24th Aug 2010 | 10:49
Is an Android phone for under £100 value for money?
ZTE Racer: Overview, design and feel
The world is going Android crazy, with Google currently registering 200,000 activations per day. Is that a reflection of the popularity of the operating system or the sheer number of phones now jumping on board?
It's probably a mixture of both but, given those figures, we're going to see more and more phones like the ZTE Racer.
This sub-£100 Android 2.1-packing smartphone is the cheapest device to offer the Google operating system yet, and ZTE's first.
Affordable Android appears to be the order of the day. The T-Mobile Pulse Mini, Vodafone 845 and LG Optimus have all offered cheap alternatives to the blockbusting HTC, Samsung and Motorola Android phones, but can ZTE make an impression where those before have failed?
For a budget handset, the ZTE racer has quite a solid feel. Its smooth, matt plastic finish encases a 2.8-inch touchscreen, and below that are three touch-sensitive buttons: Home, Menu and Back.
Strangely, there's no search button. It's something we're used to seeing pretty on much every Android device, and it's missed here. If you want to access the phone's general search functionality, you'll need to do so through the Menu key.
Beneath those buttons sits a backlit plastic strip with a metallic finish, providing the Call and End call functionality. The strip lights up when any of the phone's keys pressed, while holding End call brings up the power menu. Overall it's quite an eye-catching feature.
The back of the device is also very pretty. We really like the matt finish; it gives the phone a pleasant feel, although it does get grubby pretty quickly. Everyone loves the Android robot, so it's nice to see him plastered on the back of the device.
Probably less welcome is the whopping great Three Mobile icon. The underdog network is again partnering with the Chinese manufacturer, as it has on many of its budget devices.
The silver-encased 3.2-megapixel camera's lens sits dead centre at the top of the handset. It's an interesting placement, but not an unwelcome one, because it keeps our paws out of the frame.
At 100g, the device has a reassuringly weighty feel, and most of the weight on this pocket-friendly 102 x 55 x 14.5mm device appears to sit at the thicker top half of the device, which becomes slimmer as it moves to the bottom.
This is a contrast to devices like the Vodafone 845, which serves up a rather flimsy-feeling symmetrical handset. The Racer is better.
The sides of the device are a stylish silver, the varying width of which reflects the shape of the handset. The left-hand side is clear of controls, while the right side has an uncovered micro-USB charging port and the volume bar. There's no hard camera button.
On top of the device is a 3.5mm jack and an extremely small power and screen-lock key. It's really too small and awkward to get at when using the device. Thankfully, you can wake the screen by pressing the touch-sensitive panel if the screen has timed out, rather than locking.
Overall, however, the candybar design feels comfortable to use and sits very nicely in the hand. The varying weight of the top and the bottom lends itself to quite a high grip.
Something that lets the phone down a little is how visible the edges of the touchscreen panel are. It goes a little way to cheapening what is definitely one of the most well designed budget handsets on the market.
ZTE Racer: Interface
Android is an open source operating system, meaning that manufacturers can do an awful lot with the bare bones interface to make it their own, or very little and still have an awesome OS.
Motoblur on the Motorola Dext is an excellent social networking UI, Sony Ericsson's Timescape on the Xperia X10 series is very attractive, while Sense on the HTC Desire et al sets the benchmark for everyone.
The lower-end Android devices have, understandably, not gone overboard on producing their own UIs. Indeed, there's a very real risk of a multitude of cheap identikit Android handsets, manufactured by any man and his dog.
It's incredibly simple to get an Android phone on the market with very little work, and even less thought.
There's no overlay whatsoever. But still, this is Android 2.1 for a penny shy of £100, which is an incredibly positive thing.
The Racer opts for the basic three Home screen approach, all of which are highly customisable.
Preloaded onto the interface is the indispensable Google search bar, which sadly lacks the speech-to-text functionality we've seen on most Android phones lately.
We've also got Messages, Contacts, Dialler and Market, as well as a couple of Three Mobile widgets, which are the only things that distinguish this handset from plain Android.
When we began using the device, the first thing that became apparent is just how resistive the 2.8-inch resistive really touchscreen is.
An iPhone 4-like flick of the thumb has about as much effect as attacking The Incredible Hulk with a Polo mint. It seems that the only thing this handset takes notice of is a bit of tough love because it takes a really solid press to achieve anything.
This is especially apparent when swiping through the Home screens and menus, but also when pushing the on-screen apps and widgets. Your thumb is going to get a real workout and it really gets to be a drag after a while.
The extra force you'll need to exert will leave the screen badly smeared, and littered with fingerprints.
At the foot of each is the grid icon to summon the main Android menu, which appears in the rather attractive conveyor belt system that showcases your apps in a rolling manner, but again it's hindered by the lack of responsiveness.
You almost have to press and hold the screen and scroll from there, which can often lead to inadvertently opening applications. It's nowhere near as smooth as on handsets like the Vodafone 845.
Dragging your finger down from the top of the screen brings forth the ever-useful notifications menu, which alerts you to new messages, emails or the progress of your app downloads.
As we mentioned before, you can search the phone's general functionality, which is much like Apple's Spotlight service on the iPhone. Typing in the box will search for apps and contacts, while tapping the magnifying glass will prompt a Google search.
Also on offer in this incarnation of Android are Live Wallpapers, such as Google Maps and the addictive Nexus tap-to-redirect-the-coloured-streams wallpaper, which shot to fame on the Google Nexus One.
They're a nice touch, but we're used to them now, so the novelty of playing with them has worn off.
Another familiar feature is the handy Android control bar, which allows functionality like brightness, Wi-Fi and GPS to be switched on and off without the need for delving deep into the OS.
The familiarity is not something we can hold against the ZTE Racer though, it's great to have it on such an affordable handset.
Apps launch quickly and we experienced very few glitches when using the phone. The Android Market crashed a couple of times, but it didn't affect the current download, which kept on ticking.
The 600Mhz processor and 256MB RAM on the device keeps everything moving at a pretty decent pace, as long as you're realistic about how many apps can run without it grinding to a halt.
Overall, the beauty of this interface is that the same functionality seen on a £500 handset can also be achieved in a £100 device. It's the ease and enjoyment of use that will decide which end of that spectrum you'll go for, and for anyone that has used the HTC Desire, you'll know where that extra dime went.
ZTE Racer: Contacts and calling
Once you've owned or used an Android phone, you never have to worry about the rigmarole of copying and transferring your contacts via SIM, ever again.
If this is your first time using an Android phone, you can easily import contacts from the SIM, but as soon as you've created your Google account, they'll all be backed up to the servers, syncing any new numbers you have, and you're good to go for life.
If you decide to upgrade from the Racer, next time you log in to a Google account on any smartphone, your contacts will be there for you within minutes.
The Contacts app, once again, offers nothing beyond the most basic Android functionality, but downloading the Facebook application and logging in enables you to sync Facebook contacts very simply. They will appear in your contacts book, but display pictures don't download.
Within the contact is the information they've chosen to display on their contacts page, so some will have phone numbers, while others just display email addresses and the option to view a profile.
The same applies to adding Twitter contacts. You can choose to sync with all of your Twitter feeds, or just the ones who're already in your phonebook. Sadly, this seems to be the only way of avoiding repeat contacts for Facebook and Twitter. There's no other means of merging on-board.
Within your basic phone contacts, we're limited to phone number, email, IM and postal address. Beyond that, you can add work information (although no-one is going to be using this as a business phone), notes and a nickname.
You can add a photo, although Google had randomly remembered some of the Facebook pictures of our pals from using previous handsets. Otherwise, you get the Android icon. It also remembered who we'd favourited before.
Opening a contact asks if you'd like to call or send a text, or send an email if an address is listed, which,if you think back only a couple of years, would have been a really high end feature, and one that saves a lot of time.
Making calls is, as you'd expect, extremely straightforward, if you look past the sticky touchscreen.
Launching the Dialler brings up your call log and enables you to start typing in the name of a contact using the alphanumeric keypad, but you can't access your contacts book directly from there.
Call quality is surprisingly good on the Three Mobile network, coming through crisp and clear, and the loud speaker, although quiet, is nowhere near as tinny as some of the other affordable Android contenders.
Sorry, Apple, but no amount of holding this phone, squeezing it, eating it or throwing it in a furnace caused us to lose mobile signal or drop calls. A £100 phone that works as a mobile should? Fancy that.
ZTE Racer: Messaging
"And if you're taking your first worrying steps into button-less keyboards, we couldn't recommend this option more highly," we said of the HTC Desire back in March.
Well, if you're taking your first worrying steps into button-less keyboards, we couldn't recommend this option. Period.
Even sending a simple 10-15 word text message on the ZTE Racer will probably take you three times longer than it would on the current leader of the Android pack.
Using the Android keyboard to type out texts and emails requires the same amount of concentration and precision as throwing 180 every time you step up to the darts oche after the obligatory five-pint warm-up.
You really have to focus, and ensure you apply the right amount of pressure. We found that about 40-50 per cent of our key presses weren't recognised, or hit an adjacent number.
We found the best approach was to type as if you're trying to slightly smudge the keys while leading a little bit to the left of your target for a better success rate, but we came close to launching this phone against the wall so many times during this test. Maybe that's just our angry disposition, but still.
Typing in portrait mode is a practical no-go, but the swift accelerometer offers some relief in landscape mode.
If you insist on persevering with sending messages on the ZTE Racer, rather than finding new and intuitive ways to satisfy your rage, there are plenty of options on board.
As with every Android phone, Google talk is installed as standard, for IMing with your Gmail friends, as well as a dedicated Gmail app that remains streets ahead of the generic email application on Android devices.
This offers a great reproduction of the web-based experience with threaded emails, something that's not available on the multi-account app.
The email application does offer combined inboxes for Gmail, Hotmail, Exchange and any POP3 or IMAP-based servers. You can choose a default account and still view the accounts separately.
One pleasant touch is the default tone ZTE has chosen for incoming texts and emails. It's very soothing to the ear. When a new message comes through, you'll also be notified by a flashing green light which nestles in the right-hand side of the earpiece speaker.
We also downloaded Skype as our first port of call, while the new Vonage app allows free calls and IMs to our Facebook pals. Sadly there's nothing on the Android Market that offers a decent Windows Live Messenger service yet.
ZTE Racer: Internet
With a 2.8-inch screen, the Racer was always going to struggle as a browsing device. Add into the mix a resistive touchscreen that's hopeless to type on, with no multi-touch or pinch-to-zoom, and usability is going to be a problem.
While this is true, we have to remind ourselves that this is a £100 handset, and what we've come to expect and enjoy about Android phones to date isn't going to be forthcoming. It's about reassessing our expectations.
The WebKit Android browser is built into the device, which enables us to make the best of the situation with its easy navigation and simplistic design.
Despite the screen size, text is reformatted to fit the display very well and continues to do so when you use the on-screen zoom controls. Web pages, thankfully, load at a reasonable text size and ask you to navigate from there, rather than offering a full- page view.
The bookmarks bar next to the URL also offers easy access to your favourites, most visited pages and browsing history in easy to navigate menus.
We'd really like to have opportunity to copy and paste text from web pages into emails, but it's easy to copy and share URLs by pressing and holding within the bar. Naturally, there's no Flash support, so web video doesn't really stretch beyond the YouTube widget.
If you fancy a landscape view, the accelerometer is like Theo Walcott on route to the bathroom with a serious case of the squits. Quite fast, essentially.
WebKit isn't the only player on Android these days though. The Opera Mini browser is making headway and serves up a great alternative.
Using the Mobile View option transcodes the data through Opera's servers, filtering out the non-essential information for much quicker page loads.
The thumbnail bookmarks presented on the home page are also a really neat addition.
This handset also boasts the advantage of Three Mobile's UK best-performing 3G mobile broadband performance at 7.2Mbps to compensate with some seriously fast browsing.
802.11 Wi-Fi is also on-board, and as with all Android devices, it'll remember your favourite networks and shut down the 3G when you enter the wireless zone to save your data and speed up your progress.
ZTE Racer: Camera
The 3.2-megapixel auto-focus camera on the ZTE Racer is one of the major letdowns. We didn't have high hopes going in, but we were still really underwhelmed.
There's no hard shutter button, so that taking pictures has to be done on the resistive touchscreen, which means your chances of nailing any moment first time are slim to none.
We spent ages prodding away at the on-screen capture button, but with no real luck. There's also an exposure meter, which controls how bright your photographs are, but again we struggled to adjust this (and the zoom) effectively using the on-screen controls.
The results are as expected really. Colours are washed out, regardless of the exposure controls and any attempts at capturing moving targets ends in failure:
It's able to capture a modest amount of detail, but conditions have to be perfect for this:
Taking pictures close-up is an exercise in futility, producing grainy, out of focus results:
Recent Android phones have also provided an easy roll-out tab with access to the settings, but here you have to go into the menu to access this.
There you'll find white balance options as well as various colour modes and effects. Most of which are useless, with the auto setting providing the best option.
Video recording doesn't offer a better standard either, although the sharing via YouTube, Bluetooth, Messages and Gmail options are straightforward ways of distributing the content.
ZTE Racer: Media
Although lacking a little in the volume stakes, audio is of a good standard through a decent pair of headphones (the in-box cans aren't even worth unwrapping). The funky, sexual sounds of Rick James came pulsating into our brains at MP3 player-like quality.
We'd happily use this as an MP3 player in a forgot-my-iPod emergency, and with a 2GB microSD card in the box, you can add enough choice nuggets to get you through the day.
Adding music is very straightforward. Just mount the device as a storage device via the micro-USB cable and drag and drop onto the memory card. The phone will sort the organisation.
The music player is also pretty good and easy to use, segregating artists, albums, songs and playlists, while the playback screen has easy to access controls like repeat and random.
The only real drawback was how playback occasionally skips when the accelerometer kicks in. This makes it a little more difficult to use as a mobile music player, although you could turn the acclerometer off (we tried this, but when we used the phone normally again we got frustrated).
As with most of other aspects of this phone, having Android on board gives the phone a thousand times the functionality it would have with a manufacturer-built OS.
The Android Market offers access to the Amazon MP3 store, which enables you to download music to the device on the go.
The device plays MP3, WAV and iTunes-friendly AAC files if that's your preferred download portal.
Video playback (H.264, H.263, and MPEG4) is a slightly different proposition. We're only talking about a 2.8-inch, 240x320, TFT screen here, which isn't the crispest in the world. The video app icon is slightly pixelated, as is the content within.
We tested the Rocky trailer on the device, and both Mick and Rocky's haggard mugs don't get much prettier on this screen.
The accelerometer lag also blights the video player, as well, which is a strange one. The processor doesn't struggle with loading or shifting from portrait to landscape view, so it's difficult to decipher where this bug originates.
The Android YouTube widget is as reliable as ever, and now benefits from an upgraded mobile YouTube player as well.
As for viewing your photographs, the nifty Gallery application, which we first saw on the Google Nexus One and is rumoured to be inspiring the design of Android 3.0, features on this device too.
The thumbnails are arranged neatly into albums, and expand in an eye-pleasing animation to a grid view. From here you can view and swipe through the photos individually, although they do take a while to fully render.
This is far from the best deployment of this application we've seen. Even the sub-par Acer Liquid E offered a mighty fine screen and albums separated by geographical location.
ZTE Racer: Battery life and maps
Battery life is a funny one on the ZTE Racer. It can appear to charge very quickly via the micro-USB port. We plugged it in while rocking the red zone, and within in an hour the meter was giving us the green light – before degenerating at pretty much the same rate.
These lights change colour more often than the Trafalgar Square traffic lights.
In saying that, we left this phone for two days without touching it and it was still hanging on for dear life so there is a little staying power in the 1100mAh battery.
So, it all comes down to frequency of use. During the test, the battery didn't hold out for more than about 4 hours while we constantly browsed the net, played media, took photos and generally took liberties with the little fella.
ZTE is claiming a modest 3 hours and 30 minutes of talk-time, and up to 200 hours in standby mode. The results aren't too far shy of that, but this isn't the phone you want to be taking to a festival. You'd be lucky to make it past the first 3am silent disco.
If you're a moderate user, you'll be able to get away with charging every evening, but if you're attached to your smartphone, it might be an idea to take the micro-USB cable to work.
The idea of a fully-functional mobile sat nav on a £100 phone was a pipedream as far back as a year ago. The only real option was to pay for something like TomTom for iPhone and Co-pilot for Android.
Now every new phone under the Android banner has Google Maps Navigation service and it doesn't cost a penny. This is the cheapest phone yet to boast the voice-enabled functionality, so how does it function?
Firstly you'll have to install the speech package, which is a very swift addition to the handset from the Android Market. Then, once you've searched for directions in Google Maps, just select the Navigation option and you're on your way.
However, it's not that straightforward. The phone often found it quite difficult to establish a reliable GPS signal and indoors it's a complete no-go.
Once you have a signal locked on, the map view quickly switches to a more familiar 3D view and there's a host of layers you can add including satellite view and traffic.
Voice instructions come through very clearly, but we could certainly use a little more volume from the speakers.
If you need to come out of the app, Google Maps will continue to run in the background and it's easy to access the "ongoing" service from the Notifications tab, which can be dragged down from the top of the Android interface.
Now we have to question the wisdom of housing Google Maps Navigation on a device with a 2.8-inch screen, and an unresponsive one at that - although we understand that it's included by default, and good to have as an option.
But for a start, there's no way that attaching this to your dashboard is going to cut it, unless you have telescopic vision. So, you're going to be holding this in your hand, and we can't say that it's much safer than texting on the go.
We reckon you're better off sticking to phones like the Dell Streak or Motorola Milestone for using this functionality, but it's still very handy to have.
When trying to find your way around a city on foot, the regular Google Maps functionality is obviously on board.
Google Maps also remembers your previous searches and in v4.1 there's the option of a Live Maps wallpaper, which follows your movements around with a little blue dot on your home screen.
There's also Google Latitude functionality added in, so you and your friends can track each other's progress around the globe.
Also on board is the new Places functionality, which enables you to list places of interest or your business on Google Maps, but also to discover nearby restaurants, bars and coffee houses. It's a really slick, fast loading interface that displayed accurate information very quickly.
Altogether, we were quite surprised at how rapid the Google Maps experience was on a phone of this ilk. The GPS signal is not always 100 per cent reliable but when it locks onto a signal, the phone's processor doesn't let you down with lagging loading times.
ZTE Racer: Connectivity and apps
The phone has most of the connectivity options we've come to expect from the top-end smartphones.
Perhaps the highlight is the 7.2Mbps HSDPA mobile internet on the UK-best Three Mobile network. We were able to maintain internet connectivity in a range of locations, even on a long walk out into the Shropshire wilderness.
We've performed the same test with phones on all of the other networks. O2 and T-Mobile performed pretty well, but Orange and Vodafone struggle.
Of course, this test will vary depending on the area, but we've found that a test in a rural area is a good barometer for nationwide success.
For when you're indoors, the reliable 802.11 Wi-Fi takes over proceedings with no ill effects. There's also 2G connectivity on the EDGE network.
Switching to 2G networks in the wireless controls menu will also conserve valuable battery life, if you're less reliant on a fast, constant internet connection.
Bluetooth 2.0 with A2DP is on board, and we had no problems pairing our laptop with the device, enabling quick and easy file transfers.
The connectivity also enabled us to play back the phone's audio files and to use the computer as a loudspeaker to make calls. Strangely though, enabling this feature automatically calls your last number.
If you'd rather not use Bluetooth to transfer your files, it can be done by mounting the device via USB. There your media files can be easily transferred onto the 2GB microSD card, and the phone will automatically organise them into the corresponding areas on the handset.
Considering Three Mobile's broadband prowess, we'd have really appreciated being able to tether this device to our laptops for on-the-go connectivity. We had the Three Mobile software installed from a previous dongle and hoped to use it to connect, but without any joy.
The Vodafone 845 enabled this, so it's a bit of a minor disappointment.
One of the reasons why every manufacturer, aside from Apple and the ever-stubborn Nokia, is verging towards Android is the burgeoning App Market, which is now a credible second tier alternative to the App Store.
While the sheer amount of high quality apps still trails the iPhone's offering, there's more than enough to get by on here, many of which come pre-loaded on to the handset.
The Android 2.1 version of the Market is very nicely designed and a million miles ahead of the initial incarnations.
We've already spoken of the on-board Google awesomeness with Maps, Navigation, Mail, Latitude, Places and Talk, but there are other handy additions like Sound Recorder and Docs To Go, the latter of which enables you to read Microsoft Office documents.
There's an FM radio on board which works with the bundled-in headset acting as an antenna. Unfortunately, the quality of the headset is so shocking that, unless you use your own, the FM radio functionality is pretty pointless.
It's a pretty poorly designed interface too, in all fairness. Scanning for channels is a laborious and boring experience and once you get there, signal quality is generally poor.
In terms of social networking, there are the bog-standard official Facebook and Twitter widgets that display status updates and fields to update your own, while providing links to your feeds.
If you want to display them on your Home screen though, both of them combined will fill an entire screen. With the limited real estate offered by only three screens, there's a decision to be made.
ZTE Racer: Comparison
This isn't the only budget Android phone in town, but it is the cheapest. Android 2.1 for under £100 is a real watershed that should see many other devices follow suit. In terms of competitors, it looks to undercut the likes of the HTC Wildfire, which is a scaled down version of the HTC Desire, available at about half of the price at £200.
It's not in a position to compete on any real level, so if you have the money to spare then this should be your option. It has Sense UI and a much better build and screen quality.
Mid-range devices like the Motorola Dext present a more realistic target, but it doesn't quite have the power and flexibility to compete there either.
This phone goes directly against the T-Mobile Pulse Mini and the Vodafone 845, and it does well against both. Granted both of those devices do slightly more with the Android OS, but the Racer is a well-designed phone with a more attractive price point.
The screen is better than on the 845, and it seems to have a little more grunt despite the identical processing power and RAM. The camera is nothing to shout about with any of them and here it performs worst, while the Music app produces some surprisingly good sounds.
If our money was going on any of the three, then we'd opt for the ZTE Racer.
ZTE Racer: Hands on gallery
ZTE Racer: Official photography
ZTE Racer: Verdict
The ZTE Racer is the first Android phone to dip beneath the hallowed £100 mark. What we expected to be a very low-end, budget handset, has surprised us in a few areas to stand tall as a decent alternative for hard-up Android lovers or first-time smartphone buyers.
It's smartly designed and doesn't feel like some of the cheap-looking handsets we've seen from the Chinese manufacturers, in recent years. Three Mobile, with its reasonably-priced pre and post-pay deals is the perfect partner for the device.
The functionality we've come to love from Google's open source operating system is present in most areas, but there's no skin to make the experience slightly more user friendly. To be honest, it would be unreasonable to expect one.
Social networkers will have their fixes taken care of, while the fast browsing experience kept us connected at all times. The ever broadening range of applications from the App Market is a real bonus.
The handset isn't without its flaws. The resistive touchscreen is very poor and typing messages and emails can be an absolute nightmare. You really have to apply a lot of pressure for your touch to be recognised and even then it's difficult to be accurate.
Cameras on Android devices have been traditionally weak, so there's no surprise that the 3.2-megapixel snapper does little to convince here either. The Music player produces some decent sounds and is a rather pleasant surprise.
All in all, however, we're impressed by the results here. If you're not a high-end Android snob and are looking for a cheap alternative, then this is the budget Android handset you definitely look at.
There's plenty to like here, including the sub-£100 price point. We enjoyed using this as a music player, while the processor seemed to handle most tasks with very little whining, stalling and complaining. The phone has a decent build and reasonable design, and Google Maps Navigation on a phone of this ilk is also a great bonus
The touchscreen on the device did its best to resist our every whim and desire, and typing is a nightmare. Battery life can be a little dicky, while the issue with the buggy accelerometer can't be overlooked. The camera is very poor also.
For £100, the ZTE racer presents incredible value for first time Android users. It's better than its competitors and boasts the functionality only seen on much more expensive handsets until very recently. It's an ideal first smartphone, but be wary of that middle-ages touchscreen.