HTC has been keeping its brave face on, but 2015 hasn't been very kind. After releasing its high-end One M9 to mixed reviews, the Taiwanese phone maker crept along to the point where its market value was worth less than the amount of money it had in its coffers. Long story short, it's been a tough year for HTC fans (and employees, for that matter). That's why HTC's been working on something new -- the One A9 -- behind some not-so-closed doors. Pre-orders for the unlocked version of this new hero device start today for $399/£429 ahead of a launch in the first week of November, but what is the company actually bringing to the fight?
The company insists that the A9 is a flagship phone, but -- for better or worse -- HTC skipped on the 800-series Snapdragon chipsets it used earlier this year. Instead, the A9 runs an octa-core Snapdragon 617, a 64-bit affair with four cores clocked at 1.5GHz and the others thrumming away at 1.2GHz. There will be a few versions of the A9 available as it works its way around the globe, but we're only getting the top-tier model with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage here in the States. That won't be enough room for many of you, but HTC is still committed to the whole expandable memory thing so you'll be able to toss up to a 2TB microSD card into the phone's left edge. Even better, since this thing runs Android 6.0 Marshmallow, you can format the card to act as an extension of the A9's proper, internal storage.
Speaking of Marshmallow, Google's new software update plays nicer with fingerprints for authentication and payments -- thankfully the fingerprint sensor just below the screen seems excellent. All those battery considerations in Android 6.0 should help the A9 and its 2,150mAh cell too, and it's already been surprisingly good (more on that in our full review). You'll also notice a slightly cleaner version of HTC's custom Sense interface on certain models; theming and suggested apps are still there, and the app launcher and core design elements still look familiar. It's more an issue of pre-loaded apps -- HTC has done away with its own Mail and Music apps, and wants users to be able to delete carrier-installed apps too.
If you'll indulge the flashback, there's an almost Droid Incredible vibe about the A9, and not just because of its lean, hand-friendly physique. The A9's 5.0-inch, 1080p screen is HTC's first AMOLED screen in ages, with prior choices skewing toward Super LCD screens. Just like the old days, the screen can be used in one of two ways -- the default setup has bright, punchy colors for mass consumer appeal, but there's a more accurate sRGB mode if you're into that sort of thing. There's no way we were going to get a Quad HD screen in a device this small and that costs so little, but I haven't had reason to complain.
Still, there's no denying this thing lacks some of the niceties we got with this M9. The most tragic loss? The front-facing speakers that were a hallmark of HTC's BoomSound experience; there's one grille etched into the A9's bottom edge. While it's not bad as far as single speaker setups go, it doesn't hold a candle to the immersive sound we squeezed out of earlier flagships. The BoomSound flair hasn't disappeared completely, though -- it just evolved. Plugging in a pair of headphones triggers the included Dolby amplifier, adding a little extra oomph and brightness most tracks I threw at it. You can toss 24-bit tunes onto the A9 too if you've got any laying around; I'm stocking up on them while we gear up for a full review. Throw in a 13-megapixel camera with really snappy optical image stabilization and a Pro Mode that supports RAW image capture and we've got a solid competitor for the price. Like it or not, though, HTC considers the A9 the flagship successor to the M9 and will replace it completely in some competitive retail markets.
And yes, the A9 is reminiscent of another phone, too -- perhaps disturbingly so. HTC is well aware that people are calling the A9 an iPhone copy, and really, who could blame them? The similarities -- a rounded all-metal chassis, a single speaker, the round camera setup (compared to the M9's charming squircle) -- are hard to miss. In particular, the company knows the parallel placement of the A9's polycarbonate antenna bands looks a lot like the iPhone 6's, but HTC made those a thing first. In fairness, there's a lot going on here that's doesn't feel Apple-y in origin. The textured power button adds some much needed tactile difference from the smooth volume rocker above it, and HTC's mastery of metal shines with an aircraft-grade aluminum that has two distinct tactile feels on the A9's back and sides. If there's one thing HTC knows how to do, it's how to build a device with impeccable fit and finish.
With the A9, HTC is doing a lot of insisting -- it is a flagship, it isn't an iPhone clone, and so on. Ultimately, though, that's not their decision to make. It's ours. After a bit of playtime, it's clear that HTC has had time to reflect on what they're good at and what smartphone shoppers want. The end result is a phone that seems like a solid -- if kind of safe -- next step for a company on the brink. What's not clear is whether the A9 actually has the power to win the hearts, minds and wallets needed to restore HTC's former glory.