ZTE Blade III

Low-priced Android phones are a mixed bag, on the one hand, they're often better than you'd expect, but on the other there are always compromises made to get a phone out for this sort of money. It becomes even more ridiculous when you consider that Virgin Mobile is selling this handset for £80 (shipping is £8 extra) with a £10 calling credit included.

That gets you a 1GHz single-core processor with 512MB of RAM and all of this is tied together by Qualcomm's Snapdragon chipset. It is, therefore, about as far away from a high-end phone as you could possibly imagine, but for this price it's bound to be popular. But has it got what it takes to impress us?

Smart looking and nice OS tweaks

The hardware is basic enough, but it's not unattractive and it feels remarkably solid. We really like solid phones, they inspire confidence and make you feel like you're getting a little extra for your money.

It seems to be the case now that only budget Android phones will have the full complement of physical buttons on their handsets. But here you have a context-sensitive menu button, a home button, back key and a search button all lined up along the bottom, waiting for your input.

On the top there's a headphone jack and power button, on the left, a volume rocker switch and at the bottom, a USB power connector. Pop the back off, and you'll see the standard-sized SIM card, 1600mAh battery and a slot for a microSD card.

On the phone itself, there are relatively few customisations. There's a new-look lock screen, which is very fancy. You press and hold the unlock button, and wait for a green arc of plasma to surround your finger, and then it's open. Or, if you swipe the screen, you'll see a series of quick shortcuts. We think this is actually pretty nifty.

Hidden compromises

While the screen and build quality doesn't suffer, there have been some cutback to make the phone possible at this bargain basement price. These, however, are unlikely to affect most people.

First though, don't expect high-speed downloads with this phone. It's an HSDPA/HSUPA handset, but will max-out at about 7mbps download and a little under 6mbps for uploads. Not a disaster, but far away from the maximum offered by 3G, and a way off the 22mbps you'd get on a premium handset.

It's also interesting to note that this handset only does 2.4GHz Wi-Fi. Most people won't care, but in increasingly busy Wi-Fi areas - anywhere where there are a lot of people with wireless networks - the congested lower frequency band can be bothersome. On the other hand, 5GHz is underused, and has shorter range, so is usually a much better bet. We miss it, but most people will probably not notice.

Built-in storage takes a hit too. It's got 4GB, but only 2.5GB of that is usable by the owner, the rest is taken up with Android essentials. Most people can live with that, but a few games and that space will start to vanish.

The good news is, things can be offloaded to the SD card. There isn't one included, but you can add up to 32GB of storage with microSD expansion, and prices on those cards is falling rapidly. A 16GB capacity card is now about £10 or so, giving you loads of space for music and movies.

As a phone

Honestly, to use as a phone, we really liked the ZTE. It's a bit small for the average face, but we're used to that now. Call quality is clear though, and it's easy to get the earpiece up close to your lug-hole, which makes for a nice, clear sound. We are in a low coverage area on Virgin Mobile - T-Mobile - but calls sound great, with minimal breakup.

Texting is fine too, despite the smallish screen. The ZTE keyboard is a bit of a pain, honestly, and while it's quite clever, it doesn't always feel logical. For example, to move from Qwerty text input to numerical entry you press a button marked "123". To move back to Qwerty input you press a button with a massive swoopy arrow on it. It's a tiny point, but you wouldn't believe how often that caught us out. Other than that, the TouchPal keyboard is the standard fare, it predicts what you're going to type, but it doesn't seem to have enormous skill.

Happily, the standard Android keyboard is left intact and it's easy to switch to. If you're looking for something with a bit more talent, then Swiftkey is worth a look, although you do have to pay extra for it.

Screen and sound and performance

The TFT display is actually fabulous. OLED has never been our favourite thing for accurate colour display, so an LCD here actually looks really nice. You'll notice colours are more accurate, and the detail is remarkable. Those with OLED screens will see more colours, and they'll look more vivid, but they won't always reflect reality.

Sound is good too, there's Dolby Mobile here, but that aside, audio is clear and with plenty of range via headphones, and loud enough on the speaker. On the latter though, things sound much more muffled, probably due to the rear-mounted speaker. It's usable though, and dialogue can be easily heard and understood.

In terms of overall performance, we did find ourselves grinding our teeth at times. When nothing is going on, the phone is snappy enough to respond to button presses and screen swipes. If you have things running in that limited memory, then you'll find responsiveness drop off considerably.

We had a crack at playing 720p video. Interestingly, the MKV container was no issue once we installed MX player, but it uses software decoding - there's a hardware mode, but the Blade can't support it - and everything juddered badly. This phone isn't, therefore, ideally suited to video. Although install the Plex Android app, and you can get video streamed from a PC, where the computer takes the load of decoding. And that will work fine.

Dolby mobile means you'll hear soundtracks encoded with 5.1 sound too. So if you put on video with those files, you won't just see mute video. It's a shame that there's not more power here to support video decoding, because the screen and sound system make this phone quite a likeable media device.

Camera

At first glance, the camera is okay, but spend any time with the images it creates and you'll soon find that's not actually the case.

First, the app has shutter lag, the likes of which we don't usually see on cameraphones these days. But that aside, images look good on screen, and when viewed on a computer at 50 per cent of their normal size, they also look pretty decent. Zoom in to 100 per cent though, and things start to get a little bit more ropey.

What we noticed was the usual mush of indistinct detail that you find on these cheap sensors. It's a mess, but it's fine for Twitter and Facebook. What's perhaps more of a concern, is the seeming inability of the camera to compensate for exposure properly. Even in good light, it seemed too easy to confuse to ever be much use. You can compensate for the exposure, but it's a bit of a bind and doesn't seem to make all that much difference either. This is not the sort of phone that you can use as your daily snapper.

Still, we're reminded once again that this phone costs £80, and there are handsets that cost four times that which don't always manage good photos either.

Battery

The 1600mAh cell included here won't last a massive amount of time under heavy load, but bear in mind the small screen and low-power processor and you should get some reasonable life out of the phone. Bear in mind too, that this is aimed at occasional users, rather than the Twitter and email obsessed technorati, so those users should sail through the day with no problem. We did, with even with moderate use and the backlight set to full.

Verdict

For about £80 we doubt you'll find a more competent phone than the ZTE Blade III. It's solidly built, has enough power for day-to-day phone use and while it won't blow you away with performance, normal users are unlikely to suffer much from the single-core CPU.

The design is reasonable, the ZTE Android customisations are stylish enough - although none of them adds a massive amount to the experience of using the phone they also don't spoil it at all.

Power users will be frustrated, but people looking for a solid phone that won't break the bank will find the Blade to be a likable and simple handset. And although it's not aimed at "people like us" we can certainly see who it is aimed at, and it's a good choice for those people.