ZTE Kis £59.99
15th Nov 2012 | 17:50
Can ZTE break from its network-branded roots with this budget offering?
Coming out of network-branded obscurity is a path that many mobile phone manufacturers are taking.
HTC are now a major player in the mobile industry, and now Chinese manufacturers Huawei and ZTE are hoping to follow suit.
Entering into the extreme budget market, the ZTE Kis squares up against the Huawei Ascend G300, as well as against phones from more experienced and well-known manufacturers such as the Sony Xperia Tipo, LG Optimus L3 and the Motorola MotoSmart.
The ZTE Kis comes locked to Virgin, but at a rather respectable price of £59.99 with 12 months' free data on PAYG, ZTE are looking to really challenge the big guns.
It also means they are clearly targeting first-time smartphone buyers, as well as students. Our model was white, but the Kis also comes in black. So, what do you get for your money?
Bundled in the box comes just about everything you would expect. Phone? Check. Charger? Check. USB Cable? Headphones? Check and check. There's even a 2GB microSD card to help you store all your pictures and music.
Looking at the ZTE Kis, you would have expected to pay a lot more. However, the specifications are more akin to the price tag.
The 800MHz processor, HVGA screen and 3.2MP rear camera (no front-facing offering) are by no means mind blowing. But then we didn't expect them to be. The lack of 3G, though, is rather disappointing.
As expected, ZTE have only opted for Android Gingerbread (2.3.6), with no upgrade on the cards.
As we said, looking at the Kis you'd be forgiven for thinking you had paid a lot more - the HTC Salsa immediately comes to mind.
Following an almost standard Android layout, the front is dominated by the screen, wrapped in a thick, black, glass front.
At the bottom of the screen are the four capacitive soft keys; Menu, Home, Back and Search. Just below this in a similarly-large plastic chassis is the rather visible microphone.
Also concealed behind the black wrapping is an LED light that flashes when you have a new notification, or when you are charging the Kis. It's not immediately visible, but it's just to the right of the speaker.
The top of the ZTE Kis houses both the 3.5mm headphone port moulded into the body, and the power/lock button. The lock button doesn't stand out massively from the body, but is easy to locate and hit one handed.
On the left of the Kis is the volume rocker. It's a bit firm for our liking, and the way it curves up at the edges makes it a bit sharp when you slide your finger up and down the side. Being at the top, though, means you are unlikely to hit it accidentally.
The opposite side houses an uncovered microUSB port. ZTE have left the back pretty sparse as well, with nothing but the camera, speaker and handset branding. The plastic chassis wraps around, and is the first visual clue to the price of the KIS.
Sliding a fingernail in the slight groove in the top right of the cover pops the cover off very easily.
The plastic is thin and flexible; again more clues as to the price of the ZTE Kis. Behind the battery cover is the SIM-card slot, 1,400mAh battery and microSD card slot.
The microSD card slot isn't easy to use, having to lay the card flat against the Kis and slide it in.
We often found ourselves dropping the card on the sofa and losing it down the back, so a pop in/out slot would have been preferred. We were impressed with the device's size, as everything is easy to hit one handed.
The 120g weight means that you notice it in your pocket, without feeling that it is weighing you down. It is also comfortable to use for long periods, and we don't envisage you dropping it (we didn't, and we're not exactly graceful).
The 3.5 inch HVGA TFT screen will never win any prizes. On the plus side, its bright enough to use outdoors and the capacitive buttons are very responsive. The viewing angle is pretty poor; we certainly can't imagine watching full-length movies on the Kis.
Overall, we can imagine you wanting to show the style of the ZTE Kis off to your friends, and making them guess how much you spent on it.
ZTE have put their own custom interface over the standard Android OS, although haven't given it a name like Samsung's TouchWiz, HTC's Sense or even the amazingly-named Huawei Android Platform 5.1 which, you guessed it, graces Huawei devices like the Huawei Ascend G300.
What ZTE's customisation actually brings is very minimal.
Icons throughout the Kis have a lozenge-shaped background that brings a smart uniform feel to the device, but otherwise the icons are the standard Android affair.
As for widgets, we were more than a little bit shocked to find no digital clock.
Every UI we have used in the past brings a smart digital clock; HTC are well renowned for theirs.
We were also disappointed with the lack of custom widgets: again, just the standard Android offerings.
ZTE have chosen to offer an initial seven home screens on the Kis. We love our widgets, so this is a blessing, but given the UI's lack of any real widget offering, this is slightly confusing.
There is no option to choose which of the nine is to be your home screen, but long-pressing means you can move the screens around - handy for setting the phone up the way you want.
Again, there are no custom animations to speak of, just the standard Android offerings, which can be turned off in the settings menu.
Apps don't load up instantaneously, and animations make the device feel slow. With animations off, the Kis is noticeably faster.
The apps drawer is a smart affair, with the home screen dock being persistent in the drawer.
Having an infinite loop on the drawer is a welcome feature too, with the drawer screen number displayed at the bottom of the screen.
There is a tiny bit of customisation to the notification bar, with the ZTE KIS putting in quick settings on the notification bar. We've seen this on other phones, and we've admired it.
Unfortunately, the tiny screen means you can only see four at a time, and there are nine to choose from.
Selected items are illuminated from grey to white, which isn't always distinguishable, meaning that you can't always tell what's selected.
The lock screen is fairly simple to use, by long-pressing the icon in the middle.
A little swirl appears around the icon, which probably made us smile a bit more than it meant to.
It's a small feature, but something that, unlike other areas, hasn't been overlooked.
Being based on Android means that anybody with any knowledge of the OS will be able to immediately navigate.
The simple UI doesn't add a great deal to the OS, but it certainly doesn't detract from its simplicity, making it ideal as a first smartphone.
Despite this, we were still a little disappointed that ZTE haven't fashioned a way of differentiating themselves in the same way that other manufacturers have.
The mobile market is getting packed, especially at the budget end, as last year's high-end models - such as the Samsung Galaxy S2 - suddenly become a lot more affordable.
Every other major handset manufacturer, even ZTE's Chinese cousin Huawei, have managed to skin Android and still keep costs minimal.
The uniform feel may be clean and pleasant to look at, but there is no real added functionality at all. In many ways, this smartphone feels a lot less "smart" because of it.
Contacts and calling
Continuing the lack of customisation throughout the device, the ZTE Kis has yet another basic Android phone book.
Don't take this the wrong way though; Google's offering has some nifty features up its sleeve.
The biggest of these is that it can aggregate all your social account contacts, pulling in from Facebook, Twitter, and all the contacts associated with all your Google accounts.
This begs a question, a very big question. Why doesn't the ZTE Kis do this?
ZTE have elected to allow you to have your Google account, multiple Google accounts even, but there is no pre-bundled Facebook or Twitter account.
Maybe it's a blessing, as no Facebook app means more internal storage space, but with no UI customisation, there is no option to bring in contacts like HTC Sense can.
Again, the ZTE Kis is feeling less of a "smart" phone.
Contacts are displayed in a list, with a tiny contact picture to the left, and a little green phone icon to the right.
It's a nice feature to have the image - even though it was far too small to actually show anything - as tapping it brings up contact options, calling or texting.
At the bottom of the screen are the 'Add Contact' and 'Contact Search' buttons.
Having the search soft key directly beneath left us very confused as to its inclusion.
Android's useful features still present on the ZTE Kis are the Favourites section and the Groups section, for those who have a well sorted list of contacts in their GMail accounts.
Here you can send group messages, or long-press to put that group onto your home page.
The dialer app is easy to use, and even with our large fingers we still hit all the right buttons.
The standard T9 layout also supports smart dialling.
This is a useful feature if you know a part of the contact's number, or the contact's name.
The call screen brings all the standard call features: Contact photo, Speaker, Bluetooth, Add Call and Dial pad.
Backing off EE signal, the Virgin-locked ZTE Kis doesn't suffer from unreliable connections, although we found it noticeably slower to find a signal than our other EE-based devices.
ZTE might not add customisation to a great deal of features on the Kis, but it does offer a secondary keyboard on top of the standard Gingerbread offering; TouchPal.
We've seen a TouchPal offering before on the Huawei Ascend G300, and we weren't impressed. This left us a little sceptical on the ZTE Kis, but we were pleasantly surprised.
We were able to hit every key we wanted almost every time, and the screen size only aided us as we could type one handed.
There are a few customisation options built into TouchPal, such as predictive texting, corrections on common typing errors, as well as "Curve", TouchPal's answer to Swype.
TouchPal was also superb when it came to swyping instead of typing. We don't always tend to slide our fingers around the screen, generally preferring to type.
Despite this, we found that the ZTE KIS somehow knew what we wanted more than 95% of the time.
Predictive texting was also very easy to turn on and off, as the keyboard doubled up as a switch; sliding over it switched between the two.
We can't say there is a whole lot to say about the SMS app, as it was unsurprisingly featureless.
We weren't impressed with the colour scheme; the blues and whites seem a bit lifeless.
Having Android as the OS, means there are two ways to handle email.
Gmail will handle all your Google-based emails.
It's a clean app, supports multiple Google accounts and covers just about everything that you get on the desktop version.
For non-Google accounts, the standard Email covers POP3/IMAP email standards. It has pre-set configurations that makes it simple to set up all your accounts.
It's as simple as ABC, 123... well, inputting username and password.
It also combines multiple accounts, mail checking frequency and mail size limits.
Connecting with friends in other forms, such as IM or Facebook messenger is entirely possible, if you download the app from the Play Store.
Google+ and Messenger apps come pre-installed, but given the lack of any real Google+ user base, we don't see this becoming a major hit, and is only really taking up valuable internal storage space.
Despite being a dying format, Flash is one of the basics of an internet explorer.
However, like many of its low-specced brethren, the ZTE Kis doesn't come with the necessary processing grunt for the Adobe app to be downloaded from the Play Store.
That doesn't mean that the mobile web is totally impossible to navigate though. The 800MHz processor does little to help anything.
Loading full web pages over Wi-Fi was a little too much, and it struggled to load different websites quickly.
The ZTE Kis did manage to load just about every site we threw at it, but if you're in a hurry, and have no access to Wi-Fi, things look pretty bleak.
That said, the Kis unsurprisingly loaded dedicated mobile sites a lot better, if a little slower, than we'd have liked.
As a browser, the stock Android option covers just about everything you could possibly want.
Only having Android 2.3.6 on board means that there is no possibility of having Google Chrome as a browser, like the similarly-priced Sony Xperia Tipo, or other budget devices like the Huawei Ascend G300 and the HTC Desire C.
So, what does the stock option provide? Tabbed browsing? No. URL sharing? Yes. Pinch-to-Zoom? Yes. Text reflow? No.
URL sharing makes it easy to show others the site you are browsing.
Long-pressing the URL bar brings up the sharing options, but with the lack of the basic Social media apps installed, this might be a bit pointless.
The Bookmarks tab is right next to the URL bar, and whilst small, is relatively easy to hit.
Pinch-to-zoom is a feature that we've grown accustomed to, but the lack of automatic text reflow is disappointing.
When zoomed right in, the poor screen quality means you really start to notice the pixels, with text losing the crisp feel.
One almost necessary feature, given the lack of processing power, is the ability to switch off image loading and disable plug ins.
We thought this would be great for limited data allowances, but despite Virgin's offering of 12 months' free data, we'd recommend that you switch it off to speed up your connection.
The screen size, as well as its lack of clarity, is also somewhat of a problem, as everything is a bit too tiny.
Maybe we have grown a bit too fond of the larger screens found on the higher-end devices, but the 3.5 inch screen feels a bit small for any serious web browsing.
Unlike some of the other budget offerings, ZTE have only opted for a 3.2MP camera.
This is highly disappointing, especially as some of the higher-end devices offer nearly the same level of picture clarity on their front-facing cameras.
The camera is autofocus, meaning there is no option to touch the screen to focus anywhere other than the centre.
We have mixed feelings regarding autofocus, but this is one of the worst. The ZTE Kis takes a while to focus on what you want to snap, and you can't tap the screen to get it to focus on a particular object, with the Kis keeping focus centralised on screen.
You can't even, as you can on some devices, focus what you want in the centre, then move the camera slightly as the camera then re-focuses.
We've found this very frustrating in the past, and whilst we didn't expect much, sometimes it really is just the little things.
The autofocus feature is also very slow when taking low-light pictures. We expected there to be some slow down, but you could expect the birthday candles to be blown out before the camera has focused.
There is also no onboard flash for the camera, meaning that photos you take at the party won't come out very clear. As for what the camera offers, you won't find much.
We never expected much, but we've said that before.
What you get in total is digital zoom up to 5x, geo-tagging, white balance, brightness toggle, exposure, picture size, picture quality, colour effects, ISO 100-800, anti banding, saturation, contrast, and sharpness.
That's a pretty exhaustive list of the basics that you can get on a camera, but in all honesty they all seem a bit useless as the picture quality is so poor.
The colour effects are a bit fun, but you are limited to sepia, mono chrome and negative, so not as much as other devices we have seen.
Another disappointing, yet expected move, is the lack of a front-facing camera.
It makes taking those profile pictures a bit more difficult, but that shouldn't be so much of a problem with no built-in Facebook or Twitter app.
The Video recorder app on the ZTE Kis is just as basic as the camera app, but then what did we expect.
For the price point, we know that the majority of the money will have been spent on the things that matter more in a smartphone, even if we haven't been over struck on the offerings so far.
Options wise, ZTE allow you to choose the Video quality, optimising the video for YouTube or MMS if you desire. We doubt you'd upload much to the social site as, again, picture quality is pretty poor.
Elsewhere, you can change the white balance, colour effects, video resolution, video and audio encoding and video duration (30 seconds being the longest).
The video is pretty poor. The colours are reproduced well, and the movement between light and dark is quick enough, but the picture is very unclear and grainy.
The picture works well on the phone's tiny screen, but on anything larger the video becomes almost unwatchable.
If we were to recommend this for filming anything, it would be for those awkward 'Dad dances Gangnam Style' moments, but we say that only to save you the embarrassment at a later date.
Up until now, the review of the ZTE Kis has hardly proven that it has the capabilities to either create or consume media.
We wouldn't be doing our job, though, if we didn't give the Kis the full run through. The first thing we will have to mention, before we get into any real depth, is the severe lack of internal storage.
We will cover this later on in our review in the apps section, but we must give it a brief nod, although a 2GB microSD card is provided.
Bundled on all Android devices is a very basic music and video player. Putting media on the ZTE Kis is, thankfully, simple and intuitive.
Plug the USB cable into the PC and Kis, turn on the USB storage mode on the device, and then drag and drop files in the same way that you would with any other USB device.
The music player, like other aspects of the Kis, has no real customisation.
It automatically sorts your music by Artist, Album, Song, as well as loading playlists and your favourite tracks.
Unlike other music players we have seen, there is no landscape mode, meaning no ipod-esque album cover scrolling.
The player comes with the standard play/pause and track-skip buttons, as well as the shuffle, repeat, favourite/star and now playing buttons.
The latter buttons were all a little small, but easy to hit one handed due to the device's size.
It is also possible to share your music direct from the music player, via all the standard methods, even if these are a bit sparse due to the lack of social apps installed.
As we mentioned earlier, the ZTE Kis does come with a distinct lack of pre-installed widgets available, so we were pleasantly surprised to find a music widget.
Although a very basic affair, providing only a play/pause button and a next skip button, at least you don't have to fiddle around with loading the app.
If you find that you get bored of your stored music, ZTE have also provided the KIS with an FM Radio.
Like other phone-based radios, you need to connect the headset or other headphones, as they act as the aerial.
We can't say a great deal about the FM radio, other than we found that the signal was relatively poor, and we found no way of manually tuning the radio.
Auto-tuning the radio found some of the local radio stations, but not all the ones we expected, nor did it provide the names of the stations.
All-in-all, a pretty down-heartening affair.
Given our lack of praise of the ZTE Kis' screen until now, you won't be surprised that we have to mention it again here.
To help us try and provide an accurate battery test across devices, we play a 90-minute HD movie, but we noticed that the KIS really struggled to play the movie.
Audio was clear and un-stuttering, but the video playback was very juddery, if it played at all.
The video player is also devoid of features, with nothing but a pause button, and a tiny bar to manually select where in the movie you would like to watch.
Video support is equally poor, playing MP4, H.263, H.264 and WMV files.
The external speaker is probably the biggest media selling point of the ZTE Kis. It is very, very loud, if a tiny bit tinny.
It is certainly loud enough to annoy a whole train carriage, or blast out tunes to all your friends. Being an Android device, the ZTE Kis comes with the pre-installed YouTube app.
Loading videos over Wi-Fi was fairly fast, although the picture quality is pitiful. The lack of processing power and the less-than-perfect screen combine to make YouTube footage grainy, although the sound was well reproduced.
As for viewing the media, you can navigate via the media's respective apps, such as the Music or Video Player, or the Gallery App.
The ZTE Kis Gallery app is yet another Android standard, and has the ability to load all your Picasa web albums. ZTE have also put on an easy-to-use file manager, called Filer.
It is very simple and intuitive to navigate, and one of the best file management systems we have used, with the folder pathways loading up on the left being a very useful feature.
Battery life and connectivity
We've always taken that a day's use is about what you can expect from a modern smartphone, with a nightly charge being the norm.
Therefore, we were hesitant given the smaller, 1400mAh battery provided in the ZTE Kis.
ZTE claim that this should be sufficient for 250 hours of standby time, and 280 minutes of call time, and we have found no reason to suggest that these are inaccurate.
The smaller screen and the low processing power may prove to be a blessing in disguise for the battery, as both require less metaphorical juice.
After using the phone, we are happy to report that the Kis will stand up to a normal day's use: just over eight hours' use, with screen set to the brightest level, running a couple of YouTube music videos, 30 minutes of web browsing and Wi-Fi on and off, and we've gotten the phone down to 44%.
We have a standard test when it comes to battery testing, as we mentioned earlier. This is running our 90-minute HD NyanGareth movie on full brightness, with all sync settings on.
Whilst the movie was very poor, we found that the battery diminished by 39%.
Connectivity wise, you obviously won't won't find 4G, but there is HSDPA and HSUPA, alongside GPS, Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n, and Bluetooth 2.1.
These are all controllable either via the Power Control widget, or the quick settings in the notifications bar.
We were a little surprised to find that the ZTE KIS can double up as a portable Wi-Fi hotspot if you search through the Wireless & networks settings page.
Getting media onto the KIS is done via the microUSB cable provided, turning the phone into an external USB device, with no external software to speak of.
Alternatively, you can download and buy/rent media off of the Google Play Store.
Maps and Apps
Based on Google's Android system, the ZTE Kis comes with the full range of Google Apps, from Maps and GMail to The Artist formerly known as Android Market (Play Store).
There are also the standard YouTube, Google Plus and Google Talk apps.
After the Apple maps fiasco, mobile mapping systems have gained a lot of press recently, with Google and its partners keen to show off that it is better.
Whilst this may be true (for now at least), the mapping systems do rely, somewhat, on the power behind it.
Over a slow mobile connection, don't expect it to load fast.
However, when it does load, Google's offering is superb, with detailed street maps and satellite imagery, information on local cafés and other amenities, even information on Public Transport routes.
Google also offer a basic sat nav built into the mapping software, known as Navigation.
Whilst you won't get the same level of features that you will on other paid-for apps, or a dedicated device, you can set whether you are driving, walking or cycling.
We found that the GPS generally locked onto our position almost instantly, making it far quicker than the map, which was still loading.
Even more surprising was that we found this also happened indoors.
Applications are generally managed via the Google Play store, which is very well populated.
Despite the lower power and older operating system, ZTE claim there are over 450,000 apps to download.
The Play Store is very easy to navigate, split into Apps, Games, Movies and Books, and can also be navigated via your PC web browser.
We mentioned earlier, the ZTE Kis is severely limited in terms of storage capacity.
After updating the apps that came preloaded on the KIS, we installed the mother of mobile gaming apps, Angry Birds.
Whilst this is a fairly large app (27.85MB), we expected to be able to install more.
As of Android 2.2 Froyo, apps are able to be installed on the external microSD card.
This will prove entirely necessary, as after installing Angry Birds, only 12MB of internal storage space was left.
We found this to be a major stumbling block, as there is no way to automatically set to install on SD.
This meant that every app we installed had to be manually checked for SD compatibility, or you could install an 'apps to SD' app, which in itself takes up space.
The ZTE Kis is populated with a lot of other apps, from the standard Calculator, Calendar and Clock app, named 'Alarm', a Sound Recorder and Voice Search.
There is very little to say about these apps; they do exactly what you expect them to in a basic and unstylish manner.
There is also an app named Backup and Restore, which aims to save your data (Contacts, SMS, MMS and Calendar), should you accidentally delete them. Throughout the App drawer, however, you will find different links to Virgin-powered sites. We found no use for them, and no way of getting rid of them.
What can we say about the ZTE KIS?
We got the phone out of the box and were immediately impressed with the device's looks, and here at the end of the review, we still are.
For a phone that doesn't blow your wallet to pieces you'll be surprised at what you hold in your hands.
Compromises had to be made though, and the 800MHz processor and the low-resolution screen are to name a few.
We could keep going on about the looks of the ZTE KIS, but you really do need to hold one in your hands to fully appreciate what we mean.
Every time we look at it, we struggle to associate the looks with the price. The capacitive screen was very responsive, as were the four buttons underneath.
Given that this is one of the basics that you can expect from a phone, we were glad to see it done well. The loud speaker was also, well, loud. What more can you ask for?
We were also impressed by the keyboard, as keyboards we have tried on other budget devices have seemed cramped. It was easy to use, and had a good text-prediction feature, as well as a Swype-like text input feature should you want it.
We've mentioned it a few times throughout our review, the screen is really poor.
The resolution is low, and the viewing angle is abominable; anything less than head-on is almost unwatchable. Zoomed in, text loses the crisp edges and videos don't play well.
The lack of Facebook or Twitter in today's world is also almost unforgiveable. Yes, you can install these from the Play Store, but this is added hassle that you don't want when you initially set up your phone.
It also means more apps taking up the abysmal interior storage space.
Whilst it's possible to install apps on an external SD card, not every app can be, and Google have yet to build an 'Install to SD' feature into the Play Store, meaning not every app can be downloaded in the first place.
The ZTE KIS was clearly designed to be a budget phone. The low-powered internal components really leave a lot to be desired, as do the external components, namely the screen.
Were we able to trade any of these features off against the price tag though? In short, no.
The price tag may be low, at £59.99, but there are other phones on the market with similar price tags that do a lot more.
ZTE has entered a fierce budget market, facing off against older competition such as the Samsung Galaxy Ace, as well as budget rivals such as the Sony Xperia Tipo, LG Optimus L3 and Huawei Ascend G300.
Leaving the Kis with an almost un-skinned Android 2.3, when other rivals are already releasing Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich devices, means the Kis is really starting on the back foot.
A poor camera, slow processor and dodgy screen don't win back any points.
This may be the cheapest smartphone on the market today, but the longer we use the ZTE Kis, the more we wish that ZTE had put in a few more features, as, at that price, we would be willing to pay a little more.