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The new $199.99 ZTE Anthem 4G sounds like a tempting proposition for MetroPCS subscribers. It brings the power of Android combined with 4G LTE data connectivity to the table, all without having to commit to an onerous service contract. A closer look, however, uncovers big weaknesses in this phone's apparent strengths. These include the relatively ancient Android 2.3 Gingerbread operating system, and overall pokey performance from an anemic 1.2GHz dual-core processor. Add to this a ho-hum plastic design and I bet all but the most novice of Android users will wish they had forked over the extra $200 for a Samsung Galaxy S3. MetroPCS customers can also find a better deal in the $149 LG Motion 4G, which runs newer Android software and a faster CPU and costs less.
Don't expect to be bowled over by the ZTE Anthem 4G's looks. Crafted from black plastic with faux-silver trim around its screen bezel, the handset is a fairly nondescript slab. Its dimensions, 5.11 inches tall by 2.3 inches wide, are about average for a midrange smartphone. Its 0.53-inch thickness though is definitely portly compared with much svelter devices such as the 0.3-inch Galaxy S3. Tipping the scales at a hefty 5.64 ounces, the Anthem 4G is heavy too, especially considering the Galaxy S3's featherweight of 4.7 ounces. That said, the phone fits comfortably in the hand, especially if the hand is a big mitt like mine, and all its buttons are within easy finger reach.
On the right side sits a thin power button while on the left is the Anthem's double-humped volume rocker. Connections are typical for a mobile phone, with a 3.5mm headphone jack on the top edge and a Micro-USB port located on the right. One notable connection is a Micro-HDMI video port in the device's lower left corner. Above the Anthem 4G's 4.3-inch screen is the phone's VGA front-facing camera. Lined up underneath the display are four backlit, capacitive buttons for primary Android 2.3 Gingerbread functions.
On back of the Anthem 4G sit its 5-megapixel camera lens and LED flash, both encased in a rectangular silver strip. Also here is a plastic battery door, which is thin but coated in a soft-touch surface that provides a sure grip. I also like the curved stripes that run diagonally across it. I admit these grooves are a bit gaudy but they do add texture and some extra eye candy. Underneath the battery cover is a 1,780mAh battery that you can, and have to, remove to get at the full-size SIM card. The Anthem 4G sports a slot for microSD cards too, which supports capacities up to 32GB.
As far as modern smartphones go, the ZTE Anthem 4G's 4.3-inch, 800x480-pixel LCD screen doesn't stack up well. Compared with the larger 4.7- to 5-inch displays you'll find on flagship handsets such as the Galaxy S3 (4.8-inch AMOLED, 1,280x720 pixels), the Anthem's screen is dark and low-resolution. I found the handset's viewing angles shallow as well, plus the screen had a distracting blue tinge.
Software and UI
In terms of software, the ZTE Anthem 4G doesn't measure up to today's advanced smartphones either. The device runs the Android 2.3 Gingerbread operating system, which is now going on two years old, making it positively archaic in the mobile world. Gingerbread lacks a host of fancy features to be found in Android 4.1 Jelly Bean or even Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich, such as folder support, NFC, and faster performance, just to list a few. That's why I wasn't surprised when I found the Anthem's menus, fonts, and overall performance felt dated and creaky.
There are no shortcuts for jumping directly into apps and functions when you wake the phone up, either, there's just a simple lock screen. You do, however, have five home screens to choose from and personalize with application icons and widgets.
Features and apps
As a legitimate Android smartphone, the ZTE Anthem 4G is certainly much more capable than ordinary feature and flip phones or even BlackBerry handsets. Preloaded are all the hit Google services, including Gmail, Search, Maps, and Navigation for GPS guidance. You'll also find company's Play storefronts for books, movies, and music.
The standard e-mail app handles both corporate and personal e-mail accounts, and the Google+ social-networking service is present as well. Oddly enough, MetroPCS also installed an IM and Social application that aggregates Twitter and Facebook access along with IM clients for Microsoft, Yahoo, Google Talk, and AOL. Honestly, I think you're better off downloading separate software for each service through the Android Play market. There a wide selection of titles awaits you; by last count the available apps numbered over 700 thousand and growing.
MetroPCS bundles in its own applications and services too, such as another app store, MyMetro for checking account status, and MyExtras, which is a confusing assortment of news, shopping alerts, and weather information. Aside from Google staples and the standard Android music and video players, though, my favorite extra is the full "Kung Fu Panda 2" animated movie, which MetroPCS has lovingly provided. It's placed on a microSD Card that sits in the phone's slot. I also like the Dolby audio technology, which adds more cinematic impact to the movie's score and sound effects.
Equipped with a decent 5-megapixel camera and LED flash, the ZTE Anthem 4G has a basic camera app. For instance, you won't see any of the slick new features starting to find a home on high-end camera phones, such as panorama, burst, or HDR modes. You can, however, adjust the resolution from 1 to 5 megapixels, and manually set the ISO from 100 to 800.
Overall, the Anthem snaps photos of adequate but not outstanding quality. Indoor images taken in adequate lighting had natural colors and correct white balance, but details were soft. Under low light I saw increased color noise and grainy details as well. The camera is also very slow, often taking over 2 seconds to cycle between shots, which made snapping pictures of fast-moving subjects very difficult.
Outdoors in the faint winter sun, details were slightly sharper and color noise lessened, but the images I captured lacked the level of crispness I've enjoyed on other handsets. The same goes for video I recorded using the Anthem 4G's 1080p HD camcorder. Footage was shaky and the frame noticeably skipped occasionally, especially when I panned across the scene. In its defense, the phone picked up audio well, grabbing sounds at least 20 feet away.
Equipped with a modest 1.2GHz dual-core Snapdragon processor paired with 512MB of RAM, the ZTE Anthem 4G is by no means a speed demon. In fact from the way it stuttered through menus and took its time launching apps, I immediately knew this device was underpowered within 30 seconds of picking it up. Also annoying was how the screen didn't respond to my finger taps every so often.
Benchmark tests confirmed the Anthem 4G's sluggish performance. The handset coughed up a low Linpack score of 57.98 MFLOPs (multithread), much less than modern dual-core smartphones, which typically notch at least 150MFLOPs.
One bright spot in this phone's performance is call quality. I tested the ZTE Anthem 4G on the MetroPCS CDMA network in New York and enjoyed clean, clear calls that were free from static. Audio also came through the earpiece with plenty of loudness, forcing me to dial the volume down a few steps from its maximum. Callers reported that my voice sounded warm, though they still could tell I was speaking over a mobile connection. The speakerphone held up admirably as well, with callers saying they could hear my voice clearly, though they found it slightly muffled compared with calls made with the earpiece. Despite a large speaker, though, speakerphone volume is not very loud.ZTE Anthem 4G call quality sample Listen now:
Data speeds on the MetroPCS 4G LTE network in New York were solid, but not spectacularly swift. I clocked average download throughput at 3.7Mbps and average upload at 3.9Mbps. These numbers are more in line with performance I expect to see from a fast HSPA+ or even 3G connection, not LTE, which can typically be three times as fast.
ZTE claims the Anthem 4G's 1,780mAh battery provides up to 8 hours of talk time and 260 hours (10.8 days) of standby time. In the CNET Labs video battery drain test, however, the handset lasted just 5 hours and 49 minutes (349 min). By contrast the Samsung Galaxy S III persevered for a long 9 hours and 24 minutes (564 min) on the same benchmark.
I understand that wireless carriers have a business to run and that no-contract providers like MetroPCS lack the funds to absorb the cost of premium phones. Still, they can certainly make choosing the right smartphone a difficult decision. The $199.99 ZTE Anthem 4G is a perfect example. MetroPCS promises that this device provides Android, dual-core processing, 4G LTE, and "rich features [designed] to keep up with your lifestyle." That's all well and good but the reality is that the Anthem 4G marches to the slow slog of a weak processor and obsolete Android software. Now combine this with the phone's dim, low-res screen and thick, boring plastic construction and you're left with a device only desperate Android seekers should consider. For all other tech-savvy MetroPCS shoppers, I suggest two options. You can save your pennies toward one day owning the pricey though top-tier $499 Samsung Galaxy S3. Another, and much wiser option, is the $149 LG Motion 4G. The Motion boasts a faster processor, the more recent Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich OS, and a better camera, for $50 less than the ZTE Anthem 4G.