When we first got our hands on the HTC One A9, we were pretty excited. A beautifully-crafted, premium-looking midrange Android? Tell us more. OK, it’s not the most innovative design in the world, but it seemed like a solid way to sell phones for a company that’s been flailing somewhat.
Then we found out the price – pretty steep at £480 – and that the UK is only getting the 16GB/2GB edition, while the US gets 32GB/3GB for less than we’re paying for the inferior version. This, obviously, was concerning – but we still wanted to try the phone for ourselves. So I’ve been using it as my main handset for the last few weeks (as per our sassy review policy) – here’s our full HTC One A9 review.
1. The handset
- 146 x 71. x 7.5 mm
- Physical home key with integrated fingerprint sensor
- Colours: Carbon Grey, Opal Silver, Topaz Gold, Deep Garnet
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: it looks like an iPhone. As we previously reported, HTC say they had the design first, but regardless of whether that’s true or not, it really doesn’t matter at all. It’s a very good-looking, slick handset with impressive build quality, and if the Apple resemblance tempts a few people over to Team Android, I’m OK with that.
The gold and garnet colourways are stunning (garnet should be out before Christmas) and the edge-to-edge, slightly curved screen looks just beautiful. It’s a slimline, super-smooth handset that feels weighty enough to be quality but doesn’t take up too much space.
On the right edge, you’ll find the volume rocker and a textured power key. On the left is the nano sim tray and microSD slot. These are helpfully marked, and while I found them a bit tricky to get out at first, it’s nice to see separate trays rather than the fiddly two-in-one drawers other manufacturers use.
You’ll find the headphone jack on the bottom right, charging to the right of centre (this kind of awkwardness marks it out from a real Apple device) and drilled holes for the speaker. There’s an oval home key and fingerprint sensor in the centre of the bezel below the fairly subtle logo, but no capacitive keys – just software buttons. I’d have preferred soft keys, personally, but not everyone cares.
The charging port is standard micro-USB – HTC say they don’t think consumers are ready for USB type C yet, and having been annoyed by the lack of chargers for our OnePlus 2, we’d agree.
There’s only one speaker on the One A9, as opposed to the stereo Boomsound ones we had on the One M9 and previous handsets.
It’s on the bottom edge, and despite being on its lonesome, puts out surprisingly good sound. It’s loud and high-quality, and the new Boomsound headphone experience genuinely seems to improve the sound you get from your ‘phones.
3. The screen.
- 5.0 inch AMOLED
- Full HD (1920 x 1080p, 441 pixels per inch)
- Corning Gorilla Glass 4
What a beauty. HTC’s screens are usually excellent and this is no exception. It does look a little yellower when placed side-by-side with other AMOLEDs, but no one really does that. In isolation, it’s clear, glossy, and super-sharp.
The curve on this display is known as 2.5D, or halfway between flat 2D and fully-curved 3D screens like the one on the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge. The curve and the edge-to-edge design make it look as if someone slightly over-poured the screen, which is very appealing aesthetically, and the extra shine on the glass finishes off the premium look of the front side.
The display is coated with Gorilla Glass 4, which should make it harder to smash or scratch – but the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+ has the same and I managed to scratch it within a week, so it’s worth babying your new HTC nonetheless.
4. 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
This is the section where we in the UK lose out. I’d have much preferred the 32GB/3GB variant of the One A9, but it’s just not available here. 16GB is pretty low, but the microSD slot makes up for it – sadly there’s no such fix for the lack of RAM. 2GB isn’t really enough these days, if you ask us – and performance was predictably sluggish as a result.
I often found myself pressing the power button a second time because the screen took so long to turn on that I thought I hadn’t pressed it properly. This meant I ended up turning the screen off again just as it finally woke up. Switching between apps is laggy and slow – you’ll spend lots of time looking at the app you’re trying to close while you’re waiting for it to disappear, or waiting for your homescreen icons to come back because the phone’s got confused. If this were a cheap handset, that would be totally forgivable, but not at this price.
The A9 also gets pretty hot during intensive use, and that seems to slow performance further.
I don’t often have to clear apps out of memory to speed a phone up, because most can handle lots of idle applications. The A9, not so much. I found myself trying to free up memory or even rebooting the phone more than I have on any handset lately, and that’s down to the stingy RAM allowance. Another gig and this would have been great. As it is, it feels hobbled.
16GB is fine when you’re offering microSD (we’re much less impressed on phones with no expandable storage, like the iPhone 6s), but bear in mind that you won’t get all of that. Our One A9 had about 10GB left out of the box:
5. The software
- Android 6.0 Marshmallow
- HTC Sense
The HTC One A9 is one of the first non-Nexus phones to market with the newest version of Android, Marshmallow. While it offers improved privacy controls, which is useful, it does at times feel a bit like the Windows Vista of Android, constantly asking your permission for things.
Spot the problem on the following screenshots:
Yep, if we told it not to ask us again, it wouldn’t let us allow photo access at all. What?!
This, of course, isn’t a failing of HTC’s.
What is a failing of theirs is the clock bug. When you turn the screen on, it often shows you what the time was last time the screen was on. It takes a good few seconds to update, and it’s really annoying. Today I checked the time as I was leaving a meeting that started at 11am. The phone said 11.01. Three seconds later, it realised it was actually 12.30. Sigh.
Other than that, Sense is its usual self: a light-touch Android skin that adds useful functions like motion gestures without removing any of Android’s core benefits.
6. The selfie camera
- HTC UltraPixel (4MP)
- Fixed focus
- 1080p video recording
HTC spent a crazy amount of time and money developing their UltraPixel technology for the first One, which was billed as capturing more light with fewer pixels. Sadly, since customers didn’t much fancy buying a flagship phone with a 4MP main camera, HTC had to relegate UltraPixel to the selfie cam, where it still does a decent job of capturing images in most light conditions.
HTC One A9 selfie camera samples:
7. The main camera
- 13MP with sapphire cover lens
- Optical image stabilisation
- 1080p video recording
The main camera on the One A9 is good, but not great. It can be quite slow (especially when the phone’s being laggy in general) which has led to quite a few missed shots, but when the focus locks, it does take quality shots. HDR mode leads to some slightly surreal results, which it should:
Low light performance on the main camera is also good, thanks in part to the BSI sensor, as you can see in the cocktail photo.
There’s no 4K recording on this phone, which won’t be noticed by most people, but the HTC camera and editing apps do include a lot of extra features that are fun to play with. There’s a Pro mode for photography experts (as on the LG G4) which lets you shoot in RAW format as long as you don’t mind bigger filesizes: 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.
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.
If you go into the photo editor (not the camera app itself), you’ll find some interesting new features. This one, Photo Shape, lets you overlay two photos in various different shapes. Here’s the Eye x The Shard:
But the best one by a country mile is Face Fusion, which lets you merge two faces. Here’s me spliced with Jennifer Lawrence:
A girl can dream.
HTC One A9 camera samples:
8. Battery life
- 2150 mAh
- Quick Charge 2.0 support (forwards-compatible with Quick Charge 3.0 when it comes out)
If you nearly choked on your biscuit when you saw “2150 mAh”, you’re not alone. In the words of Flo Rida, that is low, low, low, low, low, low, low, low.
However, it’s getting harder to judge phones on battery capacity alone, as the improvements in hardware and software power management mean that less juice can go further. With Marshmallow’s ‘doze mode,’ purported to substantially improve phone stamina, I was hopeful that the battery on the A9 would be decent despite its specs.
Well, at first, I was horrified. I once compared a bad phone battery to “a jerry can with a hole in it” – this was like a jerry can with no bottom. But I did some investigation, and found out what was draining the battery:
Dear lord, how is WiFi taking so much power?
This seems to be a problem lots of people on Marshmallow have encountered, and the fix is to wipe your WiFi settings. That link claims it’s just a reporting problem, ie that WiFi isn’t really draining as much battery as it claims – but I found my battery life much improved after taking this step. That said, it’s still not actually good. It usually needs a top-up by lunchtime. LUNCHTIME.
On the bright side, the A9 uses Quick Charge 2.0 and is forwards-compatible with 3.0, which isn’t out yet. There’s no wireless charging, which isn’t surprising, but the quick charging works very well and the phone powers up in no time. Lucky, that, since you’ll be doing it often.
They should really put a portable power pack in the “recommended accessories” section for this phone.
9. UK price and availability
The launch price for the HTC One A9 was set at £479.99. That’s the RRP, so you might be able to find it cheaper (and of course, most people will buy it on contract) but we do need to address the major issue we mentioned in the intro.
In the US, this phone currently costs $499.99. That’s about £327. We’re used to this kind of irritating price disparity, so that’s not an eyebrow-raiser in itself – except that as we previously mentioned, the UK version of the phone has much lower specs. So just to be clear, we’re expected to pay about £150 more for a phone with half the storage and a third less RAM.
Oh, and did we mention that the US also got a promotional launch price of $399 (£260)? WTF, HTC?
If you still want the phone, it’s available now from retailers and networks, although the Topaz Gold is exclusive to O2 and the Deep Garnet isn’t out yet (it’ll be on our shelves by Christmas). The awesome HTC Dot View cases are also available, in Obsidian, Deep Garnet, Sea Coral and Turquoise Blue – but again, they’re overpriced at £34.99.
10. Gadgette’s verdict
Sigh. I really, really wanted to love this phone. But I can’t.
Aside from the frankly outrageous pricing issue, the battery life is poor and so is performance. The clock bug is annoying, it’s lacking in RAM, and apart from the superb screen and speakers, everything else is average. There’s nothing to get excited about other than the look of the handset – if you don’t mind the iPhone comparisons.
When this phone inevitably gets a price drop, it might be worth considering. Put a microSD card in and it’ll be a decent mid-ranger, but it depends how cheap it goes as to whether it’ll be better than what else is on offer. When you’ve got phones like the Honor 7 offering a 3100 mAh battery and 3GB of RAM for £250, it’s going to be tough to convince us to go for this.
The A9 does have its upsides, of course: the beautiful screen, good camera, excellent speakers, and a really appealing design. If you’re not fussed about speed and battery life, you might like it. But for me, it’s a heartbreaker, and not in a good way. Come back soon, HTC.