Does Android phone bloat bother you? 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. 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.
At $499 the One A9 is less expensive than Apple’s flagship, and just as good-looking. While it doesn’t quite offer industry-leading performance, especially in terms of its camera, it’ll satisfy you if you’re looking for a smaller premium Android phone.
There’s one false note in the body design. HTC chose to get rid of its increasingly standard dual front-facing BoomSound speakers in exchange for a fingerprint scanner below the display. That would be fine if, like on other phones, it were also a standard home button with back and multitasking buttons on either side. But it isn’t.
The fingerprint scanner jumps you home, but it can’t be used to activate Now On Tap, and the areas on either side of it are dead space. You’re supposed to use on-screen buttons for all of those other features. The fingerprint scanner is considerably faster and more accurate than its competition, but the design is a confusing waste of space.
The HTC one A9 support LTE connectivity along with other wireless connectivity features such as Bluetooth 4.1, dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and a sensor hub to improve battery life. Call quality is adequate. I got a bit of buzz from a loud input at maximum volume, but transmissions were very clear and well-rounded.
Battery life, on the other hand, is excellent, especially when you consider the tiny 2,150mAh battery. This really speaks to the value of smart software. We got 6 hours, 44 minutes of battery life on our nonstop LTE video streaming test. But wait – the real HTC advantage comes when the screen is off. The phone is also compatible with Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0, but it doesn’t come with a quick charging adapter.
The One A9 is the first non-Nexus phone to get Google’s Android 6.0 Marshmallow operating system. That brings a whole bunch of advantages you can read about in our full Android 6.0 review, which will be out soon. But a few of them are particularly notable on this phone.
HTC didn’t leave Android alone. The One A9 has a lighter version of HTC’s Sense UI skin, but there are still Sense elements here. The phone defaults to showing HTC’s clock and application suggestion widgets, and you can still swipe left to see HTC’s Blinkfeed news aggregator.
The phone comes preloaded with HTC’s theme app, its Zoe video-editing app, and its Blinkfeed news aggregator. Some, but not all of HTC’s software can be uninstalled. The system load fills 8.67GB of the phone’s 32GB of internal storage.
But here’s the awesome thing. 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. With a 64GB microSD card socked in, you effectively have a 96GB phone. Sweet.
The One A9 uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 processor, which has decent if not industry-leading performance. HTC’s smart software means that in basic daily use, the phone feels snappier than many of its competitors.
When it comes to imaging, the HTC One A9 is a hit or miss. The main 13-megapixel camera does an average job with images and videos. Photos taken outside on a cloudy day had some noise and blur problems, and at two different points, the focus just wouldn’t lock.
Indoor photos were a bit noisy, and sometimes super-soft as the camera struggled in low light. One of my HDR photos had weird ghosting as the phone tried to buggily merge two pictures taken too far apart.
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. A video of myself taken at night dropped down to 15 fps, which is unacceptable. Even in regular indoor light, it only recorded 18 fps. In good light, though, 1080p videos taken with the front-facing camera were smooth and sharp.
The phone supports 24-bit, 192kHz audio with Dolby surround through a variety of music apps. Sound through headphones was crisp. The HTC One A9 doesn’t have many direct competitors in its size class, and its $499 price tag puts it in an odd middle ground between $650 premium devices and $150-300 budget models.
The One A9’s excellent standby battery life, screen, body quality, and the presence of Marshmallow all make it an elegant smartphone experience. I just wish its camera performance was up to the premium standards set by its brushed-metal finish and $499 price.