Afrihost Zest T1 review

Budget Android smartphones range between surprising you with their value and infuriating you with their bad user experience.

The Afrihost Zest T1 falls towards the former side of that continuum, with great touch response and a solid user experience considering the price point.

A lower-cost smartphone usually comes with its share of niggles (heck, just about any smartphone does) and the Zest T1 is no different, but for the most part I really had to nitpick to find something wrong.

Design and build quality

As a white-labelled Alps Android smartphone, the Zest T1 has a cheap-looking plastic shell, though no more cheap-looking than a Samsung Galaxy S3 or S4 (or most any other budget phone for that matter).

On the front of the device you’ll find everything you’d expect on a modern Android smartphone from a proximity sensor to a front-facing camera.

However, the choice of hardware capacitive buttons hearkens back to the days of yore (2011), before software buttons and “Recent Apps” delivered us from the evil of the functionality-hiding hardware “Menu” button.

(It’s worth noting that Samsung only switched to using the Recent Apps button on its flagship “S” line with its most recent device — the Galaxy S5 — which was launched in April. We grilled Samsung for their hardware menu buttons until the change, though, so I can’t let the Zest T1 get away with it.)

On the back of the device the camera protrudes slightly, with a flash mounted to its left.

The back cover and battery are removable and with the case open and battery out you’ll find a microSD card slot and not one, but two mini SIM slots.

That’s where things get interesting…

Dual what now?

Afrihost Zest T1 back with cover open
Afrihost Zest T1 back with cover open

At the heart of Afrihost’s foray into smartphones is the fact that the Zest T1 is a dual SIM device — not something you see much of at Vodacom or MTN.

Afrihost offers very well priced mobile data deals, but requires you to either use their data-only SIMs, or if you’re an MTN contract customer, configure your device to use Afrihost’s APN rather than MTN’s.

With a dual-SIM device they side-step all those ifs, buts, and caveats nicely… provided the device has a decent SIM manager.

Here the Zest T1 delivers. On first boot you’ll be prompted to configure what each of the SIMs in the device should be used for.

It lets you specify a different SIM for each of the following four functions: voice call, video call, messaging, and data connection.

3G service may only be enabled on one of the SIMs at any given time, but you can receive calls to either SIM (provided both SIMs support voice calling).

The Android user interface colour-codes the SIM slots and lets you name the SIMs yourself. It also displays a SIM’s phone number where supported.

Software

Afrihost Zest T1 home screen and SIM management screenshots
Afrihost Zest T1 home screen and SIM management screenshots

Once you’ve decided which SIM to use for what, you’re dropped straight onto the default homescreen.

To those who have set up an Android device or two in their lives this can be quite a surprise, as you are usually prompted to enter your Google account details and then (if you’re not on a Nexus) set up whatever crapware shipped with the phone.

This is one of the joys of the Zest T1. The only third-party apps that were bundled with my review unit were Facebook, Instagram, the Afrihost app, and Documents To Go, all of which could be uninstalled normally.

It doesn’t even come with many of the apps in Google’s ecosystem such as Search, YouTube, and Hangouts (Gmail comes pre-installed, though), leaving the decision of whether to even install them mostly up to you.

This is despite the fact that the Zest T1 runs on the latest major version of Google’s mobile operating system, Android 4.4 “KitKat”, which is unusual for a budget smartphone.

If you’re looking for a smartphone that runs the latest version of unmutilated Android out of the box, the Zest T1 comes very close to delivering it.

As with any Android smartphone, the Zest T1 does come with a number of default apps to handle such basic functions as making a phone call, sending and receiving SMS and MMS messages, e-mail, and taking photos.

Both the default dialler and messaging app are geared to handle the dual SIMs, injecting a row of quick switch icons in the notification tray that lets you switch the default SIM card for a particular feature.

Other apps may not offer this feature, so keep that in mind if you have another favourite dialler or messaging app and plan to switch between SIM cards often.

If you’re going to be using the Zest T1 as Afrihost (probably) intended — their SIM for the data and another SIM for cellphone functions — then you don’t really need to worry about this.

Storage

Afrihost Zest T1 storage settings screenshots
Afrihost Zest T1 storage settings screenshots

Installing apps on a smartphone requires internal storage, and phone storage on budget Android devices is almost always more complex than the spec sheet suggests.

Here is where things with the Zest T1 get a little finicky, because its built-in flash memory is split into two partitions: “internal storage” and “phone storage”.

There is 0.98GB internal storage in the device and 5.17GB phone storage (as reported by the operating system).

The benefit of this system is that it is possible to access the phone storage like a normal USB drive from your PC instead of needing to use a special helper application to transfer files.

However, the big drawback is that all apps take up at least a little bit of internal storage, even if you install them to phone storage.

In my tests I was able to fill up the internal storage pretty quickly by just installing some of the apps I typically have on my Android phones (and a few benchmarking tools).

I then had to go into the Apps section in settings to manually move everything to phone storage. Fortunately the “Phone Storage” section under “Storage” settings has a handy checklist to show you which apps have been moved to phone storage, and which haven’t.

By default, the phone’s preferred install location is set to “let the system decide”. If you plan to install even a half-decent number of apps, you should change this to “phone storage” right after you’ve set up your SIMs.

There is a drawback to this: any homescreen shortcuts of apps installed to phone storage vanish when you reboot the phone.

Apps that were moved to phone storage also took up more space in total than if they were just installed to internal storage (though obviously they take up much less internal storage space, otherwise why bother?)

That said, if you’re installing a lot of apps and moving all the ones you can to phone storage, it still seems likely that the internal storage will fill up long before the phone storage does.

This is a good thing design-wise (though I would have preferred a single internal phone storage partition), as Google introduced restrictions on SD card write access with the latest version of its mobile operating system, Android 4.4 “KitKat”.

While the file manager that ships with the Zest T1 still lets you copy and move files between your phone’s storage and the SD card as much as like, it is not possible to install apps to the SD card.

The lack of apps-to-SD in KitKat won’t be a problem, however, as it won’t restrict the ability to install apps any more than the 0.98GB of internal storage already does.

Display

The rest of the Zest T1’s hardware doesn’t warrant as much explanation as the storage, as it functions pretty much as expected.

Its qHD resolution display (540×960) has a few more pixels than the WVGA (480×800) and FWVGA (480×854) displays most of its competitors have, and its touch response is good despite only supporting 3 simultaneous touch points.

To illustrate what I mean with “good touch response”, I’ve compiled a short video (above) showing how the device responds to various gestures.

It also shows that the phone handles graphically intensive games such as Real Racing 3 well, and that the accelerometer performs as expected.

Touch screen response does suffer a bit during heavy background tasks, such as during a background sync or when apps or updates are busy installing.

In particular, touches along the edge of the screen often don’t register the first time when the processor is working hard on something else.

This kind of slight performance degradation when background activity is using a sizeable chunk of a budget smartphone’s resources is not unusual, but still worth noting.

Camera

According to the spec sheets, the Zest T1 features an 8 Megapixel (MP) main camera on the rear and a VGA (640×480, or 0.3MP) camera on the front.

It turns out the front camera actually produces images of 1280×960 resolution (1.2MP), but based on the image quality and the fact that video recorded on the front camera is still 640×480, that’s probably due to some kind of pixel doubling.

In short: the spec sheet is right and while the front camera is fine for video calling, you’ll probably want to use the rear camera to take selfies with.

The rear camera, on the other hand, produces pretty good quality images.

Considering that this is a mid-to-low range Android smartphone you shouldn’t expect to be entering any smartphone photography competitions with what the Zest T1 is able to produce.

For the average user who might just want to shoot a few photos to share on social networks (or maybe just show their kids one day), the Zest T1 will do fine.

The Zest T1’s default camera app lets you choose between 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios. When set to shoot 8MP photos in 4:3 mode, it produces images in 3264×2448 resolution.

In 16×9 mode, the photo resolution becomes 3840×2160.

The default app also has a high dynamic range setting, and while it did prove useful in some situations, it requires that you hold the camera inhumanly still to prevent the final picture from blurring.

A test video shot with the Zest T1 is embedded above, while a gallery of some photos taken with its camera is included below.

The second-most used cellphone feature

According to the results of the most recent Mobility survey conducted by World Wide Worx and Dashboard, the most used feature on a mobile phone is the one reviewed above: the camera.

The second-most used? FM Radio.

At 51% of respondents (57% from rural areas, 48% from urban), more South Africans said they use their phone’s FM radio than its music player, Internet browser, games, and other apps.

Not all smartphones include an FM radio tuner, but the Zest T1 has one which can be used if a set of headphones are plugged into it.

Battery life

In the time I spent with the Zest T1, the battery life seemed about average for a modern smartphone.

This is despite the fact that it is keeping two SIMs connected to potentially two different networks. Maybe it’s because only one of the SIMs can have an active 3G connection at a time.

Regardless, you can expect the Zest T1 to last the day if activity on the phone is limited to browsing, messaging, making some calls, and snapping a few pictures.

When you fire up the GPS, play games, or play back media for extended periods, that impacts battery life and you may have to charge the phone during the day.

Spending time in an area with poor reception also affects battery life, as one might expect.

My time with the device was spent mostly in heavy usage: downloading apps, running benchmarks, and testing the performance of more resource-hungry apps like games.

I wasn’t able to spend enough time just using the device normally to comfortably rate the battery life. For that reason you won’t see a score for battery life in this review.

When important apps won’t play nice

Among the aforementioned resource-hungry apps I test on new devices, are location-based ones like Google Maps and Ingress, a massively multiplayer alternate/augmented reality game by Google’s own Niantic Labs.

Not all GPS chips are created equal, and Ingress in particular lets you test not only how well a phone’s location services subsystem works, but also puts the rest of the device under load.

The Zest T1 handled Ingress like a champ, running the GPS, data connection, and 3D graphics required to play the game without a hitch.

Navigation mode in Google Maps, on the other hand, didn’t like my review unit too much.

It’s apparently a bug that intermittently affects devices based on MediaTek system-on-chips, causing Maps to crash while using voice-assisted navigation. Waze, a free social navigation app (also now owned by Google), worked just fine during my testing. So even if Google Maps doesn’t work for you, there are solid alternatives available in Google Play.

Regardless, with the help of the development team at Afrihost I’ve generated a log of the Google Maps crash, which has been passed onto the Zest T1’s engineering team.

Ongoing support

While there is some concern that voice-assisted navigation in Google Maps may not work for you, encountering the bug and witnessing how Afrihost is dealing with it raised an important point.

Unlike many other lower-end devices, there is a promise of support and updates for the Zest T1.

Much like more well-known smartphone brands such as Samsung and HTC, Zest Mobile has rolled out firmware-over-the-air infrastructure in South Africa.

This will enable them to push out updates for the Zest T1 to hopefully fix issues such as the intermittent Google Maps crashes, and perhaps even provide upgrades to newer versions of Android when they become available.

The deal

Complicating our review somewhat is that it isn’t entirely clear what Afrihost and Zest Mobile will be charging for the device after this coming Wednesday (18 June 2014).

What we do know is that the first 1,000 Afrihost clients that order a Zest T1 will get it, along with 1GB of data per month for a year, for R1,999 all-in.

After that, the only indication we have of the cost of the Zest T1 is the R2,499 retail price Afrihost boss Gian Visser mentioned in an e-mail to users.

At that price, the Zest T1 may be worth checking out, but Afrihost’s great launch deal makes it a device that can’t be ignored.

Specifications Zest T1
Maker Alps
Dimensions 136.5 x 69 x 9.5mm
Weight 165g
Operating system Android 4.4.2
Display 4.5″ qHD
Rear camera 8MP
Front camera 0.9MP (0.3MP specs)
Storage, internal 8GB (6.17GB usable)
Storage, expandable microSD
RAM 1GB
Processor 1.3GHz quad-core (ARM Cortex A7), MT6582
Graphics Mali-400 MP2
Battery 1,600mAh
Cellular data HSPA+
SIM type Dual, Mini SIM
NFC No

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Afrihost Zest T1 review