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Sprint Vital review: Though ZTE's best, not quite good enough

The high-end Sprint Vital (also known as the Virgin Mobile Awe) from ZTE is a 5-inch dual-core handset with Android Jelly Bean, a 13-megapixel camera, and 4G LTE.

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Lynn La
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Lynn La

Senior Editor / Reviews - Phones

Lynn La covers mobile reviews and news. She previously wrote for The Sacramento Bee, Macworld and The Global Post.

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7 min read

Packing a 13-megapixel camera, a dual-core processor, and an expansive 5-inch HD screen, the Sprint Vital (also known as the Virgin Mobile Supreme) joins the ranks of the Warp Sequent and Sprint Flash as high-end phones from Chinese manufacturer ZTE.

Sprint_Vital_35782636-1358.jpg
7.0

Sprint Vital

The Good

The <b>Sprint Vital/Virgin Mobile Supreme</b> has a big, bright 5-inch screen, a decent 13-megapixel camera, and a competitively low price tag.

The Bad

The Vital comes with a lot of bloatware, the home button can be unresponsive, and call quality is mediocre.

The Bottom Line

While the Sprint Vital is ZTE's best handset to date, the HTC One outshines it by miles for the same price.

With its release, the Vital is unquestionably the best handset that ZTE has put out in the U.S. market. Compared to the other two, it shows marked improvements in both processing speeds and camera quality.

That'd be fine if ZTE were only competing with itself. And on Virgin Mobile, the handset is actually a good value. But unfortunately, as much as I like the phone and what it means for ZTE, it isn't the best phone that Sprint has to offer. Especially when one considers the excellent handsets that other phone manufacturers produce at nearly the same price.

Design
Thin but sturdy, the Sprint Vital features a higher build-quality than the average ZTE device that comes down the pipeline. Though the familiar black rectangular design isn't compelling, the handset is a step up for the manufacturer and feels a bit more distinguished and deliberate.

The phone measures 5.59 inches tall, 2.8 inches wide, and 0.39-inch thick. Weighing in at 5.44 ounces, the Vital isn't very heavy for a device its size. For example, the midlevel 4-inch Engage LT, also from ZTE, weighs 5.09 ounces and is something that I'd consider too hefty. This handset's weight, however, feels appropriate, and while it's physically too big to fit nicely in my jeans pockets, it still feels comfortable in the palm and can be easily maneuverable with one hand.

Sprint Vital
The subtle blue battery cover on the Vital is a nice touch. Josh Miller/CNET

Its left edge houses a Micro-USB port and two buttons for volume up and down. Up top are a 3.5mm headphone jack and a sleep/power button. On the right is a shortcut key to launch the camera. The button itself feels a little flimsy, like if I really wanted to, I could scratch it right off. In addition, it's difficult to tell whether or not I'm pressing it hard enough because I can feel two levels of "clicks" when I depress it.

The battery door has a subtle blue tint to it when held in the light, and has a smooth, matte, rubber-like finish that I find pleasing to the eye. There is a quarter-size bulged in the phone's rear for the camera and flash. Though I'm not too fond of this bump, since it prevents the Vital from lying flat on its back, it's not that much of an eyesore. Below it are two small slits for the audio speaker. Using an indent on the bottom left corner, you can pry the plate off to access the device's battery, microSD card slot (which is expandable up to 64GB), and SIM card.

The 5-inch HD display has the same 1,280x720-pixel resolution as the Sprint Flash, and is one of the better screens I've seen on a ZTE device. It's adequately sensitive and responsive to the touch. Texting messages with swipe is a breeze (especially with all that screen real estate). In addition, the handset has a wide viewing angle and can easily be viewed in sunlight. The screen is also bright, and graphics look vivid and radiant. Text and menu icons are crisp, and watching HQ videos on YouTube appeared sharp.

Below the screen are three hot keys (back, home, and menu) that light up white when in use.

Checking for Sprint Vital signs (pictures)

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Software and features
The phone operates on Android 4.1.2 and runs a rather pure version of Jelly Bean that I prefer over most manufacturer UIs. One interesting feature is that sometimes when you hold down the home button, your recent apps pop up, and in the bottom left corner, you can kill all current tasks. (I say "sometimes" because honestly, on occasion when you do this, absolutely nothing happens -- and yes, this gets annoying.) Usually in 4.1. devices, holding down the home button activates Google's integrated search and voice service, Now. But with the Vital, you can launch Now by tapping the small magnifying glass in the right corner after long-pressing the home key.

Along with Now, you'll get all your other Google apps like Chrome, Gmail, Plus, Maps with Navigation and Local, Messenger, access to multiple Play portals (Books, Magazines, Movies and TV, Music, and Store), Talk, and YouTube.

Sprint loaded in three of its own apps as well: one is a streaming television and movie app, then there's Sprint Zone, where you can check your account balance and carrier promos, and lastly, Sprint ID.

The Vital's 13-megapixel camera comes with a number of photo-editing options. Josh Miller/CNET

Sprint ID 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 40 packs available. You can remove the Mobile ID app from the home screen's dashboard if you so choose.

As for Virgin Mobile, it included two other apps: MyAccount, which lets you check your phone and data plan, and the Feed, a news app that aggregates pop-culture and music news. The carrier also preloaded its version of Mobile ID. When you first start up the smartphone, "The Essentials" package is already loaded, and you'll find shortcuts on your home pages to download more Virgin Mobile apps and apps like Wikipedia and Pandora. Keep in mind that these are shortcuts, which prompts you to download these apps in the Play Store, and not the actual apps themselves.

Basic task managing apps include an alarm; a native browser and e-mail clients; a calculator; a calendar; Lookout Security, which backs up and secures your data and has a "find my phone" feature; an app that lets you beam media files from your phone to other devices like TVs and desktop computers; Mi-POP, which overlays floating hot keys for back, home, menu, and recent apps, onto your screen; music and video players; a news and weather app; a battery and location-pinning app called Qualcomm Enhanced; the Real Racing 3 game; a sound recorder; a timer; a voice dialer; voice search; and a world clock.

There are also a handful of other apps, like CBS Sports and the GPS navigator Scout, which aren't fully installed. Rather, they open their Google Play download pages when you tap them. Though I like apps as much as the next person, having all this bloatware already on your handset is pretty annoying. True, you can always uninstall these apps and icons, but it's a minor frustration that I'd rather not deal with.

Additional features include 1GB of RAM and 8GB of internal memory.

Camera and video
The phone's 13-megapixel camera comes with a bounty of editing options. These include digital zoom; 11 Instagram-esque filters; seven shooting modes like macro zoom, HDR, and panorama; a timer; burst shot; three interval modes (ranging from 18 photos in 90 seconds to 6 photos in 30); four face modes that can detect things like smiles and blinks; three meters to adjust exposure, contrast, and saturation; four ISO options (from 100 to 400); geotagging; three shutter tones; composition lines; five white-balances; 10 photo sizes (from 640x480-pixels to 4,160x3,120); three photo qualities; and three antibanding options.

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, antiband, 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.

Sprint Vital - outdoor
In this outdoor photo, the fruit pieces are in sharp, in focus, and frankly delicious. Lynn La/CNET
Sprint Vital - outdoor zoom
Though the flower petals are well-defined, the colors are a little over saturated. Lynn La/CNET
Sprint Vital - indoor
Despite activating macro zoom, the camera still couldn't focus on this succulent. Lynn La/CNET
Sprint Vital - SSI
In our standard studio shot, an unpleasant blue flash appears on the background. Josh Miller/CNET

Photo quality was great, and compared to the Flash, the Vital showed a marked improvement in color rendering. In general, colors were accurate and didn't blow out, images were sharp and in focus, and the camera's speed was good. However, the camera does have some trouble focusing on objects close to it, even when macro zoom is activated. Furthermore, the flash overcasts a noticeable blue hue. Other than that, however, the camera has respectable photo quality.

For the most part, video recording was decent as well. Both moving and still objects were in focus, and colors were true to life. During recording, I did find that the camera had some difficulty with touch focus. Namely, it's better at keeping things in the foreground in focus than objects in the background. All in all though, the camera is fast, and I didn't notice much lag during video or after clicking the shutter.

Performance
I tested the Sprint Vital in our offices in San Francisco. Though calls didn't drop and my conversations didn't cut in and out, audio clarity could have been better. Voices sounded muffled and static-y, and maximum volume could stand to be a bit louder. I was also told that I sounded tinny during phone calls. Speaker quality was adequate, but not particularly impressive. Though I could hear everything that was being said, voices came off hollow and thin.

Calls made on the Virgin Mobile Supreme yielded similar results. I could hear the other line perfectly fine, but every time my friend spoke, her words sounded rough. Again, aximum volume could have been a little louder, and I was told that I too sounded muffled and scratchy. However, while I was told this static was notable, it wasn't overly distracting. Speaker quality also sounded sharp, but overall, conversations were easy to understand.

Sprint Vital (Sprint) call quality sample

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Virgin Mobile Supreme call quality sample

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Because I couldn't consistently get 4G speeds from Sprint in San Francisco (and in turn Virgin Mobile too, since it runs on Sprint's network) I defaulted to 3G. On average, the device loaded CNET's mobile site in 20 seconds and our desktop site in 30 seconds. The New York Times mobile site took about 12 seconds, while its desktop version took 42. ESPN's mobile site took 19 seconds, and its full site loaded in 22 seconds. Ookla's Speedtest app showed me an average of 0.25Mbps down and 0.71Mbps up. It also took 22 minutes and 30 seconds to download the 31.93MB game Temple Run 2.

Sprint Vital/Virgin Mobile Supreme Performance
Average 3G download speed 0.25Mbps/0.43Mbps
Average 3G upload speed 0.71Mbps/0.91Mbps
App download (Temple Run 2) 22 mins., 30 sec./10 minutes
CNET mobile site load 20 sec./13 sec.
CNET desktop site load 30 sec./23 sec.
Power-off and restart time 38 seconds/--
Camera boot time 2.45 seconds/--

Data speeds on Virgin Mobile were notably faster. On average, it took the Supreme 13 and 23 seconds to load CNET's mobile and desktop site, respectively. The New York Times mobile site took 8 seconds to load and its full site took 28. ESPN mobile loaded in 12 seconds and its full site loaded in 17. It took 10 minutes for Temple Run 2 to download and install, and Ookla's speed test app showed an average of 0.43MBps down and 0.91Mbps up.

The handset is powered by a 1.5GHz dual-core processor. Though it carried out simple tasks smoothly enough, such as browsing through the app drawer, unlocking the home screen, and quitting apps, there were a few instances when I noticed the phone lagged just a bit. For instance, the camera took just a few hairs longer than I'd like to launch after I pressed the shortcut key. (On a related note, when I launched the camera by tapping the icon, it took an average of 2.45 seconds to open.) On the whole however, the Vital operated consistently and reliably. When I played the graphics-intense game Riptide GP, the app didn't stutter or quit, and images played smoothly with adequately high frame-rates. It took about 38 seconds for the phone to restart altogether.

The device is powered by a 2,500mAh battery, which has a reported talk-time of 15 hours. During our battery drain test, the phone lasted exactly 8 hours for video play back. Anecdotally the phone has a good battery life. With medium usage, including surfing the Web, making a handful of short phone calls, and taking photos, it would definitely last through the work day without charging. According to FCC radiation standards, the Vital has a digital SAR rating of 1.38W/kg and the Supreme has a rating of 1.38W/kg.

Conclusion
The Sprint Vital (or Virgin Mobile Supreme) has plenty of things going for it, and as far as ZTE is concerned, it is the best U.S. handset they've put out so far. I am particularly impressed with its responsive 5-inch screen and the marked improvements with the camera quality. And at $249.99 prepaid, it's a good deal for Virgin Mobile customers. Especially when considering that last season's Samsung Galaxy S3 is still $100 more than the Supreme, this ZTE device is a decent value.

However, if you're a Sprint user, for $50 more, you can also get the Samsung GS4, which is the most powerful Android phone available. If you don't feel like spending more, the carrier also offers the HTC One for the same $99.99 price. It's a fantastic flagship device that's not only gorgeous, it also boasts a fast quad-core processor and a 1080p screen. True, it's screen is a bit smaller and you can't remove the battery, but when compared to the Vital, it's the better phone by far.

Sprint_Vital_35782636-1358.jpg
7.0

Sprint Vital

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 7
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