HTC has launched its new flagship for the next six months and boy is it a disappointment. The handset is called the HTC One A9 and it is pretty much everything we thought it wouldn’t be. For a start, it is not even a flagship if we look at it purely form a specs point of view, and even the design seems a step down from the One M range that blazed a trail in terms of premium quality.
When HTC wants to do premium it is one of the very best, but the One A9 for all of its attention to detail and clear precision loses some of the originality that HTC devices have had in the past. The already mentioned One M7 was a trail blazing smartphone that brought the high end drool appeal to the Android platform long before any other manufacturer (Samsung has only been using premium materials for a year).
We really prefer to steer clear of the argument that the One A9 is merely a clone of the iPhone 6/6s, simply because it is not necessarily something we agree with. There are some genuine iPhone clones out there that are utterly blatant and we do not lump HTC's newest offering into that group. Besides, there is a solid enough case to make about the iPhone 6 being a copy of the HTC One M8, and indeed Samsung's Galaxy S6 in turn looks like the iPhone and then this One A9 has some elements of both Apple and Samsung's flagships.
In other words it is a somewhat confusing circle where we can see design cues from other manufacturers in plenty of handsets. We think there are only so many ways to skin a cat, and the three devices compared above have enough individuality about them to make the whole "copy or clone" argument a bit redundant.
Like Apple though, HTC loves a bezel and the One A9 continues that love affair with some pretty hefty real estate between the screen and edge of the device. This is not an all-screen affair by any means, yet HTC has juggled enough so that the One A9 actually feels like a compact 5-inch device, despite those bezels.
As we are used to from HTC at the high end, the One A9 features an aluminum chassis and body, and as mentioned above the attention to detail is off the charts. However, I also mentioned that the One A9 lacks some of the originality of the One M flagship range, and that?s a shame. The chief reason for that is the lack of front facing stereo speakers, which aside from losing a core unique feature means there are no attention grabbing speaker grills on the portrait bezels.
The home button reminds us of the one featured on the Samsung Galaxy S6, and like that rival flagship this is also a fingerprint scanner that has performed admirably in our limited testing.
As this Up Close article progresses, you will notice that the One A9 arriving as a flagship is merely a marketing ploy as the specs would suggest that it is just short of being at the very top of the market. The screen is first evidence of that as HTC has opted for a 5-inch 1080p Full HD AMOLED panel instead of Quad HD. Yes, we feel uncomfortable criticizing a 1080p screen, but we are going to have a good go regardless.
It is not the resolution or even quality that is the problem, it is that HTC says its ambitions are for this smartphone to tackle the very best available. Well, almost all of the very best available (on Android and Windows at least) come with Quad HD displays and with the A9 not packing that resolution, we can?t help but think that HTC compromised.
Admittedly it is an ongoing debate whether Quad HD on a screen this size is even worth it, so our gripe definitely comes with caution, make no mistake, Quad HD is not the be all and end all. We still love a good old Full HD display and HTC does make a cracking panel so we are probably knit picking too much, but hey, that?s our job.
You are probably not surprised to know that HTC has not placed a flagship chipset in its One A9, opting to use Qualcomm's brand new 64-bit hexa-core Snapdragon 617. The company has a reason behind this, saying it went for the new silicon over the soon to be outgoing flagship (Snapdragon 810). We can certainly understand that, but the fact remains that HTC's rivals have more powerful chipsets, and more RAM too. That's because HTC decided 2GB of RAM was enough to give the Snapdragon 617 sufficient bite, but of course 3GB is the more standard configuration at the absolute top of the market.
We would just like to mention the battery, the One A9 comes with a tiny 2150mAh juicer, which will probably be fine to run this lower end processor and 1080p screen to standard levels. But again it feels like a compromise; HTC could have put a much larger power pack and delivered battery performance that would be a standout feature.
32GB of on board storage is welcome and is further proof that this is now the standard minimum for most OEM's, while HTC has appeased the masses by including a micro SD card slot to expand the native space.
We think the decision to remove the front facing stereo speakers is a mistake and further points to the A9 being a flagship from a company going through the motions. Needless to say, the BoomSound speakers were a standout feature in terms of both quality and aesthetic, and we are sad to see them go.
Again it seems as if HTC has actually placed mid-range hardware in the One A9. Yes, we know that megapixels are not everything, just look at the iPhone for evidence of that, but still the One A9 comes with a 13 megapixel rear snapper whereas other companies are going higher. This would be a compromise we would be willing to make, as we are with the iPhone 6s, but HTC has never been a shining light in smartphone photography, so unless the company has upped its game here this camera is unlikely to match shooters in rival devices.
The signs are good that HTC is finally taking camera technology serious as the One A9 is certainly loaded with all the goodies we are used to in the flagship arena. We are talking about an f/2.0 aperture lens, sapphire lens cover, BSI, and Optical Image Stabilization, for the first time since the One M7. There is no 4K video recording to speak of, so you will have to make do with 1080p, while software is largely unchanged from the One M9.
Around the front there is a 4MP UltraPixel lens, the one that used to sit on the rear of the One M7. We are fans of this camera, even if some are not, and we think the UltraPixel is one of the best selfie lenses on the market... there we said it.
Yes, we have been hugely critical of HTC in this Up Close, but we really think the competition in the high end market is so fierce at the moment that the only way to decide one device over another is to be critical.
It is perhaps easier to make it clear to say that we like what we have seen of the HTC One A9 so far, but we are not ok with what HTC is promising. The company has made it very clear that this handset is the flagship for the holiday season, effectively replacing the One M9. That is a massive problem for us because in almost every aspect this is certainly not a flagship product, and in fact is lower in terms of specs and even design compared to the One M9.
Up against other flagships it drops even further, so it is hard to see what HTC is doing in its marketing department. The only saving grace could have been price, and at $399.99 the One A9 is competitive there is no doubt about that, but there are even a number of caveats here.
For a start, that price is introductory and HTC says the cost will rise, although the company didn't confirm by how much. While $399.99 looks good on paper, this is becoming an extremely competitive price point and we only have to look at the similarly priced Motorola Moto X Pure Edition or Nexus 5X to see that the One A9 does not match up. We can also point to handsets like the Xperia M5 as a viable alternative and an array of Chinese smartphones that are available for this general price.
If the One A9 does increase in price to somewhere around $450 to $500 we think it is doomed before it even gets off the ground. Even at $400 we think it will struggle to find an audience and that all leads to HTC’s recent woes continuing as the company misses another flagship cycle without significant sales. We miss the HTC that nailed everyone with the One M7 and to a lesser extent the One M8, where has that innovative company gone?
So, negative all round sadly. Again, the One A9 is a very good smartphone, but it could have and indeed should have been so much more.