HTC One A9: The Apple of HTC’s eye

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Almost all smartphones look alike: rectangular glass panels wrapped in aluminium, plastic or plastic made to look like aluminium. Sure, some are clad in bright colours, others in gunmetal grey, hues of gold or variations of silver but the basic design is the same. BlackBerry’s new Priv looks like a chubby Samsung S6 Edge Plus, Xiaomis look like Huaweis look like Sonys, and the HTC One A9? Well, its doppelgänger is world famous.

Unless you’re the sort of person who thinks the moon landing was staged (i.e. nuts), there’s no denying HTC’s One A9 looks uncannily like an iPhone 6/6s. The rounded corners, the fingerprint sensor/home button centred beneath the display, even the two, thin, matt bands that run across the back of the handset. It’s a dead-ringer for Cupertino’s darling.

The only obvious, physical difference is that HTC’s put its also-protruding rear camera where it belongs: in the middle. But none of that matters, really, because once you switch on the One A9 it’s clear the resemblance to Apple is only skin deep. The One A9 is an Android handset through and through, and a surprisingly good one.

HTC-One-A9-headerMmm, Marshmallow

The HTC One A9 runs the sixth and latest version of Google Android operating system, dubbed Marshmallow, and thankfully, HTC’s limited its meddling (called HTC Sense) to fairly minimal changes, the most annoying of which can be turned off.

Take “Blinkfeed”, for example. Sitting one swipe right of the home screen, it’s HTC’s answer to Flipboard, sucking in content from social media and apps like Fitbit and offering up suggestions of restaurants and bars in the area. It’s not completely awful, but it’s not great, either, so we removed it as quickly as we’d remove a thorn from a slop. Like the thorn, though, it leaves a hole in the home screen layout that can only be filled with, well the same thorn. There’s no option to simply add a blank home page instead, nor to set another home screen as the primary one.

Meanwhile, HTC’s location-aware “Sense Home” widget is great. Dump it on a home screen, decide whether you want it to consist of anything from two to five rows of icons, and then add shortcuts in one of three categories, “home”, “work” and “out”. The leisure classes might be confused by the second one of those, but can always fill it with bar, gallery and restaurant guides, and shopping catalogue apps.

Each category can then be linked to things like Wi-Fi hotspots or geolocations, to ensure Uber’s close at wobbly hand when you’re out, but the controls for your smart lightbulbs are there instead when you’re at home. It’s simple to set up, it’s smart and we don’t hate it. Well done, HTC.

Smart Lock, which has been around since the last version of Android, is similarly excellent and does what it says on the box. Namely, saves you from having to unlock the phone when trusted devices are in range — like a Bluetooth car kit or a smartwatch — or it’s in a pre-defined location.

It’s these sorts of little touches that make Android feel miles ahead of Apple’s iOS, with its limited contextual awareness and grid-of-icons approach to user interface design. And widgets, of course. We’ve come to rely pretty heavily on music player and podcast widgets, along with things we like being able to see at a glance like our calendar and Google Keep to-do list. Apple’s icon-only layout feels more and more dated with every Android update.

Touchy feely

The One A9’s 5in/12.7cm, 1920×1080 resolution display is like a puppy insofar as you’ll coo over it and want to touch it all the time. Colours are natural, contrast is excellent and brightness is spot on. Basically, it’s exactly the sort of screen you’d expect in a flagship device. We say that, but all too many Android manufacturers seem to eschew naturalism in their top-end handsets’ displays in favour of the sort of excessive saturation that makes everything look like that monument to gaudiness and poor taste, Carnival City Casino.

Similarly pleasing to fondle is the fingerprint reader embedded in the home button beneath the screen. It’s lightning fast and you can store up to five different fingers’ prints in it. Touch it when the phone is unlocked at you’re returned to the home screen. It’s a little strange at first that the button doesn’t actually have any give and is purely capacitive, but we got used to it quickly enough. And the textured power-button on the right hand-side is downright brilliant. It makes it easy to find without looking and provides a great contrast to the seal-like smoothness of the rest of the handset.

More space more speed

The One A9 we were sent for review had a piddling 16GB of onboard storage and 2GB of RAM. This wasn’t ideal. First, in the two weeks we had the device we came pretty close to filling the device, even though we’d only recorded a handful of short video clips and snapped a couple of hundred photographs. Second, though the first week saw everything run more smoothly than Patrick Stewart’s head, by the end of the second week the handset would lag from time to time when opening an app or switching between them.

Thankfully, there’s a solution. If you’re going to buy the One A9, go for the 32GB version that comes with 3GB RAM. Oh, and invest in a microSD card. The One A9 supports cards up to 200GB, though its tough to find anything bigger than 128GB locally, yet, and even then those tend to cost in excess of R1,500.

Happy snapper

You may recall HTC once made a massive misstep by sticking what it called an “UltraPixel”, 4-megapixel sensor in the primary camera on its One and One M8 devices. It claimed each pixel site was larger and thus images would be as good as those from double-figure megapixel mobile cameras. No one bought that line of argument, and the One and One M8 were pretty universally panned by mobile photographers, with HTC eventually moving the UltraPixel shooter to the front-facing position on the far-better-received M9.

The One A9 follows in the M9’s footsteps there. While it may not make for a great primary camera the UltraPixel offering makes for an excellent selfie shooter, especially in lowlight. The One A9’s primary camera, meanwhile, is a 13-megapixel affair with an aperture of f2.0. It can’t keep up with the iPhone’s camera, nor with the f1.8 aperture shooter on LG’s G4 or the beautiful cameras on Samsung’s S6, Edge devices or Note 5, but it’s by no means terrible. Basically, if you want the best possible mobile soul image capturing device, this is not the phone for you.

The pictures are perfectly acceptable, but they’re not amazing. They don’t make us sad, but they don’t make us ebullient either. Video (1080p at 30fps) is similarly pedestrian. Like rival LG, HTC is a little heavy handed with the saturation slider when it comes to standard JPG files. Also, the compression algorithm used creates some strange artefacts in out-of-focus areas and tends to over-sharpen images. Download the test shots in this review for some high-res scrutiny to see what we mean.

You can shoot RAW images, but this adds another layer of complexity to editing them, and for all except the most serious of shooters, is simply more effort than they’re going to go to. Also, if you’re the sort who shoots RAW this probably isn’t the mobile phone you’re considering anyway, or you’ve invested in a mirrorless camera, micro 4/3 system or good old DSLR.

Aural sex

The One A9 supports Dolby Surround Sound, includes a built-in amp and supports high-res audio, which means plugging it into even a half-decent set of headphones produces better results than most other handsets on the market. The built-in speaker, meanwhile, is no more rubbish or tinny than anything else out there. It’s crummy, but it’s meant to be. Heaven forbid a phone manufacturer actually makes a phone with great on-board sound because it’ll mean more people thinking it’s okay to play their (almost-always awful) music through it for any passerby to have to contend with. No thanks.

Now, if only there was more room for storing music. But then, that’s what microSD cards are for. For media sharing there’s support for DLNA and pairing via NFC, which made connecting it to wireless speakers and smart TVs a cinch. If you’re more into consuming media than creating it, the One A9 will serve you well.

Small package, good stamina

HTC’s only seen fit to equip the One A9 with a 2,150mAh battery. That’s pretty small, but it also explains the iPhone-like svelteness of the handset. Despite the diminutive capacity, the device somehow still manages to comfortably last a day. That could be down to Marshmallow’s smarts, which sees unused apps prevented from draining power unnecessarily. Whatever it is, you’re not going to have to worry about rushing for a charger.

And if you have a high-speed charger of the sort the latest Samsung’s come with you’ll be able to power the One A9 back up in record time… tragically, though, there’s no high-speed charger included in the box. Boo and hiss. That’s no doubt how HTC has managed to keep the sub-R11,000 price, but we’d gladly pay an extra couple of hundred ZARs for speedier charging.

Parting shots

Despite its occasional sluggishness, limited on-board storage and flagrantly derivative design we really love the One A9. It’s easily the best handset HTC has made in years, and had us a little teary eyed and nostalgic for the heady, early days of Android devices when HTC was the only brand worth considering. It feels great, it looks great and, for the most part, it performs well enough to put it at least in the same league as rival flagships, if not quite as high up the log.

At R10,200, the HTC One A9 beats most of its rivals on price. But each of its rivals win when it comes to camera quality, availability of accessories and the most ephemeral measure of all: brand recognition. If you’re an HTC loyalist, a contrarian or someone who wants an iPhone lookalike that runs Android, it’ll make you happier than an armful of puppies. If you’re not, you’re probably already looking elsewhere.

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