Review: The HTC One A9 -- an iPhone for the Android crowd

HTC's new flagship phone may look like an iPhone, but its features and UI are strictly Android -- and worth checking out.

The guy in the T-Mobile store turned the phone over in his hands a few times. "This is a nice phone," he said. "But isn't this the HTC One A9? How'd you get this already? It's not out 'til next week."

I explained that I was reviewing it for Computerworld, but my SIM card had expired and I needed a new one. "This is sweet," he said, referring to the phone, not the assignment. "I'd have thought it was an iPhone, except I saw it's got Android. And look," he continued, unable to resist poking and swiping at the screen. "They even took most of that Sense bloat stuff" (well, being in Brooklyn, he didn't say 'stuff') "off. This is really nice."

Mojo is a tough thing to master. HTC once had mojo, maybe four or five years ago. Its phones were heavier and bulkier than most, but the tradeoff was in terrific screens and better-than-average sound. Android, and the phones it ran on, was fresh and unrefined, and everyone was trying to put their own spin on it. HTC had it going on.

Until suddenly it didn't. Samsung entered the market, as did Motorola with its great Droid line. Better screens became more common and the iPhone took over the world. HTC phones were comparatively fat, slow and ugly, and the company dropped further and further down the list of number of products sold (for example, it didn't appear at all in Gartner's list of worldwide mobile phone sales for the second quarter of 2015).

With the One A9, though, HTC may have gotten its mojo back. Put an A9 and an iPhone 6S face down on a desk next to each other, and if you were in a hurry you could easily be forgiven for grabbing the wrong one. This degree of physical mimicry is pretty nervy, and if a company is going to try it, it had better get it right. HTC does.

Which is not to say that the One A9 is simply an iPhone clone, or that the company is relying on the physical resemblance to the world's most profitable phone. This is a nice piece of gear in its own right.

Start with Android. The One A9 has the distinguishing feature of being the first non-Google phone to ship with Android 6.0 -- the "Marshmallow" release. This isn't the place for an Android 6.0 review, but the One A9 benefits from Google's increasing focus on UI. More than that, though, HTC has stripped out nearly all the Sense interface elements and bloatware that had been bugging buyers. Remember that flip-card digital clock that used to be HTC's signature? Gone (although you can get it back if you're feeling nostalgic).

Keep in mind, though, that I reviewed the unlocked version of the phone. If the version you get from AT&T, T-Mobile or Sprint is all loaded down with stuff you can't get rid of, complain to your carrier; HTC's native version is pretty sparkling clean. (You'll note that Verizon was not on that list; as of this writing, the A9 isn't expected from Verizon until December.)

That said, I don't know why anyone would buy a locked version of this phone. HTC is currently selling an unlocked 32GB version of the phone direct to consumers for $399. (Pricing from carriers wasn't available pre-release.)

AT&T's price for the predecessor M9 was $200 with a two-year contract and more than $700 free and clear. An unlocked iPhone 6S runs $649 for the 16GB version. And a 32GB Nexus 5X, which also runs Marshmallow and is roughly equivalent in specification, will cost you $429.

In other words, $399 for an A9 is a pretty solid value. Better act fast, though. As of November 7th, HTC is raising the price to $499. At $399, this is a solid value. At $499, it's more in line with other phones in its class.

The One A9 vs. the iPhone 6S

So how similar does the A9 look to the iPhone 6S? Very. The A9 is darker than the Space Gray iPhone, more graphite than gray, but they share a brushed aluminum finish and rounded edges at the backs and corner. They also share antenna bands on the back. The A9 is 5.75 in. long, 2.75 in. wide, and 0.3 in. thick; that's 0.3 in. longer and 0.1 in. wider than an iPhone 6S. At 5.0 oz., the weight is identical. The A9's main camera, flash and secondary mic are in the middle of the back, unlike the iPhone, which has them in the upper left corner.

On the front, the glass of both phones goes all the way to the edges. The A9's earpiece slit is longer than the iPhone's, the fingerprint sensor is oblong instead of round, and the screen is 5 in. diagonal, rather than the iPhone's 4.7 in. HTC put the volume rockers on the right side of the phone with the power switch, and textured the power switch so you can find it easily. The drawers for the micro-SIM and a microSD card are along the left edge. The A9 charges through a micro-USB socket; no USB-C here.

Where HTC is unchanged is in its attention to multimedia. It was among the first to adopt AMOLED screens, and one of the reasons its phones were so bulky was because the company built in acoustic spaces for its speakers. The A9's AMOLED screen -- as sharp as one expects from HTC -- is full high-def (1080p) with an "optimized" color space, though you can dial the saturation back to sRGB if you are so moved. And although the company swapped acoustics for svelte-ness -- sound now fires through a single speaker along the bottom edge -- audio quality is not ignored.

The A9 can handle pretty much any sound format file you can throw at it, up to and including .OGG, .MID and FLAC files. When you use headphones, there's a "BoomSound" setting with Dolby Audio that you'll want to leave enabled; it produces a nice roundness and bass emphasis that doesn't overpower the music. It helps music that's stored on the phone, as well as streamed music from Spotify and the higher-quality Deezer. (However, the built-in speaker is nothing to write home about.)

Photographers will like the A9, too. The 13-megapixel main camera can record at 1080p, and can store in either JPEG or RAW format. There are easily accessible "pro" controls that let you play with white balance, exposure level, ISO, shutter speed and macro magnification. The expected panorama, slo-mo and hyperlapse modes are there and simple to use; so is a selfie mode with controls that include "autoselfie" and "voice selfie." Say "cheese" or "capture," and the deed is done.

The fingerprint scanner can hold up to five prints; it seems accurate and is quick to respond. I vastly prefer it over PINs (although there is a backup PIN required in case something goes south with the scanner) and especially the awful facial recognition in earlier Android versions.

The battery is a comparatively small at 2150mAh, but it supports Qualcomm's Quick Charge standard (version 2.0 for now; 3.0 will come with a future software update). Claimed 3G talk time is up to 16 hours; claimed HD video playback time is up to 12 hours; claimed standby time is 18 days. I didn't have time to test those, but experience has shown a mountain of salt is appropriate for manufacturer battery claims. I got about two days of life during my tests, which were not focused on power savings. If you want to know if you can get through a full day on a single charge, the answer is: No worries.

Of course, the phone is also a phone, and a good one. It supports Wi-Fi Calling, which lets you route calls over known Wi-Fi networks rather than the cellular network. Of course, the quality of the call will vary depending on the quality of your Wi-Fi network, and it's a good bet that whoever provides your Wi-Fi doesn't pay as much attention to its network as a cell carrier does. My anecdotal tests indicated that Wi-Fi calls don't sound as good as calls on the cell network, but my tests were anything but rigorous or controlled.

That said, there are large swaths of the world where cellular minutes and data are precious and Wi-Fi isn't; for those people, Wi-Fi Calling would be an important feature.

Bottom line

If you're suffering from iPhone envy but are tied to the Android world (and want to save $150 besides), the HTC One A9 is your ride. But even if you couldn't care less about Apple, you'll still want to lay hands on this phone, which has put HTC back in the first rank of Android devices.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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