EE Rook Review (ZTE Blade A410) by mark2410
TLDR? Try here http://www.head-fi.org/t/810686/ee-rook-review-zte-blade-a410-by-mark2410#post_12637332
First Impressions: So this phone has been out for ages and it’s not exactly a high spec’ed beast. However it had a recent price slash and I thought it might make a nice mini tablet for the nephew, right? Not that I have a problem and need to stop buying phones. So the device is made by ZTE but it’s branded by EE as the Rook. At launch EE made a big hoopla about it being the cheapest 4G (LTE) phone you could get in the UK and with its price cut is still certainly true. Though I wonder how many people buying a £25 phone are going to be using much, notoriously expensive, mobile data? Still in the long term with the VoLTE (Voice over LTE) rolling out and it having access to the 800mHz band that could be good for mobile coverage. (800mHz is good for building penetration, 3G at 2100Mhz sucks at building penetration.)
Opening up the box and like all phone boxes these days, there is the black slab facing me. Under it is the bits of paper no one ever looks at then under a card partition, the accessories. Yey! They are all black. You get the battery, a micro USB cable and a stereo headset. I’m surprised by its inclusion as it’s such a cheap device. Surely the absent USB plug would have been more preferable to most than a dirt cheap stereo headset? Seems an odd inclusion to me.
Sticking the battery in, nice that it’s a user swappable battery, in goes the sim card too. It has micro SD card slot too but I’m not adding one for the moment. With the back, back on I power it up. Ooh that is not a great screen. Its resolution is so so at 800 x480 pixels is low by modern standards but its more than fine for a phone screen this size. The issue is, the screen is pretty bad, the viewing angles are terrible. Granted this is an extreme budget device and clearly the screen is where they saved all they could to get that LTE modem in there.
Hardware: Looking at the spec sheet and it’s all not bad. Not just not bad for the current low price but not too bad at all. For example it’s still got a quad core CPU, sure it’s only clocked at 1GHz but it is quad core. It’s got 1GB of RAM too and 8GB of ROM storage. I could have easily seen those be 512mb and just 4GB so I’m pretty pleased. The screen is a 4 inch, that again is fine, as it means the thing fits in my hands and given its likely to go live with my small nephew, is a nice size for a child’s phone. It also has a removable battery and micro SD card slots, both of which are things I approve of. Sure almost no one carries spare batteries but I like the option to. As for the card slot, it claims 32GB support but that normally means FAT32 support but no exFAT support. Testing that, a 54GB card will indeed work if formatted into fat32.
In terms of raw performance the Rook, in Antutu scores 23206 and the Moto G 4G (the original one) scored 18413. Seriously and that’s out of a £25 phone. None too shabby if you ask me.
Physically the device feels, okay in the hand. There is no pretending that it’s a not a budget device, it’s all plastic, its light like an all plastic device would be too. The plastic though is a nice matte finish so it’s easy to grip. The buttons on the side feel fine too. It’s also got capacitive buttons on the front rather than on screen. I’m perfectly fine with that but what is a little irritating is that there are no backlights to the capacitive buttons. Seems to me a cost saving measure a little too far as how much are 3 LED’s?
While I’m talking about lighting issues, there would seem to be no light meter. That’s a big issue for me as I hate using a phone in a dim room while it’s blasting out at max brightness. It’s not the biggest of issues but it bothers me. Then I also note that there is no flash on the back, or rather no torch. I never use the things for a flash but they do make great and handy torches. Given LED’s are so cheap it’s an omission that feels like a penny pinch too far. Thankfully its does have a tiny charging / notifications LED on the front and I’m pleased to see it.
Screen: Well, you know when you looked at the price tag and thought, they must have skimped somewhere? It was here. Now the screen size, small by modern standards but I rather like that the thing fits in my hand. The resolution, again bit low by modern standards but we had less pixels than this for decades of TV watching and we all got by fine. The problem is none of those things, you see the issue with the screen is this, its viewing angles are bad. It’s still a usable device and you can survive with it but you will be constantly reminded how bad a screen it is if you hold it with even the slightest angle involved. It takes very little vertical angular movement when in portrait for colours to fade out/darken. Not a major issue in portrait but when you put in to landscape, then it’s the horizontal movement that’s killer. It’s a device you won’t be looking at photos or video with a friend. If a screen could be sadness made manifest, it would be this screen.
Audio Software: It came with Amazon Music and Play Music installed. Curious but I didn’t see any native, on-board music player. That seems a curious omission as I’d expect its youth slanted user base to maybe want to use it for audio. However….. it being android there are roughly 500 million music apps you can install and that’s before you even think about the likes of subscription services. You know, Spotify, Deezer etc etc etc. So in terms of its music software it comes with little but you have a vast array of options open to you, such is why Android is the flexibility king of mobile operating systems.
Audio Hardware: As is so often the case, I could find no information as to what audio chips are in it. Still modern electronics should mean that even the most unspeakably cheap chips should be reasonable.
Lows: At first I tried the Shure E3c, being so easy to drive and it was on my desk from playing with the LG G5. Hmm where’s the bass? I was then going to grab the MA750i as it was too on my desk but I couldn’t, it’s more expensive than the Rook was at launch never mind its current price. So the RHA S500i seemed a potentially more realistic option right? Slapping them in and…… yeah where’s the bass again? It’s improved but the Rook is seriously lacking in power and it cannot properly drive a deep low end. It can get a little punchy and mid bassy driving a bit of an oomph but, yeah I suspect potential buyers will want to pair it up with some dirt cheap bassy fart cannon. The little S500i does what it can and music doesn’t sound bad or anything but the bass, well I know they can do so much better.
Mids: Mids, they are alright. The E3c tried its hardest to make them good and the S500i puts in a passably reasonable effort. The core issue is that the Rook lacks power and lacks dynamics. The detail levels are still kinda decent, praise be to dirt cheap digital components. So it’s all perfectly usable, clean, well-articulated but it’s got no soul. Lifeless, meh, phoning it in etc etc etc. The mostly lively vocals were still kinda nice but again its bugging me that I know the earphones in use can be so much more when given the chance.
Highs: Not bad. They are not the worlds greatest but here the lack of power and thusly of definition plays as a strength. With the lack of power the inclination towards edge and brutality that cheap stuff veers towards means that they haven’t the power to actually make that happen. Dynamics are moderated, edges slowed and rounded. Still it’s a little edgy from time to time, not particularly refined nor subtle. Still even with the at times crisp S500i they were mostly quite easy on the ear.
Soundstage/Instrument separation: Alright: Soundstage isn’t too bad, a nice sized venue gently splayed before you. Instrument separation however lacks a bit, everything is a hint diffused, smudged by its lack of clear definition and dynamic differentiation.
Format Support: Being Android the devices format support is entirely software based. Therefore it can play everything, you name it, FLAC, AAC, OGG, APE, whatever. It’s nice that you can just slap on whatever you have and know things will just work.
Volume: Weak. Phones aren’t usually super loud but these were pretty easy to push to full volume and not be killing me. Mostly I had them playing two notches down but if you want something quite or hard to drive, yeah not here. Though given it’s probably going to young kids they probably need their hearing protected from themselves so you could argue it’s a positive thing.
Speaker: The speaker, well it’s not all that great. Its audio isn’t particularly horrific in terms of its quality. I mean it’s a phone, all phone speakers suck and this being a super cheap phone you may expect it to be extra bad. It’s not. It’s so so but where it falls down a little is that it’s really not very loud. Iplayer or Netflix playback and even using my hand to reflect the sound to the front, it’s going to struggle to cut through car noise. Even with MX Players volume overdriving it still isn’t very loud.
Battery Life: It’s a pretty small battery, just 1500mhA but……. that meh and moderate sized screen doesn’t eat all the power that some stupidly high resolution behemoth. Now given its moderate abilities I maybe didn’t find myself using the Rook as hard as I might most review devices. Still it got more than day out of it easily and most of two with ease normally. Still I bet if you start hammering 4G data its battery will take a massive beating with that battery capacity. However anyone buying this phone isn’t likely to have a massive data allowance are they? Well maybe if you’re an American tourist who’s just bought it to use to navigate round London because your Verizon phone is useless. If EE had any sense they would push this phone for that use and offer a hot swap battery service in their shops. Walk in with your Rook and they will swap your drained battery for a full one. Encourage those tourists to hammer their data use.
Build Quality: I actually think it’s not bad. Sure it’s all plastic and it’s not the most premium plastics but it’s not that bad. I can’t really go much higher in the praise than that but given its price it’s great. There are certainly no glaring deficiencies anywhere that I spotted. It’s really not at all badly put together.
UI: The UI is practically stock android. Cue the choir of angels and the Hallelujahs!!! Back in the day EE parent, Orange, were far and away the worst phone network for filling all their handsets with crapware. Oh and it really always was crapware as opposed to just plain of bloat ware. Orange would fill the handsets they sold with endless amounts of garbage. The Rook however, comes only with the additions of its own EE app (which if you’re on EE you probably want.) Then there is some Amazon App’s The shopping app, another amazon shopping app, Amazon Local and Amazon Music. Weirdly with all those no Amazon App store? There is some widget that shows adds for rubbish but that’s easily ignored or removed. Lastly there is “Lookout” the malware and security app. Which while I won’t be using it it’s not the worst app ever. In fact the only real piece of crapware is that Free Games widget, while you can make the widget go the app itself is still there and is undeletable.
Otherwise the experience is basically stock, I am very surprised given how Orange used to behave. Thus the UI is clean and responsive, snappy even, I’m very pleased at how stock an experience it is.
In The Hand: The phone is a little bit small but when I hold it next to the Moto G 4G with its 4.5 inch screen, they are almost the same size. The difference being that the Rook has only a 4 inch screen. Granted there is some saving in that it has capacitive buttons where the Moto doesn’t. Never the less there is a lot of separate the top and bottom of the Rook. However I can’t say it was bothersome. It fit in my hand quite nicely and indeed the big boarders round it make it more pleasant to hold.
Speaker: It’s not very loud. Oh well, I mean it’ll probably do for a child watching something in a reasonably quiet room but if they’re in the back of a the car and you want to keep them entertained with video, I suspect they will need headphones to be able to hear what’s going on properly.
Camera: Well the camera on the back is a reasonable sounding 5 mega pixel, the front one, well it’s a 0.3 mega pixel one. Eek! Sure it’s a dirt cheap device so I don’t expect greatness but the cameras are not great. The rear to me, look kinda okayish. I mean it’s a £25 phone what do you expect. The front though, it, not to put too fine a point on it, sucks. Given the likely users of a phone at this price point I’d have thought the “selfie” cam would be much more important than the rear camera. So I’d have maybe cut the res on the back and bumped up the front one to something a little more credible.
Reception: The reception was strange. In terms of raw signal strength it would get a fractionally worse signal than my old Nexus but we are talking one or two decibels. So very little in it. That wasn’t what was odd though. What was strange is that it seemed reluctant to change over to LTE from 3G. It would do it eventually or if I manually forced it but otherwise it would at times just not budge. I have no idea why it did this
Accessories: You get a micro USB cable and a stereo headset. Why? Now I get that devices don’t always come with a USB plug charger and given how cost sensitive the Rook must be I’m totally fine with its absence. But…… why then include the headset???? Just by the look and touch of it I can tell its crap so I hope no one ever uses it. But why????? On such a cost sensitive product why include something so unnecessary??? As for what’s available to buy for it, well with it being not a major device there isn’t the abundant case selection I might have wished for. I wanted to get a big chunky thing like the one I got for the Lumia 435 but I couldn’t find one. A little disappointing for sure but it’s just how it goes. Audio wise, that micro SD card slot, well officially the phone only supports up to 32gb but……… I slapped in a card that was formatted in fat32. That card being a 64GB one, as is the case with many devices that say up to 32. They will work just fine with a 64GB card if you first format it to fat32. If you don’t know how, google will help.
The Good: Value. The Rook is not in any way a wonder device, except one that is. It’s value, the current price of £20 plus a mandatory £10 top up is what makes the Rook for me the best value phone you can get in the UK right now. The closest handset I can see to it is the Vodafone Smart First 6 and 7 both are £25 but neither are near the spec of the Rook. Neither have 4G like but the Rook does. Neither have front facing cameras which the Rook does. Both Smarts have 4 GB of storage where the Rook has 8GB. Both Smarts have just 512mb of ram compared to the Rook’s 1GB. The Smart’s have only a 2 mega pixel camera on the back compared to the Rook’s 5 mega pixel and what’s more they have no front facing cameras at all, whereas the Rook of course does. The specifications of the Rook completely and utterly spank the closest offerings to it. They don’t even come close in spec and yet they cost £5 more. Clearly it’s not the best phone in the world but its stupid cheap for what you get.
The Bad: Well the screen is meh and the spec’s are pretty meh, the battery is kinda small too. Then you take into account its price and there really isn’t anything I can say is bad for the money. It’s so ridiculously cheap. Oh, however it does have one thing missing that I did miss, no flash. I mean I don’t care for taking pics but I do find using the “flashes” as a torch really handy from time to time.
Value: At its launch price of £50 it was a steal but it was at the time paired to the most useless data offerings from EE so that it was pointless. I mean why have super zippy 4G when your monthly data pack has 250mb in it? EE have it seems begun to realise that pricing 4G data so high that it made it useless to have. Now they will sell you a £15 30day bundle that will give you 2GB. That’s getting much more like it. The handset itself though is tremendously good value and given you can get the thing unlocked you under £2 it’s an epic holiday phone, gym phone, whatever activity where you don’t want to endanger your £500 phone. The Rook is sooooooooooo cheap, if it gets smashed or lost who cares??? Epically good value for money a handset.
Conclusion: The Rook may be a year old and it was bottom of the range pretty much back then but with a whole 1GB of RAM and 8GB of storage the phone is genuinely usable. No, really, I’m serious. You could legitimately cope with it as your phone. Sure you’ll balk at first at that lousy screen. Not just that its rubbish but that it’s been a long while since you have probably used a 4 inch screen too. It’s small. Though size isn’t everything you know, I actually found its diminutive size meant the thing actually fit in my hand, fit in my hand comfortably too. It was quite pleasant to use to make calls. Is this why we’ve all stopped making calls, because our damn phones are all so bloody big we don’t like holding them to our faces?
The audio and most attributes of the Rook are, cheap bottom end stuff but it’s a testament to how amazingly good and cheap electronics have become that everything is so usable. It’s maybe not “good” per say but having used this phone with my sim in for a couple of weeks and aside from finding the keyboard too small I really didn’t hate anything. The Rook is actually a perfectly usable device, it’s not perfect of course but it’s able to do pretty much everything a flagship can and adequately well.
So should you / would I buy one? Well I did buy one. Granted it’s going to the nephew but it’s a great little handset. Seriously I’m super impressed with how great it is, how genuinely usable the thing is. It’s got flaws for sure, the screen most obviously isn’t great, the speaker isn’t either nor very loud but I could use it. As a backup phone or activity phone this would be awesome. Don’t want to take you super expensive phone hill walking, or canoeing, or more likely, going out and getting wasted. Afraid you might drop or just lose your phone when you’ve lost count of the drinks you’ve had? No problem. You’ve only lost a phone that cost the same as a few drinks. I rather hope that its recent price cut doesn’t mean it’s about to disappear as at this price I feel like it’s something every house needs, a backup emergency phone. You know like we all keep some old trashed clothes and boots for gardening or for painting, the Rook is that same thing but for phones!!!