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

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MSRP: $99.99

The Good The Sprint Vital/Virgin Mobile Supreme 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.

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7.0 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 7
  • Performance 7

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.

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.

Editors' note: This review was updated on October 9, 2013, to include analysis of the prepaid version of the Vital, known as the Virgin Mobile Supreme.

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.

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.