It’s always exciting to see the first wave of smartphones packing Google’s software, but that excitement was short-lived with the HTC One A9.
Though it’s part of HTC’s top-end One family, slightly scaled-down specs and and a different (but still familiar) design make the A9 a cheaper alternative to the company’s One M9 series. Beyond a full-HD 5-inch display, it packs a 13-megapixel rear camera, an octa-core processor, a physical home button that doubles as a fingerprint reader and an all-metal design that’s rather reminiscent of the iPhone 6, red option aside.
By itself it’s a respectable midrange handset and the initial US price of $399 is fair, but that won’t last for long. HTC has instead confirmed that its lower US price is actually only a launch promotion and — after November 7 — the phone will jump up to $499.
In the UK, this unrealistic pricing is even worse. While its US price converts to £260, the A9 actually sells in the UK for £430. That’s not affordable at all. The UK often pays a little over the odds for electronics, thanks to tax, but HTC takes that markup to extremes with the A9.
That price puts it squarely up against top-end phones like the LG G4 , and indeed HTC’s aforementioned One M9 flagship, when its real counterpart is a phone like the Moto X Play . You won’t get the features and performance you might expect for spending so much, making this phone a big disappointment all round.
Based on its specs and performance, I’d expect to see the One A9 on sale for around £250 ($379-ish), and if HTC significantly drops the price of the phone in the near future, I’ll reassess. Until that happens, this phone is too expensive to be worth your time.
HTC has yet to announce pricing for Australia, so we’ll have to wait and see whether the phone is reasonably priced Down Under. For reference, $399 converts to around AU$550, while £430 is about AU$915. The One A9 goes on sale globally in early November.
Design and display
- 5-inch full HD (1,920×1,080-pixel) display
- All-metal design
- Fingerprint sensor
- MicroSD card slot
Let’s get this out of the way — the HTC One A9
looks pretty much identical to the iPhone 6. When I first saw the A9 earlier in October, the obvious resemblance irritated me. I’ve mellowed since then, even if I’d prefer HTC to be more original. It still looks very much like the iPhone, but at least Apple’s device is an attractive one to copy.
The all-metal body is flat on the back (rather than curved like the M9), it has similar inset lines running across the top and bottom (although this is something we saw first on the HTC One M7 ) and it comes in silver, dark gray and gold colours. If you’re more daring, there’s also a dark-red version. Even the camera lens protrudes from the body in the same way as the iPhone 6’s. Want more proof? There’s a physical home button that doubles as a fingerprint scanner on the front, the screen’s glass curves at the edges to meet the body and there are speaker holes drilled into the bottom edge, just like on the iPhone.
The A9’s 5-inch screen sits in my personal sweet spot between the 4.7-inch iPhone 6 (a touch too small) and the 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus (too big). It’s big enough to properly display photos and games but not so chunky as to be cumbersome to hold in one hand. It feels well put together, but its light weight and slightly hollow sound when tapped mean it lacks the reassuringly premium feel of the iPhone, or indeed its sibling, the One M9.
I’m sad to see the “BoomSound” speakers go, which are louder than you’ll find on most phones, and point the sound directly toward you. Both the One M9 and One M8 were able to kick out a surprisingly powerful sound, which made listening to podcasts while cooking easy and fun. Regrettably, the A9’s small speaker grille found only in the bottom edge can’t compete. If you want to feel immersed in your audio, you’ll need to hook the A9 up to a Bluetooth speaker.
In the speaker’s place on the front is the physical home button. It doesn’t fully click in, but it’s touch-sensitive so will return you to the homescreen with a simple tap. Oddly, HTC still maintains the onscreen navigation buttons above, so there are actually two home buttons within a few millimetres of each other. To avoid the multiple controls, not to mention the resemblance to the iPhone, HTC could have used a fingerprint scanner on the side of the phone, as Sony did on the Xperia Z5 , or stuck with the rear-mounted scanner from 2013’s One Max (also used to great effect on the Huawei-made Google Nexus 6P ) .
The scanner, at least, worked well, recognising my prints quickly and accurately. Placing your finger on the scanner wakes the phone from standby, so you can gain access to the phone in one swift motion. The touch-sensitive button performs only those functions for now, although I can see additional abilities being useful here — a double tap to quick-launch into the camera, for example. Pressing and holding the home button launches Google Now (as always), but oddly, you can only do that with the onscreen home button, not the physical one beneath.
Although HTC removed the BoomSound speakers, it equipped the A9 with high-resolution audio capabilities, including support for 24-bit FLAC audio, which upscales lower-resolution audio from streaming services, and a more powerful headphones output, which allows it to drive rich audio to the sort of large closed-back headphones audiophiles love. HTC claims that it’s “equivalent to the performance of a dedicated external DAC” although we’ll take that with a pinch of salt.
The phone comes with 16GB of storage as standard, and there’s a microSD card slot if you need more space. Thanks to updates in Android Marshmallow, you can mount an external card as though it’s built-in storage, allowing you to store all apps, games and other system information. In other words, that will let you pop in a 200GB microSD card and (essentially) never worry about storage again. It’s a very welcome feature, and the One A9 is among a dwindling number of Android phones to still come with expandable storage — Samsung’s Galaxy S6 family and Galaxy Note 5 no longer allow microSD cards to be used, for example.
The A9 has a Micro-USB port for charging, rather than the USB Type-C ports found on the new Nexus phones . Though it’s very early days for USB Type-C, support for the new standard is a major Marshmallow feature. It’s a shame that HTC didn’t take full advantage of its fresh software. I hope that all phones — certainly high-end ones — released toward the end of this year and onward will pack USB Type-C charging ports.
The 5-inch display has a full-HD resolution, which is sufficient to make icons and text look crisp, although high-resolution photos lack the pin-sharp clarity seen on phones with ultra-high-res screens. Colours and contrast are good and while it’s perfectly bright enough for indoor use, it struggles to compete with the sunlight when you take it outdoors.
Android Marshmallow software and HTC’s interface
- Latest Android 6.0 Marshmallow software
- HTC Sense 7 interface
- Heavily customisable design using HTC’s Themes
Aside from Google’s own Nexus phones, the One A9 is one of the first phones running Google’s Version 6.0 of Android, aka Marshmallow. Marshmallow adds a bunch of neat features, including Now on Tap, which integrates Google Now functions more deeply with the phone; Android Doze, which promises better battery life in standby mode; and Android Pay, the mobile payment system that’s still US-only for now.
HTC has slapped its Sense 7 interface over the top, however, so initially you won’t be able to tell that you’re running the latest version of Android. It’s visually identical to Sense 7 on the One M9, with the BlinkFeed news aggregator off to the left of the homescreens and a Themes tool that lets you heavily customise the look of the interface. I quite like Sense 7 as it’s neat and easy to use, thanks partly to HTC not loading the phone up with much bloatware. The wide range of themes available — plus the option to create your own — lets you really put your own stamp on the phone.
- Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 617
The phone runs on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 processor — an octa-core chip that’s a step down from the more potent Snapdragon 810 processor in the higher-end M9. For general navigation around the Sense interface, this chip copes adequately, providing smooth transitions and quick-opening of apps.
Anything more intense however and it starts to struggle. Opening the camera app and shooting raw photos felt sluggish, while racing game GT Racing 2 was prone to stutters and slowdowns, making the game often difficult to play. I’d happily forgive a lower-end phone for a lack of gaming prowess, but at this price, I expect a lot more.
On the Geekbench 3 benchmark test it achieved 631 (single core) and 2,520 (multicore), putting it below the LG G4 (1,046 and 2,981), far below the iPhone 6S (2,527 and 4,402) and below the affordable Motorola Moto X Style (1,271 and 3,528). Similarly its 9,106 score on the 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited graphics test put it way below its competitors, including the more affordable Nexus 5X, which achieved 18,973 on the same test. It’s a very disappointing performance from the A9.
Phone calls were about standard on the A9, when tested indoors in London on the Vodafone network. Voices were clear (on both ends), with no unexpected crackling or additional ambient noise. There’s nothing to complain about when it comes to the simple act of making a call.
Your experience may well differ, depending on your network, location and time of day.
- 13-megapixel rear camera
- HDR mode and raw shooting
- 4-Ultrapixel front-facing camera
The back of the phone is home to a 13-megapixel camera. I took it for a spin and found it capable of taking some good shots.
First up, this moped stand in central London. It’s well exposed, colours are vibrant and natural and there’s sufficient detail to display well at full screen.
These shots of leaves and flowers are both colourful and mostly well exposed (the flowers shot is perhaps a touch on the dull side), and the camera has achieved a good focus.
The camera has an HDR function that works well too. The top shot has an overexposed sky, with the cart in the foreground being plunged into shadow. With HDR mode enabled, it’s evened out the whole scene.
Like the M9 before it, the A9 can take shots in raw format, which preserve more details in the bright and dark areas of an image. You can process the raw file on the phone as well, with the A9 automatically correcting the exposure. As you can see from the before and after examples above, it’s made a noticeable difference. However, simply shooting in JPEG with HDR mode enabled has achieved a similarly impressive exposure balance, yet it’s also maintained good contrast and colours.
You can see the same results in this garden scene. The HDR mode has helped brighten up the standard JPEG shot, resulting in an even-looking scene. The processed raw file has kept the bright sky under control, but the image looks very flat, lacking contrast and colour saturation. You’d certainly want to import it into an app like Snapseed to tweak it before posting it online.
And another example — the HDR mode’s shot is bright and vibrant, while the processed raw photo looks rather drab and uninspiring. Part of the issue is that the phone processes the file automatically how it thinks is best. If you want to take control of highlights, shadows and contrast yourself, you’ll need to import the raw files (in DNG format) into a desktop application like Adobe Lightroom. The raw shots give you an even base for an image to process further in different apps, but it’s the HDR mode that gives the best results straight from the camera. It’s what I would always shoot in on this phone.
On the front of the phone is the same 4-Ultrapixel camera as the M9, which can take bright, vibrant shots, although the lower resolution means that fine details are fuzzy when viewed at full screen. The rear camera shoots video at 1,080p resolution, and it has decent enough exposure for most types of filming. The footage looks quite shaky, so you’ll want to stabilise yourself if you want a smooth pan across a beautiful scene.
The A9 has quite a small battery — only 2,150mAh. Compare that with the batteries in the Motorola Moto X Play (3,630mAh), the LG G4 (3,000mAh) or indeed the One M9 (2,840mAh). That small size can be a problem. In mixed use, including listening to music in the morning, taking a few pictures throughout the day, receiving messages and emails using push notifications and a spot of light gaming on the bus into work, you’ll struggle to get a day of use from the phone. Boot up a demanding game and you can expect the power to drain away extremely quickly.
The phone does hold its power quite well in standby mode and this may be due to Android Marshmallow’s new Doze feature, which claims to better manage background processes in standby mode to help improve battery life. What it means for the average One A9 owner then is that battery life is totally dependent on how much you use the phone.
If you typically only use your phone on the bus to and from work, keeping it mostly lying dormant in your pocket throughout the day, then you’ll have no trouble getting into the evening with juice remaining. Those of you who are more demanding of your phones — or want to spend your Saturday taking snaps in the park — will need to be more careful.
Although it’s great to see the latest Android Marshmallow software arriving on a mid- to high-end phone so soon after its launch, the HTC One A9 fails to impress in almost every other respect. Its full HD screen and raw-shooting camera are welcome, but are also available on the One M9, which came out in March. Its processor meanwhile seriously underperforms, and its battery doesn’t put up much of a fight either.
The problem really comes down to price. Even its lower US price makes the A9 unaffordable as a midrange handset. Even worse, its high UK price puts it squarely among top-end phones, but it really fails to offer any kind of competition to its rivals here.
Motorola’s Moto X Play has a similar lineup of specs, including a full-HD display, 23-megapixel camera and capable processor, and throws in a water-resistant design to boot. You can pick that up now for £279, making it a much better buy than the A9. Alternatively, LG’s gorgeous leather-clad G4, with its ultra-high-resolution display and blistering processor, can be yours for £320 SIM-free on Amazon — a significant reduction over the One A9.
More ridiculous still, you can buy HTC’s flagship, the One M9, for £382 on Amazon. In short, the One A9 is not a good purchase in the UK and only a moderately better one in the US, and I highly recommend you look elsewhere for your next phone.