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

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:

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.

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