Australian Review: Telstra Signature Premium - Copying the good and the bad

Telstra Signature Premium
Australian Review: Telstra Signature Premium - Copying the good and the bad

Telstra's put its own name on plenty of phones before, but the Signature Premium is the first time the telco has stuck the big T on a high-end product. Of course, Telstra doesn't build its own phones, it simply renames them; in this case, the Signature Premium is rebadged HTC One A9.

The One A9 was unveiled toward the end of last year, pitched as a premium midrange smartphone. Much ado was made about the One A9's design, and understandably so, the handset is almost a dead ringer for the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6s. It's different enough to not be a knockoff, but it's not exactly original. While some argue HTC was using the One A9's design language long before Apple unveiled the iPhone 6, the company's prior phones had a very different look and feel. But even if HTC did intentionally mimic Apple, at least they took inspiration from a good looking device.

While the HTC One A9 never made it to Australian shores, Telstra has decided to pick it up, rebox it, and sell it as the Signature Premium.

The Telstra Signature Premium might have Premium its name, but that more so refers to design rather than performance. It might look like a certain other flagship smartphone, but the hardware is much more in line with what you'd expect from a midrange device, and as such, so is the price: AUD$648 outright. Of course, midrange hardware (circa late 2015) still packs a punch; the Signature Premium will handle most of what you can throw at it admirably.

But first, look and feel. The Signature Premium isn't an original device in terms of aesthetic, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's a safe design, but it's familiar and it works. Unfortunately, rather than refining the iPhone's design, the Signature Premium copies it a little too closely. This is most evident in the device's chunky bezels, which make the 5-inch device bigger than it needs to be. The front-facing HTC logo sitting above the fingerprint reader also feels a little unnecessary.

The Signature Premium doesn't have quite have the same amount of heft to it as the iPhone 6s, but feels polished nonetheless and sits well when you hold it. Separate compartments for the phone's SIM and microSD card are a nice touch.

HTC's kitted out the Signature Premium with a 5-inch 1080p display. It's not quite as bright as the iPhone 6s or the Samsung Galaxy S7, but it still works well enough in direct sunlight. Whites can however look a little grey as a result. The phone can be a little jumpy when it comes to auto brightness; I found the step up or step down in brightness was always a little too jarring, so I decided to axe the feature.

When it comes to day-to-day usage, the Signature Premium's lower end internals do just fine. It's not quite as zippy as high-end devices, but if you just want a phone for social media, browsing, music streaming, and maybe making the odd phone call (gasp), the Signature Premium will handle all of that without issue. However, as soon as you start to ramp up the intensity, the Signature Premium starts to buckle under pressure. Hearthstone, for example, was quite prone to stutter. I didn't actually encounter any problems running anything, it was just never quite as smooth as expected.

While the Signature Premium was never unusable, you’re able to get beefier midrange phones for a very similar outright price; the Nexus 5X and Moto X Play (not quite as powerful on paper, but a lighter Android overlay means the phone punches above its weight) both fit the bill. At the same time, both those phones are very plastic. You'll gain performance, but you'll lose out when it comes to "premium" design.

The Signature Premium's take on Android is skinned with an older version of HTC's Sense overlay. While HTC stripped down Sense to the bare essentials for the HTC 10, the version running on the Signature Premium is a little heavier. At a basic level, this means you're stuck with a number of apps that you can't uninstall, such as HTC's take on a photo gallery, calendar, and email app. However, the Signature Premium does run the latest version of Android - Marshmallow - right out of the box, which isn't always common with cheaper devices.

Battery life is the Signature Premium's biggest letdown; it seems like HTC went one step too far in copying Apple. A meagre 2,150mAh battery means the Signature Premium can struggle to make it through a full day without out a top up, especially once you push it past the realm of light usage. With heavy usage, I've typically found myself hitting the 15% mark between 3pm and 5pm. If you're a bit gentler on your smartphone, you might be able to make it through a full day. Even then, the furthest I could make it without a recharge was 8pm.

The Signature Premium's camera is a mixed bag. Firstly, it's fast to open; faster than the camera on the HTC 10, actually. During the day, it takes nice photos. They're sharp enough, colours are vibrant, and it's mostly reliable. Picture quality isn't on par with top tier Android smartphones from this year (let alone 2015), but it's good for the price. However, as soon as you start to lose light, you can end clashing with the Signature Premium's camera. I found myself fighting with the phone's autofocus when taking photos in the late afternoon under office fluros, and night time snaps were an even greater challenge. Messing around with the phone's manual options will help, but on auto, it the Signature Premium's camera stops being reliable when the sun starts to set.

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The midrange smartphone market has become quite competitive as of late, and Signature Premium is a more than reasonable choice if you're looking for a good handset without dropping close to a thousand dollars. The problem is, you're spoiled for choice in midrange now. There's the excellent Nexus 5X, which loses points for boring design and lack of expandable storage. There's the Moto X Play, which wins big on battery life, but is let down by its camera. There's the OPPO R9, which is a great all-rounder, but has a heavily customised user interface. If you can get by with 16GB of storage and a 4-inch screen, the iPhone SE fits the bill too. And if you want to spend a little bit less and aren't too fussed about camera, you can take a look at the AUD$300 OPPO F1.

The Telstra Signature Premium is a good example of a midrange smartphone done right. It looks and feels good, the camera works well enough (at least, during the day), and other than battery life, you don't make too many compromises. If you're a not a heavy smartphone user (or you're okay with topping up throughout the day), the Signature Premium could very well be the midrange smartphone for you, but if you need a smartphone that's guaranteed to last an entire day, you best look elsewhere.

Cybershack Score - rating backgroundrating 4

High-end look and feelWeak battery
Fast fingerprint readerCamera takes good photos, but not always reliable
Latest version of AndroidTelstra only

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