HTC One A9 review: Solid upgrade to the M9, but priced too high in a crowded mid-range Android market

  • Editors' rating
    8.7 Outstanding
  • $399.99

Pros

  • Rock solid design, fit, and finish
  • Outstanding headphone audio experience
  • 32GB internal with microSD expansion
  • Excellent battery life
  • Solid camera performance with OIS

Cons

  • Top and bottom bezels are a bit wide
  • $500 price too high for mid-range

I posted my first impressions of the HTC One A9 last week and then went and pre-ordered my own SIM-unlocked Deep Garnet one.

After spending 10 days with an international model, I thought the US model was a solid choice at $400. I gave it a ranking in my recent best 10 list above the Nexus 5X and Moto X Pure Edition, comparably priced mid-range phones.

However, yesterday we found out that price of the One A9 is going to be $500 and at that price you are probably better off picking up the fabulous Google Nexus 6P. If you want a smaller phone than the 6P, then look to the Nexus 5X or Moto X Pure Edition.

htc-one-a9-1.jpg
Yes, it looks like an iPhone. So what? It doesn't matter if Apple copied HTC for some things or HTC copied Apple for others and who did what first. It's immaterial to the discussion and I won't bring it up in this review. There are many valid reasons to consider the HTC One A9 instead of the iPhone 6s and this phone is priced well below current iOS and Android flagships so shouldn't be directly compared anyway.

The HTC One A9 is an ergonomic smartphone with excellent performance, solid camera experience, low price, reasonable specifications, and surprisingly outstanding battery life.

Specifications

  • Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 octa-core processor
  • Display: 5 inch LCD at 1920 x 1080 pixels resolution, 401 ppi, Gorilla Glass 3 (corrected from last week's announcement)
  • Operating system: Android 6.0 Marshmallow
  • RAM: 3GB
  • Storage: 32GB internal options with microSD card slot
  • Cameras: Rear 13 megapixel camera with OIS, f/2.0 aperture, and RAW support and 4 megapixel UltraPixel front facing camera
  • Sensors: Fingerprint, proximity, motion, compass, gyro, magnetic
  • Wireless: FM radio, Bluetooth 4.1, 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac WiFi, GPS, NFC
  • Battery: 2,150 mAh battery with Quick Charge 2.0 (and 3.0 with future software update)
  • Dimensions: 145.75 x 70.8 x 7.26 mm and 143 grams
  • Colors: Opal Silver, Carbon Gray, Deep Garnet, and Gold (limited in some markets)

I understand the European version has 2GB of RAM and 16GB of internal storage for a much higher price. It makes no sense to me why HTC would make a different version and this may prove to be a fatal mistake. HTC seems to have better brand recognition outside the US and it's a slap in the face to present Europe and other areas with such a model at a higher price.

Hardware

Top ZDNET Reviews

HTC knows how to do hardware, that's never been an issue for them. I remember picking up the HTC One M7 and falling in love, so much that I still rank it as one of the best smartphones ever. The HTC One A9 had a similar effect on me and after opening up the box and taking out the phone, I couldn't help but keep flipping it around in my hand. You really need to get your hands on one to see how great it feels. However, it is also very slippery so be careful.

htc-one-a9-2.jpg

Like my 2013 Moto X, it's also one of the most pocketable phones today. It slips in and disappears in my front jeans pocket while also being compact enough to travel with me in shorts. The back is bead blasted while the edges are then polished so you get two different looks to the unibody aluminum shell.

You've heard me say it on the MoTR podcast and write it on ZDNet, but I think 1080p displays are perfectly acceptable for smartphones and am glad to see HTC went with a 5 inch 1080p version here. It is an AMOLED display, which is new for HTC, and it looks fantastic.

Fingerprint scanner: HTC's fingerprint scanner is shaped oblong like the Samsung Galaxy line, but is not a physical button that depresses. It's a capacitive area that serves to scan your fingerprint and also serve as a home button. It has performed flawlessly for me over the past 10 days. For my usage patterns, a front facing fingerprint scanner like this is more useful than a rear scanner, like those we see on the Nexus phones. My phone since next to me on a desk most of the time and I prefer to reach a finger over to unlock it rather than having to pick it up to unlock it with the back scanner.

You can use the scanner to unlock the phone and also to pay for things with Android Pay and NFC. Unfortunately, the Google API for the fingerprint scanner is still new with Marshmallow devices so my banks cannot use it yet. Hopefully that changes in the future as developers update apps for Marshmallow.

Camera: HTC came up with some unique and innovative camera technologies over the past few years, but hasn't yet delivered fantastic camera results. HTC switched to a more standard camera with the 13 megapixel variant in the M9, but that phone lacked OIS and the software failed to deliver.

I'm happy to say that HTC delivered here with the HTC One A9 and as you can see in my full resolution Flickr album I think the HTC One A9 may even be better than the other top cameras in some situations. I understand it required quite a bit of engineering effort to position the camera in the center top of the A9, but it gives the back a very clean look too.

One of the major issues I've always had with HTC cameras has been the way the software always blew out the photo with too much light. That looks to have been fixed here as colors appear more natural, even with light in the picture. There is still quite a bit of light captured with the front-facing UltraPixel camera, but that's works for many selfie scenarios.

HTC's camera is still quite fast at capturing images. You can also enable a motion gesture that lets you pick up your phone in landscape, press the volume button, and then start taking photos. Even faster, if you are using the camera and then the phone goes into standby/display off picking it up with the super fast fingerprint scanner then launches you right back into the camera.

The software is fast, functional, and easy to use with a tap to switch camera modes. Unfortunately, you can no longer create custom camera modes. However, you will find selfie, pro, camera, hyperlapse, panorama, and slow motion mode buttons all ready to go. Pro mode lets you take full manual control of the camera and even shoot in RAW format.

One annoyance is the HDR button that requires you to toggle HDR on and off. My Note 5 and iPhone 6s Plus, as well as the loaner Nexus phones, all use automatic control for HDR. I'm not sure why HTC doesn't have auto mode for HDR and hope it gets added in a future update.

Speaker and headphone jack: HTC BoomSound speakers are gone and while many will lament this design change I think it is the right move. As good as those speakers sounded, I never really understood the need for such powerful speakers when most people use a headset with their phones. BoomSound required space for sound chambers and I am pleased to see HTC focus on the headphone audio experience instead of the external speaker experience.

htc-one-a9-4.jpg

The 3.5mm headset jack is positioned at the bottom of the HTC One A9, just to the right of the offset microUSB port. BoomSound is still associated with the audio experience, but that technology is used to power the headset, in combination with Dolby Audio surround technology.

The HTC One A9 has an integrated Digital to Analog converter (DAC) that delivers audio at 24-bit, 192 KHz quality. The headphone amplifier doubles the output of other smartphones for more power and dynamic range. Audio sounds absolutely amazing with the HTC One A9 and I am pleased to have found a replacement for my Sony Xperia Z3.

microSD card slot: It's refreshing to see the use of microSD, especially since Android 6.0 Marshmallow lets you integrate external storage with internal storage. For the $60 price of a 128GB microSD card, I was able to upgrade the A9 from 32GB of storage to 160GB. The microSD card and SIM card slots are positioned on the upper left side of the A9.

A textured power button is positioned on the right side and is higher up than the one on the M9. It's actually where the volume down button is on the M9, which makes it much more natural for activation in my hand.

Software

It's not often that Android smartphones, other than the Nexus line, launch with the latest and greatest operating system right out of the box. The HTC One A9 is the first non-Nexus phone to launch with Android 6.0 Marshmallow so you won't even have to think about updates for months.

HTC has been providing quick updates to Android software and with the A9, it has promised updates within 15 days after the updates go out to Nexus devices. That is extremely aggressive, but if HTC is referring just to those sold unlocked through its store then that is entirely possible. The bootloader is also unlockable without voiding the warranty.

HTC Sense has always appealed to me and while it is present on the HTC One A9 it is fairly minimized. You can still view a home screen panel of HTC BlinkFeed items, but you can also remove that if you want. You can have the Sense Home widget present if you want, but again you have full control over it so what you see is up to you.

HTC tried to eliminate duplicative apps, as much as possible. Thankfully, HTC still includes its email client and calendar as these offer excellent Exchange experiences and I prefer both over using the Gmail and Google Calendard clients. You will find HTC Gallery and Photo Editor because Google Photos does not support RAW image files while these HTC apps do.

HTC's themes are included and I personally have a lot of fun using them so am glad they are still present here in HTC Sense. The Zoe video editor is here and you will also find support for automatic Zoe creation in the HTC Gallery. With the awareness of Live Photos on the new iPhone 6s, maybe we'll see people finally start using HTC Zoes.

The experience is very close to a pure Google one with a few additional apps and extra settings. The Quick Actions are present from the notification shade, but the trick to access the utility tuner, found on Nexus devices, is not working so you cannot customize the quick actions at the top of the display. This is a bit of a disappointment, but not a critical flaw.

The version that I have, and that I ordered, is SIM-unlocked so there is no carrier bloatware. Carrier variations may have bloatware, but I recommend you purchase the SIM-unlocked one from HTC directly. Doing so will also likely lead to faster updates in the future.

Pricing and competition

The HTC One A9 is priced at $499.99 in the US market. There is a short promotional offer that expires next week where you can save $100. The $400 price is about right, but the $500 price is too high.

In the UK it is 429.99 British Pounds (US$658). With the 2GB RAM/16GB internal storage found in that model, HTC is out of touch with reality and I think that is ridiculous. I don't see how this phone will succeed outside the US.

Other devices in the $400 promotional price range include the 16GB Moto X Pure Edition, 32GB Axon Pro, Nexus 5X, and more. The HTC One A9 offers Marshmallow, a fingerprint scanner, microSD card, and more. At $400, I would pick the HTC One A9 over the Nexus 5X and actually did order the A9 for myself.

Looking at the $500 regular price, you can buy the high end Nexus 6P 32GB model for $500 so the decision to buy one after the promotion is a bit tougher to make. You do get a microSD card slot, premium fit and finish, high end audio support, a solid camera with OIS, and the Uh Oh Protection plan with the HTC One A9.

The Uh Oh Protection plan is an amazing deal, especially when you look at how much Apple, Motorola, Samsung, Google, and others charge for coverage and for deductibles to get a replacement. With Uh Oh, you don't pay anything for coverage and you get one free replacement device in the first 12 months of ownership if you have a casualty. This is a great value that offers serious peace of mind as well.

Daily usage experiences and conclusion

When I first saw the specifications for the HTC One A9 and heard the rumor it was going to be priced around $650 I feared the worst. We then were told it was going to launch for $399.99 and I was so excited I ordered my own Deep Garnet one. Yesterday, we heard that the "limited time, promotional offer" was actually real and the price of the One A9 in the US will be $499.99.

I know the increase over the two week promotional period is just $100, but in reality $100 is a rather significant amount in the sub-$500 mid-range Android market. Shoot, for $499 you can get the high end specs of the Google Nexus 6P.

I've been living with large smartphones for a couple years and it was a real pleasure to go back to something that was so thin, light, and pocketable. Usually, going to something of this size, like the iPhone 6, meant losing out on decent battery life and that is simply not the case here with the A9. However, I've only been using an international model with no LTE support so am not sure how the battery will perform when powering my daily usage.

I can't remember the last time I had to keep my headphone volume down to 75 percent or less, but if you crank it up on the A9 you will blow out your ears. Audio is not only loud, it's clear and sounds fantastic. As a person who spends a couple hours a day commuting, having great performance out of the headphone jack is important.

My wife seemed like a perfect candidate for the HTC One A9, but after I handed to her she almost dropped it three times and said it was way too slippery. She then spied the Nexus 5X and said that is the phone she wants instead. I think that may be the choice many people make and I honestly can't blame them.

Specifications

Phone Features
Phone Functions Speakerphone, voice control, call timer, conference call, flight mode, voice dialing, vibrating alert
Sensors Ambient light sensor, proximity sensor, digital compass, magnetometer, gyro sensor, G-sensor
Additional Features HTC BlinkFeed, Hi-Res Audio, Android Sensor Hub
Security Devices Fingerprint reader
Details
SAR Value 1.01 W/kg (body) / 1.17 W/kg (head)
Integrated Components Rear-facing camera, front-facing camera, audio player, voice recorder, navigation
Body Color Carbon gray
Cellular
Technology WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM
Type Smartphone
Integrated Components audio player, front-facing camera, navigation, rear-facing camera, voice recorder
Navigation GLONASS, GPS
Band WCDMA (UMTS) / GSM 850/900/1800/1900
Mobile Broadband Generation 4G
Phone Form Factor touch
Service Provider not specified
Operating System Family Android
Operating System Android 6.0 Marshmallow
User Interface HTC Sense
SIM Card Type nano SIM
Input Device Multi-touch
Miscellaneous
Sensors G-sensor, ambient light sensor, digital compass, gyro sensor, magnetometer, proximity sensor
Messaging & Internet
Messaging Services MMS, SMS
Supported Social Networks and Blogs Yes
Communications
Data Transmission EDGE, FDD-LTE, GPRS, HSDPA, HSPA+, HSUPA
4G LTE Band Band 12, Band 13, Band 17, Band 2, Band 29, Band 3, Band 4, Band 5, Band 7
Wireless Interface Bluetooth 4.1, IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, NFC
Processor
Clock Speed 1.5 GHz
Type QUALCOMM Snapdragon 617
Manufacturer QUALCOMM
Processor Core Qty Octa-core
64-bit Architecture Yes
Display
Technology AMOLED
Display Resolution 1920 x 1080 pixels
Pixel Density (ppi) 440
Diagonal Size 5.0 in
Diagonal Size (metric) 12.7 cm
Smartphone Diagonal Size 5 in
Protection Corning Gorilla Glass 4 (scratch resistant glass)
Color Support color
Camera
Focus Adjustment automatic
Camera Light Source LED light
Features BSI sensor, Optical Image Stabilizer (OIS), Pro mode, sapphire crystal lens cover, video recording
Media Player
Supported Digital Video Standards MKV, AVI, MPEG-4, WMV, 3GP, 3G2
Supported Digital Audio Standards WAV, WMA, AAC, AMR, MP3, FLAC, AC-3, OGG, MIDI, M4A, EC3
Memory
RAM 3 GB
Supported Flash Memory Cards microSDXC - up to 2 TB
Battery
Run Time Details Talk (WCDMA): up to 960 min
Standby (WCDMA): up to 432 hrs
Active online usage (Wi-Fi): up to 9 hrs
Playback (audio): up to 60 hrs
Playback (video): up to 12 hrs
Digital Camera
Lens Aperture f/2.0
Focus Adjustment automatic
Camera Light Source LED light
Video Recorder Resolutions 1920 x 1080 (1080p)
Features BSI sensor, Optical Image Stabilizer (OIS), Pro mode, sapphire crystal lens cover, video recording
Header
Brand HTC
Product Line HTC
Model One (A9)
Packaged Quantity 1
CE Input Device
Type touch sensitive screen (multi-touch)
Features
Sensors G-sensor, ambient light sensor, digital compass, gyro sensor, magnetometer, proximity sensor
Phone Functions call timer, conference call, flight mode, speakerphone, vibrating alert, voice control, voice dialing
Security Devices fingerprint reader
Additional Features Android Sensor Hub, HTC BlinkFeed, Hi-Res Audio
Digital Player (Recorder)
Supported Digital Audio Standards AAC, AC-3, WMA, AMR, EC3, FLAC, M4A, MIDI, MP3, OGG, WAV
Supported Digital Video Standards 3G2, 3GP, AVI, MKV, MPEG-4, WMV
Sound Enhancements Dolby sound technology
RAM
Installed Size 3 GB
Flash Memory
Internal Memory Capacity 32 GB
Max Supported Size 2 TB
Supported Flash Memory Cards microSDXC
Optical Sensor
Sensor Resolution 13 megapixels
Front-facing Camera
Lens Aperture f/2.0
Focus Adjustment focus free
Features HTC UltraPixel Camera

Top ZDNET Reviews

Where To Buy

HTC One A9 (Carbon Gray)

Part Number: A9-carbon gray
Price
$399.99