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ZTE Groove (Cricket Wireless) review: Entry-level phone that's too little, too late

Even though the ZTE Groove sounds like something we can get down with, don't get too excited. This entry-level phone from Cricket runs on the dated Android 2.3 Gingerbread, has a cheap construction, and is slow in regards to both data and internal speeds.

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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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6 min read

Nothing about the ZTE Groove screams "modern." Maybe it's the outdated name (seriously, the only appropriate times to say "groove" is when ironically referring to the 1970s, or discussing jazz music), but mostly because it runs on Android 2.3 Gingerbread and has a very unappealing plastic construction.

35550924-Groove-3.jpg
5.0

ZTE Groove (Cricket Wireless)

The Good

The <b>ZTE Groove</b> comes with Muve Music and up to 32GB of expandable memory.

The Bad

Cricket's Groove runs on the dated Android 2.3, has a low-resolution touch screen with a narrow viewing angle, and a poor audio speaker.

The Bottom Line

While the ZTE Groove can make calls, pass it over in favor of better Cricket handsets.

Don't misunderstand me -- I have no qualms with entry-level handsets. They're great for users looking for something simple and easy to use. But the Groove is different. On top of being dated, it's plagued with mediocre call and audio quality, and a poor screen that simply render it a Groove I just can't get into. Sorry, Madonna.

Design
When I first got hold of the ZTE Groove, I mistakenly thought it was a QWERTY keyboard device due to its thickness and segmented design. When I saw that it was just a candybar handset, however, it made me realize just how unattractive it was.

On the whole, its plastic construction keeps the phone lightweight at 4.5 ounces, but as a trade-off, it gives it a very cheap and toy-like feel. A faux-chrome strip runs along the edges, and every physical key (though easy to press) protrudes relatively far from the rest of the surface. The device itself is riddled with grooves (no pun intended) and ridges, and even the back plate features an unappealing dimpled texture.

ZTE Groove
The ZTE Groove has an unattractive dimpled back plate and an overall construction that feels cheap and inexpensive. Josh Miller/CNET

The Groove measures 4.67 inches tall, 2.46 inches wide, and 0.55 inch thick -- which, again, is pretty hefty for a simple entry-level handset. On the left are a MicroUSB port for charging and a small nook to loop a charm or lanyard through. Up top are a sleep/power button and a 3.5mm headphone charger. The right edge houses a volume rocker, a small flap for a microSD card, and a shortcut button for the camera.

On the back is a 3.2-megapixel camera and an LED flash. At the bottom-right corner are three small slits for the audio speaker. Using indents on either side, you can pop off the back plate and remove the battery.

The 3.5-inch HVGA touch screen displays only 262,000 colors and has a 480x320-pixel resolution. It has a very narrow viewing angle, so if you look at it at ever so slight of a tilt, the screen will appear black or shadowy. Aside from the heavily pixelated graphics that I saw when playing games and videos (even the simple outlines of circles in the Settings app were fuzzy), the screen also looked streaky. Scrolling through my apps became a bit nauseating because of all the fuzzy lines that appeared across the icons.

Above the display is a VGA front-facing camera, and below are four hotkeys that light up white when touched: back, menu, home, and search.

Get down with the ZTE Groove (pictures)

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Software and features
The phone runs on Android 2.3 Gingerbread, making it already dated the moment it comes out of the box. You'll find a few standard Google apps such as Gmail, Maps with Navigation, Latitude, Places, Google Play, Search, Talk, and YouTube.

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 the 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 preloaded apps include two games that you can't uninstall: Uno, and a horribly ugly demo game called Bubble Bash 2 that looks as if it was designed around the time Netscape Navigator launched.

General task managing apps such as a native Web browser and e-mail client are installed, as well as a calculator, a calendar, a clock with alarm functions, a countdown timer, a world clock, a music player, a news and weather app, a sound recorder, a stopwatch, a video player, a voice dialer, and voice search.

ZTE Groove
The Groove is a Muve Music device from Cricket that enables you to stream and download (for offline listening) thousands of songs and albums. Josh Miller/CNET

Again, the Groove's biggest selling point is the Muve Music service. Developed by Cricket, Muve Music lets you download an unlimited amount of music 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-search 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, be sure to read CNET's 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, so it's pretty much stuck on your phone. 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 than anything else.

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 and the constant clicking I had to go through just to download and then play one song was cumbersome. Also, keep in mind that when a song or album finishes downloading, there is no progress bar or notification. Instead, the song title's text will change from gray to white. Talk about subtle.

I also had problems simply pausing a song. Again, this wasn't my first time using Muve, but I initially had to go through numerous menu items just to return to a song that was playing in order to pause it because there did not appear to be designated shortcut "now playing" option.

Eventually, I discovered that if you hold down the menu key on the left for a couple of seconds and wait for it to return to the Muve Music menu, you can select the Music Player icon in the center to get to the song and then pause it. Despite this epiphany, in the end, I still thought that required one too many steps, and it wasn't intuitive.

Camera and video
The 3.2-megapixel camera features a few photo options. It has a flash and can digitally zoom up to 4x. It also has five white balances, three photo sizes, three quality adjustments, five saturation levels, and four color effects. The front-facing camera retains only the zoom, white balance, and quality adjustments.

The video camera includes the same color effects and white balances. You do have the choice of shooting in either high or low quality. If you choose to shoot in high quality, you can record up to 30 minutes of video. If you opt to shoot in low quality, you can only record for a maximum of 15 seconds. With the front-facing camera, color effects are eliminated.

Photo quality was understandably poor, though I've seen better 3.2-megapixel shooters before (for instance, on the ZTE Score). In both indoor and outdoor photos, objects appeared blurry, especially around the edges. Colors looked flat and blended together, especially in indoor photos, and objects looked grainy.

ZTE Groove (outdoor)
In this cloudy outdoor shot, objects appear blurry, and colors, compared to real life, look muted. Lynn La/CNET
ZTE Groove (indoor)
Despite ample lighting in this indoor shot, objects look grainy and the photo has a lot of digital noise. Lynn La/CNET
ZTE Groove (SSI)
In our standard studio shot, the flash gives the white background a subtle blue tint. Josh Miller/CNET

Furthermore, the camera is very slow. It takes a few seconds after pressing the shutter for a picture to be taken, and there was lag between my moving of the phone and the feedback for video. Even when holding it completely still, objects still looked blurry. As for video quality, it was subpar. Recordings looked pixelated and voices came off muffled. Also, focus was a bit off. The camera needed lots of time to adjust to different whites, and therefore would change windows or light fixtures from yellow, to white, to blue in one recording.

Performance
I tested the dual-band (CDMA 800/1900) ZTE Groove in San Francisco using Cricket Wireless' services, and call quality was mediocre. There was a subtle static noise that was audible every time my friend spoke, as well as in complete silence at times, but it wasn't overly distracting. Volume was at an adequate level and audio didn't cut in and out. None of my calls dropped, and I was able to hear the other line perfectly fine without any extraneous buzzing or sounds. Likewise, I was told that I could be heard easily too. My friends did report that it was obvious I was calling from a cell phone. Even though I came off static-y they reported, overall I was easily understood.

ZTE Groove call quality sample

Listen now:

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I was not a fan of the audio speaker, unfortunately. Voices came off sounding extremely harsh and tinny. At times, I had to hold the device away from me because it was getting too sharp, even though I had lowered the volume. Music also sounded flat and thin.

Cricket Wireless' 3G network isn't the most robust network, and a few general speed tests showed that. Loading the CNET mobile site, for example, took an average of 28 seconds, and loading our desktop site took one minute and one second. The wait for the New York Times full site was shorter on average, clocking in at 49 seconds, and its mobile site took 8 seconds. ESPN's mobile site took 41 seconds, while its full site loaded in 37 seconds. Ookla's Speedtest showed an average of 0.23Mbps down and 0.74Mbps up. The 32.04MB game of Temple Run 2 took an average of a whopping 17 minutes and 19 seconds to download.

ZTE Groove: Performance testing
Average 3G download speed 0.23Mpbs
Average 3G upload speed 0.74Mbps
App download (Temple Run) 32.04MB in 17 minutes and 19 seconds
CNET mobile site load 28 seconds
CNET desktop site load 1 minute and 1 second
Power off and restart time 52 seconds
Camera boot time 2.48 seconds

The handset runs on an 800MHz processor. This obviously doesn't make it fast by any means, but it can execute simple tasks in a decent amount of time. Actions such as browsing through the app drawer and flipping through the five home screen pages went smoothly. However, other relatively easy tasks took a noticeable amount of time, such as opening the camera and switching from landscape to portrait mode, and even swiping the lock screen noticeably lagged. It took about 2.48 seconds for the camera to launch and 52 seconds for the phone to restart entirely.

The 1,500mAh li-ion battery has a reported talk time of 400 minutes and standby time of 350 hours. During our battery drain tests it lasted 7.78 hours. Anecdotally, the Groove has a decent enough battery life. With minimal usage, you won't have to charge it to get through a workday, and 25 minute conversation barely made a dent on the reserves. According to FCC radiation tests, it has a digital SAR rating of 1.15W/kg.

Conclusion
Taking Muve Music into account, if you're on Cricket's network and are looking to spend only $100, I'd recommend the Groove over the Samsung Vitality. Comparing the two, their specs are nearly identical, but at least the Groove has the added advantage of being newer. And while the Vitality does indeed have a higher rating, it's only because at the time it was released two years ago, running Android 2.3 and having a 3.2-megapixel camera wasn't such a bad thing.

However, if you can fork over some extra dough, I'd rather get the $149.99 Huawei Mercury. You'll get the same OS version, but a faster 1.4GHz processor, an 8-megapixel camera, and excellent call quality.

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5.0

ZTE Groove (Cricket Wireless)

Score Breakdown

Design 5Features 5Performance 5