Design, features and interface
The introduction of the BenQ-manufactured EE Harrier and EE Harrier Mini was the start of a new breed of own-branded handsets from Britain’s largest network, continuing the ornithological theme that started with the EE Kestrel, built by Huawei.
The EE Rook is the latest addition to the flock. This time made by ZTE, it’s a smartphone that fills the ultra-budget end of the spectrum, and yet still features stock Android Lollipop 5.1, 4G connectivity and a quad-core processor for less than the price of a meal for two.
This is clearly somewhat of a my first smartphone. But even casual users is search of a no-frills experience expect a phone that never lets them down – and is that really possible at this price?
There isn’t much competition for the Rook. The Smart First 6 from Vodafone is underwhelming, and Three’s Acer Go is very similarly specced. Microsoft is offering perhaps the most compelling alternative in the form of the Lumia 435 – though none of these can connect to 4G networks.
Retailing at just £39 for existing EE pay-as-you-go customers (or £49 for everyone else) the EE Rook is a tenth of the price of the Samsung Galaxy S6, yet still packs in a 64-bit quad-core 1GHZ processor, 1GB of RAM, 8GB of internal storage, 5-megapixel camera, and a 800 x 480 resolution 4-inch screen.
Not a great deal of design inspiration was required when ZTE put together the Rook for EE. It’s a rather nondescript slab of black plastic, although it does manage to avoid looking either tacky or childish. Build quality is what you would expect for this price, although to give it credit, I have tested more expensive phones that flexed and creaked more than the Rook does.
The Rook measures 126 x 64 x 10.3mm and weighs 130g, meaning it doesn’t feel awfully chunky in the hand, and weighs just enough to stop it feeling like a toy. Up front there’s a front-facing camera, proximity sensor and notification LED above the 4-inch WVGA screen, and three capacitive buttons below.
On the left edge there’s a volume rocker that rests just under your thumb or forefinger, while on the right side there’s a dinky little power / wake key. Both feel perfectly responsive, and protrude enough to be easily found at a fumble.
A 3.5mm headphone socket sits on the top edge, and so (less orthodoxly) does the micro USB port. This makes the handset a little uncomfortable to use when charging, and is certainly more restrictive when trying to make a call whilst plugged in.
On the back of the Rook there’s little to report: a speaker resides in the bottom left, while the fixed-focus 5-megapixel camera is centred near the top – but there’s no flash. Unsurprisingly, there’s also a rather large silver EE logo, but no nod to ZTE, the actual manufacturer.
The rear panel is easily removed, exposing a microSDHC card slot, microSIM slot and a replaceable 1500mAh lithium-ion battery – over 800mAh lower in capacity than the Motorola Moto E, which despite being around twice the price, is about the best 4G capable alternative.
Like every other carrier-branded smartphone, the EE Rook has little to make it stand out. The speaker is tinny and quiet, the camera and video capabilities are incredibly basic, and there’s no HD screen like you’ll find on the (albeit it slightly more expensive) Honor Holly.
It feels best to address the screen now, rather than dwelling on it. The colour is OK, and brightness is passable. Even the 800 x 480 resolution isn’t terrible, and would have been considered pretty nice before iPhones with retina screens came along. The biggest problem? Viewing angles.
Look at the Rook’s screen from any direction other head-on and the contrast disappears, making it almost impossible to share a video or photo with friends. It’s almost as if ZTE rooted through the cupboards for an old screen that would fit and went “that’ll do.” It makes the inclusion of the Miravision enhancement an almost laughable addition, and is clearly where most of the budget was cut.
The real stand-out here is the inclusion of 4G connectivity, which means super-fast serving of videos, music and other media, but with no HD screen, limited power and lacklustre audio credentials, there’s little to truly take advantage of the EE’s 150mb/s maximum quoted speeds.
Call quality was passable, though the earpiece was as treble-heavy as the loudspeaker, which would suffer considerably in a busy environment.
One area where the EE Harrier did impress was with EE’s decision not to screw around with Android Lollipop. And with the latest 5.1 software onboard, the same is pleasingly true of the Rook.
There are a few pre-installed applications from Amazon, as well as Deezer, Lookout security and EE’s own account-checking app, but other than these (non-removable) apps, Lollipop has been left as Google intended.
Despite the super-cheap price, this latest version of Google’s OS means that the Rook is compatible with the latest features and accessories, including Android Wear, Google Fit and the rest of Mountain View’s app suite.
The app drawer works just as you’d expect, and appears with no delay. The notifications pane and quick settings pull down smoothly, and with the aesthetically pleasing animations you’ll find on more powerful and much pricier handsets.
Delve into the settings menu, and there are two little inclusions worth mentioning. Firstly, the display menu has the addition of an option called MiraVision – a picture quality enhancement setting that attempts to improve the screen settings, or set them to the user’s preference. It’s similar to the Bravia settings found on Sony smartphones, but makes very little difference on the Rook in practice, because the screen is of such low resolution and quality to begin with.
The second addition is a set of sound enhancement equaliser modes found at the foot of the audio settings menu. The BesAudEnh mode creates a more dynamic sound through headphones, while the BesLoudness toggle boosts the volume of the inbuilt speaker (from pathetic to weak).
BesSurround claims to give an impression of more enveloping sound from the built-in speaker, but the effect was virtually indistinguishable through the Rook’s diminutive speaker. Lastly, a Lossless BT mode allows for high quality music streaming to Bluetooth headphones.
Performance, battery, essentials and camera
So far you may be thinking that the Rook looks mediocre at best, but it does have a surprisingly sprightly processor at its heart. It’s not exactly a benchmark buster like the HTC One M9, but considering where phones were just a couple of years ago, the 1GHz quad-core 64-bit ARM Cortex-A53 processor from Mediatek is perfectly capable of grinding through day-to-day tasks such as browsing, social network surfing and light media consumption.
The coupling of 1GB of RAM and an ARM Mali T720 GPU means that a bit of light gaming is even on the cards. However, with 8GB of system memory, and less than 3.5GB free straight out of the box, you may well run out of storage space quicker than you’d like once a few apps are installed (especially if they won’t install onto a microSD card).
To give the phone the industry-standard workout, I installed the GeekBench 3 app and gave it the once over. I ran through the sequence of tests which revealed a single-core score of 488 and a multi-core score of 1,348, which actually pegs it slightly higher in the single-core test than EE’s own more expensive Harrier Mini, while the multi-core score almost keeps up with the far pricier Huawei Ascend G7 which scored 1,398.
In real-world use, the Rook provides a good enough user experience. Swiping through home pages, menus and apps is as smooth as you’d expect from far more expensive Android handsets, though the limitations of 1GB of RAM show once you start to zip in and out of too many apps.
As far as the 4G performance is concerned, the Rook is compatible with EE’s speedy 4G network, supporting speeds up to 150Mbps (but not the 300Mbps available in some cities around the UK). If you’re thinking of taking the Rook onto another 4G network, it must support LTE at 800, 900, 1800 and 2600MHz. If you don’t have 4G in your area yet, then there’s always the far more widespread 3G to rely on.
Whilst it may only have a 1,500mAh Lithium-ion battery, the Rook’s battery life wasn’t as bad as I had expected. It easily lasted 24 hours if I didn’t try and tax it with constant video streaming or gaming, although under load the battery ran down considerably quicker.
TechRadar has a standardised battery test which consists of running a 90-minute HD video at full brightness after fully charging the smartphone on test. After running this test the Rook’s battery life dropped to 70%.
I would be surprised if anyone plans on watching movies of this length on the EE Rook, but the possibility is there, should you wish. If you’re only using this phone for its basic features, you might even stretch the battery life to two days, as I found it rather frugal when in standby mode.
With the latest version of Android Lollipop 5.1 on board, the EE Rook gets the software side of things pretty spot-on.
The stock phone dialler, contacts manager, and messaging app are all greatly improved and easy to use, and although the earpiece meant that call quality was quite tinny, I didn’t find the signal overly poor.
Whether you preference Android’s stock browser or Google Chrome, both are on hand for web browsing, which despite the limitations of a 4-inch screen is a smooth enough experience when compared to many other current smartphones.
Where software is concerned, there is nothing else particularly mind-blowing to report. Music is handled by the stock Android app, and the same goes for photos with either the Google Photos or Android gallery app on hand.
£50 can barely buy you a good compact camera, so to expect much from a smartphone at this price is wishful thinking. It has a 5-megapixel camera on the rear, and a rather pathetic 0.3-megapixel camera up front.
With a slow interface and fixed-focus optics, it seems that this is another area where ZTE cut corners when making the Rook for EE. Even in the most perfect daylight conditions, pictures feature an awful lot of noise and digital smearing, which makes most of the pictures look rather artificial. The lack of flash means that indoor shots always appear grainy and lacking in detail.
I had hoped that the camera would at least be good enough for social sharing, but the photos are only passable if you leave them un-cropped. Any zooming in exposes the lack of detail to an unusable degree.
A very underwhelming panorama mode is available, and the HDR mode is largely a waste of time – it gives photos a bright, unnatural feel rather than improving the overall contrast.
I did get a brief moment of pleasure from the multi angle viewing mode, which asks you to drag the camera from right to left around a stationary object to create a “3D” image. You can then view the photo from various angles in the gallery. However, if the subject is moving you’ll just end up with a small video, not a multi-angle photo. Unfortunately, you can only view these pseudo-3D images on the phone, and the resolution is very low, so the feature is largely pointless.
The Rook’s front facing camera is as poor as you would expect with 0.3-megapixels. It’s barely good enough for a video call, let alone the oh-so-important selfie that will be paramount to any teenager attracted by the pocket money pricetag.
Video recording is barely worth a mention, with a maximum “fine” resolution of 864 x 480, and a number of other lower resolution options available – all the way down to a bewilderingly poor 177 x 144 pixels.
If you’re looking for a more capable camera on a cheap smartphone, then you’ll need to pay that bit more for a Motorola Moto E or Microsoft Lumia 640.
There’s not much to be had for £50 these days, and while there are some disappointing areas of the EE Rook, there are also positives shining through.
The quad-core 64-bit processor is surprisingly nippy, and provides a smooth experience for day-to-day apps and web browsing, without showing too much slow-down when zipping between menus.
Although the screen viewing angles are poor, the resolution is higher than some ultra-cheap smartphones around.
The latest stock version of Android Lollipop is very welcome indeed, and all the Google apps you’d expect are included too.
The limited space means that you won’t be able to install many games, and watching anything longer than a quick YouTube clip on the 4-inch screen becomes something of a chore.
The fixed-focus camera is really awful, so this phone can only be recommended to users completely uninterested in smartphone photography.
The screen viewing angles are poor and the speaker is both quiet and tinny – not best suited for sharing media with friends, that’s for sure.
If you’re an existing EE prepay customer, the Rook can be had for under £40, and is only £50 to anyone else. At this price you’re getting a full Android smartphone with access to apps, videos and maybe even the odd game, making it a perfect budget smartphone or even backup device should your main handset fail.
Being the only phone at this price point with 4G, it offers quick internet access when you’re out and about, and the Rook would even serve well as a portable Wi-Fi hotspot for larger devices.
Old-hat screen technology, poor speaker and camera aside, there certainly are positives to be found in the Rook, and (with help from ZTE), EE has crammed in as much tech as is feasible for a tiny price.
If you’re willing to spend a little more, consider Motorola’s Moto E, or the Honor Holly, both of which still come in under £100.
First reviewed: August 2015
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