HTC's One A9: An impressive, affordable smartphone running Android 6.0

HTC combines high-end features with top-tier design at an affordable price.

HTC One A9 specs event announcement Android 6.0 Marshmallow
Credit: HTC

It's pretty hard to make a bad smartphone today, but it is even harder to make one that consumers want to own. Apple's recent iPhone 6s announcement proves the point – Apple had to resort to one-year upgrades and new metallic colors to convince consumers to pay the high price for a new iPhone 6s that is hardly an upgrade from last year's iPhone 6. This is why a lot of consumers should be interested in the new HTC One A9, a high-end phone at an affordable price.   

High performance doesn't matter. Beautiful design, pleasing interaction by increasingly more sophisticated users, and making use of the latest and greatest mobile OS – that's what matters. The HTC One product line has set the bar for Apple's design team since the launch of the first HTC One, the M7, in 2013. At $399 for an unlocked, all-metal device, the One A9 extends the iconic HTC One product line. It's a platform to demonstrate the newest features of Android 6.0, such as a fingerprint reader screen unlock, at an affordable price.

Physical appearance

HTC calls the One A9's all-metal design "metalmorphics." The textures, curves, and colors were created to make the One A9 stand out compared to the iPhone and other Android phones. HTC says it creates the differentiated appearance in Carbon Gray, Opal Silver, Topaz Gold, and Deep Garnet through brushing, bead-blasting, and polishing.

The One A9 is about the same size as the HTC One M8, but thinner. Like the M8, it should be comfortable to hold and use with one hand, but a little lighter. It has an edge-to-edge 5-inch screen, and full 1080p HD, protected by Corning Gorilla Glass 4.

Camera for every kind of consumer

The One A9 has a 13-megapixel camera with a sapphire cover lens, similar but lower in resolution than the One M9 camera, but otherwise matching the camera specs of HTC's flagship. However, pixel density isn't as important as the lens quality, exposure speed, and optical image stabilization (OIS) that the One A9 inherited from HTC's previous flagship, the One M9. If the One A9 also inherited all of the One M9's image processing software, it will have one of the best cameras in its price category. Users can also choose manual Pro mode to adjust settings, such as color saturation, if you want to override HTC's image processing software and capture raw images.

The front-facing selfie camera appears to be the same 4-megapixel UltraPixel as the M9, which HTC claims captures 300% as much light using large-pixel improving exposures in low-light scenes.

Dolby Sound

The HTC One A9 has built-in Dolby stereo with its HTC BoomSound for recreating high-quality surround sound for games and entertainment. Another feature inherited from the M9 is a powerful, high-output headphone amplifier, providing more power and dynamic range. With either HTC or other top-end headphones, the One A9 should match other HTC One phones' pleasing sound quality.

Debut of Android Marshmallow 6.0

Android 6.0 makes its debut with the One A9. Since the 4.1 release, Android has been at parity with Apple's iOS, and both companies have been in an arms race. Android 6.0 adds support for essential features in the arms race, such as Android Pay and fingerprint unlock. It also includes a number of innovations like Google Now on Tap that give the user contextual information, enriching onscreen information and options for interactions with other apps.

Android 6.0 brings doze mode that can extend standby battery life by as much as three times. This is a really important feature, combining motion detection and machine learning to anticipate user behavior to know when the phone can be put into a deep sleep, saving battery life by restricting resource-intensive processes, like connecting to a network. Then there's HTC's Rapid Charger technology, which will charge to 80% in just 35 minutes when released as an update to version 3.0.

Hardware: HTC debuts the Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 SOC and delivers 2TB microSD

HTC is the first smartphone maker to deliver the Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 octocore system on a chip (SoC.) The chip makes a full-featured phone like the One A9 possible at a midrange price. Qualcomm had an overwhelming lead in the smartphone processor business until recently, when Chinese competitors Mediatek and High Silicon reached global scale.

Earlier this year, the Snapdragon 600 product line was reintroduced with a higher performance and lower price points. Although a notch below Qualcomm's fastest Snapdragon 800 chips, the performance difference isn't really perceptible by most users. The performance boost in a small number of apps isn't really worth the additional $250 to $300 retail price of phones that have the fastest chips.

The Snapdragon 617 also brings to the One A9 what Qualcomm does better than any other SoC maker – integrated blazing-fast communications such as an X8 LTE modem with Cat 7 download speeds of up to 300 Mbps and upload speeds of 100 Mbps. This level of modem performance is so far ahead of what carriers can deliver in most countries today that it future-proofs the One A9 from network obsolesce for at least a few years.

The One A9 comes in two configurations, with 16GB ROM and 2GB RAM or 32GB ROM and 3GB RAM. Both configurations support additional storage with a microSD slot supporting up 2TB, exceeding the storage delivered with laptop PCs.

It is going to be hard to find a phone to hate

Component price and performance, supply chains, and Android have improved so much that going forward, few consumers will hate their Android or iOS phones. But that doesn't mean they'll love their phones either. Hardware, software, and systems design will make consumers love their phones.

The HTC One A9 incorporates this kind of design. HTC's history of top-tier design, improved price performance to Qualcomm's SoCs, and now Android 6.0, could foretell a resurgence.

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