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ZTE Director (U.S. Cellular) review: Low-end specs that yield a low-end performance

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I have nothing against entry-level devices. As long as they work well and are priced reasonably, there's nothing wrong with these handsets for people who don't need to be on the bleeding edge of technology.

ZTE_Discover_35662870-9624.jpg
6.3

ZTE Director (U.S. Cellular)

The Good

U.S. Cellular's <b>ZTE Director</b> is reasonably priced and has respectable call quality.

The Bad

The Director is sluggish and takes poor photos, and call volume is severely low on speakerphone.

The Bottom Line

Although U.S. Cellular's ZTE Director is inexpensive under contract, the carrier offers better handsets at the same low price.

But while the ZTE Director is indeed priced inexpensively (without a contract, it's $99.99, but with one, the price drops to 1 cent), it's not a great performer. Its screen can be frustratingly unresponsive, its camera takes washed-out photos, and its processor is sluggish. Frankly put, the ZTE Director is more of a Tommy Wiseau than a Steven Spielberg.

Design
With its long chin, smooth matte back plate, and indented edges, the Director looks pretty much identical to all other entry-level ZTE devices, like the T-Mobile Concord and the ZTE Fury, save for the fact that it features three hot keys (back, home, and menu) instead of four.

ZTE Director
The Director's right edge houses a shortcut hard key that launches the camera. Josh Miller/CNET

Compact and comfortable to hold, the handset measures 4.65 inches tall, 2.46 inches wide, and 0.48 inch thick. Its left edge houses a Micro-USB port for charging and a volume rocker. Up top you'll find a 3.5mm headphone jack and a sleep/power button, and on the right is a launch button for the camera.

On the back, in the left corner, you'll find a camera lens, flash, and a small reflective square for framing self-portraits. Below that are two small slits for the audio speaker. Using a small indent at the bottom, you can pop off the plate to access the microSD card slot (which accepts cards of up to 32GB) and the removable battery.

The 3.5-inch HVGA touch screen has a 320x480-pixel resolution. Unfortunately, the display isn't very responsive, and oftentimes it took several taps for an action to register, whether it be launching an app or closing a window.

It also looked grainy or speckled, which is especially apparent when it displays a blank white image. Lastly, the screen is very difficult to view in sunlight. While taking photos outside, I had to shield the display with my hand in order to see feedback.

Spotlight on U.S. Cellular's ZTE Director (pictures)

See all photos

Features
The phone runs on Android 4.0.4 Ice Cream Sandwich and features your standard complement of Google apps, such as Gmail, Google+, Chrome, Latitude, Local, Maps with Navigation, Messenger, several Google Play Store portals like Books, Magazines, Movies & TV, and Music, Search, Talk, and YouTube.

Other apps include several from Amazon (for its retail site, Appstore, Amazon MP3, Audible, and Zappos), the game Bubble Bash 2, City ID, Daily Perks (which notifies you of deals from U.S. Cellular), MiEasyAccess, Slacker Radio, apps for getting ringtones and games, Twitter, and a navigator app.

ZTE Director
The ZTE Director runs Android Ice Cream Sandwich and comes with Slacker Radio. Josh Miller/CNET

Basic task-managing apps include a clock with alarm and world time functions, a native browser, an e-mail client, a music app, a video player, a calculator, a calendar, a news and weather app, a notepad, a sound recorder, a timer, and a voice dialer.

Other features include Bluetooth 3.0, 4GB of onboard memory, and 512MB of RAM.

Camera and video
Understandably, the 3-megapixel camera has very few photo options. It has a flash, digital zoom, five white balances, three photo sizes, three shutter tones, a timer, compositional lines, an exposure meter, and geotagging. The video camera includes the same zooming, geotagging, and white-balancing options, and it has five video qualities (from QCIF to WVGA). Because the ZTE Director is slow, it takes several seconds for the camera to take a photo, and another several seconds after you press the shutter for it to ready itself for another shot.

Photo quality was obviously poor. Aside from needing to struggle to view the screen in sunlight as I mentioned before, brightly lit outdoor photos were often blown-out, colors appeared muted, and objects weren't quite in focus. Indoor photos fared even worse. You can see lots of digital noise, photos looked grainy, and colors, once again, weren't as vibrant as they were in real life.

ZTE Director (indoor)
In this well-lit indoor photo, you can see the graininess against the wall and the white chairs appear bluish. Lynn La/CNET

ZTE Director (outdoor)
The petals in these tulips are washed out by the bright sun, and their colors aren't muted. Lynn La/CNET

ZTE Director (SSI)
In our standard studio shot, the white background is grayed out and objects are not sharp. Josh Miller/CNET

Video was pretty much on par with camera performance -- colors were muted and objects were not sharp. Audio also sounded scratchy, though nearby sounds were picked up well. The camera needed several seconds to refocus for lighting changes, and recordings ended up looking pixelated.

Performance
I tested the tri-band device (800/1700/1900) in San Francisco and call quality was decent. Audio didn't cut in and out, and none of my calls dropped. However, voices did sound a bit fuzzy, and I could hear a slight buzz with every word spoken. Likewise, I was told I sounded muffled as well.

Unfortunately, although speakerphone calls sounded clear, maximum volume was incredibly low. I had to stick the handset practically against my ear just to hear the speakerphone, and I was told that when I spoke, I sounded like I was 5 feet away. Oddly, the stereo speaker didn't sound so low when I played videos or music.

ZTE Director (U.S. Cellular) call quality sample

Listen now:

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I surfed the Web using U.S. Cellular's 3G network (EV-DO Rev. A), and data was pretty slow. On average, the handset loaded CNET's mobile site in 17.31 seconds and our desktop site in 44.13 seconds. The New York Times' mobile site took about 13.88 seconds, while its desktop version took 46.08 seconds. ESPN's mobile site took 14.23 seconds, and its full site loaded in 38.25 seconds. Ookla's Speedtest app showed me an average of 0.2Mbps down and 0.48Mbps up. It took an average of 18 minutes and 43 seconds to download the 32.41MB game Temple Run 2.

ZTE Director Performance testing
Average 3G download speed 0.2Mpbs
Average 3G upload speed 0.48Mbps
App download (Temple Run 2) 32.41MB in 18 minutes, 43 seconds
CNET mobile site load 17.31 seconds
CNET desktop site load 44.13 seconds
Restart time 46.56 seconds
Camera boot time 4.76 seconds

The phone is powered by a 1GHz Qualcomm processor. As I mentioned before, the Director is sluggish. Not only is the camera slow, but also simple actions like swiping the lock screen, changing from landscape to portrait mode, and returning to the home screen took a few moments longer than I'd like. While playing the graphics-intensive game Riptide GP, the app never stuttered or quit. However, it showed low frame rates, and it took a hair too long to launch and to quit the app. On average, it took 46.56 seconds for the phone to restart itself and 4.76 seconds to launch the camera.

During our battery drain test the phone lasted 8.4 hours for talk time. Anecdotally, the 1,500mAh battery lasts for a decent amount of time. With minimal usage, it can last the workday without a charge. It has a reported talk time of up to 6 hours and a standby estimate of 350 hours. According to FCC radiation standards, it has a digital SAR rating of 1.2W/kg.

Conclusion
With its 1-cent price tag, the ZTE Director under contract is inexpensive, but U.S. Cellular carries much more attractive options. The HTC One V, for example, has better build quality and a 5-megapixel camera that takes way better photos. And despite running the dated Android 2.3 Gingerbread OS, the Samsung Galaxy Metrix 4G has a bigger, better 4-inch screen and operates on the carrier's 4G LTE network. Both these devices are not only the same price as the Director, but they outshine it in performance as well.

ZTE_Discover_35662870-9624.jpg
6.3

ZTE Director (U.S. Cellular)

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 6Performance 6