Released just a little more than a month ago, the Virgin Mobile Venture wants to be your first smartphone. In fact, Virgin's ad for the handset states that you should "Break into the world of Android-powered phones with the Venture by PCD."
As it turns out if you're ready to venture out (ha, see what I did there?) into new territory, this device may be a good starter kit. It starts you off slow as a smartphone user with a 2-megapixel camera, a few choice apps, and a 3G network for data.
On the other hand, it's slow in more regrettable ways, as well. Its sluggish processor will leave you hanging and its cramped keyboard that gets your fingers dying rather than flying. But if you get past these two less than stellar performance issues, or simply don't care about them because you're looking for something simple anyway, the handset is on sale at Virgin Mobile for $79.99.Design
The Virgin Mobile Venture is 4.7 inches tall, 2.3 inches wide, 0.49 inch thick, and weighs 4.3 ounces. Its build is very sturdy and it feels solid in the hand. I like that it's narrower than most current smartphones, because my thumb can easily navigate the touch screen when I'm holding it with one hand. It also makes it fit nicely in pockets of slim jeans.
On the left side is a Micro-USB charger port, and up top are the sleep/power key and a 3.5mm headphone jack. Though it bulges slightly above the rest of the device's surface, it's one of the smallest power keys I've seen, which makes it hard to find and press. To the left is a much more generously sized volume rocker.
The backside is made out of a smooth gray plastic that's coated with a matte texture. I have a certain affinity to this finish since it gives entry-level handsets like this one a more luxurious feel, and it keeps fingerprints off. Near the left-hand corner is a 2-megapixel camera, its accompanying flash, and an attractive little output grille for speaker audio.
Using a little indent at the bottom of the phone, you can pry about three-fourths of the backing off (the other quarter stays on the body of the device) to gain access to the 1,300mAh lithium battery and the expandable (up to 2GB) microSD card slot.
The QVGA 2.8-inch display has a resolution of 240x320 pixels. Though the screen is responsive -- I didn't run into any trouble swiping through different home screen pages, scrolling up and down the app drawer, or pinching in on maps -- the resolution is poor. Wallpaper images are heavily pixelated and gradient color effects looked especially streaky. Even a few menu icons didn't render well. The My Account app, for example, features a white fingerprint against a red background, but it just looks like a squiggly mess.
Below the screen are the four usual navigational buttons: home, menu, back, and search. Underneath those buttons is an onboard QWERTY keyboard. At first glance, the keyboard looked promising. The keys are matte, which is an aesthetic I already like, and each individual key (including the four navigational ones) bulges up in a way that resembles a softly jagged pyramid, instead of the usual "bubble" shape.
But given this unique and nifty shape, the buttons are just too damn small. Even for someone who has petite hands like me, texting was a real pain. I had to type with just the tips of my thumbs. If I laid one flat, I could enter about half the alphabet with one fell press. The biggest drag is that you have no choice but to type with this -- the Venture doesn't offer a touch-screen keyboard when texting or e-mailing.Features
The Virgin Mobile Venture runs on a 600MHz processor, which doesn't make it fast by any means. Although some basic tasks were carried out in a reasonable amount of time, such as changing the device from portrait to landscape mode and entering text, others executed with a noticeable amount of lag. I had to wait a hair of a second longer when waking the display up (the keyboard actually lights up first before the screen turns on after I press the sleep/power button), opening the camera app, or returning to home screen.
The handset runs Android 2.3 Gingerbread and is preloaded with some Google apps, including Books, Gmail, Latitude, Search, Maps with Navigation, Places, Talk, Play Store, and YouTube.
Basic tasks management apps include a Web browser, a calculator, a calendar, a clock with alarm functions, a memo pad, Bluetooth 3.0, Bluetooth 3.0, a sound recorder, a voice dialer, and e-mail, texting, and music-playing capabilities.
Other preloaded apps include Battery Saver, which lets you customize battery use to conserve energy; MyAccount, so you can check your phone and data plan; a mobile office suite called OfficeSuite; Traffic Manager, a program that lets you check the length of your calls and number of texts; and TouchPal Input, the keyboard and texting customization app. The Venture also is equipped with Mobile ID, which lets you customize your four home screen pages with certain preselected apps, widgets, and other items depending on which ID profile you choose.
For example, if you select the E! Entertainment package, you'll get apps and widgets pertaining to the celebrity and entertainment news channel. You can also choose a Green package, which includes tools 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 those apps manually. I don't like that Mobile ID is so integral to the device. You can't remove the function from the home screen's dashboard, so the only choice you have is just to ignore it. Right now, there are five available packs online.
When you first power the handset on, you're automatically prompted to download one of the five available packs named, The Essentials. Though you can cancel the download, you have to manually go into the Mobile ID app and intercept the download process.
Don't get me wrong, the apps packed in this ID pack are useful. You get Facebook, Twitter, a music-streaming app called Virgin Mobile Live, the news app BuzzFeed, Wikipedia, Pandora, Yelp, and a random tuning-fork app. But because all these apps start downloading right at startup, it made me wonder why Virgin didn't just preload these features natively before the product shipped.
The 2-megapixel camera comes with a few editing features, including a 4x digital zoom, flash, geotagging, and five white balance modes (auto, incandescent, daylight, fluorescent, and cloudy). There are also two scene modes (auto, night); two photo sizes (either one or two megapixels); six photo qualities; four color effects (none, mono, sepia, negative); and three antibanding choices (auto, 60Hz, 50Hz).
The video recorder has similar offerings, such as the same color effects and white balance options. There is no zooming or autofocus, but there are five different shooting modes (high, low, MMS for sending videos, YouTube mode for posting videos, and custom). Custom lets you pick out the quality, video and audio encoder, and duration of each video you shoot.Performance
I tested the Virgin Mobile Venturein San Francisco, which runs on Sprint's 3G network. Both signal and call quality were perfectly adequate. I didn't experience any dropped calls, extraneous buzzing, or audio clipping in and out, and voices sounded pretty clear. Calls taken outdoors were a little harder to make out. Increasing the volume helped a bit, but be careful. Sometimes voices got immediately too loud and sharp, and I had to turn the volume down quickly. My friends reported that they could hear me fine, though one said to me that I sounded "distant" -- as if I put her on speakerphone and stepped back. However, she was able to hear and understand everything I was saying.
The output speakerphone quality performed much better. Calls still sounded decent, but music from Virgin's streaming service played loudly. There were instances, though, when songs or dialogue sounded too harsh or sharp, probably due to the fact that the max volume level can be very loud, but they were easy to understand nonetheless.
Listen now: Virgin Mobile Venture call quality sample
The 2-megapixel camera's photo quality was understandably mediocre. Shutter speed was incredibly slow, and the time it took to save each photo after it was taken was a drag. In addition, with such a low-megapixel resolution, photos taken indoors looked grainy and incredibly dull. Colors bled together and the edges of objects did not look refined. Taking photos in an outdoor setting with plenty of natural light improved photo quality somewhat. Colors were a bit more vivid, though not as rich as in real life. Objects still retained blurry outlines, unfortunately.
Video quality was also subpar. Feedback lagged behind my moving of the camera. Objects were extremely blurry, even if I panned the camera as slowly as I could. White balancing also took some time to adjust -- people's skin color would be wonky (sometimes even orange) under certain lighting. After a few seconds, the color tones would finally correct.
The dual-band (850, 1900) Venture runs on Sprint's EV-DO technology and clocked in some solid times for a 3G handset, even faster than another Virgin Mobile 3G device, the LG Optimus Slider. Loading the CNET mobile site, for example, took an average of 16 seconds, while loading our full site took 51 seconds. The New York Times full site took slightly shorter on average, clocking in at 32 seconds, and its mobile site took a mere 9 seconds to load. Ookla's Speedtest 2.99MB app, which took just 42 seconds to download and install, showed me an average of 0.8Mbps down and 0.87Mbps up.
Although I haven't finished our battery drain tests, the phone's reported talk time is 4 hours. Anecdotally, it had a decent battery life. After spending about hours surfing the Web, speaking with my friends, and listening to music, the handset still had about a third of its juice left. And when inactive but powered on overnight, the battery wouldn't drain. However, a lot of other customers have experienced poor battery life, so that's something to keep in mind. According to FCC radiation tests, the device has a digital SAR rating of 1.17W/kg.Conclusion
The Virgin Mobile Venture is a respectable entry-level handset if you're just starting to dip your toe into smartphone territory. Though camera quality and processing speeds are nothing to write home about (its specs are simply too low to impress anyone -- the former produces grainy photos and the latter makes for a sluggish user experience), the device makes decent calls and has a solid data connection.
In addition to that, though I had plenty of gripes about its poorly designed keyboard, the rest of its build is easy to handle. And with the reasonable price tag of just $79.99, it's safe to say that starting off with the Venture won't be too great of a risk to take.