Introduction and design
Last year Motorola released the excellent Motorola Moto G and, in doing so, set a new benchmark for affordable smartphones.
For all the excitement surrounding yearly flagship releases, the middle and lower tier markets are boasting the likes of the Moto G, Sony Xperia M and Nokia Lumia 520. Gone are the days when you had to spend over £200 for a quality smartphone.
Enter ZTE, the fourth largest smartphone manufacturer in the world with the ZTE Blade Q Mini: a £60 Android handset that punches well above its weight both in terms of design and features.
That low price does come with a couple of caveats. For starters, it’s only available as a PAYG handset and secondly, the Blade Q Mini is exclusive to the Virgin Media network.
It’s unlikely the Blade Q Mini will sway serious shoppers from the Motorola Moto G but if you’re looking for a temporary replacement, secondary handset or a child’s first-time smartphone, then it’s very difficult to argue with this offering from the Chinese company.
Looks-wise, it’s standard smartphone fare with a lack of physical buttons – thanks to Android’s soft-key configuration – and smart rounded corners with a minimal bezel.
The 126 x 64 x 9mm dimensions and 120g weight mean it sits comfortably in the hand with just the right amount of heft to it.
Perhaps in response to the "phablet" movement, we’re seeing something of a comeback for the smaller screen thanks to the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S4 mini and the HTC One mini.
The ZTE Blade Q mini fits into this bracket with a 4-inch WVGA display that means you can easily use it with a single hand.
The 800×480 resolution isn’t enough to impress these days, but remember I’m talking about a £60 phone here.
The back of the device is covered with a soft, rubberised plastic similar to that found on the back of the Google Nexus 5. It means it’s easy to grip the Blade Q mini and I also found it gave it a slightly more premium appearance than if ZTE had just gone with basic plastic.
On the right and left hand side you’ll find volume rocker and microUSB charging slot respectively. The top of the phone is reserved for the power switch and the 3.5mm headphone jack. There’s nothing but the microphone on the bottom of the chassis.
By having the power switch on the top of the device, you have to shift your grip to switch the phone on and off again. I think ZTE missed a trick by not putting the power button where the microUSB port is.
Had this been the case, you would be able to switch both the power switch and the volume rocker without having to move your fingers or thumb from the traditional position.
The only other buttons are the soft-touch Android keys at the base of the screen. Back, Home and Settings respectively, these keys light up when the phone is activated and are pleasingly responsive.
Sometimes lower-tier smartphones require hard jabs at the navigation keys to register any effect, but that isn’t the case here. Haptic feedback is also present, but this can be disabled when the ZTE Blade Q Mini is put on silent mode.
This entire rear panel is removable via a tricky slot on the bottom right, which lets you get to the interior of the Blade Q Mini. Inside you’ll find the 1,500 mAh battery as well as the SIM and microSD slots.
One nice feature is a notification light in the top left-hand corner. It will blink at you when you have an incoming email or text, and also acts as a gauge when charging the battery; switching from red to green when you’re charged.
While the Blade Q Mini does boast a rear-facing 5MP camera, there’s no forward-facing equivalent for taking selfies or using video-chat apps. This isn’t a huge omission and isn’t surprising given the budget nature of the phone.
As you’d expect on a handset with this price point, you’re going to want to be reaching for a microSD card pretty quickly. The Blade Q mini is equipped with a piffling 4GB of internal storage space. Throw in pre-installed apps and the operating system itself and you’ve only got about 1.5GB to actually work with.
I would recommend equipping the Blade Q Mini with at least a 16GB microSD card if you plan on using it to listen to music, download apps or take a lot of pictures.
As it is, the ZTE Blade Q Mini runs nicely and, given the asking price, is comparable to rival Android phones like the Acer Liquid Z2 or Huawei Ascend Y300.
According to ZTE’s accompanying promotional literature, its Blade series is for: "people who want powerful smartphones on unrivalled packages that include loads of minutes, data and texts for their money."
The Blade Q Mini fulfils the second part of that statement, if not the first. It’s a phone, first and foremost, about value – and that’s where its killer strength lies.
An issue that can occur with expensive handsets is an ever-increasing list of features that most users aren’t aware of or simply don’t use. I’m looking at you, Samsung.
Instead, the Blade Q Mini gives you a basic smartphone experience; the ability to tweet, play Angry Birds or check Google Maps for about a sixth of the price of Apple’s cheapest model, the iPhone 4S.
It will give you full access to the Google Play app store although, as I said, you’re going to need a microSD card before going crazy with the installer.
However some key apps, such as Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox and Evernote have already been preloaded onto the Blade Q Mini.
Unfortunately, the budget nature of the phone has to kick in somewhere and there are certain restrictions that unsurprisingly have taken place.
You won’t find NFC or 4G LTE compatibility here. However, the ZTE Blade Q Mini does feature Bluetooth 4.0 which allows it to connect to wireless headsets or speakers with much less power consumption.
The double-edged sword of a 4-inch display also becomes an issue when discussing the Blade Q Mini’s key features. The portability of a 4-inch display will be a blessing for anyone that’s ever attempted to wield the likes of the Sony Xperia Z Ultra or the Samsung Galaxy Note 3.
But it’s certainly fair to say that I’ve grown used to larger screens and as such the ZTE Blade Q Mini can feel a little cramped, especially if you start adding widgets to the homescreens. This can be a problem when playing certain games or tapping out an SMS message, due to the tiny keyboard.
I believe the sweet spot for smartphone screens is around the 4.7-inch mark, so stepping down to the 4-inch WVGA display takes some getting used to.
With a pixel density of only 233ppi, the Blade Q Mini also isn’t as sharp as some, admittedly more expensive, smartphones.
It does however boast in-plane switching (IPS) technology which adjusts the liquid crystal display for better colour reproduction. But all told, I doubt that you’ll be spending a lot of time watching videos on this handset.
I’ll discuss the camera on the Blade Q Mini in more depth later on but although it isn’t on a level with flagship phones like the HTC One or Apple iPhone 5S, it does a good enough job considering the handset’s price point.
The 5MP snapper has an autofocus and LED flash, as well as several settings to tinker around with if you fancy it.
Given that cameras are one of the main features of smartphones these days, it’s good to see that ZTE hasn’t cut corners on the rear-facing camera – even if it decided not to include a front-facing option.
Performance and battery life
It shouldn’t surprise you by now that the ZTE Blade Q Mini isn’t the most powerful or the fastest smartphone to ever see the light of day.
The Chinese company has equipped this phone with a 1.3GHz dual-core processor and a generous 1GB of RAM.
Running Android 4.1 Jelly Bean with very little in the way of additions means that navigation speed isn’t as bad as it could have been.
The apps won’t load with the quickness you’d find on a flagship phone, but we were hopping in and out of Facebook and Twitter without getting frustrated at the lag time.
As was mentioned previously, busy apps that present a lot of information can fall foul of the smaller 4-inch screen, and non-mobile websites will take quite a bit of time to load. You’ll also have to zoom in and out a fair bit to compensate for the smaller display.
ZTE has pre-loaded Google Chrome for mobile, which supports tabbed browsing and will load favourite sites when synced with your Google account.
The Blade Q Mini does start to slow down when you start stacking apps and processes on top of each other. Mobile browsing while playing music, installing updates and firing off a quick SMS will naturally put the processor under some pressure.
After running the GeekBench 3 benchmarking program, the ZTE Blade Q Mini returned a score of 468 for multi-core and 286 for single-core.
This isn’t an amazing score and puts the Blade Q Mini firmly in the budget bleachers. By way of a comparison, the recently released Sony Xperia Z1 Compact notched up a score of 2884 on multi-core performance and 927 on a single core performance.
Graphics-wise, the Blade Q Mini houses an ARM-developed Mali-400 GPU which is just about capable of running 3D games like Six Guns. The resolution of the screen limits you to non-HD gaming of course, but in terms of performance it’s serviceable.
Traditional 2D games such as Candy Crush and the recently deceased Flappy Bird will have no problem running on the ZTE Blade Q Mini although, as previously noted, the small screen size can sometimes be an issue.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, the budget nature of the ZTE Blade Q Mini, the 1,500mAh battery actually puts in quite a good performance. With no HD screen to power, or draining LTE signal to support, I found that the battery on this phone lasted reasonably well.
I easily managed 36 hours of moderate usage – sending and receiving texts, checking work email, snapping pictures and browsing on the move. It’s fair to say I didn’t make many calls during this time, but I still had power remaining after a couple of nights away from the microUSB charger.
The battery subsection in the phone’s settings will give you a breakdown of your power consumption. It will give you a clear idea of how long the phone has been running and what apps are drawing the most power.
Unfortunately, unlike some other handsets such as Sony’s Xperia J or Xperia M, there’s no option to enter a standard power-saver mode to preserve the battery.
If you’re cautious of running dry then you’ll need to manually lower the screen brightness and disable mobile data when you don’t need it.
One small measure you can take is the schedule power on/power off feature that lets you time the shutdown and startup of the handset. It’s a standard Android feature and is overlooked by many – but if you’re prone to forgetting to charge your device at night it can be a handy tool.
There is always the option to pack a spare battery in with you if you’re planning on taking this phone away from a power socket for any considerable length of time. Thanks to the removable back casing, you can swap in a reserve at any time.
Even when we started to put the stress test on the ZTE Blade Q Mini, the battery life held up reasonably well.
Running TechRadar’s graphics test with full brightness and notifications on took the battery life from 100% down to 72% over the space of 90 minutes.
Overall then, the battery life of the ZTE Blade Q Mini fits into its budget credentials.
This isn’t a phone targeted at the power user and the battery reflects that. If, however, you use your phone occasionally and for the simple features, you’ll be able to draw a reasonable amount of performance from it during everyday usage.
The essentials and camera
Hopefully what’s clear by now is that the ZTE Blade Q Mini is an unremarkable but competent Android smartphone, with excellent value-for-money providing its raison d’etre.
The fact that ZTE has left Android largely untouched works in this phone’s favour. Because of the open source nature of Google’s OS, you’ll also have no trouble transferring files over from a PC.
The lack of space notwithstanding, hook this phone up with a micro USB cable and it’ll appear as a removable drive on a Windows PC, allowing you to copy and paste music or films directly across.
There’s also the substantial Google Play ecosystem to take advantage of as the ZTE Blade Q Mini is fully Google-certified. Music, films, magazines and books can all be bought directly through the device.
Making and receiving calls is very simple and can be done either directly through the chunky virtual Android numberpad or scrolling through your contacts.
I found the call clarity to be very good, although volume isn’t as loud as you’ll find on larger smartphones with bigger speakers.
That point goes for playing music as well, the speakers themselves are on the tinny side and if you intend on playing music through the Blade Q Mini it might be an idea to invest in a portable speaker.
One thing to bear in mind is that you currently can’t buy this phone unlocked. So if you’re planning to pick one up, you’ll have to sign up with Virgin Mobile.
This shouldn’t prove a problem signal-wise as Virgin piggybacks off the EE spectrum, giving you plenty of coverage all around the UK.
As covered earlier, the ZTE Blade Mini Q features a 5MP rear facing camera, which is pretty standard at this price point. Surprisingly though, there are a number of different features to select within the camera app.
Standard shots are taken at a 5MP 2592 x 1944 resolution although the Blade Q Mini can only manage a 4:3 aspect ratio rather than the traditional 16:9 landscape option.
It will take video up to a 720p HD resolution, although the default is actually set to the VGA 640 x 480 option. You can add a time lapse interval of up to 10 seconds to the video recording if you want to get a little creative.
Similarly, the still camera option lets you adjust ISO, white balance and exposure, as well as add in colour effects like Sepia and GPS tag your pictures.
There’s an added face-detection mode as well as an optional HDR mode. This brightens up the picture somewhat and isn’t always available on budget phones, so it’s good to see it here.
Rounding out the camera modes are Panorama and auto capture – but a quick trip to the Google Play store will reveal plenty of downloads, both free and paid for, that will give you extra features to play with.
It’s true, there’s nothing here on the scale of the ZOE mode present in the HTC One, but this is still a reasonable smartphone camera.
It presents the most basic of features and will let you upload quick snaps to the likes of Facebook, Snapchat or Whatsapp rather than produce a platform for photographic art.
Look below for some examples of how the ZTE Blade Q Mini’s camera fared in out in the real world.
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Hands on gallery
ZTE, like fellow Chinese smartphone manufacturer Huawei, is very good at turning out serviceable budget smartphones and has been doing so for a few years now.
Unfortunately, the problem for both companies is that the big-hitters of the Android world are starting to take more notice of the mid and low-tier markets. In doing so, they will surely push the likes of the ZTE Blade Q Mini further into the periphery.
A clever exclusivity deal has meant the Chinese company can push this smartphone through at a ridiculously low price, which will undoubtedly make it attractive to parents and the perpetually clumsy. But is it enough?
Along with the price of the handset, its simple design is a big selling point for me. That goes just as much for the clean Android OS as it does for the curved black design. As an operating system, Android has matured immensely and is now at the point where you can have a great experience on limited hardware.
It’s true that the 1GHz Cortex MTK processor isn’t much cop compared to the majority of smartphones out there. But for simple tasks it still carries the ZTE Blade Q Mini through and, whether you want to play games or update Facebook on the move, this is a simple and cheap way to do it.
Without Google Play certification, this phone wouldn’t be worth approaching, but with the full might of Google’s app store behind it, it’s an excellent place to start for anyone looking to buy their first smartphone.
I think a 4-inch screen on a modern smartphone is too small and its limitations are obvious here. The homepage can appear cramped when widgets are involved and trying to tap out a message or email on the condensed keyboard isn’t easy.
The non-HD screen means that watching in high definition on YouTube or through Google Play isn’t an option either and although 3D games do work, I wouldn’t recommend it over the traditional 2D puzzle games.
The ZTE Blade Q Mini should be an attractive option for a budget smartphone – I’ve paid restaurant bills that cost more than this phone. However, there’s always the niggling thought that for only a little bit more money upfront, you could buy a Motorola Moto G, which is a superior phone in every way.
There are advanced features on offer here. I was surprised to see that Bluetooth 4.0 was supported, and that the camera had an HDR shooting mode. Not only that, but ZTE has done a good job on the design, keeping it simple with the right amount of weight.
In conclusion, if you’re looking for a cheap handset to be your main, go-to smartphone, then this isn’t it. But if you’re looking for an unimportant secondary handset for work, and don’t mind committing to a Virgin Media PAYG SIM, then the ZTE Blade Q Mini is £60 well spent.