ZTE Open C review: Low cost, at the price of performance

Assuming you can nail the focus yourself, image quality is poor. Since there's no flash and a tiny aperture, you'll get the best brightness and color reproduction in environments with abundant natural light. Edges are mushy, details disintegrate, colors tinted blue, and there are artifacts everywhere you look. Pictures are suited for capturing the moment, and there are some editing tools to help you crop and adjust the image. However, snaps don't look their best when uploaded to social networks like Twitter and Facebook.

Video capture is likewise functional, but less than stellar. Image quality is crackly and there's that pesky focus issue to contend with. Likely in the spirit of keeping things simple, the Firefox OS doesn't dole out a list of options for picking video resolution or setting recording time limits. These will likely arrive in the next wave of updates along with other camera enhancements.

For the photos and videos you do take, you'll get 4GB internal storage and 512GB RAM.

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Photos taken in natural light look best, but the detail still evaporated from these blooms. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

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Indoor shots are trickier to take, especially with fixed focus. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

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The Open C's camera tints scenes blue. Josh Miller/CNET

Performance

Yes, a seriously budget device like the Open C shouldn't be held anywhere near the same standards as more expensive and advanced devices. Yet any way you slice and dice it, you'll be waiting around for the Open C to do its thing. It's faster than the original ZTE Open, but so is every successor phone today compared to its predecessor two years before.

I noticed some significant hang time when navigating around, opening apps, and waiting for folders to load. At times, the Open C didn't register my taps, and I had to return to the main menu to try again. Oddly, the Open C also had trouble connecting to some of the eligible Wi-Fi networks in its list.

ZTE Open C performance

CNET mobile site load 6.6 seconds
CNET desktop site load 30.5 seconds
Boot time to lock screen 24 seconds
Camera boot time 2 seconds
Camera, shot-to-shot time 2 seconds, no auto-focus

Firefox 1.3 has enabled phones like the C to deliver download speeds as fast as 21Mbps, though the OS won't support LTE just yet. Even over Wi-Fi, the Open C plodded along, loading up websites at a leisurely pace, and the same went for T-Mobile's data network. I did play a number of games, backed by the phone's 1.2GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 200 MSM8210 chipset. I was able to play a number of simple games, enough to pass the time, but nothing with great speed or rich graphical detail.

Battery life on the Open C was also a challenge on its 1,400mAh ticker. Even with the screen timeout set to 1 minute and brightness set at half-mast, I noticed that the battery drained at a more rapid rate than I liked. Our official lab result showed it lasted 11.32 hours on our talk time test.

Call quality

I tested the ZTE Open C's audio quality in San Francisco using T-Mobile's network. My calling partner loved the phone, declaring it an A in quality. It was very loud, he said, and very clear, without a trace of background noise. There was a slight distortion when my voice levels peaked, and if he strained his ears, he said I sounded slightly unnatural, but that these peccadilloes didn't obscure the overall excellent call.

I'm glad he had such a great experience, because all I noticed was distracting echo and a hush of background noise that didn't distract, but did add a gauzy layer. Voices were also a little lispy and raspy. Volume was fine at its maximum level, but I didn't like that there wasn't any in reserve.

ZTE Open C call quality test

While we were of split opinion on the phone's voice quality through the earpiece, we both had poor experiences with speakerphone. Volume plummeted when I held the phone at hip level; voices sounded at a whisper on maximum volume. Although he said I sounded clear, my test partner agreed that I was too quiet to properly hear.

Buy it or skip it?

Until we start seeing those $25 Firefox phones enter the market, the ZTE Open C's asking price is really rock bottom. The phone's low cost comes at a price; mainly the quality of its components and its subsequent performance. If you're absolutely guided by low price when looking for a starter phone, the Open C will check both requirements off the list.

However, I'd personally go a little higher and put my money on more developed operating systems that come on more advanced hardware, like the Android-powered Motorola Moto E for $130/£90, or Nokia Lumia 520 Windows phone for $100/£85 (the Lumia 521 costs $120 on US network T-Mobile).

What you'll pay

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