ZTE Open: This dirt-cheap smartphone is a swing and a miss
Hands-on with the $80 Firefox OS mobe
Review Of the various open source Android challengers currently under development, the Mozilla Foundation's Firefox OS was the first to reach the market with actual, commercially available products. The ZTE Open smartphone is one such product. Unfortunately, that's about all it's got going for it.
When ZTE started selling the Open via eBay in August, I wasted no time ordering one. It was cheap. It was cute. It was orange. And I liked the idea of Firefox OS, a smartphone platform designed from the ground up as an open ecosystem built around the web, where even the phone's dialer and messaging apps are web standards–based.
But the value of a product like a smartphone is in the execution, not the idea. And after fiddling around with the ZTE Open for a couple of weeks, I'm sorry to report that execution is where it strikes out.
Strike One: The hardware
There's no other way to say it: the ZTE Open is a cheaply made phone. Unlike Apple's "unapologetically plastic" iPhone 5c – which turned out to be little other than an iPhone 5 that comes in colors, with a price tag to match – ZTE's Firefox OS mobe practically revels in cheapness. With an $80 list price in the US, it has to.
Its body, though not unpleasant to hold, is all-plastic. It has a 3.5-inch display like the iPhone 4S and has a similarly sized face, but it's chunkier: 12.5mm thick compared to the iPhone 4S's 9.3mm.
It looks nice and friendly, but it turns out it's one of those really annoying friends
Its small screen helps to keep its weight down, but that's not much consolation once you realize that it's running at 320-by-480 resolution. That's one-fourth the number of pixels as the iPhone 4S's Retina display and the same resolution as the very first iPhone, which shipped in 2007.
Smartphone screens have been getting bigger as more and more customers have been using their phones as a primary device for accessing the web. It seems odd that a brand-new platform built around the web would skimp on screen real estate, but there you have it.
The ZTE Open's internals aren't much by modern smartphone standards, either. It's based on a single-core 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon MSM7225A processor with Adreno 200 graphics and has just 512MB of internal storage and 256MB of RAM. Curiously, that's less than the recommended amount of RAM to run Firefox on Android. The result is that while the UI isn't exactly dog slow, it isn't snappy, either.
Other than that, what's there to say about the ZTE Open's hardware? It has a fixed-focus, 3.1MP camera. It has a 3.5mm headphone jack. It supports HSDPA, dual-band 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.1, GPS, and FM radio. It takes microSD cards up to 32GB. Stop me when you're overwhelmed.
Not that anyone should expect much more for $80. You know you're getting a low-end phone when you buy in. But the overall package just feels like a throwback to the early days when vendors hadn't figured out what customers want from smartphones, and it's bound to disappoint anyone who isn't upgrading from an even lower-end feature phone.
Strike Two: The operating system
Feature phone converts, particularly in the developing world, are exactly who Mozilla has in mind with Firefox OS. But even this is problematic, because the ZTE Open running Firefox OS 1.0 just isn't going to impress anyone. It does too much to be considered a dumbphone, but for a smartphone, it's plenty dumb.
Just navigating the UI is a pain. It's based on a few simple touchscreen gestures, but using them is annoying because they often don't work. When you try to swipe to switch to the next screen, you're just as likely to activate an icon on the current screen. Pulling down the notification area typically takes two or three tries. Again, having such a small display does the ZTE Open no favors.
Looks OK, but there's not much going on under there
If that wasn't bad enough, the onscreen keyboard will make you want to throw the phone across the room. It's tiny and has no smarts at all. Predictive text? Fuhgeddaboudit. Typing anything more than a word or two is laborious. When you try to type a double letter, you'll probably get it right once but not the second time. When you go to type a period in a URL, you'll accidentally hit return instead. And again. And again.
Now consider that the main ways to get your contacts into this so-called smartphone are to import them from your SIM card or enter them by hand. You can't sync with Google, Exchange, or desktop email clients. You can supposedly sync with Facebook, but every time I tried it, Facebook gave me an "invalid application" error. As far as I can tell, it doesn't work at all, but I don't use Facebook for contact info anyway. And the thought of typing in all those names and numbers manually on that keyboard made me shudder, so I didn't bother.
Sadly, my experience with the Contacts app set the tone for the other built-in apps, such as the calendar, photo gallery, and notepad. They all seemed very rudimentary, like demo apps rather than the real thing. My overall impression is that Firefox OS 1.0 is today where Android 1.0 was five years ago – and with low-end Android phones now retailing for around the same price as the ZTE Open, that leaves Firefox OS with a tough row to hoe.
Mind you, Firefox OS development is moving fast. Mozilla is hoping to update it quarterly, and there's already a version 1.1 image available for the Firefox OS handsets from Spanish startup Geeksphone. But there's no Firefox 1.1 for the ZTE Open so far, and according to Mozilla sources, shipping the update is entirely up to ZTE. Much will depend on how committed handset makers are to working with Mozilla and Firefox OS in general.
Strike Three: The browser
The biggest disappointment about the ZTE Open, however, was the web browser. "Now wait a minute," you'll say, "are you really telling me that a smartphone OS named after a web browser and built entirely around web standards is no good for browsing the web?" Sorry, but I am.
On Firefox OS, what look like app icons are mostly just links to mobile websites. It does a clever thing where you can search for
apps sites by subject, like "Movies" or "Sports", and it presents you with a page full of relevant options, with a neat little icon for each. But when you tap the icons, you're really just getting the same thing as if you had typed in the URL of the associated mobile website yourself.
Firefox OS makes the web look like apps. Search for Google and you get its services in neat packages
It's a clever approach, but it has its problems. First is that you're overly dependent on your data connection. You can pin these "apps" to your home screen, but that's really just adding a bookmark. The Gmail "app" doesn't store your mail offline, for example; it's just a link to the mobile version of Gmail.com. (There is a built-in email client that can work with Gmail accounts, by the way, but like the other built-in apps it's pretty primitive.)
Mozilla offers a Marketplace where you can download apps that store some of their HTML and other assets on your phone, so you don't need a data connection to launch them once they're installed. That's as close as Firefox OS gets to what other platforms call apps. But so far, most of what I want isn't in the Marketplace. It's the same chicken-and-egg problem faced by every upstart smartphone platform: why build the apps when no one has the phones?
But the worst problem with browser-based apps on the ZTE Open is that the browser simply isn't very good. In Firefox OS, everything is rendered in the browser, but the ZTE Open's screen is just too small and UIs sometimes render strangely. Maybe that's the fault of web designers rather than the browser or the phone itself, but it's still annoying.
And have I mentioned that it's slow? Even over Wi-Fi, loading complex web pages is really a chore for that 1GHz processor. Scrolling is choppy and sluggish, and it's easy to make mistakes when clicking links or buttons, leaving you scrambling for the Back button, slowly. I repeatedly caught myself reaching for my other phone – my "real" phone – when I needed to look something up in a hurry.
The mobile web apps that Firefox OS suggests alleviate some of the pain, but they gave the distinct impression of browsing the mobile web of a decade ago. Is it really necessary to use what look like WAP sites on a smartphone in 2013? Their dumbed-down UIs seemed sparse and awkward, and even these simplified sites occasionally rendered weirdly. Worse, they sometimes just didn't work, like the Fandango site that would display show times for movies but would crap out when I tried to buy tickets.
Yelp and Yahoo! Weather both suggested I install their Android apps. I found myself wishing I could.
Game over for Firefox OS?
And that's the thing about Mozilla building a smartphone OS based solely on web technologies: we've been there already, and we didn't like it. Remember in 2007 when Steve Jobs told developers that all they needed to build apps for the iPhone was the Safari browser? They all scoffed. Just four months later, Jobs admitted Apple was working on a native app SDK, and the entire industry has been moving that direction ever since.
Smartphone technology has come a long way since those early days, and many modern mobile devices make fine web-browsing terminals. But I'm here to tell you that if you didn't like using web-based apps on an original iPhone in 2007, you won't like using them on a ZTE Open today.
It has an OS named after a web browser, but it's not much fun to visit web pages on the ZTE Open
Firefox OS is further hamstrung by its weak hardware. Using the ZTE Open is a novelty for a while, but firing up an old Android phone you found at the back of a drawer would be, too. In terms of performance and features, the two would be comparable.
I haven't used the Alcatel One Touch Fire – the other Firefox OS phone now being sold through some carriers – but its specs are mostly similar to the ZTE Open's, including the weak processor, limited RAM, and subpar screen. I imagine that it, too, would disappoint anyone who had used another recent smartphone. Only the Geeksphone handsets offer more respectable specs, but the current state of Firefox OS makes them hard to recommend, either.
As much as I support what Mozilla is trying to do conceptually, the bottom line is that working with Firefox OS was just too painful for me. It slowed me down, and the problem wasn't a learning curve but that doing things I'm used to doing on a smartphone was just too difficult on the ZTE Open, and sometimes impossible.
So will phones like this find their audience? It's possible. Admittedly, I, a tech-savvy middle-class consumer living in the US, am not their target market. But in a world awash with Android phones with ever-cheaper price tags, I fear devices like the ZTE Open will be a tough sell to anyone.
Mozilla says Firefox OS is about freedom. For most smartphone users, freedom means the ability to get the job done. In that respect, the ZTE Open comes up short – and if the next generation of Firefox OS phones hopes to win a wider audience, Mozilla definitely has its work cut out for it. ®