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ZTE Grand S Pro (U.S. Cellular) review: High-end specs that don't pan out

The Grand S Pro for U.S. Cellular features tempting specs for its price, but misses some marks on performance.

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Lynn La
Lynn_La2.jpg

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.

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8 min read

Although ZTE has a number of mid-range Android devices under its belt, the Chinese-based company's portfolio of premium handsets is severely lacking. Sure, it did debut its powerful Grand S II and Nubia 5S at CES earlier this year, but neither of them, like most top-tier ZTE phones, ever officially landed on a US carrier.

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6.0

ZTE Grand S Pro (U.S. Cellular)

The Good

U.S. Cellular's ZTE Grand S Pro has a sleek look, a competitive on-contract price tag, and a bright display.

The Bad

The phone feels heavy in the hand, its camera struggled with up-close photos, and audio speaker volume was low. Also, if you're not in the carrier's LTE network, data speeds can be slow.

The Bottom Line

The Grand S Pro is a good deal with a carrier agreement, but U.S. Cellular has other phones that are faster and more reliable.

Until now, that is. The Grand S Pro is available on U.S. Cellular for $100 with a carrier agreement and $390 prepaid, and sports a quad-core processor, a 13-megapixel camera, and a 5-inch display.

But while these specs sound premium, they don't always deliver premium performances. If you're not in the carrier's LTE network, for example, data speeds can be slow and spotty. The camera has a difficult time focusing, and speaker volume is low. Plus, given the fact that U.S. Cellular has a few other compelling phones that are at the same on-contract price or cheaper, the Grand S Pro's flaws aren't worth the headaches.

The premium-looking Grand S Pro (pictures)

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Design

Because of its black front side and white battery door, the Grand S Pro comes off looking a bit like the white Google Nexus 4 and 5 . But whether that's unintentional or not, what is definite is that ZTE took conscious measures to give the device a more premium and sleek design. The handset has curved edges, smooth rounded corners, and a soft matte finish on the back that wards off fingerprints. Its physical control buttons bulge out ever so slightly from the surface, making them easy to feel for and comfortable to press.

The phone measures 5.6 inches wide, 2.8 inches tall, and 0.4 inches wide. Weighing 5.48 ounces, it is notably heavier and denser than other devices its size. This was especially noticeable when I held the S Pro in my hand for a few minutes during a call, or when I slipped it into my front jean pockets. Though it doesn't seem "bulky" or "hefty" to the eye, it will feel weighty in the hand.

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Despite a slick look and trim profile, the Grand S Pro is surprisingly heavy and dense. Josh Miller/CNET

On its left edge is a Micro-USB port and a volume rocker. Up top is a 3.5mm headphone jack and a sleep/power button. The back houses a 13-megapixel camera lens and flash, as well as a small slit for the audio speaker to the left. (All of which are encircled by a long, black glossy oval that vaguely reminds me of the robot Eve from "Wall-E.") Using a small indentation on the bottom edge, you can pry off the back plate to access the removable 2,300mAh battery, SIM card, and microSD card, which is expandable up to 32GB.

The handset's 5-inch display has a 720x1,280-pixel resolution and is made of Dragontail glass (the same used in the Sony Xperia Z2 ). It's understandably not as sharp or brilliant as other 1080p screens I've seen, and some large icons had fuzzy or aliasing edges. However, the display is still responsive and bright. Images and texts look smooth enough, and I especially liked how bright and pure whites appeared on the display. Swipe texting on the keyboard was also accurate and fast.

Above the display is a 2-megapixel shooter and in-ear speaker. Below are three hot keys (for back, home, and menu) that light up when in use. To launch Google Now and recent apps, press and hold the home and menu keys, respectively.

Software features

The phone runs a rather dated Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, and has the standard package of Google apps you'd expect: Chrome, Drive, Gmail, Plus, Hangouts, Photos, YouTube, and portals to the Play Store for Books, Games, Newsstand, Movies & TV, and Music.

You'll also get basic apps like native browser and email clients, a calendar, a calculator, a notepad, a clock with alarm and stopwatch functions, a news and weather app, video and music players, a sound recorder, and a voice dialer.

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The device runs Android Jelly Bean and comes preloaded with apps from ZTE and U.S. Cellular. Josh Miller/CNET

Four apps specifically from U.S. Cellular are loaded too: City ID, an app for getting ringtones and games, a security app, and a navigator app. ZTE threw in some extra goodies as well, such as Mi-POP, which displays the hot keys below the display onto the touchscreen itself, the battery conserver Mi-Power, and ZTE MHL for when you want to view the Grand S Pro's display on a bigger screen.

Other apps include an FM radio and a flashlight; popular apps such as Twitter, Facebook, Slacker Radio, and Evernote; a file sharing app; Gameloft's app; and game called the Littlest Pet Shop. The device also packs Dolby Digital Plus technology for an enhanced audio experience, Bluetooth 4.0, 2GB of RAM, and 8GB of internal memory.

Camera and video

Photo quality for the 13-megapixel camera was passable, but not at all impressive. Images looked blurry near the outer edges of the photo, outside the center focal point. For indoor shots, colors appeared muted, and you can see a notable amount of digital noise and artifacts. The camera also requires a few tries to finish focusing. There were a number of times when I tried to take a picture of an object up close, and the focus simply wouldn't sharpen until after I captured a number of blurry pictures. Bright colors taken outdoors also came out overexposed. Be sure to click on each picture to see them at their full resolution.

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For this indoor photo, colors are muted and objects around the edges of the picture are blurry. Lynn La/CNET

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This outdoor picture blows out the flower petals making them hard to discern from one another. Lynn La/CNET

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In our standard studio setup, there is a notable amount of digital noise and there is a yellowish tint to the background. Josh Miller/CNET

I was more satisfied with video quality, however, as it fared a bit better than I expected given its photo quality. Objects, both moving and still, remained in focus during recordings, and the camera had no problems readjusting as I shifted it around to change the lighting and focus. Colors looked true to life as well. Nearby audio could have been picked up louder, but overall, sounds recorded well and evenly.

The rear camera has many editing options, including nine Instagram-esque filters and three shooting modes: Pro, Basic, or Scenes. Each mode then has two to six more editing options underneath it. For instance, Basic gives you standard photo features like Auto, HDR shooting, panorama, and low-light. Pro has options such as blink and smile detection, as well as timed-interval shooting and "reprojection," which straightens out flat objects (like a flyer or a receipt) taken at an angle. Scene enables users to adjust for macro shooting or taking photos at night.

Images range from 2,592x1,944 to 4,128x3,096 pixels. There's a flash, two guideline options (one that displays the rule-of-three grid, and another that shows the golden ratio spiral), a gradienter that displays the angle and title of your camera, and face detection. In addition, there's a timer; meters to adjust a picture's exposure, brightness, and contrast; four white-balance settings; three ISO levels; geotagging; and two anti-banding options. The camera can also shoot video in four quality levels (from VGA to 1080p), pause and take pictures while recording, and mute audio.

The front-facing has mostly the same features, except it only has two capture modes (normal and smile); three picture sizes (from 640x480 to 1,600x1,200 pixels); and no timer. Video options are identical to the 13-megapixel camera.

Performance

I tested the Grand S Pro in our San Francisco offices and call quality was adequate. None of my calls dropped, audio never cut in and out, and I didn't hear any buzzing or extraneous noises. My calling partner's voice, however, did sound muffled, as if he were talking with a thin sheet over his receiver. In addition, when I turned on the audio speaker, call volume was low. Even when I cranked up the volume to its maximum level, I still had to bring the device close to my ear in order to hear the conversation clearly.

As for the other line, my partner told me that I was easy to understand and my voice came in clear, though I did sound a bit muted.

Podcast

Because we are located outside of U.S. Cellular's 4G LTE network, only 3G roaming could be measured. In general, data speeds were slow and inconsistent. For instance, downloading the 48.61MB Temple Run 2 game took 16 minutes and 36 seconds on average. But at times, the game would download even slower. In two instances, 45 minutes passed with only 40 percent progress, and then loading paused indefinitely.

It took about 38 seconds to load CNET's mobile site and 1 minute and 4 seconds to load the desktop version. The New York Times' mobile and desktop sites loaded in 36 and 52 seconds, respectively. The mobile site for ESPN clocked in at 28 seconds, and 54 seconds passed before its desktop site fully loaded. However, as I mentioned previously, there were times when data would stall, and 5 minutes would pass without a page being fully downloaded. I'd have to retry visiting these pages more times than I normally would during testing to get them to finish loading. Lastly, Ookla's speed test app showed an average of 0.28Mbps down and 0.595Mbps up.

ZTE Grand S Pro performance times

Average 3G download speed 0.28
Average 3G upload speed 0.595
App download (Temple Run 2) 48.61MB in 16 minutes and 36 seconds
CNET mobile site load 38 seconds
CNET desktop site load 1 minute and 4 seconds
Restart time 40 seconds
Camera boot time 1.82 seconds

The device's quad-core 2.3GHz Snapdragon processor is very capable of executing small but necessary tasks smoothly. Actions like calling up the keyboard, switching from landscape and portrait mode, and swiping through the app drawer were all carried out without a hitch. One consistent glitch I did see was whenever I quit an app to return to the home screen, the screen would be "in between" two home pages before quickly snapping to and centering one of the pages in full. This would only last a split second, but was noticeable nonetheless. Other than that, however, the processor worked great. Playing the graphics-intensive game Riptide GP 2 was smooth, and the app never stalled or stuttered.

On average it took about 40 seconds for the handset to restart and 1.82 seconds to launch the camera. When I ran benchmark tests for CPU performance, the phone's highest Quadrant score out of three trials was an impressive 20,863. For comparison, that puts it on a par with the Sony Xperia Z1S (which scored 20,809), but slightly below flagship devices like the HTC One M8 , Samsung Galaxy S5 , LG G3 (which scored 24,593, 23,707, and 23,103, respectively). It also had a Linpack multi-thread result of 931.86 MFLOPs in 0.18 seconds.

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A few of the phone's 3G data times (left) and its highest Quadrant result. Lynn La/CNET

Informal observation of the 2,300mAh appeared good so far. It lasted a whole weekend on standby without charging, and it survived a workday with mild use without being plugged in. It has a reported talk time of up to 10 hours, and lasted 14 hours and 37 minutes during our test for continuous video playback.

Conclusion

Compared to some other $100 on-contract devices on U.S. Cellular, the Grand S Pro may look tempting. For example, the LG Freedom is ultra low-end, and the Kyocera DuraPro is a rugged flip-phone that satisfies only a very niche group of needs.

And if the Grand S Pro were the only smartphone at that price, I could try to look past its issues (like its low call volume, and its camera's numerous failed attempts at focusing). Fortunately for users though, it's not. At its price or lower, you can get the Galaxy S4 and the Motorola Moto X . The former is Samsung's flagship from last year, but remains a reliable device with a bright screen and fast processor. The latter, meanwhile, is only $0.01 on-contract and sports a long battery life, a more updated Android 4.4. KitKat OS, and useful gesture controls.

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6.0

ZTE Grand S Pro (U.S. Cellular)

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 6Performance 6
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