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.
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.