The big boys should probably be worried.
While they’ve been off producing wonderful flagship phones and forgettable low and mid range devices, there’s a couple of manufacturers who have been sneaking up in the shadows, ready to attack. Those manufacturers of course are the two Chinese giants, ZTE and Huawei. They’ve been quietly producing low end devices for operators with fantastic price vs performance and now they’re ready to go it alone, not just at the low end but towards the higher end too.
The device we have here is ZTE’s flagship (for now), the dubiously named ‘Grand X’. Originally known as the Mimosa X, the phone is actually fairly mid range when it comes to it’s specifications, but this is also reflected in it’s cost. Historically ZTE have excelled when it comes to price vs performance and it looks like the Grand X could offer more of the same. Does it? Read on to find out.
The review device is a full retail device, matching what is now available to buy in stores.
In The Box
Evidence that ZTE is trying to step up their game starts with the box. It’s compact, smart, well designed and enticing. It’s also (and you’ll spot a theme here) kind of ‘familiar’... i’m sure i’ve had a device in a very very similar box before but can’t quite put my finger on it.
In the box you’ll find the device itself, a microUSB cable, a headset and a USB to mains adaptor.
Hardware - overview
As mentioned previously, this might be ZTE’s flagship product but the device specifications are fairly mid range. You’ll not find quad core and 720P screens here, instead the Grand X packs a Tegra 2 dual core chipset clocked at 1GHz and a 4.3” qHD screen. Not that that’s ancient mind. The other specs are fairly solid, with the exception of a somewhat limited 512MB RAM, an inevitability given the Tegra 2 chipset.
The Grand X is something of a trailblazer when it comes to it’s modem. The device has a NVIDIA i450 (Icera) chipset onboard, the first device to do so. This pairing of Nvidias own CPU and modem chipsets should bring benefits across the board in terms of both performance and efficiency.
The Grand X specifications in full...
- NVIDIA Tegra 2, Dual-core (AP20 Dual Core 1GHz) processor
- NVIDIA i450 (HSDPA Cat14, 21Mbps) modem
- Android 4.0.3
- 4GB ROM + up to 32GB Micro SD
- 512MB RAM
- 4.3” 16M QHD (960 x 540) screen
- 5MP AF Flash / 0.3 MP cameras
- Bluetooth 2.1, WiFi, DLNA
- Notification LED
- 1650 mAh Li-Ion battery
- 127 mm x 64.6mm x 9.9mm
- Dolby Mobile Sound
- HD Voice
- HD video capture
Hardware - around the device
Let’s go on a tour of the device starting with the front.
When you look at the front of the device you immediately suspect that this wasn’t originally designed with ICS guidelines in mind. The bottom of the device has four capacitive keys - menu, home, back and search. Not a bad arrangement (I do like the search key), but it’s somewhat opposed to what is recommended by Google and the path taken by most manufacturers now. Above the buttons sits the 4.3” qHD screen, topped by the light / proximity sensors, the green / red notification LED, the speaker / ZTE branding and the front facing camera. The device is very rounded in each of it’s corners and on it’s edges, creating a shape that’s quite comfortable to hold. It reminds me a bit of the HTC Sensation I think in that regard.
The whole of the front device is shiny and boy oh boy does it show fingerprints. It’s clearly lacking any sort of magic oleophobic coating and as soon as you start using it, you’ll see fingerprints all over the screen, which is a little disappointing.
The back of the device, which is removable in it’s entirety, is textured black plastic. Up top, offset to the left sits the 5 Megapixel camera (which protrudes a few mm) and single LED flash, a silver ZTE logo is in the centre with what appear to be two speaker holes further down. In reality, only one has a speaker behind it. The ‘bumpy’ texture on the back of the device actually makes it quite pleasant to hold and the device is very slightly fatter at the bottom, almost EXACTLY like a Nexus S / Galaxy Nexus. Some clear inspiration here. Under the cover you'll find a full size SIM slot, a microSD slot and the removable battery.
The left hand side of the device has a chrome effect volume rocker and the ‘upside down’ microUSB port (not my preferred place for the microUSB, they really should be on the bottom). The right hand side of the device has no buttons / ports. The top of the device has the 3.5mm headphone port and power button. The bottom of the device has the microphone hole.
How does it feel? It feels pretty good. The all black front, very dark grey edges and textured back put it head and shoulders above ZTE’s budget offerings. There’s no real flex on the ‘twist test’, the buttons press with a reassuring click and it just feels solid.
The Grand X ships with Ice Cream Sandwich out of the gate in a fairly vanilla state. What you won’t find is a custom skin like HTC or Samsung, nor even a light launcher facelift like Huawei. What you’ll find instead are tweaks to the default ICS applications and some applications ‘swapped out’ for ZTE equivalents.
Preinstalled on the device you’ll find...
- Accuweather (3rd party weather app)
- Alarm (replaces the stock ICS desk clock)
- Backup and restore (for messages, contacts etc.)
- Browser (Stock ICS)
- Calculator (replaces ICS calculator)
- Calendar (Skinned)
- Camcorder (Links to Camera app)
- Camera (Stock ICS)
- Dolby Mobile
- Email (Stock ICS)
- File Manager
- FM (FM Radio)
- Full Share (DLNA Client)
- Gallery (Stock ICS)
- Global Time
- Music (‘offline’ / ‘old’ version)
- News & Weather (Genie)
- Note pad
- People (Stock ICS)
- Play Books
- Play Movies
- Play Store
- Riptide GP Demo
- SIM Toolkit
- Software update service
- Sound Recorder (Stock ICS)
- Task Manager
- Tegra Zone
- TouchPal (Replacement keyboard)
- Video Player
- Voice Dialler (Stock ICS)
- X-Office (Microsoft Office viewer)
So the device is out of the box, you’ve given it some juice and it’s time to spark it up. A press of the satisfying clicky power button brings you - via the ZTE splash screen and startup sound - to the stock Ice Cream Sandwich setup wizard. A good start. This is where you get your first look at the screen and it’s pretty sharp and clear. The auto brightness is a little on the agressive side, but it’s a decent display... until you come to use it outside in bright sunlight, where it becomes incredibly hard to see. When it comes to entering your account details, you’ll notice that the default keyboard is set to TouchPal. This can’t be changed until after you’ve set up. Now, it’s not that TouchPal is a BAD keyboard (in fact, I’ve liked it a lot for many years and it has nice Swype like functionality), it’s just that the Ice Cream Sandwich keyboard is great, better in fact, and the Touchpal keyboard could use a serious lick of paint. It’s *ugly*.
In completing the setup wizard you’ll probably spot the susceptibility of the screen to fingerprints, but there’s a good chance you’ll spot a rather more serious issue. The screen isn’t the most sensitive to touches i’ve ever used. I’ll be honest and say that it’s something you do adjust to after a short while (using the device all weekend I noticed it a lot less), but it is an issue and you’ll end up pressing the screen multiple times for it to respond occasionally, which quickly frustrates.
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Once you’ve finished the setup, you’re presented with the homescreen (launcher) which looks like completely stock ICS. How refreshing! The lock screen too is stock. If you look closely you’ll notice that there are a few changes in the launcher. The margins on the homescreen are slightly increased in size (no big deal) but the app drawer itself is, well, a bit strange. Normal behaviour for the drawer is for things to be arranged alphabetically and they are out of the box. When you start installing additional applications however, they appear at the end of the list in alphabetical order. Except they don’t always, sometimes they are randomly out of order. I don’t really understand it, it’s resolved by installing a third party launcher but it is a bit weird.
The capacitive buttons on the bottom of the device respond to touches well and when they do, you sure know about it! They have vibration feedback that is a bit excessive (and cannot be changed). This excessive vibration also manifests itself elsewhere, such as in the software keyboard. The buttons have a white backlight, however it needs to be SO dark for them to come on that for the first few days of ownership I thought they didn’t have a backlight!
So let’s talk about those apps they’ve installed on the device which are over and above the stock ICS experience.
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First up is Accuweather which is the same as you can download yourself from the Android Market. It’s nice enough, with a good forecast, nice UI and the option for a temperature display in the notification bar. But... it’s the same as the Market version in that it has a big ugly ad in it (which, strangely, more often than not doesn’t display properly, showing an error or a big white space). I can’t help but feel that this ‘adware’ cheapens the feel of the device software build a bit, as well as replicating functionality in ‘News and Weather’ application which is also installed, part of the base ICS build and ad free.
Next up is the Alarm / Global Time / Stopwatch functionality. The alarm offers a few features over and above the stock ICS Desk Clock (Captcha on snooze / dismiss, more granularity in the alarms). The Global Time app is probably THE single most useless app I have every used. It’s a 3D globe you can spin around to see where is night / day at the moment. Via a menu option you can show time zones, but doing so basically ruins the UI completely and makes it useless. The Stopwatch application actually has stopwatch and countdown functionality, it works, but it’s kinda ugly and not really keeping with the ICS UI.
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Backup & restore sounds promising. The application allows you to backup contacts, browser bookmarks, system settings, alarms, desktop wallpaper, messages, calendar entries, call log and notepad to the SD card and restore as required. A seperate option is also offered for apps, The backups can optionally be password protected. It appears to work well, even if the UI is a bit basic and the some of the translations don’t really make sense.
Calculator offers virtually the same functionality as the stock ICS version but with a different skin, likewise for the Calendar app.
ZTE have made a slightly strange decision with the Camera / Camcorder applications. Typically on Ice Cream Sandwich, only the Camera icon is included. ZTE however have also included the Camcorder icon which presents two issues. Firstly, the icon is ugly and doesn’t match anything else as it hasn’t been updated since pre-Gingerbread, secondly it doesn’t actually work. When you press the camcorder icon it does launch the camcorder, but then when you press the camera icon it also launches the camcorder if the app is still in the background, and vice versa. Basically, it’s a bit of a mess and only the one icon should have been included.
Dolby Mobile is a sound enhancer for the device, effectively just a graphic equaliser. It has 16 different music presents and 10 different movie presets including some rather strange ones (comedy, animated, variety show anyone?) which do indeed change the sound... the stock 'flat' preset sounds a bit lacklustre, so it's worth seeking these options out.
Facetones is an application that plays a slideshow of friends’ photos when friends call or text you / you call them. Not really my thing but, well, it’s fine I guess.
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The File Manager application is a simple file manager, that works as you would expect.
FM is the name for the FM radio app on the Grand X. Sound quality and reception is good and the application supports presets, a sleep mode and autoscan. Strangely though it doesn’t seem to support RDS, nor playing the radio through the speaker when the headphones are connected which is unusual.
Full Share is the a DLNA client. Unfortunately I didn’t have any DLNA hardware accessible that I could test this with.
The Music application is the very basic ‘old Android’ one, so is best avoided.
Note pad is a very simple notepad, which supports only text input. Created notes can be backed up using the aforementioned backup & restore app or exported to the SD card as text files, but that’s about it. This seems like something of a duplication of functionality with vastly superior Evernote.
Riptide GP Demo is a jetskiing game. This is the only game pre-installed on the device and is, as the name suggests, a demo version. It runs very well, as you would expect - it is optimised for Tegra2. If you buy the full version, you can’t uninstall the demo but you can disable it.
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The Settings application doesn’t really have anything out of the ordinary. In Display settings you can turn off the notification light and there's an intriguing (but unexplained) ‘Extra graphics acceleration’ option (on by default). A quick look in Storage settings shows us that of the 4GB storage, only 1.64GB is actually available to play with as the /data partition with another 1GB allocated as an internal SD card.
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Software update services is ZTE’s over the air update service. It runs alongside the SD card update option in Settings. 50% of the time it finds no updates, but 50% of the time it says ‘initializing, please try later!’. In Settings I have the option to auto update every Tuesday or not!
Video Player is a very basic video player.
X-Office is a Microsoft Office viewer, I had about a 50% success rate with the app on files I tried.
So that’s the software - a real mixed bag. There is some strange grammar, strange capitalisation, strange choices and odd quirks. I realised reading this back that this sounds a bit like an assasination of the device but I didn’t intend it to be - the software isn’t awful, it could just do with a bit of tidying up.
Let’s talk about performance!
While it’s dual core Tegra2 chipset isn’t the quickest on the block now, it’s still no slouch - you’d expect the device to respond quickly and on the whole it does. Touchscreen responsiveness caveat aside, the device generally zips long and applications run very smoothly. The only exceptions to this were where i’d sometimes be inexplicably presented with a black screen after launching an app for a few seconds or where the app had been switched out because of low RAM, which was a little frustrating.
In order to put the device through it’s paces on the software side I first installed all my favourite apps - both utilities and games. They all showed up correctly in the Play Store and they all ran smoothly. The applications I used included some more demanding titles such as Need for Speed Hot Pursuit and the weirdly demanding iStunt 2. Although it appears graphically simple, iStunt 2 noticeably stutters on some pretty powerful devices (e.g. the One XL) but on the Grand X there were no such issues (although I did find the screen timing out when playing, which was a bit odd). As a gaming device, it seems like it does have the horsepower.
TegraZone Games is preinstalled on the device, to point owners in the direction of Tegra 2 optimised games. This is all very well, but some games I selected to try and download from the Play Store were shown as ‘not compatible’ even though in the description they stated Tegra 2 compatability - hopefully a Play Store quirk that smooth out now the device has actually launched. One such game was ‘Demolition Inc.’.
Much has been made of the Icera modem prior to the devices launch, so how did the device perform with regards to the mobile network? Admirably. Signal strength was consistently good and call quality was also very good. Data rates were at least on par with my other devices. The plastic chassis no doubt lends itself to good reception, as WiFi too held on to a signal fairly well and GPS was trouble free after the first cold fix.
The volume in calls ramps up to a reasonably high level (although I wouldn’t call it exceptionally loud) and the speaker phone is clear. In fact, the mono speaker in general is pretty good, cranking up to a decent level for gaming. It’s not too easily obscured by your hand when holding it either, which is helpful.
The camera on the Grand X is decidedly mediocre. It’s a 5 Megapixel affair and records video up to 720P. The camera application is stock Android, so it doesn’t really come with any special bells and whistles, the most advanced features being face recognition and the panorama mode. There are no realtime effects in video mode seen on some Ice Cream Sandwich devices.
Pictures in good light are adequate, pictures in low light or extremely bright light are poor and video recording is overall quite smooth but not mind blowing.
At 1650 mAh, the battery in the Grand X isn’t large by any means and when you start to work that Tegra 2 processor hard, it shows. In standby mode the device isn’t as frugal as the latest generation devices, but when you start a gaming session the battery level plummets rather alarmingly. In fairness, this is true of most devices, but the Grand X can barely stretch to a day of my normal usage - if I drop a gaming session or two in there or some video then I need to find a charger before the day is up.
On the plus side, at least the battery is changeable so it’s possible to carry a spare.
Rooting and hacking
ZTE devices have traditionally been very hackable, however I haven’t yet had time to crack open the Grand X. We have seen Tegra devices with locked bootloaders too.
Stay tuned to our Grand X forum for developments!
Pricing and availability
The Grand X is available from Virgin Mobile on both Pay Monthly (free from £24 / month) - and Pay As You Go (£199). The Pay As You Go pricing particularly puts it at a price point where there aren’t a huge number of rival handsets. The Orange San Diego is a key one, but other devices generally come in cheaper and lower spec or more expensive.
Phones 4u are also offering the Grand X, £49.99 on a £15.50 contract and free on contracts starting at £20.50 / month.
I have to say that when the Grand X arrived I really wanted to like it. ZTE devices up to now have really punched above their weight when it comes to price vs performance and although not perfect, they’ve been sound all rounders.
With that in mind, i’m afraid I feel a little let down by the Grand X. It’s not a terrible phone overall, but there are niggling problems that really detract from the overall experience.
There are software problems that could be fixed - the software suite feels a bit disjointed, the bundled apps don’t really make much sense and there are some simple spelling / grammar / translation issues that can be tidied up. The touchscreen sensitivity needs to be ramped up if possible, the auto backlight needs tuning and the capacitive keys need to come on sooner when the lights starts to fade. The occasional delay when launching an app needs to be tracked down too.
There are some hardware problems too though that aren’t so straightforward. Aside from the touchscreen issue mentioned above (this could be a hardware problem, it’s hard to say), the battery life is underwhelming, the screen is virtually unusable in direct sunlight and the ease with which it becomes smothered in fingerprints is disconcerting. The camera is very average.
With all that said however, once you’re running your games the Tegra 2 processor is pretty powerful and things do run smoothly.
So, should you buy one? I guess buying the Grand X is going to be driven by the deal you can get. It’s priced pretty agressively on both Contract and Prepay, where a dual core processor and qHD screen with Ice Cream Sandwich aren’t so easy to come by. If you can live with the niggles above (or have faith in a software update / custom ROM resolving them) then the Grand X could be for you, but it’s not a ‘must buy’.
A solid step up in many respects ZTE, but you’re not quite there yet.
Pros and cons
- Tegra 2 processor
- Ice Cream Sandwich
- qHD 4.3” screen
- microSD expansion
- Agressively priced
- Screen is poor outside
- Camera is average
- Battery life is underwhelming
- Fingerprint prone
- Software quirks
- Unresponsive touchscreen
Do you have a ZTE Grand X? Do you agree / disagree with my review? Post below!
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