Review

Review: ZTE Open with Firefox OS

When it comes to smartphones, or even mobile phones in general, it’s a good time for companies to be focusing on low-end devices. Developed markets are pretty much already saturated with high quality, high priced handsets, but the low-end is where the next billion smartphone owners will come from.

So it’s no wonder then that many big name companies like Samsung and Nokia are heavily competing for this segment. It’s also very clear why smaller companies, such as ZTE, view expansion in this part of the market as their stepping stone towards success.

While Samsung has seen huge success with low-end Android smartphones, Nokia has been trying to bring some extra polish and a premium feel to this corner of the market and the numbers pretty much speak for themselves, with Nokia’s Lumia 520 clearly being a very desirable product for many people.

Now ZTE is trying its own approach by delivering low-end hardware with a brand new and free operating system that already has a number of adoring fans: Firefox OS. The company released its first such handset, the ZTE Open, a couple of months ago and the first batch quickly sold out.

Was it out of passion for the nascent Firefox OS or a combination of hardware reliability and low price that made the ZTE Open look like a small hit? Read on to find out.

Note: This is the second part in a two-part review and deals with the ZTE Open hardware. The first part deals exclusively with Firefox OS and can be read here.

ZTE Open Review

Design

The ZTE Open is by no means a piece of art. That being said, it’s definitely not an ugly device nor does it feel particularly cheap – an important feat considering its $80 price tag. The plastic used for the device reminds me of the bendy backplates found on high-end Samsung Galaxys; and I actually prefer the one found here because it seems stronger, like it could easily take a few drops.

The device is the usual polished slab that’s become synonymous with a smartphone, with very few buttons, designed to fit in inconspicuously. It comes in at a beefy 114 x 62 x 12.5 mm (4.49 x 2.44 x 0.49 in).  The device does feel pretty good when you’re holding it, but the extra thickness - while giving you a better grip - is also off-putting.

The ZTE Open is almost one 1/3 thicker than the Lumia 520

The ZTE Open may be built around a rectangular shape, but it has very rounded corners and a tapered front which gives you better and easier access to the home button. Some may find the design to be quite boring as there is nothing innovative here, but for such a cheap low-end device I find it to be highly practical.

On the front side of the device we find the screen, which unfortunately is a lot smaller than the size of the phone would suggest. The display only measures 3.5 inches diagonally and it’s buried a good 1 mm under the protective plastic screen which makes for a poor viewing experience, but we’ll come back to this later.

Below the actual screen one can find the capacitive Home button that also lights up while the phone is in use. Up top there’s the speaker, the ZTE Logo and a proximity sensor. There’s also a notification LED that switches between green and red. All of these are masked by the plastic protection covering. Encasing the front is a ring of orange or blue, slightly textured plastic similar to the one found on the back.

Speaking of which, the backplate is made out of bendy plastic and it’s detachable to allow access to the battery, the SIM card, and the MicroSD memory card that this phone supports. The back is slightly textured and it has a very subtle rubbery feel to it that makes for a better grip.

Also on the back we have the 3.1 megapixel camera, another speaker/mic opening and some more ZTE and Firefox OS branding.

On the left side of the device we can find the volume buttons. On top there’s the power button and the 3.5 mm audio jack and finally on the bottom there’s the Micro-USB charging and data transfer port.

As for the colour, I highly recommend you choose an orange handset, not only because it’s the color of Firefox OS but also because it gives your device a little personality, something that most low-end devices are severely lacking.

Display

The screen is of especially poor quality

As we mentioned previously, judging by the size of this device you’d think the screen would be somewhere in the 4-inch range but it’s nowhere close sitting in at only 3.5-inches. And while this size may be acceptable for many - here you go original iPhone fanboys – the resolution certainly is not.

In a world where companies are trying to outdo each other by cramming in more and more pixels on the smallest of screens, some even going beyond 1080p, ZTE chose a brave path by offering as few pixels as possible. This screen’s resolution comes in at 320 x 480 pixels which gives you a Retina watering display of 165ppi. Just for comparison’s sake, Nokia’s Lumia 520, a similarly priced device gives you 233 ppi while the latest iPhone comes in at 326 ppi.

No doubt there are lots of folks that wouldn’t mind this resolution, but there are two more major problems to go through: color reproduction which is horrible, and the fact that the display is actually a good 1-2mm below the screen which makes for an even worse experience and dampens colors and viewing angles even more.

Then there’s the touch aspect of the screen, which rarely comes up in today’s market because most phones simply work very well in this regard; well ZTE strikes at the mainstream once again. Due to the fact that the display is buried under the screen protector, and the fact that it’s very very cheap, touch doesn’t work that great.

Many times I found that I had to issue commands 3-4 times before the phone finally registered them, and combined with the fact that the OS occasionally got things wrong, this made for a very frustrating and very repetitive experience.

Is this the worst screen and display I’ve ever seen? No, not by a long shot. Is this acceptable in this marketplace? Definitely not, especially when for only $20 more you can get a 520 that has a great screen for its price, where colors pop and everything is buttery smooth.

Full Specifications

  ZTE Open
GSM Bands 850 / 900 / 1800 / 1900
3G 850 / 900 / 1900 / 2100
Display

3.5 inch TFT display 

320 x 480 pixels

~165 ppi density

Multitouch capable

Processor Qualcomm MSM7225A Snapdragon @ 800 Mhz
Graphics Adreno 200
RAM 256 MB
Storage 512 internal, MicroSD expandable
Connectivity

Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n, dual-band

Bluetooth v2.1 with A2DP, EDR

HSDPA, 7.2 Mbps; HSUPA, 5.76 Mbps

GPSwith A-GPS support

Camera

3.15 MP, 2048x1536 pixels

Video recording capable

Ports MicroUSB 2.0
Sensors Accelerometer
Proximity sensor
Battery 1200 mAh
Launch OS Firefox OS
Launch Date July 2013
Size & Weight 114 x 62 x 12.5 mm (4.49 x 2.44 x 0.49 in)
Price $80 off-contract

Performance

This phone is underpowered, underspecced, underprivileged and under the weather, so its performance is pretty much what you'd expect: poor, and that’s putting it mildly. As noted above the ZTE Open is powered by an 800 Mhz Qualcomm Snapdragon S1 that came out in 2011. It also comes with an Adreno 200 to deal with the graphics. And lest we forget, it only has 256 MB RAM.

So it’s no wonder that it takes a long time for it to load heavier apps such as games or anything that’s not a webpage. Speaking of webpages though, the phone had no problem in rendering them and it did so quite fast. The same goes for playing videos on Youtube, though of course it did so at its native low resolution.

However the phone does stutter, quite a lot actually, especially when scrolling through large blocks of text interlaced with images and other media. Couple that with a weird scrolling effect and the fact the screen doesn’t always register your commands and you have a bad experience in your hands.

Call quality is average; there’s nothing bad nor especially good about it, and I guess the phone did its primary job quite well. I didn’t experience any dropped calls while using the ZTE Open but then again I almost never experience them around here, so that mostly depends on carriers.

Camera

The ZTE Open comes with a 3.15 MP camera on the back, and that’s certainly a good addition to such a low-priced device. But, of course, you shouldn’t expect too much out of this camera. Let me put it this way: if someone was stealing your car and you took a picture of him using this device, it wouldn’t do you much good.

Color reproduction is mostly horrible in all of the images taken with the ZTE Open, and that stands true even for perfectly lit static scenes. There is no image stabilization whatsoever so even slight movements end up ruining the image; and of course the sensor is very small, the lens is cheap so anything not shot in perfect light is barely distinguishable, and there’s no flash which is common for lower end phones anyway.

The camera also shoots video which suffers from all the problems mentioned above, plus the jellifying effect that’s due to the low-end processor.

This bag of Skittles now looks completely unappetizing

Future updates to the OS and firmware may solve some of these problems. Color reproduction seemed a bit better when shooting video which makes me think this is can be addressed with better software. But all in all this camera is almost unusable.

Battery Life

There’s actually an upside to having a super old underpowered processor and laggy inconsistent performance: great battery life. Despite the fact that the ZTE Open’s battery has a capacity of only 1200 mAh, it can last for days since there’s almost nothing draining the battery.

We couldn’t put the phone through our usual HD video playback test, because it can’t handle it, but even with pretty heavy usage the phone can easily last throughout the day. With moderate to low usage you can get up to three days of battery life. Of course, just having it in standby and turning Wi-fi off can get you an incredible five days of super light usage.

Wrap-up

I know there will be many of you thinking that I’m being overly harsh in my review and that for $80 this phone does alright. While I might agree with you in different circumstances, I can’t ignore what’s going on in the marketplace. For only $20 more you can get the Nokia Lumia 520 which is a stellar device for its price.

And what about the people that can’t afford the extra $20? There are other, better alternatives such as super cheap Android phones or very decent, long lasting feature phones for half the price. Having a “smartphone” is a mistake when you compromise on everything. 

Update: We're giving away a Firefox OS ZTE Open phone so be sure to enter the giveaway here. And read up on the Firefox OS review for more info.

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9 Comments

Commenting is disabled on this article.

If FireFox frequently crashes on Windows-7 64-bit machines (but not on identical 32-bit machines), why would I want to risk their OS on a phone?

The reviewer still isn't looking objectively at this as a device for developing markets, where most smartphones are well out of the price range of everyone but the super rich. AFAIK this phone isn't being sold in the US or Europe anyway.

Not only that but ZTE isn't known for making high quality devices.

It's interesting that such a poor device was chosen as what was essentially the first to market release device for FFOS, it shows a lack of ambition on Mozilla's part. They should have learned from Facebook's fail on Android... HTML5 apps don't work that well on smartphones, especially when they have a slow CPU and a paltry amount of ram.

Edited by Brandon C., Nov 14 2013, 5:33pm :

Eesh... not a good first impression by any stretch, I get they're going for budget but a bad first release isn't going to get people excited about the platform either, especially when there's better alternatives for a few bucks more that work better. Not dissing Neowin but that's one giveaway I'll have to pass on.

I do not like the WP interface, but I would go WP over Firefox phone any day of the week. Firefox may have luck in certain areas, but I highly doubt his will be a major player in the smart phone arena.