ZTE Open review

Pros

  • Won't break the bank
  • Robust web browser

Cons

  • Unfinished software
  • Dim screen
  • Poor camera and GPS

The ZTE Open is the first Firefox OS phone, and it’s designed not to tax your wallet overly at a £60 price tag (exclusively through eBay). It's aimed at countries where phones never get subsidised and most people make less than £60 a week.

However, there could be a lot of demand for a £60 practically throwaway smartphone in the UK or US. It could make for a great first phone for a kid, or, say, a backup phone for international travel. So it's worth looking at this phone (and the Firefox OS) to see if it can open up a whole new category for British (and American) smartphones.

Design

The ZTE Open is made mostly of soft-touch plastic, in a striking Firefox orange colour which gives the phone some personality. I've also seen the grey international version, which looks a lot more generic. The phone is comfortable to hold at 62 x 13 x 115mm (WxDxH), weighing 109 grams. The volume rocker on the side and the Power button on top are small and made of slick plastic, but they're solid enough.

The phone's screen is downright depressing. It's not the low 320 x 480-pixel resolution, which is understandable at this price and size; it's that the screen is dim. It appears to be submerged a foot beneath the surrounding plastic, and has inconsistent touch response.

I was deeply disappointed by the Open's GPS, which is the oldest, slowest, and most basic kind available. There's no Wi-Fi location assistance or tower triangulation, so location services don't work at all unless you have a clear view of the sky, and the GPS chip takes a considerable time to lock in. That means that no location-based apps, including Maps and Yelp, can tell where you are when you're indoors. Bummer.

The 1200mAh battery in the Open carried the phone for 6 hours and 18 minutes of talk time. That's not great, but it's not a big battery.

Voice calling is adequate. RF reception was pretty good in my tests, and call quality was perfectly decent from quiet locations. Noise cancellation turned voice quality thin and tinny through the earpiece. Volume in both the earpiece and speakerphone are acceptable for indoor and outdoor locations.

Multimedia and photography

According to the specs, the Open has a 3-megapixel camera. But the camera only takes 2-megapixel photos "to help current users maximise their data plans," according to Mozilla. The camera app has no apparent settings or modes at all, although there's an after-the-fact photo editor that lets you crop and apply filters. The phone records 352 x 288 videos.

Do not expect quality images here. I noticed about a one-second camera delay, and soft images with colour noise and lens flare all over the place. There's no front camera. You can share images directly to email, SMS, or Twitter from the gallery app.

The music player is very attractive, showing a grid of album covers and substituting brightly coloured abstract art if you don't have album art. You can sort by the typical parameters and create playlists. The phone played AAC, MP3, and OGG files without a problem, but not WMA. As for video, MP4 and H.264 video up to 640 x 480 was solid – no other formats or larger sizes, please, and certainly no DRM. There's also an FM radio, with custom preset options.

That restriction – no DRM (and no plugins) – creates some problems for web video. The Firefox OS has a working YouTube app, but sites like Netflix and MTV.com failed to stream video because the browser couldn't handle their proprietary video plug-ins.

Firefox OS

The Firefox OS is clearly still in a pretty early stage of development, and I suspect it's going to develop much more quickly than other mobile operating systems. Dig down into the settings, and you see that the OS can be updated nightly. Mozilla spokesman Paul Jarratt implied that the company is hustling to improve things.

The idea here is that everything is web, although it doesn't always appear to be. The basic home screen is an extendable grid of icons with a few locked at the bottom, just like the iPhone. You can move them around, but not drop them into folders. All the default app suspects are here: Email, contacts, calendar, gallery, mapping (courtesy of Nokia Here Maps), Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and, of course, the web browser. You can drag a notifications and quick settings pane down from the top, just like on Android.

Firefox has a Marketplace which appears to be full of apps. Although Firefox says it can theoretically sell paid apps, all the ones I saw were free. Some of them store enough data locally to act like apps; others are just links to mobile web pages. There are few recognisable top brand names or popular apps from other platforms.

Swipe left, though, and things get interesting. You get a field which says: "I'm thinking of …" and invites you to enter any word. Type in a common search term, and the screen fills with icons of what appear to be apps. "Restaurants" invites Yelp, Foodspotting, Google Maps, UrbanSpoon, Zagat and others. "Music" summons Grooveshark, Soundcloud, YouTube Music, MTV and others – and so on.

Are these apps or bookmarks? That's the sneaky thing about Firefox OS: They're bookmarks (the Grooveshark link goes to html5.grooveshark.com), but they appear full-screen, not in a browser window, and you can drop them onto your home screen like apps.

That gives Firefox OS a head start when it comes to branded information services, but the game selection is extremely weak. Most mobile game developers just aren't writing their games in HTML5, and the few I downloaded felt stuttery and amateurish.

Email support is a work in progress. The OS auto-configures Gmail, Windows Live Mail, and Yahoo mail accounts, but the phone had some sporadic problems reaching the Yahoo and Google servers. It also supports IMAP and very limited ActiveSync. Messages appear in full HTML, but they take a little while to render. The calendar app handles Google, Yahoo, and CalDAV accounts attractively, and the contacts app imports (but doesn't sync both ways) from Gmail, Outlook, and Facebook.

Performance

Performance is pretty awful. The phone is based on a Qualcomm S1 Cortex-A5 processor running at 1GHz. There's lag everywhere. Jerky scrolling is made worse by an overactive inertial scrolling routine which means I was constantly overshooting. The Browsermark benchmark score of 997 is the slowest we've seen recently. The soft keyboard also needs work. I kept hitting the wrong keys, much more often than I do on other phones; eventually I got the trick of mashing each letter with a pressed-down finger, very deliberately.

Web pages load pretty slowly, although they're very pretty once they're loaded. (Flash, of course, is not supported). Do things work? Yes, they work, if you have patience.

Mozilla told me they're working on all of this, of course. And I trust that the company will update the OS faster than anyone else in the business, because they don't have any carriers standing in their way.

All that said, we have to bear in mind that this handset costs £60. Maybe there's only a certain level of performance you can expect from making these kinds of demands on hardware this cheap.

Verdict

There are billions of people in the developing world who want a £60 smartphone, but we want one too. Brits and Americans should have an option to stay connected, in this always-on Internet world, that fits a truly strapped budget.

Firefox OS and the ZTE Open could play a role, but they're in a race against low cost Android phones. The simplicity of Firefox OS could work well for basic uses, on slightly better hardware. I found the OS to be stable, and its web-app approach brings in hundreds of popular brands without those brands having to program custom apps for the platform. And Mozilla's aggressive development approach promises quick improvement.

Think of the three-star rating we’ve given the ZTE Open as two-stars for the phone itself, plus half-a-star for the price and half-a-star for Mozilla's enthusiasm and potential. While it's a little painful to surf on the Open, at least it's capable of doing things many other truly budget phones can't. At the moment, however, this phone and platform still needs far more polish, and let’s hope Mozilla can deliver that.

Specifications

Manufacturer and Model

ZTE Open

Screen Resolution

320 x 480 pixels

NFC

No

Dimensions

62 x 13 x 115mm (WxDxH)

802.11x/Band(s)

802.11 b/g/n

Video Camera Resolution

0.1MP

Battery Life (As Tested)

6 hours and 18 minutes

Available Integrated Storage

141MB

Processor Speed

1GHz

CPU

Qualcomm Snapdragon

GPS

Yes

Operating System

Firefox OS

Total Integrated Storage

150MB

MicroSD

Yes

Weight

109g

Screen Type

TFT LCD

HSDPA

850, 900, 1900, 2100

Physical Keyboard

No

Camera Resolution

2-megapixels

Screen Pixels Per Inch

165 ppi

GSM

850, 900, 1800, 1900

RAM

256MB

Form Factor

Candy Bar

Screen Size

3.5in

Bluetooth Version

2.1