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With Firefox OS, an $80 Smartphone Tries to Prove Its Worth

Despite limitations, the Firefox OS-running ZTE Open shows promise for low-cost smartphones.
October 30, 2013

While the word “smartphone” usually evokes images of pricey iPhones and Android handsets, plenty of inexpensive smartphones are also hitting the market—ripe for the millions of cell phone owners who want a smartphone, but can’t (or don’t want to) pay hundreds of dollars for one.

Firefox phone
Fired up: One of the first low-cost smartphones running the Firefox OS, the ZTE Open, needs some work but is looking good early on.

For Mozilla, which makes the popular Firefox Web browser, this looks like the most promising target market for its recently released Firefox OS, an open-source, largely Web-based mobile operating system intended to run on lower-cost smartphones. The first phones running the OS began selling this summer in several markets around the world.

The company is taking on an audacious challenge, going up against established operating systems like Google’s Android, as well as a slew of less well-known mobile operating systems. And if it wants to succeed, Mozilla has to ensure that those making Firefox OS-running phones—which include ZTE and LG—build products that consumers actually want to use, regardless of how much less they cost than many others on the market.

Curious to see how Mozilla’s efforts are playing out, I decided to check out one of these phones just after the release of a significant update to the Firefox OS this month: the ZTE Open ($80, unlocked, and available in the U.S. on eBay), which the Chinese smartphone maker undoubtedly sees as a way to grow sales by offering an inexpensive handset that uses an alternative OS. I tried to test it while keeping in mind how I might feel if this were not only my first smartphone, but also my first computer, which will undoubtedly be the case for some buyers.

My initial verdict? The Firefox OS is off to a good start, and for $80, the ZTE Open is an okay handset. With many improvements over time—some of which will presumably come from the developer community, which Mozilla hopes will build a slew of Web-based apps for the platform—the OS and smartphones like the ZTE Open could be an excellent choice for those who want basic smartphone capabilities but are not going to pay for a high-end handset.

The handset’s price tag is quite lower than some similar devices. Buying the ZTE Open through Telefonica’s Movistar in Spain, for example, cost 49 euros (about $68) when I last checked; you’d have to pay more than twice that—116 euros, or about $160—for the next cheapest available prepaid smartphone, a Sony Xperia E that runs Android and has similar specifications. Through Movistar in Colombia, the device costs about $80 (U.S.), while a Samsung Galaxy Young Android smartphone costs about $158.

That low price shows in various ways. The first thing you may notice is that the ZTE Open could use some help in the fashion department. It looks a lot more like a smartphone from a couple of years ago than the hottest new handset. It’s squat and chunky, with a soft-feeling plastic back and display frame in pearly Firefox orange (that said, it feels good and solid in your hand, and I wasn’t afraid it would break if I dropped it). Its face is dominated by a touch screen that measures 3.5 inches at the diagonal, with a capacitive “home” button centered below it.

The Firefox OS is extremely intuitive and easy to find your way around, clearly taking many cues from iOS and Android. When you unlock the phone, you see a row of rounded app icons at the bottom of the screen for easy access to top functions (such as making calls, sending messages, and opening the Firefox Web browser—you can change these to suit your habits). There’s a swipe-down notification screen that also gives easy access to wireless and other device settings, and a Marketplace app that allows you to download Web apps (apps built using Web technologies like HTML5) from some big names including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.  

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Firefox OS is the way it tries to blur the divide between native and Web software. Atop the phone’s main home screen is a handy search bar; whatever you type in there will bring up results both on and off the phone. Search for “dinner,” for example, and you’ll get a list of round icons corresponding with dinner-related apps already installed on your device, as well as recipe- and dining-related websites shown as though they, too, were apps. Click on a result, such as Yelp, and it will automatically search for restaurants serving dinner near you. You can add this specific Yelp search to your home screen for future easy access. This is a clever way around the problem of a lack of apps (there is no Firefox OS app), but you’re really just adding a link to the Yelp mobile site to your phone in the form of a rounded icon. The fact that apps are built using Web technologies—such as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript—may also entice Web developers to build their first mobile apps.

There are a number of apps included on the handset, such as Nokia’s Here Maps, Facebook, and AccuWeather. And while some, like Here Maps, felt like self-contained app experiences, others (like the New York Times app) looked more like mobile websites. There also didn’t seem to be any notifications for any of the apps I had on the phone (there was an option in the phone’s settings to show notifications on the phone’s lock screen, which I enabled, so presumably Mozilla is still working on that).

The handset hardware is very low, but not entirely no-frills, with a three-megapixel rear camera, rear speaker, and Bluetooth, as well as the ability to function as a Wi-Fi hotspot. There’s hardly any storage space on the phone itself; if you want to take and use photos, videos, and music, you’ll need to pop in a microSD memory card.

One of the phone’s biggest issues seems to be its speed (or lack thereof), which is limited in part by its processor and memory (a one-gigahertz Qualcomm CPU and 256 megabytes of RAM—the same as the Galaxy Young but a measly amount compared to the latest iPhones and high-end Android handsets) and wireless network capabilities (2G and 3G, not LTE). In the U.S., you’ll need to use it with either T-Mobile’s or AT&T’s network; I tested it on T-Mobile’s network and found it somewhat pokey, especially when loading media-heavy Web pages, but generally okay. This is expected, given the low price, but I’m hopeful that improvements to the OS can help in the near term. In fact, I already noticed a bit of a speed difference between using a phone running the most recent Firefox OS and the last version, which is a good sign.

I also had problems with its touch capabilities, which often seemed unwilling to do what I wanted. Tapping app icons and virtual buttons often took several tries, as did tapping a field to enter text (such as a username and password or a URL). Numerous times I swiped right or left to move between the phone’s virtual home screens without seeing a change, or thought I was tapping one button and somehow hit another, which was annoying. It’s irritating, but hopefully the abundance of touch screens in mobile devices and improvements in the technology will soon make it affordable to add better touch screens to low-end phones, too.

The display itself isn’t great either, with 480 x 320 pixel resolution, which gives videos and still images a washed-out, less-than-sharp appearance. But it’s good enough for watching some YouTube clips and basic Web surfing, social networking, and messaging, as well as doing some simple photo editing (you get a few built-in options like filters, though nothing fancy).

Phone calls sounded decent, but somewhat fuzzy, and I am a bit concerned about the battery life, which I was able to run down to 50 percent in about three and a half hours of heavy usage.

Since phones running the Firefox OS are heavily Web-dependent—the search feature, for instance, customizes its results and backgrounds with the aid of the Internet—I’m also worried about how they will function in the absence of reliable networks. Even with a strong Wi-Fi network and access to a fairly dependable T-Mobile 3G network, the phone was prone to stuttering on the Web and having trouble loading pages or conducting searches in the included Nokia Here Maps app. This could be a big problem in less-developed areas, where wireless networks and Wi-Fi hotspots are less abundant and functional, and could make users extremely frustrated.

Presumably, as with the other shortcomings, Firefox has this in mind as it moves forward with its OS development. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but I’m excited to see the results.

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