HTC is in an awkward spot. When it comes to mobiles, we haven't seen anything as exciting and unique as the HTC One M8 from them. The latter may have released only two years ago, but it's an eternity in smartphone years and a lack of innovation in that much time is a serious problem.
Enter the HTC One A9. Released three months ago, the phone was a slight departure for HTC, offering premium design with mid-range specs and pricing. The phone itself apes Apple's iPhone 6—it's hard to tell them apart at first glance—and specs that are decidedly average. Despite that, there's a lot to like about the phone. The price however, is a different matter altogether.
Build Quality: 8/10
As mentioned earlier, the design has been lifted straight from Apple's iPhone 6. You get the same glass front, metal back, antenna lines and even the bulging rear camera. At least, that's what you notice at first glance. The rear camera is placed top centre on the rear of the device and the volume and power buttons on the right. You get a fingerprint reader on the front, of the oblong variety that's common on almost all Android phones now, and an indicator LED on the top.
When it comes to placement, the power button is ideally placed as it fits very naturally under your index finger. The button is a little bit soft, especially if you're used to an iPhone, but you get used to it very fast. It's also ribbed so you know when your finger is on it.
The volume buttons are a little awkward and I would have preferred them on the left, under my thumb (as I'm left handed), rather than on the right, above the power button. The space on the left is occupied by slots for the microSD card and SIM card.
At the bottom you find the micro-USB slot, speaker grille (single-speaker) and a 3.5mm headphone jack.
If you're used to an iPhone or other premium phones, you'll immediately notice that the glass doesn't sit flush on the metal back. You can very clearly feel the metal ridge on the sides of the device; it feels like the phone is resting in a metal tub.
Another, albeit minor, irritant is the indicator LED on the front of the device. Ideally, you should see only a pin-point of light, as you would on most other phones, especially ones that retail for Rs 30,000+. On the A9, you can clearly see the light shining through the plastic bezel, which looks a little cheap.
All said and done though, the build feels really good and solid, especially for an Android device. It's just a few minor niggles that detract from the overall quality of the device and bring down the score.
When it comes to features, there are no hidden surprises. You get a bog standard feature-set that includes a Snapdragon 617, 3GB of RAM (2GB on the 16GB model), 32GB of onboard storage, support for a microSD card, fingerprint scanner, 13MP rear camera with OIS and a single SIM card slot. Nothing untoward, but nothing special either.
It was also interesting to note that encryption was enabled by default, which is a small, but necessary step to enhance device security.
HTC's One A9 boasts of a 5-inch AMOLED display that runs at 1080p (441 ppi). The display is as stunning as all AMOLED displays tend to be, but it's lacking in brightness and the colours don't seem to be very precise. The screen is distinctly muted and there's there's a slight greenish tinge, which is a signature of sorts when it comes to AMOLED. It's not that the screen is bad, it's just that we've seen better, especially at this price.
The device runs Android 6.0 Marshmallow with HTC's Sense 7 on top. Sense doesn't really change too much about stock Android and not to an extent that will matter. The Sense Home widget is particularly useful if, like me, you use a variety of different apps depending on where you are. The widget is essentially a location-specific app management tool that shows you specific groups of apps based on your location.
For example, I need Google News, Hangouts and Whatsapp at work, Kindle, Apple music and Pocket for the train and YouTube and Whatsapp at home. It's not that you can't just dump all those icons on the home screen, it's just nice to have them right where you need them based on where you are.
Included with Sense 7 is a "News Republic" app that's not really more or less useful than Flipboard, Google News and the like. You also get an app that lets you choose from a wide range of themes, which change the background, icons and sounds. It's usefulness depends on your inclination towards theming so it's nice to have the option.
Other than that, there's nothing really new here and anyone who's using an HTC phone will be familiar with it.
Performance is another area that has some issues. While adequate most of the time, you notice the occasional stutter, especially when switching to Google Now or opening the app drawer for the first time. One saving grace was that the device didn't get too hot under load.
The fingerprint reader is fast and responsive and leagues better than the one on the iPhone 6. It responds in just about any orientation and very quickly takes you to the home screen.
The benchmarks would lead you to believe that the A9 would perform very well, particularly the AnTuTu score of 63622 (6000 points shy of the S6 Edge+). Performance in games was also very good and we didn't notice any lag or stutter in notably heavy games like Dead Trigger 2, Asphalt 8 or Real Racing 3. We're not really sure why the SenseUI would stutter so often, but it did and for a device that sells for Rs 30,000, we expected better.
Audio quality on the device was disappointing. It's good, as far as Android devices go, but not as clean as you'd experience on an iPhone. HTC's BoomSound is supposedly a "bonus", but we've a pathological dislike for anything that ruins audio quality as much as BoomSound. If you've got terrible headphones and you love bass, BoomSound might appeal, but in every other situation, we feel it only serves to ruin the audio.
The speakers are quite reasonable. We wouldn't call them loud, but they're more than adequate. You only get a single speaker, but we would have preferred dual front firing speakers. Call quality was also adequate; nothing particularly bad or particularly good to report on that front.
You get a 13MP, f/2.0 rear camera with OIS and dual-LED flash, which is actually quite good. Images in daylight and good lighting show a fair amount of detail. When it comes to low-light however, the images are patchy and noisy. But that's to be expected. Either way, avoid using this camera in the dark, unless you're desperate of course.
The real problem with the camera is metering, where it doesn't manage to capture the right colours. Images at 3PM with the sun overhead look like they were taken early in the morning, reds look pink at night and scenes lit by incandescent bulbs (yellow), turn out reddish.
If you manage to get a picture in perfect lighting, they'll come out looking very good. In any other situation, there will be something that will throw you off.
Battery Life: 6/10
For me in particular, the battery life was a disappointment. At a time when 3000mAh seems the bare minimum to expect in a device, the 2150mAh battery in the One A9 was simply not enough. To give you an example, a 60 minute commute involving about 40 minutes of browsing on 4G (on Chrome), drained 45 percent of the battery. The iPhone 6 Plus only loses about 15 percent in the same use-case.
PCMark 8's benchmark put the battery life at 5 hours and 49 minutes, which is among the lowest we've ever measured (a little over 7 hours is the norm). The device supports QuickCharge 2.0 however, so at least you'll be able to get your phone juiced up in record time (90 minutes to full charge, by our estimates).
Verdict and Price in India
Everything about HTC's One A9 comes down to its price - Rs 32,900. Let that digest for a bit. HTC expects you to spend more on the HTC One A9 than you would on a Nexus 5X, the Moto X Style or even the ridiculously specced LeEco Le Max Pro. There are a whole range of sub-Rs 15,000 phones that will offer comparable, if not better, specs and performance. It's inconceivable to spend this much on the A9 unless you're a die-hard HTC fan who doesn't mind a sub-par iPhone clone. The phone isn't bad and at half the price, we just might recommend it.
Rs 32,900? No, thank you.
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