HTC One A9 review

HTC asks a mint for metal in its gorgeous but spendy One A9

HTC’s all-metal One A9 has style, but its $500 price tag is much higher than the competition.
HTC’s all-metal One A9 has style, but its $500 price tag is much higher than the competition.
HTC’s all-metal One A9 has style, but its $500 price tag is much higher than the competition.

Highs

  • Gorgeous all-metal design
  • Fingerprint sensor with Android Pay
  • MicroSD card slot for expandable storage
  • Nearly pure Android 6.0 Marshmallow

Lows

  • Weak processor
  • Poor battery life
  • $500 is too much

DT Editors' Rating

Home > Product Reviews > Phone Reviews > HTC One A9 review

Gone are HTC’s days of being “quietly brilliant,” and innovating on the sidelines. The humble Taiwanese company is back and it’s bristling that no one took notice of its early achievements. That seamless all-metal iPhone you love so much? HTC made it first with the One M7. Those cool Live Photos Apple yammered about in September? HTC’s Zoe had them years ago.

So, whatever you do, don’t tell HTC that its One A9 looks like an iPhone. You’d be right, of course, because it does bear an uncanny resemblance to the iPhone 6, but that’s not important. What is very important is that the One A9 has the beautiful, sharp design language that we wanted to see on the One M9, its flagship. The A9 is HTC come again with a beautiful phone that makes the Samsung Galaxy S6 look like an old-school iPhone trying to be all metal and failing with panels of shiny glass.

It may have a few less-than-flagship-level specs, but HTC’s gorgeous One A9 would be a good deal for $400. Unfortunately, HTC confirmed that the actual price of the phone start at $500 unlocked – the $400 price tag was just a promotion, which ends on November 7.

Sadly, now the question is: Is the A9 worth that much? The Nexus 6P, Moto X Style, OnePlus 2, and a number of other good-looking “flagship killers” challenge it.

It’s an iPhone! No, wait — It’s the HTC One A9!

There’s no way around it, so let’s address the elephant in the room. If you cover the HTC logo and the oblong oval fingerprint sensor, you’re looking at an iPhone 6. If you flip the phone around and cover the HTC logo and the perfectly centered camera, you’re looking at an iPhone 6. The screen’s glass is even slightly curved to waterfall over the elegant, rounded metal frame like it is on the latest from Apple. The color options are silver, champagne gold, and a dark gray, too – all of which are iPhone colors. We did see a stunning red garnet color, which will arrive in the coming weeks. If you don’t want to have your A9 confused for an iOS device, this is the color to buy.

Related: Zoe, HTC’s fun video remix app, out now for Android, coming soon for the iPhone

HTC has valid counterpoints to any design mimicry you accuse it of. It says that its corners are more perfectly curved for design balance, its camera is perfectly centered to give a more attractive look, and every element is placed just so to offer a sense of symmetry and beauty. Its designers are right – the One A9 is, in many ways, a more beautiful and polished iPhone. HTC took Apple’s design and made it better. The A9 isn’t a cheap imitation, but we fear it’ll get that reputation.

Then again, if you’re and Android user who’s always wanted an iPhone, HTC is closer than ever to granting you your wish.

The A9 may not have the customization options of the Moto X Style Pure edition or the OnePlus 2, but it is the nicest Android phone we’ve held in a long time. It feels more premium than the Nexus 6P, though that is all metal, too. The metal feels cool and strong to the touch, and the smaller size is ideal for Android users who are less than enthused about the trend toward ever-bigger screens. It’s the most gorgeous phone that HTC has made since the One M8, which we loved.

Android 6.0 Marshmallow with very little interference from Sense

Perhaps the best news about the One A9 is that HTC scaled back its Sense UI dramatically. While some elements like location-based app predictions and so on are still there, for the most part, you’ll feel as though you’re working with pure Android. And it’s not just any version of Android – it’s the much-coveted Android 6.0 Marshmallow, which is only available on Nexus devices at this time.

If you get the A9, you’ll have Android 6.0 Marshmallow before most of your friends, and since Sense is scaled back, you should get updates on the A9 almost as quickly as you would with Motorola phones (we hope). Given the increasing danger of major hacks like Stagefright and Heartbleed, speedy updates are now more essential than ever.

Mid-to-high-end specs

Although most Android phones shoot for Quad HD screens, HTC sticks with a 5-inch AMOLED screen with a 1,920 x 1,080 pixel resolution and 2.5D Corning Gorilla Glass 4 on top for protection. It’s higher-resolution than the 4.7-inch iPhone 6S and the same resolution as the 5.5-inch iPhone 6S Plus. While some people will be upset with 1080p, most will agree that it looks gorgeous, and on a smaller phone, it’s better for battery life than Quad HD.

HTC’s One A9 is, in many ways, a more beautiful and polished iPhone 6.

The processor, however, is more of a surprise. HTC popped an octa-core, 64-bit Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 chip inside the A9 along with 2-3GB of RAM (2GB RAM with 16GB version, 3GB RAM with 32GB storage version). While the RAM is high, the 617 is not as high-end as the Snapdragon 808 – which is inside the Moto X Style Pure Edition – or the Snapdragon 810 — which is inside the Nexus 6P.

The A9 performed perfectly with basic tasks like browsing the Web, scanning Facebook, reading ebooks, and so on. The only time we saw it stumble was when we downloaded and updated a ton of apps in one shot at setup. The phone stuttered and got warm during the process.

Related: HTC dramatically slashes sales estimates, but it has a plan to get things back on track

Since performance is at stake here, let’s take a peek at some benchmarks. The One A9 got a single-core score of 735 and a multi-core score of 2,959 on the Geekbench test. In contrast, the iPhone 6S scored 2,292 in the single-core test and 4,293 on the multi-core test. One of our favorite Android phones, the Nexus 6P, got a 1,280 single-core score, and 3,900 on the multi-core test. In the real world, the One A9 doesn’t seem that much slower than an iPhone, but we suspect you may feel some stutters when you play graphics-intensive games, try to do a lot at once, or use your phone for 6-12 months.

HTC One A9
Jessica Lee Star/Digital Trends

Although HTC is offering only a 16GB or 32GB storage option for the A9, both versions come with a MicroSD card slot that’s expandable up to 2TB, so you should be fine. U.S. residents will only have the 32GB version, but we are disappointed that the 16GB version even exists in this day and age, and warn anyone outside the U.S. to avoid it. Samsung and others have gotten rid of 16GB storage options, but many – including Apple, HTC, and Motorola – continue to sell phones with this measly amount of storage. The inclusion of the MicroSD card slot is great and all, but many users don’t want to bother with cards.

Rounding out the rest of the specs are Bluetooth 4.1, a Micro USB charging port, Dolby audio speakers, a fingerprint sensor, and some sensors. The speakers may not be front-facing BoomSound speakers, but they put out better sound than most. The only downside is that your hand will cover it up if you hold it the wrong way. Regardless, we’re glad HTC prioritized the fingerprint sensor over the speakers – it’s much more useful.

The fingerprint sensor, which doubles as a Home button, is excellent. It read my fingerprint quickly and I never had trouble unlocking the phone. The fingerprint sensor is just as good as Apple’s Touch ID, and it works with Android Pay. The only funny part about using it as a Home button is that it doesn’t click like the one on the iPhone or Samsung’s phones. It’s not actually a button, but rather a smooth indented surface. Once you get over the lack of physical feedback, it’s awesome. Touching the Home button both unlocks, and turns on the screen, unlike the iPhone, which requires a button press as well.

Although some Android users will be annoyed that it’s on the front and not on the back of the phone, I actually like the fingerprint sensor where it is – I can easily check my phone when it’s resting on the tablet at work, and I do that a lot.

A decent camera, but not the best

As for the camera, the 13-megapixel back shooter with a f/2.0 aperture supports RAW and manual Pro modes, Hyperlapse,1080p video, and has OIS. It takes decent photos, though the colors looked a bit cool to our tastes. Details were crisp in close ups, and shots of the city looked good even on a cloudy day. At night, the A9 suffered from the same problems that plague most smartphone cameras. The headlights from taxis and the glare from streetlights resulted in washed out flares of light. And trying to capture a great shot of people in the dark … it’s not easy.

The manual mode helped produce better images with some fiddling, and it’s a great addition to the camera software. We took a picture of some birthday candles in a dark room with manual mode and another using the pro mode. The pro mode produced a decent picture, but it was too dark. With manual mode, we ended up with a picture that looked as though it had been taken in good lighting conditions. We imagine pro mode will prove useful for indoor shots.

The One A9’s camera can’t go toe-to-toe with the iPhone 6S Plus or Samsung’s Galaxy S6, both of which are known for high image quality. Even so, it’s better than the cameras you’ll find on most $400 phones, and about the same quality as the one on Motorola’s Moto X Style Pure Edition. Most people will be happy with it.

Meanwhile, the UltraPixel front-facing camera has the same aperture as the rear cam and 1080p video recording. It takes decent selfies.

Battery life isn’t so hot

The battery has a 2,150mAh capacity, which should last a full day – most of the time. Using data on the subway home from work ate up the battery way too quickly, though, and on longer workdays, the battery barely made it home. That said, it’s more or less on par with the iPhone 6S, which is to say, it’s not terrible, but it could be much better.

The A9 is definitely a phone you have to charge every night.

The A9 is definitely a phone you have to charge every night. Of course, that’s become the norm for Android phones these days. Luckily, HTC added Quick Charge 2.0 to juice it up fast when you need to. Quick charging is very convenient and it does juice up a nearly dead A9 to full power in short order.

Warranty

HTC’s Uh Oh Protection program guarantees that you’ll get one free replacement One A9 if yours should break down or suffer damage during the first year of ownership. The coverage is pretty broad, so whether you have a cracked, scratched, or broken screen; your phone stops working after it gets a little wet; or there’s just a problem with the materials it’s made with, HTC will replace it within one to two business days.

Conclusion

Even though it regularly makes stunning phones, HTC hasn’t had an easy time in stores. Sales of the M9 are poor, and the company needs to recover quickly. Making a less-attractive iPhone imitation worked the magic for Samsung with the Galaxy S3 years ago (and again with the Galaxy S6 this year), but can it work for HTC’s arguably better looking iPhone 6 lookalike? Only time will tell, though we suspect the pricing may sink this ship before it even has a chance to leave port.

Initially, HTC priced the 32GB One A9 at $400, making it $250 less than the iPhone 6S. It was a great deal – you got a phone with more or less the same specs and build quality for less money. However, $400 was the promotional price, which ends on November 7. From that point on, the One A9 will cost you $500.

For that price, you can get a 64GB Moto X Style Pure Edition, which has a significantly better processor, sharper screen, more storage, and a customizable design that’s also quite premium. It may not be all metal, but it’s a more powerful phone, which will likely get software updates more quickly than the A9. The only area in which the One A9 trumps the new Moto X is with that Android Pay-ready fingerprint sensor and the all-metal body.

The $500 price also puts the One A9 at about $100 more than a 64GB OnePlus2, which has comparable specs, but its much harder to get. Google’s Nexus 6P also offers faster processing, a better screen, Pure Android, and a comparable all-metal build for the same price.

To sell this phone, HTC needed to cut the price down to the bone and blow away the “flagship killer” competition. A $300-$400 price tag would have worked, but $500 will not – The competition is just too fierce this year.

If you want a stellar Android phone on the cheap that looks good and has high-end specs, the Nexus 6P and Moto X Style Pure Edition are better deals than the HTC One A9.

Highs

  • Gorgeous all-metal design
  • Fingerprint sensor with Android Pay
  • MicroSD card slot for expandable storage
  • Nearly pure Android 6.0 Marshmallow

Lows

  • Weak processor
  • Poor battery life
  • $500 is too much

Available at: Amazon | AT&T