HTC One A9 review: HTC regains its footing (if not its originality)

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Gizmag reviews HTC's attempt to reboot the One lineup, the (strikingly familiar) One A9

Gizmag reviews HTC's attempt to reboot the One lineup, the (strikingly familiar) One A9 (Credit: Will Shanklin/Gizmag) View gallery (13 images)

During the early days of Android, HTC phones were often the best of the bunch – and just as recently as two years ago, the smartphone of the year was arguably the terrific HTC One M7. The company slipped up a bit after that, but can it rebound with the new One A9? Read on for Gizmag's full review.

We've noticed a pattern with HTC. When the company starts with a clean slate at the drawing board, it often comes up with some terrific products: like the Nexus One (though that was in collaboration with Google), Evo 4G/Supersonic and One M7. Its VR headset looks like it could join that group as well.

But after finding success with those devices, HTC too often got stuck in a rut of repetition. Some iteration is natural, but after launching (seemingly) a zillion different Evo clones from 2010 to 2012 and then re-using the One M7's basic design for its next two flagships, it seems like HTC has shot itself in the foot more than once by clinging to successes for too long.

Now that sales numbers have apparently made it clear that the One M7/8/9 design has run its course, the company is back with a "new" design. Only there's very little that's really new about it, as we can almost guarantee that every review you read of this handset is going to start by saying "the One A9 looks almost exactly like an iPhone."

... just so we aren't left out of that party: the One A9 looks almost exactly like an iPhone.

In fairness to HTC, you could say that the One A9's design is the next logical step after its last three flagships (which, like the Matrix trilogy, peaked at the beginning). If you took the One M9, flattened its back and gave it a fingerprint sensor in place of its front-facing speaker grilles, you might have a phone that looks just like the A9. Maybe HTC copied Apple, or maybe the One just evolved into a similar place.

Perhaps that's too generous an assumption, but either way the real question is whether the One A9 makes for a good phone on its own. And after spending the last week with HTC's new flagship, our answer is yes – but with some caveats.

Once you get past the iPhone resemblance (or maybe we should say if you get past that), the A9 has one of our favorite designs of 2015, alongside Apple's and Samsung's flagships. It feels lighter in hand than the iPhone 6s does (the A9 weighs the same, but it's a larger phone) and it's also very thin.

And since HTC includes its Uh Oh warranty with the A9, you can enjoy this gorgeous device without a case, knowing that if it ends up on the wrong side of a showdown with a sidewalk or toilet, you can get a one-time replacement, free of charge.

The A9's spec sheet leans a bit more towards the mid-ranged than the high-end, but our experience with the phone has been better than budget. Though its 5-inch screen has "only" 1080p resolution, it has good color reproduction and contrast. Its Snapdragon 617 chip is far from Qualcomm's fastest, but the phone does have a higher-end 3 GB of RAM to keep UI navigation and multitasking smooth.

In benchmark app Geekbench 3, it scored a respectable 3,108 in multi-core but a mere 741 in single core. So though you get zippy navigation, this isn't the handset to buy if you want a future-proofed phone for years' worth of intensive, console style games.

Our most pleasant surprise was that the One A9 has a very good – dare we say flagship quality – rear camera. We compared the A9's camera in identical settings to the iPhone 6s, and while the iPhone's results were superior in the most poorly-lit settings, the A9 held its own everywhere else. In several indoor medium-lit shots, we preferred its image quality over the iPhone's.

Here are a few unedited samples in various lighting conditions (downscaled to 1,060 pixels wide for the web):

That last (poorly lit) shot was the one where the iPhone flexed its muscles. Here's the 6s in the exact same setting:

The A9 has an excellent touch-based fingerprint sensor, though when you combine it with Android's virtual navigation buttons, it makes for a somewhat cluttered front face.

As you can see below, you end up with two home buttons sitting one on top of the other: a virtual one at the bottom of the screen and the capacitive sensor sitting right below it.

We would have preferred HTC to go all-in one way or the other: either put the fingerprint sensor on the back (like on the Nexus 6P), or skip the navigation bar altogether and put two capacitive buttons next to the sensor (like on Samsung's devices). The current approach seems a little redundant, using up precious screen and chin space.

If you prefer stock Android over custom manufacturer UIs, then you'll be happy with HTC's software approach in the A9, as it runs something that's very close to stock Android 6.0 Marshmallow.

It's technically HTC Sense 7 UI on top of the latest version of Android, but Sense is now closer to Motorola's UI, where the customizations are less about re-branding Android and more about adding interesting features on top of Google's rock-solid base (here those unique features include HTC's BlinkFeed news app and a custom camera app with quick mode-switching and pro-level settings for shooting in RAW).

Battery life isn't forging any new ground, but it's still good. In our battery benchmark (streaming video over Wi-Fi, with brightness set at 25 lux at a distance of 10 inches) it dropped 15 percent per hour. That's a hair better than the Galaxy S6 (16 percent) and slightly worse than the iPhones 6s and 6s Plus (13 percent).

HTC gives you a generous storage setup in the A9: 32 GB of internal memory with the option of adding a microSD card that can add (up to) an extra 2 TB. Something to keep in mind if you're torn between the A9 and an Apple (starting at 16 GB with no microSD) or Samsung (starting at 32 GB with no microSD) flagship.

The One A9 is a damn solid all-around handset, but its biggest caveat is that its current pricing is temporary. Right now US shoppers can pre-order the phone for US$400 – not too shabby, for an all-metal handset with a surprisingly good camera and no major flaws.

Unfortunately on November 7 this good buy at $400 will become a not-as-good buy at $500. Android smartphone competition is stiff, and that extra Benjamin is enough to nudge the One A9's price closer to top-tier flagships like the iPhone 6s and Galaxy S6 – and right on par with the higher-end Nexus 6P.

If you can get past the uncanny iPhone resemblance and you're willing to pre-order the HTC One A9 in the next couple of weeks, then you'll get a good value on a very nice phone. If it stayed at that price, we'd give it a fairly high recommendation and consider it an encouraging sign from HTC. But with that price hike, the A9 doesn't offer enough incentive for you to choose it over its best rivals. If you're reading this after November 7, you're probably better off looking elsewhere.

The HTC One A9 is available for pre-order now from HTC's website below.

Product page: HTC

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