ZTE Open review: Cheap, pretty, woefully underpowered

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The Good ZTE's Open is an attractive smartphone that represents Firefox OS's budget aspirations.

The Bad Hardware performance suffers all across the board, from image quality to the time it takes to complete a task. Call quality wasn't so hot, either.

The Bottom Line Skip the ZTE Open and keep hunting for your low-cost smartphone, unless simplicity or Firefox development are at the top of your list.

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5.7 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 5
  • Performance 5

Review Sections

ZTE's Open is many things: attractive, significantly inexpensive, frustrating, underpowered, and extremely targeted to a specific audience. Apart from being one of the first commercially available phones running the inchoate (and understandably incomplete) Firefox-based operating system, the Open achieves another rarity for a band of phones targeted to developing regions: selling directly to the U.S. market by means of eBay.

In the US, ZTE and Firefox aim the $80 unlocked device at new Firefox OS developers, who they hope will buy the purposely basic, affordable handset as a testing ground for their own browser-based apps. The duo also targets people transitioning to their first smartphone. Globally, the phone is meant to be affordable enough for cost-sensitive emerging markets, while still making tools like e-mail, social networking, and hot-spotting possible.

The 3G-capable Open works with AT&T and T-Mobile's 3G networks (but much better with AT&T,) but you'll need to provide your own SIM card.

Design and build
Sold globally in rich, pearlescent orange, black, and blue tones, the Open is a good-looking phone that manages to avoid looking like every other black slab on the market. Instead, a glossy black spines, buttons, and accents serve as the highlight colors. As a bonus, the phone's mostly soft-touch matte finish deflects smudges and visible finger gunk.

Since the Open is on the smaller side -- 4.5 inches tall by 2.4 inches wide by 0.49 inch thick -- it's more pocket-friendly than a lot of other devices out there, though also chunkier around the middle. The 3.9-ounce weight proved solid enough to make the phone feel sturdy, and rounded corners and a slightly tapered chin add a touch of finish and elegance. The Open fit well on my ear and was easy to grip and maneuver one-handed.

The 3.5-inch HVGA display is bright at full brightness levels, and a little dim on automatic mode, likely to help save battery power. Whites looked a little blued on the screen. Text and photos are legible enough with the 480x320-pixel resolution, but at a pixel density of 165ppi, it's evident that neither is as crisp as it could be, true for both mobile and desktop versions of Web sites.

ZTE Open
Anyone else hungry for orange sherbet? James Martin/CNET

Although it does employ spell check, the Open's virtual keyboard does so after the fact, which means you have to wait a beat after mistyping something before you know for sure if autocorrect kicked in. This is important to know, since the keyboard was a little cramped on the smaller screen, slow, and not particularly accurate. There are no advanced features like tracing the word (Windows Phone and iOS' native virtual QWERTYs don't do this either) or voice input. If you want predictive text, you'll need to turn it on in the settings, but it doesn't appear by default.

A single capacitive home button and onscreen swipes are all you need to navigate the Firefox OS on the Open. Although I turned off haptic feedback, the device still buzzes each time you press Home. A tally of external ports and controls gives you the Micro-USB jack on the phone's base, a nicely contoured volume rocker on the left spine, and the power button and standard headset jack up top. A 3.2-megapixel camera and speaker grille are on the back, but there is no flash.

The back cover pops off pretty easily, but it'll take a little work to make sure it snaps completely into place -- at least it did on my review unit. You'll find a microSD slot under the battery; it accepts cards of up to 32GB. In some markets, you might also find a 2GB card already slipped in. The Open takes a standard size SIM card, which is a lot larger and a little more obscure than most of the Micro-SIMs and Nano-SIMs we're seeing today on high-end phones.

Firefox OS and features
Deliberately light and lean, the Firefox OS is entirely Web-based. It borrows some motifs from Android and iOS to unlock the phone, pull down notifications, and arrange app icons in a grid pattern. This keeps it intuitive and simple to use. Icons are also large enough for fingers to press, even on a smaller screen. You can press and hold icons to reorder them.

My review unit runs a sneak-peek version of Firefox OS 1.1, but the Open will sell with version 1, which should be upgradable at a later date. The changes are fairly minimal, but improvements nonetheless. The biggest difference you'll see here is the app search bar on the home screen; this brings up relevant apps that you can either use once (even if you don't "own" it) or download (which saves it as a bookmark.)

Other changes on my phone that will come to other Firefox-based devices include MMS for photo messages, importing contacts from the SD card and Outlook, and the ability to attach photos and videos directly from e-mails.

Firefox OS's gallery app lets you crop photos, apply some basic color filters, and adjust contrast.
Firefox OS's gallery app lets you crop photos, apply some basic color filters, and adjust contrast. Stephen Shankland/CNET

There's enhanced multitasking, too. In this new version, pressing and holding the Home button serves the additional function of calling up recent apps so you can switch tasks.

As far as communication and radios go, there's support for texting, e-mail, GPS, Bluetooth, and Wi-Fi. An FM radio steps up to broadcast local music and shows when you plug in a headset. You'll also be able to use the Open as a hot spot.

The OS comes preloaded with a variety of apps, including e-mail, an address book, a calendar, a data usage tracker, and Nokia's Here maps. There's YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, and, of course, Firefox's tabbed browser. A basic music player handles MP3s and a video app plays clips you load from your memory card. A clock, a calculator, and a note taking app round out the preinstalled selection.

Since Firefox is still in development, the app store isn't exactly booming with first-rate titles, but you will find apps like Kayak, Wikipedia, Box, Dictionary.com, and the popular game Candy Crush Saga. Because apps are just stylized bookmarks, they install lickety-split.

Firefox OS is easy to use, but it isn't polished or advanced. You can do simple things like change the wallpaper, turn on some security functionality, and unlock the phone to the camera. Still, compared with mature platforms like iOS and Android, it lacks a tremendous amount of finer settings and options for everything from corporate management to voice dictation.

As I said before, some of this simplicity is intentional, a way to keep the Firefox phones cheap while targeting customers in emerging markets and people who are transitioning to their first smartphones. However, Firefox's parent company Mozilla is also actively pursuing developers to create apps and functionality, so the OS will absolutely become more sophisticated over time.

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.