At a wedding reception this past Saturday, I finally had a chance to put the HTC One A9 side-by-side with an iPhone 6. “It looks just like an iPhone. Even the little camera bump looks similar,” remarked the person whose iDevice I had temporarily pilfered for this little visual experiment.

I was forced to agree. Flip them over, of course, and the story changes. HTC’s phone, with its elongated speaker grille, HTC logo, and Samsung-pill-style capacitive home key and fingerprint scanner is noticeably distinguishable from any iPhone - and really no different from any other white Android phone in that regard. The One A9’s button layout differs, too, and even after all these years, HTC still refuses for god knows what reason to center the charging and data port along the x-axis of the phone.

This is the story you’ve read time and again about the One A9, going all the way back through months upon months of various leaks and rumors. It’s a narrative HTC has been wholly unable to escape. But there’s no doubt in my mind - not for a second - that HTC saw all of this coming way back when the A9 was still just a glimmer in the eye of the company’s industrial design team. It is believable (nay, it is probable) that HTC was inviting this kind of “controversy” quite intentionally as a way to gather attention and stir up discussion around the brand. It’s cynical, it’s a bit cheap, and it’s easy to make fun of. Here’s the thing: it worked.

DSC00371

While many have been keen to throw stones at “copycat” HTC, or even at Apple for “copying” the One M7 in the first place (a claim I find utterly dubious), both sides are really missing the point. That discussion is also just kind of irrelevant now. If Apple isn’t going to sue HTC and the phone’s release is inevitable, what does it really matter anymore? It looks kind of like an iPhone and that’s that. Is that going to stop anyone but disgruntled social media users and commenters on the internet from buying it? Probably not.

With this inane baggage out of the way (which again, I happily admit HTC has dragged in here on a comically overstacked, squeaky airport luggage caddy missing a wheel at 3AM over a gravel driveway), let’s talk about the A9 for what it is: an Android smartphone.

The Good

Display HTC chose a very good part here. While it's not 2K (QHD), the 1080p resolution is more than sufficient on a 5" canvas. The display has two color modes - one for contrast, one for accuracy - which I really like. It's a damn good screen.
Not slow While the A9's meager GPU means it won't be doing any intense mobile gaming, the phone really is very fast moving around the OS and doing general smartphone stuff - that Snapdragon 617 doesn't seem to be much cause for worry.
Battery life Battery life no worse, and sometimes even better, than most flagship phones released this year. Yes, really. No, I am not crazy. OK, maybe I am, but the battery life is still good.
Marshmallow Want Marshmallow right now? It's this, a Nexus, or a custom ROM. HTC's take on Marshmallow also features an even more pared-down version of Sense, with a more stock than "skinned" feel.

The Not So Good

Price In some regions, this phone is an unabashed ripoff. The price in the US is $400 temporarily, after which it will rise to $500. It's not worth $500, that's Nexus 6P money. And in some regions, you're expected to effectively pay even more for a 16GB/2GB version!
Camera Good, but not great. Everyone gushing over the "A9+ camera" that's so much better? I think it's a lot of hype. The low-light performance, in particular, just isn't up to snuff on the A9, though it does well during the day.
Limited networks The unlocked US A9 is only compatible with GSM providers, no CDMA - a disadvantage compared to rival handsets like the Moto X Pure Edition and Nexus 5X. But it does have band 12 LTE for T-Mobile, and Sprint will sell a branded version of their own.
Speaker BoomSound is out, below-average-to-mediocre bottom-firing speaker is in. I'm not a fan.

Design and build quality

DSC00357

Scarcely have such iPhone-esque design cues been seen on a phone outside mainland China. We have discussed this. It is what it is. If that sincerely, deeply bothers you, OK! But you’re not going to find too much more in the way of cheeky Apple jabs in this review.

Gone is the shiny, polished aluminum of the One M9, replaced by a matte anodized texture that is near silky-smooth. Along the edges of the aluminum finish, HTC has done some polishing to distinguish itself from the iPhone’s more uniform texture, and it is pretty noticeable. I’m a fan. While having roughly the same lateral and vertical footprint as the M9 (the A9 is slightly larger in both dimensions), the A9 is actually 14g lighter than the old HTC flagship. Most of that is likely the battery - it is a full 690mAh smaller in the A9 versus the M9, and the thickness has dropped substantially as a result. The A9 is merely 7.3mm in profile, while the old M9 was 9.6mm. Many would likely argue that reduced thickness is plainly silly in the face of reduced battery capacity, and I am inclined to agree. This, more than anything, feels like an attempt to mimic Apple, and the fact that it is coupled with functional sacrifice is a bit aggravating. But we’re not into battery life just yet, so I’ll let that one lie for now.

DSC00373

Being thinner and lighter, the A9 is indeed a bit nicer to hold - the aluminum gives it a rigidity and cool smoothness that calls to mind a more expensive product. The lack of any sharp edges along the face of the A9 also just makes it more comfortable to use.

Along the top is a large, opaque plastic antenna window for various radios (GPS, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, NFC, etc.), and it does look a bit tacked-on if you ask me. But the real stylistic eyesore of the A9 is clearly its home button and fingerprint scanner arrangement. Not only does the HTC logo sit above it in a sort of defiant pose as though to say “Oh, you wanted less bezel? Sorry about that! #branding,” the arrangement also means the lower bezel is substantially larger than the upper one. The phone looks a bit oddly-proportioned as a result.

Gone are HTC’s trademark BoomSound speakers, having been replaced with a bottom-firing unit typical of most other smartphones these days. The headphone jack and off-center microUSB port accompany it. HTC has maintained its side-by-side power button and volume rocker arrangement, though the power key is now very strongly textured such that telling the two apart is easier. HTC returned to a one-piece volume rocker on the A9, as well, and that’s a welcome change in my eyes. The M9’s two distinct volume keys were annoyingly similar to the power key, resulting in lots of unintentional pressing of both. A large volume rocker is much more intuitive for me to feel out eyes-free.

DSC00387

Graciously, HTC has clearly labelled the microSD and SIM slots along the left-hand side of the phone with painted-on text, even if said text will only be used a handful of times… ever. I appreciate it as a phone reviewer, at least!

Of final note, since this is about the best place I can think to put it, is HTC’s included Uh-Oh protection. You get one free cracked display or water damage repair from HTC for the first 12 months you own the phone. If you don’t use it, you get $100 off your next HTC One purchase within 12 months of the expiration of the plan (eg, if you buy it today, your “voucher” would be good from 10/27/16 to 10/27/17), which I guess is kind of nice, assuming it’s not a massive hassle to actually redeem.

Display

HTC is using a very respectable Super AMOLED screen in the One A9, with color reproduction and brightness that are both quite good. The display has two color modes - AMOLED and sRGB. The latter is tuned for accuracy, the former for maximum contrast and “vividness.” Most people will prefer AMOLED mode, as it is similar to Samsung’s own Adaptive Display mode on its newer devices. Bright colors are emphasized, though not cartoonishly so, and whites are crisp and slightly cool to provide maximum levels of contrast in high ambient light.

DSC00367

Viewing angles on the A9 are great, easily besting the LCD on the old One M9 in this regard - there is far less brightness loss at a tilt, and colors appear undistorted entirely at all but the most extreme angles. In sRGB mode, the A9 is clearly the more accurate panel compared to the M9, providing a very natural white point and realistic colors when using a Note 5 in its ultra-accurate “basic mode” as a reference point. HTC chose a very, very good display panel here. While the maximum brightness may not be up to snuff compared to the M9, the AMOLED display here is substantially more power-efficient, and its increased effective contrast levels mean it doesn’t need to get as bright to be as readable as an LCD in all conditions. In blasting, direct sunlight, a very bright LCD may still be preferable for visibility, but only marginally so.

1080p resolution does still work just fine on a 5” panel for my eyes, and the reduced processor (and thus battery) load is almost certainly worth any small effective difference a QHD panel would have provided. That said, I don’t know if a Snapdragon 617 even can effectively drive a QHD display.

DSC00385

Battery life

In preparation for this section, I’ve laid out a pentagram in my office, sacrificed a goat, and burned three quick chargers in a flaming pile of incense. I’ve also, incidentally, violated my apartment lease. Don’t take me as trying to preach gospel here, and don’t string me up for suggesting a 2150mAh battery is adequate… but that’s exactly what I’ve come away concluding after using the A9 as my daily driver. The battery life hasn’t wowed me, but it’s also not let me down.

Android 6.0’s Doze Mode almost certainly must come into play here. But there’s also the brand-new Snapdragon 617 chip. And don’t forget the more efficient Super AMOLED display. This triumvirate of power-sipping additions really seems to have worked some magic for HTC.

DSC00366

I’m easily getting a day of moderate use (around 3 hours screen-on) out of the A9. I can probably even squeeze out 4 hours plus screen-on time if I’m just on Wi-Fi all day and keep the brightness at 50-60% with auto mode enabled. And this seems to be happening without any notification sync-delay trickery (looking at you, Sony and Huawei) or insane sacrifices on overall device performance. But more on that last part later.

The standby life is what has really made the A9 work for me so far. It can sit for long periods without a tremendous amount of idle drain, and I’ve got all of my apps signed in and syncing on this thing, plus my Android Wear device. I’m not doing anything different than I would on my Nexus 6. Whatever HTC is doing, it’s got my vote of confidence so far.

Is this phone going to satisfy the hungriest of power-users? Of course not. Nor is it marketed that way. If you want a gigantic battery, it’s pretty plain you should be looking elsewhere. But don’t be inherently offput by the numbers on the box - 2150mAh or not, this phone lasts way longer than anyone expected leading up to its launch. Would a bigger battery that turns this thing into a multi-day monster be nice? Sure. But HTC definitely didn’t botch things here, not even close.

Speakers and audio

The One A9’s bottom-firing speaker is, in a word, average. It’s not especially loud, and it’s not especially good. Nor is it irksomely bad. It just kind of is. Given that massive bezel on the lower portion of the device, I do find it rather annoying HTC couldn’t put in a more powerful driver, but I’m guessing this was a decision of dollars, not decibels. In short: it’s not loud enough but it doesn’t sound terrible or anything. This could be a letdown depending on how often you find yourself using the speaker.

DSC00383

Headphone audio, though, seems just fine. This is also the only place you’ll find BoomSound on HTC’s latest, since the speaker on the A9 is apparently not up to Boom standards (a conclusion I fully agree with, as above). BoomSound mode for the headphones can be toggled directly from the notification bar, and it is definitely something I turned off immediately. I’ve never understood the idea that making your music sound obnoxiously boomy and eardrum-quiveringly bright somehow enhances it, but to each their own. In short: something something 5.1 audio, something something Dolby Technology.

I prefer the “don’t buy ginormous high-impedance headphones for your smartphone” school of thought, personally.

Storage, wireless, and call quality

The US variant HTC One A9 comes with 32GB of internal storage, while many regions will be getting a 16GB version that drops the RAM from 3GB to 2. 32GB seems perfectly reasonable at this price point, but 16GB is a bit more of an issue, so I’m not exactly with HTC on its choice to stiff some regions in this regard.

That said, microSD storage is now fully-adoptable as system storage in Marshmallow. That’s right: just pop in the microSD card of your choice, and Android will ask you if you’d like to make it an extended form of internal storage. No more weird apps-to-SD, no more strange permissions issues. Granted, if you want to run a ton of apps off your microSD card, it should be reasonably quick - Android will even tell you if your external storage is particularly slow as a warning that things may get janky.

Wireless connectivity is the full suite - Bluetooth 4.1 with LE, Wi-Fi a/b/g/n/ac at 2.4 and 5GHz, and Qualcomm’s X8 LTE baseband modem. I had no wireless connectivity issues of any kind. Call quality was normal (which is to say, unremarkable), and several phone conversations into reviewing the phone, I have no complaints.

Camera

Here’s where the ball gets dropped a bit, if you ask me. The One A9’s camera seems pretty middle-of-the-pack. Low-light performance regularly yields shake and blur despite the included optical image stabilization, though daylight performance is quite good. There’s also no 4K video recording (I don’t think Snapdragon 617 supports it), and the “pro” mode in HTC’s camera app has pretty limited flexibility.

I’ll let the samples do the real talking, but here are my thoughts if you want them. As I said, during the day and other forgiving lighting situations, the A9 does very well. Focus times aren’t ideal, despite the promises of phase-detect AF, though, so I think some tuning still needs to be done there. HTC’s HDR mode which I have long found laughably unreliable seems substantially improved, even if Samsung and Google’s HDR modes still wipe the floor with it in my experience.

In low light, I don’t think the A9 is really going to impress anyone who isn’t coming from a relatively inexpensive or old phone. HTC hasn’t announced sensor specs for the A9 (i.e., no one has torn it apart yet), but I’m not thinking they put a top-of-the-line part in here. The camera aggressively keeps ISO down in low-light (to avoid excessive noise), instead ramping up exposure time and EV, resulting in shots that look blurred and are often somewhat blown-out in appearance. Still, that’s not to say it’s bad in low light - it’s just not as good as most of the high-end phones that have been coming out recently. And those devices are setting the bar (and the MSRP) pretty high. Laser auto-focus and a bit more processing magic (in other words: pay someone else to do it, HTC) could very well be all the A9 would need to master the dark, but as it stands now, I’m not especially wowed.

IMAG0005

This sort of shutter blur is annoyingly common on the One A9 in low light scenarios.

In some low-light photos, the A9 dropped down to as low as a 1 / 4 second on the shutter, but held ISO at a perplexingly low 800 (even the user adjustable max is 1600). Unless your nickname is Sensei Steadyhands, a quarter-second shutter is probably going to mean blur, image stabilization or not. You can go into Pro mode and set up things yourself (and even capture in RAW), but who really wants to do that on a smartphone? It’s a lot extra work just to capture a quick, candid image.

I hope things get better with software.

Performance

Would you call me crazy if I told you it was surprisingly quick? I’d probably call me crazy had I heard that three months ago. For some context, the One A9’s Snapdragon 617 CPU chipset is the successor to the outgoing Snapdragon 615. The Snapdragon 615 is, and this is a fact, not very good. It was never especially power-efficient, it was pretty slow when trying to drive anything above a 720p display, and pretty much every device I’ve used with one has been compromised seriously on either performance or battery life. It was not a nice chip.

DSC00363

The 617 does make some major changes. A new DSP (digital signal processor) and LTE baseband modem are in tow - significant modernizations that could in themselves improve power consumption characteristics. The new setup, in tandem with Android 6.0 Marshmallow, seems to work well.

In addition, worries about encryption bogging down performance are overstated (the A9 is encrypted out of the box, and cannot be unencrypted at this point). The phone feels plenty quick, and with the ARMv8 instruction set, encryption isn’t a problem. While random read and write speeds aren’t going to compete even with last year’s Nexus 6, SQLite operations, which are a good read on encryption bottlenecks, are many, many times quicker than Moto’s old Nexus. This could be both Android 6.0’s new encryption features as well as ARMv8 coming into play, but regardless, the One A9 feels very snappy.

DSC00392

Now, is it as quick as the new Nexus 5X or 6P? Or even a Nexus 6 on Marshmallow? No. It’s fast, but it’s clear you’re hitting the ceiling on CPU and GPU performance sometimes, though that’s probably how this phone eeks out quite so much time on its comparatively tiny battery. Overall, nothing about the A9’s performance in everyday smartphone operations has disappointed me in the least. But if you’re looking to do any intense, 3D-heavy gaming on your phone, I’d look elsewhere. The same Adreno 405 from the Snapdragon 615 is still in the 617, and it’s still just not a powerful chip. That’s Qualcomm’s business model - you have to step up to the 800 series to get a respectable GPU, and I’m not sure that’s really a good long-term approach when you’ve got the likes of Samsung, Intel, MediaTek, and others beating Qualcomm on lower-end devices for raw performance. But that’s neither here nor there.

The camera on the A9 launches quickly, the fingerprint scanner responds rapidly, and multitasking performance seems very good. Apps stay in memory more reliably than on a Samsung phone, at least. Now, I am testing the 3GB RAM model of the phone, so it’d be interesting to see if the 2GB version is noticeably worse in this regard. But they won’t be selling that version here in the states.

Stability

The phone has been utterly rock-solid. No random reboots, no app crashes, no weird issues generally. Not even any random slowdowns. Marshmallow seems so much more refined than Lollipop ever did, and this is part of the reason I can’t recommend anyone buy a Lollipop phone anymore. It’s just not worth it - Marshmallow is bringing so much refinement and polish to the table, and if the A9 is any indicator, almost all phones will reap benefits from the newest version of Android. This is the most “finished” I’ve seen Android as an operating system, and it’s just a joy to use most of the time.

Software

More than ever, Sense is getting out of the way in HTC’s smartphones. With the A9, even the custom notification bar, quick toggles, and app switcher have been axed in favor of stock implementations. Slap on Google Now Launcher, and anyone but an enthusiast is going to be hard-pressed to tell the difference between this and a Nexus phone until they start looking at specific apps.

DSC00376

Yes, you still have HTC’s status bar icons and its various stock app UIs, but those are branded experiences that don’t particularly “mess” with anything functionally, and when they do, it’s usually to add something (like in the camera app). Aside from the layout of the settings app, using an HTC One A9 is pretty much like using my Nexus 6 in most regards. I can use Google Clock, Calendar, Photos, Keyboard, and Messenger as replacements for HTC’s versions. I could even use Google Camera if I wanted. At that point, what more for an end user is there really to the Nexus software experience for your typical user? A different dialer, a restyled status bar, settings app, and a few less unnecessary apps, pretty much.

DSC00377

Coming from Sense 7 (this is “Sense 7.0_g”), what other changes can we spot? Well, the car app is gone, for one. So is HTC Backup, Print Studio, the music player, One Gallery, Peel Smart Remote, Polaris Office, and Scribble. Basically, HTC cut out of a lot of useless junk and bloatware. Here are a few other tweaks I’ve noticed - mostly in settings - when side-by-side with a One M9 on 5.0.2.

  • The personalization engine no longer allows you to customize your navigation bar buttons.
  • There is now a settings toggle to lock the screen instantly when you hit the power button.
  • HTC Backup functionality appears to have been removed entirely in the new Sense.
  • There is now a “reset network settings” option in backup & reset.
  • G Sensor calibration utility removed.
  • HTC now uses the standard “Do not disturb” mode for Android (this may have been added to other Sense devices in 5.1?)
  • App manager UI in settings has been replaced with a skinned AOSP version, with the full permissions and app links UI, etc.
  • Storage UI has been replaced with a skinned AOSP version.
  • Memory UI from AOSP has been added.

You still get Sense’s theming engine to change things like the accent colors in particular apps, or theme various icons, which is nice. And there are things like Zoe, BlinkFeed, and the Weather app if you want them.

DSC00393

But the biggest change to Sense is undoubtedly that there is, well, less of it. And that’s good: by removing unnecessary features and needlessly differentiated interfaces and options, HTC is only making its job of updating the A9 in the future easier. It’s not utterly bloat-free, but HTC is really slimming down the profile of its skin, and I’m absolutely on board with that.

On features, the One A9 obviously does add a fingerprint scanner, and it works pretty well. I’ve had few misreads, though I do think the shape of the scanner itself is less than ideal. A circular scanner simply feels more natural to me, though it’s not like the One A9’s is bad. The real complaint I have with it is software-related: sometimes just holding my thumb on the button both turns on the screen and unlocks the phone, and sometimes it only turns on the screen, and sometimes it turns on the screen and unlocks the phone, but it still wants me to slide up on the screen to go home. It’s a bit maddening at times, so I’ve taken to double-tapping it - once to wake, once to register the fingerprint - and that usually works. I think some refining needs to be done here, though.

One of the best software features of the A9 is one you can’t really use so much as look forward to. HTC is promising that within fifteen days of the first Nexus device getting a newly-released version of Android, the A9 will get that same major OS version update. It is an exceptionally bold promise, and I’m not sure if it’s one that I agree HTC will be able to keep. But if they can, that’s nothing to sneeze at, and provides hugely more confidence in future support than pretty much any other non-iOS, non-Nexus device.

Conclusion

I’ll be honest, when I accepted this phone for review, I did not expect to like it very much at all. I wasn’t a huge fan of the M9, and didn’t know what HTC could really bring to the table in a new phone to address my concerns. But it really feels like they did. The A9 has better battery life than the M9 ever did, be it Android 6.0 or the chipset or display (or more likely, a combination thereof). It has a better display in basically every respect. The camera is at least as good, though I wouldn’t say it’s amazing or anything. Android 6.0 with a lighter version of Sense is also just very nice to use, and the phone is quick and responsive. The fingerprint scanner is a nice security convenience. And, despite being positioned down market, the phone really feels no slower in most day-to-day use.

For $400, I think the A9 is justifiable. But that will soon rise to $500 here in the US later in November, and I don’t think that’s a sustainable MSRP. I will not be surprised if HTC’s “promotional” price returns around Black Friday and then perpetually some time after the new year. $500 gets you a Nexus 6P, and sorry HTC, but there’s just no favorable comparison to be made for the A9 aside from the SD slot and size preference. The Nexus 6P has a better screen, camera, speakers, fingerprint scanner, a faster chipset, far better network support, USB-C charging, and more. You cannot tell anyone with a straight face that your product, at $500, is more compelling than a Nexus 6P. It’s just folly.

At $400, though, the conversation changes a bit. Phones like the Moto X Pure Edition (aka Style), Nexus 5X, and OnePlus 2 are the A9’s real competitors. And it largely ends up coming down to personal choice, I think. The 5X and Style are faster, and both have better cameras and network support, but the Moto X PE doesn’t have Marshmallow yet (or a fingerprint scanner) and the Nexus 5X isn’t getting great reviews on the battery life or display quality. The A9 also does have a bit more of the “premium design” thing going if that matters to you, while the Nexus 5X is nice plastic, but still plastic. The Moto X PE offers a lot of customization, the One A9 essentially offers none - but the Moto X PE has base storage of just 16GB, while the A9 has 32GB here in the US. The OnePlus 2 will get Marshmallow who knows when, and it doesn’t have NFC, a microSD slot, a very good display, or quick charging. You do, however, get twice as much internal storage. This puts the A9 in a pretty precarious position.

DSC00365

The A9’s big selling points in this crowd are the microSD slot, smaller size, solid battery life, and Android 6.0 right now. It also probably has the best display among the bunch, though I’d have to look at the Moto X PE’s side-by-side to be sure. And, if you care about it, the HTC One A9 is also the only device among these four that supports FM radio out of the box. So that’s something. For the right person, the A9 can make a whole lot of sense, no pun intended. But if HTC lowered the price a bit more, say, $329-349, I think it would make a lot more sense to a lot more people. At least ones on the internet, which admittedly isn’t always a good thermometer for real-world consumer demand.

The truth of it is HTC isn’t really competing hard on MSRP here in America because most devices are bought on contract or, increasingly, financed. And this is where the cynical part of me really wants to believe that HTC’s only real goal is to undercut the month-to-month price of iPhone financing and lease plans on the major operators here in the US. Even at $500, they can easily manage that regardless of whether or not the phone is clearly inferior to the similarly-priced Nexus 6P. At $400, it at least has a fighting chance among its rivals, though. I would be far from saying it’s a clear-cut issue comparing to the OnePlus 2, Moto X Pure Edition, and Nexus 5X. And on the Snapdragon 617 issue, I’d ignore chipset performance warmongers - this phone performs fine unless you plan on doing considerable gaming.

Now, outside the US? HTC is asking pretty ludicrous amounts of money for this phone in a less desirable configuration. I realize there are likely financial considerations, particularly currency fluctuations, in play here, but I sincerely doubt that’s going to go over well for them. HTC is charging the equivalent of over $650 for the A9 in the UK, where it comes with just 16GB of storage and 2GB of RAM. I’m far from an expert on the UK phone market, but that doesn’t sound like a great deal to me - it’s a whole 20 pounds less than a 32GB Nexus 6P, which itself is already notoriously expensive over there. That won’t be an easy sale to anybody.

As to whether or not HTC is going to get iPhone bargain hunters to buy an A9 on the basis that it’s a bit (OK, more than a bit) of a lookalike? That’s impossible to predict, and only time will tell. At the least, HTC has built a very good iPhone lookalike, a phone I’ve been quite happy using over the past six days. I’d certainly prefer it to an iPhone, I’ll tell you that much.

DSC00396