We haven't seen a ZTE cell phone for MetroPCS for some time, and the last phone that the Chinese manufacturer produced was the Salute, a vertical slider for Verizon. The ZTE Agent (also known as the ZTE-C E520) returns ZTE to its U.S. roots, making entry-level cell phones meant for talking, with a few additional features. As a prepaid phone, the Agent is fairly priced at $69; however, the design, features, and call quality all leave much to be desired. There are better basic cell phones in MetroPCS' lineup that we would recommend first for the same ballpark price, like the Samsung Freeform II or LG Helix.
Tall and very narrow, the ZTE Agent measures 4.3 inches high by 1.9 inches wide by 0.6 inch thick. It's predominantly black, with a bright silver bezel that will keep the existence of this Agent not so secret. You'll have no problem slipping it into pockets and bags; apart from its slimness, the Agent has an unremarkable physique. Thanks to a finger-friendly, soft-touch back cover, it feels good in the hand, and we had no complaints when holding it up to our ear.
To ZTE's credit, the 2.4-inch display makes up about half the phone's real estate. The colors are fairly sharp and bright, though the otherwise attractive menu design makes resolution appear duller on some screens. Soft keys control the menu and camcorder. Press the central Select button to cycle through MetroPCS' typical list of preloaded apps--but more on those later.
Below the screen are those two aforementioned soft keys, a dedicated music player button, and a Back button. The Talk and End keys rise above the phone's surface in tall, narrow strips on either side of the navigation array. At the center is a circular direction toggle with a central Select button. We steered around just fine, but found the toggle a tad too small to be comfortable--it's more petite than the pad of our relatively small thumb.
Despite the Agent's rather constricted navigation buttons, the backlit dialpad is spacious enough, with keys that are separated like scales so that you can easily dial by feel. A camera shutter button and a Micro-USB charging port live on the right spine; the left is home to the volume rocker. A 3.5-millimeter headset jack resides up top, and a 1.3-megapixel camera lens is on the back. Below the back cover is the unmarked microSD card slot. This one, like many found on entry-level phones, accepts storage cards of up to 16GB.
For contacts, there's room for multiple phone numbers, an e-mail address, a group number, and a note in the Agent's 500-entry address book. While you can customize a contact with one of 22 polyphonic ringtones (or turn the phone to vibrate), you can't attach a photo for caller ID, not even after snapping a picture.
You'll find mostly basic features in the entry-level Agent. In addition to texting and multimedia messaging, there's a calendar, an alarm clock, a calculator and a tip calculator, a world clock, a voice memo, and a unit converter. You can also switch on airplane mode. More advanced features include Bluetooth, GPS, the MetroWeb browser, and a camcorder.
MetroPCS has also preloaded some apps on the phone, such as Handmark's Pocket Express portal app, the Loopt social networking app, and a mobile IM app. There's also the typical slew of MetroPCS-branded apps, like MetroBackup, Mail@Metro, the MyMetro account management app, MetroNavigator, and Metro411.
If you install your own microSD card, you can use the built-in music player. Controls are pretty simple, but the module looks fairly attractive and easy to use, taking advantage of the phone's circular toggle as a hardware control. There's support for playlists, shuffle, and repeat. There's also an equalizer and a visualizer, both nice touches.
The camera photos are about what we expect for a 1.3-megapixel phone without a flash--a bit noisy and dull, and better snapped in sunlight than in the dark. Settings control six resolutions (1,280x960, 1,024x768, 640x480, 320x240, 176x144, 160x120), the brightness, contrast, five white balance settings, and four color effects. You can also adjust the photo quality and shutter sound.
The camcorder settings are similar to the camera settings, with the addition of being able to limit videos for MMS attachments, between 20 and 30 seconds. Video quality looked marginally better on playback than it did through the viewfinder, though movement still looked jerky and blurry. The Agent has 160MB internal memory.
We tested the dual-band (CDMA 800/1900MHz) in San Francisco using the MetroPCS service. Call volume was a little low on our end, but corrected once we ratcheted up the volume. Clarity was disturbed by episodes of white noise, blips, and background echoes, though voices seemed true enough and the conversational flow was unbroken. Our callers weren't so lucky. They called the Agent's audio unpleasant to listen to, reporting that the high frequencies were cut off and made us sound like we were speaking from "within a sewer." Volumes were excessively high for our friends, which often led to distortion at higher pitches.
Speakerphone quality was quite decent on our end, and reasonably loud. Our friends pronounced it OK as well, but described it as being more of the same.
The Agent has a rated battery life of 6 hours with a standby time of 8.75 days. It has a tested talk time of 6 hours and 3 minutes. According to FCC radiation tests, the Agent has a digital SAR of 0.56 watts/kilogram.