In a battlefield now abundant with Android handsets, there's only one easy way for a young smartphone brand to grab our attention: make a seriously dirt cheap handset. And we're not just talking about a free phone chained to a pricey 18-month contract (like the Vodafone 845); we're looking for a Pay & Go smartphone tagged with a standalone dumbphone price, so even the £200+ ($316+) "budget" HTC Wildfire and Sony Ericsson X10 Mini / Mini Pro are out of the question.

This is where Three UK's ZTE Racer comes in: priced at just £99.99 ($158) or for free on various contracts, this Android 2.1 handset has quite rightly stolen the paper crown from the 845. But don't let that price tag fool you -- this 14.5mm-thick device still comes with a fairly modern 600MHz Qualcomm MSM7227 chipset (as featured on the Aria and X10 Mini / Mini Pro), garnished with a 3.2 megapixel camera (sans flash), HSDPA 7.2Mbps connectivity, 2GB microSD card, FM radio, GPS, Bluetooth, WiFi, and a Skype app for free Skype calls within the UK. There is just one caveat: you'll have to live with a 2.8-inch QVGA resistive touchscreen. So, is this an immediate deal-breaker? Can the other features make up for this flaw? Read on to find out.
Gallery | 31 Photos

ZTE Racer review



Hardware

As a budget smartphone, the Racer's actually a pretty decent-looking device from afar (although you may disagree here), and then that silver band somehow reminds us of racing stripes (hence the name, perhaps). The lightly rubberized battery cover seals well to the body and also rounds off pretty nicely for the comfort of our hands, but we can't help noticing the green robot printed slightly off-center on our particular unit -- even Andy Rubin would probably shed a tear over this little boo boo. That said, this is nowhere as hysterical as seeing the 1,100mAh battery flying off almost every time we pull open the back cover, and even if you leave the cover on, you can still hear the loose battery rattling inside if you gently shake the phone.


Disappointingly, the least aesthetically-pleasing part of the phone is actually the glossy front side, where you can see the plastic overlay warping all over the place. We have mixed feelings for the back-lit call buttons below the screen -- the pick up button's great for prompting the dialer at any instance, but considering our smartphone usage is shifting towards more web time and less call time, a virtual button on the home screen (as implemented in the vanilla Froyo build) would probably be more ideal. Similarly, the end-call button serves no purpose other than to just end a call; users migrating from other mobile platforms may have a tough time realizing it doesn't end apps. The other physical features on the phone are less confusing -- you get the usual home, menu and back touch keys just above the call buttons (not back-lit, sadly); on the right-hand side you have the volume rocker and micro-USB port; on the top side you get a 3.5mm headphone jack, a petite power button (which isn't as hard to use as it appears), and a loudspeaker. There's obviously the camera on the back that ZTE's thoughtfully slapped a "3.2 MEGAPIXELS" label right above it, but we'll come back to that later.

So, let's get to the touchy subject (pun intended): resistive touchscreen. We've already heard HTC's highly-dubious excuse for packing that old-school technology into the now-discontinued Tattoo: for higher touch accuracy on a smaller screen. Well, now that we've played with the even smaller, capacitive touchscreen-donning X10 Mini, it's safe to say that HTC wasn't entirely correct, and it's even adopted the better touchscreen option for its latest budget phone, the Wildfire. On the other hand, ZTE has no choice but to opt for the presumably much cheaper resistive technology. Man, these guys didn't even allocate a budget for moulding a stylus for each phone, so we really had a hard time -- and we do mean hard -- tapping the right letters on the virtual keyboard.

The actual display underneath won't win any extra points for the phone, either -- QVGA resolution at 2.8 inches, bad vertical viewing angle, and inaccurate colors aren't exactly great features. By this stage, we started wondering if it's really worth going through such torment just to potentially save £100 ($160), but on the other hand, we should keep an open mind about this budget device -- after all, its target audience probably isn't as fussy as we are, and most importantly, it does work as a phone. By that we mean the call quality is good through the earpiece, handsfree kit (but not the noise isolation bud type) and loudspeaker, although it only performed averagely in our usual noise test.


Software

As you'd expect from the small price tag, the Racer's OS doesn't come with many additional goodies -- no fancy skin or social networking integration, although you do get a few notable freebies. First, we have the Skype for Three app (much like the Verizon flavor we played with back in March) that provides free Skype-to-Skype voice calls -- even over 3G -- within the UK. Next on the list is the Windows Live Messenger app that's rather self-explanatory, but man, it's got more bugs than a wild shrub in Madagascar -- for example, the search box gets stuck in the middle of the screen when you hide the keyboard, and in general the app's just not very responsive. Moving on to the third app: we have a basic version of Documents To Go for viewing Word, Excel, PowerPoint plus PDF files, and you can pay for an upgrade to unlock various functionalities like zooming and editing. Well, not that you'd want to do much editing work on this resistive touchscreen, mind you, plus we were put off by the slightly larger text rendered in our test files. As for the other apps (like, Alarms, Gallery, Maps, Music Player, etc.), they're just the same as what you'd get on any vanilla Android build, but with the exception of 720p+ videos not playable in Gallery.

Back to the OS: the lack of "enhancements" isn't necessarily a disadvantage, considering how often we moan about delayed updates (if any for the Racer) due to the manufacturers and carriers having to test compatibility. And as a side effect, the menu animations in this vanilla Eclair are surprisingly smooth, with the Fps2D app reporting an average of 72fps rendering -- pretty good for what the phone costs, even though it's running on a lower resolution. Speaking of which, you should also bear in mind that due to the minimum resolution requirement for some apps (including our own), you'll be missing out on a small chunk of the Android Market experience.

But of course, what really matters is the actual performance. Clocking at a maximum of just 600MHz, users accustomed to 1GHz Snapdragon devices will definitely notice the difference in, say, website and app loading times on the Racer. But like we said before, potential Racer owners probably won't mind this slight performance reduction, plus they'd benefit from better battery life -- we managed to squeeze out about ten hours of usage from our usual test (involving plenty of music playback, some web browsing, some twittering, the occasional camera usage, and auto-update switched on for Twitter and Google apps). See? There's always a brighter side of things.

Camera

Overall, the Racer's 3.2 megapixel still camera performed better than we expected, but it's not without flaws -- even though the outdoor shots came out to be the best of the bunch, many were slightly underexposed due to the cloudy sky, and you'd have to crank up the exposure level using the top left bar rather than tapping the darker areas to compensate. There's not much you can do about using the camera indoors other than to switch on as many lights as possible, especially since there's no camera flash to assist you. Another problem we had was the slow capture speed, which meant that we had to stand absolutely still to avoid Mr. Blurry or even Mr. Jello -- we have a good example for the latter, which was taken while we were walking at normal pace.
Gallery | 20 Photos

ZTE Racer sample camera shots


You can probably live with the aforementioned problems on the Racer's still camera, but its camcorder mode is guaranteed to be an instant turn-off for most. How so? Just look at the video resolution: 352 x 288. And yes, video quality is just as low -- turn away now unless you're seeking for some diet aid.


Wrap-up

We've tried really, really hard to like the ZTE Racer, but at the end of the day, we simply couldn't cope with using it as our everyday phone -- typing's horribly inaccurate on the resistive touchscreen, and that subpar camcorder quality just doesn't do it for us. But for this price point, the Racer's exceeded our expectation in other ways -- decent appearance (despite the glossy screen), good still camera quality, great battery life, and the full wireless package (WiFi, GPS, Bluetooth, HSDPA 7.2Mbps, and even FM radio). Now, ZTE's representatives have told us they know of no current plans for a Froyo upgrade, but we can imagine the hacking community getting all giddy at the thought of stuffing WiFi hotspot functionality into the Racer -- this would totally make the phone worth considering.

If ZTE's offering is a total no-go for you, there's always the T-Mobile Pulse Mini that's also conveniently priced at £99, or you can add another £50 for the Pulse with capacitive touchscreen (both phones shipped with 2.1); otherwise, you'll have to fork out at least £200 for the other "budget" off-contract Android handsets.
ZTE

Racer

Pros

  • Very affordable
  • Good battery life
  • Skype app

Cons

  • Resistive single-touch screen
  • Low camcorder video quality
  • No social networking integration
Summary