HTC One A9 Review: An Android iPhone Clone?

28 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Everyone’s Trying to Kill the iPhone by Copying It.

It featured two headlines, both published a few days earlier after photos of the A9 leaked to the Internet, and both said almost the same thing in the same words: Wow, HTC’s phone looks a lot like the iPhone. Many of us have been begging for a smaller, premium Android smartphone for a few years now, pointing out that while Apple manages to sell millions of 4.7-inch iPhones, there aren’t a lot of high-quality Android phones designed for smaller hands.

The One A9’s battery is closer in size to the iPhone’s than the Android average, and the rest of its specs also appear to pay no mind to the usual Android spec race. HTC has apparently heard our cries, and given us the HTC One A9, an Android phone that just so happens to look as much like the Apple iPhone 6s as possible. Instead, HTC is prioritizing software — with the 5-inch One A9 being the first non-Nexus device to ship with the latest Android Marshmallow — and aiming to create an integrated and optimized user experience. At $499 unlocked (although it’s on a very temporary sale for $399 until November 7th) and compatible with AT&T, T-Mobile, and (soon) Verizon, the One A9 is less expensive than Apple’s flagship, and just as good-looking. It’s like HTC took a look at Apple and Google, the two biggest winners of the mobile world, and decided that the way to revitalize its own slumping fortunes was to combine the best of both.

Executives and PR people find unimaginative ways of alluding to Apple—“one of our competitors,” or “a company in Cupertino,” or my favorite, “a certain fruit company.” For years, only a few companies who were bold enough to take potshots in public. The “Here’s what we have that the iPhone doesn’t” ad is among Samsung’s favorites, and the Windows team at Microsoft has borrowed it before too. HTC’s defense on the cloning accusations is that the One A9’s metal design is the natural evolution of the design language that it introduced with the One M7 in 2013. It’s okay to acknowledge that, as long as you don’t get caught up in all the “who made it first” hoopla. (I’m waiting for the claim that HTC first hammered metal backs in the mountains of Romania in 1563.) The phone measures 5.7 by 2.8 by 0.3 inches (HWD) and weighs 5 ounces, making it slightly taller and wider than the iPhone 6s (5.4 by 2.6 by 0.3 inches). For instance, HTC’s One M7/M8/M9 all have front-facing BoomSound stereo speakers and the iPhone doesn’t, and the iPhone has a glass front that curves on the edges and HTC’s are flat.

In virtually every meeting I’ve taken with a manufacturer during the last six months, people have spoken openly about how they’re competing with, and improving upon, Apple’s stuff. Apple borrowed our solution,” Nigel Newbyhouse, HTC’s executive director of product planning, told me. (Apple declined to comment.) No matter how you slice it, though, the world will see the A9 as “the Android iPhone.” And for HTC, which never became a household name, that’s not a bad move. Rather than offering gimmicky eye-tracking features or touting their removable batteries, they’re talking about cameras, about design, and about delighting users. Yes, it has those iPhone-aping qualities of thinness, lightness, and pleasingly rounded sides, but HTC has added a couple of extra touches that I also really enjoy. The ridged power button, very much in the style seen on Motorola’s recent phones, is easy to find by touch alone, thanks to the tactile contrast between its roughness and the A9’s otherwise smooth form.

They have to. “Right now, everyone has woken up to the realities of competition in the market, and have realized that Apple is now stealing everyone’s business,” says Avi Greengart, a research director at Current Analysis. “If you can’t steal some share away from Apple, there’s not much share left.” There’s a huge market, but no money, in making unlocked phones for $200. The capacitive home key can’t be pressed in, which I initially thought would be a downside relative to the iPhone or Galaxy phones with real buttons, but I actually prefer HTC’s implementation. With the integrated fingerprint reader, I only need to find the home button and cover it with my thumb while pulling the phone out of a pocket and by the time I’ve got it in front of me, the Android home screen is already waiting for me. The two most common things said about aluminum-encased smartphones are that they feel more premium because of the material, but also that they’re more slippery than conventional handsets.

It’s unlikely to bother most people, but I dislike how the Micro USB port, speaker holes and headphone jack on the bottom of the phone all skew to the right side. I absolutely love holding and using this phone, and I never get the feeling that it’s a cheap iPhone imitation — HTC has copied every bit of the quality of Apple’s phone along with the look2.

It may sound like I’m nitpicking (and maybe I am), but these are the little details that bother you when you start using a product as personal as a phone all day, everyday. The A9 isn’t water-resistant, but it comes with HTC’s UH OH warranty, which gives you one free replacement phone in case of a broken screen or water damage. The One feels noticeably more solid than the metal, glass and plastic combinations of the Samsung Galaxy S6, the Huawei-built Nexus 6P and the LG-built Nexus 5X.

Keep an eye on your existing Verizon phone—if your connection ever drops to 1X or EV, those are areas without LTE coverage where the A9 wouldn’t work. Harsher critics and fans will bemoan the full HD resolution and wonder why HTC hasn’t moved up to a higher resolution QuadHD display, but I’m a realist and full HD is more than adequate on a phone. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 processor won’t beat out any flagship phones with faster 808 or 810 chips on benchmarks or even compare when it comes to 3D gaming, but it’s powerful enough for normal smartphone usage — and it doesn’t overheat (a big issue the One M9 suffered from). That covers everything T-Mobile, Verizon, and Canadian carriers use, and almost everything AT&T uses—the only thing missing for AT&T is Band 30, which is very new.

HTC has instead focused its audio efforts on improving the listening experience via headphones, integrating a powerful amp, supporting high-res audio and Dolby Surround Sound, and even laying out the internal circuit board to minimize electrical distortion. But HTC presumably doesn’t want you to notice that the front-facing camera doesn’t align with the speaker, or that the proximity sensor appears to have been thrown on there randomly. You don’t need to be aware of the technical spec, nor to even know what HTC has done behind the scenes, to better enjoy listening to music on this phone. Doze, another under the hood feature that turns off background processes when the phone’s idle to extend battery life didn’t appear to give the phone’s puny (for an Android phone) 2,150 milliamp-hour battery a huge boost.

That makes the camera much more forgiving to sloppy operation, which, if we’re honest, is the default way we all use our phones, and thus very important to get right. Marshmallow finally straightens out microSD card support, so a microSD card works just like native memory, and you can install apps on it to your heart’s content. The two-tone flash on the back does a fine job of making up for the A9’s low-light deficiencies, illuminating even nearby subjects evenly and without blowing out any details.

Its enlarged pixels make low-light photography its greatest strength, and even though it’s substandard for the job of being a main camera, it’s perfectly suited to the role of a selfie shooter and is one of the better ones you can get. The Android ecosystem has flourished recently—from the new Nexus devices to Samsung’s currently lineup, Google phones are the best they’ve ever been. They looked great on the phone’s full HD screen, but not really so hot when I looked at them on a computer screen; the photos weren’t nearly as sharp and were blurrier around the edges.

Apple’s been making and improving the iPhone for a long time. “On the other hand, if Apple’s game is the only game there is, you either play it or you find a different game to play.” It’s a tier below the 800 series that offer the most power and performance, but — just like this phone’s display, which also isn’t the top spec available — that’s not stopping it from being highly competitive.

All the small animations and transitions are realized beautifully, and there’s none of the frustrating lag or stuttering that bothered me with the Moto X Play or Xperia Z5. The front-facing, 4-megapixel camera has excellent low-light performance in terms of brightness, but I found that it really ratchets down the frame rate when recording videos. Sleek metal design • Fast and responsive fingerprint sensor • Runs Android 6.0 Marshmallow smoothly with 3GB of RAM • Pro camera mode that shoots RAW files Average cameras with poor lowlight • HTC’s Sense 7 skin needs to go • Weak battery life • Screen is tough to see outdoors • Nexus 6P is a better buy for $500

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