Firefox OS and the ZTE Open

A new toy arrived at the end of last week, having been ordered from the manufacturer’s eBay store a few days earlier: a bright orange ZTE Open smartphone, running FirefoxOS.

Box Opening

The mailing bag contained what looked like a brown box with the device name on it. That in fact was a sleeve around a more typical mobile phone box.

In the box was the device itself, a micro USB cable and charger brick, the battery and a (very cheap looking) wired headset.

Very simple to get into and everything you need to get started.

Powering Up

Inserting the battery and powering up was uneventful. The phone boots with the Firefox OS branding, and relatively quickly drops you into the initial setup wizard flow that is typical of most smartphones today. I had not added a SIM, but was able to get connected to my home WiFi easily.

The UI is reasonably responsive (bearing in mind this is entry level hardware – it is not going to compare well to high end devices) and will not be too unfamiliar to anybody who has used an Android device. The interface looks clean, and there are hints about how to find the installed apps (in case you couldn’t guess).

Marketplace

The marketplace already contains quite a few apps, but it looks as though these are simply wrappers around the mobile web apps for the corresponding services. That is a really smart idea though given this is a new OS. Coming out of the starting gate with a lot of the essential web services apparently already supported is a really smart move. What remains to be seen is how many of these apps will get versions that take full advantage of the Firefox OS extensions.

Camera

The phone ships without an SD card, and is unable to take photos until you install one. Right now I have not got a spare, so I haven’t had a chance to try the camera at all. Watch for an update when I can dig out a micro SD card from another device and try that.

Software Update

Almost as soon as it was online, the phone was asking me to update its firmware. I let it do this, watched it download the update, then reboot and go through what looked like a firmware write process and finally boot back into the OS. Only to have it ask again a few minutes later. And it has been asking me continually ever since. The version number reported in the settings never changes, so this looks like a bug.

Judging by a quick scan of the online forums, I am not the only one experiencing this, so hopefully somebody at ZTE can provide a fix. I sent them a support request about it too & will report back if I hear more.

Built In Apps

It seems to come with most or the critical apps out of the box: email, contacts, calendar, maps, music, calculator and a modern mobile browser of course. I hooked it up to my Yahoo email account with no problem at all and I have tried the maps a couple of times now (provided by Here maps, and complete with Groupon offers).

The apps are definitely not at the same level as Apple or Google ones, but they are functional.

Annoyances

My only other real annoyances with it so far, apart from the low performance of the hardware, are UI design issues like having active control areas that are too small. The worst of these is the pull down notification shade having the radio on/off shortcuts at the bottom so every time I slide it back up I switch to airplane mode as well.

The virtual keyboard also seems more error prone than either my Nexus 4 one or the iPhone one. Maybe more time with it will help with that.

Conclusions

My first reaction is that it is like using an early Android device all over again. At this price point though, the comparison is likely going to be against a so-called texting phone running something like Brew. And against that kind of competition this is a clear winner.

I do wonder though whether ZTE could have produced an Android phone at a similar price point. If that is possible, I don’t see much future for FirefoxOS…

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