ZTE Open review: Cheap, pretty, woefully underpowered

Camera and video
I certainly wouldn't expect much more than a functional camera on any $80 smartphone, but that doesn't prevent my disappointment with the Open's 3.2-megapixel shooter.

The back of the ZTE Open clearly shows the Firefox OS branding.
The Open has a 3.2-megapixel shooter. Stephen Shankland/CNET

My journey to photographic unhappiness started with the camera's fixed focus, which means you'll have to judge the distance you need to get your subject in focus. Next, the camera struggles with exposure problems, easily blowing out portions of a statue that I shot, and making parts of the image appear as though someone spilled correction fluid over part of my photo.

Colors also appeared dull and pictures were noisy, especially when viewed enlarged. Since there's no flash (which is completely expected for this category of phone), you'll have better luck when taking photos outside in abundant light.

You won't be able to select photo or video options ahead of time, but I do appreciate Firefox's editing tools and sharing provisions. You can crop photos along certain aspect rations, adjust exposure, and apply a variety of borders and effects. Tap the "share" button to upload photos to social networks and attach through more one-on-one routes, like e-mail or Bluetooth.

Like the still camera, the video tool struggled to accurately capture color, exposure, and sharp edges. Video was noisy, and the scene blurred when quickly panning around. It didn't adequately focus on people or still objects, either. If you use it, it's best to think of it as a retro way to document the moment.

The Open doesn't make focusing easy. Click for full-resolution image. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Colors were a little pale, even in abundant natural light. Click for full-resolution image. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Rendering sharp edges anywhere was a problem. Click for full-resolution image. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
Portions of this fountain are wildly overexposed. Click for full-resolution image. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

You can compare the Open's standard studio shot with those of other phones in this gallery.

Call quality
I tested the unlocked ZTE Open in San Francisco using AT&T's network (GSM 850/900/1800/1900MHz. Call quality was sub-par on both sides. Even with the volume at max, I had to strain a little to separate my caller's voice from my mostly-quiet indoor surroundings. My principal test caller's voice sounded soft, flat, and not quite human. Worse, his voice quality took on an intermittent robotic hum. The line, however, was clear of white noise.

My voice came across as "mushy," instead of sharp and crisp. I also sounded distorted, according to my tester, and a little degraded. Luckily, I was loud enough and there wasn't any extraneous noise on the line. Without knowledge of the phone or prompting, my test partner branded the quality as "cheap and entirely mediocre."

ZTE Open call quality sample Listen now:

I tested speakerphone at hip level. Volume actually came out louder than it did through the earpiece, but on maximum volume, the phone also began to buzz in my hand. Voices took on a tinny, lisping quality. Where I got a volume boost, audio volume on the other end dropped. Voice quality remained about the same throughout the speakerphone conversation, and distorted a bit on vocal peaks.

Performance: Speed, data, battery
The ZTE Open is not a fast phone. Processor speed is another trade-off made in terms of price, and in most of the phone's target markets, LTE isn't a concern. However, buyers will see pokey performance that's noticeably slower than many other phones.

Specifically, there's at least a full-second lag when performing basic tasks like unlocking the phone, opening apps, and returning to the start screen. Most actions, in fact, take a beat, like typing into a text field, and opening settings submenus in apps. Many times I've tapped the screen twice while impatiently waiting for my action to take root, making it hard to tell if it's the screen that isn't always responsive, or if the processor needs the extra time to think.

Boot-up time takes 37 seconds with the Open's 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S1 MSM7225A application processor (but the clever Firefox animation makes up for a handful of those moments.) It takes under 3 seconds to turn on the camera, which is a little more than standard, and a little more than 3 seconds from shot to shot, which is a tad longer than usual.

Although there's no 4G support on the 3G Open, it does support 2G, 3G, and HSPA+ data on the 850/900/1900/2100 MHz bands. Since there's no support for T-Mobile's 1700MHz AWS band here in the US, you'll get faster, more reliable speeds with an AT&T SIM.

Predictably, I clocked the fastest performance over Wi-Fi. Relying on the data network alone, it took 19 seconds to load Chow.com over 3G and 30 seconds to load CNET's graphics-heavy desktop site. Graphically lean (or absent) mobile sites fared better. CNET's mobile-optimized Web page loaded in 3.6 seconds, and the mobile version of The New York Times finished loading up in about 8 seconds. ESPN's mobile site also took about 6 seconds.

Battery life on this phone perplexed me. It should last long enough on the 1,200mAh ticker, but in my experience, it discharged (and charged) faster than I thought it should, even when I set a 1-minute screen timeout and left it alone on standby when I wasn't using the Open heavily. More detailed test results to follow.

The Open has 512MB ROM and 256MB RAM, so you'll want to take advantage of the microSD card slot if you intend to store any significant amount of music, video, and photos.

Final verdict
A good-looking contribution to a noble experiment, the ZTE Open fulfills the goal of bringing an inexpensive Firefox smartphone OS to developers and easy-to-please customers. Is this a building block for Firefox's goals? Maybe the operating system, but not this handset specifically.

Unfortunately, the phone's appearance and $80 price tag are its finest traits. Poor internal performance, battery life, and skimpy hardware features dampen the experience, and the camera's lousy image quality piles on more bad news.

The Open may still be a valid option for Firefox developers who want to keep costs in check, and for people with no other smartphone option for miles. If you can, try on other prepaid options, like MetroPCS' Huawei Valiant (Android 4.1), AT&T's prepaid Nokia Lumia 520 (Windows Phone 8), or Virgin Mobile's Kyocera Rise (Android 4.0.) -- all alternatives (with proven OSes) that also fall in the Open's off-contract price range.

Developers, too, have other (admittedly pricier) options, including the globally available Geeksphone Peak , Peak+ , and Keon , and the Alcatel One Touch Fire .

What you'll pay

    Pricing is currently unavailable.

    Editors' Top Picks

     

    ARTICLE DISCUSSION

    Conversation powered by Livefyre

    Where to Buy

    ZTE Open

    Part Number: ZTEOPENULK Released: Aug. 2, 2013

    Please visit the manufacture for additional models.

    Quick Specifications

    • Release date Aug. 2, 2013
    About The Author

    Jessica Dolcourt reviews smartphones and cell phones, covers handset news, and pens the monthly column Smartphones Unlocked. A senior editor, she started at CNET in 2006 and spent four years reviewing mobile and desktop software before taking on devices.