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ZTE Engage (Cricket Wireless) review: 3G phone that bungles the basics

Though Cricket's ZTE Engage packs higher specs than most midlevel ZTE devices, this handset's poor call and camera performance disappoints.

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

With a name that evokes images of Jean-Luc Picard aboard the USS Enterprise, the ZTE Engage is actually just an Earthling-created, contract-free phone from Cricket Wireless.


ZTE Engage (Cricket Wireless)

The Good

The <b>ZTE Engage</b> features Muve Music, has 32GB of expandable memory, and runs on Android 4.0.

The Bad

The Engage takes poor photos and call quality was mediocre.

The Bottom Line

While the ZTE Engage flaunts a sturdier design and better screen than most ZTE handsets, it's a poor performer where it counts the most.

But even if I could get engaged (ha, multiple definitions!) to this handset, I wouldn't want to. Yes, it sports higher specs than what you would usually see from a midlevel ZTE handset, but its poor call and camera performance would tempt any user, not just me, to break things off.

With its all-black design and flatly rectangular construction, the ZTE Engage doesn't break any design boundaries. At 5.4 ounces, it does, however, tip the scales in terms of weight. But it's a solidly built and dense device that feels sturdy. Its tapered edges make it easy to hold and grip.

It measures 4.9 inches tall, 2.5 inches wide, and 0.4 inch thick. One thing I didn't like was the wide bezel below the display. Save for the hot keys, this "chin" simply has a lot of black, dead space that just adds more to the handset's size.

ZTE Engage
The ZTE Engage has a 4.3-inch screen that's responsive and has a good viewing angle range. Josh Miller/CNET

Up top are a 3.5mm headphone jack, a Micro-USB port for charging, and a chrome-colored sleep/power button. There are also two little holes to slip a lanyard or charm through. The right edge hosts a narrow, but easy-to-press, volume rocker.

On the back is a 8-megapixel camera with an LED flash below. Farther down is the audio speaker. Using an indent at the bottom edge, you can pry off the back plate to get access to the microSD card slot (that's expandable up to 32GB) and the 1,900mAh lithium ion battery.

The 4.3-inch WVGA display has an 800x480-pixel resolution. It's one of the most responsive and clearest screens I've seen on a ZTE phone. Icons, widgets, and text look crisp, and default wallpaper designs display brightly and smoothly. And, unlike midlevel ZTE devices, the display has a wider viewing angle.

Above the display is a VGA front-facing camera, and below it are four shortcut keys (home, menu, back, and search) that light up very dimly when in use.

Taking the plunge with the ZTE Engage (pictures)

See all photos

Software and OS
The ZTE Engage ships natively with Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich. One of my favorite features of the device is that it offers a nearly skinless ICS user interface. Anyone who wants a vanilla Android OS will definitely appreciate the handset's lack of bloatware or overlaid UI (though a small gray box surrounds each app icon, which I'm not too fond of, and the dialpad looks simpler), even though it's not as bare-bones as a Nexus.

It comes with the usual slew of Google apps, including Chrome, Gmail, Google Music, Plus, Local, Maps with Navigation and Latitude, Messenger, access to Play Books, Movies, Store, and Music, Search, Talk, and YouTube.

Basic task management apps are loaded as well, such as a calculator, a calendar, a clock with alarm functions, a native browser and e-mail client, music and video players, a news and weather app, a notepad, a sound recorder, a timer, a voice dialer, and a world clock.

ZTE Engage
The phone's 8-megapixel camera has only a few photo editing options. Josh Miller/CNET

There are also Cricket-specific apps, like its own navigator, a My Account app to manage your phone payments, MyBackup, which lets you store your contact information in a cloud, a Yellow Page-esque app called Cricket 411, where you can access information for the nearest pizza joint or grocery store, and a storefront that lets you purchase graphics and applications.

Other apps include the security app, NQ Mobile Security, two games (Block Breaker 3 and Uno), and the mobile suite Documents To Go.

You also get Muve Music service. Developed by Cricket, Muve Music lets you download an unlimited amount of music (well, aside from the amount of free space on your phone) onto your handset. The app comes with a feature called My DJ that gives you access to premade playlists organized by musical genres, and Shazam, the popular music-searching app. There's also the obligatory social networking feature, called Get Social, where you can set up your user profile, search for friends, and keep track of your "Shout Outs," where you post songs you're listening to for public viewing. For a more in-depth rundown of Muve Music, check out our full review.

Integrating a phone with a music service is a neat idea, but one drawback is that you can't access the music you have on any other device. And once you stop paying your phone bill, access to your songs will also stop. With all this in mind, it's best to think of Muve more as a music rental service.

This passing sense of ownership over these songs wasn't my main issue with this, however. Instead, it was the confusing user interface. Even though I used Muve before, menu items were still confusing, pausing a song or returning to the main menu took a while to figure out, and the constant clicking I had to go through just to download and then play one song was cumbersome.

Camera and video
The 8-megapixel camera includes a few editing options like a digital zoom, flash, touch focus, five white balances, five exposure levels (ranging from -2 to +2), six scene modes, 13 picture sizes (ranging from QCIF to 8 megapixels), six color effects, and four focus modes, including auto and macro. The front-facing camera has even fewer options. Only the digital zoom, white balances, and exposure meter are retained, and you get four photo sizes (from QCIF to VGA).

Video options include a digital zoom, continuous flash, the same white balances and color effects, time lapse, four video qualities (720p to QCIF), and three video durations (30 minutes, 10 minutes, and 30 seconds). The front-facing camera has all the same options except you only get two video qualities (either CIF or QCIF) and no color effects.

Unfortunately, photo quality was poor. Bright colors, especially red, often turned out oversaturated, and whites looked washed out. My biggest problem, however, was the lack of focus. Even with ample lighting and a steady hand, objects came out blurry with fuzzy outlines. These pictures looked crisper when viewed on the phone, but when seen at their full sizes on a computer, they were very disappointing.

ZTE Engage (indoor)
Mmm, chicken! Despite a steady hand and multiple takes, my Wingstop meal still came out blurry. Lynn La/CNET
ZTE Engage (outdoor)
Though colors are bright and vivid, they appear more saturated in this photo than in real life. Lynn La/CNET
ZTE Engage (SSI)
In our standard studio shot, a yellow hue borders the edges of the photo and objects are out of focus. Josh Miller/CNET

Video quality didn't fare much better. Recordings were pixelated, and objects were often out of focus. Audio, however, was picked up without a problem.

I tested the tri-band (800/1900) ZTE Engage on Cricket's network in our San Francisco office. Call quality was mediocre. Though I was able to hear my friends easily, calls did sound static-y and rough. During times of complete silence, I could hear the static subtly. It wasn't overly distracting, but noticeable nonetheless. There were a couple of times that audio cut in and out, though I never had a call drop. However, I was told that I sounded perfectly fine and clear, and my friends didn't report any trouble on their end.

The audio speaker, although clear, could have been louder. There were times I had to hold it up to my ear just to hear better, even though I cranked the volume to its maximum level.

ZTE Engage (Cricket Wireless) call quality sample

Listen now:

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Cricket's 3G network isn't the most robust, and data speeds were slow in our specific area. On average, the handset loaded CNET's mobile site in 32 seconds and our desktop site in a minute and 12 seconds. The New York Times mobile site took about 19 seconds, while its desktop version took a minute and 16 seconds. ESPN's mobile site took 22 seconds, and its full site loaded in 47 seconds. Ookla's Speedtest app showed me an average of 0.19Mbps down and 0.49Mbps up. It took about 18 minutes and 27 seconds to download the 32.41MB game Temple Run 2.

ZTE Engage Performance testing
Average 3G download speed 0.19Mpbs
Average 3G upload speed 0.49Mbps
App download (Temple Run 2) 32.41MB in 18 minutes and 27 seconds
CNET mobile site load 32 seconds
CNET desktop site load 1 minute and 12 seconds
Restart time 1 minute
Camera boot time 2.3 seconds

The device is powered by a 1.4GHz processor. Simple tasks like quitting applications and opening up the browser were executed smoothly enough, but it did take a notable amount of seconds to switch from portrait to landscape mode, open up simple games like Block Breaker 3, and there was a slight lag between my moving of the camera and what I saw on the viewfinder. On average, it took 2.3 seconds to launch the camera and 1 minute to shut down and turn on the phone altogether.

During my time playing the graphic-intensive game, Riptide GP, I didn't experience any forced quits or stuttering of the application. Understandably, compared with a quad-core or dual-core handset, frame rates were lower and graphics didn't look as smooth, but the game still played well.

The phone's 1,900mAh battery has a reported talk time of 8 hours. During our battery drain test for video playback, it lasted a mere 4.92 hours. Anecdotally, though, it had decent battery life, and it can easily last through a workday with no charge and minimal usage. According to FCC radiation standards, the device has a digital SAR rating of 0.741W/kg.

Cricket Wireless doesn't have many Android 4.0 handsets, so if having the more recent Ice Cream Sandwich OS is important to you (which is understandable), you should consider the ZTE Engage.

But, based purely on performance, there are better and cheaper Muve Music handsets available. For instance, if you get the Huawei Mercury, it'll mean going backward with Android 2.3. But, it's cheaper, you'll still get an 8-megapixel camera, and you'll gain excellent call quality.


ZTE Engage (Cricket Wireless)

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 6Performance 5