Hands-on with the HTC One A9: An Android in iPhone clothing

Make no mistake: this is an Android phone, through and through. Down to its unnecessary interface overhaul and a misplaced fingerprint reader.

No company should ever have to convince anyone that it’s not copying a competitor. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what HTC spent about half an hour doing during my meeting to see the new One A9.

The One A9 is supposed to be the design convergence of the flat-stack Desire 816 and the three-year-old One M7, though the end result is decidedly iPhone 6-like. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; designers tend to draw inspiration from others, and whether Apple was inspired by HTC or it was the other way around, the One A9 is a phone made to match the design aesthetic that’s permeated throughout the smartphone industry.

Anyway, this idea that HTC “copied” Apple’s smartphone seems like a distraction from the real issues. HTC should spend less time trying to convince us it did not make an iPhone clone (which only convinces us that they did), and more time explaining what it is about this particular device that makes it worth choosing over the latest crop of Android smartphones.

Yes, it looks like the iPhone 6 / 6s

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Yep. Looks like an iPhone.

HTC has still got its smartphone design mojo and I’m glad to see it isn’t putting that on the back burner despite its financial woes. Whether or not you think it looks like Apple’s iPhone, the One A9 is seriously impressive in person. It’s got curved edges, brushed aluminum metal, and a raised-glass covering on top of the display, which helps give the phone a high-end polish. I’m actually disappointed this wasn’t the phone HTC launched earlier in the year at Mobile World Congress—its design is more impressive than the One M9.

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The One A9 is nice and thin with both the nanoSIM and MicroSD cards on the left side. 

The One A9 has a 5-inch Full HD display and it’s about the size and weight of the Galaxy S6 Edge. It’s smaller than many of the Android phones you’re used to, but I like that HTC stuck to this particular size. Bigger isn’t necessarily better. There’s also Dolby-enhanced stereo speakers with a dedicated amp onboard, so you can use the A9 to annoy your fellow passengers on the train ride home—not that I’ve ever done that. And there’s an NFC chip inside, so you can use Android Pay.

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The power button on the One A9 has ridges so you can more easily distinguish it from the volume rocker.

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The fingerprint sensor is so much easier to use than some of the others out there, but I’m bummed it’s not accompanied by capacitive navigation buttons.

The HTC One A9 comes with 16GB or 32GB of space, and there’s an expansion slot if you need extra room. It’s powered by a relatively small battery pack, however, at least compared to what other Android devices are sporting these days. The 2150mAh battery pack is supposed to get you through the day, but compared to the Nexus 5X’s 2700mAh battery pack, that doesn’t seem like enough fuel. I’ll be curious to see how the One A9 fares in a real world battery test.

I like the One A9’s fingerprint sensor. It’s easy to use and much more responsive that Samsung’s embedded fingerprint reader, though it’s sort of a lone wolf there on the chassis. The One A9 uses onscreen navigation buttons, so the fingerprint sensor takes up space where capitative buttons could have been placed instead. I would have rather seen the fingerprint sensor live on the backside of the device, a la the HTC One Max. Like the fingerprint sensor on the OnePlus 2, this one isn’t an actual button you can click, but tapping it does work as a Home button.

Mid-tier innards in a high-end package

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This is still a Sense UI device. 

Admittedly, I’m confused about whether HTC is positioning the One A9 as a mid-tier or high-end device. It runs on a 1.5GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 processor with 3GB of RAM, which is substantial enough for everyday smartphone tasks, though it’s classified as a mid-range chip and certainly not as fast as the latest 800-series Snapdragon chips. At the very least, it supports Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0, but that also comes with a caveat in HTC’s press release that states support for the feature will be available “in the coming months.” And to take advantage of it, you’d have to buy a separate charger.

HTC also said it worked closely with Google to pare down its customizations to Android Marshmallow to make the phone easier to update, but the One A9 still uses elements of Sense UI on top of Android 6.0. For instance, you’ll still have to contend with things like BlinkFeed and the suggested apps widget on the Home screen. And while the Quick Settings and Notification shade have been left Google-styled, the Application Drawer is HTC’s interpretation. I didn’t mind HTC’s Sense UI overlay in the past, but Material Design and Android Lollipop changed Android for the better, and as more developers come on board with the design paradigm, there’s no need for so many different Android interfaces to exist. I’d rather HTC just drop Sense altogether and stick with the stock-like interface like Motorola, Nvidia, and OnePlus. They can still bundle the Zoe app in there, but it’s about time that BlinkFeed goes the way of the Dodo.

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The One A9 snapped quick photos, though I’m waiting to see how it really performs in our lab tests. 

HTC admitted the camera in the One M9 was not as spectacular as the company had hoped it would be. The 13-megapixel rear-facing camera sensor in the One A9 is apparently better. It features Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) and a Pro mode, which lets you to shoot in RAW and adjust elements of the photo like the exposure, ISO, and white balance. If you don’t care for that, there’s also a Hyperlapse mode, which speeds up videos for a “dramatic time-lapse effect.” The idea is that with these added features, you’ll take the One A9, mount it on a tripod, and get to work. I have yet to test the true quality of the camera on the One A9, though I had an easier time shooting quick snaps and focusing on subjects with it than the One M9.

It’s okay if you’re not excited

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The One A9 is a beautiful phone—but what else?

Admittedly, I was over the moon about the One A9 when I first went hands-on with it. It’s a stunning device, and I’m so happy to see that HTC hasn’t lost its design edge. But it’s hard to stay excited about an HTC product these days—especially when comparing it to the Google Nexus devices that launched just before it, or the other $400 offerings from OnePlus and Motorola. My biggest reservation comes from the HTC stamp on the back. With so much competition, can I trust the struggling company to keep up with support for this phone for the next two to three years?

This story, "Hands-on with the HTC One A9: An Android in iPhone clothing" was originally published by Greenbot.

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