To discuss the Open’s performance, we need to be clear on what it really is: it’s an extreme economy model smartphone. That $80 price tag doesn’t come without cut corners; rather, it comes with quite a few of them. To that end, the Open comes with specs that would not impress in any other context. It’s driven by a 1 GHz single-core processor, and features 256 MB of RAM and 512 MB of storage, of which 140 is available out of the box. This makes it comparable to Android smarphones that might have been out a few years ago, but it’s definitely not a high-end user experience. Fortunately, an extremely lightweight interface keeps things relatively speedy, so it’s not like you’re trying to wade through mud most of the time, although the web browser does bog down on complex sites.
As one of the first devices out, and with so little software available, there’s really no way to benchmark the Open at this point, and nothing to compare it to even if we could. Just bear in mind that it’s not a multimedia powerhouse, more like a jukebox.
While the ZTE Open boasts the standard WiFi and Bluetooth, as well as a built-in WiFi hotspot for sharing its internet connection to your laptop or other devices, it’s when we get to the cellular radio that things become a little complicated, and we learn some of the drawbacks of an unlocked phone. The Open supports quad-band GSM networks, on the 850/900/1800/1900 bands, which means it can be used for talk or text on just about any GSM carrier anywhere in the world. It also supports quad-band HSPA high speed data on the 850/900/1900/2100 bands. What this means in practical terms is that while the ZTE Open can be used on almost any network, here in the US it’s going to suffer from some limitations. For example, T-Mobile users would be primarily limited to 2G data, since it doesn’t support the 1700 band that T-Mobile uses for their high speed network. T-Mobile has converted their towers in about 50 cities to have 1900 MHz 3G, which the Open could use, but 50 cities is far from being even the majority of T-Mobile’s territory. In my case, I couldn’t find a single city within 300 miles of me that would have it.
AT&T users fare rather better: since their 3G and 3.5G network is built on 850 and 1900, you should get pretty much full coverage out of AT&T. Better yet, being an unlocked phone, you could theoretically use the ZTE Open with just about any plan AT&T offers, even some of their very inexpensive plans that still include data service. And you will want data service, since most of the apps on the Open are basically portals to online content. If you’re content to live on WiFi, you could get a much better tablet for the same $80.
No matter what network you choose, though, the Open won’t be able to get on the more advanced LTE networks being rolled out. It simply doesn’t support them, partly due to cost and partly due to the effort to make it carrier-independent. LTE networks at the moment vary a lot from carrier to carrier, making it difficult to support more than one carrier while still being affordable.
In performance terms, the cellular radio on the Open actually isn’t bad. It displays performance in holding a signal that’s comparable to my Samsung Infuse, which is pretty good considering that the Infuse was quite the high-end phone when it came out. Call quality seemed good, and it even did its best with what was available when running on 2G data.
Being my first introduction to the Firefox OS, a little bit of a learning curve was definitely required. Not as much as you might think though, given that Firefox definitely has some superficial similarities to Android. There’s a notification shade that you pull down, you can swipe sideways to switch between screens, and icons are handled similarly. One of the first things that took some getting used to was that there was no sign-in: unlike Android and iOS, your Firefox device isn’t tied to an online account where your information or purchased apps are stored. There’s no account tied to it at all, nor any central system.
Once you’re in, you get used to the basics pretty quickly. Firefox isn’t a complicated platform, although you can definitely tell it’s a first generation one. The basics are solid, but there are a lot of places where polishing is needed. For instance, the aforementioned problem with not being able to use the keyboard in landscape, even to text. That’s a major issue especially on a tiny screen. Some of the gestures are less well thought out, too. Flicking up from the bottom of the screen, for instance, sometimes means “go back one thing” and sometimes it means “go back to the home page.” This means frustration sometimes when you wanted to back up one menu and end up having to navigate back to where you were. A little more uniformity would go a long way.
Still the big weakness of Firefox isn’t the platform, its the apps. The Firefox app marketplace only lists about 1,600 apps currently, and most of those are white noise, just web-apps of various sites. Since Firefox apps are written in HTML5, there’s not much incentive for content providers to go through more effort than that. Also, despite being designed for low-end markets where data service might not be readily available, it’s very dependent on being connected to the internet. There are only a handful of “offline” apps available as yet, and many major types of apps — cloud storage, office suites, etc. — are conspicuously absent.
Overall, for being a first generation OS, Firefox seems decent. I seriously doubt that the first release of iOS or Android would fare any better. The real question is whether it manages to mature and attract enough developers for the app choices and quality to improve. At this point, that’s anyone’s guess.
At just 3 megapixels and with a fixed focus, the Open’s camera is unsurprisingly a throwback to the earliest days of smartphone cameras. To say that it’s terrible is a severe understatement. No focus, little color fidelity, bad performance in bright light, and worse performance in poor light.
Although it only packs a 1200 mAh battery, the slow processor and lack of LTE allow the Open to achieve pretty good battery life. Only the heaviest users are likely to wear it out within the day, and truly heavy users are probably looking at other devices anyway. But if you do want more juice, it does feature a replaceable battery.