HTC One A9 review: Where have you been HTC?

After spending much of the summer tossing about the rumor mill, HTC last week unveiled its One A9. Touted as a hero experience, many in the smartphone space were initially looking for a be-all-end-all flagship model. What they got in the end was a mid-range model that plays in the same sandbox as the Motorola Moto X Pure Edition.

HTC has had a rough go at things over the last few years, partly because it has opted for the same design language nearly three straight times. And, while this might work for another company, it has come to haunt HTC. The A9 represents a shift in thought and a new approach to its smartphones.

Design

Let’s just get this out of the way: The HTC One A9, quite simply, is a breath of fresh air. It is easily the most appealing device HTC has offered up in the last few years.

Based on the leaked renders and early pre-release pictures, I, like many other people, feared it would be yet another uninspired design from HTC. “Hey look, it’s an obvious HTC design. Oh, and it happens to look like an iPhone.” Well, I was wrong and I couldn’t be happier. Pictures of this device do not do it justice. You have to hold this one in feel it to see that it is unlike the last two generations of HTC devices.

The fusion of metal and glass and general design language is a departure from the things we have seen in M series and it couldn’t have come any sooner.

It is sleek and polished and feels like a premium device, perhaps even more so than the last two or three flagships. If anything, it feels new. In other words, it doesn’t feel like yet another visit to the One M well.

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Quite simply, this one feels like it can take a little bit of abuse and not stuff or scratch too easily. I feel safer having this one exposed and without a case than I do with, say, a Galaxy S6. I get the sense it will handle pockets and purses better than the all-glass or metal hybrids of its competition. Of course only time will tell.

From the moment I picked the One A9 up I was impressed with the device. The first thing I noticed was that it was totally flush (except for the ring around the rear camera). Unlike the One M7-M9, which had the curved back, this one goes back to the classic rectangular and angular shape.

I was concerned by this design choice; I am a fan of the Motorola Moto X models and the way the curve lends to better and more natural in-hand experience. HTC nailed it with this one as I do not miss the curve around back.

The front of the device is pure white with Gorilla Glass protection snuggled on top of it. The screen certainly does not feel like it wants to shatter with just a simple drop. I get the sense that the One A9 will take have no problems taking a little bit of abuse.

The right side of the device houses the volume rocker and the power button. The power button has ridges in it (like a Ruffles potato chip) that make it easily identifiable, particularly without looking. It feels rough but not overly rough and signals you’ve found the one you’re looking for.

On the left side of the device you will find the microSD card slot and the SIM card slot. Indeed, HTC has opted to identify them, labeling each clearly. If the internal storage is not enough for you, the phone will support up to 2 terabytes of additional storage.

The front of the device offers a single speaker at the top center with the front facing camera just off to the right. The BoomSound technology is not here; there is no dual front-facing stereo speaker this time around. Do I miss that? Hardly.

No matter how good or how much better than other smartphones the speakers were on previous HTC models, I simply do not enjoy the music playing from a phone. I prefer to use Bluetooth speakers for louder listening or headphones for a more intimate experience.

Performance

The home button has a fingerprint scanner which can unlock the device or secure applications, purchases, and other apps. The buttons are soft keys with the left button being “back”, the middle “home”, and the right button for recent apps. You can also press the hardware button to return home so there are two potential home buttons. That is, of course, if that is how you want to tailor your device.

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I found the home button fingerprint scanner to be very fast. I would pick up the phone and press the button for a fraction of a second and it unlocks. To be clear, it’s not so much of a button as it is a sensor.  As a whole the capacitive button is quick, accurate, and it is never a nuisance.

Looking through the phone I found that users can put up to 5 fingerprints on the device. So, if you want to use both thumbs or perhaps a spouse or someone you trust, you can add them, too.

Given the phone has a Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 processor with 3GB I didn’t expect the One A9 to be a zippy. Multi-tasking proved no problem and the handful of moderately graphic intense games I tossed at it weren’t an issue. It’s not the same as a Snapdragon 810 or 820, sure, but it keeps the price down.

Display

The display is so much better than I anticipated. That could be because of previous HTC models we tested, including the Desire 626. Switching to an AMOLED screen was the right thing for HTC to do and it looks great. Color is sharp, vibrant, and accurate.

Compared to other flagship smartphones we found this to be as good, if not better than other models at this price point. It’s a 1080p image so it does fall shorter of the 2560 x 1440 pixel stuff you’ll find in higher-end phones.

As to how it fared outdoors, the phone was easy to read in even the brightest of environments. I had the display all the way up in some instances, but as a whole, it was easy to see. Lines were defined, colors were still vibrant, and the experience was better than expected.

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The 5-inch display is the right size for me as I do not have a large hand. While I do appreciate the screen size of a Samsung Galaxy Note 5 or something that pushes into the 5.7-inch space, it is simply not easy to operate with one hand. To me, this is the perfect size for a phone. Yes, I wish there was smaller bezel to trim the sides of the display, but it’s not a deal breaker. Were HTC to trim this down a smidge, I imagine the phone would actually feel long in-hand.

Camera

The camera performs very well and captures color accurately. A few images captured in broad daylight had some blown out white, but nothing that concerned us. As a daily driver, camera-in-a-pinch situation I was happy in most cases.

Just as you’ll find with any smartphone, low light situations will throw things for a loop once in a while. I couldn’t quite figure it out, but there were times when evening shots and low-light were very noisy and then times when it came out just fine.  I was never irritated with the quality of image but found a few instances where I think the picture could have been better.

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The One A9 employs a fast shutter and there are plenty of options to play with if you like to capture in a specific mode. Users can opt for Hyperlapse, slow motion, HDR, and more. It’s also dead simple to toggle over to RAW image files, leading to a more professional image.

The front-facing Ultrapixel camera performed admirably, even in a situation where the only light source was a tablet on the desk. It’s not as wide as you’ll find in other smartphone cameras but can gather up a small group shot.

Click here for a full gallery of camera samples hosted on Google Photos. Note that most images were shot either with HDR on or off and some with flash. You’ll not find anything using the pro or manual settings.

As part of the smartphone configuration, it’s possible to enhance the experience with gestures or short cuts. Hold the phone sideways and press the volume up, for instance, and the One A9 will launch directly into the camera. Yes, even if you have a fingerprint or security PIN on your phone. After the pictures are taken you cannot do anything else. Try to go into another application and the phone will ask you for the security password, the PIN, or fingerprint authentication.

Sound

The sound from the single speaker is par for the course. Unlike the stereo stuff from other HTC models, the speaker is found on the bottom of the phone and it does broadcast downward. It’s not overly rich or full of range, but I’ve heard far worse.

 

htc_one_a9_soundThe built-in amplifier, however, is incredible. If you’re a plug-in headphone sort of user then you’re going to love this one. I tested this with some of HTC’s Pro Sound earphones and was more than moderately impressed. The sound that comes out of this 3.5mm jack must be heard to be believed. I cannot wait to try other more professional sneakers headphones with this phone.

Battery

The One A9 includes a non-removable 2150mAh battery so it’s definitely on the lower side of things when compared to flagships. The Moto X Pure Edition, for instance, includes a 3000mAh power source.

htc_one_a9_batteryOn a positive note, the Android 6.0 Marshmallow feature includes Android Doze, which helps get more life out of your batteries, regardless of capacity. The battery is capable of Quick Charge 2.0 so it juices up quicker than older models. A future software update will enable Quick Charge 3.0 which means even faster top-off speeds.

Interestingly enough, HTC elected to not use USB Type C charging, despite its native support in Android 6.0. But, given I don’t have any replacement cables or anything for my car just yet, I am glad they stuck with the traditional microUSB plug. Another year from now, and when it’s cheaper to buy extra cords, and I might have cared more here.

I’ve found that I get to the end of day without having to charge the One A9. Indeed, even at the 2150mAh capacity, it’s doing quite well. As a frame of reference, it’s currently 3:00PM and I’ve had the phone off the charger for nearly six hours. I’m sitting comfortably at 77% left and I have yet to enable power saver or extreme power saving. Suffice it to say, you should be able to get through your day without worry.

Software

I absolutely love that this phone launched with Android 6.0 Marshmallow. As the first non-Nexus smartphone on the market with this version of Android, this is a true feather in HTC’s cap. The handset maker should be proud that it has this on the market so quickly after Android 6.0 was released.

Thanks to Marshmallow, One A9 users can enjoy stuff like native fingerprint reader support, Google Now on Tap, Android Pay, and Doze. It’s the latest and greatest from Google and HTC hasn’t done anything here to muck it up.

Screenshot_20151024-165105The model that I reviewed is an unlocked version so it is not tied to any specific carrier. I put in a T-Mobile SIM card and have been using it for the last few days with service delivered as expected. Along those lines, this phone did not have any of the pre-loaded carrier applications. The suite of apps, games, and services will vary from provider to provider but I cannot speak to them from personal experience.

It’s not a stock experience by any stretch, but it does not feel overwhelmingly bloated. The Sense UI is still here, but it feels like it takes a little bit of a back seat. Indeed you can customize this with themes, fonts, wallpapers, and other settings. I like that the phone walks you through the initial setup and hands you off when ready for a little more advanced configuration.

The BlinkFeed is a great tool for people who are just getting into smartphones and/or social media. A swipe to the left delivers news and social streams in a sharp, intuitive layout. Those of us who prefer specific apps for Twitter, Facebook, and other services may not care so much for BlinkFeed, but it’s an excellent all-in-one feature for newbies and basic users.

As someone who is quick to install Nova Launcher Prime on his phone, I was a little bit more reluctant this time to do it so early on. I enjoyed playing around with the settings and configurations that HTC offers. I venture to guess that average consumers will really like the tweaking and modding available that doesn’t require advanced education or previous experience in this area.

Installing new themes is a breeze and can change up the entire feel of your phone within a matter of minutes. HTC does a great job of curating a variety of themes, ensuring it doesn’t feel like a dump of lookalike layouts. There’s something for everyone.

Perhaps the best software feature, if only in theory, is that HTC promises incredibly fast turnaround on software updates for the One A9. According to the handset maker, the One A9 will see the next versions of Android within 15 days of it being made available to Google Nexus line. We’ll see if HTC can stick to its guns, but we’re anxious to find out.

Conclusion

I am a huge fan of the $400 price that HTC is offering right now. Although it is a promotional/limited-time offer, it’s one I have no problem endorsing. How much higher can they get away with? I’d say $500 is about as much as HTC can afford to ask. But…

As to what you receive for the money, it’s quite the bundle. Not only do you get an unlocked phone that you can use with any GSM carrier, you also have the ability to unlock the boot loader without voiding the warranty. This doesn’t mean much to average Joe types, but those who like to tinker and push their phone to new limits will take pleasure in this.

Factor in the Uh-Oh Protection that comes with HTC flagship phones and the six months of Google Play Music All Access and you have one of the most appealing packages on the market. As much as I admire the Moto X Pure Edition at the same price, this one has a little more of the intangible stuff that offers peace of mind. And, because it’s a tad smaller, the One A9 is more pocketable and easier to use with one hand.

It is not clear which color options will be available to which carriers, but I can tell you that the Opal Silver finish is sharp and eye-catching. I at once want to protect this thing with the studiest of protective cases, yet I don’t want to cover up any of it.

Does it look like an iPhone? Of course it does. What it doesn’t look like, however, is the last three years of HTC designs. And, let’s face it, how much can you innovate on this type of design? I applaud HTC for this model and really hope that it takes this design forward. I don’t want to see this over the next three years, mind you, but I would love to see at least one or two generations and variations of this look.

I have truly enjoyed carrying his phone around for the last few days and I’m quick to reach for it over my other phones.  I’m also going to be quick to recommend this one to you and anyone else interested in a new smartphone.

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