HTC One A9 Smartphone Review
This second-string flagship shows ambition but falls short.
If you've been looking at new Android phones lately, you may have noticed that there are a lot of inexpensive, impressively-featured options at the moment. We don't expect this trend to stop– the processors, cameras, and build quality you see in today's $400-$500 phones used to cost much more dough.
Now that yesterday's awe-inspiring tech has trickled down, we have some tantalizing new options like HTC's One A9 (MSRP $499). Built around HTC's stellar hardware and tastefully-tweaked version of Android, the One A9 looks and feels like it should cost more than it actually does. At $500, it presents an interesting blend of mid-range guts and top-tier features that add up to a desirable phone. But, with heated competition from phones like the Nexus 5X and Motorola Moto X, is this HTC really the One that you want?
Design & Usability
Elegant, if a little generic
HTC has a history of upsetting the status-quo when it comes to its smartphone design. It was the first company to wholeheartedly embrace a metal monocoque design; a signature style that has carried on for years, including the company's current flagship, the HTC One M9. The metal back and glass face made HTC's phones stand out in the crowd, and it's a style that the competition has spent years copying.
For the One A9, HTC maintained the quality of the phone's construction, but conformed more to what people expect from other manufacturers. It's not hard to compare the A9 to the iPhone 6 and 6s, since both the HTC and Apple offerings—right down to their protruding cameras—look like cousins. It's still glass and metal, but it's flatter and more toned down compared to the M9.
While it's not a bad thing that the A9 looks like other phones, we lament the fact that it doesn't quite look, well, like an HTC. It's almost as if HTC got fed up with being aped and decided to return the favor. Without a doubt, the feature we miss the most is the gloriously loud BoomSound front-facing speaker system that the M9 has. In order to fit a fingerprint scanner on the bottom bezel, the A9 makes do with an earpiece and a bottom-mounted speaker; this only furthers the inevitable Apple/HTC comparisons.
We were impressed with the A9's fingerprint scanner and found that it's about on-par with the one in Apple's iPhone 6s. Unlike the competing Nexus 5X and 6P, the HTC rocks the sensor in the most natural position– below the screen, letting you use your pointer fingers to unlock the device as easily as your thumbs. Compare that to the Nexus phones, which both have rear scanners that only really work with your index fingers.
One pet peeve we had with prior HTC phones was how small the volume and power buttons tend to be. While unobtrusive, they were hard to tell apart from each other without stopping to look at the phone. The A9 now has a grooved surface treatment on the power button, so now it's really hard to mistake this button for anything but power. On top of that, the A9 lets you double tap on the device's screen to wake the whole device up.
What we've come to expect from HTC
It might look like an iPhone, but the HTC One A9 gives you a distinctly Android experience. Running a gently modified version of Google's latest phone software, HTC has a firm grasp on what makes or breaks the phone experience, adding only a few apps while tastefully tweaking the interface. There's a load of built-in themes that let you customize the experience, along with the company's built-in BlinkFeed news aggregation service and custom homescreen widgets.
Perhaps the biggest letdown of this phone is that its internals just don't match how sophisticated the outside looks. Instead of a top-tier Qualcomm Snapdragon, HTC has chosen a midrange part—the Snapdragon 617. While it's still equipped with a whopping 8 cores, this chip just doesn't match the sheer performance of chip like a Snapdragon 805 or 810. The benefits of a slightly-underpowered chip can be extended battery life.
As we've noticed with some prior flagship Snapdragon 800 phones, we've seen some really middling battery life in our intensive Peacekeeper rundown. The One A9 sidesteps this particular raging bull, pulling a pretty decent 4.9 hours out of its stylish toreador hat. Especially when compared to the paltry battery life we've seen from Apple's finest, it's a tradeoff we're not entirely upset about.
Power users aside, we were pretty pleased with the quick performance that the A9 exhibited in web browsing and launching apps like the camera or Dropbox. So, even though it doesn't rock the latest and greatest silicon from Qualcomm, this can at least last a long time.
Disappointing, but not a total defeat
Although we were pleased with most of the A9's assets, we were most excited to test out its prowess as a camera. HTC has tried and failed in past years to innovate in this space, and at the very least, it keeps things exciting. That said, for the price, we were expecting a more impressive photography experience. The A9 comes equipped with a 13-megapixel camera that protrudes from the back of the phone which, ahem, is something we didn't really love when it first happened on the [iPhone 6](http://smartphones.reviewed.com/content/apple-iphone-6-smartphone-review. Beside the tiny camera nubbin is a two-tone flash which is designed to keep fleshtones more natural-looking.
Perhaps the camera's best attribute is the fact that it comes with optical image stabilization built-in, a feature many flagship phones omit. OIS works by moving the camera's lens around to counteract the shake from your hands, providing a stable image. We've found that when shooting with a phone, the smallest hand shake can interfere with taking sharp, clear photos. While it's not really necessary since many smartphone cameras churn out great photos anyway, it's a nice insurance policy–especially in low light.
HTC's camera app is just about as praiseworthy as the inclusion of OIS. This custom camera app goes above and beyond what is normally enabled in Android phones, adding everything from selfie enhancement to RAW shooting and manual control. Not only is this default camera app packed with features, it's relatively easy to use as well. Factor in HTC's tap-to-wake functionality and you're never far away from grabbing a couple quick shots.
But ultimately this camera is a letdown when it comes to image quality. In the labs it did decently, but frankly, we just weren't impressed with some of the photos we were able to grab. The camera app, while excellent in some ways, seems to have issues properly exposing the selected subject. In mixed lighting situations, we even noticed a tendency for photos to have a cast that was kind of sickly-looking.
If epic selfies are more your speed, you won't be impressed with the front-facing camera HTC put into the A9. Featuring the company's maligned UltraPixel technology, this little unit just made us look out of focus no matter how far away we held the phone. That said, there's always the beautifying filter, so it might not be terrible if a Vaseline-on-the-lens look was what you were after in the first place.
Video junkies should probably take note here: The A9 is really middle-of-the-road when it comes to HD video. Even at the standard 1080p HD resolution, we weren't able to see a whole lot of detail in our test video. Moreover, in a year when the competition all included 4K/30p shooting in their flagships, HTC decided to leave that on the cutting room floor.
A decent phone, but not for $499.
I went into this review not expecting a whole lot from the HTC One A9; its "me-too" design and midrange specs just don't live up to the its "low cost flagship" ambitions. Although it proves to be a perfectly acceptable phone in most ways, the A9 doesn't have the chops to justify its high price tag.
For nearly the same dough, you could grab one of Motorola's excellent devices. A fully-loaded 64GB Moto X is the exact same price, and even though we haven't tested it ourselves yet, we feel pretty confident that it's a better overall phone than the HTC. Heck, it even has the front-facing stereo speakers we missed so much when we used the A9.
Even if you don't need all the bells and whistles, you'd probably be better served with the Nexus 5X, which has faster internals, a cleaner version of Android, and an equally good fingerprint reader. Somehow, the Nexus even has a slightly better camera. You can only get 16 and 32GB versions, but it's $100 cheaper when similarly equipped to the HTC One A9. That's a nice chunk of change.
HTC's put some solid work into the One A9 that, unfortunately, at its price, just isn't given the proper opportunity to shine. Moreover, the lack of unique character is particularly baffling, especially since HTC's M-series devices have always stood out from the pack.
As it stands, the One A9 will be best appreciated on a payment plan or when its price inevitably drops. For even $449, this could be a model that feels more like a $700 HTC, even if it doesn't always perform like it.
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