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Virgin Mobile Awe review: Slow on speed, high on value

The 3G-only Virgin Mobile Awe may not be a smartphone powerhouse, but at $100 off-contract, it's good for those on a budget.

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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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5 min read

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The Virgin Mobile Awe is slow and has a poor camera, but don't completely write off the device just yet.

Virgin_Mobile_Awe_35827530-1526.jpg
6.3

Virgin Mobile Awe

The Good

The <b>Virgin Mobile Awe</b> is cheap, clocked in respectable 3G data speeds, and has decent call quality.

The Bad

The handset has a poor 5-megapixel camera and a sluggish processor.

The Bottom Line

If you're in need of a low-cost prepaid phone, the Awe will satisfy, but if you want a quick-moving phone, move on.

For one thing, it has solid call quality, and consistent, respectable 3G speeds. But perhaps the device's saving grace is its rock-bottom price.

Currently going for $89.99 but initially released with a $99.99 price tag, the Awe is a good deal for what it is. And while you can get a better handset if you're willing to spend a bit more, the Awe is a good choice for those who are mindful of every dollar.

Design
Compact and lightweight, the Awe looks like most entry-level Android devices. It has rounded corners, edges that slightly curve outward, and a wide bezel. At 4.96 inches tall, 2.56 inches wide, 0.41 inch thick, and weighing 4.4 ounces, it's comfortable to maneuver with one hand and it slips easily in jean pockets.

On the left edge are two bulbous buttons to adjust volume and a Micro-USB port, and up top are a 3.5mm headphone jack and sleep/power button. The right edge houses a convenient shortcut key to launch the camera.

Virgin Mobile Awe (battery door)
The Awe's iridescent battery door is adorned with ridges. Josh Miller/CNET

The battery door is styled with curving lines and ridges that you can feel. Gray with a matte rubbery coating, the back is iridescent, but it won't trap fingerprints. You'll see the 5-megapixel camera with its LED flash to the left, and two small slits at the bottom for the speaker. You can pry off the cover using a small indentation on the bottom right corner. Located underneath is a 1,650mAh battery and a microSD card slot that's expandable up to 32GB.

The 4-inch IPS touch screen has a 480x800-pixel resolution. The display is responsive to my swipes and taps, and menu icons and texts appear clear. However, because of the low resolution, high-definition images don't look very crisp, and even some default wallpaper images looked "crunchy" or grainy. Moreover, it has a narrow viewing angle, which gets even more difficult to view outdoors in sunlight.

Above the display is a 1-megapixel front-facing camera, and below are three hot keys (back, home, and menu) that light up white when in use. When you long-press the home key, you can call up recent apps or launch Google Now.

The $100 Virgin Mobile Awe (pictures)

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Software features
The handset runs Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean, and you'll get a number of Google apps including Chrome, G+ Photos, Gmail, Search, Plus, Hangouts, Maps, access to the Play store's Books, Magazines, Movies and TV, and Music portals, and YouTube.

It also comes with basic task managing apps like an alarm clock, native e-mail and Web browser clients, a calculator, a calendar, a music player, a news and weather app, a sound recorder, a timer, a video player, a voice dialer, and a world time clock. Two other, more uncommon apps are Qualcomm Enhanced and TouchPal X. The former is a location service app, while the latter is an optional keyboard and text inserting function you can activate.

Virgin Mobile preloaded three of its own apps as well. One is MyAccount, which lets you check your phone and data plan, and the other is the Feed, a news app that aggregates pop-culture and music news.

Virgin Mobile Awe (screenshots)
Virgin Mobile apps include MyAccount (left) and a news app called the Feed. Lynn La/CNET

The last one is Mobile ID, which lets you download preselected apps, wallpapers, and other items depending on which ID profile you choose. For example, the Green package includes tools intended to help you lead a more eco-friendly lifestyle. Just note that deleting a Mobile ID package won't uninstall the apps that you downloaded-- you'll have to remove them manually.

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.

Additional features include Bluetooth 4.0, 4GB of ROM, and 1GB of RAM.

Camera and video
Photo quality for the 5-megapixel camera was adequate, but unimpressive. For instance, it's slow to start up, to focus, and to take subsequent shots. Even after you hold the Awe still for a few seconds when taking a picture to prevent motion blur, photos manage to look a bit hazy and colors look muted. You'll also see a notable amount of graininess and digital noise, especially in dimmer lighting. Check out photos from the Awe below and note that you can click on each picture to enlarge them.

Both the 5-megapixel and front-facing cameras have autofocus, digital zoom, five white-balance options, five ISO levels (from 100 to 800), geotagging, compositional grid lines, three photo qualities, and three antibanding options. However, the rear camera can shoot in six photo sizes (from 640x480 to 2,592x1,944 pixels), while the 1-megapixel camera can only shoot in two (from 640x480 to 1,280x720 pixels).

Furthermore, the 5-megapixel camera has touch focus, a flash, 11 Instagram-esque photo filters, 17 shooting modes (like HDR and panorama), a timer, burst shot, and five interval shooting modes. It also has four face detection options, and separate meters to adjust for exposure, contrast, saturation, and sharpness.

Virgin Mobile Awe (outdoor)
In this outdoor photo, the fountain is in focus, but the tree on the left is blurry. Lynn La/CNET
Virgin Mobile Awe (outdoor 2)
Even with outdoor lighting, you can see a lot of digital noise. Lynn La/CNET
Virgin Mobile Awe (indoor)
In this well-lit indoor photo, objects like the chairs have fuzzy edges. Lynn La/CNET
Virgin Mobile Awe (SSI)
The flash casts a severe blue hue against our white backdrop in this standard studio shot. Josh Miller/CNET

Video options for both cameras include digital zoom, four video qualities (from MMS to 720p), time lapse, the same five white-balance options, and geo-tagging. Understandably, only the 5-megapixel camera includes continuous flash, and it also has touch focus.

Recording quality fared as unimpressive as the camera. Though audio picked up well and colors were true-to-life, the camera's constant refocusing resulted in footage that appeared to be "pulsating." Both moving and still objects looked patchy and indistinct, and details like people's faces (who were only a few feet away) were lost.

Performance
I tested the tri-band (CDMA 800/850/1900) device in our San Francisco offices. Call quality was good. None of my calls dropped, I didn't hear any buzzing or extraneous noises (even during times of absolute silence), and audio didn't clip in and out. In addition, volume was adequate and I had no trouble hearing my friend. However, voices did sound a bit staticky. I could hear a very subtle buzz while my friend spoke, though it wasn't overly distracting or annoying. Likewise, I was told that I could also be heard fine and clearly, but that it was obvious I was speaking on a cell phone given the slight static she heard as well.

Speakerphone fared a bit worse. Though I could make out what was being said, voices sounded tinny and harsh, as if being sharply pinched through the small speaker. This was especially apparent on high volume, so the effect did lessen as I lowered the volume level.

Virgin Mobile Awe call quality sample

Listen now:

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Because the handset runs on Sprint's 3G network, you're not going to get blazing-fast Internet speeds. However, the Awe clocked in consistent and respectable times for such a network. On average CNET's mobile site loaded in 20 seconds and our desktop site in 40 seconds. The New York Times' mobile site took about 12 seconds, while its desktop version took a minute and 40 seconds. ESPN's mobile and desktop sites took 23 and 30 seconds, respectively. Ookla's Speedtest app showed me an average of 0.16Mbps down and 0.54Mbps up. It took an average of 30 minutes to download the 35.01MB game Temple Run 2.

Virgin Mobile Awe Performance
Average 3G download speed 0.16Mbps
Average 3G upload speed 0.54Mbps
App download (Temple Run 2) 35.01MB in 30 minutes
CNET mobile site load 20 seconds
CNET desktop site load 40 seconds
Power-off and restart time 42 seconds
Camera boot time 2.09 seconds
Camera shoot-to-shoot time 1.67 seconds

The handset is powered by a 1.2GHz CPU. Though basic tasks like unlocking the screen, and transitioning to the home screen pages showed little lag, more complicated tasks took more time. For instance, switching the keyboard between portrait and landscape mode, opening up the browser, and clicking the camera's shutter (as previously mentioned) were laggy. Opening Temple Run 2 especially took a few seconds more than usual. On average, it took almost 42 seconds for the device to restart and about 2.09 seconds for the camera to fully launch.

The 1,650mAh battery has a reported talk time of 11 hours. During our battery drain test for video, the device lasted 7.78 continuous hours. Anecdotally, it provided a good amount of power, but don't expect it to last throughout the workday and into the night with heavy usage. According to FCC radiation measurements, the phone has a digital SAR rating of 0.79W/kg.

Conclusion
Given its sluggish processor and ho-hum camera, you do indeed "get what you pay for" with the Awe. However, at $100 off-contract, what you "get" is actually pretty satisfying. Especially considering that ultra-basic Virgin Mobile smartphones start off at $30 and rise upward to $400, like the Samsung Galaxy S3. Indeed, I'd recommend the Awe over the LG Optimus Elite (which is also the same price), due to the Awe's bigger screen and more recent OS.

But if you can fork over the extra cash, do so. The Samsung Galaxy Reverb is only $40 more and it has a great 5-megapixel camera and long battery life. In addition, the $149.99 LG Optimus F3 4G LTE has (you guessed it) 4G LTE data speeds and a better camera as well, making its higher price not only justifiable, but worth it.

Virgin_Mobile_Awe_35827530-1526.jpg
6.3

Virgin Mobile Awe

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 6Performance 7