The ideal commuter's phone
Written in accordance with Gadgette’s Reddit-inspired review policy.
It’s fair to say not many people in the UK have heard of ZTE. Before using this phone, I knew nothing of them. But while it might seem like an obscure brand in the UK with a very small footprint, it’s big in its home of China – and with China being gadget central, that’s usually a good sign.
The company looks to be gearing up to be taken very seriously in the next few years though, having invested hugely in research and development, and joining the top six global smartphone manufacturers this year.
So I went into this review open-minded (and following a poor iPhone experience) and was both pleasantly surprised and a little disappointed in equal measure.
It’s slippery. So slippery. It very easily slides out of your hand, which isn’t an unusual trait among handsets these days but if you’re anything like me (I’m a dropper), you will drop this phone unless you buy a case that’s got a bit of grip. Because the brand is less common here in the UK, you don’t have as much choice of case as you would if you had an iPhone or Samsung, for example, but there are still plenty of options.
The back panel is slightly flexible (I guess a trade-off for making it lightweight – at 145g, it is light) and if you squeeze the handset in the right place you get a teeny tiny clicking noise which makes it feel less solid on the whole.
My other main bugbear is at 72.5mm wide, it’s a bit big for a small-handed human to comfortably use one-handed, which is a little annoying if you just want to check your emails with a cup of coffee in one hand, but again, that’s a bit of a given these days with the trend towards larger handsets, and there are certainly worse offenders on the market.
It’d be unfair to compare the Velocity to a top-end phone in terms of audio, but for what it is the sound quality is pretty good with and without headphones (it has a standard 3.5mm headphone jack, which is now apparently not a standard feature on mobile phones thanks to Apple).
I’m a pretty big podcast listener – I have them on loudspeaker while I’m doing housework and through headphones on public transport/when going for a run (side note: if you don’t like running, give it a try listening to a podcast and you might feel different).
The sound is nothing exceptional and, like most phones, can be drowned out next to a very busy road or on a loud train. Legally, there’s a limit to how loud manufacturers can make phones so if you struggle to hear when in particularly loud surroundings, it might be best to replace the cheap earphones that come with the Velocity with something better quality.
The biggest let-down for me though which – granted – is an insignificant feature for most people, is the volume of handsfree calls. I often ring people for work, put them on speaker and then type as they talk. I did this twice with the Velocity and both times I could barely hear the other person above the sound of the fish tank in my office, even with the volume turned up to full. It’s a bit of a shame, since the speaker can go reasonably loud with other apps.
This is one thing the Velocity does very well. The display is bright and vivid on its standard settings, but not glaring. The screen goes almost right up to the edges on the vertical sides but not quite to the sides. That’s a benefit in my book, as with curved phones like the S7 Edge, it’s so easy to select the wrong thing by inadvertently touching the side.
The touchscreen is mostly good, bar the odd fiddly occasion trying to select the right word if I did a typo and wanted to go back and correct it, but I wouldn’t use it for drawing. It worked well for all the apps I regularly use though, which are mostly social media and work related.
TV and movie-wise, the Velocity didn’t have the remotest bit of trouble with anything I wanted to watch, even the most dark and gloomy films. I’d say the 5.2-inch screen is about right to get the full perspective and detail of any videos you might want to watch without making the handset unwieldy.
As the name suggests, the Velocity is fast, but it’s not gaming-fast. 2GB of RAM is plenty to run most apps fine, considering I only really use about three quarters of that even at peak times.
Remarkably, it hasn’t crashed or overheated at any point in the couple of weeks I’ve been using it. There have been a few times when running multiple apps at once and a message has come in which I’ve opened immediately, where I’ve expected the thing to fall to bits (like my iPhone did at times) but so far it’s met every challenge.
The Velocity runs Android Marshmallow (ie the previous version), which is a breeze to use and is mostly intuitive – with a few quirks. Android is the antithesis of iOS in the sense it is desperate to show you all its features at once, giving you a myriad of constant incoming notifications telling you the weather in your location, how busy your road is and what the football scores are for the team in your area.
It’s great in some ways – as it really lets you know what your phone can do, compared with other operating systems which arguably could do better in signposting their features. But it took me a couple of weeks of changing settings to get to the point where I wasn’t being constantly interrupted with pointless notifications or could put my phone down for a couple of hours and and not have to scroll through a lot of crap to get to missed calls or messages.
If you’re prepared to use its features (some people prefer to leave location services turned off, for example) Marshmallow has a lot going for it. However, while ZTE market the phone as “pure Android,” it does have some extras: for instance, mine pointlessly came with a superfluous browser called Ume (which runs Russian search engine Yandex as standard). It can’t be uninstalled, either, which is not a great experience – but obviously, handset manufacturers have to make money, and they’re probably not making much selling phones like this at £150.
16GB isn’t a ton of storage, but it’s more than fair at this price – especially with the microSD option. The onboard storage is fine for someone who really only uses their phone for calls, messaging and web, but you’d need to be pretty proficient at transferring or deleting things like photos and videos to use the Velocity for the length of a typical mobile phone contract without a memory card.
Considering you can pick up a 64 gig microSD card for less than £20, which would provide more than enough storage for even the happiest snapper, the small amount of built-in storage is negligible in my opinion.
If there’s one thing trapping a phone in the past, it’s a poor front-facing camera – and unfortunately the Velocity fits the bill. I found it difficult to take a reasonable selfie with this phone, particularly if the light was variable (and, no, it’s not because of my face).
I mean, it takes the picture. But it’s really hard to not make it look like something from Myspace a decade ago, and there’s no beautifying tool. As it happens, I do know people who don’t take selfies at all – not even with adorable animals – so if you’re not as vain as me, this won’t be a problem for you.
The camera is the biggest downside of this phone. If you’re a picture person, it’s simply not the phone for you. It’s not that it’s not possible to take good pictures, it’s just that conditions have to be right and you really have to work for them. If something is moving, there’s almost no chance of getting the picture in the first shot.
However, it is possible to take good pictures by adjusting the manual settings. My biggest problem with both cameras on this phone was that it could take a good few seconds to save each photo, meaning it wasn’t possible to take snaps in quick succession. This was super annoying when combined with the inability to capture fast-moving objects, as you’d often notice immediately that the picture was no good but have to wait for it to save before taking another. Hence a lot of missed cute cat or hilarious drunken friend opportunities.
Considering I’m not a big fan of the camera, I was surprised at how good the video quality was. I recorded a few videos that looked like they were taken on a much more expensive phone. I expected it to have trouble re-focusing mid-video like iPhones do – there’s nothing more annoying than doing a whole video and then watching it back to see it was slightly out of focus – but I had no such problems with the Velocity.
The camera interface is quite sparse and doesn’t have many of the options you’ll be used to if you’ve had a higher-end phone, but of course there are plenty of apps to fix that. If the camera isn’t a big priority for you, this one’s fine.
Standard settings (L) vs manual control (R):
After years of using an iPhone 5 as my main, I have to admit, the Velocity’s battery is paradise. Yes, my review might be tainted by the fact that the phone I used prior to this was essentially a landline, as I couldn’t use it unless it was plugged in – but I know I’m not alone in that.
I’m a medium to heavy phone user and I’ve never had this phone die on me while I’m out, which is satisfying (and safe). My phone barely leaves my hand all day, and the Velocity copes well with that – though admittedly, it’s a box-fresh phone so you’d hope the battery would be able to handle this kind of usage.
Various unofficial estimates put the phone at about 280 hours of standby time, 8 hours of talk time and up to 20 hours of music play, and that seems about right. It also charges reasonably quickly (using the older style micro USB rather than USB C) and the low-power mode (Doze) seems pretty effective – though to be fair, I only got to that point a couple of times.
ZTE has suffered its fair share of bad press, being accused numerous times of having connections to Chinese spying. In 2012, a US congressional panel warned American businesses to stay away from the company, saying using network products made by ZTE was a risk to national security. Ouch.
But putting aside the company’s past reputational issues, the ZTE Blaze Velocity does what most people would need for a bargain price of £150. It doesn’t have any stand-out features, but I see it as a solid commuter’s phone. The screen is good for watching videos or TV on the bus or train, the battery is reliable and it runs most apps with absolutely no problems, making it pretty easy to organise your entire life with.
Plus, there’s often something to be said for simplicity. With no gimmicks, it’s likely to age reasonably well and you’re less likely to feel like you’re walking around with a piece of stone-age tech in your pocket. As ZTE put it in their James Bond-esque slogan, “Tomorrow never waits.”
The biggest downside is the camera. If you like taking pictures, you won’t like this phone.
That said, for £149.99 it’s a genuinely good buy – especially for someone who isn’t hugely into tech but likes to vaguely feel like they’re keeping up with society. Or, you know, Facebook.
The Blade Velocity is available now, SIM-free at an online-exclusive price of £149.99 at Carphone Warehouse. Don’t forget to get a case.
Images: Gadgette and ZTE