GADGET WATCH: The ZTE Open, running Firefox OS

Last year, Mozilla announced it was launching a new smartphone operating system, called Firefox OS, which it hoped would allow it to go head-to-head against devices running Apple iOS, Google Android and Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8.

Firefox OS is an open source smartphone operating system built around a mobile version of the Firefox web browser. Instead of running native apps, all of its apps are basically web apps coded in HTML5.

Mozilla claims this allows the platform to deliver better performance on low-cost phones than its rivals.

The first Firefox OS smartphone, the ZTE Open, can now be shipped to Australia for $US104.99 unlocked (including postage and handling).

So does the ZTE Open deliver on the promise of good performance at a competitive price?

Hardware and features

The ZTE Open features the kind of specifications you would expect to find on a low-cost entry-level smartphone.

It has a relatively small 3.5-inch screen, tiny compared to the 5-inch display on Samsung’s Galaxy S4, with a resolution of just 320 by 480 pixels – roughly a quarter of the detail you’ll get from an iPhone Retina display.

It is built around a single-core 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, which delivers a fraction of the processing power found in the quad-core processors used in most modern smartphones.

Available in either a blue or bright orange plastic body, it features no front facing camera, with a basic 2 megapixel camera on the back.

A built-in FM radio is one of the (very) few premium features you will find on this phone.

What’s the consensus?

Being a low-end device, the ZTE Open compares unfavourably to smartphones that retail for $700 or $800 outright, such as the Apple iPhone 5s or Samsung Galaxy S4. As Digital Spy explains:

“In the hand, this is quite clearly a [cheap] handset. It isn’t super thin or lightweight, and the screen is low resolution enough for it not to be hugely impressive, but for the money we wouldn’t expect otherwise.”

The display and camera are particular weak spots, as GSM Nation points out:

“If ever there was a case of horrible cameras on smartphones, the ZTE Open fits the bill perfectly. Its rear is home to a horrendous 2 megapixel camera unit that takes atrocious pictures.”

In terms of Firefox OS itself, Engadget finds Mozilla’s new operating system still lacks many of the features you would expect to find in a more mature platform, such as Android or iOS:

“You tend to lose major functionality present in native apps on other platforms, like most forms of push notifications and inter-app communication. Mozilla tells us that cross-app support is rolling out, and that app notifications will come in the OS’ 1.2 upgrade; still, it may be a while before we get Firefox OS software that feels completely at home in the modern smartphone world.”

Overall, The Register describes the device as a “swing and a miss”, while conceding it might have some appeal among app developers or for users in emerging markets:

“As much as I support what Mozilla is trying to do conceptually, the bottom line is that working with Firefox OS was just too painful for me… Admittedly, I, a tech-savvy middle-class consumer living in the US, am not their target market. But in a world awash with Android phones with ever-cheaper price tags, I fear devices like the ZTE Open will be a tough sell to anyone.”

Who’s it for?

If you’re a mobile app developer or an open source enthusiast keen to have a play with Firefox OS, the ZTE Open is at such a low price that you have little to lose. Likewise, if you’re looking to buy a basic smartphone outright for the lowest possible price, the ZTE Open might be worth looking at.

Otherwise, if you already have a smartphone, there is little reason to abandon it in favour of the ZTE Open. And be warned – you get what you pay for.


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