The A9 has some endearing qualities without breaking the bank.
Gretel is perhaps one of the smaller Chinese brands that we've reviewed and they aren't as well-known as some of the other brands like Ulefone, Blackview, or OUKITEL, but they still have something to offer the consumer and in this case it seems to be a mix of an extremely affordable price with the A9 being available for around $80, and some decent features and hardware for this price range. That being said the Gretel A9 isn't a phone that is packed to the brim with powerful specifications, but it is a phone that is likely to be more than suitable for consumers who want something that isn't going to cost too much. We've been spending around the past week or so with the Gretel A9 to see how it stacks up and how it compares to other devices in everyday use, so let's take a closer look at the A9 and what it offers.
The Gretel A9 isn't an extremely spec-heavy device, that is to say that it's not geared towards high performance as it's not a high-end phone. The specifications in fact are relatively mid-grade, but considering the cost of the phone, that isn't really a bad thing at all, it just means that users looking for something with the most powerful specs might not be satisfied with this particular option. The Gretel A9 comes equipped with a 5-inch HD IPS display with a resolution of 720 x 1080. It's powered by a quad-core MediaTek processor here as is fairly common with many of the smartphones that come from China.
Specifically the A9 is running with the MT6737 1.3GHz CPU, which is paired with 2GB of RAM for the memory and 16GB of RAM for the internal storage. It's also powered by a 2300mAh battery and uses microUSB for the charging port and standard. For the camera, the Gretel A9 offers a 13-megapixel rear-facing camera and a 5-megapixel front-facing camera for selfies and video chat. It also has a home button which doubles as a fingerprint sensor which can be used for unlocking the device, and it's currently running on Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow, though Gretel says on their landing page for the A9 that Android 7.0 nougat updates were supposed to be hitting the device in April. I can confirm that the update has not been sent out to this device, at least we haven't received it on our version that we have for review.
In The Box
The A9 shares some similarities with other Chinese-branded smartphones and that's the inclusion of more than just the phone and charger in the box. The Gretel A9 comes packaged with the quick start guide, the SIM ejector tool, a charger, a clear silicone case, and a screen protector. On top of this there is already a screen protector applied to the display so the one in the box is an extra, which is great if you prefer to use these on your device. Other than what's already been listed here there's nothing else inside the box, but it's important to remember that this is more than what you'll get with most phones these days.
Hardware & Design
The Gretel A9 body is made from metal materials which seems to be gaining popularity in regards to the build of devices these days, which is nice to see especially with smartphones that cost comparatively little to high-end devices. That being said, the use of metal doesn't make the A9 a premium device, however it does allow it to feel a little better in the hand. The build quality of the A9 does feel a little bit lacking in some areas though. The SIM card tray seems to be loose and stick out just a tiny bit. Not a whole lot, but just enough to where it isn't sitting flush with the side of the phone where it's located, and we're not sure if this is just our model that we received or if it's like this on other models too. One thing is clear though. It shouldn't be like this at all. While this doesn't really affect the performance of the phone or how it functions, it's an annoyance and something that just shouldn't be present. In addition to this minor issue, all of the buttons feel a little less tactile than I would have imagined, save for the home button, which made it a little bit more difficult to press the power and volume up/volume down keys from time to time. Overall the build quality and hardware used isn't terrible, but it's quite obvious that this is a phone which doesn't cost a lot, as it just doesn't match up to the premium build quality of phones which you'll pay more money for.
When it comes to the design, the Gretel A9 is not the best-looking device. While it does boast a metal unibody makeup, separating lines on the top and bottom of the device on the back make the design appear less seamless. The A9 also uses capacitive keys on the front on the left and right sides of the phone for the back button and homescreen management, while the home button acts as a recents button when you long press it. On the top of the front face you'll find the earpiece, the front-facing camera to the right of the earpiece, and a front flash to the left of the earpiece to help with selfies in lower light situations. On the right side of the phone you have the SIM tray and the power button, while on the left side is where you'll find the volume up and down key. On the top is where Gretel has placed the charging port alongside a 3.5mm audio port for headphones, and the bottom is free of anything save for a couple of screws and the mic for picking up your voice during phone calls. Flipping things over to the back, there's the rear-facing camera and LED flash module in the top left corner, with a Gretel logo near the middle, and finally the one and only speaker on the back of the device near the bottom right corner.
The screen on the Gretel A9 is only HD resolution which is a not really a surprise as it does only cost about $80, and being under $100 does mean that there is going to be a compromise on hardware choices here and there. As for its quality, HD is still not too bad on phones for most panels, and the A9 uses an IPS panel here in a 5-inch size. Considering these factors HD really shouldn't be a huge issue for people especially those who are looking at spending the little amount of money it would cost to pick up a phone in the A9's price range.
After some use, I found the display on the A9 to be passable and it wasn't a big problem for me. It's also worth noting that I care less about the resolution of the screen than many other users might, so anything HD and up is mostly ok in my personal opinion as long as the screen size fits the resolution and the panel is decent. That's what I found with the A9 and it was pretty bright in most situations and since it's IPS it was pretty easy to see in direct sunlight. Perhaps one downside with the display is that there is no way to adjust the color temperature so you're stuck with how it views. All things considered though the sharpness of icons and other details on screen was ok, the colors weren't too muted or overly saturated and the black levels weren't anything to be upset about. Responsiveness of the screen also seemed to be just fine whenever I interacted with it, so there really aren't any complaints in the screen department. Having said that, this isn't a screen which is going to suit those who wants something brighter and more vivid with a higher quality resolution.
The Gretel A9 performed just fine during our testing period in most cases but I did run into some lag issues that were making it more difficult to use the phone. This seemed to happen from time to time when dragging down the notification shade from the top of the screen and when opening certain apps. It also wasn't on the same application every time so it didn't seem to have any relation to specific apps. Overall the performance was OK when it came to normal system functions, save for those couple issues. It also seemed to do ok during gaming sessions with Ire Blood Memory which is a game that features some pretty high-end graphics and intense combat modeled after difficult games like Dark Souls. I did run into a few problems here and there when playing this as it seemed to skip every once in a while due to the lower powered processor and the 2GB of RAM. This wasn't a major problem though as frame rate skips and jittery gameplay wasn't present the entire time so gaming on this phone was still enjoyable. That isn't to say that some people wouldn't experience more intense issues with performance with other games, but in our experience it was ok.
Fingerprint sensors are more and more common now than ever before and it's even possible to get one in a phone that costs under $100. This is great so long as the sensors work as they're intended, but unfortunately not all of them do as some unlock the phone slowly or they have problems with recognizing fingerprints. In my experience, the fingerprint sensor here was very accurate, to the point of where I was not only surprised but impressed given the nature of the cost of this device. The accuracy is not the only aspect that matters though. Speed is another important factor and this is unfortunately where the fingerprint sensor falls behind on the A9 as it's quite a bit slower than I've seen on other devices, and this is a shame. The good news though is that it is usable and it does a great job at recognizing your fingerprint pretty much every time without issues.
Since the speaker is on the back the audio quality could lean either way. There seems to be less of a chance for me personally to cover the speaker to the point where the sound is muffled so much that it isn't enjoyable, but it's still only one speaker and isn't as crisp or as loud as it could be if there were a stereo speaker setup implemented. So this puts things into the category of "mixed bag" as the sound may not be as clear as it is on other devices, but it's also easier to hear than some phones which have the speaker placed on the bottom as opposed to the back, and in fact the audio can actually sound a little better when holding it as your hand cups the speaker to produce a louder effect. Since this phone has a 3.5mm audio port, you could also just plug in a pair of headphones and have the sound play through them instead of the speaker, and the audio quality issues fade away.
Phone Calls & Network
If you're attempting to use this phone in the U.S. you may have mixed results. I wasn't able to get it to work with Project Fi as it wouldn't read the SIM card, but if you're on AT&T or T-Mobile you may have different luck. The supported bands for the phone are listed below as this is an unlocked device, meaning you can put other GSM SIM cards into it and the phone should work fine as long as the frequencies are supported.
2G GSM: 850/900/1800/1900
4G FDD-LTE: 800/900/1800/2100/2600
4G TDD-LTE: 2300
For a phone under $100 the Gretel A9 performs in the benchmarks as you might expect, which is to say with relatively low scores across the board in all three tests that we ran, which include AnTuTu, Geekbench 4, and 3DMark for the graphics. While the phone performs ok in real world use, on paper it doesn't look too good. Thankfully the benchmarks aren't the only thing that matters when it comes to how a phone performs. If you're interested in checking out the benchmark results you can see them from the screenshots below.
The Gretel A9 may not have the most massive battery out there for a smartphone these days, but with its 5-inch display, HD resolution, and a lower-powered processor the battery seemed to be ok with this device. During our time in testing it I was able to get about 4 or 5 hours of on screen time and I would usually end up with about 35% battery left by the end of the day, which meant that I would have to charge it every night but battery life could be extended well beyond this point for those who aren't as heavy of users. We also ran the phone through a battery benchmark where it got four and a half hours of screen on time and you can view those results in the screenshots below. Overall the battery should be pretty decent for the average user.
The Gretel A9 is using Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow software, though the A9 landing page on Gretel's own website lists that an April update was supposed to push Android 7.0 Nougat to the device. This is not the case as it's now in the second week of May and the Nougat update is still nowhere to be found. On top of Android Gretel is using what they call the Freeme OS, which is a relatively lightweight skin of the user interface on top of stock Android. There is no app drawer present so all of your apps fit on the home screen when installed, which isn't a huge surprise as many smartphone OEMs in China use this type of setup for their devices. Most everything feels stock though there are a few things that are a bit different here. There is a minimal set of gestures that seem to be applied, though you can't actually find these listed in the settings menu. They are there though as I stumbled upon them. You can swipe down from any area on the display to bring down the notification shade or you can swipe up to bring up the home modification settings, which includes options to adjust elements like the order of the icons and which page they reside on, your widgets, and things like the theme of the device UI if you want to change things up. You also have something called Supershot which is an enhanced version of a screenshot, allowing you to do things like drawing on the screenshot or cutting out certain aspects of it. These options can be found under the "Funny" setting right after a screenshot is taken.
Beyond these things everything else feels pretty standard. There aren't too many extra options in the settings, and it looks pretty close to the stock Android Marshmallow settings menu so it's clear that Gretel didn't theme this part of the UI at all. There are one or two gestures located in the Accessibility Settings menu that allow for double tap to wake the device, and under Smart Wake you have a list of options for shortcuts to apps or features on the phone by drawing a letter or swiping up or down from the sleeping lock screen. The software here is mostly pretty basic feeling but it is nice to see a handful of gesture features that allow some personalization on how to use the device, and since there aren't a whole lot of extras it should feel familiar to anyone who has used a device that runs on stock Android Marshmallow software.
Pictures are not the best quality on the Gretel A9 but there were some that didn't come out looking too bad when shooting. For the most part though the images just didn't capture enough detail or lack noise often enough. There was too much inconsistency with the pictures either not having enough light or having too much light. Having said that, for a phone that costs as little as the Gretel A9 the camera did do better than expected. That doesn't mean that the camera is one of the A9's best qualities, just that for a phone under $100 we would have expected the camera to be a lot worse, or somewhat worse than it is.
When it comes to the camera features the UI itself looks pretty basic and it seems that you really only have one or two shooting modes, including the basic camera. A quick swipe up from the bottom edge of the camera UI though and here comes a new viewfinder overlay that reveals a handful of camera modes at your disposal, which includes the standard capture mode, panorama, child, night, HDR, Film, Pose, Beauty, and watermark. There doesn't appear to be any color filter options like on some of the Chinese smartphones we've reviewed recently, so those kinds of effects would have to be applied to your pictures after the fact with an app like Snapseed. There's no manual mode here, meaning you don't have access to options that let you adjust and fine tune your images before you take them, which is a shame as something of that nature could have possibly helped images come out a little bit better. In the end the camera is lacking and falls short of being a decent camera that would be passable for most. If you're used to high-quality pictures from your smartphone you'll want to look elsewhere.
Included fingerprint sensor
Accuracy of the fingerprint sensor was great
Metal material for the body which means a little more durable and premium feeling for a low-cost phone
3.5mm audio port
Front-facing flash for selfies
Decent battery life
Camera wasn't great and didn't perform well in low-light situations
Fingerprint sensor was slow to unlock
No Android Nougat software when the update was supposed to land in April
Mediocre sound quality
Plain and simple, while the Gretel A9 is an ok device for some, it won't be for everyone and it certainly won't be a device you'll want to consider if you want a phone that performs really well and has other top features like great audio quality or excellent pictures. The A9 wasn't really terrible in any areas but it didn't stand out either. It felt like a run of the mill average user experience that you can find on plenty of other phones. That said it has some things going for it and the A9 has some endearing qualities without breaking the bank.
Should you buy the Gretel A9?
The A9 is really all about the cost. This is a phone which can be purchased for under $100 and for that you actually get a decent enough phone. It may be average when compared to a lot of the phones available these days even at the lower price points, but any phone under $100 is going to have a handful of drawbacks, and the A9 isn't exempt from this. If you're looking for something that can save you money but still offer some decent features, this is one to at least think about.