HTC One A9 review: Not the winner this company needs

28 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

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

In fact, here’s the best way to picture the A9. We knew the $399 price tag on HTC’s latest smartphone was a limited-time offer, but now we have to face the cold, harsh realization that it will cost $100 more in a few weeks. “The One A9 price in the US is a very limited-time promotional offer for that region’s online store, as well as select HTC-only franchise stores,” the HTC spokesperson said. 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.

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. But while the $400 price tag may seem tempting, in reality that deal is only available until November 7th—after that date, the price will jump up by $100. 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. 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. Add another hundred to the price, and it’s significantly more expensive than the 32GB variant of Google’s Nexus 5X, and costs exactly the same as the Nexus 6P — both of which have superior hardware.

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.

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. This apparent gimmick seemed a lot more exciting when HTC first announced the phone for just $400, but it seems like a challenge now that we know the A9 will actually sell for $500. 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. That 25-percent markup puts the device in a more competitive posture, especially since the new and much celebrated Nexus 6P retails for the same amount.

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. Nevertheless, the A9 is still a very good looking alternative not only to Apple’s finest but also the flagships from Samsung, LG, and other Android friends. 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. It says the Sony sensor was originally developed for video cameras and that it takes “incredible photos.” It can record video in slow motion at up to 240 frames per second. I like it more than the iPhone 6’s TouchID sensor because you don’t need to wake up the phone’s screen first, just place your finger on the sensor and the phone unlocks and authenticates in one go. 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. But as an experienced iPhone user, I also know how easily that phone can slip out of its user’s grasp when handled without a case — the HTC One matches that aspect of it too.

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. Since the looks are so similar, the real test, then, comes down to whether or not the new Android-powered HTC device can keep up with an iPhone in terms of performance. 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). 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 brings handy improvements like customizable app permissions and Google Now On Tap which will recommend things to do based on what’s on your screen.

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.

But if you want to play the iPhone comparison game, it’s just not as sharp or as versatile and doesn’t threaten the best Android shooters out there either. 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.” Android phones are famous for a little bit of lag, especially when laden with heavy skinning, but it’s that much worse when trying to be an iPhone replacement. Do you need a new phone so badly that you can snatch up the A9 at the $400 launch price and do you desperately want an iPhone form factor with the versatility of an Android phone?

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. If you’re lucky enough to pick it up for $399.99 (sale lasts until Oct. 30 in the U.S.), I’d say the phone is a good deal, so long as you know you’re not getting a flagship-performing device. 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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