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ZTE Grand X review

Finally, another device with stock Android

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Gallery Photo: ZTE Grand X review pictures
Gallery Photo: ZTE Grand X review pictures

With an Nvidia Tegra 2 processor and an almost entirely stock Android 4.0 ROM, the Grand X is ZTE’s new flagship device. It’s something of a milestone for the Chinese manufacturer, previously known for producing bottom-dollar semi-smartphones and white-label, carrier-branded devices such as Orange’s San Francisco, and was unveiled with appropriate fanfare at two separate London events earlier this month.

Flying ZTE’s three-letter flag proudly, it’s the company’s first real attempt to make its name as a viable, mid-range Android OEM in its own right, capable of going toe-to-toe with devices from Asian competitors such as Samsung and HTC as well as major domestic rival Huawei. Does the Grand X provide anything more interesting than what’s already available, and can it help ZTE make a small but significant dent in the UK market?

Hardware / design

Hardware / design

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Fairly or not, the first issue in most users’ minds when encountering a Chinese smartphone will be build quality — sadly, the Grand X does little to dispel the stigma. While the overall design is relatively sleek, resembling the Nexus S in its preference for slimness and rounded corners, most of the materials used to execute it are noticeably cheap and plasticky. A matte black backplate with a washboard-type print provides good, solid grip, but is let down by the outer bezel around the display, a familiar (and disappointing) metallic plastic. Worse, the backplate itself has a tendency to wobble under moderate pressure, such as when rubbing the screen on a thigh to clean it (which you’ll have to do a lot — but I’ll get to that).

Oddly, the capacitive area at the bottom of the Grand X’s screen includes the outdated Menu and Search buttons eschewed in newer stock devices such as the Galaxy Nexus, suggesting that it might have been designed with an earlier version of Android in mind. Still, Menu, Home, Back, and Search will be familiar to many users, and they work perfectly well in Ice Cream Sandwich too. Up top, the phone carries a small ZTE logo and the speaker, as well as its front-facing VGA camera and a single notification LED, hidden behind the front plate but still visible in all but the darkest conditions. A silver plastic power button sits on the right of the device’s top edge, with a volume rocker of the same material taking up the top section of the left flank. Both feel solid, offering a good amount of give without shaking or looseness.

Filling out the bottom-left corner of the phone is a standard Micro USB port, making one-handed, plugged-in use awkward for both righties and lefties — while the former will brush up against the cable with their fingers, the latter will end up with it embedded in their palm. Annoyingly, the placement feels like an afterthought, dictated by the position of the camera and SIM assembly in the diagonally opposite corner. A 3.5mm headphone jack sits at the top left, more central than on many comparable phones but still conveniently located.

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Old buttons for a new OS
It’s a good-looking phone let down by the way it feels to hold
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The camera protrudes a couple of millimeters from the backplate, lining up with a small bulge at the bottom of the device containing the antenna and loudspeaker. Neither should present a problem for most pockets — at 9.9mm (0.39 inches) thick, the Grand X is slimmer than the Nexus S, though doesn’t come close to matching the One S, which is a svelte 7.8mm (0.31 inches). The device weighs in at approximately 110g with battery, heavy enough to feel solid but lighter than virtually every comparable device, including feather-light phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S II. Despite the wobbling problems mentioned above, the phone’s backplate snaps off easily and cleanly, revealing a replaceable 1,650 mAh battery, a standard SIM bay and a microSD slot, useful given the device’s relatively minimal 4GB of internal storage.

One of the most significant issues with the Grand X’s hardware, particularly given how ephemeral and inaccessible it can seem, is the vibrate function. With "touch vibrate" turned on by default, any normal user will be subject to a continuous barrage of serious, audible shaking. For most normal activities, the haptic feedback is both too long and too loud, and it’s difficult to ignore the sound of the little motor whirring around at every touch. While the feature can easily be turned on or off, a search for sensitivity settings bore no fruit.

All in all, it’s a good-looking phone let down by the way it feels in the hand. The Grand X’s curves seem warm and human, inviting a solid grasp — unfortunately, this is when the device starts creaking and wheezing, wearing its poor build quality on its sleeve. Details like the camera and the subtle protrusion at the base wouldn’t seem out of place on a top-of-the-line smartphone from Samsung — they might even be made from the same plastic — but they’d fit just that little bit better, offering a firmer resistance to the palm. In a sort of metaphor for the whole device, the "E" in the ZTE logo on the back is very slightly off-center.

Display

Display

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Reviewing the Grand X’s display is a game of two halves. A 4.3-inch, Sharp-made qHD (960 x 540) panel offering 256 PPI, it can go head-to-head with some of the market-leading smartphones in terms of size and pixel density. It provides solid color reproduction, avoiding the grainy edges that have become familiar with the recent popularity of Pentile screens, even on much higher-end devices. While a little dim when set to anything below 75 percent brightness, the Grand X’s display produces consistently vivid detail, suitable for viewing high-resolution video and photos.

Sadly, that’s where the praise ends. Unluckily for ZTE, I picked up my review unit on one of the sunniest days that London had seen in weeks. Taking the Grand X for a walk to capture some sample photos, the display was practically unusable — I found myself ducking under trees to get a good look at it. Not only does the screen perform poorly in direct sunlight, but it picks up fingerprints and smudges on virtually every touch, further obscuring the relatively little that’s visible. This is less of a problem on a cool day indoors, but when swiping the lock screen with sweaty fingers in the heat of a midday sun, the marks tend to add up.

Frequent cleaning of the Grand X’s screen is a necessity, but anything too vigorous reveals the flimsiness of the overall construction. Unfortunately, the display doesn’t seem to have any sort of effective oleophobic coating — view it in indirect light, even after a quick clean, and it looks like something out of CSI, littered with prints. It’s tempting to lump the screen surface in with the overall build quality as one of the inevitable compromises that have to be made with a mid-range device, but the the cost of fixing simple problems like these needs to be weighed against their impact on the experience as a whole. In this case, the scales certainly don’t fall in ZTE’s favor.

The second major issue with the Grand X’s display is a more forgivable cost-cutting measure. As with many low-end smartphones, the device’s touch responsiveness is far from satisfying — a deliberate tap in the center of the display will always come out well, as when selecting an app from the home screen, but more casual touches have a tendency to be ignored. The problem is most obvious when bending a thumb down to the bottom of the screen to tap the phone or mail icon, with anything less than a direct hit likely to leave the user hanging.

This also makes for some frustrating experiences in Chrome for Android — while perhaps more Google’s fault than ZTE’s, the small X’s in the browser’s "card view" for tabs are extremely difficult to hit accurately, a problem that I’ve never experienced on the One S’s identically-sized screen. Other apps that require the user to accurately hit small touch targets present similar problems.

Frequent cleaning of the Grand X’s screen is a necessity
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Cameras

Cameras


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The Grand X offers a familiar dual-camera setup, providing a 5-megapixel sensor with LED flash on the back and a simple VGA job on the front. Sadly, neither is very special. The front-facing camera performs exactly as you’d expect, shooting washed-out, grainy footage suitable for Skype or other video calling services; its rear-facing brother makes a valiant attempt to be a decent smartphone camera but falls short.

Even when exposure and brightness are set to their lowest possible values, the Grand X’s main camera copes poorly with direct sunlight — point it at a window in a dimly-lit room and you’ll be treated to an explosion of white with very little discernible detail. Unfortunately, it doesn’t do much better in the dark — bumping up the settings for night shots leads to predictably noisy and grainy results, with any white object standing out like a beacon.

The Android 4.0 camera app’s automatic white balance generally does a fairly good job of keeping photographs looking natural, but there are situations where a quick adjustment can help achieve a much better effect, particularly when working with natural light. In fact, keeping a close eye on the settings should be a rule of thumb whenever using the Grand X’s camera. While five megapixels may sound unimpressive in a world where eight is the high-end standard and outliers such as Nokia’s 808 PureView provide up to 41, there’s plenty of potential for capturing decent, detailed images here, as long as the camera’s limitations are borne in mind.

Like its stills, the Grand X’s videos fail to wow. In an apparent performance-saving measure, ZTE has limited the phone to capturing at 720p, despite the Tegra 2’s proven ability to handle 1080p. While movement is relatively smooth, any attempt at digital zoom while recording proceeds in huge jerks, ruining any resulting footage. A similar problem occurs with the automatic white balance and brightness adjustment — again, it’s a case of keeping a close eye on the settings to get reasonable results. Whether this sort of settings-watching should be necessary with a modern smartphone is, of course, another question.

Software

Software

There are a couple of great things about the Grand X’s software. For one thing, it’s Ice Cream Sandwich, still a rarity in the low- to mid-end market. While Android 4.1 Jelly Bean seems set to make its stately progress across high-end devices in the coming months, Android 4.0 still feels fresh and clean, and really adds something to the perceived quality of the device. More importantly, though, it’s almost completely stock, lacking any sort of proprietary ZTE skin to get between the user and the experience that Google intended. That the Grand X fails to carry the very latest build, 4.0.4, hardly seems important, with 4.0.3 packing all the really essential features and fixes added since the first 4.0 release late last year.

While the specific benefits of the default Google experience over the panoply of manufacturer-made Android skins may not be immediately obvious to this phone’s target market, they’re still very real. Android on the Grand X just works: there’s nothing particularly complex to learn, and the operating system behaves predictably and consistently in pretty much every ordinary use case. The startup animations are cheesy and there’s the odd piece of Sinicized English here and there — when an alarm goes off while the phone is powered down, it flashes up a message asking "Your phone whether boot?" — but there’s nothing that really distracts from the overall smoothness of the system.

The only non-stock feature that immediately springs out is the pre-installed TouchPal keyboard, and whether it provides any real advantage over the stock Android 4.0 offering is a matter of opinion. Its headline feature is the "Curve" input system, essentially a rip-off of Swype, which allows users to type by drawing a continuous line on the keyboard before selecting predicted words from a list. Unless this is how you ordinarily type, you’ll probably want to revert to the standard Android keyboard, which is included by default and provides a much more aesthetically-integrated experience.

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Unencumbered by software cruft

In the days before its official announcement, ZTE’s UK Twitter account billed the Grand X as "one of the MOST ADVANCED GAMING SMARTPHONES," stoking expectations of something special. What this somewhat hyperbolic label means in practice is that it’s got Nvidia’s Tegra 2 chipset inside and comes with the company’s proprietary TegraZone marketplace, allowing users to download games optimized for the system. Unfortunately, TegraZone constantly draws attention to the Tegra 2’s age, with top titles such as Shadowgun now optimized specifically for its successor, the Tegra 3.

The only pre-installed game on my device was a demo of Riptide GP, an arcade-style 3D jet ski experience in the vein of Nintendo’s classic Wave Race series. At one of the Grand X’s twin London launch events, ZTE management took turns playing the game through an HDMI link, a feature not provided in the phone’s production version. The graphics held up well on the big screen, though the quality of the players was less impressive — one exec got stuck with a "Wrong Way. Touch to Recover" message for a solid three minutes.

The Grand X comes with Dolby Mobile surround-sound audio, which is accompanied by a pre-installed Dolby Mobile Control Panel app. It’s little more than a selector for presets, offering long lists of settings for "Music" and "Movie" listening, but it works well, significantly modifying the quality of the sound.

With the music set to "Flat" by default, it’s well worth venturing into the control panel before judging the Grand X’s audio performance too harshly, particularly if using the bundled earbuds — while the inline play / pause button is useful, the buds themselves are tinny and much too quiet. General sound reproduction through speakers or higher-quality headphones, on the other hand, is more than passable.

Performance

Performance, call quality, and reception

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Like touch responsiveness, overall performance is an area where the Grand X’s faults have scope for forgiveness. This is, after all, a budget device running one of the world’s most modern and sophisticated smartphone operating systems — a few hiccups are to be expected. Thankfully, general navigation is good, with no discernible delay when swiping through screens in the app drawer and most apps launching in a pretty timely fashion. The only major problem in everyday use is the time that the device takes to get from a press of the power button to the lock screen, which can vary from an instant to as much as 1.5 seconds. There appears to be no reliable way to keep the time down, either: I tried rebooting the phone and killing all running processes with little effect. Even with the popular "No Lock" app installed, the delay is simply transferred to the gap between button-press and home screen.

The Grand X is somewhat hamstrung by its relatively paltry 512MB of RAM

Despite its capable 1GHz dual-core Tegra 2, the Grand X is somewhat hamstrung by its relatively paltry 512MB of RAM, and users accustomed to regular multitasking will soon become familiar with Android’s range of loading screens. That said, the bottlenecks in the phone’s performance emerge exactly where you’d expect them to — a user with a realistic idea of the device’s hardware will have no nasty surprises. Larger and more resource-intensive apps will take a few seconds to load, but 3D gaming is more than satisfying and streaming high-quality video on apps such as the BBC’s iPlayer or Netflix presents no problems at all.

The downside to this sort of CPU-intensive activity, of course, is that it tends to drain the battery at a pretty alarming rate. 1,650mAh may seem reasonable — it’s certainly better than the iPhone 4S’s 1,432mAh, for example — but it’s tasked with supporting a relatively large screen alongside all the power-hogging connectivity options present in Android 4.0. A morning charge will generally see the Grand X through the day, even with a fair amount of media activity and web browsing, but users planning to stream from Spotify or play graphics-intensive games for the duration of a long commute should be prepared to sacrifice a significant chunk of the battery icon.

As with any new Android 4.0 device, the Grand X must inevitably deal with the big question: will it get updated to Jelly Bean? From a pure performance perspective, there seems to be no real reason why not — ZTE recently announced a Jelly Bean update for the China-only N880E, which features a mediocre 1GHz Snapdragon S1 and the same amount of RAM as the Grand X. I couldn’t get a straight answer out of the company, though their PR company confirmed that "ZTE will of course be releasing Jelly Bean devices in the UK in future." As ever, the chances of the Grand X getting the big update will depend on adoption, with ZTE unlikely to bother investing in a software boost for a device that nobody owns.

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Call quality / reception

For modern smartphones, reception is in many ways the ultimate bottleneck — when out of Wi-Fi range, poor data access can render a handset virtually unusable for many of its most important tasks. Thankfully, the Grand X appears solid in this respect. Using a prepaid Vodafone SIM, I placed the device next to an HTC One S on Talkmobile (a UK MVNO using Vodafone’s network) and achieved comparable results. 3G data comes through at a reasonable rate and calls are crisp and clear, with no dropping.

One area in which the Grand X’s reception did disappoint was GPS, with the device significantly underperforming in most comparisons. Some indoor degradation is to be expected, and the device generally performs well outside, but it completely failed to locate a satellite under clear skies in at least one of my impromptu tests. As with any Android device, pin-pointing is usually improved by turning on Google’s location service, and using Wi-Fi and mobile network data to boost accuracy, but in this case it had no effect.

As an obvious mid-range device, this phone will live or die by price

The ZTE Grand X is, all things considered, a perfectly good device. It’s cheap, it’s got Android 4.0, and — in case I haven’t said it enough yet — it’s stock. Combine that with a proven, battle-worn processor in the Tegra 2 and it provides all the functions that a user can expect from a modern smartphone, sidestepping the perils of over-design and bloatware. It’s not the best looking phone on the market, but neither is it ugly, and though elements of its construction could have been better executed, it’s not the sort of device that’s likely to fall apart after a few months of use. Any user without an irrational fear of fingerprints or a compulsive need for super-accurate touch response should get on with the Grand X just fine.

Unfortunately, as an obvious (if not exactly self-professed) mid-range device, this phone will live or die by price. And here’s the rub: the Grand X is available now, not from any of the major UK carriers, but from Phones 4u (and coming soon to Virgin Media). It's available for free on any monthly contract over £20.50, or £49.99 on a cheaper plan. Virgin Media has revealed a prepaid cost of £189 ($293) and a range of 24-month contract options. Even the cheapest, offering 500MB of data at £24 ($37) for new users and £19 ($29) for existing Virgin customers, has to compete with subsidized and better-advertised deals from the likes of Carphone Warehouse, which until recently offered the HTC One S with unlimited data for a mere £16 ($25) per month. It’s still affordable compared to other phones on Virgin Media, with the Galaxy S III and the One X coming in at monthly tariffs of £38 ($60) for 500MB, but that’s hardly a massive point in its favor.

As a prepaid device, the Grand X is undeniably cheap, and could be worth a look for anyone wanting to take a first step with Ice Cream Sandwich; as a long-term contract option, it has very little to recommend it over a host of competing devices. While it will naturally stand out from the pack for hardcore stock Android activists, that’s a group that is still nowhere near large enough to be commercially significant. ZTE has made an interesting effort with this phone, but will need to try again if it hopes to crack the core of the UK Android market.