Phones don't have to be expensive. The ZTE Kis - reviewed here in its festive white, veneer-like finish - is proof enough of that. Available via Virgin Media as a contract-free Pay As You Go (PAYG) purchase for a mere £49.99, plus a £10 top-up at purchase, it's certainly not going to break the bank. But the price is reflective of what's on offer; does that make the Kis a fair compromise for the price, or is that a kiss of death for this budget ZTE handset?
Straight out of the box and the ZTE Kis White looks like a more expensive phone than its slender asking price would suggest. That's not to say we're stunned by it overall, as the soap-bar-esque design is certainly plasticky and the seams around the device's sides are visible, but - reality check - for fifty quid we couldn't have asked for more.
The phone's rear panel can be removed to reveal both a SIM and microSD slot to the rear. There's an included 2GB card that's a good storage space start-up, which can be changed to a larger card if preferred.
The Kis White runs Android 2.3 - better known as Gingerbread - which utilises the device's 3.5-inch touchscreen and four marked out soft button controls for a fairly fluid user experience. It's certainly many versions behind the current Android 4.1 Jellybean standard, but the Kis is far from a powerhouse - it has an 800Mhz processor - so the choice to run on what's considered to be the most stable version of the Google mobile operating system isn't a surprise. It's not an excitement either, it just is what it is.
The 3.5-inch screen is responsive to the touch, but it's its other details - or the lack of them because of a so-so 480 x 320 pixel resolution - that disappoint.
The optimum viewing angle is far from vast, which is among the Kis's biggest issues. It's not as bad as a budget laptop's restricted viewing angle by any means, but tilted angles will mean contrast drop off that affects the viewing experience. It's passable, but it's certainly reflective of the price point. And speaking of reflective, the shiny exterior also makes viewing outdoors that much trickier.
Colours are reproduced well enough indoors, but a lack of vibrancy or brightness makes for a more muted palette when trying to get a best angle of view outside.
ZTE's given the Android interface its own lick of paint, which delivers a simple, minimal view on to the operating system. Contacts, calls, messages and app/home are the four constant icons to the base of the screen, while up to seven extra screens of space are available to customise with your app downloads, search bars and the like.
It may be a fairly no-frills experience when it comes to contacts, calls and messages - but each is handled in a simple, to-the-point procedural manner. The pop-up keyboard fills the width of the screen, while the TouchPal option - a Swiftkey-esque finger-dragging rather than "typing" experience - offers predictive text and accurate results at speed.
Don't expect downloaded apps to load up particularly fast, but once loaded the 800Mhz processor can deliver the basics. So long as you don't want to download the latest gaming apps, the ZTE Kis will offer a budget window into the likes of YouTube, Twitter and plenty more without too many issues.
The stock internet browser is also a stripped-back experience. It's based on a single window - no multi-tabs - and is slow to respond. Connectivity via 3G and Wi-Fi isn't the root cause of speed issues, as it's the browser experience that slows things down. However, it's fine enough to navigate, text reflows when zooming on many sites, and the pinch-motion is a now-familiar part of the Android experience.
There's no Flash support however, but this approaching-death Adobe format is used less and less for browsing experiences these days. Of course where it is still used the ZTE Kis won't play ball.
It's said that smartphones are killing off the lower-spec compact camera market. That makes sense to us, but we doubt that the ZTE Kis is going to compound that trend. Its 3.2-megapixel rear-facing camera is low resolution, but it does have its positives.
The Kis's camera app opens in around two seconds before it's ready for use, and centre-only autofocus - the touchscreen can't be used to place the focus point - is controlled by a press-and-hold of the on-screen shutter button. It's hardly lightning fast, but it works well.
There are extra controls too: exposure compensation, GPS location data, white balance presets, brightness and an infinity focus option are all accessible via a tap of the screen. It's even possible to digitally zoom from 2x-5x using a slider to the left, but we'd suggest avoiding doing so - 3.2-megapixels digitally cropped by five times is about 0.6-megapixels, which looks hideously jagged as is immediately visible on the preview screen.
Images aren't a revelation either. Quality is rather poor, but as expected. Shoot in daylight and we don't foresee any huge issues with the camera, so long as the digital zoom is avoided at all costs. As per plenty of the ZTE Kis White's other features, it's just not quite up there and nor was it ever going to be for £50.
If you're in the market for a budget mobile phone then they don't come cheaper than the ZTE Kis. The white version we've reviewed here looks rather fetching too - or at least it certainly punches well beyond its £50 handset price tag. That's not to say it's a blood-rush of excitement to the retinas or, indeed, anywhere else, but for the money it's hard to complain.
However, the low price is indicative of a fairly low-end feature set. We're happy enough with classic telephony operation, but browsing and app loads are both slow, while some more-demanding apps are simply beyond the Kis's reach. The screen, while not awful by any means, is also reflective of the price and just isn't the most pleasing to the eye. Which, frankly, is exactly what we'd anticipated for the price.
In short the ZTE Kis sure does prove that a phone needn't be pricey to be workable, but it's more of a mere peck on the cheek than a full-on Frenchie when it comes to features and performance. Good for what it is, but nothing more than that.