Let’s get a couple of things straight: the HTC One A9 isn’t a flagship phone, which explains why so many iconic elements have been left out. And yes, it looks a lot like an iPhone 6S.
But that would miss the point of this phone. It’s a ‘fashion’ device, one for those who want a slightly cheaper smartphone with decent build and some attractive specs, sitting apart from the usual bun-fight for attention that happens twice a year when Sony, Samsung, HTC, LG and Apple throw their new phones into the ring.
I’ll get to the points about design later on in the review, but let’s deal with something now: this is an iPhone in shape to the untrained eye, something most people commented on when they saw the handset.
The argument is already raging about whether or not this is HTC’s DNA in the phone (the brand did popularise the metal-body-with-plastic-strips look on the original One) but the fact is that it looks like an iPhone 6S.
HTC One A9 review
Whether Apple copied HTC or HTC copied Apple is irrelevant. The iPhone is the world’s most popular single device, and as such is easily identifiable. Any brand that makes a phone that looks remotely similar does so with both eyes open.
The desire to have this specific ‘flat body, rounded edges’ look on the One A9 has led to a few things going missing – things that are iconic elements of the HTC brand. The biggest loss is the Boomsound speakers on the front of the phone, which were an integral part of why I loved to recommend HTC devices.
HTC One A9 review
These have been replaced with a small mono speaker at the bottom, as HTC tried to find ways to slim the device down while also including a fingerprint sensor on the front of the phone.
HTC One A9 review
Let’s leave the ‘who copied who’ debate though, and focus on what this phone actually is: a well-made Nexus phone with a few touches of HTC’s smarts. Because it won’t be a phone that any fan of the Taiwanese brand will recognise on a software level, such is the integration with Android Marshmallow.
The interface is much, much closer to stock Android than ever, with loads of HTC’s apps being dropped in favor of just presenting the Google options; this is a phone that’s designed to be sleek when it comes to software, with HTC elevating the best parts of the new Android OS instead of putting its own stamp on the phone.
It’s stripped-back, clean and easy to use, with just a hint of HTC’s touch on top. It’s a Nexus with less of a Google stamp on it, with more freedom from the manufacturer to create the phone it wants.
There’s an issue around price though. In the US the HTC One A9 will be retailing at $399 until November 7, after which the price increases to $499. In the UK, however, it’ll launch at £429, which is about $650 – and that’s for a lower-spec phone.
In the US, there’s 32GB of storage and 3GB of RAM; in the UK, 16GB and 2GB. I’ll get on to what that means in terms of performance later on, but it’s an incredibly odd strategy to make the lower-spec model more expensive in certain parts of the world.
Is this a phone that’s only designed to compete in the US? With the raft of excellent low-cost phones from Motorola, OnePlus, Huawei and more in Europe it seems that HTC is already giving up the fight with such a high price – which is a shame, as this is a phone that treads a new path for the brand and, mostly, does it very well.
I’ve always been a fan of what HTC has done: tried to make Android into a workable thing in a shell that doesn’t look horrible.
The Desire, Hero, Legend, One S and then the ‘proper’ One line all have that heritage, and people shouldn’t care who much this looks like an iPhone – more how well it works in the hand.
HTC’s got very confused with how much the phone is and how powerful it should be, which is an indication of how little sway it has in the markets around the world – it’s a shame that it needs to kowtow to the desires of retailers who dictate how this phone should sit on shop shelves, as it’s actually a very decent smartphone.
Similarities aside, the design of the One A9 is the thing that marks it out so well. It’s well made, uses strong materials to create an excellent build quality and offers a delightful look and feel in the hand.
If you want to be blunt about it, you could say it’s the perfect phone for those that want the iPhone 6S look but prefer Android.
The camera is upgraded and takes decent stills when your work with the Pro mode to get the snap you want, and there are some cool other features on there to make it worth playing with. It’s certainly a step up from the One M9, which is the key thing here as that camera simply didn’t impress at all.
The audio capabilities are also strong and above expectations here – the amplifier that HTC has employed in the past has been upgraded to improve things sonically and it really shows, bringing an even further dimension to songs (and reiterating that it’s a really sad thing that the Boomsound speakers aren’t being used here).
Closer-to-native Android Marshmallow is also a great addition to the mix, and it’s nice to see how well it improves things. I’m not a massive fan of stock Android, but it does allow you to customise it as you see fit. And being able to still use things like the HTC Calendar is nice, given then offer genuine upgrades over the stock Google one.
Sigh. Battery life again isn’t brilliant – and the stupid thing is it’s a decent performance. It’s just not a big enough power pack to be able to keep this phone going all day long despite the higher efficiency.
Make the phone slightly thicker HTC. It surely wouldn’t hurt that much. At least it means that when the One M10 appears, Android Marshmallow and the battery optimisations will have helped to the point of being able to last more than a day. Hopefully.
While the design is good, there are still some loose elements in the phone that shudder when you tap the screen – not what you’d expect even for a slightly cheaper phone.
The decision to split the spec of the One A9 across the globe really irks as well. Europe and parts of Asia just aren’t getting a phone that’s good enough really, where the more powerful model seems to be a much better performer.
While we’re here, the price is too high as well, especially in Europe where the lower-spec model costs more than the higher-spec variant in the US. Go figure.
I still feel like media could be handled better here too. Letting Google have its way with apps is fine if they’re brilliant (like Google Mail) but the movie and music experience is still sub par, and HTC could still have made a much better model.
I’m still not entirely sure what this phone is all about. It’s a well-crafted device that’s almost a flagship in many ways, and yet goes in a completely different design direction to the M line-up.
Yes, it looks like an iPhone, and HTC should have done more to avoid that if cries that it’s a mere coincidence are to be believed. That said, there are those that want the iFrame and Android together at last – this is that phone.
It’s a good tag that the One A9 is one of the first non-Nexus phones to come with Android Marshmallow, but that’s a title that won’t last very long and soon other brands will come with better variants.
The size of the phone is one of it’s big selling points though. Combined with a decent finish, this is a very tactile and usable handset, and the lower-spec chipset doesn’t really harm it most of the time.
The key question here: does the HTC One A9 warrant the cost? It’s hard to say yes beyond the polish the fact that paying more for a phone made by a top brand usually removes some of the worry about whether you’re getting a good one.
The One A9 works well, but there are many, many other more powerful and better specified phones out there, with equal effort put into design.
HTC screamingly needs a win, but despite trying to go back to basics here it hasn’t quite managed it in a way that’s going to make the One A9 stand out on the shop shelves.