If you love the smell of a mid-range 'droid in the morning, then prepare yourself for some nose twitching. The ZTE Grand X combines a dual-core Tegra chip with pure Android Ice Cream Sandwich -- and all for £190 on pay as you go from Virgin Media.
If you're not familiar with ZTE, the Chinese mobile maker is a plucky underdog in the UK's smart phone market. It trails Asian giants Samsung, LG and HTC, with only a handful of phones, including a couple of cheap 'droids, the Skate and the Kis, and one budget Windows Phone.
With the more souped-up Grand X, ZTE is hoping to grab a larger slice of Blighty's smart phone pie. But is it in with a chance?
Virgin Media's pay-monthly prices for the phone start at £19 (for
existing customers), or £24 a month for new customers. The Grand X can
also be bagged via Phones 4u on two-year contracts from around
£20 a month.
Should I buy the ZTE Grand X?
The ZTE Grand X is an acquired taste. If you're not head over heels in love with naked Android (that is, the software as Google intended it, minus the interface tinkering phone manufacturers are prone to), and aren't fussed about 3D gaming, it won't engender much love in you.
The phone's rubbery touchscreen puts a real downer on any kind of interaction. The joy you thought you'd have at fondling Ice Cream Sandwich is all too often dashed to smithereens against its unresponsive glass.
If you're renowned for your crushingly firm handshake then maybe you won't have such trouble getting your taps to register on the Grand X's pane. But everyone else, be warned.
The only real reasons to buy this Android phone are if you're an avid 3D gamer with a serious love of Tegra apps. Or you simply must have unadulterated Ice Cream Sandwich but can't afford a Samsung Galaxy Nexus. Or you're locked to Virgin Media and can't find a better alternative.
Android Ice Cream Sandwich and apps
The Grand X runs the latest but one version of Google's Android mobile operating system, Ice Cream Sandwich. That's just about as fresh as Android comes right now since the newest version, Jelly Bean, was only unveiled this summer. ZTE gets full marks for eschewing the more common but now rather stale Gingerbread iteration of Android.
Certain Android fans will also love the fact it's delivering ICS without any big interface tweaks. Yes, that's right folks, this is pure ICS, almost exactly as Google intended it -- although for some reason, ICS's Face Unlock feature is not offered (even though the Grand X has a front-facing camera).
In my view, unskinned ICS is very much an acquired taste. There's no doubt it has speed advantages over some laggy Android skins, and you might dig its Tron-esque looks. But it's not all gravy. If you're not the kind of person who likes geeking around with gadgets, it could feel more convoluted than you're comfortable with -- and therefore irritatingly frustrating. You guys might prefer HTC's Sense 4.0 interface, which can be found gracing its One series of devices.
On the Grand X, the camera interface is especially unlovely -- with small, fiddly icons to press and sub-menus squirrelled away in odd places. Even making a phone call or dialling down screen brightness isn't as straightforward as it could be -- requiring multiple presses and too many guesses as to what should be pressed and when.
All that said, some people really are into unskinned Android so this might be exactly what you're after.
To make the most of the Grand X's Tegra chipset, it comes pre-loaded with Nvidia's Tegra Zone games app store. If mobile gaming floats your boat, there's no shortage of high-octane apps on tap here, some free, most requiring a few quid of your hard-earned. Several games have been pre-loaded on my review unit, including Dead Trigger, Fruit Ninja THD and Big Top THD.
Since the phone is exclusive to Virgin Media, expect some bloatware apps to be installed too -- although there wasn't anything too annoying weighing down my review device.
I did notice a few software glitches with the Grand X during my time testing it, including the native browser (nothing appearing on the page until I reloaded the browser), and a few apps crashing. The native browser also doesn't neatly wrap text to the page width, which can get annoying. You can easily switch to an alternative browser like Google's Chrome for Android though.
The more serious glitches I encountered usually resolved themselves on a second attempt so the phone seems reasonably stable overall. By far the biggest problem with the Grand X is its unresponsive, rubbery screen.
With the aim of ensuring a decent gaming and video viewing experience, the Grand X has a fairly large screen, measuring 4.3 inches on the diagonal.
Screen resolution is 540x960 pixels, which equates to a middling pixel-per-inch count of 256. I found the display clear and colourful although it's not especially vibrant. Screen hardware is certainly one of the areas where ZTE is saving a few renminbi on build costs. It's a TFT affair so it doesn't live up to the brilliant displays found on more premium phones, which often sport AMOLED or Super AMOLED screens.
When the display is switched off, you can see a matrix of dots that's characteristic of cheaper displays. Squeeze the edges and there's a lot of flex in it too.
The cheapness of the Grand X's display really comes across in how it feels which, sad to say, is distinctly rubbery and unresponsive. The edges of the screen seem especially dull so icons sitting towards the sides often require insistent, heavy taps for your finger to register. Annoying to say the least.
The rubberiness of the screen is especially irritating when dealing with tiny buttons such as those on the camera interface or on certain games. So unless you're seriously laid back or have very spindly yet heavy fingers (Edward Scissorhands?), you'll quickly lose patience with the Grand X's pane.
Power and performance
ZTE is making lots of noise about the chip combo inside the Grand X. It's graced with a dual-core 1GHz Nvidia Tegra 2 mobile processor and Nvidia Icera 450 HSPA+ modem. ZTE reckons this all-Nvidia combo is worth boasting about -- claiming it's a first for smart phones and delivers "outstanding performance and long battery life".
So much for the hype. In reality, the Grand X's 1,650mAh battery is no marathon runner. After 2 hours streaming a Nyan cat video over Wi-Fi, I managed to deplete the tank from full to 38 per cent (screen brightness dialled to max for this test). Playing a mere half-hour of Heroes Call THD was also enough to drain over a quarter of a full tank -- dropping it down to 73 per cent -- so don't expect epic feats of endurance.
Dialling down screen brightness will improve battery performance slightly but if you're hoping to play a 3D game all day and all night, you'll need to make sure you're near a power source (or carry a spare tank).
An Nvidia spokesperson I talked to described the Tegra chipset as "quite efficient", and said the phone should last a full day's use before needing a recharge -- emphasis firmly on the word should there, I think.
The official ZTE specs state the battery is good for 180 minutes of talk time or 300 hours left on standby. If you're using the phone a lot -- for videos and gaming -- don't expect it to last a day without requiring a charge.
What about the speed of the phone? The ICS menus certainly swoop past with alacrity, while apps fire up quickly and web browsing is nippy (for a mid-range 'droid). There can be a little wait for graphical elements to load on some sites but it's usually not long enough to start tutting. Being ICS does mean there's no Adobe Flash support though, so you will stumble upon embedded content in websites that won't play.
On the CPU and graphics side, it delivered 5,250 on Antutu's benchmark -- a mid-table mark that couldn't quite match the LG Optimus 2X but beat the Nexus S. In Quadrant's test, it notched up 2,571 -- a similar total as the Samsung Galaxy Nexus and better than the HTC Desire HD. In GL Benchmark's standard Egypt test of 3D graphics, it ran at a better-than-middling 39 frames per second.
As mentioned earlier, my review unit came pre-loaded with a series of 3D games -- others included were Pinball HD for Tegra, Riptide GP and Shadowgun. I found performance was typically silky smooth so there's no doubt you can get your gaming fix on the Grand X -- how long you can game for is another matter though.
Another bit of hardware gracing the Grand X's insides is an HSPA+ modem. This means it's capable of theoretical download speeds of up to 21Mbps, provided you're using it on a mobile network that supports what is currently the fastest flavour of 3G. Nvidia reckons the HSPA+ chipset is also better at holding onto signals, so it could mean fewer dropped calls on this blower.
Design and build
The Grand X's design is bog-standard smart phone fare. From the front it's a black, rounded slab with four touch-keys on the bezel -- menu, home, back and search. Turn it around and the rubbery, textured back feels (and looks) different to the highly polished surfaces found on many smart phones today. It looks a bit budget but does mean there's little risk of the phone slipping out of your digits as you play GTA 3.
Build quality feels pretty sturdy -- although the Z and T silver lettering of the ZTE logo on the back of my review unit came loose after a few days. Overall, the phone feels more rubbery than plasticky in the hand -- something you're likely to either love or hate.
The handset's size is pretty average in these days of enormo-phones. It certainly didn't feel excessively large in the hand and should slot in larger pockets. At 9.9mm thick, it's not the world's thinnest phone, nor is it super-chunky either. And at 110g, its weight is neither featherlight nor a real pocket drag.
On-board storage is only 4GB but there's a microSD card slot for expanding it by up to 32GB.
The phone also includes Dolby Mobile Sound technology, for boosting audio performance -- I found the rear speaker nice and clear, even at the top of its range.
Call quality is good and I had not trouble hearing or being heard when testing the phone.
The rear camera on the Grand X is a 5-megapixel snapper, which is a pretty average amount of megapixels for a mid-range blower. The handset also has a 0.3-megapixel front-facing camera for video calling, but not apparently for Face Unlock. Quality is very poor though.
The main camera includes a flash and supports HD video capture. There's no physical camera key -- so again you're left battering away at the unresponsive touchscreen.
The camera suffers from marked shutter lag -- taking about a second and a half to snap a shot. So if you're trying to photograph your pet doing something cute, expect to get a snap of its head turning away instead.
Even when you do capture the pose you were after, photo quality isn't amazing. Shots have a tendency to look hazy and lighter areas are often over-exposed. In dingier conditions, expect your snaps to be stippled with noise.
For taking basic photos for uploading to Facebook, the Grand X is fine but don't expect photographic miracles.
The Grand X isn't going to turn hordes of heads, but if you're on Virgin Media, it serves up naked Ice Cream Sandwich powered by a 1GHz dual-core chip for a reasonably affordable £190 on pay as you go.
Battery life isn't great but the Grand X's biggest bug-bear is its rubbery, unresponsive touchscreen. All too often this dull pane takes all the fun out of playing around with what is otherwise a fairly powerful mid-range 'droid.
Most people's cash will be better spent on Android alternatives that are slicker all-rounders -- such as Samsung's Galaxy Ace 2 or S Advance. You could also consider the Intel-powered Orange San Diego.