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    HTC One A9 review: Not the winner this company needs

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    After the year HTC has had, you almost can't help but feel bad for them. Don't. The Taiwanese phone maker can't take your pity to the bank, so it sequestered itself behind closed doors and tried to build a new smartphone that would excite people the way the last-gen One M9 simply couldn't. The end result is the One A9, a "flagship" smartphone that traded some of the One series' signature features for a divisive design and a seemingly mid-range brain. If this were any other company, I'd have written it off already. The thing is, HTC jumped straight into the big leagues with the One M7 two years ago and I so want it to make a comeback with another brilliant smartphone. Sadly, though, the One A9 seems not to be that device.

    Gallery: HTC One A9 review | 27 Photos

    Engadget Score
    Poor
    Uninspiring
    Good
    Excellent
    Key

    from $21.99+
    80
    Pros
    • Respectable performance
    • Impeccable build quality
    • Ships with Android 6.0
    • HTC's Sense UI is even leaner now
    Cons
    • The design looks very familiar
    • Middling camera
    • BoomSound speakers are gone
    • The alluring price tag is temporary

    Summary

    After the One M9 failed to find its footing, HTC cooked up a sequel with a new but derivative look. It's a well-built device and is one of the first to ship with Google's latest version of Android, but some of the One series' hallmark features are nowhere to be found. The end result is a phone that, while perfectly good, doesn't stand apart from the competition.

    Hardware

    HTC One A9 Review

    Note: I'm working with the global version of the One A9. I'll update this review with additional impressions once US units become available.

    Let's start off by confronting the fruit-scented elephant in the room: The A9 looks like an iPhone. HTC's defense boils down to: "Actually, Apple's the copycat!" and that the A9 is actually a mashup between the company's One and Desire lines. That might be legally defensible -- HTC did use plastic antenna bands to break up an all-metal chassis before Apple did -- but there are other design flourishes as well that feel unnecessarily Cupertinian. Tiny circular camera? Check. A round, two-tone flash? Yep. Curved, 2.5D Gorilla Glass 3 subtly swooping away from the edges of the screen? You get where I'm going with this. At least the (excellent) fingerprint reader sitting south of the screen isn't a circle too, though it seems about as accurate as the improved Touch ID sensor in Apple's new iPhones. To call the A9 a one-to-one copy of the iPhone 6/6s isn't fair, but I have to wonder who signed off a design that so strongly evokes another device.

    On the flip side, the A9 is a joy to hold. Seriously. Its dimensions aren't far off from the M9's, but I much prefer the rounded body to the hard, angular lines we got with HTC's last flagship. Sure, it was striking and spoke to the company's mastery of metalwork, but that doesn't mean I'm about to pour one out for the M9's sharp metal lip. Part of the A9's grip-ability centers on HTC's choice of a smaller 5.0-inch AMOLED display rather than the super-sized screens competing phone makers are so fond of. And yes, I said AMOLED -- it's been years since HTC went with one of these panels instead of a Super LCD, but we'll get into that a little later.

    The other key to the phone's comfortable design: a sweet, two-finish body. The shell is hewn from a slab of aircraft-grade aluminum with a matte, bead-blasted backside and a slick, polished feel on its sides. As it happens, those edges play host to nano-SIM and microSD card slots (with the latter taking up to 2TB of additional storage), along with the volume rocker and a nicely textured sleep/wake button. There's something that looks like an IR blaster on the A9's top edge, but that's not the case: It's actually a polycarbonate window for the GPS antenna. That's not to say that HTC is done with IR blasters for good; this is just the configuration HTC ran with to minimize its waistline.

    Meanwhile, the A9's bottom edge is home to the single speaker (no front-facing stereo action here) and a standard micro-USB port for charging and data transfer. USB Type-C seems like all the rage these days -- and for good reason -- but the company says it's not going big on those new ports until later in 2016. And let's not forget what's on the inside: one of Qualcomm's new 64-bit, octa-core Snapdragon 617 chips. Four of those cores are clocked at 1.5GHz, while the remaining four run at 1.2GHz.

    By the way, you'd be forgiven if the model number gives you pause -- I'm not used to seeing non-800 series chipsets in flagship devices either. Still, HTC was quick to crow about the 617 being the very latest silicon from Qualcomm's foundries, and therefore heir to extra benefits in efficiency developed over the past year. The version we're getting in the US -- and the one I'm testing now -- comes with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage. Regardless of the variant, though, you'll also be graced with a seemingly small 2,150mAh battery and a 13-megapixel rear camera with OIS and an f/2.0 lens. All told, that's a pretty solid package for a $400 phone... except it'll only be $400 for a little bit longer. If you're reading this review the day it was published, you've got less than two weeks before the price jumps to its $500.

    Display and sound

    HTC clearly doesn't think bigger is always better. I'm just fine with that -- the end result is a phone that feels just as good in my pockets as it does in my hand. Thankfully, the A9's 5.0-inch screen is no slouch either. By default, things take on a warmer, yellower tone compared to devices like the Galaxy Note 5 and the comparably priced Moto X Pure, and it's not quite as bright as either of those devices. At least those viewing angles are solid, and colors are punchy and vibrant in that typically AMOLED way. Of course, there are some who like their colors flatter and more neutral, and that's where sRGB mode comes in. Tick this option in the display settings and you're left with a tuned screen that, while not as vibrant, is more technically accurate. I'll keep the punchier colors, thanks very much, but it's still nice to have the option.

    Now, about that speaker. Every flagship One-series device (and even a bunch of HTC Desires) came with a pair of front-facing stereo speakers to liven up the audio experience. Not so anymore. The A9 has a single, wimpy speaker that pumps out jams like it's barely trying. The bar for smartphone speakers hardly clears the ground anyway, but the A9's speaker is a huge disappointment compared to all of HTC's other recent flagships.

    Thankfully, things get a bit better when you plug in a pair of headphones. In my experience, the Dolby Audio processing and the built-in amplifier do three things: They make songs sound a little more open, power up those thumpy lows and add a little shine to vocal tracks. That latter bit might sound great -- and it often does -- but it will occasionally make some songs seem more compressed than they did before. More often than not, victims tend to be those highly produced poppy numbers, so fans of artful deep cuts might fare a little better here. The A9 also supports 24-bit lossless audio, but really, the difference is often barely discernible. Even if you had some seriously high-end headphones knocking around, chances are you'd be using the A9 to listen to music on the street or in the subway; not exactly the best place to really take in that nuanced sound.

    Software

    The One A9 is HTC's first Marshmallow phone, and indeed, one of the first non-Nexus phones that comes with Google's newest OS. You can check out our review for a deep dive on everything that Android 6.0 brings to the table; just know that all those niceties are present here and work as well as they should. A few standouts: Now on Tap isn't a mind reader, but it does surface useful information based on what you're looking at. To invoke the feature, just holding down the home button (the on-screen one, not the fingerprint sensor that can double as a home button). While I wish it were more attuned to my interests, the info cards that pop up are at least interesting ones.

    Oh, and using your fingerprint to authorize Google Play purchases is snappy, even if you have to authenticate with your password the first time. Here's hoping more developers get on the biometric-security train soon. Marshmallow also comes with what Google calls Flex Storage, which basically lets you format a memory card as internal storage. When I tossed in a 16GB SanDisk Ultra microSDHC card, it took about three minutes total to format the card for the A9 and migrate some data over to it. The thing is, you don't get to decide what data actually makes the leap in this initial process; in my case, it was mostly images and stuff from my Downloads folder. No app data has found its way to the SD card during my week of testing, and so I haven't had to worry about degraded software performance due to slow read/write speeds. What's funny is, not every feature in stock Marshmallow is available here -- the hidden SystemUI Tuner for rearranging icons in your Quick Settings panel is notably absent.

    Gallery: HTC One A9 software tour | 22 Photos

    So, with Marshmallow proper out of the way, we're left with the Sense 7 stuff HTC painted on top of it. It'll all look very familiar if you've used an M9 before -- Blinkfeed sits to the left of your home screen, and a Suggested Apps widget sits front and center to greet you. Both work just as they did before, with the former letting you sift through selected stories from your social networks, news sources you manually add or topics of interest via News Republic's app. Those app suggestions are still weak, by the way, although not quite as bad as they were in the One M9's early days. As I write this, the A9 has detected I'm at work, and is therefore suggesting I download Time Warner's Phone2Go, a walkie-talkie app, and, erm, My Talking Angela. The only suggestion that looks even remotely "smart" is AIM, but I really doubt it's because HTC knows I'm sitting in an AOL office right now.

    HTC also brought back those user-created themes it introduced on the M9. I'll admit it's been ages since I've poked around HTC's themes marketplace and it's absolutely packed with full makeovers, wallpapers, substitute fonts and icon sets. In case you missed out on this the first time, making a theme of your very own is deceptively simple: Just upload a background image so the theming engine can pick out some appropriate colors for Blinkfeed and your app launcher. Then it's just a matter of applying a "style," which will define your theme's font, icon set and soundscape. Simple, no? It'll probably be a little too basic for some, but there's more complexity to be found in HTC's online theme portal and some of these new looks are actually pretty impressive. I'm still sticking to the stock look, though.

    That's really it as far as this taste of Sense goes. HTC has gradually pared back its custom interface, and the A9 is arguably the leanest version of Sense we've seen yet. The company's custom Music and Mail apps have been given the axe on certain M9 models, for instance. According to HTC, this sort of hands-off approach to customization is because Android is getting to be a very mature platform and device makers don't have to fill in feature gaps as much as they had to in the old days. More importantly, the company said something like "80 percent" of the customization work their developers did went unnoticed by users -- that's a lot of time wasted, so HTC changed tracks.

    The other upshot is speedier distribution of Google's core Android updates since there's less code for HTC to fix and maintain. That's especially true if you go in for an unlocked A9 -- HTC says you'll get every Android update within 15 days of it being released on the Nexus line, though we'll see how long the company actually sticks to its promise.

    Camera

    Look, I get it -- cameras are tough to get right even under the best circumstances. HTC has an extra disadvantage because it's spent the last year trying to figure out exactly what makes a good smartphone shooter with varying degrees of success. Thankfully, the A9's camera fares better than HTC's other recent attempts -- too bad it's still outclassed by most of its rivals. Anyway, let's start with the good. The A9's 13-megapixel rear camera is a solid daylight shooter and usually outperformed the 20-megapixel sensor we got in the One M9. Sure, there's not quite as much detail to be found here -- a symptom of downgrading the sensor resolution -- but the resulting photos never felt lacking in crispness. And while shots taken with the M9 were often a touched washed out compared to what I saw with my own eyes, the A9 usually had the opposite issue. There's a tendency for it to exaggerate warm colors (a situation that's exacerbated by an already warm AMOLED screen) but there's a decent chance you wouldn't mind even if you noticed.

    Gallery: HTC One A9 camera samples | 15 Photos

    You probably won't be stunned by what the A9 is capable of in favorable light, but you won't be disappointed either. If nothing else, the A9's camera is consistently middle-of-the-road. Of course, if you fancy yourself a proper photographer, the simple camera UI is supplemented by a Pro Mode that lets you (among other things) fiddle with your exposure, ISO, white balance and RAW capture modes.

    Things (naturally) get a little worse when you venture into darker climes. The A9's optical image stabilization really does help level off some of the shake that often screws up low-light photos, but there's a trade-off in accurate exposure -- I've had a few surprisingly still-looking night shots look blown out if I wasn't careful. And as helpful as OIS can be, it can't do much to combat all the grain that invades your darker photos. These low-light artifacts are unavoidable, but devices like the new Nexus twins do a better job of keeping it at bay. Speaking of, I generally preferred the way the Nexus 5X and 6P handled color reproduction and exposure (even with their dead-simple interfaces). HTC does edge out the competition with some crazy post-processing effects; while they're fun, they also feel like a way to obfuscate what are otherwise purely average photos.

    Performance and battery life

    On paper, the Snapdragon 617 powering the One A9 seems awfully mid-range compared to high-powered chipsets used by HTC's competitors (and even HTC itself) in other hero devices. While that's mostly borne out in real-world use, it's a closer race than you'd expect. Actually using the A9 -- going in and out of apps, scrolling through webpages and emails, etc. -- felt surprisingly smooth most of the time. Sure, you'll see a few visual hiccups and some slowdown here and there, but nothing ever made me feel like I was working with a second-rate device.

    The story's a little different when it comes to graphics performance, at least according to synthetic benchmark. That's mostly because the A9 has an Adreno 405 GPU, a step down from the graphics processors seen in similarly priced phones like the Moto X Pure. Even so, it's not like the A9 is terrible at gaming -- I've put more time than I care to admit into terrible laps in Asphalt 8 with the graphical quality cranked all the way up, and the A9 handled it without complaint. Long story short: The A9 will be plenty powerful for most people.

    HTC One A9 Moto X Pure OnePlus 2 HTC One M9
    AndEBench Pro 7,570 9,686 9,945 7,404
    Vellamo 3.0 2,585 4,401 3,025 2,874
    3DMark IS Unlimited 9,076 18,747 23,598 21,409
    GFXBench 3.0 1080p Manhattan Offscreen (fps) 6.6 15 25 22
    CF-Bench 61,789 74,237 79,168 53,579

    Call quality was quite good too, although the network situation was a little fraught. As I mentioned, this is an international version of the A9, so it didn't play nicely with the spare T-Mobile SIM card I had lying around. The best I could get was consistent HSPA, with speeds hovering around 4 megabits down in midtown Manhattan. The US-spec model shouldn't have much trouble latching onto most carriers' high-speed networks, though -- it comes with support for bands 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 12, 13, 17 and 29.

    As for battery life, the phone lasted eight hours and 45 minutes in our standard Engadget rundown test (that's with an HD video on repeat while connected to WiFi with the screen brightness set at 50 percent). In the real world, I could usually count on the A9 to stick around for about 18 full hours of on-again-off-again use, including email triage, chatting on Slack, building playlists on Spotify and intermittent gaming. All told, the combination of a new, power-efficient chipset and Android Marshmallow's Doze feature is a potent one: It wasn't uncommon to see the A9's battery-life readout tick down at a rate of 0.5 percent an hour. Not too shabby, especially considering how small the A9's battery seems.

    The competition

    Itching for a new Android phone? Not looking to spend an insane amount of money without a contract? What a time to be alive. There's no shortage of great devices hovering between $400 (the price of the A9) and $500. That's great for you and, well, slightly less great for HTC. Consider the 32GB Moto X Pure ($450) -- it features a hexa-core Snapdragon 808 and 3GB of RAM, and you've got the option to thoroughly customize it. Throw in a solid camera, a nearly stock Android build and some thoughtful software additions and you've got a package that easily rivals the A9 for about the same price. Meanwhile, the 16GB model costs the same $400 as the basic 32GB A9, although the inclusion of a microSD card makes the difference easier to swallow.

    Then there's LG's new 32GB Nexus 5X ($429), although it's not as even a comparison. The 5X comes with the same chipset as the Moto X, but with 1GB less RAM. On the other hand, you'd get immediate access to the latest versions of Android as soon as they're available, and without the extra cruft HTC likes to layer on top of it. Even the high-end Nexus 6P will cost the same as the A9 after the promo period runs out, and you'll get those same speedy Android updates along with a svelte metal body and a gorgeous WQHD screen too.

    Wrap-up

    I used to love HTC. I still think the One M7 was the best smartphone of its generation. The thing is, HTC has been chasing that moment of greatness for two years and it just keeps missing. Make no mistake: The One A9 is a good phone. The build quality is first-rate. Marshmallow is a great software update. HTC's Sense UI isn't just bearable anymore; it's actually pretty nice! Oh, and the company gets credit for trying a different sort of design after milking its earlier, milder changes. Still, the A9 falls short of outright greatness, and that's not good enough in a market that's as utterly, ridiculously crowded as this one. If you're the sort of person who longs for smaller, well-built phones or you take your mobile music very, very seriously (with headphones, anyway), the One A9 might be a good fit for you. Otherwise, you could buy the Moto X Pure or either of the new Nexuses and get a lot more for your money.

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