HTC's iPhone lookalike hits a lot of important targets. But overall it feels like another near miss for the Taiwanese manufacturer — especially for buyers outside the U.S.
The quick take
For an awful lot of people, the HTC One A9 will be all the smartphone they need. It looks and feels great, has fluid, well-designed software and a dependable camera. But the launch price feels inflated for what the A9 is, and its longevity is hampered by the relatively small battery.
- Speedy performance
- Decent display
- Attractive design and solid build quality
- Best HTC camera to date
- Fast, accurate fingerprint scanner
- Dismal battery life
- UK price way too expensive
- Non-discounted U.S. price also pretty rough
- 5.0-inch Full HD
- AMOLED Display
- 1920x1080 resolution (452ppi)
- 13MP, ƒ/2.0 lens, OIS
- 4MP Ultrapixel front-facing camera
- 2150mAh capacity
- Quick Charge 2.0 (3.0 with update)
- Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 processor
- 4x1.5GHz A53 cores + 4x1.2GHz A53 cores
- 2-3GB RAM
- 16-32GB internal storage
- microSD slot
About this review
We're publishing this review after two weeks with a European spec HTC One A9 (model A9u), which has 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage. In some countries, including the UK, a model with 16GB of storage and 2GB of RAM will be sold instead. We've used the A9 on the EE, Three and Vodafone 4G LTE networks in Manchester and London, with a 64GB SD card inserted. Our SD card was used as traditional removable storage, not "adoptable" storage. (This is a new Android 6.0 feature allowing SD cards to directly augment a device's internal storage.)
During the first few days of testing, our review unit was running firmware version 1.10.401.4. It was then upgraded to version 1.10.401.7 via an over-the-air update. We didn't notice any significant changes between the two firmware versions.
HTC One A9 hands-on video
HTC One A9 full review
In the past 12 months, the line between mid-range and high-end Android phones has blurred considerably. Take phones like the Moto X Pure Edition and OnePlus 2, for instance. Both pack high-powered internals into pleasing exteriors, and both sell for well under the $600+ you'd have to shell out for the latest iPhone or high-end Galaxy device. So as smartphone hardware becomes more commoditized, manufacturers are faced with a tough choice: either fight it out in this "sub-flagship" melee around the $400 mark, or go all-out and compete with the big boys at the $600 level.
The HTC One A9 finds itself somewhere on the increasingly blurry border between mid-range and high-end.
With its latest premium "One" handset, HTC finds itself somewhere in the middle. Early adopters in the United States will be able to pick up the HTC One A9 off-contract for just $400 until Nov. 7, after which the price rises to $500. And in Europe the A9 is priced alongside the likes of the Galaxy S6 and One M9 — the aforementioned big-boy flagship territory.
It's easy to get lost in the semantics of what's a "premium" phone, a "flagship," or a "hero" device. The more important question for the One A9 is whether it's a good phone, how it measures up against its contemporaries and whether it's worth the money HTC and its carrier partners are demanding. These are the question we'll answer as we dive into our full review of the HTC One A9.
It looks like an iPhone
HTC One A9 hardware
Much ink has been spilled already about the fact that the HTC One A9 looks like an iPhone. You can argue that there are only so many ways to combine a large display and a curved metal unibody. And you can argue that HTC came up with some of the shared hardware characteristics — like the plastic antenna bands — first. The fact remains that the A9 looks like an iPhone, and because of Apple's superior mindshare and market share, most consumers will assume HTC is the copycat. Whether it is or not doesn't really matter.
Most consumers will assume HTC is the copycat. But whether it is or not doesn't really matter.
So what exactly are we dealing with here? Well, the A9's physical presence is soft, curved and relatively minimalist. The back is mostly flat, and furnished in brushed, patterned aluminum — think a more subtle version of the brushed effect on the back of the M8 and M9. This morphs into a slightly reflective finish around the sides, which are ever so slightly angled.
The result of all this is a phone that strikes an excellent balance between looks, ergonomics and ease of use. It's not as sharp or tacky-feeling as the M9, nor as slippery as the M8. It's even a little easier to grip onto than the iPhone, in our experience. The metal unibody, which extends around the sides but not the front, is punctuated by the usual HTC ports and protrusions. The power and volume keys live along the side, and the power button now has a rougher texture to it, so you'll be hard pushed to confuse the two. Trays for nanoSIM and microSD live on the right edge. And down below, somewhat irregularly arranged, are your microUSB (not the newer USB-C we're enjoying in the new Nexus phones), speaker, mic and headphone jack.
As with HTC's "M" series phones, there's a plastic cutout up top to help out with antenna reception, along with the plastic bands that blend into the sides and back. These contribute to the A9's iPhoneyness, though HTC fans will point out that the Taiwanese company was there first. The same goes for the camera and dual-tone LED flash — centrally located on the A9, but protruding slightly and encircled by a chamfered border, just like the iPhone.
Like the iPhone and many others, the "2.5D" Gorilla Glass 3 tapers off towards the edges, creating a gentle curve that flows into the metal unibody, and around the edges of the fingerprint scanner.
Around the front, it's a mix of staple HTC design elements and some new additions. A large earpiece up top and a single downward-facing speaker takes the place of HTC's traditional front-facing speakers — though the volume and clarity produced isn't bad at all. The same goes for the headphone jack itself, which can output power at over 1 amp to drive more demanding headphones. On top of that, the A9's upgraded DAC supports upscaling to 24-bit, 192kHz audio regardless of where you're getting your music from.
Beneath the 5-inch display you'll find a stubbornly-placed HTC logo above an One M9+-style fingerprint scanner.
HTC's fingerprint scanner is really, really good.
The fingerprint scanner — usable for lock screen security or any other number of tasks thanks to Android 6.0 — is among the best I've used on any smartphone. It's not as ludicrously fast as Apple's TouchID, but it is every bit as accurate. Whereas I'm still struggling with misreads on Samsung's latest sensors, such occurrences are much rarer on the A9.
The scanner can also be used as a secondary home button, which is a little weird on a couple of levels. Having an on-screen home key, then an HTC logo, then a physical home key is visually busy. And you also can't activate Android's Now on Tap feature by long-pressing it, as you can with the on-screen home button. In our opinion HTC would've been better off with OnePlus 2-style capacitive keys on this device.
With a 1920x1080 display resolution across 5 inches, the A9's screen isn't the sharpest out there. And though it's an AMOLED panel, you can tell it's not quite as punchy as the latest from Samsung. Despite not being the very best, it looks perfectly good in its own right. We've had no trouble using the display outside, even in bright daylight and overcast conditions. HTC allows you to choose between two color profiles — standard AMOLED for more vivid colors, and sRGB for accuracy. We've stuck with AMOLED throughout our testing, as sRGB mode makes colors appear yellowish and muted.
So far, so good — from the outside, the A9 has everything you'd expect from a high-end smartphone. Inside is where you'll find the biggest compromises, particularly if you're a spec junkie. The A9 runs a Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 processor — a recently announced chip similar in design to the Snapdragon 615 seen in many mid-rangers over the past 12 months. It's got four ARM Cortex-A53 cores at 1.5GHz and another four A53s at 1.2GHz, paired with an Adreno 405 GPU and 2 or 3GB of RAM depending on your region. (We've been testing the 3GB model.)
HTC has managed to eke plenty of performance out of the 617 for everyday tasks — an achievement considering it's basically just a tweaked 615, and we've seen some OEMs struggle with that chip. The only time you'll see performance skip a beat is in demanding games, where the GPU doesn't pack the computational punch required to keep things smooth on a 1080p display. Elsewhere, the A9 feels every bit as fast as most flagship-class phones.
HTC ekes out more performance than we'd expect from a mid-range Snapdragon.
When it comes to connectivity, the A9 delivers everything you'd expect from a major Android device -- Wifi a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.1 and of course 4G LTE support. And a notable addition — thanks to Qualcomm's latest modem tech, the A9 supports carrier aggregation out of the box. (That's "4G+" if you're in Europe.)
Another compromise comes in the battery department. The A9 packs a 2,150mAh fixed battery in its svelte 7.26mm chassis, and as we'll discuss later in this review, the results are reflective of a small cell powering a components that seem to demand more juice than is available. We'd have gladly traded a few tenths of a millimeter for comfortable one-day usage, but alas battery capacity has once again been sacrificed at the altar of thinness. At least there's Qualcomm QuickCharge 2 (and eventually QuickCharge 3) to rapidly refill the A9, though the bundled plug isn't QuickCharge-capable.
A tiny battery, but at least you'll be able to charge it quickly.
If there's been one major area of weakness for HTC of late, it's cameras. And this latest hero phone represents a change of strategy for the company. Instead of slapping a standard high-megapixel sensor in and hoping for the best (a la M9) or going all-in on low-light photography with another Ultrapixel camera around the back, the A9 uses a 13-megapixel sensor (Sony's IMX214, for those keeping track), with OIS (optical image stabilization) and an f/2.0 lens. That's a capable mix of camera hardware, and combined with some notable improvements in HTC's camera software, the A9 has been able to produce some of the best photos we've taken on an HTC phone.
Meanwhile HTC's 4-megapixel "Ultrapixel" sensor stays around the front for selfies, a role in which it performed well on the HTC One M9.
Overall, the A9 is a unlike any previous HTC phone, with internal hardware just powerful enough to get the job done, significant upgrades to the camera and a good-but-not-great display. And that's all packaged into a flagship-grade metal chassis.
Sense 7.0 G
HTC One A9 software
A major new HTC phone launch usually brings with it a slew of new features in the company's Sense UI. This year that's not the case. In fact, HTC has been actively paring back its interface layer, as part of a move that brings its software closer to vanilla Android. The newest flavor of Sense, dubbed Sense "7.0 G" in the menus, cuts back some of the more elaborate parts of Sense, as well as removing one or two other things that weren't really doing much harm.
First up, the default color scheme has reverted to a Material Design-influenced grayish-blue, bringing it closer to the menu accent colors of the stock OS. HTC's grid-based task-switching menu has been culled in favor of stock Android's card deck layout. And the notification tray has been reverted to a near-stock implementation as well.
This is mostly Sense. Except for the places that it's not.
For the most part, Sense (mostly) still feels like Sense. That includes the smooth interactions, liberal use of condensed typefaces and largely flat UI we've come to expect from HTC for the past couple of years. On the whole it's a perfectly good-looking UI, though one that, in the couple of years since Sense 6 on the M8, feels like it needs a bit of a facelift. Some of the odd software contradictions, like the presence of a HTC calendar app but the lack of any calendar widget, also make things seem tired and disjointed in places.
It's possible Sense's move closer to stock in this "G" version — exclusive to the A9 for now, we're told — is required to help HTC deliver on its promise of updates within 15 days of Google's Nexus devices. It's also possible other factors are at play behind the scenes. But whatever's going on, the end result is a more streamlined, Googley Sense, but at the same time a software experience that seems slightly diminished compared to the M9.
The main tentpole features remain in place though. BlinkFeed, HTC's social and news reader, is alive and well, and redesigned to make News Republic's branding more visible. (Including a somewhat obnoxious splash screen before every story.) HTC's Gallery app allows you to view photos and video based on events and location, and create "Zoe" highlight reels, just like on earlier HTC One phones.
It's a solid software experience, though one that finds itself increasingly competing with Google in a few areas. Given that the HTC Music player has already been killed off in favor of Play Music on the A9, we have to wonder how Sense might further be trimmed back in the future.
The one app that's received plenty of love is the HTC camera app, with a new hyperlapse video mode, improved RAW shooting and quick shortcuts. We'll dig deeper in the camera section of this review.
Marshmallow out of the box is a big deal indeed, and a first for any non-Nexus.
The other big deal about the A9's software is Marshmallow. It's the first non-Nexus phone to arrive with Android 6.0 out of the box, and that brings new features like Now on Tap for bringing the predictive power of Google Now to whichever app you're viewing. As we've seen on Nexus devices, though, Now on Tap is far from essential, and in these early days it's often hit and miss.
Also new is native fingerprint security support, letting you secure your lock screen with a touch of the fingerprint scanner, or authorize Android Pay and other supported apps where they're available. As we've mentioned, HTC's sensor is incredibly quick and accurate, and like the new Nexus devices you can tap the scanner to wake and immediately unlock the phone.
Other software bits:
- Like most other Marshmallow phones, the A9 has full-disk encryption enabled out of the box, and you'll need to unlock the phone with a fingerprint, PIN or pattern to boot. After 30 failed attempts, the device is wiped.
- Because of that you'll need to "decrypt storage" when the phone boots by entering your PIN or password. HTC's screen for this is unnecessarily scary looking and vague.
- Thanks to its SD card slot, the A9 supports Marshmallow's adoptable storage feature, which lets you directly augment the built-in storage (and its file scheme) with SD storage. For performance reasons we'd advise you to use the SD card only for photos and music, but if you go for the 16GB A9 then effectively doubling your available space for apps and other stuff isn't a bad option.
- Marshmallow's "doze" feature — for cutting back on background wake time when the phone is idle — is alive and well. As we'll see in the next section though, the A9 has other issues in this area.
Out of juice
HTC One A9 battery life
Battery capacity doesn't always equate with battery life. So we were hesitant to judge the HTC One A9 solely on its 2,150mAh cell. But let's face it: that's just not much capacity at all these days — about 75 percent of top-shelf phones. And the battery life we've seen from the A9 in our real-world testing reflects that. At best, it's mediocre. At worst, it's pretty dire.
The A9's Achilles' heel is its utterly disappointing battery life.
On an average day, when we're not inclined to put the phone through any extended, strenuous use, we'd get into the evening without too much trouble. But on longer days, or when taking a bunch of photos or video, or when using LTE for extended periods of time, or when having the display brightness cranked up, we quickly found ourselves reaching for the charger by early afternoon. In terms of screen-on time (recorded by GSAM Battery Monitor), the bets the A9 delivered was around 3.5 hours of mixed use across 12 hours off charger. That's barely within the limits of what's acceptable for a new smartphone, particularly one demanding a premium price.
The silver lining here is that thanks to Marshmallow's "doze" power-saving feature, and likely HTC's optimizations as well, the A9 performs admirably when idling. The problem is it's just so easy to kill this thing off with heavy use. Or even not-so-heavy use, in many cases.
The combination of a relatively small battery and QuickCharge 2.0 support makes for incredibly fast charging times though, particularly from lower charge levels. Using Motorola's second-gen 25W Turbo Charger (there's no Quick Charger bundled with the A9), we could literally watch the battery percentage tick up every minute or so. And surely that'll only get better with QuickCharge 3.0, coming via future software update.
So that's this phone's major Achille's Heel from a functional standpoint. And given that it's rooted in hardware, not software, we wouldn't expect things to improve substantially anytime soon.
It's actually good this time
HTC One A9 camera
It's been a long time since HTC's had a good camera. Ultrapixel missed the mark on the M7 and M8, and the 20-megapixel replacement used in the M9 was just as disappointing for different reasons. So what's a smartphone manufacturer to do?
Well, if the A9 is any indication, HTC has gone right back to the drawing board and corrected several years of longstanding camera gripes in one fell swoop. The main camera is an optically-stabilized 13-megapixel unit behind an f/2.0 lens, and it's overall performance is close to that many high-end phones. To give some perspective, we've found it's about as capable as the LG G3, with similar image quality, low-light capabilities and levels of fine detail.
HTC has corrected years of longstanding camera gripes in one fell swoop.
Colors generally are accurate, and images in general are much more evenly exposed than shots from the M9. Even without HDR mode enabled, we found ourselves running into far fewer instances of blown-out skies or underexposed landscapes and subjects than we were used to from older HTC cameras. And the fact that HDR mode is now just a short tap away in the new quick settings area makes big difference too — though we would've also liked to have seen an Auto HDR mode, as many other phones are implementing.
This is a good camera, but not a great one. If you're expecting to see the very best smartphone cameras have to offer, like the iPhone 6s, LG G4 or Galaxy S6, you'll come away disappointed. There's generally more noise than these high-end rivals, and low-light performance isn't as dazzling either. (The A9 in particular is prone to blurring night shots, so it's worth taking a couple of exposures each time.)
Such is the limitation of the A9's camera hardware — a Sony IMX214 sensor that's been appearing in phones since late 2014. But that's in line with the rest of this phone's mid-range hardware. And for this class of product it's a good fit. If nothing else, it gives us plenty of hope for the future of HTC cameras.
Elsewhere you're looking at the same Ultrapixel front-facer for selfies — a role to which HTC's low-light-centric camera finds itself well suited. If you're familiar with the M9's selfie camera, this is basically the same thing, only with the added bonus of HDR snaps.
The M9's RAW photo capabilities have also made it across, with a few new tricks including the ability to automatically enhance RAW shots using HTC's software magic. The process of taking and (eventually) enhancing RAW pics can take a few seconds, but the results are rewarding.
Hyperlapse helps you smooth out long, shaky videos.
And then there's Hyperlapse mode. A new video shooting mode (well, new to HTC at least), found in the main camera menu, Hyperlapse aims to help you turn long recordings into a more manageable, smoothed out, sped-up video reel. Hyperlapse clips can be hit and miss at first, and you're still going to want to avoid excessive movement. But in the right conditions it's a neat trick, and another useful feature for HTC's video arsenal.
Overall, then, a huge improvement for HTC in terms of both photo and video. We're still only dealing with mid-level camera hardware here, so we're eager to see what the company's newfound photographic chops will be able to do with a more advanced sensor and lens.
Mid-range or high-end?
HTC One A9: the bottom line
It's difficult to get a clear sense of whether the HTC One A9 is a mid-range phone or a high-end phone. Or one masquerading as the other. Or both. Or maybe that's an outdated distinction altogether.
On the inside, in terms of pure numbers, it's nothing to write home about. A middle-of-the-road Snapdragon processor. 2 or 3GB of RAM. 16 or 32GB of storage. A 13-megapixel camera. A 1080p display. None of that stuff is a big deal in late 2015.
What's more the lackluster battery life puts the A9 at the bottom of the pile in terms of longevity for a modern Android phone — a disappointing miss for this product.
What makes this a 'hero' phone is the way it's all wrapped up.
But what makes this a "hero" phone for HTC is the way it's all wrapped up — in a solid, curved metal unibody which, OK, looks suspiciously like an iPhone, but feels great in its own right. Add to that some much-loved Sense features and the very latest version of Android (and fast updates, in the U.S.) and you've got a very compelling package.
The only problem is the price.
Should you buy the HTC One A9? That depends on the price
In the U.S., if you pick up an unlocked A9 before Nov. 7, it'll set you back just $399.99. That's a good deal. If you like the look of the A9, can live with the ho-hum battery life and value having the latest version of Android with fast updates, then by all means go for it.
The problem comes when HTC's carriage turns back into a pumpkin, and the A9 becomes $100 more expensive. There's more to a phone than specs, sure. But for $500 you can also buy a Nexus 6P, one of the very best Android phones money can buy, that does almost everything better than the A9. Or you could opt for the Moto X Pure Edition with upgraded storage and a bunch of Moto Maker customizations and still have some change left over.
The A9 goes up against some vicious competition when its introductory price expires: If you're spending $500 on an unlocked smartphone, frankly there are better options. Next to a $500 Nexus 6P (or a £470 Galaxy S6 in the UK), the A9 feels like an imposter.
Europeans get a bum deal. And even in the U.S., the non-discounted price is a tough ask.
Of course your carrier may well have a more tempting offer to sell you if you go subsidized, though you'll miss out on the fast software updates direct from HTC.
In other parts of the world it's an even tougher ask, with prices in the UK hitting £460-470, and retailers in the eurozone asking for €600. And all of that for an inferior model with less RAM and internal storage.
Prices will undoubtedly fluctuate, so we'd recommend keeping a close eye on HTC One A9 deals if you're interested. Until then, jumping in on an A9 at launch, without discounted pricing, seems foolhardy.