Ever since the first Blade device, better known as Santa Fe, on Orange network in the UK, ZTE wanted to offer an inexpensive mid- to low-range smartphone which will attract potential buyers by offering a bit more than competition. In the high-end arena, the battle between top manufactures is fierce, and while they have vastly different feature sets, it is hard to find a phone with noticeable drawbacks. Cheaper ones, on the other hand, don’t get that much advertising and media focus, and it is well-known that manufactures sometimes cut more than is necessary in trying to keep costs down or the profit up.
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Good feelings

Blade-III-Black-03 sZTE III felt nice and balanced when we grabbed it for the first time. It’s obvious that, beside the main race for bigger and better screens, usability and one-hand handling are neglected in flagship designs. That’s why we very much liked the size and form factor of Blade III, which fells very pleasant and natural while holding, even more so than Galaxy S III. It is made in white and black, the latter obviously targeting more business-oriented users. The white version and its pearl finish look very nice and are quite similar to the first Blade, so we hope it will be equally long-lasting. Despite all its plastic build, the new Blade feels firm and sturdy. There’s a chrome-coloured plastic ring all around the phone, which is a bit too much – we feel that a dimmer version would have been better. Under the back cover are the usual suspects: SIM and Micro SD slots, as well as a removable battery. On the lower part of the back side, you can see a speaker opening, which is loud enough, but sound quality is not that good. On the upper side is the much better headphone output, so with a decent headset, sound quality will be above average. The back camera is lower-range, without flash. Images captured with enough ambient light are of medium quality, but video recording is sub-par. Volume rocker is on the left side, so coupled with the top power switch, they are the only physical buttons on the device. Almost the entire front side is covered with scratch-resistant layer of plastic/glass, with ridges a bit higher to further minimize the possibility of scratching the device. On the top and lower sides are two mikes, making phone calls clear even in windy conditions. The reasonably sized display has a good resolution, making pictures and text sharp and readable. Actually, the display is of an above-average quality, and if only it were brighter, we wouldn’t have had problems with readability under direct sunlight. Below the screen, the four usual capacity buttons found their place: settings, home, back and search. On the lower side, the only port is micro USB for charging and data transfer. The charger is included, with a small cable with a USB host port on it. The bundled micro USB-USB cable can be attached to it or to a PC, depending on what you want to do.

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Inside out

The hardware platform is underpowered for this date and time. We do understand that Blade III Pro will come with a dual-core CPU early next year, but to introduce a new smartphone with only a single-core CPU means that the manufacturer is targeting a lower price point. For a moment, we were afraid that RAM may have been cut down below 512 MB, but luckily, that wasn’t the case. Synthetic benchmarks showed numbers similar to last year’s mid-range. Some intensive tests, like Vellamo, couldn’t finish their run as there was not enough system memory. On the other hand, regular tasks like dialling, reading e-mails or web pages were not affected that much, and while Blade III will not win any medals in the speed category, it is not a slouch either in common tasks. Internal storage needs to be upgraded with a micro SD card if you are looking to enjoy multimedia files offline. GPU is in class with the rest of the hardware, and will accelerate 2D rendering sufficiently in the OS. It looks like there is a problem with video codecs, as we played normal avi/divx fine, but mp4’s or mkv’s with x.264 coding were jerking, with low frame rates. Just to be sure that the problem didn’t lie with the preinstalled video player, we tried several popular apps from Play Store – without success. Gaming is limited; Angry Birds or similarly demanding games will work well, but modern, 3D-heavy games will just not work. We had several issues like texture corruption and low frame rates, but on the other hand Blade III is not intended for this kind of tasks anyway.

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The OS of choice is the latest ICS edition, which works quite nicely on this hardware. Once again, ZTE didn’t change many things compared to Google’s vanilla concept, a move we almost always approve of. The lock screen is different – you can choose between a fiery circle filling up while you are pressing the unlock icon, or a more complex one which can host several shortcuts. Besides the usual Google apps, you’ll find several preinstalled applications like Music+ and Docs Viewer, easy to understand and straightforward. The notification area is a bit limited as it doesn’t support horizontal scrolling, so what you see on the first screen it is what you get. Interestingly enough, software update is a separate app, not in its usual place at settings/about. The keyboard is good and very precise, and we especially appreciated the ability to download and install more keyboard layouts for different languages. The TouchPal keyboard is similar to the more popular Swype; just move your finger from letter to letter without lifting it from screen, and you will get the word typed.

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ZTE Blade III 
Processor Single core 1 GHz Qualcomm MSM 7227A
GPU Adreno 200
Memory 512 MB RAM, 1.5 GB ROM, internaly available 2.5 GB, total 4GB
Display 4'', 800x480 pix, capacitive TFT 262K colours
Connections microUSB, Bluetooth, WiFi n, HSDPA, GPS
Camera 5 MP autofocus (back)
Battery Li- Ion 1600 mAh
OS Android OS 4.0.4
WxHxD (mm) 123 x 63,5 x 10 mm
Weight (g) 130 g
Price sample

Blade III or Blade III Pro?

The new Blade III is very similar to the first Blade in terms of objectives. Once again, it will provide an average user experience for significantly less money, which is a good thing. It feels nice in hand, and the lower screen brightness and slow SOC aside, it has no major problems. It is a very nice inexpensive phone which will successfully fulfil all primary roles of a smartphone. The CPU-GPU combination is very last year, but surprisingly enough, adequate for average tasks and easy on the battery. Bear in mind that looking for a phone with higher specs will cost you much more, but won’t bring that much in terms of speed and responsiveness.
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Many of the issues, like the lack of a front camera, flash, dual-core CPU and low resolution for the rear camera will all be addressed soon in the form of Blade III Pro. If you are not in a hurry to buy new phone, it could be a good strategy to wait for a few more months. But, on the other hand, ZTE Blade III is one of the best inexpensive smartphones out there as it is.