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ZTE Prelude (Aio Wireless) review: Cheap, but still not worth the trouble

You may be tempted by the Prelude's $50 off-contract price, but its slow internal speeds and poor call quality tarnish the deal.

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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

If you're on a budget and you're looking for a prepaid device, you might be tempted to consider Aio's inexpensive ZTE Prelude, which runs $50 off-contract. But believe me when I say, don't.

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5.0

ZTE Prelude (Aio Wireless)

The Good

Aio Wireless' ZTE Prelude clocks in consistent 3G speeds, has an expandable memory, and keeps costs extremely low.

The Bad

The Prelude's sluggish processor and a poor camera weigh it down. Its mediocre call quality and subpar display don't help, either.

The Bottom Line

Skip the ZTE Prelude altogether and nab another inexpensive prepaid handset, like the Nokia Lumia 521 or LG Optimus F6.

Sure, there is some expectation that a phone this cheap will have a small screen, 3G speeds, or lower-powered specs. But even if you are in the market for an entry-level handset, the Prelude will let you down. Its display is hardly viewable outdoors, its processor is glacial, and even its phone calls aren't clear.

On top of that, there are plenty of other handsets, from several prepaid carriers, that are available at the same price range. These devices, like the Nokia Lumia 521 or LG Optimus F6 , aren't only cheap, but they manage to get the job done right as well.

Design

Compact at 4.6 inches tall, 2.4 inches wide, and 0.43-inch thick (116.84 x 60.96 x 10.92mm), the Prelude is also lightweight at just 4.4 ounces (124.74g). It fits easily in your hand or your front jeans pockets, and you won't have any trouble navigating it with one hand. The matte battery door's soft-touch coating works well at keeping fingerprints off, and I could appreciate ZTE's small design effort when it stylized the rear with gray, curvy lines.

The device also has a deep, tapered chin, really rounded corners, and soft edges. In general, it has an inexpensive, toylike feel. Given its look, you'd expect the handset to be for a young child or perhaps a smartphone neophyte.

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The fingerprint-like swirls on the battery door give a small, but much-needed bit of oomph to the device's design. James Martin/CNET

On left edge is a volume rocker, while on top you'll find a 3.5mm headphone jack and the sleep/power button. The right houses a Micro-USB port for charging. The 2-megapixel camera is located on the back, and below it are two slits for the audio speaker. If you pry off the back plate using a small indentation in the bottom left corner, you'll gain access to the battery and the microSD card slot, which is expandable up to 32GB.

The Prelude features a 3.5-inch TFT LCD touch screen, with a 320x480-pixel resolution. This low resolution means that images and menu icons will appear grainy and crunchy. Text will show a noticeable amount of aliasing around the edges. The display is also difficult to view in sunlight. It has a very narrow viewing angle, so the slightest tilt in any direction will wash out the screen almost completely.

Lastly, the display isn't sensitive. At times, it appeared unresponsive to my touch. I had to tap icons more than once for my actions to register, and typing was a drag since I noticed a lag between my selecting the keys and when it appeared on the screen.

Below the screen are three hot keys for back, home, and menu. To access and quit recent apps, long-pressing the center home button will bring up the multitasking windows.

The pocketable and prepaid Prelude (pictures)

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Software features

The Prelude runs Android 4.1.1 Jelly Bean and as such contains several Google apps: Chrome, Gmail, Search, Plus, Maps, Talk, and YouTube, as well as access to the Play Store's Books, Movies & TV, Music, and Newsstand portals.

Other apps include Facebook and Twitter, an alarm clock, native browser and email clients, a calculator, a calendar, a news and weather app, a notepad, a sound recorder, a timer, and a voice dialer.

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The handset runs on Android 4.1.1 and has a couple of Aio Wireless apps preloaded. James Martin/CNET

Users will also get TouchPal X, an optional keyboard and text-inserting function you can activate, and the mobile office suite, Kingsoft Office. Aio preloaded three of its own apps too: My Aio, which lets users check their service bill and carrier balance, and two apps to set up Visual Voicemail and Wi-Fi settings. Finally, other features include 4GB of internal memory, Bluetooth 3.0, and 512MB of RAM.

Camera and video

As expected for a camera with just a 2-megapixel sensor, photo quality was poor. Even with ample lighting, pictures came out grainy with a lot of digital noise. Colors were dull, and light sources often were blown out. Also, despite having a steady hand, many of my pictures had motion blur due to the slow shutter speed. Objects often had fuzzy outlines, and dark hues were hard to discern from one another. For more on photo quality, be sure to click on the images below to view them at their full resolutions.

Video recording yielded similarly unimpressive results. It took a significant amount of time for the lens to adjust itself to different lighting environments, and footage ended up looking choppy and rough. Colors were muted, and objects appeared fuzzy and pixelated.

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In this well-lit outdoor photo, you can still see a notable amount of graininess. Lynn La/CNET

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Despite holding my hands steady after snapping this indoor photo, you can still see blurred edges and fuzzy objects. Lynn La/CNET

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Not only does the white background appear speckled, but you can see how the dark color swatches become hard to distinguish. Lynn La/CNET

When it comes to camera features, there's plenty that you won't get: there is no rear flash, no front-facing camera, and no touch focus (instead, the lens is fixed-focus). However, both the camera and video modes do feature geotagging, five white balance options, and digital zoom.

In and of itself, the camera includes three photo filters, antibanding options, and picture qualities. You can shoot in two resolutions (1,600x1,200 and 1,024x768-pixels), and there are compositional lines, a self-timer, and four meters to adjust exposure, contrast, saturation, and sharpness. As for video recording, there is a time-lapse option, as well as two sizes (VGA and MMS).

Performance

At our San Francisco offices, I tested the dual-band (850/1900) handset, and call quality was poor. Though I was able to understand what my calling partner's was saying and none of my calls dropped, loudness was low for both the in-ear and audio speaker. Even when turned on to its maximum level, volume could stand to be much louder. In addition, I kept hearing a subtle, yet continuous, "whooshing" sound during my call, similar to what you hear when holding a conch shell to your ear. It persisted both during times of conversation and silence.

The audio speaker also yielded unimpressive results. Aside from the low volume range, voices came off tinny and thin. At times, my calling partner's voice became too harshly rendered, and audio was unpleasantly sharp. Likewise, I was told that my end didn't sound so great either, with my voice sounding echoey and muffled.

Podcast

Despite its low-rung design and incredibly slow user experience (more on that later), the smartphone clocked in with surprisingly decent 3G data times that were consistent and reliable. Operating on AT&T's network, Ookla's speed test app showed an average of 2.52Mbps down and 0.12Mbps up. It also took 2 minutes and 47 seconds to download the 44.22MB game Temple Run 2. As for Web browsing, CNET's mobile and desktop site took 12 and 57 seconds, respectively. The mobile site for The New York Times loaded in 16 seconds, while its full page appeared after 35 seconds. ESPN's mobile site took 15 seconds, and the desktop version took 24 seconds.

ZTE Prelude performance times

Average 3G download speed 2.52Mbps
Average 3G upload speed 0.12Mbps
App download (Temple Run 2) 44.22MB in 2 minutes and 47 seconds
CNET mobile site load 12 seconds
CNET desktop site load 57 seconds
Restart time 48 seconds
Camera boot time 2.87 seconds

As previously mentioned, the Prelude's paltry 1GHz processor was sluggish. Basic tasks such as unlocking the lock screen, swiping through the app drawer, and adding widgets to the home screen lagged notably, taking longer than it should have. At times it felt that the device was barely trudging through these simple actions, and more complicated tasks like launching and quitting games felt glacial. On average, it took 48 seconds for the handset to restart and 2.87 seconds to open the camera. In addition, its highest Quadrant result clocked in at 2,049, and the best multithread Linpack result was 32.405MFLOPs in 5.21 seconds.

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Ookla's data speed results (left), and the phone's best Quadrant score of 2,049. Lynn La/CNET

The removable 1,500mAh battery isn't much, but given how the smartphone doesn't command much power in the first place, you'll be able to remain unplugged from a power source for an adequate amount of time. Anecdotally, I was able to use the handset through the workday without any charge, and it lasted through the entire weekend on standby. During our official battery drain test for talk time, it lasted 11 hours and 15 minutes. According to FCC radiation measurements, the phone has a digital SAR rating of 1.25W/kg.

Conclusion

The ZTE Prelude has some merits. Its petite design makes it completely pocketable, its 3G speeds were consistent, and storage hogs will dig its expandable memory. But even for its $50 price, the device's processor is just too slow, its phone calls are too poor, and its camera is too meager to outweigh those pros.

This is especially true when you consider the number of other handsets out there that are better and cost about the same. If you want to stick with Aio, the $80 ZTE Sonata 4G has faster data speeds and a bigger screen. And while you'll have to switch to the Windows Phone OS with the Nokia Lumia 620 , the $50 smartphone has a solid 5-megapixel camera and NFC.

However, if you're open to other prepaid carriers, both the Samsung Galaxy Rush from Boost Mobile and the Samsung Galaxy Reverb from Virgin are currently $80 and $50, respectively. They, too, are 3G devices, but they sport better cameras and faster internal speeds than the Prelude.

Ultimately though, I'd recommend MetroPCS' Nokia Lumia 521 or the carrier's LG Optimus F6 . Both cost $50, with the former packing a superior camera (despite its lack of flash), and the latter having a crisp 4.5-inch screen and 4G LTE.

zte-prelude-6506.jpg
5.0

ZTE Prelude (Aio Wireless)

Score Breakdown

Design 5Features 5Performance 5
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