The ZTE Grand X Android smartphone is a breath of fresh air. For once we’ve got an Android phone that is running the Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich operating system as Google intended. But is that enough of a selling point in 2012?
It’s a funny thing, Android. Google’s mobile operating system is the most popular smartphone platform in the world by a country mile and yet very few people ever get to see it as Google intended.
Due to its open source nature and the fact that it’s free for phone manufacturers to modify, every company tweaks it to create their own user experience or adds their own skin atop it. The logic being that this will encourage customers to stick with their version of Android because it’s better than anybody else’s.
Sadly, it rarely works out that way. These custom skins are often sluggish and confusing. By contrast, Android as Google designed it is now a beautiful, fast and very functional OS. But only the owners of a select few Google-branded Nexus devices, such as the Google Nexus 7, ever get to see it that way.
You may not have heard of Chinese firm ZTE, but it’s one of the world’s biggest mobile sellers. It’s made its name flogging affordable hardware in the developing world, but now it wants in on the premium smartphone market and all the potential profits too, having seen how HTC jumped from white label phone maker to smartphone leader in just a few short years.
Accordingly, the ZTE Grand X is a step up in build quality from the company’s previous efforts, such as Orange’s San Francisco and Monte Carlo phones, but it’s still nowhere near as desirable as an Apple iPhone or a unibody HTC device.
The black plastic frame is nondescript with its rounded edges. And at 10mm thick it is quite chunky for a smartphone these days. It may sound petty but try one out in a shop and you’ll clearly see and feel just how much thicker is is compared to the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S III. It doesn’t help that the rear cover has a mottled texture that’s not particularly comfortable and it also gets very warm very easily.
We can’t fault the ZTE Grand X’s design for functionality, though. There’s no sense of give, no creaking as is so often the case with cheap phones, and you’ll find ports in all the sensible places. There is a 3.5mm audio jack for headphones and the lock button on top, and volume keys and micro USB for charging on the left. There’s no dedicated camera button on the side, but few firms still offer these on Android devices, save for Sony Mobile among others.
The screen on the ZTE Grand X is a little more impressive. The 4.3-inch panel is spacious without being completely impractical like some larger phone screens, and it proves a good fit for most hand sizes, where the 3.5-inch iPhone 4S is starting to feel a bit cramped, and the 5.3-inch display of the Samsung Galaxy Note still seems absurd.
The relatively sharp 540 x 960 pixel resolution, 256 pixels per inch display isn’t as sharp as you’ll find on an iPhone 4S or the glorious 720 x 1280 Sony Xperia S, but for the price range it’s as good as it gets. Text is crisp and reading long documents without strain is more than feasible.
Sadly it’s not without its problems, though. It’s not particularly visible in sunlight, especially as it gets covered with fingerprints so easily, and the touchscreen is not the most responsive panel we’ve seen either. Typing is usually fine, but apps that rely on buttons near the edges of the screen will sometimes frustrate you.
And there is another distinct feature of the hardware. Where Google now specifies three control buttons – Back, Home and Multi-tasking – for Android phones, the ZTE Grand X uses four touch sensitive icons below the screen to help you get around. These provide access to Back, Home, Menu and Search features.
This has pros and cons. On the one hand, system wide and internet search is available with a single press wherever you are. But on the other hand you have to remember to long press on the Home button to switch between apps. It’s not a deal-breaker either way, but something power users particularly ought to be aware of.
One more serious issue is the rather poor quality of the 5-Megapixel camera and the accompanying Full HD video that it records. It’s the standard place for manufacturers to save on money and it shows here. Shots are washed out and lifeless, while videos really struggle with motion. If you want a top notch Android cameraphone in the same price range, last year’s Sony Xperia Arc S with 8-Megapixel sensor is your best bet. And it’s also been updated to the Android 4.0 OS already.
Typically, switching an Android phone on for the first time can be a laborious process, with endless logins to set up, custom manufacturer accounts to synchronise and social network profiles to add. But the ZTE Grand X runs pure Android, as designed by Google. Turn on, sign into your Google account only if you want and you’re good to go.
It’s easy to get around; several beautiful homescreens allow you to place icons, folders and resizable widgets across them, while a tap of the centre button shows a list of all your apps. Pure Android leaves lots of breadcrumbs to show you where you are in the operating system, so you won’t ever get lost.
To tell the truth, ZTE has made a few small changes to Android 4.0.3 on the Grand X. You’ll find a couple of apps pre-installed, but they’re good ones – the excellent Evernote cloud note taking service, for instance. It’s also set a different keyboard as the default QWERTY for typing, known as TouchPal Input.
Those used to a BlackBerry QWERTY or iPhone onscreen keyboard may be a bit thrown by this. You simply drag your fingers across the screen to spell the word instead of tapping individual keys. It works, but it’s also not nearly as effective as its close rival, Swype, at predicting English words.
And do be aware that you can replace it at any time with one of many from the Google Play app store, including Google’s own rather excellent keyboard. And while you’re there, be sure to install the Google Chrome web browser, which is available for Android 4.0 phones, but does not come installed on the ZTE Grand X by default.
But that’s it. Otherwise it’s exactly as all Android phones should be – fast, clean, clear and simple to use. Google’s Calendar app with pinch-to-zoom on dates is unparalleled; Gmail’s drop down trays let you juggle all the inboxes and message labels you can handle just as easily as on a desktop; while the swipe-to-remove action used to close apps or reminders in the notification tray make things incredibly efficient.
Underneath the bonnet the ZTE Grand X is packing enough muscle to make sure Android runs quickly too. A dual core 1GHz Nvidia Tegra 2 processor runs the show and it pumps out some impressive benchmark scores, including around 2,700 on Quadrant Standard, not far off last year’s flagship Android phone, the Samsung Galaxy S II.
It’ll handle all the games you can throw at it, bar a few made specifically for 720 x 1280 pixel screens, and you’ll rarely see slowdown – though it does burn through the 1650mAh battery quite quickly. We never made it from sun-up to bedtime on a single charge, typically running out of power at about 9pm – but then so few smartphones offer much better these days.
While the untouched software is a triumph, we must stress one thing. This does not mean you can expect future updates any quicker. ZTE still has to do a lot of work under the hood to get Android releases working on its own hardware, so when Google releases a new update for Nexus devices, as it did this summer with Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, ZTE gets no head start.
Indeed, ZTE has yet to even confirm whether the Grand X will receive this upgrade. And that’s something you’ll need to think long and hard about, especially with Samsung’s bang up to date Galaxy Nexus now going for around the same price on contract. Do you want to be on the bleeding edge of Android updates? Because the ZTE Grand X, however untarnished its software, never will be.
If, however, you just want a great out of the box Android 4.0 experience without any headaches whatsoever, you could do much worse than this impressive little smartphone.