The Hisense A9 is an Android phone with a 6.1 inch, 1248 x 824 pixel greyscale E Ink display, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 662 processor, and support for up to 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage.
While the smartphone ships with a custom version of Android 11 developed by Hisense, Denzil Ferreira reports that with some help from others at the xda-developers forum, he’s figured out how to unlock the bootloader, root the phone, install the Google Play Store, and pave the way for installation of third-party operating systems.
Unlocking the bootloader opens the door installing alternate versions of Android or even other Linux-based operating systems like postmarketOS on the phone, assuming developers take the time to add support for the A9’s hardware.
E Ink displays are low-power, high contrast screens that offer paper-like viewing in that they can be viewed using nothing but ambient light and display a static image indefinitely without consuming power. Most modern E Ink eBook readers, tablets, and phones do have front-lights that make the screens easier to see in dimly lit environments, but since the light shines at the screen rather than toward your eyes, many users find that looking at an E Ink screen causes less eye strain than looking at an LCD or OLED display.
The down sides are that E Ink screens tend to display fewer colors than other displays (in the case of the Hisense A9, the screen can only show 16 shades of grey), and the display refresh rate is typically too slow for smooth animations, video playback, or high-motion games.
In other words, devices like the Hisense A9 offer a cross between a typical smartphone and an eReader. Not all Android (or Linux) apps are going to play well with its display. But custom ROMs and/or the Google Play Store should make it a lot easier to customize the user interface as you see fit and at least try a variety third-party apps.
Unlocking the Hisense A9 bootloader does take a bit of work. Xda-developers forum members Segnaro and Threedollabridge have both written step-by-step guides to walk you through the process of hacking the A9:
In a nutshell, the process involves downloading a custom version of fastboot, running a series of commands on a computer to unlock the bootloader, and then flashing some custom software to the phone.
But it’s also recommended that you have an EDL cable handy, which is used to enter EDL (Emergency Download) mode on some phones with Qualcomm chips, because if you make a mistake during the unlock or root process, it’s possible you could leave your device in a state where it will not boot normally. An EDL cable can help you “unbrick” the phone.
The Hisense A9 isn’t officially sold outside of China, but you can pick one up from AliExpress for around $300 or less. Just keep in mind that the phone has limited support for North American 4G networks and no support for 5G at all.
So it might be best for folks outside of China to think of it as a pocket-sized eReader that ships with Android, but which can now support the Google Play Store and which may one day be able to run other operating systems as well.
In addition to an E Ink screen and up to 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, the device features a 4,000 mAh battery, 13MP rear and 5MP front cameras, a fingerprint reader, USB-C port for charging, 3.5mm audio jack, and support for dual-0band WiFi and Bluetooth 5.