Review : ZTE F102, UK's Only Sub-£30 3G Phone

ZTE is not a well known brand in the UK but with the F102, it could well become an attractive alternative to other more popular brands such as Nokia, Samsung or LG.

The Zhong Xing Telecommunication Equipment Company Limited is a Shenzhen-based, Chinese behemoth that is the world's third largest vendor of GSM gear with sales in more than 140 countries.

Therefore, although it doesn't have the pedigree of say, Siemens or even Huawei, things might soon be changing with a slew of smartphones on the way (ed: oddly, the F102 doesn't feature on its website).

It has to be said though that the F102 only costs £29.99 on PAYG at 3 Networks (link). down from the original selling price of £39.99), which makes it the cheapest 3G mobile phone in the market by a tenner (the next cheapest is the 3 Skypephone S2).

For the price, it is a rather remarkably well built entry level mobile phone with a candybar format. You can't flex or twist it in any direction. It does feel solid and should be capable of surviving some tough treatment (ed: we haven't tried the "loo test" on it though).

At 106mm tall and 47mm wide, the F102 is truly pocketable and is surprisingly thin at 12mm. This means that unlike the latest smartphones, you can carry it in your front jeans pocket without the fear of any unsightly bulges, especially as it weighs only 80g.

As one can expect for the price, corners have been cut, starting with the screen. At 2.2-inch, it is adequate but then, the colours appear to be slightly washed out because of the 16-bit STN LCD used for the display. That said, it is bright enough for everyday usage.

The F102 is fairly minimalist when it comes to buttons and connectors on the sides. There's a 2.5mm headphone connector on the right and a microSD slot on the left with a microUSB port at the bottom.

The phone comes with 128MB internal memory which can be increased to 8GB thanks to a 8GB microSD card. You can bag one from Play for £10.49 (link) and in theory 16GB microSD cards should be compatible but we haven't tested them.

At the back is the 2-megapixel (ed: technically 1.92-megapixel) camera with the phone's rather large speaker. The fact that it is made up of glossy, heavy duty plastic means that it is prone to greasy fingerprints.

A noteworthy point; ZTE has judiciously added four tiny "feet" at the back of the phone which prevents it from touching any surface, this reduces the risks of scratches. Very subtle but effective addition that others should copy.

There's also the fact that you can charge and connect to the phone at the same time. The power adaptor has a microUSB plug rather than a proprietary one.

Taking the back of the F102 off is quite a task. It is not simply a matter of sliding a cover, there's a notch next to the microSD card reader where you will need to insert your nail to lift the cover.

ZTE quotes a 150 hours standby battery life and up to five hours worth of talktime which is consistent with what we've experienced during our tests. The battery is rated 1000mAh, about 30 percent less than the market average.

The keys are well laid in four upward curved rows. There's also a four-directional pad with seven function keys. We found the buttons slightly hard to press but were responsible.

Users with bigger hands might find the keyboard (and the phone in general) slightly difficult to handle because of the size. Pressing on the keys generate different tones, so much so that you can even use it as a rudimentary piano. Fortunately, you can disable these in the phone's settings.

The F102 - which is a quad-band model - comes with a number of tools and features. There's a web browser (albeit a very simple one) and an app store which allows you to install applications from 3's store (sadly, it would only direct us to paid for games). Both Skype and MSN messenger are loaded by default on the phone and can be used for free on 3 Networks.

Multimedia buffs will be pleased to know that the F102 comes with a 2-megapixel camera that doubles as video camera, a media player, a voice recorder, a MP3 player and can even open a streaming URL. ZTE claims that it is compatible with M4A, MP3, WAV and WMV file formats.

Some reviews have also said that the F102 come with an FM stereo radio, something we've not been able to find out. As for the headset, it is of average quality with not enough punch and rather uncomfortable to wear.

Sound quality on the phone otherwise is suitable for everyday usage, either through the earpiece or using the phone's speakers. Oddly, there was no way of changing the volume while making or receiving a call.

Obviously, there's no WiFi and no front camera for two-way calling but we found a handy if not simplistic file manager and the F102 does come with support for Bluetooth. The settings and controls are fairly extensive for a phone in this price range.

The camera is not the phone's forte and fares poorly in low light conditions with too much noise (see sample photo here) but it is however just about adequate in day light. The phone itself is not recognised as a removable storage device in Windows 7.

Although it does include a modem, we haven't been able to connect to use it as a data dongle. In theory, you should be able to use it on a computer to connect to the internet.

There are a few more nagging issues with the phone though. End user support for the phone is quasi nonexistent, which can cause issues; for example, we haven't been able to find out if there are any new firmware updates available for the F102. This is more a ZTE issue rather than one associated with the phone alone.

There's also the fact that frequent Skype users might find it frustrating that the phone can't put the Skype client in the forefront, which is particularly important if you want to send and receive text updates on your phone.

The bottom line is that the phone does what it says on the tin. It is ideal for those looking for an affordable deal or as a secondary (or even tertiary) handset with the added benefit of being able to use free Skype or MSN Messenger forever.

3 Networks sells it on its Mix & Match 700 package for £15.75 with 700 anytime any network minutes or texts or any mix of the two on an 18 month contract.

Are there any other viable alternatives to the F102? Well it depends on two main variables, whether you are looking for a cheap PAYG or a Pay monthly deal.

When it comes to PAYG on 3 Networks, you could possily uprgade to the slighly more snazzier INQ Mini 3G or the 3 Skypephone S2 for an extra £10.

On pay monthly, there are a number of phones - ranging from the Nokia E63 to the Sony Ericsson T715 which could be viable substitutes.