Video recording yielded similarly unimpressive results. It took a significant amount of time for the lens to adjust itself to different lighting environments, and footage ended up looking choppy and rough. Colors were muted, and objects appeared fuzzy and pixelated.
When it comes to camera features, there's plenty that you won't get: there is no rear flash, no front-facing camera, and no touch focus (instead, the lens is fixed-focus). However, both the camera and video modes do feature geotagging, five white balance options, and digital zoom.
In and of itself, the camera includes three photo filters, antibanding options, and picture qualities. You can shoot in two resolutions (1,600x1,200 and 1,024x768-pixels), and there are compositional lines, a self-timer, and four meters to adjust exposure, contrast, saturation, and sharpness. As for video recording, there is a time-lapse option, as well as two sizes (VGA and MMS).
At our San Francisco offices, I tested the dual-band (850/1900) handset, and call quality was poor. Though I was able to understand what my calling partner's was saying and none of my calls dropped, loudness was low for both the in-ear and audio speaker. Even when turned on to its maximum level, volume could stand to be much louder. In addition, I kept hearing a subtle, yet continuous, "whooshing" sound during my call, similar to what you hear when holding a conch shell to your ear. It persisted both during times of conversation and silence.
The audio speaker also yielded unimpressive results. Aside from the low volume range, voices came off tinny and thin. At times, my calling partner's voice became too harshly rendered, and audio was unpleasantly sharp. Likewise, I was told that my end didn't sound so great either, with my voice sounding echoey and muffled.
ZTE Prelude (Aio Wireless) call quality sample:
Despite its low-rung design and incredibly slow user experience (more on that later), the smartphone clocked in with surprisingly decent 3G data times that were consistent and reliable. Operating on AT&T's network, Ookla's speed test app showed an average of 2.52Mbps down and 0.12Mbps up. It also took 2 minutes and 47 seconds to download the 44.22MB game Temple Run 2. As for Web browsing, CNET's mobile and desktop site took 12 and 57 seconds, respectively. The mobile site for The New York Times loaded in 16 seconds, while its full page appeared after 35 seconds. ESPN's mobile site took 15 seconds, and the desktop version took 24 seconds.
ZTE Prelude performance times
Average 3G download speed
Average 3G upload speed
App download (Temple Run 2)
44.22MB in 2 minutes and 47 seconds
CNET mobile site load
CNET desktop site load
Camera boot time
As previously mentioned, the Prelude's paltry 1GHz processor was sluggish. Basic tasks such as unlocking the lock screen, swiping through the app drawer, and adding widgets to the home screen lagged notably, taking longer than it should have. At times it felt that the device was barely trudging through these simple actions, and more complicated tasks like launching and quitting games felt glacial. On average, it took 48 seconds for the handset to restart and 2.87 seconds to open the camera. In addition, its highest Quadrant result clocked in at 2,049, and the best multithread Linpack result was 32.405MFLOPs in 5.21 seconds.
The removable 1,500mAh battery isn't much, but given how the smartphone doesn't command much power in the first place, you'll be able to remain unplugged from a power source for an adequate amount of time. Anecdotally, I was able to use the handset through the workday without any charge, and it lasted through the entire weekend on standby. During our official battery drain test for talk time, it lasted 11 hours and 15 minutes. According to FCC radiation measurements, the phone has a digital SAR rating of 1.25W/kg.
The ZTE Prelude has some merits. Its petite design makes it completely pocketable, its 3G speeds were consistent, and storage hogs will dig its expandable memory. But even for its $50 price, the device's processor is just too slow, its phone calls are too poor, and its camera is too meager to outweigh those pros.
This is especially true when you consider the number of other handsets out there that are better and cost about the same. If you want to stick with Aio, the $80 ZTE Sonata 4G has faster data speeds and a bigger screen. And while you'll have to switch to the Windows Phone OS with the Nokia Lumia 620, the $50 smartphone has a solid 5-megapixel camera and NFC.
However, if you're open to other prepaid carriers, both the Samsung Galaxy Rush from Boost Mobile and the Samsung Galaxy Reverb from Virgin are currently $80 and $50, respectively. They, too, are 3G devices, but they sport better cameras and faster internal speeds than the Prelude.
Ultimately though, I'd recommend MetroPCS' Nokia Lumia 521 or the carrier's LG Optimus F6. Both cost $50, with the former packing a superior camera (despite its lack of flash), and the latter having a crisp 4.5-inch screen and 4G LTE.