As Android continues to grow in popularity at a whirlwind pace, we can expect to see more and more affordable Android phones hitting the shops. This sub-£100 handset from ZTE is not only the company's first foray into Android phones, it's also one of the very cheapest around that runs on Google's operating system.
Weighing in at just 100g, the Racer is certainly lightweight, and a nice compact size that would fit easily into a pocket without being too obtrusive. It features an asymetrical design that is thicker at the top and tapers towards the bottom. The phone's casing all too easily gives away its budget status, with it's matte black finish and the slightly flimsy feel of the battery cover.
However, it's a perfectly reasonable chassis for a phone in this price range, and the matte finish does give it some extra grip. The rudimentary selection of buttons includes a volume control on the side, the power button on the top and three touch buttons beneath the screen: Home, Menu and Back. We would have expected to see a Search button, as is found on most Android devices, but we're guessing that the handset is simply too small to accommodate this. The button selection is completed with a thin metallic button for answering and ending calls, with the two telephone icons lighting up every time any of the buttons are pressed.
The tiny power-on key on the top of the phone worked okay for us, but people with less than dainty hands might need a few attempts to actually hit the button. Holding the button down gives you several options comprising silent, vibration and airplane modes or turning the phone off completely.
The phone fits very comfortably in the hand and is small enough to be able to navigate the touchscreen one-handed. However, we found the 2.8-inch 320 x 240 pixel screen a little tempremental, thanks to the resistive technology involved. It's a shame that ZTE didn't splash out on a more expensive, and more effective, capacitive touchscreen as this makes using the Racer a bit of an effort. What's more, the screen doesn't have a very wide viewing angle, and the colour reproduction is mediocre.
When typing, using the touchscreen keyboard in portrait mode is quite difficult, as the tiny letter squares are just so close together. Tipping the phone on its side and typing in landscape mode proves much more manageable, but it really would have been useful for ZTE to provide a stylus.
Once powered up, you'll be greeted with the home screen including shortcuts for messages, contacts, the phone dialler and Android Market. Boasting the kind of flexibility that Android phones are famous for, you can customise the screen by adding or removing shortcuts, which you can also do on the extended home screens which you can access by flicking to the left or right. To call up a menu of all the programs that are stored on the phone, you simply tap the square grip at the bottom centre of the home screen.
Running Android 2.1 (Eclair), the phone has 256MB of built-in memory and is supplied with a 2GB microSD card. It supports quad-band HSDPA 7.2.
It's also equipped with a rear-mounted 3.2-megapixel camera. Although the quality of the photos taken were better than expected, there seems to be a fairly significant lag between pressing the onscreen picture button, and the image actually being captured, meaning that those with less than steady hands, or simply those with little patience, are likely to end up with a mass of blurry photos. As it doesn't have a flash, the camera doesn't like dimly lit conditions, but it also seems to struggle considerably if there's too much light. You can re-set the white balance, and there are also options to tweak the ISO settings and add colour effects, such as sepia. The same is true of the video - although the quality is ok, the phone doesn't do well in either dim or very bright light.
We found the Racer perfectly comfortable to hold during reasonably lengthy phone conversations, although as it is so small it is pretty much impossible to pull the old "balancing between your ear and shoulder" manoeuvre while making a cup of tea. Instant messaging on Skype works okay, although it's not really instantaneous, as if you were using it on a computer over broadband, and it's quite hard to type with anything approaching swiftness.
Opening up the web browser offers a homepage with quick links to various sites including Google, Yahoo Search, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, eBay, BBC News and The Weather Channel. Once navigating around your chosen website, we found that you have to be quite exact with where you press the screen, and sometimes it took several attempts to get the intended on-screen link to work. Browsing brings up an icon in the bottom right for zooming in and out, but this takes up valuable space on what is already a small screen. Having said that, it does disappear when you stop touching the screen for a few seconds, but it's still slightly annoying.
Web video quality is not great - edges are quite blurry and it takes a fair bit of squinting to follow the action. The on-board speakers are fairly reasonable if a little tinny sounding. The homepage also offers links for web TV services, including iPlayer, although the BBC's service is not actually supported on the Racer yet.
According to the manufacturer, you get 3.5 hours of talk time, which we found to be pretty much on the money. Other features on the Racer include an FM radio, MP3 player and Bluetooth connectivity.
Available on Three, the Racer cost £99.99 for PAYG (150MB and text bundle with every top-up), or £15 per month on Internet Talker (5000 Three-to-Three minutes, 500MB, 300 off net minutes).
The ZTE Racer certainly has a lot of annoying niggles that prevent us from giving it a high score. Having said that, if you're after an Android phone and money is tight, then you should definitely give this some consideration.