Is ZTE ready for the high-end big leagues?

ZTE is readying itself to unveil a high-end smartphone during CES 2013. But does it have what it takes to reach for the top-tier shelf?

Lynn La Senior Editor / Reviews - Phones
Lynn La covers mobile reviews and news. She previously wrote for The Sacramento Bee, Macworld and The Global Post.
Lynn La
4 min read
ZTE Warp Sequent
ZTE has been dipping its toes in the high-end pool with the Warp Sequent from Boost Mobile. James Martin/CNET

As CES 2013 in Las Vegas looms around the corner, one thing I'm looking forward to is what ZTE has up its sleeve.

Though it's the fourth-biggest phone manufacturer in the world, the Chinese company remains largely unknown in the United States. Those who do know it are usually those savvy about the mobile industry and even then, the overall impression of ZTE isn't positive.

At best, the company is known for entry-level-to-midrange handsets with mediocre performance and security flaws. At worst, ZTE figures as a national security threat. Yikes.

But as far as devices go, ZTE is determined to change its reputation. A few weeks ago, it stated that it will invest $30 million in its U.S. presence to improve infrastructure and its lab facilities.

In addition, ZTE will unveil its high-end Grand S at CES next week. Though very little is known about it, we do know it has a 5-inch screen and a quad-core processor, and it will feature a "traditional Chinese style" (whatever that means).

Overseas in China, ZTE is making news with its other top-tier handset, the Nubia Z5. It was tapped as the company's flagship phone of the season for obvious reasons: it has a 5-inch screen with a 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution, a 13-megapixel camera, and a 1.5GHz quad-core CPU.

Both the Grand S and the Nubia Z5 sound good on paper, but it's going to take a lot more than a few anticipated devices for ZTE to be taken seriously. For example, we've already seen some of ZTE's attempts at reaching for higher ground, and though they were admirable attempts, I wasn't exactly blown away.

Sprint Flash
The Sprint Flash's 12-megapixel camera. Josh Miller/CNET

The ZTE Warp Sequent, which essentially looks like a mini-Nexus, was plagued by slow internal and data speeds.

The Sprint Flash had a powerful 12-megapixel camera, but the resulting photos fell flat and its bulky design wasn't becoming.

Don't get me wrong, there are a few things ZTE handsets do right. First, I love that its phones hardly touch the original Android skin, especially with Ice Cream Sandwich. Running a nearly unsullied version of the OS keeps these devices sleek and clear of too much bloatware. Secondly, ZTE partners with many prepaid carriers, like MetroPCS, Boost Mobile, and Cricket, which means people can experience the handsets contract-free.

But if the manufacturer wants to really make a dent in the U.S. market, it needs to pour its resources in a few things first.

Improve build quality
One thing I liked about the Warp Sequent was its solid construction, which unfortunately is a bit rare for ZTE handsets. While I don't have anything against plastic, ZTE devices have a tendency to look and feel cheap and toylike.

What's especially frustrating, however, is the poor screen sensitivity and resolution I consistently see. More often than not, a midrange ZTE phone will have an unresponsive display that'll require several taps to register an action. Though a low pixel resolution is forgivable if it comes along with a cheaper price, having a buggy touch screen is a sure-fire way to irritate users quickly.

ZTE Render
The ZTE Render shipped with an outdated OS weeks before the new OS debuted. Josh Miller/CNET

Boost processing power
While I don't need every handset to come out firing on all cylinders with a quad-core CPU, ZTE handsets can be glacial at times, even when executing the most basic tasks. If the company took the time and money to ensure that a majority of its entry-level devices ran smoothly and swiftly, users would have more faith in its capabilities to build higher-end handsets.

This is the central reason why I was wary when I first read about the Grand S and Nubia Z5's quad-core processors. Though it's great to see that both are packing extra processing punch, I'd much rather experience a ZTE handset with a steady and fluid dual-core processor than a choppy quad-core one. However, I'll have to wait and see for myself at CES how the Grand S handles before putting down a final judgement.

Fix its security image
One of the biggest challenges ZTE must conquer is gaining users' trust. In this year alone, it caught flak for a backdoor hole in its Score M, numerous security flaws in its 890L mobile hot spot, and a scathing report from the House Intelligence Committee. Though it will be a long endeavor, the manufacturer needs to improve how users perceive ZTE and how it handles its security issues.

Keep up with OS updates
I know a manufacturer isn't the sole gatekeeper for getting its devices updated with the most recent OS, but it doesn't bode well for ZTE when it releases phones that come out of their boxes already dated. Case in point: the ZTE Anthem 4G came out a few months ago running Android 2.3 Gingerbread (yeah, Gingerbread), and the ZTE Render, which ran Windows Phone 7.8, was released mere weeks before WP8 debuted. If ZTE wants to be regarded as relevant, it needs to step up its game and ship its phones with OSes that are up-to-date.

The thing is, I want ZTE to succeed. I hope that the Grand S unveiling goes well and the phone lives up to its relative hype. And while there's nothing wrong with a company wanting to amp up its products, there's something to be said for midrange devices that perform consistently and reliably too.

Honestly, I think ZTE needs to deal with its numerous issues involving its midtier handsets and its public image before reaching into high-end devices, but if it can pull this off well at CES, then I'll be the first to give the company its due regard.