Let’s get this out of the way right now–when you see the HTC One A9, you will immediately get confused. It looks a lot like an iPhone. From behind they are almost identical (minus branding, a slight size differential, and camera position), and from the front you need to stop and think. If your first instinct is to cry “rip off,” then let’s be sure you’re pointing your fingers in the right direction. The back of the phone has had that look since the A9 (first announced in 2013) and the front is an evolution of the same cover, including last year’s A9. The A9 and iPhone 6S share more than just design ethos; both are delights of metal and glass in a world with too many plastic phones. Heck, they actually even weigh the same (last year’s iPhone 6 is infinitesimally lighter). But that’s where the similarities stop and the A9 just blows the 6S out of the water.
How so? Start with a better screen (1080 x 1920 vs 750 x 1334 on the iPhone). Yes, colors pop on both and viewing angles are great, but video looks better on the A9 (and I forgot how much I liked AMOLED screens). Also, when comparing to other Android phones, I love that the screen is not massive. Not everyone needs a Phablet, you guys. The base model A9 comes with 32 GB of storage vs. the iPhone’s 16 GB. Plus, you can add additional storage to the A9 via MicroSD (up to 2 TB–not a typo). The iPhone can take 4K video, so they do have that over the A9. Battery life on the A9 is superior, due to a larger battery. It also just seems to drain a bit slower. Plus, HTC includes a quick charge cable, and it charges up a lot faster than my iPhone 6.
Alas, sound does not compare as well, even to old HTCs. Previous models had “BoomSound,” a more robust experience. Everything is fine with the headphones in, but it’s sad to see that gone. Another thing that HTC disappoints with is the camera. It’s better than the last two they used, but I still miss their M7 “UltraPixel” solution. I’d put it on about par with the iPhone, but there are other, better Android cameras out there.
HTC continues to skin Android, adding another layer over the operating system. This was something that Android needed back in the day, but by and large it’s just become a nuisance. BlinkFeed is a cute way to aggregate your content that is totally unnecessary with Google Now existing. There’s some pre-installed software, but nothing worth noting. HTC has also announced that they will be selling an unlocked, hackable version of the A9 that will allow you to add a custom ROM without rooting. In simple English, there’s a version where you can change the type of Android Operating System on the phone. I do a lot of messing with Custom ROMs and it’s delightfully geeky. It’s also not for the faint of heart. Note that it appears that the unlocked model will only be for GSM (AT&T and T-Mobile). Our review unit was on Sprint, so not helping much.
Speaking of networks, this worked just fine. Solid reception, clear calls, and I had data pickup in some spots that my iPhone 6 did not get any reception in. One thing I absolutely have to ding HTC for is their keyboard. I kinda hate it. My teenager has an HTC phone and loves her keyboard, but I find that it takes up too much of the screen and is just inefficient. Of course, this is Android, so you can change the keyboard. It’s just an irritating UI choice and something that may irk a person who does not know how to swap that out.
I’m not going to lie; there are lots of Android phones that are better in some way. The Nexus 6P has a better camera (as do some LGs), Motorola has a lighter skin (and all the Nexuses have no skin), Samsung has the name recognition (I confess–I don’t like Samsung phones, so that’s the nicest thing I can think of to say), and a lot of them are cheaper. Except most of those phones are larger than 5″, which is just too damn large for me. HTC has the perfect size for me. Most smaller phones are budget models, so it’s great to see a flaghship phone that doesn’t assume I have plus-size hands. That alone should win a lot of people over. The downside is that those other phones tend to be a bit cheaper if you can’t find a sale. Right now it’s $99 direct from AT&T (with contract) and $199 with contractt from Sprint. If you don’t want to be locked into a contract, B&H has the unlocked version for $499. That’s cheaper than an unlocked iPhone S6, but a lot more than a BLU or Moto LTE handset (although those have much less storage).
So the question is, who is this phone for? I’d argue it’s for people who like the “Apple” aesthetic but don’t want to go to Apple at all. It’s for people who don’t want a massive phone, but do want decent power… and are willing to pay for it.
HTC graciously provided a review unit for this article. Then we had to give it back. Only 21 months until I’m out of contract…