ZTE's Grand Memo rollout provides MWC with its first fail

BARCELONA—As someone who’s written about more than her share of Windows Phone 8, I’m pretty used to writing about the overlooked aspects of the mobile world. Sure, some of the phones I’ve covered don’t gobble up Android-sized chunks of market share, but hey—not everyone wants an iPhone or a Galaxy SIII and smaller manufacturers need love too, right?

That was my thinking Monday as a I fought my way across the Mobile World Congress show floor on my way to the press event for phone maker ZTE.

That was also my mistake.

ZTE’s presence at Mobile World Congress reinforces the notion that this company wants to compete with the big players in the smartphone market.

With the majority of the seats in the room taken, reporters and camera crews crowded the aisles attempting to find standing room to take notes or shoot video.

A woman at the door was frantically waving in additional streams of people while simultaneously telling the doormen to shut the doors. The conference began while people were still working their way inside. (And a special shout out to the two gentlemen who not only stood directly in front of me, but also insisted on talking just loud enough so that I could barely hear the speakers).

Most of the crowd had laptops, tablets, and smartphones out; about half of them looked to be checking email, or browsing the web.

Mr. He Shiyou, ZTE’s executive vice president and head of its mobile device division began by telling us (via translator) that the theme of Monday’s presentation was “Life is Grand” before speaking some on ZTE’s aim of closing the gap between it and more high-end manufacturers such as Apple and Samsung.

ZTE Grand Memo: not so grand

Unfortunately, the company’s hopes for doing just that are pinned on the Grand Memo—a phone with an underwhelming moniker as well as unimpressive features. The highlights: The Grand Memo is the first announced device to have Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800 processor (if you don’t count the Asus PadFone, which was also announced Monday) and also has Dolby Digital Plus sound.

Other features of the Grand Memo include a 1.5GHz quad-core (which only helps ZTE catch up to the rest of the smartphone gang), a width of 8.5mm, a 5.7-inch-high definition display, a 13 megapixel intelligent camera with panorama, 1080p high-definition video and display, LTE, support for Wi-Fi 5.0 GHz, and a 3200mAh battery.

The Grand Memo also features an “integrated unique UI”—basically a skin over Android 4.1.2 with a data use monitor to check, control, and lower data usage, and a software manager which—wait for it—will install and delete multiple apps. Another great feature of the Grand Memo? You can operate it using one thumb as it features a special designed “comfort area” that situates the keyboard slightly left or right so you won’t have to use two fingers to access parts of the screen.

‘You can use your thumb‘ doesn’t seem like much of a selling point, but that’s what ZTE is touting with its Grand Memo.

Now to be fair, I’m used to seeing a ton of handsets that throw around features faster than beads at a Mardi Gras party. Still, I just don’t think that “you can use your thumb” should be touted as a feature for a phone that’s attempting to compete against the likes of Samsung, Apple, and HTC. A stylus would likely have been a more useful feature to include here. Also, installing and deleting multiple applications is an expected feature of any smartphone.

Audio trouble

ZTE showed a video to tout the Grand Memo’s features: Unfortunately, the only sound the audience could hear was a low buzzing noise. At this point, I started to notice a steady stream of people heading for the exit, including camera crews—something I almost never see at a press event.

ZTE’s presenter apologized for the audio issues and then continued by telling us that we could see that this “great screen is clearly great.” Later, as he explained how the phone was designed to be mounted on the dashboard of a car to use GPS, he told us again again “this is a great screen, and a great camera.” It’s difficult to believe someone is enthusiastic about a product when they can’t muster up more than one adjective to describe it.

Honestly, I’m not an unreasonable person. I have no trouble being patient with technical difficulties. I don’t even mind the overcrowding and pushing—this is after all, a major trade show with thousands of attendants and I’ve spent enough time in mosh pits to know how to throw a few elbows—and none of those issues were ZTE’s fault.

But this is supposed to be ZTE’s major step to becoming a major smartphone manufacturer, and this is a handset they’ve been teasing for months, starting in January at a ZTE event in Hong Kong and continuing at this year’s CES.

If the phone maker expects to compete with Apple and Samsung, it’s going to need much better features than “you can use it with one thumb”—and ZTE is going to need to make the phone available in the United States, which it doesn’t seem willing to do.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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