Rich Warren | My ZTE phone is as useful as a brick

Rich Warren | My ZTE phone is as useful as a brick

The U.S. government intends to brick my 18-month-old smartphone. "Brick" quite literally means making a phone as useful as a brick. To be fair, I'll still be able to make phone calls and send texts and update some applications (apps), but I'll never again update the operating system or other general functional improvements. Parts will become unavailable. Most phone makers promise two to three years of operating system updates and other improvements.

You may have guessed I own a ZTE phone. A multitude of rave reviews inspired the purchase of the ZTE Axon in November 2016. It basically offered all the performance and features of the $700 premium phones for $400. I had no idea that ZTE supported the "axis of evil" by selling phones and other telecom equipment to North Korea and Iran.

None of the reviews noted that. Something was strange when I went to check for operating system updates early this month, and the ZTE server was "unavailable." As I write this, the president announced he wished to rescue ZTE, which is on the verge of bankruptcy because of the U.S. decision to not only ban the company from selling phones here, but also buying essential U.S.-made components. As the president noted, shutting down ZTE penalizes thousands of innocent Chinese workers.

Recently, our government put the screws to the other large Chinese smartphone manufacturer, Huawei, accusing it of being in cahoots with the Chinese military. Huawei also markets phones here under the Honor brand name.

The goal of this column is not politics or questioning government actions. The goal is to warn readers to research electronics purchases beyond mere performance and pricing. At least those who purchased German Volkswagen diesel vehicles received some form of compensation for the company's nefarious gaming of the pollution control systems.

It would be hard to outfit a home without Chinese-made products. Many are very good, and many have no direct relationship to the Chinese government. However, unlike in the U.S., the Chinese government threads itself throughout the country's industries.

Unfortunately, those who purchased ZTE and Huawei/Honor phones in good faith find themselves pariahs with phones that could possibly relay information to the Chinese government. While I was planning to replace my phone in the fall, it looks like I'll be buying the new South Korean LG G7 Thinq when it comes available in June. Often consumers can trade in recent model Android smartphones for $25 to $100 when buying a new phone. Alas, my Axon is now worth about as much as a brick.

Just so we don't paint with too broad of a brush, don't confuse ZTE of China with HTC of Taiwan. While HTC is experiencing some financial issues, it has no government connections and is based in a different country, although let's not become involved in that debate about Taiwan being a separate country.

In its May 7 edition, Business Week noted that Chinese manufacturer Xiaomi (which is not being sanctioned) makes as little as $2 profit per smartphone, while Samsung pockets about $19 and Apple as much as $250 per phone. That's food for thought.

Meanwhile, closer to home, Google emailed a notice to review my Google security settings to see the information Google accumulated about me. A new policy from the European Union motivated this seeming beneficence. I thought I had my Google account pretty buttoned down when it came to storing information about me. Thus, Google shocked me when I clicked on the links to learn that it knew and logged every single place I had been over the past few years, from Champaign Target to a rest stop on the New York thruway. It supposedly allowed me to delete this record. While Google is a long way from the authoritarian government of China, it still gives me chills.

Rich Warren, who lives in the Champaign area, is a longtime reviewer of consumer electronics. Email him at