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ZTE Sonata 4G (Aio Wireless) review:

Cheap, 4G Android phone still slightly off-key

For video options you get zoom, four video qualities (from MMS to 720p), the same five white-balance options, and geotagging. You can also take a photo while recording video and record a time-lapse movie.

Recording quality was just as mediocre. Both moving and still objects were heavily blurred and pixelated, and colors looked muted. Even when I recorded from just a few feet away, people looked indistinguishable and were hard to make out. Moreover, though audio could be heard on the phone itself, recordings didn't have sound when played on the computer.

I tested the Sonata 4G in our San Francisco offices using Aio Wireless' service (which runs on AT&T's network). Call quality was good, but there were times when my calling partner sounded a bit muffled.

The amount of static wasn't overly distracting, and it didn't render her voice even remotely incomprehensible, but it was noticeable. Other than that, however, none of my calls dropped, there weren't any extraneous noises, and calls continued consistently. When speakerphone was activated, audio came off thin and flat, but the volume range was appropriate, and I could still hear my partner's voice well. Likewise, I was told my voice came off decent and clear as well, and that I was easy to understand.

Listen now: ZTE Sonata 4G (Aio Wireless) call quality sample

Though 4G doesn't compare to the superfast speeds of LTE, this device clocked respectable and, most notably, consistent data times on AT&T's network. Ookla's speed test app showed an average of 3.93Mbps down and 1.14Mbps up. It also took an impressive 1 minute and 49 seconds to download the 44.22MB game Temple Run 2. As for Web browsing, the mobile sites for CNET, The New York Times, and ESPN each took 6 seconds to load. The corresponding desktop site took 17, 15, and 8 seconds, respectively.

ZTE Sonata 4G Performance
Average 4G download speed 3.93Mpbs
Average 4G upload speed 1.14Mbps
App download (Temple Run 2) 4.22MB in 1 minute and 49 seconds
CNET mobile site load 6 seconds
CNET desktop site load 17 seconds
Power off and restart time 40 seconds
Camera boot time 2.02 seconds

Inside the handset is a 1.4GHz dual-core Snapdragon 400 processor. This will you give enough power to execute daily tasks like return to the homescreen, call up the keyboard, and flip through your app drawer. More complicated tasks were carried out without a hitch as well, but don't expect the phone to be blazing-fast. Though the graphics-intensive game Riptide GP 2 never force-quit or stuttered during my gameplay, I've seen smoother frame rates and graphics. On average, shutting off and restarting the Sonata 4G took 40 seconds, and launching the camera took about 2.02. Lastly, the device scored a 5,544 Quadrant score and its best multithread Linpack result was 269.867MFLOPs in 0.63 second.

ZTE Sonata 4G (benchmarks)
A few data speed scores for the Sonata 4G (left) and its Quadrant result. Lynn La/CNET

The 1,785mAh battery doesn't sound like much, but anecdotally it yielded enough power to last a full workday with mild usage. According to ZTE, it has a reported talk time of 5 hours and a standby time of 13 days. During our battery drain test, the phone lasted 8 hours and 2 minutes for continuous video playback. According to FCC radiation measurements, the phone has a digital SAR rating of 1.05W/kg.

You can't expect much from an $80 prepaid smartphone like the ZTE Sonata 4G. Owners won't play high-speed games, capture ultrasharp photos, or even use the latest version of Android.

On the other hand, they will get a reliable handset with decent 4G speeds that makes solid phone calls, and have some cash left over in the bank to boot.

But if you're not tied to the Android OS, you can consider the Nokia Lumia 620, which is also offered by Aio. The Windows Phone handset costs $80 as well, comes in a wide array of colors, and is equipped with a better 5-megapixel camera. In addition, if you can scrape up another $70, the highly customizable Moto G is an excellent Android 4.3 device, despite lacking LTE.

Otherwise, the only other prepaid phone I'd consider at that $80 price level is the LG Optimus F6 on MetroPCS. It has a larger 4.5-inch screen screen with a higher resolution and a sharper 5-megapixel camera, and does ZTE's handset one better by offering a faster form of 4G.

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