HTC One A9 review: A stylish iPhone clone that isn't worth its premium price

HTC would have a hit on its hands if it weren't so optimistic about how much you'd be willing to pay for this small, mid-range phone.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and whether HTC copied Apple with the One A9 doesn’t really matter here, no matter how much HTC protests it.

What matters—and what HTC should focus on—is whether or not the One A9 is a good enough phone to help pull HTC’s business out of deep waters. The Taiwan-based smartphone maker desperately needs a hit, and unfortunately, I don’t think the One A9 is it. It’s a decent, smaller-sized Android device, but it simply costs too much and offers too little compared to other phones in its class.

No more iPhone comparisons

onea9 0173 Florence Ion

Yes. We know what it looks like. We get it.

HTC has always been a “design first” kind of smartphone company, and it continues that tradition with the One A9. As I mentioned in my initial hands-on, HTC’s new phone is supposed to be the design convergence of the flat-stack Desire 816 and three-year-old One M7. It definitely achieves that; the One A9 is flat and dense like the best phones in the Desire line, and it borrows the same rounded edges and a metal unibody design as its flagship predecessor.

The One A9 also features a 5-inch, 1080p AMOLED display, which is nice change from the IPS LCD displays of the past. It offers fantastic viewing angles and rich color profiles. You’ll be comfortable staring at this phone in the dark before bed and even in bright sunlight.

onea9 0179 Florence Ion

HTC stuck with its signature brushed aluminum aesthetic on the One A9.

I’m enjoying my time with the Nexus 6P, but there’s not much elegance to its masculine build. The One A9 appears much more polished alongside it, and it’s a handsome piece of industrial design. If you don’t like the slate gray coloring, you can also choose from gold, white, and red.

onea9 0177 Florence Ion

The ridged power button helps you locate it without looking at it.

HTC paid mind to the “little” things about the One A9, too. For instance, it features a power button with ridges on on the side, so it’s easier for you to locate by feel. The antenna is also placed at the top of the device, so that your grip won’t interfere with the phone’s wireless connections. It also has a fingerprint reader on the front, which works really well. You can also use it as a Home button, though you can’t long press it to activate Google Now on Tap.

onea9 0175 Florence Ion

The One A9’s fingerprint scanner is seriously fast.

Like its older siblings, One A9 also has impressive stereo speakers, though you’ll have to be careful not to cover the bottom speaker. The top speaker funnels through the earpiece and is not as well-amplified.

Totally mid-range performance

While the design is top-notch (if very familiar), the performance of the One A9 is as mid-range as mid-range phones get. Its fared well with daily tasks, but I would occasionally experience a bit of lag between entering in the pattern unlock, for instance, and loading up the Home screen. I counted a few times I had to sit back and wait for the interface to suss itself out.

Our performance benchmarks showed that the One A9 has some kick to it, however. Its 1.5GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 processor and 3GB of RAM didn't manage to keep up with competitors that cost less, including the Moto X Pure Edition and LG-made Nexus 5X.

htc one a9 benchmarks geekbench

In Geekbench, the One A9 shows dramatically slower single-thread performance.

htc one a9 benchmarks 3dmark

It trailed behind in 3DMark, however, which measures 3D graphics performance.

htc one a9 benchmarks pcmark

At the very least, the One A9 can keep up with daily smartphone tasks.

I was curious about how much I could get out of the One A9, so I loaded Google’s Street View app and then popped it in to Google Cardboard. My fiancé and I had some fun for about twenty minutes virtually perusing through the Grand Canyon and Yosemite. The One A9 was absurdly hot afterwards, but it managed to keep up with every slight head turn and button press.

htc one a9 benchmarks battery

The One A9’s overall battery life is very impressive.

I was surprised at the One A9’s battery life. I figured that with its 2150mAh battery pack it wouldn’t last as long as its competitors, but I was wrong. In the Geekbench battery test, the One A9 lasted just as long as the Nexus 5X, which boasts a larger 2,700mAh battery pack. In PCMark, it came in at about 40 minutes below the Nexus 5X. The One A9 lasted through the weekend on standby, too. It helps that it’s running Android 6.0 Marshmallow already, so that when it’s laying on the sidelines, it kicks into Doze mode. The slower Snapdragon 617 chip is partly responsible for going easy on the battery, too.

A very decent camera

We were pretty disappointed by the One M9’s 20-megapixel camera. A flagship phone should act as your everyday point-and-shoot, but the One M9 simply didn’t cut it.

onea9 cameraui

HTC’s fantastic, simplified camera interface is back with new camera modes.

Fortunately, the One A9’s rear-facing 13-megapixel camera sensor is an improvement over its predecessor. The white balance is much better this time around and the HDR works wonders in tough lighting situations. HTC also went in and tweaked the low light performance issues, though it’s only marginally better than the One M9.

htc onem9vsonea9

On the left is the One M9’s camera test, and on the right is the One A9’s. You can tell there’s been a bit of white balance tweaking in the second photo.

htc onem9vsonea9 lowlight

The low light performance is only marginally better. Photos are warmer, but if the lamp is all the way in the back of the room you won’t have too much success.

I’m concerned about how long it takes the One A9 to focus on a moving subject in dim lighting. I’m so used to snapping away with the Galaxy S6 Edge and the Nexus 6P, but the One A9 couldn’t keep up with my cat. It was hard to capture a decent, still photo of her pacing around the living room. She was desperate and hungry for food, but I needed a model. It took several tries before I could get a photo of her and I had to act fast. I also noticed that although the One A9 has optical image stabilization, you still need to tap to focus on the subject before shooting.

htconea9 pleasefocus

I tried the “point and shoot” method with the first two photos, but they came out blurry. The best photo is when she managed to sit still and I had more time to snap her.

The One A9 has a few camera tricks up its sleeve. It takes slow motion video, though you can’t adjust the frame rate for it. It also does Hyperlapse, though you’ll want to invest in a smartphone tripod setup to take advantage of that. And there’s a Pro mode of sorts that shoots in RAW, which I found is useful for taking long exposure nighttime shots. I wasn’t too impressed by the end result, however; it was too grainy and fuzzy to bother transferring into a post-processing application like Adobe Lightroom. The Pro mode is nice for making neat Instagram shots, but it's nothing like what the LG G4 can do.

Also, according to the Manual Camera Compatibility test, the One A9 does not support Lollipop’s Camera2 APIs at all. The Pro mode that’s on this phone is good for what it is, but if you're looking to use one of the excellent manual camera apps in the Play Store, you're going to be disappointed.

The One A9’s slow motion mode seems to shoot at 24 fps by default.

You can adjust the speed and length of your time lapse when you've finished recording it.
htconea9 raw

This is the “manual” photo the One A9 took with the shutter speed set at two seconds.

The front-facing camera is still a 4-megapixel UltraPixel sensor. It’s pretty good for selfies and it’s capable of 1080p video, though I don’t like the way it took the green hue of my living room and just ran with it. The One A9's rear camera only shoots up to Full HD (1920x1080) video, however, so if you were hoping for some affordable 4K video shooting action, you’re out of luck here. And slow motion shooting is limited to a paltry 1024x576 resolution.

NonSense UI

In the past, HTC’s Sense UI was the least offensive version of Android out there. But since Android’s Material Design became a standard, it feels like a nuisance.

onea9 interface

Sense is okay, but I’d much rather see Marshmallow all over this thing.

Sense UI’s narrow typeface and crowded application drawer is overdone. The interface is supposed to match the sleek, modern profile of the phone’s exterior design, but it’s just annoying to deal with. Sense’s theming engine isn’t too exciting, either, especially considering that any apps you install without corresponding icons will look out of place. I would have much rather preferred that HTC do what Asus did and allow you to apply third-party icon packs from the Play Store.

screenshot 20151023 110009

At least HTC left the Quick Settings panel alone.

At least HTC kept some of the interface elements of Android Marshmallow. The Quick Settings drop down is similar to the one you’d experience on a Nexus device. The main Settings app also features quick toggles for things like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, while stock Android requires a few extra taps to turn off and on. You can also use the Personalize feature to change the theme, accent colors, and font style of the interface, so you don’t have to deal with the narrow typeface.

This is the worst part of HTC Sense, however:

htconea9 ads

ADS? IN MY INTERFACE?!

If you want to get rid of those—and subsequently, the BlinkFeed page that lives to the very left of the Home screen—you can load another launcher. Still, it’s ridiculous that you have to do all that maintenance after you take the phone out of the box. No phone that costs $500 should come with advertisements. That’s just wrong.

Is this phone really worth $500?

We were led to believe the One A9 would cost $399, but it appears that price point is only for a very limited limited time. On November 7, after less than two weeks on the market, the phone's price will jump to $500. That doesn’t seem fair to consumers.

This is a mid-range phone at best. It may look high-end on the outside, but that was the point: it’s supposed to be an affordable, middle-of-the-road, iPhone-like device that isn’t covered in plastic wrapping. But for less than $500, you could bring home your own custom, unlocked Moto X Pure Edition with a better processor and near-stock Android. Or a 32GB Nexus 5X with Nexus Protect. For the same price, you can get a Nexus 6P. Or heck, a refurbished iPhone 6. There are so many other, better options at this price.

It’s really a bummer. HTC set the precedent for phone design so many years ago, but now it’s failing to find its niche in an increasingly saturated smartphone market. My hope for HTC is that it uses the feedback from this particular device as the blueprint for next year’s flagship, since this isn’t going to be the device that helps it out of its financial hole.

At the very least, the One A9 proves that HTC is capable is bundling in a decent camera sensor, battery efficiency, and stereo speakers into a premium-looking package. But it needs to kick Sense the the curb and find a price point that doesn't put its mid-range device in direct competition with higher-end flagships.

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