ZTE Grand X review

3 out of 5
£200

For

Feels sturdy, barebones Android, Dolby Mobile

Against

Touchscreen is not great, quite a dull phone, a bit too expensive

You might not have heard of ZTE - its full name is Zhongxing Telecommunication Equipment - but like so many companies such as Ericsson and Huawei, ZTE was originally a telecommunications equipment supplier, but like the other companies it's also had its hand in the mobile phone market too.

The ZTE Grand X represents a bit of a departure though. It's not aimed at service providers to sell as their own-brand handsets - the ZTE Blade was called the Orange San Francisco - but instead will be sold branded as ZTE. This is the same route that Huawei and HTC have gone down in the past.

But with so many low to mid-range handsets on the market, can ZTE really bring something new to the table? Or is this just another generic device to avoid?

It's a Nexus-a-like

Looking at the front of the ZTE, it has a reasonable amount in common with the Samsung Galaxy Nexus. It's not a carbon copy, but it resembles the Google flagship phone more than any other we can think of. The curved edges are almost certainly what gives it that feeling.

The back is removable, and under the thin rear cover there's a full-sized SIM card slot and a microSD card - 2GB supplied, but the phone can support up to 32GB. It's clearly here that the cost saving starts. There's very little built-in memory either, which means that you're going to need to spend some cash if you want to have a big music and video collection on your device.

Bare-bones Android

It has to be said, the Grand X is certainly a clean slate when it comes to Android. There's no obnoxious network branding or apps. You get a very clean looks, and ZTE hasn't imposed its own fancy user interface on the device either. We do like this, but it's not without its downsides, something people forget at times, in the assumption that Google hits it out of the park with its OS.

The music app, for example, is a bloody disaster. It's the very most basic thing you can imagine, and while it works, it's a pretty depressing and old-fashioned looking thing. That's fine, of course, because you can install Play Music, or DoubleTwist and get a pretty decent music app with no problem at all.

It's not a completely barebones experience though. You get Dolby Mobile, which aims to cheer up the sound of your device. It's good to have a lot of EQ options, although we aren't always sure that Dolby is improving things - often we find it a little too heavy-handed.

There's also a built-in FM radio, which is very good indeed. It works well, and looks simple. FM radios are often overlooked, but they are a low-power system and can add a surprising amount to your mobile experience. We, for example, just couldn't live without Radio 4, so this feature is welcome indeed. The sound quality is amazing too.

ZTE does provide a virtual keyboard too. Honestly, we wish it hadn't. The stock Android one is very good, and there's almost nothing that third-party solutions can add, aside from the likes of Swype and Swiftkey, which both help a great deal. The ZTE one is a little confused, and tries to pack too much into a small space. We'd advise you look for an alternative, and we have to admit we like the new Swiftkey quite a bit. It's well worth the investment.

Screen

The Grand X won't blow you away with its screen resolution or quality. It's perfectly acceptable for a phone at 540 x 960 - that's of 256ppi - it's certainly clear enough, and with a modest 4.3-inch size, there's not a huge amount of panel to fill.

Brightness is a slight issue. We set ours to maximum, and it was just about visible outside, but it wasn't a bright day and we did have to move it about to see what was going on. Auto brightness was fine indoors, but wasn't really effective outside. We're a little surprised by all this, as TFTs are usually much better than AMOLED screens in bright conditions.

Going on from this though, the touch element of the ZTE Grand X isn't brilliant either. We found that the screen was quite insensitive to our touch. There was more than one occasion where we needed to press again, or press harder to get it to register our request.

Most of the time though, it was actually fine. It's no high-end smartphone, but then it's half the price, so we wouldn't expect it to be.

Performance

At the heart of this handset is a nVidia Tegra 2, along with a GeForce ULP GPU. Those words are all worthless on their own, but what it means in terms of real use is that the phone is very snappy, and you'll get access to some reasonably modern games that have some impressive graphics.

We certainly had no performance quibbles, especially not for day-to-day use. We can't claim to have played graphically intensive games either, but we suspect the target audience won't either. They will, however, get a good user experience thanks to the decent specs.

We have to say, the lack of built-in storage is a disappointment. There's just 4GB and you won't get access to anywhere near that much - in fact when we asked it, the phone admitted we could use less than half of that. But, no matter, there is a microSD socket, so you can add up to 32GB of storage at minimal cost. So that's not a disaster by any stretch of the imagination.

Battery life

On the face of it, the ZTE battery is reasonable. It's a 1650mAh pack, which means you should see a decent life out of the phone. After all, it doesn't have a huge screen or all that many amazing features to suck it dry.

We noticed something interesting though: on the original ZTE review sample we were sent, the battery life was quite poor. That phone eventually broke, and refused to turn on at all. So we got a replacement in. With the replacement, we haven't noticed any battery problems at all: indeed we'd say that the phone lasts longer than we'd expect for the size of battery it has.

We did a bit of tethering, left the phone on standby in a low-signal area for a while, and came back and there was still plenty of juice in the tank. Light users will see the phone last all day easily, more demanding users might see levels drop off and the phone need to be rechaged before bedtime. This is a classic blight of modern handsets though.

Camera

Using the stock Android app is a mixed bag. It's simple and works well enough. There are some basic adjustment options here, which allow you to increase and decrease exposure, as well as select the type of light you're shooting in and turn the flash on and off.

Quality is okay. We weren't seeing any of the extreme lack of detail you get on some phone cameras. Colour was bright, and there was some good detail. Focusing let the side down a little, and while it often did work well, it often didn't work sometimes too. It's those times where it doesn't that we found ourselves getting a bit cross.

Verdict

ZTE gets a lot of credit from us for providing a simple, barebones version of Android. Many users like this, and unlike early versions of the mobile OS, in its default flavour, it's pretty much feature-complete.

Of course, you get some budget phone shortcomings as well. For example, there's distinct lack of built-in memory and the touchscreen isn't anywhere near sensitive enough for power users.

For our money, and more importantly, yours, the Grand X is a little bit too expensive. While it's not a bad device, it's not a great one either. For £200, there are plenty of smartphones out there to choose from. And while the Grand X does have a specification advantage, in practice, we've never struggled with the operator-locked phones like the T-Mobile Vivacity, which are usually pretty responsive.