HTC certainly knows how to make a smartphone, and over the past few months we've given the One M9, Desire Eye and One M8 four-star reviews. The Taiwanese firm's real problem, if its crumbling revenues are any indication, is making smartphones that can snatch sales from Samsung and Apple.
We'd wager that this was in HTC's mind when designing the One A9, unveiled earlier this week as a cheaper alternative to the One M9. Even with a still-steep starting price of £429.99, it's not tackling high-end rivals directly but it is an absolute dead ringer - almost comically so - for the iPhone 6 and the new iPhone 6S.
Fortunately, there's more to the One A9 than suspicious aesthetic similarities, as we discovered when we went hands-on with the handset.
Yes, the One A9's rounded corners, antennae lines and aluminium unibody do appear to have been borrowed from the more recent iPhones, but that's not entirely a bad thing. The unibody feels incredibly tough and unyielding, while the edgeless shape is pretty to look at and comfortable to hold, especially with a deceptively expensive-feeling matte finish.
The One A9 is also pleasantly low-profile. It measures 146x71x7.3mm, making it a mere 0.2mm thicker than the iPhone 6S, and at 143g it weighs exactly the same. That means it floats around the lighter end of the smartphone market in general.
There are some other nice touches, like the textured lock button and NFC support for Android Pay, but the really big inclusion here is the fingerprint sensor, which is mounted on the front like a faux home button. It's discreet but responsive and can be registered with five different fingerprints, making it good for businesses with a shared device pool.
Our only complaint is that there's no real home button; in fact, all the navigation buttons are digital. This is a decent cost-saving measure but it can be a pain to have to bring up the buttons every time they're needed, which also causes them to take up a section of the screen.
To be fair to the One A9, the 5in AMOLED display offers a good amount of space, so the on-screen icons don't intrude too much. We were actually very impressed with this screen overall. It's bright, bold and very, very sharp thanks to a high pixel density of 441ppi achieved through a 1920x1080 FHD resolution.
The AMOLED tech produces vibrant colours and deep blacks, very nearly on a par with the priciest devices we've tested. It hasn't been announced in the specs, but we believe that the Gorilla Glass 4 screen is treated with some sort of anti-fingerprint coating, as it seemed to resist our thumb marks quite well.
Operating system and software
Outside Google's Nexus range, the latest Android 6.0 Marshmallow operating system is rolling out at quite a slow pace, and even then only to major smartphones. That's why it's great to see that the mid-range One A9 will launch with this up-to-date OS already installed.
In addition to taking advantage of Marshmallow's biometrics and Android Pay support, the One A9 benefits from the various upgrades over 5.1 Lollipop. For instance, Google Now has become Google Now on Tap, which displays relevant web results based on which app is open without requiring the user to search for anything. We could hold down the home button while in the Play Music app, for example, and immediately view YouTube and image links for artists in the library.
Marshmallow's battery-saving Doze mode and more privacy-friendly app permissions model should also strengthen the One A9, but we're not so sure about the HTC Sense custom skin. It doesn't meddle with stock Android's UI and features too much, but it is absolutely teeming with frivolous bloatware, even on the pre-release model we tested. We can also expect it to delay future OS updates, like all custom skins.
In exchange, HTC Sense does at least offer some useful features. The camera UI has been reworked into a greatly simplified, user-friendly form, while the Home widget can change which apps appear on the homescreen according to whether the user is at home, at work or outside. We can definitely see this proving useful for anyone who uses a single handset for work and leisure.
Our test model included the Qualcomm Snapdragon 617, an octa-core processor made up of four 1.5GHz cores and four 1.2GHz cores, plus 2GB of RAM. A 3GB RAM model will also be available.
Frankly, these are scores are what we'd expect to see on entry-level smartphones, not on a £400+ cousin of the mighty One M9. For that much, we have expected significantly faster performances than what the One A9 achieved in these initial tests.
That said, the One A9 isn't exactly sluggish when it comes to everyday tasks. We could open, run and switch between dozens of apps without any noticeable slowdown, although we weren't able to run any 3D games, which would make for a good test of the One A9's true capabilities. Those, as well as other benchmarks like Antutu and Geekbench, will have to wait until our full review.
HTC is clearly fond of its smartphones' cameras, often showering them with bonus features such as timelapse modes and the ability to capture RAW image files. The One A9 is no different, sharing both these capabilities as well as being able to process RAW files without the need for a PC.
Specs-wise, the One A9 pairs a 13MP rear-facing camera with a 4MP Ultrapixel front-facing camera, both able to capture 1080p video. HTC claims that its proprietary Ultrapixel tech can improve quality by capturing up to 300 percent more light than standard sensors, but we couldn't tell much of a difference. The stills we took were pretty sharp by secondary camera standards but still somewhat grainy and desaturated in low light.
The main camera fared much better, providing highly detailed shots with a more vivid colour balance. Sharpness falls off dramatically over distance, but the One A9 is perfectly adequate for occasional snaps. Other than some slight blurriness when moving, video capture is clear and colourful as well, and the simplified UI made it easy to create 'Hyperlapse' videos that can speed through up to 45 minutes of footage.
Battery and storage
HTC has cut back a bit on the One A9's battery, down to 2,150mAh from 2,840mAh on the One M9. The firm says this will still result in 12 hours of video playback, but we're sceptical as the One M9 managed just under eight hours. Again, this is something we'll take a closer look at when we get the One A9 in for a full review.
With apps, photos and videos to contend with, 16GB - and perhaps even 32GB, the largest option available - will be very little storage indeed. However, both models can be expanded via microSD up to a faintly ludicrous theoretical maximum of 2TB.
Expandable memory feels like a particularly wise inclusion for a device like the One A9, where its lower price compared with high-end handsets is one of its key draws. We've seen on the likes of the iPhone 6S and Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge+ how additional onboard memory can vastly inflate the price, compared with how little it would cost to just make up the difference with a microSD card.
The One A9's quality design and excellent screen are encouraging, but its underwhelming benchmark performances have us worried that it won't be able to keep up with competitors like the Honor 7 and the Nexus 5X.
This is especially concerning as the One A9 is priced significantly higher than those smartphones; in fact, the £429.99 price tag is within spitting distance of the Samsung Galaxy S6, easily one of the most powerful devices on the market. More aggressive pricing would have made this a much more attractive prospect, but as things stand, the One A9 may look like the iPhone 6S but seems exceedingly unlikely to sell like it.
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