ZTE (which stands for Zhong Xing Telecommunication Equipment) is a corporation most Australian consumers would not have heard of. The company specialises in telecommunications and has a range of network products. Though solely based in China, it is starting to branch out internationally by forming alliances with local networks. In Australia, it has tapped into the rich mobile phone niche by being exclusive to Telstra.
Telstra promotes the F256 for the Next G Network range. The F256 is a standard flip phone with a good list of features including a media player, a music player, a 1.3 megapixel camera, 262,000 colour screen, polyphonic/MP3/AAC ring-tones, a web browser, phone book, alarm clock, stopwatch, calculator, calendar, speakerphone, USB and Bluetooth. At $200-250, it is also one of the cheapest phones to have access to the Telstra’s Next G Services.
Read on for the review.
The F256 is not the first ZTE model ever to be released in Australia. Telstra exposed the F850 in 2006 and the F252 in early 2007. Suffice to say, there is nothing groundbreaking about the F256. Telstra’s branding of the handset ensures its design will cater for immediate access to the current services of the company, namely the highly advertised Next G Network. Furthermore, the phone is locked to the Telstra network thereby making it useless for other networks.
The F256 does make a mark as an entry model to the Next G Network, being relatively cheap compared to other Next G phones. For the purpose of selecting applications like Foxtel or the Bigpond net browser, the phone’s software and physique matches it perfectly. Downloading music, wallpapers and games and taking full advantage of Next G Services is simple thanks to a clever application called My Place. As far as generic features are concerned, the F256 has a reasonable amount of convenient functions that is on par with the rest of the budget phone class.
For a company that is rarely marketed, ZTE has not offered anything in the way of innovative or unusual design. Consumers who discover the F256 will find it is essentially a flipping handset with a 1.3 megapixel camera at the top centre - sitting between a sizable screen and a keypad. The entire design (except the camera) reminds me of the once fashionable Motorola V3 Razr models, though the latter are smaller, flatter and lighter. That’s not to say the F256 is one gigantic beast of a flip – in millimetres the phone is measured at 49 (width) x 99 (length) x 19 (thick) and weighs at 110g. There’s two colour variants available: a black one and a silver chrome one (which is the one that I assessed). ZTE incorporates a nice, clean design for the F256 that resembles the F252 and F850. Whilst closed, a tiny screen sits above, briefly displaying the time, date, reception, battery levels, missed calls, received messages, etc – almost replicating the Idle screen of the main display. As far as logos go, there’s minimal advertising of either ZTE or Telstra. One Telstra symbol is etched close to the screen and ZTE is printed once, at the bottom. A swivelling camera is located on top and is movable to about 220 degrees – allowing photos to be taken of the user (for self-portraits and video calling) or towards the front. The cover for the battery and sim is found at the base and is simple to remove.
Once the phone is opened, the user will find a 2.0 inch coloured screen and a speaker as part of the top half and the bottom - a flat, shiny keypad and a tiny side speaker exists. In the dark, the keypad’s buttons emit a soft, white hue. The formation and feel of the keys are very similar to certain flips such as the Motorola V3 Razrs. The major difference is that some of the buttons found in the F256 are not common in other phones.
Additional buttons have been added to specifically engage the user to use some of the phone’s special functions. For instance, the television icon button (the Foxtel button) can be pressed to get into Foxtel mode – allowing the user to select and watch channels much like Foxtel subscribers do on their TV screens. Those who have Foxtel at home will be very familiar with the interface. Those lucky enough to afford the mobile service will find this button very handy. Pressing the Telstra symbol button (the Telstra Services button) will view a whole set of Telstra Next G services including BigPond internet, Foxtel, YellowPages search, BigPond music, BigPond e-mail, etc.
Another addition is the video calling button that is just below the green telephone icon (receive call button) and is symbolised by a white telephone with a window. If the user wishes to perform a video call, he/she can just dial the number and hit that button. Hitting the button from the start will show the last set of dialled, received and missed calls (much like the receive call button). The biggest issue with using the pad is the flatness of the keys, resulting in tedious moments whilst writing a text or dialling a number. For users who are new to flips and have large fingers, an adjustment will be required in order to work with the F256.
Constant opening and closing of the phone presented no problems whatsoever. The phone is built solid and sturdy, showing no indication that the phone will lack flexibility after repeated flipping over time. The camera and Media Player buttons as well as the volume toggles are placed in good locations and suit their functions well. The TransFlash (microSD) card slot and cover are on the left hand side, above the volume toggles and Media Player button. The USB/charger/earphones connection (complete with cover) and sits on the right hand side. Another flaw I noticed was the difficulty in opening the tiny covers of both the TransFlash and the USB/charger/earphones port. This was more problematic with the latter, as the user will be opening and closing this many times a week – either for charging, using the earphones or downloading items to and from PCs. In addition, there was a bit of a hassle when using the earphones as the port is on the right hand side - making it slightly cumbersome to carry (both in pockets and hands). ZTE should have opted to mimic other phones (such as the Sony Ericsson candybar phones), where connections are generally found at the base.
In terms of style, Telstra’s mobile is your typical flip phone with nothing flash, dazzling or innovative to note of. While it doesn’t look like a particularly luxurious product, the F256 doesn’t look bad by any means. More importantly, its physique suits its purpose and compliments most of its functionality.
User interface & display
Phones of the mid to high ranges of the spectrum tend to have exceptional resolution screens for two main reasons: as a mark of their quality and value, and to cater for the 2+ megapixel cameras that are housed in them. The F256’s screen, in fairness to its price and competition, is mediocre at best. It displays everything adequately, with some clarity and good brightness levels but the resolution ensures it will illustrate graphics and photos with modesty. Brightness can be changed (5 different levels) – I opted for the optimum level. There are no controls for contrast. Being a budget phone with 1.3 megapixel camera, the display need not be of very high resolution.
Those who have seen the interface and graphics in recent Sony Ericsson, Nokia, Motorola and Sharp models should find some familiarity with the F256’s interface. Being a Telstra phone obviously means the company’s logos and headers will display specific functions like Foxtel, Bigpond and Telstra (My Place). Generic purposes such as messages, calls, games and multimedia are nice, moving animations. The menu is in a simple grid formation. Navigation is via the central navigation pad (four directions) with a simple press of the OK (middle) square button as confirmation. Alternatively, the user can also press numbers for navigation from the menu, though, this does take some time to get used to. Occasionally, the left and right (top) buttons will be used to trigger alterations, etc. The back button goes back to the previous screen but to head straight to the menu grid – red telephone (call cancel) button can be used.
The Idle screen displays all the usual information (such as signal strength, battery level, new message received, Bluetooth on and headset mode) through useful icons. The date and clock is highlighted at the bottom, above the Foxtel, ‘Menu’ and ‘BigPond’ selections. As far as language goes – there are two options: English and Chinese. There is predictive texting available – in fact it’s a default when entering messages. As with many handsets, the F256 also utilises tabs within each mode selected. Very few phones will utilise the exact interface but the F256’s software design does not deviate from that of other companies. Like its physical appearance, the interface and display won’t out compete recent technology but neither hinders the phone’s operations.
Making and receiving calls
Making and taking calls was never a problem when using the F256. Being a tri-band phone means it is able to connect to GSM 900/1800/1900 networks and can be used in most countries. The only possible issue that potential buyers may encounter is the fact that the phone is SIM locked. The user has to use the provided Telstra SIM card. In terms of reception, the phone had a great range in metropolitan areas that was similar to the levels observed in my K800i.
Making calls is, like any other phone, selecting a contact or dialling a number. Taking calls is only possible when the phone is open. To reject calls, the user can press the cancel calls (red) button or shut the handset. There were 4 levels for the volume and I found that the highest bar was appropriate in most situations. Loudspeaker mode (named handsfree mode) can be switched on easily by pressing the central confirmation button during a conversation. A nice inclusion by ZTE is the video calling button, which allows the user to perform a quick video call after selecting a contact. I found the video calling to be a little bit tedious due to a number of reasons. Firstly, the camera can only be moved at obscure angles so trying to get into frame was a challenge in itself. Furthermore, neither the screen display nor the images from the camera are impressive – which makes the function less attractive. In general, clarity was very good during all call situations. The handsfree kit is fine to use though the location of the port made it annoying to pocket the phone. Bluetooth handsfree equipment is also compatible with the handset.
With 49MB of internal memory and the potential to store up to 2GB worth of files, the F256 has plenty of space for contact numbers and details. Unfortunately, the phone didn’t come with a TransFlash card. Contact numbers can contain further detail such as other phone numbers, e-mail addresses and assigned a particular ringtone and bitmap image (called avatar). The avatars are cutesy cartoon characters that come up when assigned to a particular contact. Contacts can also be grouped accordingly as mates, family, friends, work, VIP or unclassified. It should be noted that the phone (or the SIM) came with 5 contacts details that are associated with Telstra services (eg. Message Bank, BigPond Photos).
Surprisingly, the F256 came with 15 ring tones and 6 message alerts as default in the file manager. This is impressive considering some phones of the same or higher category contained a lot less choice. Tones range from pleasant to annoying, depending on one’s taste. After some time the user may find them useless anyway, as they can opt to download or receive MP3 files and use these as ring tones or message alerts.
4 profiles are available from the settings section and like most phones are interchangeable to suit the circumstance as reflected by their names (eg. General, Meeting, Outdoor, Silent). The phone can be put on (or off) silent model from any of these profiles by holding the hash button.
The F256 handles messaging very well as it supports various formats (including SMS, MMS and email). Keying in a text is straightforward with predicted text being the default mode. To remove predicted text or to switch to upper case and lower case or enter a series of numbers the user can press the hash button (in messaging screen). There were no major delays of any sort while entering or sending messages – no matter what the length. Up to 1000 characters can be entered per text (that’s equivalent to about 8 messages). If a long message is to be sent the phone actually alerts the user of the number of messages he/she is about to send and they can then rectify the situation if necessary. Any messages sent will automatically head to sent items. The F256 can attach images, audio and/or video files via MMS. The files have to of a certain size. For instance, with video files, the camera won’t send anything that is over 25 seconds long. Since the camera captures moderately sized photos, the phone does not need to alter its images for sending. Should the phone carry large images, the phone may not allow the user to send these via MMS. I tried this with a 2.0 and a 3.2 megapixel image from my K800i.
The F256 has a different tab for e-mails. As with text messages, e-mails tend to be stored as either sent (sent items), pending (outbox) or saved (drafts). Sending attachments such as audio and imagery is fine though the user must again consider the size limitations for attachments.
I’ve already mentioned the keypad as slightly annoying at first. After some time, the user should get used to the flat keys and find the message functionality of the F256 as comparable to the standard set by other phones.
The F256 is a tri-band phone that utilizes GSM networks 900/1800/1900. This means the phone is operational in Europe and Asia-Pacific and in North America and South America. Naturally, the Telstra has integrated a BigPond web browser that appears to support mobile and PC webpages. The homepage is a special mobile webpage that aligns Telstra services such as Foxtel as well as news headlines (within the Today tab) along a scroll bar. The user can navigate through various web sites but must acknowledge the size and resolution of the screen as prime limitations for opening and viewing large webpages. For fast paced browsing, the F256 delivers, thanks in part to the phone’s ability to access Next G services.
Two of the phone’s excellent features are Bluetooth and USB connectivity. Bluetooth technology has become very widespread and many phones are compatible with various gadgets that connect with Bluetooth. As a security measure, I noticed that the Bluetooth system in the F256 requires devices be paired. For instance, before sending a file to another handset, the F256 will prompt the user to make a password up on the spot; this password must be repeated on the awaiting handset. A transfer of files will only occur when the passwords are repeated correctly and the devices are ‘paired’. A similar ‘pairing’ process will be necessary for other Bluetooth devices. I did try doing the same with my MacBook but it didn’t seem to work for some unknown reason.
USB connectivity is useful for synchronization with PCs. The user has to install the software program from the PC Suite CD so that the phone can communicate with the PC and vice-versa. The program is called ‘Join Me’ and is compatible with Windows XP, Windows 2000 and newer Windows but will not work with older versions or any Mac OS. ‘Join Me’ can be used to transfer photos and music files from phone to PC, enter contacts via PC, import contacts via Microsoft Outlook and use the phone as a modem to connect the PC to the internet. I found it to be surprisingly user friendly. It took less than 5 minutes to download from the CD and once the USB was connected, the software recognized the phone almost instantly. Other PC Suite packages I have used tend to force the user to set the phone. With ‘Join Me’ the phone need not be touched while moving files to and from the PC. Upon connection it will prompt the user to select the phone model and allow for contacts and messages to be loaded. It does not actually save the contacts and messages but allows these to be viewed on the PC. Another sweet ability of the software is the adding of contacts straight from the PC – which proved to be less tedious than manually entering these on the phone. Microsoft Outlook can also be synchronized for adding contacts. Like Windows Explorer, ‘Join Me’ also has the PC’s folders organized as a list. These would potentially contain or store files and it’s a simple manner of clicking and dragging files from device to PC (and vice-versa). Unfortunately, if a music file has more than 16 characters in its name the phone will not accept it. The file will have to be renamed (via Windows Explorer). Naturally, large files such as music and videos are slower to download or upload compared to photos. For MP3s, it took 3-4 minutes to upload from PC to phone. ZTE made a great decision in incorporating a very convenient software package that will ensure that users will take full advantage of the F256’s multimedia capabilities.
Nowadays most phones from any price range will have some type of music and video player and voice recorder as part of their functionalities. The F256 is no exception. There are two music players found in the phone – a Telstra branded one (called BigPond Music Player) and a combined music and video player (called Media Player). The latter is also used as to open images. In order to open files the user must go through the file manager and mark them. You can mark any number of files but you can only mark and open the same types simultaneously. For instance, the player won’t allow you to mark and open a video file, an MP3 and an image at the same time.
The Media Player allows for compilation of playlists. The user can create several playlists to his/her liking and play music without having to mark each desired track. Even if the phone is closed, the Media Player is accessible through the Media Player button. Playlists can be selected using the volume switch. In order to change tracks, the user has to flip the phone open. Doing so will automatically bring up the Media Player application.
The player has only 5 levels of volume – incredibly poor considering the difference between the 2nd highest and optimum levels. Another annoying thing was the fact that the Media Player cannot be minimised. Granted I was accustomed to other phones (like Sony Ericsson and Nokia models) allowing this, it would have been a good idea for ZTE to do the same. Another bummer is the lack of an equaliser control, which would boost certain elements such as the treble or bass.
This is unfortunate because the user would want to supplement the earphones provided in the box. It is highly unlikely that the user will want to use the tiny speakers as a way of showing off their tunes as their capacity is very limited and 80% of the time sound distorted. The BigPond Music Player is probably slightly more useful for MP3 playability if only for its ability to search and select tracks almost instantly. This player has direct access to the BigPond Music Shop site, which allows users to purchase MP3s. It is also relatively user friendly, separating tracks via artists, genres and albums (much like a downgraded I-Pod). Strangely, it does not display the volume levels (even during adjustment). Again, like the Media Player, it cannot be minimised to play music on the side and doesn’t have much enhancements that many music players within other handsets possess. The display of the Media Player is poor in that it only shows the file name (with .mp3 extension). Music players that I have encountered show the artist, song and album in separate lines. Some of these even show the album covers. As it stands, its safe to say that both music players are easy enough to use but lack in much quality that may turn off individuals who are picky or who have been exposed to better music players.
As mentioned the Media Player doubles as an image and video player. However, anything of a 2.0 megapixel size and beyond will not be opened. While viewing images, the user can choose to view the image to the full extent of the screen. Strangely, there are no other options for display. For example, the user won’t be able to rotate photos or zoom in. Playing videos is less of a hassle and the player is capable to video playback with ease.
The assessed F256 model contained 3 games (Air Strike 1944, Asphalt3 and Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones) – all of which provided great entertainment. Personally, Air Strike 1994 was my favourite as it reminded me of Gradius or Space Invaders. Asphalt is a nice racing game that is sort of a lesser version of Ridge Racer/Need for Speed. Prince of Persia is essentially a 2-D platform/adventure game that looked good initially but became frustrating to master. I was very pleased with the variety of games presented by ZTE especially considering the F256’s class. With the voice recorder, the user needs to select the duration of the recording, though the phone will automatically disallow long recordings if there is insufficient memory.
The ability to use Telstra Next G services has to be one of the best qualities of the F256. Easy access and navigation means the phone is catered to take advantage of these features. The list is plentiful and should be useful under any circumstance. Need to check the news? Check out the BigPond web browser. Feel like watching a show while on the train? Subscribe to Foxtel mobile for $12 a month or $4 a day. Need to book a reservation for that unknown restaurant? Select Yellow search. Want to download music? Try BigPond Music. Need a number urgently? Go to Call 1234 info. Need to find geographical assistance? Get directions from WhereIs maps. Need to pay your phone bill? Go to My Accounts. The F256 has certainly covered all of the Next G services well and is definitely one of the attractive perks to owning this phone.
The F256 has a number of applications that are below the standard amount for most current phones. Within the Tools application are 4 tabs: File, Time, Calculator and Other. Under File tab is the file manager, which contains all the files (visual or audio) within the phone and memory card.
The file manager lists all the files neatly and for images, has thumbnails for preview. Under the Time tab is a handy alarm clock, calendar and stopwatch. There are no task lists, notes, or a code memo program for storing passwords – which will probably only standout to those who have used these in previous phones. The alarm clock is especially handy as the user can organise setting the alarm either once, daily, on every working day or weekly. Up to five different alarms can be set in this way. The third tab is a calculator that utilises the central navigation buttons as the addition, subtraction, division, multiplication and equals functions. The final tab is titled Other, which has World Time and PocketNews. World Time is self-explanatory (view overseas time zones and set time accordingly) while PocketNews allows for particular snippets of articles or reports to filter into the phone as text messages. For instance, if I wanted to find out the weather forecast for Sydney I can go into Pocket News, select weather and then select capital cities – Sydney.
The news will be passed on as a text message and can be read via the inbox. Apparently, charges do apply per delivery and I am assuming it will cost about the same as sending a text message. The PIM applications of the F256 is less than that of some models but does feature a very useful alarm clock and a convenient source of brief news headlines (though, these are not free).
Being a budget phone, it was expected that the F256 would not feel extremely solid and powerfully built. These expectations were met from its entire silver body to the keypad. Its flipping apparatus is fine and appears to withstand constant opening and closing. The keypad is a little bit flimsy and does attract fingerprints, as does the screen. Removal of the battery and SIM is never an issue, though I didn’t like the covers of the USB/Charger/Earphone port and TransFlash Card slot. The positioning of the USB port was a bit of an issue when listening to music.
Personally, I didn’t like the camera’s location. Maybe I was just not used to flip-phone cameras but I often had difficulty capturing both self-portrait and landscape images because my fingers would get in the way of the lens and the camera wasn’t in the right angle. One of the things I did like is that knowing that Telstra promotes this phone as a product for Next G, the company did well to resist overloading the physique of the phone with Telstra icons and advertising symbols. This essentially made the phone slicker and simpler to look at.
The F256 utilises a 780mAH battery that has some trouble powering the phone when it is used for other applications – namely media players and games – besides messaging and for calls. Telstra claims that talk time is 3 hours and standby time is 200 hours. I’m certain that these figures are exaggerated based on my assessment. I examined the phone through general daily use and found that I had to charge the battery after about 37 hours. Daily use consisted of talking about 40 minutes per day, sending a few messages and listening to music, taking some photos and using the alarm clock everyday. The battery takes about 2 to 3 hours to be fully charged.