Chinese OEM ZTE has long been known as a purveyor of budget phones, but the company is trying to build more premium products like its just-announced Grand Memo superphone. We had a chance to go hands-on with the 5.7-inch Android handset here at Mobile World Congress, and we were intrigued by its unique-looking Android skin and performance-enhancing Mi Assistant utility, but puzzled by its lack of pen support.
On the inside, the ZTE Grand Memo is supposed to be the first phone ever with the new, much-hyped Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 series processor. However, not all models of the phone will have the new platform. Most of the phones we used at the booth were running an older Snapdragon S4 processor, which is still quite fast. Other key specs include a 13-MP back facing camera, LTE connectivity and a whopping 3,200mAh battery.
The first thing we noticed about the Grand Memo is how large its screen is. At 5.7 inches, this device is a bit bigger than the 5.5-inch Samsung Galaxy Note II, yet despite the word “memo” in its name, this device doesn’t come with a stylus or a suite of note-taking/drawing software. Though its screen resolution of 1280 x 720 pixels would have been considered high-end last year, it seems out of place on a flagship product that will be launching in mid-2013. However, as we stared at the colorful wallpapers and icons, we were struck by how rich the greens and reds were.
Speaking of UI clors, the Grand Memo’s Android skin and associated utilities are undoubtedly its most interesting features. Where HTC’s new Sense UI has a modernist look, Samsung’s TouchWiz is bright but conservative and Google’s stock Android looks high-tech, there’s something entertainingly cartoonish about the default theme on ZTE’s Android skin. ZTE provides a few different themes, but both phones we tried at its booth had cartoon wallpapers of garden settings with lots of light green and red scattered throughout the icons, built-in apps and widgets. For better or worse, the environment reminded us of a Smurf village.
The bright, colorful lock screen has a giant icon of a lock on it which, if you swipe it just the right way, turns into a flower-shaped widget with petals that are shortcuts to your favorite programs. Tap the icon without swiping and a little ring of green fire appears around it. You can configure different animations for screen switching. The demo unit we used had an animation that made the desktops look like sides of a 3D cube that turns when you swipe from one to the other. And when we swiped through different screens in the apps menu, we got an animation that looked like a Rubick’s Cube turning.
Though it doesn’t include all of the innovative UI enhancements and software that competitors like HTC, LG and Samsung bundle, the Grand Memo does have a compelling utility called Mi-Assistant, which provides all kinds of performance and security functions, from managing your apps to scanning for viruses. We were intrigued when we hit Mi-Assistant’s prominent Checkup button and got a list of running apps and wasted storage space and the option to clean both for maximum performance.
ZTE also throws in a head-scratchingly useless but unique utility called Mi-POP, which provides a translucent widget that sits on top of your screen and provides a back button that expands into back, home and menu buttons. Considering that all of these nav buttons exist as hardware at the bottom of the screen, Mi-POP is a waste of screen real estate, but at least you can disable it.
The Grand Memo’s chassis is reasonably attractive. At the ZTE booth, we saw units with both hard plastic matte and textured backs and sides. Available in black, white and dark blue, the device has an the oblong shape and rounded corners that are extremely generic.
We didn’t get a chance to really put the phone through its paces, but the UI and animations seemed smooth enough. The real question is whether the Grand Memo can change ZTE’s reputation, no matter what processor it has. The phone will be released in Europe and Asia in Q2.