Once of the best things about the ZTE Grand X is that it uses a vanilla version of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. Although this isn’t the absolutely latest version of the OS – Jelly Bean is out – it is a bit early to expect it in third-party phones. And many rivals still use Android 2.3 Gingerbread.
Ice Cream Sandwich on a phone works well, and poses only a slight learning curve if you’re at all used to the Android OS. It’s retains the basic structure of previous versions of the software, with home screens and a universal apps menu, but updates the look of the interface. It’s more modern, a fair bit cleaner and generally more attractive.
We’re delighted to see the OS in its vanilla form here, too. Changes made by manufacturers are rarely all that beneficial, other than in adding a different visual style or improving social networking integration, as with HTC Sense. And we doubt ZTE would have the software development budget to match HTC’s effort, which has been in continual development for years.
Ice Cream Sandwich runs beautifully on the ZTE Grand X. It’s refreshing to see a phone that sells for under £200 work so smoothly.
ZTE has made a few small tweaks and additions to a barebones Android install, but it’s nothing you couldn’t do yourself. The most notable is that the standard Android keyboard has been replaced with Touchpal, one of the most popular third-party keyboards.
A 4.3in screen is large enough to make typing comfortable on just about any virtual keyboard, but Touchpal is rather nice. It’s customisable in look and feel, it supports voice dictation and Swype-style input rather than standard key-tapping. This is where you draw a seamless line over the letters in a word, and then the Grand X’s brain works out what you meant to type.
It works well, and while it’s not for everyone we find it quicker than normal typing a lot of the time.
A few additional apps come preinstalled too. Facetone is a largely inoffensive piece of fluff that shows a slideshow of your friends’ Facebook photos whenever they call or text you. We’ll pass, thanks, but someone out there might like it.
Android Full Share is a DLNA-based media streaming app. Loads of devices support DLNA these days – and if you have a connected TV there’s a good chance you’ll be able to stream video from your phone to it directly using this app. Evernote also features, and has become the go-to smartphone note-taking app.
And – much more important – the ZTE Grand X has access to the Google Play app store, letting you get your hands on hundreds of thousands of apps. Many of them rubbish, but there are some gems in there.
Games and Performance
Within its “budget-ish” mid-range class, where the phone excels is gaming. The 1GHz Tegra 2 processor of the ZTE Grand X was perhaps the most commonly-used chipset in top-end Android devices in 2011 and as a result oodles of impressive games have been optimised for it.
Although it’s a bit of a middle-aged CPU – a bit of white hair starting to appear around its virtual temples now that quad-core Tegra 3 is about – the Tegra 2 lets the ZTE Grand X sail through some of the most impressive Android games available. We tested a fistful of demanding 3D games extensively including Riptide, Shadowgun and Heroes Call, and all performed near-perfectly with virtually no slow-down.
The Tegra Zone portal – which is designed to promote games optimised for Tegra chipsets – does feature a few games that are Tegra 3-only at present, but gaming-centric phones don’t get much better at the price. And, of course, the thousands of more casual games available on Android will pose no problem for the Grand X. Angry Birds ahoy, etc.
However, the phone does get alarmingly warm quite quickly once you really set the Tegra 2 chip to work, with a heat hotspot up near the camera housing. And, predictably, it chomps up the battery life like no-one’s business.
For a less subjective look at the phone’s performance, we set it to some common benchmarks. In the AnTuTu test, it scored 5076 points. This is on-par with similarly-specced devices, such as last year’s Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 tablet, meaning it comfortably outperforms the mid-range alternatives from Sony, HTC and co.
An app-based bonus of the ZTE Grand X’s use of Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich rather than 4.1 Jelly Bean is that the phone can use Adobe Flash Player 11. Support for Flash has been removed in Jelly Bean, because Adobe itself has ceased support for the Android platform.
At the time of writing, the app is still available to download on the Grand X, and it provides the phone with a pretty satisfying browsing experience – Flash is still used for plenty of “rich” online multimedia content.
The phone’s form helps out too. A 4.3in screen is the perfect size for reading websites while out and about – big enough to avoid eyestrain, small enough to hold comfortably in one hand. And the qHD resolution screen keeps fairly small text looking pin-sharp.