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ZTE Skate Review: In Depth

The Good

  • Decent screen
  • Improved build quality over Blade/San Francisco

The Bad

  • Expensive
  • Sluggish performance
  • Poor battery life
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It’s fair to say that the ZTE Blade, or more accurately the subsidized and re-branded Orange San Francisco, took the low-end of the phone market by surprise. A 3.5” 800×480 AMOLED display bundled with Android, not to mention the affinity for hackability, made it a runaway success at £99.

The follow up comes in the form of the ZTE Skate, taking the basic idea of the Blade but supersizing it. This time you’re looking at a 4.3-inch 800×480 LCD display, 800MHz processor (up from 600), 512MB of RAM, 5-megapixel camera with LED flash, and stock Android 2.3.5.

With a bump in size and specs also comes a bump in price: £214.99 at Expansys as of the time of writing for the unlocked model. That’s dangerously close to mid-range territory, so does the Skate have the grunt to back up its asking price?

ZTE Skate: Design and Build

The Skate is an all plastic affair, and not the nice kind either. The chassis is plastic, the buttons are plastic, and even the screen is plastic. The term “fingerprint magnet” would fit the phone perfectly: just five minutes of handling is enough to cover every centimeter in nastiness.

Having said that, the phone is solid and sturdy. The one complaint against the Blade/San Francisco was the less than stellar build quality, and it’s good to see there are no more sharp edges or general flimsiness. It’s not the thinnest device at 10.4mm, but feels good in the hand. All in all, it’s a very safe and basic design, even if it does look a little cheap.

Lurking atop the device you’ll find a 3.5mm headphone jack, volume rocker on the left side, Home/Menu/Back buttons underneath the screen, and the power button accompanied by a microUSB port on the right side. The Android buttons are appropriately clicky and provide good feedback. The power button though is too small: we simply wish there was more of it to depress. It’s not as bad as the one found on the Blade/San Francisco, but it’s not great either.

Storage wise you’re looking at a paltry 150MB of internal memory, but you’ve got the microSD card slot to do the heavy lifting. There’s a 2GB card included with the phone.

At 4.3-inches, the 800×480 screen is surprisingly decent. It’s sufficiently bright and has rich and saturated colours. Where it falls down is in the viewing angles and contrast ratio, both of which are poor.

ZTE Skate: User Interface

With the Skate you’re getting the vanilla Android 2.3.5 experience – no meddling around here unlike the San Francisco/Monte Carlo. There’s really not much to say here, if you’ve used stock Android before then you’ve effectively used the ZTE Skate. The only thing ZTE has changed as far as we can see is the dialler application, which cheekily seems to be a riff on the HTC dialler found on Sense.

ZTE Skate: Browser

Again, a stock affair with the Skate. It’s the same WebKit based browser you’ll find on just about every other Android device, although the real kicker here is the Flash support (or lack thereof). Go for a hunt on the Android Market on the Skate, and Flash is nowhere to be seen – presumably there’s no support.

ZTE Skate: Multimedia

On the rear of the Skate you’ll find the 5 megapixel shooter, which in a word, is poor. There’s no tap-to-focus, which means there’s a delay of at least three seconds between hitting the shutter and the photo being taken while the phone performs its best guess of what you want in focus.

The photos themselves are washed out, lifeless, and generally dull. They’re not sharp and bordering on blurry depending on the shooting circumstances. When there isn’t chromatic noise littering the picture, details are smoothed over, probably thanks to a nice combination of compression and noise reduction.

You can also record video, although the best you’re going to get is H.264 at VGA resolution at a bitrate of 2Mbit/s. On paper it might be capable of 30fps, but we saw regular stutter and low frame rates depending on the lighting situation and how fast we were panning the phone. The overall quality isn’t terrible, but it’s not great either. Low bitrate ensures the finished video is a blocky affair, filled with artifacts and noise.

As for the music player, it’s the standard Android app on here, meaning you’ll want to find an alternative from the Market immediately.

ZTE Skate: Performance

This is really what it all comes down to. We can forgive the Skate’s trespasses against us if it at least ensures a relatively smooth experience. Unfortunately, the 800MHz processor doesn’t seem to provide that.

Something as simple as scrolling between the home screens is juddery and laggy, trying to navigate webpages while they were loading was excruciatingly slow, and even when they had loaded the browser still wasn’t totally smooth.

Using the touch screen itself is a less than stellar experience. Trying to swipe a thumb through the app list was regularly registered as a touch instead, launching an app that we didn’t want. When we single tapped links or menus, sometimes our touch wasn’t registered at all. Whether this is a fault of the Skate’s lack of horsepower or a touchscreen issue we can’t really say, but it’s frustrating and disappointing.

Running the full benchmark on Quadrant gave us a score of 933. Benchmark numbers are one thing, but it’s how the phone actually performs in day to day use that’s really important. If we had to hazard a guess we’d say ZTE simply haven’t optimized Android to take advantage of the hardware on offer leading to the general performance issues. It’s something that could be corrected through custom ROMs and the like, but why shouldn’t our phones perform as best they can out of the box?

Battery life with the 1400mAh battery isn’t particularly good. A 30 minute phone call with one/two bars of 3G saw a battery drain of 10 per cent, and watching a 30 minute H.264 Baseline 704×400 video with the screen brightness on max saw a whopping 20 per cent of drain. We saw little to no drain when the phone was idling, but we actually want to use our devices throughout the day, you know? You’re either going to need to carry a spare battery with you or keep a charger handy with the Skate.

Actually making a phone call wasn’t music to our ears. The earpiece is tinny and far too quiet even with the volume maxed out. We had to press the phone right into our ear to hear the caller on the other end properly causing discomfort, and even then there was a persistent hiss in the background.

ZTE Skate: Verdict

The ZTE Skate is a frustrating device, not just for the slow performance or general cheap feel, but because it’s priced far too high. Part of the reason why the San Francisco was so successful is because it hit a great price point for the features on offer. If you want an unlocked Skate you have to cough up around £215, which doesn’t make any sense whatsoever when the Orange Monte Carlo, the exact same device save for ROM branding, only costs £119.

For the price ZTE want, you could pick up a second hand Nexus S or Samsung Galaxy S, both far superior devices in every respect. Let’s say you didn’t want to go the second hand route and wanted a brand new phone: then you’re looking at the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play, or the HTC Wildfire S. If you stretched just a few pounds beyond £215 you could potentially even snag a Sony Ericsson Xperia Ray.

The ZTE Skate isn’t worth recommending. The Orange Monte Carlo is what you should be looking at instead, ironic considering it’s the same phone at almost half the price. You may have to put up with Orange’s additional software branding, but the value is better than just purchasing the Skate outright.

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