The smartphone landscape is changing at an incredible clip, faster than at any other moment in my time reviewing phones. While phones are becoming more powerful at the high-end, a new segment is emerging in the midrange off-contract market.
There’s a new battleground for premium devices at relatively low costs, where players like Motorola, ASUS, OnePlus and others are fighting for consumer attention with devices ranging in cost from $150 to $400.
When the One A9 was announced, it looked like a compelling addition to the top end of that market. It promised Android 6.0 Marshmallow, an aluminum body, a 13MP camera, expandable storage, 3GB of RAM and a Snapdragon 617 processor, all for $399.99.
During our review period, however, we learned that the One A9’s initial “limited time” offer was indeed very limited, and soon after this review runs it will jump to $499.99, $100 more than devices like the Moto X Pure and in a whole new category of premium smartphones. On a two-year contract with AT&T, it will cost just $30 less than the Galaxy S6.
So where does the HTC One A9 fit, exactly, and how well does it perform in that market segment? It’s a tough question to answer, and one I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. Let’s dive in.
If we’re to be superficial and judge the A9 on looks alone, then there are two main takeaways: it looks like a high-end prime cut smartphone. You have an aluminum body, a single home button on the front, metal buttons and neat, elegant design. The second takeaway: it looks like an iPhone 6.
Or, if you prefer the other side of the argument, it looks like the One M7 and the Desire 816 spent a long weekend in a cozy cabin together and, 9 months later, welcomed the One A9 into this world.
I have no intention of getting deeper into the who-copied-who argument here, but there are certainly similarities between the iPhone 6 and the One A9 in terms of design, and I like the way it looks no matter who copied who.
The One A9 looks great, but the hardware inside actually leaves a bit to be desired. The 1080p display doesn’t match up to the Quad HD panel on the Moto X Pure, which costs $399 (and won’t jump $100 in price.) I found the One A9’s LCD panel, while sharp enough and easy to view at different angles, was way too cool for my tastes. And images of beautiful and colorful fall foliage that popped on my iPhone 6s Plus and Galaxy S6 looked dead on the One A9 display in comparison.
There’s a Snapdragon 617 processor under the hood, too, which, paired with 3GB of RAM, was good enough for powering most of my tasks at rapid clip that you could have fooled me into thinking there was a more powerful processor on board. That didn’t hold true when I tried to load games, however. More graphics-intensive games took noticeably longer to load than on speedier chips. Gameplay was satisfactory, however. Another concern expressed by members of our staff concerned the lack of 64-bit support from the Snapdragon 617 processor. While that’s not necessarily important to me right now, it might be for some consumers down the road.
And speaking of games and media, you won’t find the immersive BoomSound speakers offered up by HTC’s past flagships. I love front-facing speakers and was bummed that HTC ditched the feature on the A9, but the bottom speaker was at least able to get nice and loud. HTC also still markets “BoomSound” for the A9, since the 3.5mm headphone jack is still capable of providing an enhanced audio experience through headphones.
While the display, processor and lack of BoomSound speakers are a bit of a turn-off, there are some redeeming qualities to the hardware. In addition to the solid design, I also love the microSD card slot. Paired with Marshmallow, it’s now capable of accepting external storage that can be formatted as internal space, which works great.
And speaking of Marshmallow, which now natively supports fingerprint readers, the fingerprint reader on the A9 is great. It worked nearly every time I went to unlock my device and, paired with NFC on the phone, it will allow you to make mobile payments with Android Pay. Keep in mind that NFC is only meant for Android Pay and is only available in One A9 units where Android Pay is available.
I also love how thin and light the A9 is compared to the recent set of large phablets, and I welcome its design in the mid-range category where a lot of OEMs seem to think folks no longer have a desire for palm-friendly devices.
We’ve already discussed Android Marshmallow in detail, so I’ll stick to what HTC does here to make the One A9 different. First, there’s the Sense skin, which HTC says it’s starting to cut back on, except it appears some of the cutting is happening in the wrong areas.
HTC talked a bit about how it doesn’t believe smartphone makers should be selling space on your smartphones with junkware, and thinks this is the best alternative to bloat-laden carrier devices. Sadly, HTC is doing exactly the same thing. (And has been, through BlinkFeed recommendations in the past.)
The awful homescreen widget that tries to recommend applications based on your location still comes preloaded. It’s not easily customized and features a permanent folder of recommend applications that’s more like spam than a useful tool.
That bloat extends to other areas, too. News Republic is now front-and-center and can’t be uninstalled. It powers BlinkFeed, which I like, but I preferred managing BlinkFeed’s news sources directly through the HTC developed software.
Thankfully, HTC did cut some stuff back. There’s no longer a separate Music application, and HTC’s Mail app was removed, too. That helps cut some redundancy, but there are still duplicates where required. The HTC Photos application, for example, exists because it still supports RAW images while Google Photos does not.
The idea here is to keep Android Marshmallow as slim as possible so that it’s easier to apply updates when they’re pushed out. I appreciate that, and love that the experience feels pure save for a few additions of HTC features I actually like, such as BlinkFeed. I just wish if HTC was actually trying to cut down on “bloat” that it cut out the real bloat, instead of just redundant apps.
The One A9 uses a 13-megapixel camera sensor that, in my tests, performs much better than the 20.7-megapixel Toshiba module the company used in the One M9 earlier this year. It’s an older module, however, and one that was also used in the original OnePlus One, but it appears that HTC has fine tuned it with software.
You get features like optical image stabilization, which HTC hasn’t included in any U.S. phones since the One M7, but performance is only improved over the M9 and not perfect.
Bright spots in photos (like the leather on a white ottoman I shot in my living room) tend to bleed into other parts of the image, and focus seemed to be on the slower side in my tests. Daylight photos were pretty good, but the One A9 doesn’t come close to holding a candle to other devices like the Galaxy S6, which takes far superior photos and can record 4K video. Considering it’s also priced similarly on a two-year contract, I think that’s a fair comparison to make. Also, I’m kind of bummed that HTC got rid of the option to save camera settings as specific camera presets. This sacrifice, it said, was made in an effort to get rid of that extra bloat.
In the end, the A9 camera is mostly just OK, and for that reason I found myself reaching for other phones in my pocket, an iPhone, a Galaxy S6, a G4, before I picked an A9 to snap photos with.
The HTC One A9 has a relatively small 2,150mAh battery. On paper that might sound like you won’t get very far, but it actually lasts most of the day without a problem. I think that’s because HTC opted for a 1080p screen and a processor that doesn’t suck battery life at any chance it can get. I didn’t feel like I was going to run out of battery at any minute, as I have with the Galaxy S6, but I wasn’t as confident I’d get through the evening as I am with other phones, like the LG G4.
The HTC One A9 supports the latest charging technologies, including Quick Charge 3.0 which isn’t active yet. You’ll need a special charger that’s not included in the box, however. I had one laying around and appreciated how fast the phone juiced up with Quick Charge 2.0, and it should be a tad faster and more efficient with 3.0 when that’s active. Really, though, HTC should include this sort of thing in the box at this point.
Rating: Don’t Buy
The $399 price point for a phone with the latest version of Android, expandable storage, decent performance and good battery life just seemed to good to pass up… Then I learned the on-contract price.
HTC One A9
I had a real internal battle with myself while drafting this review. I wanted to buy the A9 when it was first introduced (the red model is gorgeous.) The $399 price point for a phone with the latest version of Android, expandable storage, decent performance and good battery life just seemed to good to pass up. Then I learned the on-contract price, and that the $399 “limited time offer” was a lot more limited than I was originally led to believe it would be.
The One A9 costs almost as much as the Galaxy S6 on contract, and the S6 beats it in almost every category, from design to camera. Off contract, it’s the same price as the Moto X Pure which, while lacking a fingerprint reader, is more powerful. It also features a larger, sharper display. Then I thought about newcomers in the market, for folks who don’t really care about performance. The OnePlus One X is going to cost $249. You could buy two of those for the price of the A9.
I’m still torn and I think for folks who like HTC’s brand, this is a perfectly good device. The fingerprint reader works great, you’ll get frequent upgrades if you buy the unlocked model, the design is top notch, and it handles really well. But for someone who just needs a new Android smartphone? There are better options out there that are in the same $500 price range. The Moto X Pure, the Nexus 5X and the Nexus 6P are just a few superior phones. Had it remained at $399? My story would have been a lot different.
Fingerprint reader works great
BoomSound is gone
Camera doesn’t wow
Disclaimer: HTC provided TechnoBuffalo with two review units, one for testing in Irvine, California and another for testing in New York. Todd tested the phone for 13 days before writing this review.