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

With its 5-megapixel camera, dual-core processor, and Android 4.1 OS, the Imperial takes the crown for one of the better mid-tier ZTE handsets we've seen in a while.

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
3 min read

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.


ZTE Imperial (U.S. Cellular)

The Good

The <b>ZTE Imperial</b> 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.

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.

Hear ye, hear ye: The ZTE Imperial (pictures)

See all photos

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 "="" rel="">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.

Although the camera isn't something you'd want to take celebrity portraits with, photo quality was decent. In photos with dim lighting, there is a notable amount of digital noise. I also thought objects could stand to be sharper and more defined. However, in general, colors were accurate, and objects were easy to make out and in focus. You will need to keep the camera still a few moments after pressing the shutter to prevent motion blur, but I found I didn't have to wait as long as I did with previous ZTE devices.'

Recording quality was also adequate. Objects remained in focus, and colors appeared true to life. However, in quiet recordings, I could hear a low humming noise in the background. It wasn't overly distracting, but noticeable nonetheless. In noisier videos (such as cars driving by the road), this sound was not picked up.

ZTE Imperial (indoor)
In this indoor shot, you can see some digital noise among the carpet, table, and walls. Lynn La/CNET
ZTE Imperial (outdoor)
In this outdoor shot, the flowers in the forefront are in focus (as intended), and bright. Lynn La/CNET
ZTE Imperial (SSI)
In our standard studio shot, you can see a yellow hue against the white background. Josh Miller/CNET

I tested the dual-band (800/1900) ZTE Imperial and call quality was good. Voices sounded a bit muffled and call volume could've been slightly louder, but in general, voices were easy to understand and came in clear enough. In addition, none of my calls dropped, audio didn't clip in and out, and I didn't hear any extraneous buzzing or noises. Likewise, I was told that I could be heard perfectly fine as well, and when I stepped outside nearby whizzing cars, my colleague told me that he could not tell that I was outside.

My main issue, however, was the low volume for the speaker. Even when volume was turned all the way up, I had to hold the handset close to my ear, even when I was indoors, to hear my call. When I stepped outside, it was very difficult to hear my call over the general backdrop of noises.

ZTE Imperial (U.S. Cellular) call quality sample

Listen now:

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Because we don't have U.S. Cellular's 4G LTE coverage here, I browsed the Internet using the carrier's 3G network (EV-DO Rev. A). On average, data speeds were slow but consistent: the handset loaded CNET's mobile site in 32 seconds and our desktop site in a minute and 25 seconds. The New York Times' mobile site took about 25 seconds, while its desktop version took a minute and 25 seconds. ESPN's mobile site took 29 seconds, and its full site loaded in a minute and 5 seconds. Ookla's Speedtest app showed me an average of 0.25Mbps down and 0.46Mbps up. It took an average of 23 minutes and 21 seconds to download the 32.41MB game Temple Run 2.

ZTE Imperial Performance testing
Average 3G download speed 0.25Mpbs
Average 3G upload speed 0.46Mbps
App download (Temple Run 2) 32.41MB in 23 minutes, 21 seconds
CNET mobile site load 32 seconds
CNET desktop site load 1 minute and 25 seconds
Restart time 45.22 seconds
Camera boot time 2.11 seconds

The handset is powered by a 1.2GHz dual-core CPU. Basic tasks like unlocking the screen, launching the keyboard, and opening the camera app showed a little lag, but it wasn't overly frustrating. While it's not blazingly fast, all in all, my general experience with the device felt smooth -- no apps or games quit unexpectedly, it didn't take too long to transition back to the home screen, and the handset never stalled. On average, it took almost 45 seconds for the phone to restart entirely and 2.11 seconds for the camera to fully launch.

During our battery drain test, the Imperial's 2,500mAh battery clocked in an impressive 19.52 hours of talk-time. Anecdotally, it can survive a workday without a charge under mild usage, and last several days on standby. It has a reported talk time of 12 hours. According to FCC radiation standards, it has a digital SAR rating of 1.30W/kg.

As one of the two cheapest lower-tiered 4G LTE devices that U.S. Cellular has to offer (the other being the Samsung Galaxy Metrix 4G), the ZTE Imperial is the better handset. Compared to the latter, the Imperial runs a newer version of Android, has better call quality, and takes better photos.

However, if you don't already subscribe to U.S. Cellular and are thinking of switching to the carrier, it's currently offering the 4G LTE Samsung Galaxy S3 for free. Even though it's been out for over a year, the S3 sports superior flagship specs like a 4.8-inch AMOLED display, an 8-megapixel camera, and a dual-core processor. This promotion may change at a later date, however, so new customers should research all their options.


ZTE Imperial (U.S. Cellular)

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 7Performance 7