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

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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.

ZTE Grand S Pro (U.S. Cellular) call quality sample

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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