ZTE-N910_1

Firefox OS made its commercial UK debut recently in the form of the ZTE Open, a smartphone sold directly by ZTE to customers for £60 on its ZTE Mobile UK eBay shop, including P/P, with no contract or subsidy needed. Is an £60 smartphone too good to be true? We take a look.

The ZTE Open is the first consumer-level device to bring Firefox OS to the UK, and it’s clear they’re trying to make a splash. At £60 shipped, and distributed right to customers through eBay, the Open is an unlocked phone: it comes without carriers’ strings attached, and can even be used on prepaid plans as cheap as £10 per month.

And apparently, customers have noticed, to the extent that ZTE has already sold out the initial run of the Open. While more are no doubt on their way, they’re not selling from ZTE’s eBay store, and resold units are going for as much as twice their original asking price. But is the ZTE Open, and the Firefox OS, really worth the time and dollar of the average consumer? That’s a complicated question, and one that depends on your needs.

Build & Design

Taking it out of the box, the ZTE Open feels tiny compared to most smartphones–not a shock given that its screen size an inch or more below what’s considered standard these days. It’s also quite light, weighing just 4.3 ounces (120 grams). The default colour of the device is very, very orange, albeit not an unpleasant orange once you get used to it. Although it also comes in black, that version hasn’t been put up at the £60 price (at least not yet) so you’d have to pay a premium for it by buying at auction. Despite how inexpensive the device is, it feels remarkably well built. There’s no Gorilla Glass or kevlar fibres here, but it’s well put together, with decent quality plastic and assembly work. to lift the back plate off there is a recess at the left bottom corner that is hard to see.

Open_Front Open_Bottom_recess

Display

There’s no other way of saying it; the screen on the Open is tiny. Looking at a 3.5-inch screen makes me think back to the days when that was a standard size, and wonder how we ever used them. It’s painfully noticeable when typing — unless you have incredibly tiny fingers, be prepared to slowly hunt and peck for every letter, something made worse by the fact that most apps don’t seem to support a landscape mode keyboard. And that includes the text messaging app. But although it’s tiny and low resolution compared to what we’ve come to expect (320 x 480), the actual quality of the Open’s screen is pretty good. Colours are vivid, and the viewing angles, while not amazing, are certainly acceptable.

Screens

There are three screens by default but, as you add more apps Firefox automatically adds another screen, similar to Blackberry 10 OS

Other Buttons and Ports

Aside from the basics of microUSB, headphone jack, and power / volume rocker, there’s not a lot remarkable about the Open’s design. It’s simple, it feels good in the hand, and the colour is of course orange and one thing’s for sure, in a bunch of phone on the table it will definitely stand out.

Performance

To discuss the Open’s performance, we need to be clear on what it really is: it’s an extreme economy model smartphone. That £60 price tag doesn’t come without cut corners; rather, it comes with quite a few of them. To that end, the Open comes with specs that would not impress in any other context. It’s driven by a 1 GHz single-core processor, and features 256 MB of RAM and 512MB of storage, of which 140 is available out of the box. This makes it comparable to Android smartphones that might have been out a few years ago, but it’s definitely not a high-end user experience. Fortunately, an extremely lightweight interface keeps things relatively speedy, so it’s not like you’re trying to wade through mud most of the time, although the web browser does bog down on complex sites.

As one of the first devices out, and with so little software available, there’s really no way to benchmark the Open at this point, and nothing to compare it to even if we could. Just bear in mind that it’s not a multimedia powerhouse, more like a jukebox.

While the ZTE Open boasts the standard WiFi and Bluetooth, as well as a built-in WiFi hotspot for sharing its internet connection to your laptop or other devices, it’s when we get to the mobile radio that things become a little complicated, and we learn some of the drawbacks of an unlocked phone. The Open supports quad-band GSM networks, on the 850/900/1800/1900 bands, which means it can be used for talk or text on just about any GSM carrier anywhere in the world. It also supports quad-band HSPA high speed data on the 850/900/1900/2100 bands. What this means in practical terms is that while the ZTE Open can be used on all network, here in the UK it’s going to suffer from some limitations.

For example, Three UK users would be primarily 3G data but now going towards 4G (LTE).

No matter what network you choose, though, the Open won’t be able to get on the more advanced 4G (LTE) networks being rolled out. It simply doesn’t support them, partly due to cost and partly due to the effort to make it network-independent. LTE networks at the moment vary a lot from network to network, making it difficult to support more than one network while still being affordable.

In performance terms, the mobile radio on the Open actually isn’t bad. It displays performance in holding a signal that’s comparable to my HTC One, which is pretty good considering that the One is quite the high-end phone. Call quality seemed good, and it even did its best with what was available when running on 3G data.

Software

Being my first introduction to the Firefox OS, a little bit of a learning curve was definitely required. Not as much as you might think though, given that Firefox definitely has some superficial similarities to Android. There’s a notification shade that you pull down, you can swipe sideways to switch between screens, and icons are handled similarly. Swiping Right-to Left brings up “your” apps and like the Blackberry 10 pressing anyone of them will highlight the ones that can be uninstalled.

One of the first things that took some getting used to was that there was no sign-in: unlike Android and iOS, your Firefox device isn’t tied to an online account where your information or purchased apps are stored. There’s no account tied to it at all, nor any central system.

Once you’re in, you get used to the basics pretty quickly. Firefox isn’t a complicated platform, although you can definitely tell it’s a first generation one. The basics are solid, but there are a lot of places where polishing is needed. For instance, the aforementioned problem with not being able to use the keyboard in landscape, even to text. That’s a major issue especially on a tiny screen. Some of the gestures are less well thought out, too. Flicking up from the bottom of the screen, for instance, sometimes means “go back one thing” and sometimes it means “go back to the home page.” This means frustration sometimes when you wanted to back up one menu and end up having to navigate back to where you were. A little more uniformity would go a long way.

Still the big weakness of Firefox isn’t the OS, its the apps. The Firefox app marketplace only lists about 1,600 apps currently, and most of those are white noise, just web-apps of various sites. Since Firefox apps are written in HTML5, there’s not much incentive for content providers to go through more effort than that. Also, despite being designed for low-end markets where data service might not be readily available, it’s very dependent on being connected to the internet. There are only a handful of “offline” apps available as yet, and many major types of apps — cloud storage, office suites, etc. — are conspicuously absent. ALthough my favourite cloud app Box is there.

Overall, for being a first generation OS, Firefox seems decent. Thinking back to when the first release of iOS or Android came out they were much the same. The real question is whether it manages to mature and attract enough developers for the app choices and quality to improve. At this point, that’s anyone’s guess.

Camera

At just 3 mega-pixels and with a fixed focus, the Open’s camera is unsurprisingly a throwback to the earliest days of smartphone cameras. To say that it’s terrible is a severe understatement. No focus, little colour fidelity, bad performance in bright light, and worse performance in poor light. So if you’re going to take lots of pictures Don’t bother getting it, Seriously.

Videos

If you’re looking to watch videos on the Open then you will have to make sure they’re rescaled to 480 px across, the hardware can’t handle large movies and rescale on the fly. It has to be sized for the screen.

Screenshots

To take a screenshot on Firefox OS simply press down the home button and the power button at the same time. An image will be stored in the phones Gallery app where you can view them.

Open_Left_apps  Open_apps

 Left to Right swipe                                                   Right to Left Swipe  

Battery Life

Although it only packs a 1200 mAh battery, the slow processor and lack of 4G (LTE) allow the Open to achieve pretty good battery life. Only the heaviest users are likely to wear it out within the day, and truly heavy users are probably looking at other devices anyway. But if you do want more juice, it does feature a replaceable battery.

Conclusion

The ZTE Open is basically a smartphone for people who don’t really need most of the bits of a smartphone. If you want to just check the weather report, maybe look up a factoid or news story on the go, the ZTE Open is a useful and economical way to do that, while still being able to take advantage of those cheap prepaid plans. For the more tech-savvy people and smartphone enthusiasts, it’s probably too limited to be worthwhile even once the software side catches up.

Then there’s the separate issue of the Firefox OS. Right now, Firefox certainly isn’t bad for a first release, but it’s going to need to seriously beef up the availability and quality of apps if it wants to compete with the major players.

Show Full Specs

FireFox OS Getting started

 

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Dave Thornton

Senior Editor

Senior Editor
Been involved in technology for many years, more than I care to remember. Live in Dundee, Scotland. I like Android, Windows Phone OS, BlackBerry OS and iOS, and love writing about all things techie. Currently have a Honor 6+, Elephone P6000, Nexus 5, Chrombook C720, HTC One M7, Nokia Lumina 625, Microsoft Lumia 435, Blackberry Q10, HTC Hero and iPad mini