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HTC One A9 review: the Android iPhone

It’s not original, but that doesn’t mean it can't be awesome

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When the history of Android is written, HTC’s name will go down as one of the early innovators that propelled the young platform to its fullest potential. This Taiwanese company built the first ever Android phone as well as the first Nexus. But when HTC’s history is recorded, the One A9 smartphone will stand out as that time the Android pioneer tried to build an iPhone.

Ever since the One M7 at the start of 2013, HTC has been cultivating a signature aluminum unibody design, characterized by a particular mix of subtle curves and precise straight lines. The company’s designers have spoken about wanting to keep its phones recognizable as HTC products at first sight, and this year’s One M9 stayed true to that ethos with a remix of its two predecessors’ designs. The new One A9, however, discards much of that heritage and instead opts for the iPhone look. The back has been flattened, the stereo speakers have been replaced by a new home button with a built-in fingerprint reader, and the corners now have the exact same radius as the iPhone’s. There’s no question about it: this is an iPhone clone.

HTC One A9 hands-on photos

HTC didn’t stop at just copying the iPhone’s looks. The One A9’s battery is closer in size to the iPhone’s than the Android average, and the rest of its specs also appear to pay no mind to the usual Android spec race. Instead, HTC is prioritizing software — with the 5-inch One A9 being the first non-Nexus device to ship with the latest Android Marshmallow — and aiming to create an integrated and optimized user experience.

It’s like HTC took a look at Apple and Google, the two biggest winners of the mobile world, and decided that the way to revitalize its own slumping fortunes was to combine the best of both. Apple’s appealing form and Google’s multifaceted function.

The design is graceful in its elegance, disgraceful in its copying

If you read the One A9’s spec sheet, you’d immediately classify it as a mid-range phone with nothing special about it. Which is precisely why you shouldn’t read spec sheets. Using the One A9 has shown me a phone that makes the absolute most of its components, resulting in a device that compares favorably with most other companies' flagship smartphones.

HTC One A9 hands-on photos

It all starts with the design. I’m smitten with it. Yes, it has those iPhone-aping qualities of thinness, lightness, and pleasingly rounded sides, but HTC has added a couple of extra touches that I also really enjoy. The ridged power button, very much in the style seen on Motorola’s recent phones, is easy to find by touch alone, thanks to the tactile contrast between its roughness and the A9’s otherwise smooth form. Together with the slight camera bump, the power button is my anchor point for recognizing which way is up when pulling the phone out of my pocket1.

This may sound like a small matter until you use something perfectly symmetrical like Sony’s Xperia series and keep bringing the phone’s back to your face.

The capacitive home key can’t be pressed in, which I initially thought would be a downside relative to the iPhone or Galaxy phones with real buttons, but I actually prefer HTC’s implementation. It makes unlocking the phone more convenient, whether it’s resting on my desk or tucked away in a pocket. With the integrated fingerprint reader, I only need to find the home button and cover it with my thumb while pulling the phone out of a pocket and by the time I’ve got it in front of me, the Android home screen is already waiting for me.

Unbelievably light and easy to handle

The two most common things said about aluminum-encased smartphones are that they feel more premium because of the material, but also that they’re more slippery than conventional handsets. Both are true of the One A9. I absolutely love holding and using this phone, and I never get the feeling that it’s a cheap iPhone imitation — HTC has copied every bit of the quality of Apple’s phone along with the look2. But as an experienced iPhone user, I also know how easily that phone can slip out of its user’s grasp when handled without a case — the HTC One matches that aspect of it too.

If you’re curious, HTC is using Al 6063 grade aluminum in the One A9, which the company says was chosen for having "the broadest range of textures and subtle color options."

HTC One A9 hands-on photos

HTC extends the aesthetic appeal of the One A9 by using a very good AMOLED display. This 5-inch, 1080p panel reminds me of Samsung’s excellent Galaxy S6 screen. The latter has a much greater pixel density, however the advantage that grants over the One A9 is pretty much ephemeral. HTC’s display looks just as organic, just as much like a real piece of printed paper sitting atop the glass, as Samsung’s. Viewing angles, contrast, and even color accuracy — usually a weak point for AMOLED screens — are all top notch on the A9. I love the warmth and vibrancy of its colors. They are just right, feeling punchy without straying into looking artificial.

The fingerprint reader is a great addition

Another good engineering choice made by HTC is the removal of the company’s famed stereo BoomSound speakers. That’s made the new fingerprint reader3 possible, and I’d much rather have that than really loud stereo speakers on my phone. HTC has instead focused its audio efforts on improving the listening experience via headphones, integrating a powerful amp, supporting high-res audio and Dolby Surround Sound, and even laying out the internal circuit board to minimize electrical distortion.

It’s very quickly become the norm for fingerprint readers on smartphones to be really fast and accurate, and the One A9 is no exception. You can expect performance as good as the iPhone’s Touch ID from this device.

Testing it with a set of high-end Audeze EL-8 headphones, I actually got to a louder volume with the One A9 than I could achieve with my iMac, and the sound was crystal clear at all times. It’s the attention to details like these that makes the difference between the best phones and the rest. You don’t need to be aware of the technical spec, nor to even know what HTC has done behind the scenes, to better enjoy listening to music on this phone.

HTC One A9 hands-on photos

So the One A9 has great sound, a great display, and a great, if unoriginal, design. All of that could be said of the One M9 that came before it, and the big question with the A9 was whether it would address its predecessor’s biggest weakness: the camera. The good news is that, yes, this is HTC’s best camera to date and it marks a significant improvement over the One M9’s mediocrity. The bad news is that HTC’s best is still only decent by wider industry standards.

Camera performance is no longer a big problem, but neither is it a strength

The best thing about the One A9’s camera is its quickness. The phone can go from my pocket to shooting a photo and back in my pocket within a handful of seconds. And I can be reasonably assured of getting a good shot because this is the first One device since 2013’s M7 to include optical image stabilization. The One A9’s exposure metering and white balance are also reliably accurate. That makes the camera much more forgiving to sloppy operation, which, if we’re honest, is the default way we all use our phones, and thus very important to get right.

I’m not hugely impressed with the quality of the pictures produced by the One A9. Their sharpness is only okay, especially when set against the Xperia Z5, LG G4, or Galaxy S6. In low light, those other cameras can crank up the ISO and capture scenes that the A9 is simply not capable of. HTC supports RAW capture on the One A9 and offers a Pro mode with manual controls, but neither will help you achieve results comparable to the best Android cameraphones.

A point of differentiation for HTC is the addition of a Hyperlapse shooting mode, which does the same thing as Instagram’s more famous iOS app by the same name. It can record up to 45 minutes of video and then stabilize and accelerate it, allowing you to set different speeds for different segments. It’s fun stuff, just like the iOS app, but HTC is wrong to claim it as unique — there’s already a Microsoft Hyperlapse app on Android.

HTC’s new camera is good enough to not be a big problem. What it gives you is reliable and predictable operation. You’ll quickly learn the limitations of what you can and can’t shoot with it, and I suspect you’ll be okay with them. The two-tone flash on the back does a fine job of making up for the A9’s low-light deficiencies, illuminating even nearby subjects evenly and without blowing out any details. Macro photography is also pretty easy with this phone, thanks to its quick and accurate focus. It’s not the best camera, but for most, it will be good enough.

It’s worth also mentioning that the One A9’s front-facing camera is the same UltraPixel unit that figured on the back of the One M8 and the front of the One M9. Its enlarged pixels make low-light photography its greatest strength, and even though it’s substandard for the job of being a main camera, it’s perfectly suited to the role of a selfie shooter and is one of the better ones you can get.

After the camera, the second biggest question with the One A9 was its battery. It’s only 2,150mAh, which is more than you’d get on the iPhone, but far below the Android average. By some dark magic4, HTC makes this work. The One A9 lasts for a full day, though never more than that. It’s in the same ballpark as the Android phone it most resembles, Samsung’s Galaxy S6. Both HTC and Samsung made a conscious decision to sacrifice battery life in favor of a sleeker, lighter design. I can’t begrudge the choice, because I'm a big fan of the design of both phones — you’ll just have to be conscious of this tradeoff and accept the more regular need to recharge5. The Galaxy S6 does have the advantage of integrated wireless charging, which the One A9 lacks.

Android’s new Doze power management feature, which turns off apps and services when the phone’s not in use, gets at least part of the credit here. A very good reason to want to have Marshmallow on your next Android phone.

The One A9 supports Qualcomm’s Quick Charge technology (version 2 today, and version 3 in the future), though HTC doesn’t include a compatible charger in the box to save on costs.

The processor inside the HTC One A9 is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 617. It’s a tier below the 800 series that offer the most power and performance, but — just like this phone’s display, which also isn't the top spec available — that’s not stopping it from being highly competitive. In fact, never mind competitive, the One A9 is just plain smoother and faster than the vast majority of Android phones out there. Android 6.0 simply sings on this device. All the small animations and transitions are realized beautifully, and there’s none of the frustrating lag or stuttering that bothered me with the Moto X Play or Xperia Z5. The performance of the One A9’s software is a perfect match for its exterior smoothness and elegance.

htc one a9

HTC has made a symbolic shift in renaming its software "Android 6.0 with Sense," relegating its own customizations to a secondary spot. They’re still there if you want them, whether it’s the news-aggregating BlinkFeed, or HTC’s suite of themes, or the Sense Home widget that automatically presents your most-used apps depending on time and location. But if you want the Android notifications shade and card-based multitasking and Google Now on Tap — those are now present too.

Personally, I don’t care about the split between how much of this is Google and how much of it is HTC. I just know I love this phone’s responsiveness and the only thing I found offensive about it are some spammy News Republic notifications that I was able to quickly turn off. Actually, I should note that HTC’s keyboard is pretty crummy, too. It’s badly laid out, with all the letters being too tall and squished together. I’d probably be a lot less happy with this phone if I had to use it in its default state, but the beauty of Android is that things like Google Keyboard are only ever a click away.

Android 6.0 simply sings on this device

The experience of using the One A9 is, in most circumstances, up there with any other smartphone on the market, iPhones and new Nexuses included. It’s been a revelation to see HTC make the most of this phone’s relatively modest components. My review handset is the variant with 3GB of memory, and I can’t guarantee that the 2GB model will be quite as smooth, but for the vast majority of users and scenarios, this phone’s performance is perfectly satisfactory. You might be able to find an intensive 3D game where it can’t keep up — if not today, then certainly in the near future — but there are already plenty of powerhouse Android phones available for that purpose.

HTC One A9 hands-on photos

On paper, the A9 should stink. It looks like an unabashed iPhone clone, it has underpowered specs, an average camera, and a small battery. But I don't care. I love it. HTC has managed to find a way to minimize all of those shortcomings and in the places where it couldn't, you might not even mind because of the great design and attention to detail. The A9’s greatest strength is its lack of major flaws or annoyances. While it’s not a champion in any one category, it does a really good job in most of them.

Many will be turned off by the One A9’s copycat appearance, but that’s a judgment on the phone’s maker and not the phone itself. And besides, HTC hasn’t just imitated how the iPhone looks. The One A9 also comes close to the signature ease of use and smoothness of Apple’s software, aided by the presence of Android Marshmallow, which feels closer to iOS than any previous version.

HTC sold its soul to the copycat devil and got the lovely but overpriced A9 in return

At its promotional price of $399 In the United States, the HTC One A9 is an easy phone to recommend. Its refined aluminum design is much more lovable than Google’s plastic Nexus 5X, and the simple pleasure of using a phone is important when you’re considering a thing you’ll be spending most of your waking time with. But when the price jumps to $499 in a week’s time — as well as for all other regions across the world — the One A9’s value diminishes greatly. It then matches straight up against Google’s Nexus 6P, the best Android smartphone to date. The winner of that contest is always going to be Google’s handset, which also comes with the long-term assurance of receiving updates faster and for a longer time than any other device.

As much as I believe in the One A9’s flagship class credentials, there’s no denying that you’ll get more for your money if you spend it on LG’s G4 and its excellent camera, Samsung’s Galaxy S6 and its wireless charging, or even the iPhone that HTC is complimenting with its present design. HTC has built a really great phone that’s easy to love, but it’s dressed it up like an iPhone and given it a matching price premium. That works for Apple, but not for HTC.

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