How low-cost can you go and still make a smartphone? With the ZTE Open C, the answer is: pretty darn low. With its inexpensive parts, bare-bones specs, and Firefox’s entirely Web-based OS, the ZTE Open C slides into eBay for an incredibly wallet-friendly $90, £70, and €85, respectively. It’s also available through other distributors in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America, but not currently in Australia.
Its attractive low price may draw you in, but just make sure to temper your expectations. The Open C was built for basic, affordable smartphone functioning like interacting over social messages, email, and texts; browsing the Web; and installing (Web-based) apps. And in these areas, it does deliver.
Although the phone and OS have improved since the first ZTE Open , Firefox OS is still under-baked, the camera’s image quality is poor, and the smartphone’s overall performance lags compared to some ultrabudget Android and Windows phones. Granted, those other handsets do tend to cost a little more, but the extra expense pays off. If you’re moving from a feature phone to a smartphone, the ZTE Open C will expand your horizons. Otherwise, unless price and simplicity are the absolute priority, I’d opt instead for almost any other phone.
You can pocket the ZTE Open C in three colors: black, orange, and blue, though the review unit I got here in San Francisco is matte black. Silvery accents run the handset’s rounded spines, from the volume rocker on the right side down to the phone’s chin. A smaller phone despite the wider-than-fashionable bezel — at 5 inches tall by 2.6 inches wide by 0.43 inch thick (or 26mm by 64.7mm by 10.8mm) — the Open C is easier to palm than most and tucks with ease into smaller size pockets. At 4.4 ounces (125 grams), it has enough heft to remind you of its presence, but doesn’t drag you down.
The Open C’s 4-inch screen may have you leaning in a little closer than you would on a larger phone to see the display, and it makes typing on the virtual keyboard a little cramped. The screen itself is an adequate 800×480-pixel WVGA resolution with a pixel density of 233ppi. I kept brightness at the halfway mark, but even when I was more bullish on brightness, the colors still seemed a bit muted and edges didn’t really pop. Even simple websites exhibited a heap of aliasing and color gradients that looked a little patchy to the naked eye.
Below the screen, you’ll find the single capacitive button, Home. Plug the charger into the bottom of the phone and find the power button and headset jack up top. On the back, the Open C’s 3-megapixel camera (no flash) patiently awaits your snaps. The soft-touch back panel pops off easily, especially if you use the indentation near the base of the phone’s back cover.
Beneath said cover, you’ll find a microSD card slot that takes up to 32GB in offloaded storage; my review unit came with a 4GB card slotted in. Be forewarned, you’ll have to tilt out the battery if you want to get to the full-size SIM card slot.
OS and apps
The Open C runs Firefox OS 1.3, which is many steps ahead of the first iteration of the HTML-based OS, but still has a long way to go if it wants to feature-match Windows Phone, Android, and iOS. Firefox-maker Mozilla stresses that the newbie OS is made to be easy-to-navigate right out of the box for first-timers, and also adds that the company has many more features coming down the pipeline.
Version 1.3 supports hotspots and POP 3 email, better access to music from notifications tray and from the lock screen. Coming in version 1.4, Mozilla will pile on a lot of extra camera features like additional resolution options, HDR, white balance support, a self-timer for both front and rear cameras. It will also start to work with CDMA phones and with 4G LTE radios, both technical capabilities that limit it now to 3G GSM networks.
When it comes to basic navigation, Firefox OS is easy to use — you can unlock to the camera or to the start screen, and it’s evident where you can apply universal search. Several folders are preloaded for you, and you can also add your own pre-made Smart Collections by pressing and holding the start screen. There’s the Marketplace for apps, an FM radio, music player, clock, notes, and Here Maps. The Firefox browser let you email links, but you won’t be able to copy/paste them, or share them to your social networks.
Compared to the original ZTE Open , the Open C’s 3-megapixel camera is a definitely improvement, but that isn’t saying much when you compare image quality with that of other, slightly pricier budget phones. There’s no flash, which is typical for handsets on the low side of the price range, but neither is there autofocus.
Assuming you can nail the focus yourself, image quality is poor. Since there’s no flash and a tiny aperture, you’ll get the best brightness and color reproduction in environments with abundant natural light. Edges are mushy, details disintegrate, colors tinted blue, and there are artifacts everywhere you look. Pictures are suited for capturing the moment, and there are some editing tools to help you crop and adjust the image. However, snaps don’t look their best when uploaded to social networks like Twitter and Facebook.
Video capture is likewise functional, but less than stellar. Image quality is crackly and there’s that pesky focus issue to contend with. Likely in the spirit of keeping things simple, the Firefox OS doesn’t dole out a list of options for picking video resolution or setting recording time limits. These will likely arrive in the next wave of updates along with other camera enhancements.
For the photos and videos you do take, you’ll get 4GB internal storage and 512GB RAM.
Yes, a seriously budget device like the Open C shouldn’t be held anywhere near the same standards as more expensive and advanced devices. Yet any way you slice and dice it, you’ll be waiting around for the Open C to do its thing. It’s faster than the original ZTE Open, but so is every successor phone today compared to its predecessor two years before.
I noticed some significant hang time when navigating around, opening apps, and waiting for folders to load. At times, the Open C didn’t register my taps, and I had to return to the main menu to try again. Oddly, the Open C also had trouble connecting to some of the eligible Wi-Fi networks in its list.
Firefox 1.3 has enabled phones like the C to deliver download speeds as fast as 21Mbps, though the OS won’t support LTE just yet. Even over Wi-Fi, the Open C plodded along, loading up websites at a leisurely pace, and the same went for T-Mobile’s data network. I did play a number of games, backed by the phone’s 1.2GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 200 MSM8210 chipset. I was able to play a number of simple games, enough to pass the time, but nothing with great speed or rich graphical detail.
Battery life on the Open C was also a challenge on its 1,400mAh ticker. Even with the screen timeout set to 1 minute and brightness set at half-mast, I noticed that the battery drained at a more rapid rate than I liked. Our official lab result showed it lasted 11.32 hours on our talk time test.
I tested the ZTE Open C’s audio quality in San Francisco using T-Mobile’s network. My calling partner loved the phone, declaring it an A in quality. It was very loud, he said, and very clear, without a trace of background noise. There was a slight distortion when my voice levels peaked, and if he strained his ears, he said I sounded slightly unnatural, but that these peccadilloes didn’t obscure the overall excellent call.
I’m glad he had such a great experience, because all I noticed was distracting echo and a hush of background noise that didn’t distract, but did add a gauzy layer. Voices were also a little lispy and raspy. Volume was fine at its maximum level, but I didn’t like that there wasn’t any in reserve.
ZTE Open C call quality test
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While we were of split opinion on the phone’s voice quality through the earpiece, we both had poor experiences with speakerphone. Volume plummeted when I held the phone at hip level; voices sounded at a whisper on maximum volume. Although he said I sounded clear, my test partner agreed that I was too quiet to properly hear.
Buy it or skip it?
Until we start seeing those $25 Firefox phones enter the market, the ZTE Open C’s asking price is really rock bottom. The phone’s low cost comes at a price; mainly the quality of its components and its subsequent performance. If you’re absolutely guided by low price when looking for a starter phone, the Open C will check both requirements off the list.
However, I’d personally go a little higher and put my money on more developed operating systems that come on more advanced hardware, like the Android-powered Motorola Moto E for $130/£90, or Nokia Lumia 520 Windows phone for $100/£85 (the Lumia 521 costs $120 on US network T-Mobile).