How low-cost can you go and still make a smartphone? With the ZTE Open C, the answer is: pretty darn low. With its inexpensive parts, bare-bones specs, and Firefox's entirely Web-based OS, the ZTE Open C slides into eBay for an incredibly wallet-friendly $90, £70, and €85, respectively. It's also available through other distributors in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America, but not currently in Australia.
Its attractive low price may draw you in, but just make sure to temper your expectations. The Open C was built for basic, affordable smartphone functioning like interacting over social messages, email, and texts; browsing the Web; and installing (Web-based) apps. And in these areas, it does deliver.
Although the phone and OS have improved since the first ZTE Open, Firefox OS is still under-baked, the camera's image quality is poor, and the smartphone's overall performance lags compared to some ultrabudget Android and Windows phones. Granted, those other handsets do tend to cost a little more, but the extra expense pays off. If you're moving from a feature phone to a smartphone, the ZTE Open C will expand your horizons. Otherwise, unless price and simplicity are the absolute priority, I'd opt instead for almost any other phone.
You can pocket the ZTE Open C in three colors: black, orange, and blue, though the review unit I got here in San Francisco is matte black. Silvery accents run the handset's rounded spines, from the volume rocker on the right side down to the phone's chin. A smaller phone despite the wider-than-fashionable bezel -- at 5 inches tall by 2.6 inches wide by 0.43 inch thick (or 26mm by 64.7mm by 10.8mm) -- the Open C is easier to palm than most and tucks with ease into smaller size pockets. At 4.4 ounces (125 grams), it has enough heft to remind you of its presence, but doesn't drag you down.
The Open C's 4-inch screen may have you leaning in a little closer than you would on a larger phone to see the display, and it makes typing on the virtual keyboard a little cramped. The screen itself is an adequate 800x480-pixel WVGA resolution with a pixel density of 233ppi. I kept brightness at the halfway mark, but even when I was more bullish on brightness, the colors still seemed a bit muted and edges didn't really pop. Even simple websites exhibited a heap of aliasing and color gradients that looked a little patchy to the naked eye.
Below the screen, you'll find the single capacitive button, Home. Plug the charger into the bottom of the phone and find the power button and headset jack up top. On the back, the Open C's 3-megapixel camera (no flash) patiently awaits your snaps. The soft-touch back panel pops off easily, especially if you use the indentation near the base of the phone's back cover.
Beneath said cover, you'll find a microSD card slot that takes up to 32GB in offloaded storage; my review unit came with a 4GB card slotted in. Be forewarned, you'll have to tilt out the battery if you want to get to the full-size SIM card slot.
OS and apps
The Open C runs Firefox OS 1.3, which is many steps ahead of the first iteration of the HTML-based OS, but still has a long way to go if it wants to feature-match Windows Phone, Android, and iOS. Firefox-maker Mozilla stresses that the newbie OS is made to be easy-to-navigate right out of the box for first-timers, and also adds that the company has many more features coming down the pipeline.
Version 1.3 supports hotspots and POP 3 email, better access to music from notifications tray and from the lock screen. Coming in version 1.4, Mozilla will pile on a lot of extra camera features like additional resolution options, HDR, white balance support, a self-timer for both front and rear cameras. It will also start to work with CDMA phones and with 4G LTE radios, both technical capabilities that limit it now to 3G GSM networks.
When it comes to basic navigation, Firefox OS is easy to use -- you can unlock to the camera or to the start screen, and it's evident where you can apply universal search. Several folders are preloaded for you, and you can also add your own pre-made Smart Collections by pressing and holding the start screen. There's the Marketplace for apps, an FM radio, music player, clock, notes, and Here Maps. The Firefox browser let you email links, but you won't be able to copy/paste them, or share them to your social networks.
Compared to the original ZTE Open, the Open C's 3-megapixel camera is a definitely improvement, but that isn't saying much when you compare image quality with that of other, slightly pricier budget phones. There's no flash, which is typical for handsets on the low side of the price range, but neither is there autofocus.
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.