UPDATED: hands on with the HTC One A9 – Apple looks with Android brains

"No one mention the iPhone. I did once, but I think I got away with it"

Yesterday, HTC announced the HTC One A9 – the phone that’s been doing the rumour rounds under its codename, ‘Aero’. We know you guys had questions: is it true that it looks just like an iPhone? Is it really the most powerful phone in the world? Is it replacing the One M range?

Well: yes, no and no.

We spent a morning with the new device last week, and we can honestly tell you that it’s an absolute beauty. Yes, it looks a whole lot like an Apple Android, but that’s no bad thing – it’s a familiar, premium look that should bring new people to the Android stable. And while the rumours of the A9 being a powerhouse are very exaggerated – this is definitely a mid-ranger – again, that’s a good thing. It means the phone has mass appeal.

Updated: We now have UK pricing information for the HTC One A9, and it’s only a little cheaper than its flagship sibling, the HTC One M9. The M9 is currently priced at £529.99, while the SIM-free A9 will cost you £479.99. That’s more than the Samsung Galaxy S6, and we think it’s a mistake – see our ‘Availability’ section for more.

The handset

  • 146 x 71. x 7.5 mm
  • 143g
  • Physical home key with integrated fingerprint sensor

The design of the One A9 is divisive. Yes, it looks exactly like an iPhone, and HTC have been bashed quite a lot for that decision. But if you ask them, they’ll tell you the design’s been in the works for over three years – at which point even iPhones didn’t look like the current iPhone – and clearly fits into the design evolution of the One line:

“If you see similarities, that’s fine, we can’t change that – but we started this in 2013, and then someone came out with a product very similar to ours. It’s quite flattering. We’ve been doing this for three, four years, and we’ll keep evolving the designs,” Giuliano Ghidini, Director of Product Marketing and Strategy at HTC, told us.

That’s all well and good, but we couldn’t help cringing when during the launch event, HTC said they wanted to give the phone “its own look.” Why poke the trolls, HTC? You know it looks like an iPhone. We know it looks like an iPhone. Don’t pretend that’s not the case – that’s the sort of thing Apple would do.

Inevitable Apple comparisons aside, this is a beautiful phone. It’s slim, lighter than you’d expect, and has HTC’s now signature aluminium unibody design, which makes for a smooth and premium look. At launch, it’s going to be available in Opal Silver, Topaz Gold and Carbon Grey, but there’ll also be a Deep Garnet option later in the year (before Christmas, HTC assure us, which is good because it would make a stunning Christmas present for – let’s say – someone called Holly).

On the right-hand side of the phone, you’ll find the volume rocker and pleasingly textured power button, whereas the left side just has the SIM tray and – joy! – a microSD slot. Good to see someone still includes those. “We like to give flexibility to our customers,” notes Ghidini.

On the bottom edge sits the headphone port, speaker grille and charging port – we were expecting to see USB C in line with the OnePlus Two and the Nexus 5X and 6P, but HTC said “At this time it’s not widely adopted yet- we’re looking at this for 2016.”

One big departure from the usual HTC aesthetic is the physical home key. Yes… another iPhone-esque inclusion.

“We’ve found people feel more at ease with that configuration, but we still think on-screen buttons are the best user experience,” say HTC.

Like Apple’s, the A9 home key has a fingerprint sensor built in – Ghidini tells us this is mainly “driven by Android Pay.” Well, that’s all well and good in the US, which has Android Pay – any sign of it heading to these shores? HTC’s response: “Ask Google.” Sigh.

Still, fingerprint sensors aren’t useless in the UK: they’re also handy for unlocking your phone and keeping it secure. HTC’s recognises up to 5 different fingerprints, but doesn’t work when your finger’s wet or dirty, unlike Sony’s.

One thing you won’t find on the One A9 is infrared: HTC say their feedback says “people just aren’t using it.” Can’t argue with that – I don’t know anyone outside tech who even knows it’s a thing on phones.

As you’d hope on an HTC, the famous (and awesome) BoomSound speakers are back. These are my favourite speakers on any smartphone line, and on the A9 they’ve made it into the included headphones as well. There’s only one speaker this time, though, and it’s on the bottom edge rather than the dual front-facers we’re used to on HTCs. Still, it’s loud and clear, and won’t get muffled by your hand when you’re holding the phone.

The screen

  • 5.0 inch AMOLED
  • Full HD 1080p
  • Corning Gorilla Glass 4

We’re big fans of the display on the One A9. Coming in at 5 inches, it’s a little smaller than a lot of this year’s phones, but has a gentle curve to it that makes it look stunning. It’s smooth, glossy, and reaches right to the edges of the handset for a really seamless look. Like many manufacturers, HTC refer to this as “2.5D” – halfway between the 2D flat screens we’re all used to, and the 3D curvy ones on, for instance, the S6 Edge Plus. It’s a very subtle curve, but the effect is a cushiony, slightly raised screen that really elevates the phone in terms of design.

Quality-wise, HTC fans won’t be surprised to hear it’s a beautiful panel. It’s 1920 x 1080p (full HD, 441 pixels per inch) rather than the quad-HD screens we’ve started seeing on flagships – but then this isn’t a flagship. Also, you’re very unlikely to notice the difference unless you keep your phone at the end of your nose. The screen on the One A9 is bright, colourful, beautiful, and has the wide viewing angles you’d expect from HTC. It is pretty shiny though, so you’re going to get a lot of reflection in bright light. Hope you like looking at your own face.

The A9 includes Gorilla Glass 4 for extra smash and scratch protection – although so does the S6 Edge Plus, and I’ve already scratched mine. Sob.

The software

  • Android 6.0 Marshmallow
  • HTC Sense

More good news! This might be a mid-ranger, but it’s also one of the first phones to get Marshmallow outside of the Nexus line. On top of that is HTC’s overlay, Sense, which is widely recognised as one of the best manufacturer tweaks to Android. It’s not the pure experience you get on a Nexus phone, but HTC genuinely do seem to add useful things to their version – though we’ve never found the Blinkfeed social news feature to be much use. HTC tell us that Sense no longer has a numbering system (the last version we saw was 7), it’s just ‘HTC Sense’ from now on, apparently.

New to this iteration of Sense is a partnership with the News Republic news app, and a daily digest of stories when you wake up. Like Blinkfeed, we think a few people will really like that, while most will just ignore it. It’s not something I’m likely to use – I’ve got my own curated source of news.

The hardware

  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 octa-core 64-bit processor, (4 x 1.5GHz + 4 x 1.2GHz)
  • 16GB storage
  • 2GB RAM
  • MicroSD up to 2TB

There’s been some confusion about the hardware on the A9, primarily because there are two versions: a 32GB/3GB one and the 16GB/2GB edition. Guess which one the UK’s getting? Yep, sadly just the lower one.

We’re not big fans of 16GB phones *side eyes Apple* but unlike the iPhone 6s, HTC offers a microSD slot, so you can expand your storage by up to a theoretical 2TB. No, there are no 2TB microSD cards in existence (yet), but there’s a 200GB one if you like a lot of storage on your phone.

The microSD slot is a great decision by HTC for two reasons. One: just about every other manufacturer has dropped it, which gives them a point of difference, and two: Android Marshmallow lets you use your microSD card as internal storage. HTC know this, and that’s what they were going for: allowing the customer to choose their own storage level saves them money, after all. “A 16GB microSD card is four pounds on Amazon,” comments Giuliano Ghidini.

There are some downsides to using microSD as internal storage: you can no longer take out the card and use it in another device (as it’s formatted differently, and encrypted) and it’s likely to be slower than proper internal storage. But it’s a nice option to have in a world where you can easily buy a 32GB phone that’s full six months later, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

The cameras

  • 13MP main camera with sapphire lens cover
  • Optical image stabilisation
  • 4MP ‘Ultrapixel’ front camera
  • 1080p video recording on both cameras

HTC got a bad rap for the cameras on the One line, which I think is a bit undeserved. The Ultrapixel camera on the HTC One M8 didn’t go down well with the public because its technical rating of 4 megapixels didn’t sound very good when compared with things like the 20.1MP camera on the Sony Xperia Z3. It seems the public don’t care much about innovations like Ultrapixel (essentially a way of capturing more light) and just want a number that’s higher than their mate’s number.

Since then, HTC have flipped the cameras around, putting the Ultrapixel camera on the front on the M9 and now the A9, meaning that again it’s technically only 4MP, but performs much better than you’d expect for that level (HTC say Ultrapixel tech captures 300% more light than a ‘standard smartphone camera’). Also, 4MP doesn’t sound too bad for a front-facing, whereas it’d be pretty poor as a main snapper.

Both cameras film in 1080p, which is a tiny bit disappointing – the Xperia line has had 4K recording on the main camera since the Z2, and even iPhones have it now – but HTC have chosen to leave it out, perhaps assuming that consumers aren’t as bothered as tech journalists. Which is probably true.

Both cameras have a f/2.0 aperture, though the main camera offers auto-focus and a BSI sensor (really good for low light environments) while the selfie cam is fixed focus.

They’ve also included Hyperlapse mode (that thing we saw on Instagram a while back that was all the rage for a week or so), which stabilises and speeds up your video by up to 12x so you can make super-cool recordings of cycling through the city at night, and suchlike. Not one most people are likely to use, but still cool.

There’s also a new Pro camera mode (a nod to the LG G4?) that lets you shoot in RAW. Again, a niche feature, but a nice-to-have. Watch the file sizes, though: I shot the same photo on the A9 in JPG and RAW, and while the JPG came out at 1.37MB, the DNG (the RAW format used by the A9) was 25.07MB. You’re going to need to make use of the microSD option if you plan to shoot in RAW.

The battery

Battery is another area where it’s getting tricky to compare phones on numbers alone. This year’s flagships had battery capacities that sounded low (2600mAh on the S6 Edge, for instance) but actually offered better performance than their predecessors thanks to the power management improvements in Lollipop and the latest generation of processors.

The A9 is in the same stable. The battery is 2150mAh, which sounds like something you’d get on a phone that cost £100, but between the chipset and the power management in Marshmallow, it’s purported to last well – especially given that it only has a 5-inch 1080p screen to power. HTC say they worked with Qualcomm on the chipset to ensure excellent stamina, so we’ll see how it performs when we do our full review.

There’s no wireless charging in the A9 because they wanted to make the phone as thin as possible and “it hasn’t been widely adopted by consumers yet,” but it does support the Quick Charge 2.0 standard. Even better, when Quick Charge 3.0 comes out, it’ll work with that too.

HTC One A9 UK price and availability

We now have a SIM-free price on the A9: £479.99. While that’s less than the HTC One M9 cost at launch (£579.99), it’s more than you’ll currently pay for the flagship Samsung Galaxy S6, which is £449.99 for twice as much storage. Not a great move, HTC.

The phone is available for preorder now and will be launching globally – including in the UK – on the 1st of November. In other words, really, really soon – but you’ll have to hold on a little longer if you want that Deep Garnet handset. As someone who treasured her red HTC One M8 like it was the Tesseract, I’d go for that one.

The HTC One A9 is available from the usual suspects: EE, O2, Vodafone, Carphone Warehouse, John Lewis, Amazon and so on, though it’s worth noting that the Topaz Gold is exclusive to O2. No word on whether the Garnet will be an exclusive too, but the red M8 was exclusive to Phones 4U. So we’re guessing they won’t be replicating that.

The awesome HTC Dot View cases will also be available for the A9 – if you’re not familiar with them, they’re dot-matrix design flip cases that let you play games, change tracks and see notifications directly on the closed case cover. They’re really cool, and whenever I’ve had one it’s always got lots of attention. The Dot View cases will be available in Obsidian, Deep Garnet, Sea Coral and Turquoise Blue.

Overall, we think the HTC One A9 is a good move by HTC in terms of product: it’s a ridiculously beautiful phone that should appeal to Apple fans. It’s not the most technologically advanced, but nor are iPhones. But in terms of pricing, HTC need to have a word with themselves. Why would you pay more for a 16GB mid-range than a 32GB flagship…?

This phone would best be positioned as an affordable choice for people who want Android brains in a premium body, which is plenty of people – but £480 is not what we’d call affordable. Therefore, we expect to see the price dropping pretty rapidly, as has been the case for both Samsung and Sony’s latest outings.

In the meantime, we’ll be back with a full review of the HTC One A9 before long, to let you know if it’s worth that price tag.

Holly Brockwell
About Holly Brockwell 291 Articles
Tech addict Holly founded Gadgette in 2015, and won Woman of the Year for it. She's firmly #TeamAndroid, has ambitions to become a robot, and beat all other Hollies to her awesome Twitter handle.