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ZTE Imperial (U.S. Cellular) review: At last, ZTE delivers a solid entry-level handset

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MSRP: $299.99

The Good The ZTE Imperial is dirt cheap under contract, has 4G LTE, and takes decent photos.

The Bad The Imperial is bulky, its speakerphone volume is too low, and its screen is difficult to see outdoors.

The Bottom Line If you’re an existing 4G LTE U.S. Cellular customer, the ZTE Imperial is an excellent and cheap phone -- but new subscribers should explore all options and promotions.

Visit for details.

6.7 Overall
  • Design 6
  • Features 7
  • Performance 7

When I began using the ZTE Imperial, I was struck by how well it worked. Given the usually poor performance of lower-tier ZTE devices, I was expecting yet another handset that had an inaccurate screen, an unimpressive camera, and glacial internal speeds.

However, to my pleasant surprise, the phone works well: the display is responsive, its camera is decent, and it performs smoothly.

Keep in mind that the Imperial still isn't a powerhouse by any means, and its bulky build is an eyesore. In fact, U.S. Cellular is offering it for only a penny under contract. But if you want a cheap, reliable, 4G LTE device, this handset won't disappoint.

Though I'm usually partial to white devices, and the use of the color doesn't look bad on this handset, the ZTE Imperial is hefty -- really hefty. At 0.45 inch thick and weighing 5.43 ounces, I thought for a quick second that the phone was actually sporting a QWERTY keyboard underneath. Alas, it wasn't. It's just bulky.

The device measures 4.92 inches tall and 2.58 inches wide. On its left is a prominent volume rocker that's easy to press, and up top are a 3.5mm headphone jack and a sleep/power button. The right edge houses a microSD card slot that's covered by a small plastic door, and a shortcut key that launches the camera. At the very bottom is a Micro-USB port for charging.

ZTE Imperial (profile)
At 0.45 inch thick, the ZTE Imperial is on the bulky side. Josh Miller/CNET

On the back is a 5-megapixel camera with flash and to the right of it is a small speaker grille. Using the indentation on the bottom right corner, you can pry off the battery door with your finger. Once that's removed, you can access the 2,500mAh battery and SIM card.

The handset's 4-inch IPS display has a 480x800-pixel resolution. The touch screen is responsive to my swipes and taps, and menu icons and texts appear clear. However, the display has a narrow viewing angle, and as such, it's even more difficult to view outdoors. Furthermore, because the resolution is low, high-definition images will understandably not look very crisp. In fact, some default wallpaper images looked "crunchy" and grainy.

Above the display is a 1-megapixel front-facing camera, and below are three hot keys (back, home, and menu) that light up white when in use.

Software and features
The phone runs on Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean and features your standard complement of Google apps, such as Gmail, Google+, Chrome, 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 Block Breaker 3, Slacker Radio, and Twitter. There are also several apps just specifically from U.S. Cellular, like City ID, Daily Perks (which notifies you of deals from the carrier), MiEasyAccess, Wi-Fi Now, apps for getting ringtones and games, MobileTV, and a navigator app.

ZTE Imperial (Android 4.1)
The handset runs Android 4.1 Jelly Bean and comes with a bunch of preloaded apps. 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 4.0, mobile hot-spotting, 4GB of onboard storage, and 1GB of RAM.

Now, a quick note about the user interface: although this UI isn't particularly new (it's on the ZTE Director, for example) I did spot a few things I haven't seen before that I like. For example, when you long press on any of the home screen pages, it'll take you to customization settings menu, instead of just presenting different options to change the wallpaper. There, you edit how many home pages you want, select from a long list of interesting page transitions, and choose a different lock screen wallpaper.

Camera and video
The 5-megapixel camera has several photo options. It has a flash, touch focus, a 4x digital zoom, 10 Instagram-esque filters, five shooting modes that include panorama and rapid capture, two scene modes, compositional lines, five photos sizes (ranging from 640x480 to 2,592x1,944 pixels), blink detection and red-eye reduction, meters to adjust the exposure, brightness, contrast, saturation, and sharpness of a photo, five white balances, six ISO options (ranging from 100 to 1,600), and geotagging.

The 1-megapixel camera retains the same digital zoom, grid lines, white balances, geotagging, and ISO options. However, it only takes photos in two sizes (640x480 or 1,280x720-pixels).

Video recording options include five qualities (ranging from QCIF to 720p), digital zoom, time lapse, continuous flash, geotagging, the same white balances, the options to take a photo while recording, two different audio encoding options, and three different video encoding options. Save for time lapse and continuous flash (but the latter is for obvious reasons), the front-facing camera has the same video options.

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