When I heard that Sprint's latest ZTE handset would have a 12-megapixel camera, I was interested but naturally skeptical.
Though megapixels get a lot of attention, you also have to consider a camera's sensors and image processor. This is why cameras with higher megapixels don't necessarily do better than lower-resolution shooters. Unfortunately, the Sprint Flash is no exception.
Despite the plethora of editing features, photo quality was poor. And even worse, I found the Flash's processor achingly slow and call quality was disappointing. The device is $130, but frankly, that's too high, since better (and sometimes, even cheaper) options are available in Sprint's lineup.
Though physically bigger, the Sprint Flash is most comparable to the Chinese manufacturer's other fairly high-end device, the ZTE Warp Sequent. And save for the chrome-colored edges, in shape it closely resembles the LG Nexus 4.
The handset measures 5.27 inches tall, 2.59 inches wide, and 0.38 inch thick, and weighs a hefty 0.33 pound. Though it's comfortable enough to hold in the hand, its top half is significantly heavier due to the camera's bulk, making it weigh unevenly. And if your jeans have small pockets, expect a snug fit.
On the left are a Micro-USB port and two buttons for increasing and decreasing volume. Up top are a sleep/power button and a 3.5mm headphone jack. On the right is a shortcut key that launches the camera.
The dimpled back plate is coated in a matte black material that keeps fingerprints off and lends it extra friction against smooth surfaces. As previously mentioned, the top half is thicker than the rest of the phone since it houses the 12-megapixel camera and LED flash. At the bottom left are two small slits for the audio speaker and in the right bottom corner is an indentation you can use to pry the plate off. Inside, you can access the 1,780mAh battery.
The 4.5-inch HD display has a 1,280x720-pixel resolution. Because it's not, for example, a True HD IPS touch screen, it's not as bright or vivid as the screen on the LG Spectrum 2, which has the same resolution. However, text and icons are crisp. But for whatever reason, icons on the lock screen aren't as sharp, and I noticed aliasing around the edges. Videos like HQ YouTube clips looked good and the screen has a respectably wide viewing angle.
Above the display are a 1-megapixel front-facing camera and a speaker. Below is nothing but bezel -- instead, three hot keys for back, home, and recent apps appear on the touch screen itself. Though these do disappear when watching videos or games, overall, having onscreen hot keys makes the screen feel smaller.
Software features and OS
The Sprint Flash ships natively with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. Aside from a handful of extra apps (which we'll touch on later), the device offers a nearly unsullied ICS experience that I'm fond of. Anyone who wants a vanilla Android OS will definitely appreciate the handset's lack of bloatware or overlaid UI, even though it's not as bare-bones as a Nexus.
The Flash comes with the usual slew of Google apps, including Chrome, Gmail, Plus, Latitude, Local, Maps with Navigation, Messenger, access to Play Books, Magazines, Movies and TV, Music, and Store, Search, Talk, and YouTube.
Basic apps are loaded as well, such as a clock with alarm functions, a native browser, e-mail, music and video players, a calendar, a battery and location-pinning app called Qualcomm Enhanced Location Service, a news and weather app, a timer, a sound recorder, and a voice dialer.
Sprint included two of its own apps. One is Sprint Zone, a help portal through which you can check your phone balance and fees.
The other is Sprint ID, which allows you to customize your phone with preselected apps, widgets, and other items depending on which ID profile you choose. For example, if you select the E! package, you'll get E! apps and widgets pertaining to the celebrity news channel. You can also choose a Business Pro package, which includes tools intended to assist with business travel plans, financial investments, and backing up data.
Note that deleting a Mobile ID package won't uninstall the apps that you downloaded -- you'll have to remove those apps manually. So far, there are 42 available packs available. Unlike on most Boost devices, Mobile ID isn't so integral to the UI, and you can remove the Mobile ID app from the home screen's dashboard if you so choose.
Camera and video
The 12-megapixel camera includes tons of features, more than I've ever seen on any ZTE handset. It has a flash, touch and autofocus, a zooming meter, geotagging, composition lines, a timer, and five burst-mode options. In addition, there are six shooting modes that include macro and panoramic shooting, 11 Instagram-like filters, three anti-band options, three picture qualities, 10 picture sizes (ranging from 640x480 pixels to 4,000x3,000 pixels), three shutter tones, six ISO choices, five white balances, four image settings that let you adjust the exposure, contrast, saturation, and sharpness of a photo, four face modes that detect smiles, blinks, or red-eye, and five shutter interval modes (such as taking 6 pictures in 20 seconds or 24 pictures in 2 minutes).
For video recording there are far fewer options. Only the zoom, flash, geotagging, and white-balance features are retained. However, you can choose from five video qualities (ranging from MMS video to 1080p) and there is a time-lapse mode.
The front-facing camera features the same zoom, anti-band, picture quality, composition lines, tones, geotagging, ISO, and white-balance options, with two picture sizes (640x480 pixels to 1,280x720 pixels). Recording includes four video sizes (MMS to 720p), and the same time-lapse, white-balance, geotagging, and zoom choices.
Unfortunately, even with the 12-megapixel spec and all the features, the photo quality was subpar. Oftentimes, bright colors like the red of a flower petal or the blue of an ornament looked washed-out. These colors would contrast oddly, and in the end, the pictures ended up with a look suggestive of thermal vision. Zooming in on objects closely was also difficult. No matter how many times I patiently retook the photo, objects ended up blurry. Switching to macro zoom didn't help either. And, finally, the camera itself operates slowly. There is a long lag after clicking the shutter and waiting for the camera to take the next photo.
I tested the Sprint Flash in our San Francisco office. Call quality was mediocre. Though volume levels were adequate, my friends sounded muffled, as if speaking through a thin cloth. In addition, I kept hearing a high but subtle buzzing sound every time my friends spoke. My friends told me that I sounded muffled as well; one said I sounded far away. Speaker quality wasn't spectacular either. When I played music or videos, audio sounded flat and tinny.
Listen now: Sprint Flash Sequent call quality sample
Because we can't get Sprint's 4G LTE network in San Francisco, we tested its 3G network instead. On average, the device loaded CNET's mobile site in 44 seconds and our desktop site in 55 seconds. The New York Times mobile site took about 19 seconds, while its desktop version took 50. ESPN's mobile site took 31 seconds, and its full site loaded in 1 minute and 3 seconds. Ookla's Speedtest app showed me an average of 0.12Mbps down and 0.46Mbps up. It also took a whopping 11 minutes to download the 23.32MB game Temple Run.
|Average 3G download speed||0.12Mpbs|
|Average 3G upload speed||0.46Mbps|
|App download (Temple Run)||22MB in 11 minutes|
|CNET mobile site load||44 seconds|
|CNET desktop site load||55 seconds|
|Power-off and restart time||40 seconds|
|Camera boot time||3.31 seconds|
The handset is powered by a 1.5GHz dual-core processor. While simple tasks, like thumbing through the five home screens and browsing through the app drawer, were performed smoothly, other (perhaps more complicated) actions felt laggy. As I mentioned before, clicking the shutter took a notable amount of time and switching from landscape to portrait mode took a few seconds longer than I'm used to. Launching the camera, which on average took 3.31 seconds, also felt slow, and it took about 40 seconds to reboot the phone.
The device has a reported talk time of 8 hours. During our battery drain test for video playback, it lasted 7.57 hours. Anecdotally, I found it had decent battery life. With light use, it can survive a workday without a charge, but if you're going to talk on the phone or browse the Web for a few hours then expect it to need some juice throughout the day. According to FCC radiation standards, the device has a digital SAR rating of 0.78W/kg.
Other than the Sprint Flash's support for 4G LTE and its minimalist UI, the device doesn't have much going for it. Its laggy internal speeds make old flagship handsets like the Galaxy Nexus and the HTC Evo 4G LTE (both of which are $99) look more appealing.
And if you can spare an extra $70, your choices get even better. You can get the same 4G LTE speeds, but a faster processor, higher-quality screen, and better camera with the LG Optimus G, Samsung Galaxy S3, and Motorola Photon Q 4G LTE.
True, the Flash isn't exactly comparable to these top-notch phones, but it does promise a powerful 12-megapixel camera. And while I do admire the ambition, the fact that the camera fails to deliver just shows once more how ZTE isn't ready for prime time (I said that about its Warp Sequent and I'll say it here again). My advice for ZTE would be to give me a reliable phone with a great 8-megapixel (or even 5-!) camera rather than a poor 12-megapixel camera.