ZTE Open: This dirt-cheap smartphone is a swing and a miss

Hands-on with the $80 Firefox OS mobe

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.

Screenshot of Firefox OS app launch screen

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.

You have to hand it to Mozilla for its vision. Why download apps built for a single platform from a proprietary app store when you already have the entire, open web at your fingertips? When developers are building smartphone apps with HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript anyway, why not just skip the apps and go straight to the web?

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.

Screenshot showing Firefox OS app discovery

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.

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