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ZTE Open review: Cheap, pretty, woefully underpowered

Even with the right frame of mind, performance on this entry-level Firefox OS phone fails to stoke our enthusiasm.

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Jessica Dolcourt
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Jessica Dolcourt

Editorial Director / CNET Franchises, How-To, Performance Optimization

Jessica Dolcourt leads CNET Franchises, How-To, and Performance. With over 15 years in journalism, her experience includes mobile phone and software reporting and reviews, and delivering advice on expansive topics ranging from personal finance to travel and home. Jessica got her start at Download.com and holds an MA with Distinction from the University of Warwick (UK).

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9 min read

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.

ZTE Open
5.7

ZTE Open

The Good

ZTE's <b>Open</b> 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.

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.

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.

Firefox OS makes its debut (pictures)

See all photos

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.

ZTE Open
5.7

ZTE Open

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 5Performance 5
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