.
Just like the iPhone, the One A9 feels like more than the sum of its parts
Android 6.0's Doze feature should help the One A9's comparatively small battery last for a reasonable length of time. HTC promises it will keep up with smartphone users' expectations, plus the phone is compatible with Qualcomm's Quick Charge for rapid recharging (though there's no QC charger in the box). The thing to note here is that HTC couldn't have made this phone as thin or as light as it is without making this sacrifice. And even though I usually advocate bigger batteries over design finesse, in the case of the One A9, I just love how it feels and am actually happy with the decisions HTC has made. This new One still has a bigger battery than the iPhone 6 or 6S, and if it's as efficient as HTC claims, it should be just fine.
The one area where HTC knew it couldn't cut any corners was the camera. There's a new 13-megapixel sensor residing behind an f/2.0 lens and a sapphire cover. Optical image stabilization finally makes its return to the One series, having been absent since the M7 in 2013. HTC refuses to call this its best camera ever, but I can already tell you that it is. The biggest letdown of the One M9 has been rectified. There's no option for 4K video recording, but you can shoot 1080p from both the rear camera and the one on the front, which is the same UltraPixel camera that was featured on the back of the HTC One M8 and the front of the M9. That gives HTC's new smartphone a truly excellent selfie camera.
I'm also impressed by the fingerprint scanner integrated into the new home button. Unlike Samsung's Galaxy S series or Apple's iPhones, the home button on HTC's One A9 can't be pressed in and offers only vibration feedback. That makes it feel odd at first, but once you adapt, it's just as swift as the others and satisfyingly quick and accurate. With the new Nexus phones also showing off great performance with Nexus Imprint, we can officially say we're living in the era of good fingerprint sensors.
Signal-to-noise ratio that's "second to none in the industry."
The other standout feature, which few might notice, but most people will appreciate, is HTC's emphasis on high-quality sound. The One A9 supports high-resolution audio and Dolby Surround Sound for headphones, which are both mostly marketing gimmicks, however the internal circuit board layout has also been designed to ensure minimal electric distortion. HTC has built in a DAC that upscales 16-bit audio to 24-bit and helps power more demanding sets of headphones. The company goes so far as to say that the One A9 delivers a signal-to-noise ratio that's "second to none in the industry."
The best place to buy the HTC One A9 will indisputably be the United States. HTC is pricing the SIM-unlocked handset at $399.99 with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage. Along with that, buyers will get six free months of unlimited Google Play Music and HTC's Uh Oh Protection, which allows for one free replacement should your phone break or you decide to switch carriers at any point in the first 12 months. The One A9 will be available on all US carriers, with one variant covering AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint, and a separate set of bands supported for Verizon. Outside of the US, though, pricing skyrockets, with the UK cost of £429.99 translating to an eye-watering $665. Worse yet, the One A9 in the UK comes with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of storage, compounding the issue.
The US price is great, but the rest of the world won't be as happy
All variants of the One A9 across the world will include a microSD card slot as well as 100GB of free Google Drive storage (except for China, where the phone won't include Google Mobile Services). The handset will be sold alongside the One M9 in most places, but in the United States it becomes HTC's new flagship. Look for it in carrier stores and on HTC's own online shop early next month in a choice of Opal Silver and Carbon Gray initially, to be followed by Deep Garnet and Topaz Gold. Our full review will be up next week to help you decide if the One A9 is worth your time and money.
There's a lot of practicality embodied in HTC's new hero device. The Taiwanese phone maker decided to copy the most popular smartphone out there, and it prioritized the United States with its most appealing pricing and perks. Design ethicists will be repulsed, overseas customers will be annoyed, but in the end, this new pragmatism could pay off for HTC. Selling some iPhone clones in the US is better than selling no phones anywhere.