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Hands on: HTC One A9

HTC's all-metal One A9 doesn't clone the iPhone; it improves on it

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 the One A9 makes up for that with price and style.

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.

HTC points out 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.

Related: Nexus 6P review

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

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.

If you get the A9, you’ll have Android 6.0 Marshmallow before most of your friends.

The processor 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. Regardless, the One A9 seemed just as fast and responsive as any other flagship Android phone, during our brief hands-on time. Naturally, this will require more testing, but it’s possible that the slightly weaker processor was a better choice for battery life and the overall temperature of the device.

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. 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 battery pack is a 2,150mAh capacity, which should last a full day, we hope. HTC’s also added Quick Charge 2.0 to juice it up fast when you need a boost. We can’t comment on battery life just yet, but we’ll keep you updated.

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 (Optical Image Stabilization). The UltraPixel front-facing camera has the same aperture and 1080p video recording. Both bear further testing, as well.

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.

Related: Android 6.0 Marshmallow Review

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 (hopefully) get updates on the A9 almost as quickly as you would with Motorola phones. Given the increasing danger of major hacks like Stagefright and Heartbleed, speedy updates are now more essential than ever.

Conclusion

Even though it regularly makes stunning phones, HTC hasn’t had the best luck in stores recently. Sales of the M9 are poor, and the company needs to recover quickly. Making a less-attractive iPhone imitation worked like magic for Samsung’s Galaxy S6, but can it work for HTC’s arguably better looking iPhone 6 lookalike? Only time will tell, but HTC got one critical part of this equation right: price.

At $400 unlocked, the One A9 is $250 less than the iPhone 6S, and it has more or less the same specs and build quality. (It’s also the same price as the Moto X Style Pure Edition, which will be its main competitor, as it has higher-end specs and a phablet-sized body to match.) Any Android user who wants the look of an Apple phone with the power of Android 6.0 Marshmallow should not look at the Samsung Galaxy S6. It’s the One A9 that has it right, and it’s significantly cheaper. This is the phone HTC should have launched in March when the Galaxy S6 debuted. The A9 may not have the latest processor, but it has everything else Android flagships have, and, one key thing few of the others do: style.

On a final note, if you are interested in the A9, please purchase the 32GB version. If you opt for 16GB you’ll lose 1GB of RAM and your device will likely run out of storage in a year or so. Unless you rely heavily on MicroSD cards, that is.

Highs

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

Lows

  • Not the fastest processor
  • Not a huge battery

Available at: Amazon | AT&T