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

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MSRP: $49.99

The Good The competitively priced ZTE Altair 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.

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6.7 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 6
  • Performance 7

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.

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.

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.

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