First impressions of the ZTE Open and Firefox OS
Today I received my ZTE Open running Firefox OS. This is the first widely-available phone running Firefox OS, and is being sold directly by ZTE on eBay. The first release of 2,000 units for the UK and US has sold out – I believe there was also a batch released in Spain. ZTE say there’ll be another batch produced for September 2013.
No doubt there are lots of people working on ‘I spent two weeks with the ZTE Open!’ posts. Well, I spent two hours with it. I didn’t read any of the documentation (apart from how to remove the back cover to install the battery). I tried to get by entirely by guesswork. Here’s what I found.
For a low-cost device, it doesn’t feel too cheap. It’s light, but feels solidly built, and comes in a bright orange hue with black trim, making it pretty easily identifiable for what it is. It’s comfortable to hold. The front is quite plain, apart from a ZTE logo. The back has another ZTE logo and a Firefox OS logo, plus 3.2 megapixel camera and a small speaker. The only physical buttons are the power switch and a volume rocker. MicroSD and SIM cards go behind the battery, so can’t be swapped without powering the device down.
It has features that most of us have come to expect, like A-GPS and a capacitive touchscreen, even though a few years ago a device at this price point certainly wouldn’t have either (remember the LG Viewty?) The touchscreen is reasonably responsive, but can be a little temperamental. GPS seems to work, too. ZTE also kindly included a quality brand 4GB SD card separately from the unit. You’ll need this, as the built-in storage is only 256MB.
Below you can see a size comparison with my rather battered Galaxy S2. Not only is it smaller, but it’s only slightly thicker than the S2. The S2′s screen is, of course, a lot sharper, but the Open’s is still acceptable. Unlike the S2, it does struggle in direct sunlight.
Setup was simple. I didn’t get any screenshots, but imagine Android setup without the need to log in to Google. It introduces the OS, asks to connect to a WiFi network, requires you to set the time and date, and choose localisation options. I say ‘localisation’, because I’m from the UK – the only option for English was English (US), though. Once you’ve set it up, you get straight into the OS. Bizarrely, the date defaulted to 6 January 1980, but the time was correct.
The default home screen, shown below sporting one of the built-in wallpapers, is a simple affair, with the time and date, and an app dock, which can be quite easily customised. The home button below the dock is a ‘soft key’ – it doesn’t have any physical action, and lights up with the device’s backlight. Unlike some Android devices, there’s no back button or menu button – just ‘home’.
The phone is unlocked by pressing the hardware power button on the top of the device, sliding a bar up from the bottom of the screen, and then touching the ‘unlock’ button. You can also access the camera directly from the unlock screen. At the moment, the only security offered is PIN locking or none at all. Once you unlock the phone, it shows the home screen as below. Swipe to the left and you get your apps.
Apps aren’t organised alphabetically, rather they are added to the end of the list as you install them. You can rearrange them by long-pressing an icon, at which point all the apps ‘throb’ and can be rearranged or deleted.
Swiping to the right reveals ‘Everything’. This shows loads of apps, including many that you don’t have installed, grouped thematically. Some of the themes include ‘Everything Social’, ‘Everything Funny’, and even ‘Everything Shoes’ (actually a list of online stores that might sell footwear).
Each of the ‘Everything’ screens has a stock photo backdrop, such as a dog wearing driving goggles for ‘Everything funny’. It reminds me a bit of the web of the past, specifically something along the lines of Yahoo! Directory or Mozilla’s own DMOZ.
Something odd I noticed with Everything is that the apps seem to run separately from those installed on your phone. For example, I installed the Facebook app on the phone, and logged in. Subsequently, accessing Facebook via the app icon logged me in. But if I launched Facebook from ‘Everything social’, it would briefly show the app logged in, then throw me back to a login page. I found I wasn’t logged out of the installed app – it just seems to run the two Facebooks – the installed app and the ‘Everything’ app – as different processes. Very confusing, and probably something which will be fixed.
And so to the apps themselves. Most of the ones I tried were clearly just wrappers for mobile sites (Twitter and Facebook, at least). There are apps that have been written specially, but the Marketplace isn’t exactly teeming with life yet – a great time to start writing apps for this OS, if that’s your thing.
Basic sharing exists in the OS, but because the ‘apps’ are just wrappers, it doesn’t really work yet. For example, the Twitter app registers itself as a destination for sharing images, but when you share an image, it just opens a new tweet, and doesn’t attach the image.
The camera is very basic. There don’t seem to be any settings for it at all, and the quality is not good. I’ve included some shots below so you can see for yourself. There is a video recorder, which records in the 3GP format; the files it produces can’t be played by VLC. If you want to use the camera, you’re going to need a memory card.
There’s a basic gallery app, which looks quite nice, but – like the camera app – doesn’t do a lot. As with much of the OS, it’s a very flat UI. File transfer is done by USB mass storage, which – a bit oddly – has to be enabled in the settings. If you don’t enable it, your phone will happily charge over USB but not transfer anything. The phone does prompt you to unlock it before it will act as a mass storage device, which is a good thing.
Here are some photos taken with the camera app:
Sometimes the camera exhibits a strange ‘squashing’ effect, as you can see in the third photo. Also, while the gyroscope works fine in most cases, it sometimes doesn’t rotate in time for the photo. There’s no rotation tool in the gallery app yet, so you’ll have to fix this later.
Settings and notifications
Here’s some screenshots of the UI. It’s much the same as Android in terms of settings and notifications, or at least a variation on the Android theme.
As you can see, the notifications drop-down has a configurable mobile data use bar. You can toggle 2G, 3G/HSDPA, Bluetooth, and Airplane mode. The final button is to access the settings screen. One interesting setting missing from other mobile OSs is the ‘Do Not Track’ feature, which is disabled by default.
Browser, mail, and other bits and pieces
The browser, unsurprisingly, is Firefox Browser. It’s very similar to the Android version (though quicker than Firefox on my Galaxy S2). Mail works to some extent – I could download all my mail headers via IMAP, but the app failed to actually display the body of any messages (I imagine writing an IMAP client in HTML5 isn’t easy). Also notable by their absence were any ‘geek’ tools, such as a terminal emulator, or SSH client.
The shots below are from the Messages app. The keyboard is very basic, with no autocorrect or autocomplete, and combined with the cheap-ish screen, it can be a little bit hit-and-miss. It does the job, but there is definitely room for improvement. Messages again shows off the flat UI.
Finally, a word about using the phone as a phone. Call quality was acceptable. I tried walking to an area of worse reception in my home, and experienced a drop call. The second time I tried it, it was fine. The call’s recipient did complain of decreasing quality after about 20 minutes, but this could have been down to their line. Overall it wasn’t a massive problem.
Below is the dialling page, and – since I had nowhere else to put it – a screenshot of the task switcher (invoked by holding down the home button). Incidentally, screenshots are taken by holding home + power.
I hope this tour of the initial release of the ZTE Open / Firefox OS has been useful to those intrigued by the device, and those who haven’t managed to get their hands on one yet. I think it’s a good phone for the money, and is clearly backed by good intentions: see some of the accompanying materials in the bonus photos below which include statements from Mozilla indicating how they are positioning the OS. I’ve also included shots of the packaging and the various cables included, for fans of unboxing (I know you’re out there!)
The OS is still a bit buggy, but it’s impressively complete for an initial semi-commercial release. Once the bugs start getting ironed out, and developers start really looking at building solid apps for the system, it should offer a real alternative to Android for those on a budget or who have privacy or other ethical concerns around using Google’s OS.
(I’ve tried to be as accurate as possible, but I’m sure I’ve made mistakes in this post – feel free to let me know. You can find me on Twitter as @tarasyoung.)