Technology

Chinese Cell Brand Makes U.S. Debut


0214_zte
Editor's Rating: star rating

ZTE's C88 is the first phone from the Chinese company to wash up on U.S. shores. It's pretty good—and inexpensive, too

ZTE isn't exactly a household name in the U.S., but the Chinese company's cell phones are well known in its home country and India. Now ZTE is giving the U.S. market a try with a phone called the C88. Though a pretty basic flip phone, the C88 may provide insight into ZTE's design and market philosophy for other handsets to come. "We want to be a mainstream player," says Drew Wilkens, a handset director at ZTE. "We think we can compete against LG, Samsung, and Motorola (MOT)."

The first U.S. carrier to introduce the C88 is MetroPCS (PCS), which offers prepaid wireless service in 10 metropolitan areas including Miami and Los Angeles. Many of Metro's 3.6 million customers are budget-conscious consumers looking for a good deal: Metro charges as little as $30 a month and doesn't require contracts. But it also doesn't offer discounts on the list price for phones like the big carriers do, so ZTE tried to create a reasonably priced device. Depending on the store, the C88 sells for $129 to $149.

The phone—particularly the keypad design—reminded me of Motorola's Razr, though much thicker. But unlike the Razr and many other flip phones, the top half of the clam doesn't open as wide, so it looks more like a clam than a straight line in that position. Many people, Wilkens says, prefer that design, as they feel that it fits the curve from ear to mouth better and they don't have to talk as loudly. But I find phones that open wider a bit more comfortable, as they can adjust to my face better.

Adequate, Workable Features

The phone comes with all the standard features in handsets these days: a camera, compatibility with Bluetooth cordless headsets, a Web browser, and messaging capabilities. The speakerphone is superb—much better than the Razr's or nearly every other handset's I've tried. The camera takes pretty good pictures. And because the C88 comes with 60MB of internal memory—quite a bit for a low-priced phone—there's room to store dozens of photos. One grudge: To launch the camera, you have to hold down the dedicated button on the side of the phone for what seems an eternity.

While you can download ringtones and send photos, the C88 can't play music or video like the growing number of multimedia devices hitting the market. And yet, while it's certainly no iPhone, the C88 also doesn't costs $400 or $500 and require a two-year subscription with AT&T (T) like Apple's (AAPL) hot handset. As with all of MetroPCS's phones, the ZTE C88 doesn't require any contract.

The phone's screen menus are well designed. Delving into an address book takes only a push of one soft key rather than maneuvering a multiple-menu maze. In the tip calculator application, there's no need to press multiple keys to insert a period before the cents on a restaurant bill. The C88 also boasts some practical extras such as the ability to record voice memos for yourself or to attach to a multimedia text message. The phone also has a handy call timer for professionals who bill by the minute.

All in all, I'd call the C88 a solid option for anyone whose primary need in a cell phone is to make calls. As the company also makes higher-end handsets for other markets, I wouldn't be surprised to see the C88's debut lead to a full line of ZTE handsets in the U.S.

Kharif is a senior writer for BusinessWeek.com in Portland, Ore.

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