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While its bulky build, ordinary design, and 3.5-inch display won't impress any of your friends, this handset has all the basics covered: it supports 3G data, has a 5-megapixel camera, and runs on Android 2.3 Gingerbread.
As a Straight Talk device, the Merit comes commitment-free and costs $129.99. Though some might be put off by its low specs, the Merit is reliable and operates smoothly. It's a no-muss, no-fuss device that should do well for anyone who wants something simple but solidly built.
Editors' note: CNET has not yet reviewed Straight Talk's ZTE Merit. The following is a review of the AT&T Avail, which ZTE confirmed to be the same device. Please keep in mind that the two phones may differ by carrier in terms of features and performance.
I was initially struck by how bulky the Merit felt in my hand. It's not the sleekest thing around, measuring 4.57 inches tall, 2.46 inches wide, and a half an inch thick and weighing 4.48 ounces. Though it can fit in front or back jeans pockets, it is a snug fit.
Size does have its benefits, however: the Merit is sturdy. I dropped it a couple of times on soft carpet and threw it around in my bag and it held up with no noticeable scratches or dents. The handset's made out of a coated matte plastic that I like. This material keeps fingerprints off, and gives the whole product a slightly more luxurious feel than smooth, glossy plastic.
On the left side is a Micro-USB port and up top are a 3.5mm headphone jack and a sleep/power button. To the right are a volume rocker and a small slit for the output speaker.
At the back left corner is a 5-megapixel camera. Using your fingernail and a small indentation on the bottom right corner, you can pry off the back plate. Inside are a 1,500mAh battery, a GoPhone SIM card slot, and a microSD slot that is expandable up to 32GB.
Above the 3.5-inch TFT display is an in-ear speaker and below it are three physical buttons for menu, home, and back. The screen has a 320x480-pixel resolution and is responsive; it was sensitive to my touch when I swiped through the app drawer, unlocked the screen, and texted using XT9, which the phone is equipped with.
Unfortunately, the resolution wasn't so stellar. Menu icons had aliasing around the edges, text didn't look smooth, and default wallpaper images were grainy. Colors looked bright, however, and YouTube videos in HQ were passable.
The ZTE Merit is powered by a 600MHz Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, which can execute basic tasks -- like transitioning back to the six home screen pages, or switching from landscape to portrait mode -- without any hiccups. More complicated actions, like playing games and operating the camera, also ran smoothly, but the device did take a few seconds to open this type of larger app.
The handset runs on Android 2.3 Gingerbread and is stocked with some of your standard Google apps. These include: Google Books, Gmail, Search, Latitude, Maps with Navigation, Places, Talk, Play Store, and YouTube. There are also four AT&T-branded apps, too. One is a bar code scanner, another is AT&T's native map app, the third is AT&T Social Net (which consolidates all your social networking updates into one feed), and finally there is A&T's Mobile Care app.
Additional features include an app to check your data intake; Docs to Go, which lets you view and access Microsoft Office files; Facebook; a native music player and music store; two games (NFS Shift and Uno); a video player; a live TV portal; Twitter; and the Yellow Pages app. There are also several basic task-managing apps like an alarm clock, Bluetooth, a Web browser, a calculator, a calendar, an e-mail client, a new and weather app, a sound recorder, a stopwatch, and voice search.
The camera features a few photo options. In addition to a 2.5x digital zoom, an autofocus, and geotagging capabilities, it has an exposure meter (ranging from +2 to -2); four picture sizes (from 1 to 5 megapixels); three picture qualities (super fine, fine, and normal); four color effects (none, mono, sepia, and negative); five ISO options (auto, and then a range from 100 to 800 ISO); five white balances (auto, incandescent, daylight, fluorescent, and cloudy); an antibanding feature; and five different levels of saturation, contrast, and sharpness.
If you want to record video, you can choose from the same four color effects and white-balance options. You can also choose between four video qualities (VGA, CIF, QVGA, or QCIF), three types of video encoding (MPEG4, H263, H264), two types of audio encoding (AMRNB or AAC), and three recording lengths (up to 40 seconds, 10 minutes, or 30 minutes). If you're not sure about any of these options, you can choose from four video quality presets (High, Low, MMS, and YouTube) that'll automatically adjust all these options for you.
Editors' note: As a reminder, CNET would like to make it clear that the following is a performance review of the AT&T Avail. Again, keep in mind that the two phones may differ by carrier in terms of features and performance, especially when considering call and data quality.
I tested the quad-band (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) ZTE Merit in San Francisco. Signal quality was solid. There was no extraneous buzzing or static, no dropped calls, and no audio clipping in and out. Sound quality, however, was average. Though voices were audible and I could understand what my friends on the other end of the line were saying, the sound was really muffled. They spoke as if they had a thin piece of cloth over the receiver, and I asked them a couple of times to repeat themselves. Though increasing the volume helped a bit, they still sounded muffled. I was told that I sounded similar -- I was easily understandable, but my voice was damped.
Output audio quality was great, however. Perhaps because the speaker is on the side of the phone, and therefore sound doesn't reverberate off the back plate, sound was surprisingly rich when playing music and talking to my friends. Aside from the tingy bass, audio was loud and detailed. Sounds like water running and fire crackling from YouTube videos sounded nuanced and clear.
The camera's photo quality was subpar, again, given the low specs of the device. Even though images were in focus for the most part, colors were not as bright and vibrant as they were in real life (both in scenes taken indoors and outdoors), edges weren't distinct, and objects were grainy when uploaded onto a computer. Also, the autofocus and shutter speed on this camera are slow. After you click to take a photo, you have to hold the handset still for a couple of seconds. What's more, you can't make the camera focus anywhere but the center, so choosing individual objects to focus on at other areas of the photo is out of the question.
Video quality was also mediocre. During my recording, images were heavily pixelated and blurry. Colors were muted and grainy, as well. Feedback between the camera and my moving of the phone lagged a little, but not so much that it was bothersome. Since there's no focusing feature, lighting was over the place. Some objects were washed out in bright light while dark objects were hard to distinguish. Zooming slightly up close on text also rendered it difficult to make out.
The Merit is a 3G phone. Loading the CNET mobile site took an average of 14 seconds, while loading our full site took 1 minute and 3 seconds. The New York Times mobile site took slightly longer on average, clocking in at 16 seconds, and its full site took 54 seconds to load. ESPN's mobile site took 25 seconds, and its full site loaded in 2 minutes and 9 seconds on average. Ookla's Speedtest app, which is 2.99MB, took 21 seconds to download, and showed me an average of 1.91Mbps down and 0.13Mbps up.
The phone's reported talk time is 5 hours. Although I haven't finished our battery drain tests, anecdotally, battery life is satisfactory. I still had about a third of the battery power left at the end of the day, after I surfed the Web, played games, and watched YouTube videos. According to FCC radiation tests, the phone has a digital SAR rating of 1.04W/kg.
Though most ZTE phones frustrate me with their slow processors and unresponsive screens, the Merit operates smoothly without any noticeable hiccups.
If you're looking for your first smartphone, want something simple, or need something to travel with, this device is a solid contender. Though it doesn't have the most recent OS or the most impressive specs, it can carry out basic tasks, like calling, texting, and browsing the Web, reliably.
Furthermore, as it's a prepaid handset, you'll also be free of contracts and commitment. Just refill your minutes and data whenever you need to, and you're set -- perfect for anyone who wants to grab a new phone and go.