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Review: ZTE Blade III – a lot of phone for £70

Allan Swann
March 26, 2013

ZTE Blade III
zteuk.co.uk
£69.99 (plus £10 credit), or £13p/m contract

Available on Virgin Mobile

The ZTE Blade III performs well beyond its super-budget price tag…

As the budget smartphone market has moved further and further east, prices have fallen to previously unforeseeable levels. Historically budget Android phones have been a mixed bag ‘ for the most part not worth the risk. In the last year or so Chinese companies Huawei and ZTE have given all rivals a run for their money, producing some low cost phones that outperform, and underprice their western rivals.

THE EIGHTY QUID PHONE
ZTE has previously been a white label manufacturer over here (which means they let the telcos rebrand the phones) ‘ such as with Orange’s San Francisco and the Monte Carlo phones. They obviously got sick of being behind the scenes, and 2013 looks like a big year for the company across the board.

The first for 2013 is the ZTE Blade III, a phone you can pick up on Virgin for £70 with £10 of credit thrown in. Far from being a rinky dink piece of plastic held together by string, the Blade III actually feels like a solid piece of kit in your hand.

It is a similar size to most of the budget smartphones from HTC, Sony, Samsung and the rest, at 122x63mm and 9.9mm deep. It is a bit heavier at 130g (most of its rivals sit around 110-120g), but this just adds to its solidity. It feels like it could take a knock or two ‘ and looks and feels like a phone a builder could be comfortable with.

The detachable back cover allows you to expand the memory (4GB onboard, to 32GB with a micro-SD card), insert your sim card and swap batteries ‘ a welcome addition.

SCREEN NOT A SELLING POINT

However, the screen is poor. It’s 4-inches with a 480×800 resolution (again, the same as most budget rivals), and has very good colour reproduction, but it is only 265,000 colours ‘ most rivals nowadays have some 16 million. To be fair, this isn’t too noticeable unless you’re looking at images or videos.

The screen is also very dark, even on full brightness, it doesn’t compare to rivals. Leaving it on automatic brightness proved to be an eye strain.

What is noticeable is the physical screen surface itself ‘ it is cheap and nasty plastic ‘ I imagine it would get damaged easily. What is more annoying is its reflectiveness ‘ which makes it very tough to use outside on a bright day, and even more annoying using in a bright office. It also collects finger prints, smudges and goo like you wouldn’t believe ‘ using the phone was a near constant cleaning experience. But its hard to be too tough here when we’re talking about a £70 phone ‘ we can’t expect an iPhone-esque Gorilla Glass experience here.

The usability of the touch screen is also inconsistent ‘ it sometimes isn’t very accurate. There were numerous occasions when swiping through the app grid where the phone interpreted it as a press, and opened an apps. Very annoying if you’re trying to get something done quickly.

CUT PRICE PROCESSOR

If you plan on using the Blade III for high end processor applications, you’re dreaming. It is a budget smartphone after all, and has a simple 1GHz Qualcomm processor in it, with just 512MB of RAM. While the Blade III comes with Android Ice Cream Sandwich, it visibly struggles with it ‘ fades and transitions are not as smooth as you’d see on a more high end phone, and essential apps such as Twitter and Facebook shudder with lag when scrolling through newsfeeds, and loading images ‘ especially if most of your memory has been used up by running multiple apps at once. You will need to keep an eye on how many programs are running at once.

Video was pretty shocking for anything above SD quality, although even SD wasn’t terribly impressive, with long load times. HD was a bit of a mess (and pointless on a screen that isn’t HD resolution), with long loads, freezes and terrible lag and shuddering. Unwatchable.

Gaming is another issue, while playing solitaire and the original Angry Birds seem to operate OK, anything remotely modern and polygon based causes problems for the basic processor, with long load times, shuddering and other shortcomings. But as mentioned earlier, if you are looking for a powerhouse smartphone experience, you are not the Blade III’s intended audience.


CUTBACKS DON’T BITE TOO BADLY

Even surfing the web has its problems – there have been cutbacks in the innards. The Blade III’s download speeds will max out around 6, which is less than full 3G speed. Needless to say, there is no 4G connectivity in this device, nor is there any NFC. Even Bluetooth is version 2.1, so keep expectations low.

As is becoming common with low end Android smartphones, you don’t get much onboard memory ‘ just 4GB. This usually means after Android’s had its way with your disk space, you’re left with 2.5GB, a tiny amount for media and apps. The Micro-SD card slot does let users expand their storage to 32GB, which helps.

ZTE’S ANDROID IS HIT AND MISS

Given that ZTE hasn’t held much of a presence in the UK market (but expect that to change) and use of its own Android skin is limited. The good thing to note is that ZTE have mostly kept their noses out of it ‘ this is not a completely unique build like HTC’s Sense 5 or Samsung’s TouchWiz; it mostly functions as a bare-bones Android.

On the physical front, you have all four Android buttons (most smartphone manufacturers have been reducing this to one or two), the menu button, the home button, the back button and the search button. The search button doesn’t get used terribly much (Android also incorporates this inside the OS). As a UI, it also doesn’t appear to have been localised terribly well ‘ if you’re trying to adjust your weather widget, for example, major cities like Leeds are missing ‘ the phone is definitely leaning towards American cities. Even London came up as East London (?) rather than the city as a whole.

A lot of ZTEs tweaks are best turned off unfortunately. The default lock screen involves a long press to get to your home screen, or a swipe opens ZTE’s Mi-easyaccess (a flower shaped menu programs on each petal which you can flick to) which while useful, doesn’t work when a pin or pattern code is used to secure the phone ‘ which is what almost every phone user will do.

Similarly, the default TouchPal keyboard is a mess, adding half a dozen buttons you don’t need, and placing the language key (is this even necessary?) where the numberical toggle normally is. Even this, is presented with a swoosh arrow rather than something logical such as ‘123’, as on Apple or other Android skins. Most users will turn this off and return to the default Android keyboard, which works fine.

Sadly the same is true of ZTE’s web browser, which is a clunky mess. Download Chrome (but beware some performance issues), and surfing the web becomes a lot easier.

GOOD BUDGET CAMERA

As you’d expect on a budget phone, the camera is not going to match up to industry heavyweights such as Nokia’s 920. The Blade has a 5MP camera, which is more than enough, but what is surprising is more how good the camera is on this budget. Yes, its low light performance is poor, but outside its not terribly bad. Definitely not the huge disparity you’d expect ‘ and surprisingly comparable to the cameras on HTCs last generation of phones.

It is, however, soft. The glassware inside the lenses obviously isn’t of the highest quality, and there is no flash. Also, the shutter delay is pretty long ‘ the time between pressing shoot, and having an image taken was well over a second, and given there’s not image stabilisation, often results in blurry images, even for subjects that aren’t moving.

It may do the job for Twitter and Facebook posts, but definitely won’t cut the mustard as a camera for a special family event.

The camera app and software itself is also pretty mediocre, but most users will be using alternative apps (such as Instagram) so this isn’t a big issue. The poor screen quality does cause problems, as what’s on the screen often isn’t representative of the photo taken. Its best to edit ‘off phone’ on your computer.

There is no front facing camera, so no video calling here unfortunately.

MAC USERS BEWARE
ZTE aren’t the biggest Apple fans then – connecting the device to an Apple Mac sees it recognised as a USB driver CD ‘ and all of the files on it are Windows PC only. The Mac Android Transfer app also doesn’t recognise the phone at all. Get friendly with Bluetooth mac users.

SOLID BATTERY PERFORMANCEThe ZTE Blade III does have a comparatively small battery (just 1600mAh), but its worth remembering that this is only powering a single core 1GHz processor, and a ruddy screen. I found that it took around a day of moderate usage, but most impressively it lasted nearly 5 days on standby ‘ with 35% to spare, definitely a rarity in the smartphone world. It also helps that the back of the Blade III is detachable, so you can buy multiple batteries and swap them in and out as you please ‘ useful for long work trips.

CONCLUSION
If you do want the latest quad-core, top shelf 2013 smartphone this is definitely not the phone for you. What the ZTE Blade III focuses on, and does well, is first time smartphone buyers, teens and pragmatic users that just need a no-frills tool. It doesn’t do 4G – but that is hardly a concern for the low end market.

In this sense, its much easier to give the Blade III a solid review. It has its weaknesses ‘ namely a poor screen, and a processor that struggles with high end apps and games, but this is par for the course when we’re talking about what is an astonishingly cheap device. A bill of just £80 quid all up means this is a very useful device for less fussy markets. By that barometer, it is a great purchase.

+ Very cheap
+ Solid build
+ Decent battery life
–  Poor web browsing and internet connectivity
–  Struggles with some higher end apps
–  No front camera

Verdict

Its hard to argue with a smartphone that can compete with its betters, yet can be purchased for a fraction of the cost. Yes there are flaws and cutbacks to meet the price point, but this is an excellent entry level device for smartphone newbies and pragmatic users who don’t need the latest and greatest.

Performance
4star 100px

Features
3star 100px

Usability
4star 100px

Design
4star 100px

OVERALL
4star 100px

 

TECH SPECS
Dimensions ‘ 123 x 63.5 x 10mm, 130g
OS Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich
Screen TFT capacitive touchscreen, 256K colors, 480 x 800 pixels, 4.0 inches (233 PPI)
Processor ‘ Qualcomm single core 1GHz
RAM – 512MB
Storage – 4GB internal, expandable to 32GB via MicroSD
Camera ‘ 5MP
Wireless ‘ Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 2.1.
Ports ‘ Micro USB, MicroSD, 3.5mm audio jack.
Battery life – 1600mAh

 

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