The HTC One A9 is a step in the right direction, but it loses the "HTC" touch. The device has decent performance, employing the octa-core Snapdragon 617 paired with Android Marshmallow. While the highlight is the solid build, and upgraded camera. The de-Sense'd UI is close, but no cigar and the battery life is behind the competition.
Where do we start with HTC? The company that once ruled the Android world and even made the first Nexus phone, has been on a steady decline. The One M7 was one of the biggest game-changers in the mobile industry, bringing the metal unibody and dual front-facing speakers to world. They followed that up with the One M8, which was a worthy successor, but the design went stale with the One M9. Does the HTC One A9 fit in after the M9?
When the HTC One M9 was released, it looked so similar to the One M8, that HTC mixed up the devices in one of their ads. It wasn’t the redesign many of us had hoped for. It didn’t help that the device was plagued with over heating and performance issues from the Snapdragon 810, but its other hardware didn’t live up to the hype. The camera was a disappointment, as well as the FHD LCD display.
Now, enter HTC’s “hero” device. The One A9 was supposed help HTC’s free fall and help bring profits back up. With all of this talk from HTC, I had my hopes up, and so did many. When the device was announced with an aggressive price model starting at $399 for a Developer Unlocked edition, I had to pick it up. So, does the HTC One A9 live up to the “hero” moniker? If you read my first impressions, it was off to a good start, so let’s find out.
HTC has always been known for their very unique and original design choice for their One series. Like I mentioned earlier, it all started with the M7, which set the bar. What’s odd, is for the One A9, HTC totally went the complete opposite. They shaved off what made One devices so desirable, by taking away their shape and front-facing speakers. Instead, they went with a design many of you are familiar with.
When leaks of the HTC One A9 started coming out, it revealed a very iPhone-esque design. The “hero” device turned out to be an iPhone clone running Android. Now I am not opposed to it at all, I don’t mind the iPhone’s design, it’s very comfortable to hold, so is the A9. The question is, how does the public react to it?
Much like the rest of HTC’s fleet, the One A9 comes with a 5 inch display, which is quite small in 2015. I for one am used to holding large devices like the Nexus 6, Nexus 6P, and Galaxy Note 5, so holding the One A9 was quite a change. Even though the A9 only has a 5 inch display, it is still quite tall due to the fact that it is symmetrical and has a fingerprint sensor on the bottom of the device, with the same amount of space taken up by the in-call speaker at the top.
The HTC One A9 comes in with dimensions of 145.8 x 70.8 x 7.3 mm, where most devices nowadays approach 80 mm wide. Along with the small package, the A9 doesn’t weight too much and comes in at 143 grams. Like I said earlier, it was quite a change switching to a smaller device, but I actually really liked it. The edges of the device aren’t too rounded, but not too flat, so it’s very comfortable to hold. At no point while using the device did it slip out of my hand, so the finish is better than it has been in the past. I would still like to put a skin on it though.
On the front of the device, you get the look of an iPhone fused with a Galaxy device: it looks like an iPhone, but it has Galaxy-ish looking button on the bottom. The fingerprint sensor which also doubles as a home button, is just below the HTC logo which apparently has to appear on the front of their devices. On the top side of the 5 inch display is the in-call speaker, so that means no dual front-facing speakers. It would have been nice if HTC used the in-call speaker in tandem with the speaker on the bottom to create a stereo effect, but they did not do that. There is also a notification light above the speaker, so that’s always appreciated.
On the top of the device, they isn’t anything such as an IR blaster or headphone jack. There is just a plastic window that allows for the radio waves to pass through the device. On the bottom of the device, there is a trio of things: speaker, microUSB port, and headphone jack. For whatever reason, HTC always offsets their charging port from the middle of the device. The speaker is to the left, which I think was a bad choice. When holding the device, my pinky finger naturally goes under the device to prop it up, but it always covers the speaker, which is very annoying.
On the right side of the device you will find both the power button and volume rocker. On the One A9, HTC went with one piece volume rocker, unlike the two separate buttons on the One M9. I think that was a good move as it creates a distinct difference between the two. For whatever reason, HTC puts the power button below the volume rockers, whereas on other devices it’s the opposite. It isn’t a big deal because the power button is in the perfect spot; your thumb naturally falls over it.
On the left side of the device, there are two pop out trays. One tray is for the carrier nano-SIM tray and the other is for a microSD card. It is good to see that while HTC axed the front-facing speakers, they still kept the option to expand storage. The One A9 supports up to 2 TB of a microSD card, but good luck finding one.
On the back of the HTC One A9 all you find is a camera centered at the top of the device with a microphone below it and a dual-LED flash to the right of it. Other than that, it is pretty bare, aside from yet another HTC logo. The device does maintain the HTC antenna bands on the back, that the iPhone copied.
Overall I think the design change isn’t all that bad, but HTC took away what made them distinct compared to other smartphones. It is a good start, but this definitely isn’t the design of the year. What matters most is that it is comfortable to hold, which it is, and well-built, which it is. The buttons are clickly and tactile and in my opinion, is put together better than my One M9 was.
One of the best changes used on the HTC One A9 was the decision to go with an AMOLED display panel instead of LCD as seen on their previous devices. The One A9 has a 5 inch AMOLED with a resolution of 1920 x 1080, so 441 ppi, which is very respectable. Covering the display is of course Corning Gorilla Glass 4.
While the device does have an AMOLED panel, the brightness range I found was very little. I would set the device to the lowest brightness setting, but it was almost unnoticeable indoors from having it in the middle. The display itself is pretty cool, as it likes to show off whites with a blue tint versus a red one, which I prefer. There’s nothing that bugs me more than having my brightness down and having a very red tint to the display.
I still think this is a step up from previous HTC devices because I am a sucker for AMOLED panels. HTC’s LCD panels definitely weren’t bad either. Colors are replicated quite well and of course blacks are, well black.
One area where HTC has always prided itself has been in the sound quality department, whether it is sound from the headphone jack or external speaker(s). I was a little bit skeptical about how HTC would keep up with that, only sporting a single down-facing speaker, but I was pleasantly surprised.
The speaker on the bottom doesn’t get nearly as loud as previous HTC devices, but where it lacks in volume, it makes up in depth. It is the best single speaker I have heard, better than the Galaxy series or LG G4. I would much rather have quality, and that is what the HTC One A9 delivers.
As far as sound coming from the headphone jack, it is one of the better devices with its 24-bit Hi-Res audio paired with Dolby. I listen to a lot of metal music, so it has a lot of treble and high-end, but the A9 can handle it easily. When putting in some decent headphones, the quality is very good and almost sounds like real speakers. I am very pleased with the quality of sound on the A9, that’s for sure.
All of the previous HTC devices I have used have been Qualcomm’s flagship processor. For the One M8 it was the Snapdragon 801 and on the M9, it was the Snapdragon 810. The HTC One A9 is slightly different, as it comes with one of Qualcomm’s mid-range processors, the Snapdragon 617 backed by 3 GB of LPDDR4 RAM. I didn’t know what to expect from a mid-range octacore processor coming into it, but so far I am impressed.
The Snapdragon 617 processor has four A53 cores clocked at 1.5 GHz and four more A53 cores clocked at 1.2 GHz. Nothing truly to brag about, but the processor does run very well, and efficiently. Since HTC made their Sense UI more “stock” it is quite a smooth experience navigating around on the One A9. Nothing ever seems to stutter except when multiple tasks are initiated. I did notice when downloading apps the devices lags quite a bit more than the Snapdragon 808 or Snapdragon 810, but what can you expect?
The HTC One A9 only scored 40,519 in the AnTuTu Benchmark, but like I say in all my reviews: it’s just a number. No matter how good the benchmarks are, that doesn’t account for real world usage. That being said, the device did score lower than I expected, but it is still a well-performing device. The Snapdragon 617 obviously isn’t going to break benchmark scores, but it is perfectly capable of running a mid-range smartphone fluidly.
Just like I did on my Nexus 6P review, I am going to go over the speed and accuracy of the fingerprint sensor found on the front of the HTC One A9. Since mobile payments are being pushed in full-force by Apple, Google, Samsung, and soon to be LG, it is only natural to add an extra, convenient security measure to the device.
Unlike the Nexus 6P, Nexus 5X, and LG V10, HTC opted to put the fingerprint sensor on the front of the One A9, just like the M9+, iPhone 6, and Galaxy devices. The fingerprint sensor on the front of the A9 performs on par with the rest of the Android fleet. I would say it is just as good, if not better than the Galaxy Note 5 and OnePlus 2 fingerprint sensors, but it trails behind the Nexus Imprint found on the 6P and 5X.
The fingerprint sensor on the One A9 is very accurate, but the overall sensor size is quite small, so you sometimes need to re-position your thumb or finger. The nice thing is that it wakes the device and unlocks it once it recognizes a fingerprint, unlike the iPhone or Galaxy Note 5 where you have to press the button first, then it unlocks. I find myself using the fingerprint sensor to wake the device a lot more than the double tap to wake included on the A9.
Although I do like the fingerprint sensor on the front, I am a little bit in between on which setup I like better. With the A9, it is very comfortable to just tap your thumb on the sensor, but then you have to re-adjust your thumb. On the Nexus 6P, the sensor falls right where your index finger would go. I would have to say I like it on the back more, but each have their advantages. For instance, when the A9 is on a table, you can still use the sensor, unlike the Nexus 6P.
Sense UI has been around for quite a long time and used to be the go-to software for some phone manufacturers. It is one of the more heavily skinned versions of Android, but it has always seemed to perform better than Samsung’s TouchWiz or LG’s LG UI. On the One A9, HTC stepped their game up and went a new direction, having the first phone release with Android Marshmallow beside the Nexus devices.
When the HTC One A9 was announced, they claimed they would update the Unlocked version within 15 days of the Nexus devices. Now that is large claim and would be nearly impossible if Sense was the same old Sense. So on the One A9, HTC employed a different variant, with the version of Sense 7.0_g. HTC teamed up with Google to make Sense UI look the same, but be able to be updated quickly.
There has yet to be an update to test the 15 day claim, but that will come in due time. As for the software, it is pretty smooth, but still isn’t the same as stock Android. The notification shade has the same Material Design as stock Android, but it leaves out many of the features. That means no re-arranging the quick settings tiles.
Since it is still Sense UI, the settings have the same feel and a few key Marshmallow features have been cut. That means no System UI Tuner, which was my biggest gripe. Why take away one of the great features on Android 6.0? That means no embedded battery percentage or hiding icons from the status bar. This was a letdown to me because I hate how cluttered the status bar gets with a battery icon, battery percentage text, alarm icon, and device profile. HTC also decided to go with their icons, which I am just not a fan of.
Other than that, the UI is very clean and does feel a lot faster than Sense UI in the past. Maybe in the next update they enable a few more of Marshmallow’s features, or maybe they couldn’t integrate it into their plans with the 15 day update window. Regardless, it is a solid step in the right direction and maybe other OEMs will follow.
If there has been one area that HTC has been lacking in, it has been the camera department in my opinion. The only thing that kept me from buying the One M7 over the Galaxy S4 was the fact that it had the 4 UltraPixel camera. I don’t think of myself as a photographer, but when I take pictures I want them to be good quality, so I skipped over the M7. I owned the M8 for a while, and they improved it, but it was still the same 4 UltraPixel. I was excited to get my hands on the M9 for its 21 megapixel camera, but that was a letdown.
Enter the One A9. I’ll get this out of the way, it is definitely the best HTC camera that I have ever used. I’m glad they stepped up the rear-facing camera to 13 megapixels, because it can produce some awesome pictures. The A9 has a very respectable ƒ/2.0 aperture and optical image stabilization, so it does decent at capturing images with low-light.
I usually am a fan of 16:9 ratio’s, but these 13 megapixel cameras are getting too good for it to matter. As you can see in the images above, the A9 is very good at capturing detail in its focal point. Even when part of the picture isn’t the focal point, it still picks up some detail, but doesn’t focus too much on it. Some cameras try really hard to capture everything in the frame and forgetting about the focal point. The HTC One A9 doesn’t do that.
If you would like to see the full resolution of the images, you can do so at this link.
HTC phones have usually had a decent sized battery packed within its frame, usually in the high two thousands. Then again, those phones were a tad thicker. Shipping with the One A9 is a paltry 2,150 mAh battery, which doesn’t help the overall rating of the device.
The one thing the HTC One A9 has going for it, is it has Marshmallow pre-loaded so it included the highly regarded Doze feature. In my Nexus 6P review, I found that I would lose 1% or less in an overnight period, and the One A9 follows that trend, just not as well.
HTC definitely could have and should have included a bigger battery, because it is really the device’s only downfall. To give a perspective, the Nexus 6P is 7.3 mm thick, just like the One A9, but it houses a much larger 3,450 mAh battery. Granted, the 6P is larger, but it still could have been a little bigger.
My first real test on the HTC One A9, my battery lasted me throughout my whole 15 hour day with some moderate to heavy usage, barely. I was able to squeeze 3 hours of screen on time with no WiFi connected, so it was connected to cellular data the entire day. Another thing I noticed was that the One A9 doesn’t get as good reception as my other devices. It tends to get on average one to two less bars than my Nexus 6P, which is concerning.
On a much lighter day, the One A9 fared much better. With only just over one hour of screen on time, I was able to get home on 12 hours of usage with just under 50% remaining. Like I stated earlier, Marshmallow’s Doze feature really works and it shows in the battery stats. So with the HTC One A9, if you are a heavy user, you’ll eat through battery. If you are a light user, it will easily last you throughout the day.
So maybe the HTC One A9 isn’t the “hero” device we were all looking for, but it is definitely a good start. The design is ergonomic and comfortable to hold; who cares if they copied Apple (or Apple copied them)?. The One A9 picks up in the categories that previous HTC devices lacked, but in doing so they removed some of HTC’s core features.
The upgraded camera, willingness to stay close to stock Android, and a continued solid build, it gives me hope to see what HTC has to come. I’m looking forward towards the flagship HTC phone next year, the M10 (if that’s what it’ll be called), to see if they build upon the A9 and return the HTC trademark features.
The One A9 is definitely a solid device, but its limited time pricing could hurt the overall sales. If the One A9 was priced permanently at $400, or even lower, it could definitely be competitive in the mid-range market.