The HTC One line has had an iconic design since the HTC One M7. The M8 won worldwide applause for inheriting the same design language and build quality. However, the One M9 was criticized for looking too similar, especially when competitors like the Galaxy S6 Edge were coming out with fresh designs.
HTC’s reaction has been swift and efficient: in about a year, HTC’s design team has come up with a great design from the ground up, which looks more modern, and thin. I also think that the HTC One A9 reflects HTC’s new direction, which focuses on real customer needs, instead of pursuing “visionary” endeavors with an average success. It’s an OEM’s version of “realpolitik”, and I like it.
We got the phone in our hands, and while we are working on the complete review, here’s my first impression of it. Ready?
- New HTC industrial design
- 5” 1080p Display
- Camera “Pro” Mode
- Fingerprint scanner
- 16/32GB + MicroSD support (2TB max)
- Almost “Google Stock”
Industrial design: very nice
The industrial design of the HTC One A9 is remarkable, although it has already started to spark controversy (more on this soon later…). Let’s start with the remarkable part, since we had a chance to take a close-up look, and play with it.
The HTC One A9 is very comfortable to hold in the hand, thanks to the rounded edges. As a 5” phone, it is a little bit smaller than most Android devices that make the news today. Some may find it “too small”, but I think that it is exaggerated. I have used a number of phones going from large to very large, and although the HTC One A9 was obviously a little smaller, I don’t think that it feels much different from something like the Galaxy S6.
The front has an edge-to-edge glass, and if you pay attention, you can even feel the slight curve of the glass around the edge (hint: it costs money to do this). At the bottom-front, you can see the new fingerprint reader, which works like many others on Android, except that it feels faster than competing ones.
The bottom edge has the micro-USB and 3.5mm audio ports, along with a speaker. The environment wasn’t really suited for an audio test, but we all know that it is possible to output very good audio from that particular position. By the way, the HTC One A9 supports 24-bit, 192KHz digital to analog conversion in case you have high-quality sound files.
If you go back to our HTC One review, we made it clear that while front speakers are ideal from a location standpoint, it does take a lot of space, and it tends to tank your screen-to-body ratio, which is bad as well. HTC made the right choice here, in my opinion.
The left side has two trays, one for the SIM card and one for the MicroSD card. First of all, it’s pretty difficult to have both slots on a thin and relatively small phone like this. Secondly, this will avoid situations where someone has to upgrade to the next storage level for an outrageous price. Since MicroSD slots are becoming rare, it’s worth pointing out to those who need the flexibility.
The top of the phone is pretty interesting because it has a plastic top, probably to accommodate the antenna and other radio needs of the phone. When using the phone, it’s actually extremely discrete and I only paid attention to it while I was adding the photos to this article.
The back of the phone is all metal (aluminum) with the distinctive non-metal bands that HTC has introduced with the HTC One M7 in 2013.
While our prototype has no markings in the back, you should expect to see all the legal stuff (FCC or local wireless regulators markings) and at least one carrier logo somewhere, except for the unlocked version that HTC will sell. Also, the camera (more on that later) is placed right in the center line, which is great from a design balance point of view.
Now, the second part. Since HTC markets the HTC One A7 as an alternative to the iPhone, and because it does kind of look like an iPhone 6, you can see flame wars between supporters of both brands. I’m assuming that those who scream “iPhone clone!” are referring to the back because all smartphones look like a black square from the front, with a few exceptions.
Secondly, a little history may be required. Let’s take a look at this timeline:
It seems clear that industrial design is a fluid environment, and while Apple has had its share of innovation, other OEMS do it, and often get drowned into the Apple reality distortion field. Does it look like the iPhone 6’s back? Yes. Does the iPhone 6’s back look like the HTC One M7’s back. Yes…
After promoting low-megapixel with larger pixel sensors (aka “UltraPixel” in HTC lingo), HTC goes back to proposing a high-megapixel (13) camera with an f2.0 aperture and optical image stabilization (aka OIS).
This is the right decision. Although the UltraPixel “idea” seemed to be a good one on paper, HTC never really reached the top in terms of absolute photo quality with it. The LG G2 did beat its HTC-equivalent back in the days, and the Galaxy S5 also did beat its UltraPixel nemesis. At the same time, HTC users didn’t get the benefits of high-megapixel sensors: increased sharpness in daytime (well lit) photos.
The most interesting part of HTC’s camera has always been the software/app. This will be again the case with the HTC One A9. The camera app is very nice to use, and makes sense for nearly all the most-used functions.
In terms of image quality, the A9 does pretty well, but as I was eyeballing the photos took with the pre-release software, I thought that it would have a tough time against the Galaxy S6 (all variants), the G4/V10 and the XPERIA Z5. It could probably compete with an iPhone 6, but we’ll see when we can finally do the side by side comparisons – we will publish samples then.
It is possible to enter “Pro” mode and have more control, including the ability to take RAW photos, and I’m looking forward to putting it to the test against the LG V10 which we just tested. Pro Mode is typically best used when lighting is very challenging: at night, or when a very bright light source is behind the main subject. Check my LG V10 4mn overview where I explain why/when Pro Mode matters. It applies to all phones.
For time-lapses, HTC uses a form of digital image stabilization that makes the final video much smoother, for situations like biking. Of course, the ZOE app that creates interesting photo-albums automatically, is still present.
In the front, there is still an UltraPixel camera for web chat and selfies. Interestingly enough, the selfie area is one of the more dynamic one, and things like selfie panorama (groufie, group selfie) was introduced by Huawei, while wide selfies were introduced by LG, using 2 front-cameras. These are extreme cases, but they show where the Selfie implementation is going.
The 5” AMOLED Display has a 1080p resolution (1920×1080). This is not groundbreaking, and I can imagine that a number of people will criticize HTC for this. The reality is more subtle… when we reviewed the LG G3, the first phone with a near 2K display, we made clear that while the user interface (UI) was a little sharper, the extra resolution was not noticeable, except:
- When you are looking at high-resolution photos (or videos). This is where a super hiDPI display will make the most difference. It’s absolutely stunning.
- When you are reading tiny text characters, without zooming
- When you are reading a lot of text (book or heavy news reading)
So, there is a difference, but in specific cases, and assuming that you have a great vision or are wearing glasses – I’ll leave it up to you to decide. I think that HTC has had to work with difficult budget constraints, so the 1080p decision makes sense in this context.
Unless something happened last night, the HTC ONE A9 is the first non-Nexus Android handset to feature Android M (aka Marshmallow).
Interestingly, HTC has decided to scale HTC Sense back. If you are unfamiliar with HTC Sense, it was historically HTC’s proprietary “skin” on top of Android. It’s true that it helped a lot when Android still had issues with trivial things such as copy/paste etc…
HTC was able to prop-up the user experience without waiting for Google’s next update. It was also a means to differentiate HTC from other handset makers, and it worked.
But as Android became better-designed and feature-complete, the need for something like HTC Sense has become questionable. Motorola, Lenovo and others are going through the same thought process right now, and although handset makers hate running on the same software, the truth is that their ability to add value comes with an exponential cost of maintaining the code base. The return on investment (ROI) is simply harder, if not impossible, to justify.
This means that while HTC Sense isn’t “gone”, it is more discreet, and over time, you can expect to see it become even more so. This will allow HTC’s engineers to focus on other important software tasks, such as bringing the latest updates faster, build great apps, or make sure that the experience is perfect.
Hardware Platform: mid-range
The HTC One A9 is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 system-on-chip, or SoC, which was announced earlier in September. All the details are on Qualcomm’s site, but here’s what I think you should know:
1/ Snapdragon 617 is a mid-range chip, unlike the Snapdragon 808 and Snapdragon 810.
2/ The basic user experience is virtually identical to more powerful SoCs, and only gaming performance or video-editing would be noticeably slower, while remaining quite decent.
3/ It has modern LTE technology (LTE Cat7) which allows for using more radio bands simultaneously, in order to achieve peak network performance, which leads to lower power consumption per GB. It delivers a theoretical 300Mbps/100Mbps (download/upload) speeds.
4/ The chip features CPU 8-cores, although these are ARM A53 cores, which don’t perform as well as the ARM A57 design. These A53 cores also consume less power, and you will understand why that’s important in the next section…
To accommodate the design and (relatively) aggressive pricing, something had to give, and the battery capacity is at only 2150mAh. Nearly all “famous” Android phones tend to have battery capacities of 2400 mAh to 3200 mAh, so I’m sure that HTC will be criticized for this.
Although Apple has proven that phones with relatively small battery capacities (the iPhone 6 stands at 1810 mAh) can do well in the market, it’s also fair to say that iOS has historically done a better job at power management when compared to Android.
On the other hand, Android users have been able to enjoy a much larger battery capacity (3000mAh-4500mAh), which remains the base metric for actual battery life.
We haven’t used the HTC One A9 long enough to see how long its battery will last, but we will take a very close look once we get a finalized unit on hand.
To make up for the battery size, HTC has integrated Qualcomm’s QuickCharge 3.0, a fast-charging protocol that would enable it to charge from 0% to 50% in 22mn (to be confirmed), according to our own estimations. This is another reason why HTC thinks that it’s OK to have a mid-size battery.
Conclusion: excellent design, good trade-off
The HTC One A9 is more than a handset, it is also the manifestation of a new HTC direction which is much more realistic, in a difficult competitive and economic environment.
I wish that HTC had made these choices a few years ago, instead of insisting on things such as pouring resources into HTC Sense, heavily promote Audio, or fighting with an ineffective low-light Camera strategy, at the expense of more common sense user needs.
The A9 has been designed to focus on the essential: user experience, user value, photography, price, and design – I would argue, in this order.
This smartphone is not aimed at the power user that wants the “latest specs”. It is not designed for customers who want to brag about winning an often meaningless “synthetic benchmark”. Instead, the HTC One A9 is for Android users who want a great design, a great user experience, and a very decent camera… for a good price ($399.99, launch price).
The battery capacity, and your ability to fast-charge, is the only thing that you should really think about before making a decision. The rest of the HTC One A9 will work very well for a very large majority of users.
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