Smartphones are the new normal. That’s just a fact that we have to accept if we’ve ever going to completely get rid of featurephones from the bottom end of the market. But there’s a reason why they still linger: price. Look at phones under £100, and you’ll quickly see Android and Windows Phone either conceding defeat to candybar phones or serving up sluggish devices with low-resolution displays.

There are some companies trying to attack the low end, and the biggest among them is ZTE. The Chinese manufacturer kicked off a budget smartphone revolution three years ago with the Orange branded San Francisco, a great handset that packed in genuinely solid specs for the asking price. ZTE hasn’t really managed to capture the same attention since then, but its latest affordable Android - the Blade V - may just change that.

Bare necessities

The Blade V reminds me of an old school Nokia phone. It doesn’t look anywhere near as nice, mind you: it’s a decidedly plastic affair. But the barebones design and use of cheap materials does mean that the phone feels extremely solid.

If I drop this thing, I wouldn’t expect there to be any damage. It feels dense and durable, with a reassuring weight that means it’s not going to slip out of my hand. Yes, it feels a little cheap, and yes, it’s a fingerprint magnet, but the important thing is that it isn’t flimsy or weak.

The only real negative is the placement of the power button at the top right hand side. Left handed owners will no doubt be pleased with the placement, but it’s simply in an awkward position for right handed people. It’s pretty small too, so you can easily miss it when feeling around the top of the device.

Four cores for under £100

The Blade V includes a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 200 SoC clocked at 1.2Ghz for £90 - less if you’re already a Virgin Media customer. That sounds great on paper, but the actual silicon that ZTE has included isn’t exactly cutting edge.

That quad-core chip is comprised of four Cortex A5 cores. The Cortex A5 is an older architecture that was often used in single and dual-core phones of the past, such as the HTC Wildfire and the Palm Pixi. A quad-core Cortex A5 processor, then, won’t be anywhere near as fast as the higher-end quad-core chips from Qualcomm.

A SunSpider 0.9.1 benchmark test - designed to measure Javascript performance - gives a result of 3,867ms. What does that even mean? Well, it puts the Blade V on par with two to three year old phones. The iPhone 4, for example, scored around 3,545ms on the same test. The LG Optimus 2X - the first phone with Nvidia’s dual-core Tegra 2 chip - managed 3,927ms back in the day. Modern day phones are breaking through the 1,000ms barrier: that should give you a good idea of the raw performance gap.

That doesn’t mean that the Blade V is slow. Animations and transitions are generally smooth - if not always locked at 60fps - and scrolling through content heavy websites is stutter free. Google Maps is even smoother than some mid-range handsets I’ve seen, probably because the Blade V is having to push fewer pixels.

It’s surprisingly capable with games too. Shadowgun: Deadzone was more than playable on low graphics settings, but things quickly become sluggish and glitchy when bumping them up to medium/high. Less graphically intense games - Angry Birds, Temple Run, and so on - run without any issues.

The finer details

The 4-inch 800x480 display is good, but not great. Viewing angles are solid, and colours are generally accurate. The main problem is that it’s simply not bright enough. It comes across a little dull as a result, and trying to use it on a sunny day can prove to be frustrating. Still, it’s one of the best displays you can get for the price. Other phones in this price bracket tend to use lower quality panels.

ZTE has only made light touches to Android too. For the most part, this is stock Android with very minor changes. The Chinese company has added a custom lockscreen, for example: you simply hold down on a green button to unlock. I personally think that swiping is quicker and easier, but you can change the lock screen if you really want to.

Otherwise, you’re looking at some custom widgets and a quick settings bar in the notification drawer. That’s a thoughtful gesture, but you're going to be doing a lot of scrolling to find the settings you want.

Battery life is good too. I easily got through a full working day thanks to the frugal processor and display, with Gmail and Twitter regularly syncing in the background. The Blade V even managed to stretch into a second day without any issues, but it needed a charger before the day was out.

The bad news

The big letdown is the 5-megapixel camera. The resulting images are simply terrible. Photos are soft yet filled with noise, and some are completely out of focus. There’s just no real detail at all in any of the images I took. Worse still, the camera has major exposure problems. The majority of my photos were blown out, and trying to touch-to-focus my way out of the problem just resulted in more out of focus pictures, with poor dynamic range doing little to help. Videos top out at 640x480 and look equally poor.

ZTE Blade 5 camera sample

Storage is an issue too. You only have 1GB of usable space for apps, and 1.27GB for USB storage, so you’ll need to be frugal. There is a microSD card, however, and it even supports up to 64GB - my SanDisk card worked without any issues.

Should I buy this thing?

The Blade V is a good deal for £90. It didn’t frustrate me or annoy me, and it seems perfectly suited to everyday tasks such as browsing, messaging, and light gaming.  It’s a decent first step into the larger world of Android, and if you're looking for value for money, it's the best Android phone that £90 can buy.

Having said that, the appalling camera can’t be ignored. If you value picture taking, then it’s a dealbreaker.

What are the alternatives?

The Huawei Ascend Y300 has a dual-core Snapdragon S4 processor instead of a quad-core chip. Otherwise, it shares the same specs as the Blade V, and it’s slightly cheaper to boot. The camera isn’t quite as terrible either, but that’s not saying much. Huawei’s software customisations are also heavier than ZTE’s, which may or may not bother you. It’s the same story with the Huawei Ascend G510, but at least you get a larger 4.5-inch display for the money.

Otherwise, the Nokia Lumia 520 is your best bet. For a few pounds more you get a much better designed handset, an excellent camera, and even longer battery life. Sure, it’s Windows Phone, so you’ll lose out on Android’s vast ecosystem. But if we’re talking about the basics - browsing, messaging, photos - then it’s hard to beat a budget Windows Phone.