ZTE Open C
18th Jun 2014 | 16:05
Firefox OS touting bargain phone that falls short
The ZTE Open C is an entry-level smartphone running Firefox OS. It's for people on a tight budget. At £60 (AU$120, US$100) for a SIM-free handset it doesn't have a huge amount of competition.
The specs are about as basic as it gets nowadays. There's a 1.2GHz dual-core processor backed up by 512MB of RAM. The screen is 4 inches with a 480 x 800 resolution, delivering a pixel density of 233ppi.
Its success rests heavily on the Firefox OS. This open source platform is the new kid on the mobile block and its immaturity shows. Put together with ZTE's budget hardware, we have the awkward, socially-inept, spotty teenager of the smartphone world. The Open C is hard to love.
Rewind four years and the ZTE Open C would have slotted effortlessly into the early Android line-up. On unboxing and first handling it felt like a cheaper, plastic knock-off of my old HTC Desire.
The ZTE Open C is a very rounded phone, which makes it comfortable to hold. Every edge has been bevelled to within an inch of its life.
My review unit was matte black, but you can pick it up in a kind of metallic orange or blue as well.
The front of the phone has a 4-inch display with a single capacitive touch button for home at the bottom. The bezels are distinctly chunky. Apart from that there's a small cut away at the top where the speaker is and a pinhole for the microphone at the bottom left.
The right spine is home to a metallic-looking volume rocker. The left spine has nothing but a silver highlight strip. Up top we have the power button and the 3.5mm headphone jack, while the microUSB port is to be found on the bottom edge.
The back of the ZTE Open C has the camera lens (no flash), a small ZTE logo, and the legend "Firefox OS."
It's a chubby little fella, weighing in at 125g. It's also taller than it really needs to be at 126mm because of those big bezels.
It measures 64.7mm across and those bevelled edges front and back, which taper into the slimming silver highlight strip, are trying to conceal a depth of 10.8mm.
It takes a bit of effort to pop the back off and gain access to the battery, microSD card slot and SIM card slot, but nothing out of the ordinary. The Open C can support cards up to 32GB in size which is handy.
You will probably need a microSD card quite soon because there's only 4GB of internal storage. On my review unit it seemed to be partitioned into 908MB for media storage and 989MB for applications. I guess the other 2GB was eaten up by the Firefox OS and pre-installed apps.
Key features and interface
The ZTE Open C runs Firefox OS 1.3 and when you first start to use it, it's impossible not to be reminded of the early days of Android. The Firefox OS is very accessible.
There's a simple lock screen with the Firefox logo, slide right to unlock the phone or slide left to shortcut to the camera.
The default home screen has a universal search bar and a bunch of 'Smart Collections', which are basically just folders of apps, showing what you have installed in any given category. It also shows suggested additions from the marketplace and web displayed below a dividing line.
There are traditional local apps that have to be downloaded and installed, but the open web APIs in Firefox OS also allow you to use web-based apps without installing them.
You'll obviously need uninterrupted web access, and the quality is not the same right now, but it's nice to be able to jump straight into something without a download.
There are bugs here. The ZTE Open C simply hung on the loading symbol when I first tapped into the existing Games collection, and then did the same when I tried to add a smart collection by long pressing on the home screen. I had to restart the phone to get it to work; not so smart.
Swipe right and you'll find two more home screens with a small smattering of apps. All the basics are there including email, calendar, gallery, camera, settings, and so on.
You'll also find Facebook and Twitter pre-installed, and navigation comes courtesy of Nokia's HERE Maps. I had to go outside to get a GPS lock, but it did work and the directions provided by HERE look pretty accurate.
The bottom of the screen has a dock, which you can configure with whatever apps you want simply by tapping and holding on the icon and then dragging and dropping it.
Swipe down from the top of the screen and you'll find your notifications, with a few quick settings options at the bottom and access to the surprisingly sparse full settings menu.
There's nothing that will surprise iOS or Android users. I think Firefox OS feels more like an old version of Android than anything else, although the solitary home button is very iOS.
That barebones feel is inevitable in a new platform, but the gap between this and the rest of the market is pronounced. The camera app, for example, literally only has a camera and a video option. There's nothing else.
Mozilla has plenty of new features planned for version 1.4 currently under development, including some basic camera options, but there's no telling how long it will take.
If you're belatedly upgrading from a feature phone or buying the Open C as a first smartphone for a child or elderly relative, then it should serve as a great introduction, but coming from anywhere else this is going to feel like a step backward.
One of the key attractions of the smartphone revolution is not the hardware itself, but the apps you can download. Firefox OS is really lacking in this department. There's no Spotify, Netflix, Dropbox, Flipboard, or Ebay. There is a definite lack of quality.
My top finds were Cut the Rope, SoundCloud, Pulse, and LINE, but make no mistake, they don't have the same level of polish or functionality as on other platforms.
It's early days and I'm sure the numbers will grow, but you should be aware of the app situation before you buy a Firefox OS phone.
You could actually snag an entry-level Android smartphone like the Vodafone Smart 4 Mini in the UK for £10 less than the Open C and it offers access to over a million apps; more important than the overall number is the fact that all the big names are represented on Android.
Performance, battery life and essentials
The ZTE Open C is slow. It's not obvious how much of that is down to the hardware and how much of it is down to the Firefox OS, but it is frustrating.
General navigation is laggy. Apps take a while to open and close, sometimes you wonder if your touch has registered and you'll tap again just as the Open C kicks into life.
It's not uncommon to swipe several times before your gesture registers and the transition animations for simple things like pulling down that notification shade are ugly and abrupt.
I also experienced major delays when switching the phone to landscape as the Open C caught up and finally flipped the app.
The experience is reminiscent of early Android. There just hasn't been time to implement more than a basic set of features yet and the polish will come later, but that's no comfort if you buy the Open C now.
Geekbench 3 is not available for Firefox OS so I ran Quake Benchmark. The Open C was able to maintain an average of around 24 frames per second as I panned around.
The ZTE Open C has a 1400mAh Li-ion battery. I expected it to be adequate, but it seems to run down quite fast.
After an hour out at the beach, where I took a couple of photos and checked my email it ran down around 20%. I suspect it might be because it was struggling to get a signal, searching for location settings, and trying to find Wi-Fi.
I charged it fully when I got home. The next four hours I took a few screenshots and emailed them off, downloaded a couple of apps, browsed the web a little, and spent five minutes gaming and it drained the battery by 15%.
When I ran the 90-minute video test the full 100% battery was down to 61% at the end, which is pretty poor.
The Vodafone Smart 4 Mini drained to 63% during the same test and the Moto E still had 72% in the tank.
As a phone the ZTE Open C presents few problems. Call quality was good, I didn't experience any dropped calls, and the people I spoke with said I came through loud and clear. It also seemed to find and hold a signal without any issues.
The problem I did have concerned the proximity sensor. The screen timed out just as it normally would even though I was on a call.
Holding it up to my face did not always turn the screen off and after it timed out pulling the Open C away from my face didn't bring the screen back to life. I had to hit the power button to bring it back. A brief search online revealed that this is a known issue with the ZTE Open C.
I was able to successfully import contacts from Gmail and there's the option to sync with Facebook, or import from the SIM card, MicroSD card, or Outlook. It all looks a bit sparse, but it's functionally fine.
The messaging and email apps are also basic-looking, but they do the trick. One oddity I really didn't like was the constant caps keyboard.
All of the letters on the keyboard layout remained capital whether you tapped the Shift key or not - just like on iOS. The auto-correction and word suggestion are off by default, but I found the typing experience was much faster and more accurate when I turned them on.
I was pleased to find a set of earphones and a charger included in the box as a lot of low cost phones are dispensing these as a standard. There is also an FM radio app on the ZTE Open C, which some people will definitely appreciate.
The only camera is rated at 3.15MP. There is no flash. There is no autofocus. The camera app allows you to take a photo or shoot video and that's it.
The quality of the resulting photos and videos is generally terrible no matter what the environment or lighting conditions. Since there's no flash, taking shots without good light is basically pointless.
If the camera in your phone is important to you then don't buy the ZTE Open C.
Motorola Moto E
The ZTE Open C is only two-thirds of the price of the Moto E, which comes in at £89, but that extra cash buys you a lot. The Moto E has 1GB of RAM and it runs Android 4.4.3 KitKat, which makes for a much smoother experience.
It also has a bigger 4.3-inch screen with a better 540 x 960 pixel resolution, working out at a superior 256ppi. I'm not going to argue that the 5MP shooter in the Moto E is great, but it's certainly a lot better than the Open C's camera and the app is comparably packed with features.
The Moto E is significantly better in terms of hardware and software, so if you can dig up the extra money then the choice is clear.
- Read our in depth Moto E review.
Nokia Lumia 520
Price wise the Lumia 520 is in the same bracket as the ZTE Open C. It runs Windows Phone 8 (soon to be 8.1), which lags behind Android and iOS, but looks positively mature and overflowing with apps and features next to Firefox OS right now.
There isn't a great deal between them in the specs stakes. The Lumia 520 has the same 4-inch display with a 480 x 800 resolution. Inside there's only a 1GHz dual-core processor with 512MB of RAM.
The camera is rated at 5MP and options are limited, but it beats the shooter in the Open C hands down. The Lumia 520 also boasts 8GB of internal storage, so there's a lot more space.
- Read our full Nokia Lumia 520 review.
Vodafone Smart 4 Mini
We're really into budget territory with this one in the UK. At £50 it's actually a tenner cheaper than the Open C and it's also a bit smaller and lighter. Android 4.2 is a major draw and you'll find Google apps and full Play Store access.
The screen is 4 inches and 480 x 800 pixels. There's a 1.3GHz dual-core processor, 512MB of RAM, and 4GB of storage. Even the camera is similarly bad at 3.2MP, although the app does offer some options and modes to play with.
This is almost exactly the same phone as the ZTE Open C, but cheaper and running Android. We can't honestly see any reason to buy the Open C instead of this.
- Read our in depth Vodafone Smart 4 Mini review.
The ZTE Open C is a cheap, entry-level smartphone running a relatively new operating system that's still in its infancy. It handles the basics reasonably well, but there are some major deficiencies in the hardware and the platform that are tough to overlook.
The low price tag is pretty impressive and you do get quite a lot for your money. Extras like the earphones and the charger are good to have.
The web browsing experience is solid, call quality is good, and the basic apps for messaging and email are efficient and easy to use. It's always nice to have the microSD card expansion option.
The community-based open source ideals of Firefox OS are attractive and it is very accessible and straight to the point.
The camera is genuinely horrible. Not only is it missing auto-focus and a flash, but there are zero options in the app.
Firefox OS doesn't have lots of big name apps and some of the apps it does have are obviously inferior to their counterparts on other platforms. The web-based apps require an internet connection. Navigation is laggy and the touch screen is not very responsive.
The proximity sensor doesn't seem to work properly and I also encountered a number of other bugs and glitches while using the ZTE Open C.
The smart collections refused to load and the sound just completely stopped working at one point. I had to restart the phone each time to get things working again and there was no indication what had gone wrong.
The ZTE Open C is very cheap and as a first smartphone it could certainly do a job. It represents a definite step up from the realm of feature phones.
The trouble is you can get a number of smartphones that are a lot better for just a smidgen more cash. The Moto E and the Lumia 520 are superior in terms of specs, performance, and platform and they're not a lot more.
The Vodafone Smart 4 Mini is almost identical in terms of hardware specs, but it delivers everything the mature Android platform has to offer and manages to come in at £10 less than the Open C.
You can feel where this is headed. If I was buying a phone for a family member and I had a small budget then I would not buy the ZTE Open C. It's as simple as that.
When the next version of Firefox OS rolls out, we should see a much-needed improvement, but there's a long way to go to catch Android now.
First reviewed: June 2014