ZTE has a place in my heart for having come up with the handset Orange sold as the San Francisco. It revolutionised the budget smartphone sector by matching what were, for the time, superb specifications with a sub-£100 price. The San Francisco quite simply set the standard for others to follow. That phone was the original ZTE Blade. Since the original Blade’s release, ZTE has introduced the Blade 2 and, most recently, the Blade 3.
Like its two predecessors, the Blade 3 is at the lower end of the market. Virgin Mobile is selling it for £69.99 if you buy a £10 top-up at the same time – effectively making it £79.99. And you can get it on contract too.
What you get for this princely sum is quite good value. The handset’s design might not be the best, but it isn’t offensive, and what is going on under the hood is largely pretty impressive.
Oddly, the ZTE Blade 3 feels a little heavier than its stated 130g, but my scales only added another 4g to this. There’s a shiny silver band around the top and long edges of the phone that disappears just before the bottom of the long edges. The band is replaced on the bottom short edge by a little lip of the same black rubbery plastic that forms the backplate. Going all the way round the edge is another band of silver, this time matte.
The double break between the black front and back of the phone is novel and eye-catching, though the quality of the plastic used isn’t great and the separate sections of the matte strip are easily spotted thanks to their clearly visible joining edges.
Under the battery cover there’s a microSD card slot that you can get to without removing the battery – a real boon for hotswapping fans like me. And the SIM card slot is standard-sized rather than micro.
The screen is your way into a phone’s contents, and if it is below par, the user experience suffers significantly. So ZTE has included a reasonably good 4in screen here. Well, reasonably good if you are in the right place.
This sized screen has become the de facto minimum for people wanting things like web browsing, video viewing and comfortable text reading, and it does work well for all those things. Rack the brightness up and it is sharp and clear, delivering reasonably good colours.
But there are downsides too. The auto setting keeps brightness down pretty low. I had to abandon it and push the brightness right up to the max for best use. Also, the screen is very reflective and I found viewing angles not to be great. Outdoors, the screen is hard to read unless you ratchet up the brightness, and resolution is just 800 x 480 pixels, which is not fantastic by today’s standards.
But it’s important to remember the price of this handset is very much on the budget side of things. I could live with this screen quality for an £80 handset, and it’s all the better for those four inches of viewing space.
The internals are in the area you’d expect for a handset retailing at the price of the Blade 3. The processor is a single core 1GHz Qualcomm model, and it is supported by a meagre 512MB of RAM. These are pretty much bottom drawer specifications these days, and as you’d probably expect, there were short but notable lags when I tapped icons to run apps, waits while web pages resolved, and in general a bit of a delay between asking for something to happen and it actually happening.
If you’re not used to quad-core processors, you might not notice these things or be irritated by them, and to be fair to the phone, it streamed YouTube videos quite happily without stuttering.
ZTE has cut back on storage. It headlines the Blade 3 with 4GB of space, but only 2.5GB is user-accessible. The microSD card slot could need filling with a card quite quickly. The battery, too, is far from high-end, with just 1600mAh of power storage. It just about got through less intensive days for me, but I never really felt confident unless I gave it a mid-afternoon power boost.
I don’t normally harp on about data speeds, but it is worth noting here that the Blade 3’s HSDPA tops out at 7.2Mbps downloads. That’s not going to cause anybody major problems, but it is a far cry from what HSDPA is capable of delivering.
One customised feature is the inclusion of the TouchPal keyboard. This is a busy little thing with a Swype-style writing option and it might suit you. However, it is easy to revert to the standard Android keyboard if you don’t like it. In addition, ZTE has customised the screen lock. Sweep your finger over the button and you can shortcut into six apps, which you can customise. Alternatively, you can long press to unlock to the home screen. There’s also a DLNA client and a note app.
The flashless 5-megapixel camera supports touch focus and I found it performed reasonably well much of the time. However, there is a bit of shutter lag, which won’t suit shaky hands. Like many handsets it floundered in situations of high contrast, such as outdoors with very bright skies. And it suffered in low light indoor conditions too.
The ZTE Blade 3 is a serviceable little handset, though it starts to show cracks if you look too deep. But every time I came across an issue, I reminded myself of the price and ultimately decided that despite the grumbles it does represent good value for money.
single-core 1.0GHz Qualcomm MSM 7227
4.0-inches, 800 x 480 pixels
120.5 x 63.5 x 10.85 mm