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ZTE Altair (Aio Wireless) review: Cheap and easy to use, but meager on features

With a prepaid $50 price tag, Aio Wireless' Altair handset is for budget-conscious consumers looking for a compact messaging phone.

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.
Lynn La
5 min read

A compact messaging phone with a classic design, the ZTE Altair for Aio Wireless is a refreshing change from oversize, high-priced smartphones, especially if you're on a very tight budget.


ZTE Altair (Aio Wireless)

The Good

The competitively priced <b>ZTE Altair</b> has a straightforward interface, a physical keyboard for easy messaging, and clear in-ear call quality.

The Bad

The Altair's low-res screen is grainy, its camera is mediocre, and its 3G speeds and bare-bones browser delivers a limited Web experience.

The Bottom Line

Consider Aio's ZTE Altair if you need an inexpensive QWERTY phone, but if you want a typical smartphone experience, shop around.

At just $49.99 without a contract, it's not going to come with all the bells and whistles of a modern smartphone, especially considering it features a mere a 2-megapixel camera and 3G capabilities.

But, don't count this little guy out completely. The Altair's solid call quality, simple user interface, comfy portrait keyboard, and bargain price tag all do well for those in the market for a cheap, ultra-portable messaging handset.

Design Small and compact, the Altair measures 4.5 inches tall, 2.4 inches wide, and 0.4 inches thick. It weighs just 3.34 ounces, so you won't have any problem slipping it into your jean pockets or your bag. Its petite frame makes one-handed navigation a breeze, but due to the small size, I ran into some trouble keeping a good hold of the device between my face and my shoulder while chatting.

Since it's so narrow, you might expect the keyboard to feel tiny and cramped. Instead, I found it surprisingly roomy and easy to type with. I had no problems typing out my messages, dialing numbers, or navigating through menu items with the keys. It's important to keep in mind that even with the slightly domed keys (which do help with typing accuracy), those with larger hands or fingers may still find the buttons too cramped. Overall however, the buttons presses registered smoothly.

As for the keyboard itself, you'll get four rows of keys, along with four directional buttons and a center select key. There's also a green send button, a red power/end key, and two soft keys (for the left and right select). Lastly, there's a clear button and a "multitasking" key. This launches a small menu of your last used apps and tools.

ZTE Altair (keyboard)
Though small, the Altair's four-row keyboard is surprisingly manageable and comfortable. Josh Miller/CNET

On the left, there is a Micro-USB port for charging, and up top is a 3.5mm audio jack. The right edge houses the volume rocker and a convenient shortcut button that launches the camera. All the ports are sealed with small plastic doors that are attached to the body of the handset.

The back is made out of a matte, soft-touch rubber material that helps with grip and fends off oily fingerprints. It's decorated with a textured chevron insignia, which is a simple but nice touch. Users can find the 2-megapixel camera lens at the top left corner, and the audio speaker on the right. To access the microSD card slot (which is expandable up to 32GB), or the removable 1,000mAh battery, they'll need to push down on the bottom-half of the battery door and it slide it out.

The phone's 2.4-inch TFT LCD display has a low, 320x240-pixel resolution, meaning images will look grainy and texts will have ridged, aliasing edges. The screen could also stand to be a bit brighter and unfortunately, the longest time it can stay lit is just 30 seconds. In addition, the display has a narrow viewing angle; a slight tilt to either side can wash out the display completely, making it hard to read.

ZTE's wallet-friendly Altair messaging handset (pictures)

See all photos

Software features
Since the Altair isn't a smartphone, its software collection is more limited. It's also important to keep in mind that this device is only data-enabled, and has no Wi-Fi capabilities. However, you'll still get all the basics that you need for to make calls, send messages, and a few other tasks as well.

When you're on the home screen and press the center select key, you'll be taken to a menu with 12 icons. There you can access your recent calls, texts, e-mails, the web browser, your address book, and calendar. You can also launch your photos and videos, the music player (which enables you to organize your music by artist, album, and genre), the file manager, and your settings menu.

In addition, once you select and open the tools icon, you can access a handful of other features. This includes a notepad, a calculator, an alarm, and a stopwatch. There's also a world time tool, a unit converter, and a voice recorder. The last item is a folder that serves as a home for all your downloaded games and apps.

Users will also receive 256MB of ROM, 128MB of RAM, and Bluetooth 2.1.

ZTE Altair (usage)
The handset's minimalistic user interface make it extremely easy to navigate. Josh Miller/CNET

Camera and video Understandably, the device's 2-megapixel camera takes humdrum photos that come off grainy and unclear. In just slightly dim environments, you can see a notable amount of digital noise and artifacts throughout the picture. Furthermore, colors came off muted and dull. The fact that the camera only has a fixed focus also means that it doesn't always hone in and sharpen the object you want.

Users can adjust the brightness and contrast of a photo or video beforehand. There's also a night mode, five different white balances, and three color effects to choose from, prior to capturing media.

For photos, users can select between three quality levels and five resolution sizes (ranging from 320x240 to 1,600x1,200 pixels). There's also a timer, and a few extra fun photo frames and shutter sounds thrown in. As for video, users have the option to mute audio, as well as choose between three sizes -- two of which optimize video files for MMS and e-mail.

To see sample photos at full resolution, click on each image. And be sure to check out CNET's phone image comparison gallery.

ZTE Altair (indoor)
Even with ample lighting in this outdoor scene, objects are grainy. Lynn La/CNET
ZTE Altair (indoor1)
In this indoor photo, the white light is blown out and you can see a lot of digital noise. Lynn La/CNET
ZTE Altair (outdoor 2)
In this other outdoor image, colors pop just a bit more, but the flowers still look blurry. Lynn La/CNET
ZTE Altair (SSI)
In our standard studio shot, you can see plenty of blur and digital noise. Josh Miller/CNET

Performance Because Aio Wireless serves as AT&T's prepaid arm, I tested the handset in our San Francisco offices using AT&T's network. Call quality was reliable and clear. None of my calls dropped, I didn't hear any obvious and extraneous noises or buzzing, and audio was consistent and smooth. Voices were also loud and easy to understand.

My only issue was that, sometimes, I could hear just a slight bit of static. However, it wasn't overly distracting or detrimental to the overall call. Likewise, my calling partner told me that I sounded great and that my voice came in loud and clear.

Though the audio speaker was adequate and voices came through without distortion, audio did come off a bit flat and tinny. It also could stand to be louder, since I had to stay relatively close to the phone to be able to hear the other line.

ZTE Altair (Aio Wireless) call quality sample

Listen now:

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The phone runs on the carrier's 3G network. Keep in mind that the Web browser strips some off the code of most Web sites, so what displays is only a skeletal, bare-bones version of the pages. In general, it takes about 8 seconds just to startup the browser. After that, it took on average 20, 25, and 13 seconds for the browser to load CNET, The New York Times, and ESPN's sites, respectively. This is glacial compared to today's standards, especially since you don't see much of the images and attributes of a page, so if you're interested in an immersive Web experience, look elsewhere than the Altair.

Powering the device is a 230MHz single-core processor. That isn't powerful by any means, but it will be enough to execute basic tasks smoothly. For instance, I didn't notice any stutter while opening up the menu or launching apps like the calendar or the calculator. True, these functions won't open spontaneously the moment you select them, but I didn't feel as if they lagged or stalled after I opened them. On average, it takes about 2.23 seconds for the handset to launch the camera.

The 1,000mAh battery was satisfactory to keep this phone ticking all the way through the weekend with no charge and minimum usage. That's understandable since the Altair doesn't have many features to drain its juices, but it's still good to see a decent battery life. During our battery test for talk time, the phone lasted 7.27 continuous hours. According to FCC radiation measurements, the device has a digital SAR rating of 1.04 W/kg.

For its $50 contract-free price, ZTE's Altair fulfills its promise as a simple 3G-only messaging phone. Call quality is reliable, the useful keyboard is comfortable, and Internet access from Aio means you can still receive and send e-mails.

If you want to stay off-contract and have a cheap portrait keyboard phone, the Altair will satisfy. If you're open to a more entry-level prepaid smartphone experience, you should also consider Boost Mobile's BlackBerry Curve 9310. It, too, sports the same design and portrait QWERTY keyboard, but it has a slightly better camera and bigger battery, plus a built-out app store. It's available pre-owned for $52.99, or new for $79.99.


ZTE Altair (Aio Wireless)

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 6Performance 7