HTC One A9 Review: Like Finding Out Your Crush is Rubbish in Bed

By Aatif Sulleyman on at

You’ve probably already had a bitter-tasting mouthful of the drama that’s surrounded HTC’s unveiling of the One A9, and you may well have a big, fat opinion on it. Yep, there’s no denying that the A9 looks a lot like the the iPhone 6S (or, as HTC would put it, the iPhone 6S looks a lot like the A9). It screams out at you like a pair of siblings squabbling over the control of a loudspeaker.

Could it not be possible that two companies, completely independently, came up with near-identical phone designs? Absolutely, though perhaps not probable. Regardless of who ‘took inspiration' from whom, the A9 is a thing of beauty. In terms of looks, it’s streets ahead of the One M9, which the Taiwanese company made a bit of a hash of, and is right up there with the Samsung Galaxy S6 as the sexiest Android phone on the market. Just look at it.

Its plastic front panel is glossy and simple, while the aluminium that wraps around the rest of the A9 oozes quality. Like pie and mash, it's a combination that will have you frothing at the mouth, in a good way. Each corner and edge is beautifully-curved, the textured power button is easily distinguishable from the volume rocker and the antenna bands that cross the rear provide a nice bit of contrast. Speaker grilles sit on the bottom edge, which may disappoint HTC fans accustomed to the dual speaker setup on the M9. However, let’s be honest, we could easily be describing the 6S here.

It’s worth taking a quick look at the subtle differences between the A9 and its iLookalike. Logos aside, the most obvious one is the shape of the home button. It’s a flat oval, rather than a circle (the circle looks better), and it works like a dream, unlocking the system in a fraction of a second. There’s also the placement of the main camera sensor to consider. While HTC’s gone for a central location, Apple favours the top corner. Finally, you’d never find a microSD card slot on an iPhone. Once you’ve poked the A9's little drawer out, you can boost the 16GB (the Americans actually get double that, but more on this later) of internal storage to a whopping 2TB.

Other than that, it’s all about size. The A9’s a little taller, a little wider and a little thicker than its brother from another mother, measuring 145.8 x 70.8 x 7.3mm, and weighing 143g. I have small hands compared to the average adult human, but the A9 fits really comfortably in them. This is a phone that’s one-handed-use-friendly. Seriously, it’s great to be able to type and access the notifications menu without needing to clumsily shuffle £469.99 worth of metal, glass and plastic up and down my palm, while scowling at any passers-by that come too close.

5-inch phones are the perfect size for me. As well as being easy to grip, they sit nicely in my pockets and let me watch my favourite smutty videos TV shows without forcing me to lean in so close that my nose ends up fouling the glass. Ideal. Good work, HTC.

While the A9’s 1,920 x 1,080 resolution AMOLED display doesn’t quite go head-to-head with the QHD affairs of the LG G4 and Galaxy S6, it doesn’t need to. Its pixel density of 441ppi is more than detailed enough for most (come on, the 6S is stuck on 326ppi!), after all, and the screen’s also bright, colourful and coated in Gorilla Glass 4. Black levels are gorgeously deep and inky too.

Simply put, unless you’re after a phone with strong VR potential, or you happen to be one of the idiots who thinks that anything below 2K is shit, the A9’s display is everything you need it to be.

It, of course, comes out of the box with Android 6.0 Marshmallow, which pretty much looks and feels exactly like Lollipop. There are a couple of really important differences, however. The biggest new arrivals are customisable app permissions and Google Now On Tap.

The former allows you to only grant certain permissions when an app actually needs them, giving you more control over your personal data. Google Now On Tap, meanwhile, is a great idea, but doesn't yet work as well as it should. By holding the Home button, you can trigger Google to perform a contextual search, based on whatever's on your screen at the time. In its current state, it doesn't always work, and even when it does, results are a mixed bag. Future updates will no doubt improve the feature.

Thankfully, HTC hasn't messed around with the software too much. HTC Sense is a light skin, bringing with it a range of customisable themes, location-aware and contextually-served app collections on your home screens, and Blinkfeed, an optional sandbox that floats the articles and social media updates HTC reckons you're most interested in.

Sadly, this marks a turning point in the review. Seriously. If you don’t like unhappy endings, run along. There’s nothing to see here. Well, there clearly is, but not a great deal of it is positive.

It may seem a little odd to bring up pricing right in the middle of a review, but I feel I really have to. HTC appears to have either lost its mind or forgotten that we live in a world where information can cross the globe in a fraction of a second. Not sure what I’m getting at? Read this and try not to weep: The UK version of the HTC One A9 comes with 16GB of storage and 2GB, while in the US it features 32GB of storage and 3GB of RAM. That’s not all. In the US, it’ll set you back $399.99 (£260) before 7 November, when it will go up to $499.99 (£330). In the UK, it’ll cost £469.99.

What the hell? We all know about ‘rip-off Britain’ pricing, but seriously? A pared down phone for well over £100 more? There’s absolutely no excuse for that, and it’s this lunacy that brings absolutely everything crashing down.

The combination of 2GB of RAM and a quad-core Snapdragon 617 processor is what you’d typically expect to find in a £200-£300 mid-ranger. It falls well short of flagship-standard. All the major Android players on the market are competitively-priced (you can actually pick up the G4 for less than £300, SIM-free), but have significantly more muscle. While the A9 offers solid performance -- good enough to handle 3D games, likes Asphalt 8 and Real Racing 3 -- glitches aren’t unusual. The system’s frozen on me twice so far, both times while I was watching YouTube clips with a couple of apps running in the background.

Then there’s the camera. HTC’s installed a 13-megapixel main sensor, equipped with OIS and a two-tone flash. You can even shoot in RAW format. While it sounds pretty good on paper, I’ve been left less than impressed in reality. First, it’s slow and clumsy. The camera app takes at least a second to get going, and then trying to get it to focus on the right object is a real bitch. I rarely got the shot I wanted on my first go, instead requiring a fair bit of patience and persistence. Unfortunately, staring crows and clouds that look a bit like a young Mick Hucknall wait for nobody. Fantastic.

Detail is also limited. In good light, pictures look okay, but by no means exceptional. In low light, however, it's easy to see the benefits of OIS and HDR mode, except when it isn't. The A9 is really inconsistent in this regard, at times picking up loads of shadow detail, while falling well short on other occasions. Unfortunately, night shots can also be ruined by a lack of clear focus. As you can see from my selection of pictures below, most images don't quite look right, containing unpleasantly grainy or blurry sections -- believe me when I say that these were the fruits of multiple several-minute shooting sessions. Not ideal if the aim of your game is picking up love hearts on Instagram.

The 'Ultrapixel' (yeah, I don't understand why HTC's persisting with it either) front-facing snapper is good, once again impressing in poorly-lit conditions. Then again, I'm a selfie camera's dream.

Not a terrible effort...

Trying to focus on Big Ben...

Trying to focus on the berries...

The room wasn't even particularly dark

Alarm bells sounded when I first read that the A9 uses a 2,150mAh battery. Seriously -- and this doesn't just apply to HTC -- I'd happily accept a slightly fatter phone, if it meant it contained a higher-capacity battery. However, the A9's juice box isn’t as bad as I thought it would be.

I just about managed to get a full day of use out of it, and I mean just. Thankfully, there are a couple of stamina-enhancing options available, including Power Saver, which reduces CPU usage and screen brightness, and Extreme Power Saving Mode, which leaves you with only the most basic phone functions. Pumping up the battery from flat takes around two and a half hours, with 30 minutes at the charging station taking it to just under 30 per cent. Happy with that.

Like

Pretty as anything that's come before it, slick fingerprint sensor.

No Like

Crazy expensive, frustrating camera.

Should You Buy It?

Absolutely not, considering its current price. Before you snap back at me with Apple-related witticisms, you need to consider the privileged position Tim Cook and co are in. If Apple released a bucket with a hole in the bottom tomorrow, it would probably sell. HTC, meanwhile, is struggling to attract customers, and this isn't the right way to go about changing its fortunes. If the A9 was £150 or so cheaper, it would be worth considering. Right now, however, it's a stunning but ultimately middle-of-the-road phone with a ludicrous price tag.

HTC One A9 Specs

OS: Android 6.0 (Marshmallow) w/ HTC Sense UI
CPU: Snapdragon 617, 1.5GHz 64-bit octa-core
Screen: 5-inch, 1,920 x 1,080 AMOLED
RAM: 2GB
Storage: 16GB
Camera: 13-megapixel rear camera / UltraPixel front camera
Battery: 2,150mAh
Colours: Opal Silver, Carbon Grey, Deep Garnet, Topaz Gold
Price and Availability: £469.99 SIM-free