(Pocket-lint) - There are lots of different cars to choose from, which is good, because if the only car you could buy was a Porsche, then not that many people would be able to afford cars. And so the same is true with phones. The best phones - your high-end Android devices, the iPhone, the Nokia Lumia - all cost a fair bit of cash, and that puts them out of reach of a good number of people.
And this is where the T-Mobile Vivacity comes in. This is a phone for the people who are still earning the money for their Porsche, the people who need a phone to get around in, but nothing flash. Costing about £100 it offers all the usual smartphone features, but for hundreds less – and no expensive contract – than a full-power smartphone. Like the sort Jeremy Clarkson might drive.
Conscious that those buying this phone will really want an iPhone, ZTE – which makes this handset – has clearly taken inspiration from the iPhone. We don’t want to be unduly mean about a perfectly well-designed phone, but the Vivacity looks like the iPhone would if it were designed by someone with a bit less talent than Apple's Jony Ive.
It might be quite mean-spirited to say that, but ultimately, when you attempt to copy one of the design leaders, you’re always going to come off looking quite bad. And while the Vivacity does look smart enough, from a distance, when you examine it close up, it starts to look less appealing. That’s probably because it attracts fingerprints like nothing we’ve ever seen before. And that makes its shiny black case look cheaper than it should.
On the back, you’ll find a camera, surrounded with a silver bezel slightly raised from the case. On the right side of the phone is a volume rocker switch and at the top, a power button. There’s also a headphone jack at the top of the handset, while the left-hand side has the USB socket, for charging and data transfer.
Perhaps the biggest irritation, though, is that the Android navigation keys aren't backlit. This is a tiny point, but it makes it really hard to use the phone indoors, and while you will learn their layout, it's still a little frustrating.
Usually, we probably wouldn’t make mention of the network that comes attached to a handset. But there are some things that do warrant a comment. For example, T-Mobile now offers access to the Orange network, but this system has now been improved and you can now get 3G browsing while using either service. This is, we think, a good feature that’s well worth having.
Orange has, on its network, a tool that allows you to boost your phone signal using a Wi-Fi network. This is terrific when your house doesn’t have a brilliant-strength signal. The problem is, T-Mobile doesn’t yet offer a similar service. Everything Everywhere – the company that now runs both networks - tells us a T-Mobile version is in the works. There's also no HD voice on T-Mobile, although, again, it's in the works.
Additionally, none of the Orange services like Orange Wednesdays will work on T-Mobile. Hardly a deal breaker, but it’s worth bearing in mind if you’re a regular cinema-goer. And, it’s not like Orange doesn’t have a very similar phone deal, in its San Francisco II.
But buy the Vivacity now, and you'll get a free £10 top-up and six months' free internet (capped at 500MB per month). For a young person, or someone on a restricted income, this is a great deal, and will have you up-and-running on a smartphone in no time at all, at minimal cost.
Software and extras
The Vivacity runs Android 2.3.5, which is quite a recent version of the OS. Obviously, Ice Cream Sandwich has taken over on high-end devices, but you won’t find that here. Does it really matter? We don’t believe it does. For a start, the screen is a little too small and processor power a little too weak.
There isn't a lot of extra stuff provided here. The phone is pared-down, and the OS customisations are really minimal, which is a good thing for Android purists. The only T-Mobile stuff you'll find here is "My T-Mobile", which allows you to see your account balance and make changes to certain billing options.
There's also "My Services" which isn't an app, but a wrapper around the awful and antiquated text message service offered by most networks. Here, you can get updates about what's in the music charts, get tarot card readings - seriously, that's still going on - and have your remaining credit texted to you. Most of these services, apart from account information, are costly.
The only other "extra" on the phone is a radio. It has the worst user interface we've ever seen for a radio, but it works really well, and we found the clarity excellent. Tuning-in anything is a nightmare, and there's no RDS for station names, but it sounds good.
Screen and performance
The 480x800 resolution screen is nice too. It's more than bright enough for most use, and there's a good amount of detail. On a small device like this, that resolution means you get a density of 267ppi. Not bad at all.
And unlike some LCD screens, there isn't too much motion blur when you scroll. Usually, the white text on black background in the Android menu is a good way to see if this is a problem, and the Vivacity passed with no problems.
The modest CPU speed means the Vivacity isn't going to break any speed limits, but in day-to-day use, it's decent enough. Power users will be frustrated, but it isn't aimed at them.
The battery can be persuaded to last a long time too. If data isn't crucial for you, turn off sync and you could get days of use out of this phone. We found with modest use, it lasted well over a day and a half, with plenty of power still in the tank. Adding apps and using more data will reduce this, so be aware that you probably won't see more than a day in normal use.
There's a further surprise with the built-in, 5-megapixel camera, which unlike some of the cheaper handsets on the market, has an auto-focus lens. This means it's actually possible to take photos that are in focus. It isn't sophisticated though, and if you want to lock focus, and then move the camera, you're bang out of luck.
But results are reasonable, to be honest, and even in low light, they don't disgrace themselves. There are plenty of settings too, and you can increase the exposure - don't, it's not worth the heartache - and adjust white balance settings too.
It's all more impressive than perhaps a £100 phone should be. And it beats the HTC Explorer too, which was just about the most disappointing photographic device we've ever used.
Despite the lack of HD voice on T-Mobile, the call quality of the Vivacity is more than acceptable. Earpiece volume is good, with enough clarity to understand what's happening on the other end of the line.
This is great, and combined with a basic dialer - it looks like the stock Android one to us - means you get a very simple and uncomplicated calling system. We did notice, however, that the phone, with its default settings, didn't seem all that keen to sync with our Google contacts list.
The Vivacity is a fine little phone really. Its performance isn't going to set the world alight, and don't try mobile gaming on it, but for most mobile users, it's good enough. The extras offered by T-Mobile make it more attractive, such as the free internet for six months. But, we'll say this - for about £30 more you can get a SIM-free HTC Explorer, which is arguably a nicer handset to use, although its camera is atrocious. Even so, put a phone like that on a SIM-only T-Mobile contract, and you'll get 300 minutes, 300 texts and internet for about £10 per-month. Which is quite a good deal.
The low price and likeable camera will no doubt appeal to the under-18 age group, and while the Vivacity won't have the street cred of an iPhone, it will still let its owners Tweet and Facebook until everyone in the world knows everything about their lives.
The Orange San Francisco II is a good alternative though, and with Orange's network services, it offers a little more for the same money.