Android phones have been arriving thick and fast recently. At the lower end of the market, handsets such as the LG Optimus GT540 and HTC Wildfire are making Android a much more affordable proposition. But the ZTE Racer significantly undercuts these models, coming in at £110 on a pay as you go deal. You can also pick it up for free on a £15-per-month, 24-month contract. Is it any good though?
You might expect ZTE to have made cuts as savage as Sweeney Todd's to produce such a cheap Android handset. But the Racer isn't actually as basic as you'd think. There are, however, two areas where the cuts are clear: the design and the screen.
The phone's finish is very plasticky, with the silver effect used on the band around the edge of the Racer looking particularly low-rent. That said, the handset's smaller dimensions make it more comfortable to hold than many larger smart phones. It's light too, at just 100g, so you can tuck it away in a shirt pocket and you'll barely notice it's there.
Unsurprisingly at this price, ZTE has used a resistive, rather than capacitive, touchscreen. This means the phone doesn't support multi-touch, so you have to use the on-screen zoom bar to whizz in and out of Web pages and maps, rather than the more intuitive pinch-to-zoom gesture. Resistive screens usually aren't as sensitive as capacitive displays, but the Racer's touchscreen performs pretty well, responding quickly to taps and swipes.
The 71mm (2.8-inch) screen's limited QVGA resolution means icons and text look much less defined than on pricier smart phones, and colours also don't look half as rich or vibrant. Also, the viewing angle isn't great when you're viewing the phone in landscape mode, with the result that you have to tilt the screen slightly to the left when watching videos to stop colours from washing out.
Hooray for Android 2.1
Unlike some other budget Android handsets, the Racer isn't saddled with the relatively dated 1.6 version of the operating system. Instead, it uses the much more up-to-date Android 2.1. As a result, you get an improved Web browser, as well as native support for Exchange. You also benefit from the user-interface tweaks that were introduced with version 2.1.
ZTE has kept tight-lipped about the processor that the phone uses. Although it's fairly obvious that it's not one of the latest 1GHz Snapdragon chips, the handset still feels responsive, especially during day-to-day tasks like Web browsing and flicking through photos in the gallery.
The handset's call quality is very impressive too. The earpiece is loud and, unlike with some handsets, speech doesn't descend into a garbled mess when the signal is slightly below-par. The phone's range of connectivity options is also top-notch. As well as Wi-Fi, the handset supports HSDPA for fast Web browsing over 3G. There's also Bluetooth and GPS support. The GPS worked without any problems in the Google Maps application, which now supports turn-by-turn sat-nav instructions.
The Racer's multimedia features aren't bad either. The phone has a standard 3.5mm headphone jack on the top, so you can use your own cans. Although the supplied headphones aren't too bad, you'll be better able to appreciate the phone's clean and warm audio output when you swap them for a good pair.
The 3.2-megapixel snapper won't threaten a dedicated compact camera, but it grabs shots quickly and captures strong, vibrant colours. There's no flash, though, so indoor shots generally don't look all that hot.
Despite its flaws, we're impressed by the ZTE Racer. It's no mean feat for a handset of this price to offer features such as GPS, HSDPA and Wi-Fi support -- not to mention the ease of use that Android affords. The Racer can't hold its own against higher-end devices like the HTC Desire, but, as an alternative to most non-smart phones, it's a brilliant choice.
Edited by Charles Kloet