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ZTE Render review: Easy to use, but already outdated

The ZTE Render delivers a couple of high points, but slow performance and an operating system that's days away form being replaced makes it a no-go.

Kent German Former senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Kent German
7 min read

I wouldn't blame you for wondering why you should even consider the ZTE Render for U.S. Cellular. Because in all honesty, you shouldn't. It is, after all, a Windows 7.5 smartphone hitting stores just days before Microsoft releases Windows Phone 8. And as every Windows Phone watcher knows, current Windows handsets won't upgrade to the next version of Microsoft's OS. That alone renders it (yes, I went there) obsolete right out of the gate, a fact that can't be overcome by a promised small upgrade to Windows Phone 7.8.


ZTE Render

The Good

The <b>ZTE Render</b> has a user-friendly design, satisfying call quality, and a generous amount of internal memory. Bloatware is almost nonexistent.

The Bad

The Render's Windows 7.8 operating system is already outdated. The internal processor is slow and the data speeds creep by at 3G EV-DO.

The Bottom Line

The ZTE Render would be a great starter Windows Phone, but only if it came out a year ago.

Behind that mess there’s not much to make the Render worth your time. The 5-megapixel camera produces average photos, the data connection tops out at 3G EV-DO, and the 1GHz processor is slower than it should be. Voice quality is fine, and if the Render carried a different price tag, I'd give it more of a pass. But at $49 with a two-year contract, it's just not worth your time. Unfortunately, it is U.S. Cellular's only Windows device. But even if you're an ardent Microsoft fan, you're better off waiting for the carrier to embrace Windows Phone 8.

The ZTE Render: Obsolete from day one

See all photos

Design and display
The Render never departs from a typical slab smartphone design. On a high-end handset I'd scream for more style, but here simplicity goes with the territory. The exterior measurements come in at 4.7 inches long by 2.5 inches wide by 0.5 inch deep. That makes it relatively small as smartphones go, but it's much heavier then it looks at 4.82 ounces.

Below the display are the standard Windows Phone touch controls. Josh Miller/CNET

The 4-inch WVGA touch screen has a 480x800-pixel resolution. Given the Render’s other specs, I can't really complain. Colors are muted and blacks could be blacker, but it's perfectly serviceable for casual users. As with most previous Windows devices, display options are limited with just three brightness levels (that's enough, though) and the option to change the background theme to one of 10 colors. And, of course, you can personalize the home screen by swapping out tiles and moving them around.

Interface and controls
Below the display are three standard touch controls: Back, Home/Windows and Search. They're plenty sensitive, as is the touch interface of the display. Up top is the 3.5mm headset jack (right where it should be) and the power control. On the left spine is the Micro-USB/charger port and on the right spine are the volume rocker (easy to find when you're on a call) and the camera shutter. The battery cover has an attractive lightly textured surface. The camera lens and flash sit in the top left corner.

The camera lens and flash sit in the top left corner of the Render's back. Josh Miller/CNET

So, yes, on the outside there's nothing terribly wrong with the Render. My biggest beef comes after you turn it on. Now let me state unequivocally that I like the Windows Phone OS. In fact, I like it a lot. I've used it as my personal device and find it a nice middle ground between the sheen of iOS and the technical prowess of Android. And because I like it, I don't see any reason why you'd buy a Windows Phone 7.5 at the end of October 2012, right when Microsoft is rolling out Windows Phone 8. If the Render were upgradable, I wouldn't complain, but there's no disputing that the Render is device that’s obsolete on arrival. It's disappointing that U.S. Cellular picked the Render as its first handset with Windows; it doesn't represent Microsoft's OS well.

Features and Microsoft apps
As I mentioned, the Render has an entry-level feature set. Basic options include a calculator, a calendar, an alarm clock, messaging and e-mail, and Bluetooth 3.0. The Render also has Wi-Fi and it even can function as a Wi-Fi hot spot. The latter is a surprise, though the 3G data speeds won't blow you away. The People Hub serves as your phone book and (if you wish) integration point for Google, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. The phone book size is limited by the available memory, with each contact storing multiple fields.

The volume rocker and and camera shutter sit on the Render's right side. Josh Miller/CNET

Deeper down you'll find the usual assortment of Microsoft apps like the Zune Music player, access to Xbox Live, Maps, the Internet Explorer browser, Office Hub, and Local Scout for searching what's around you. You always can get more apps from the Windows Marketplace. Fortunately, U.S. Cellular adds only its Your Navigator GPS app, which is powered by Telenav. I love that there's not a ton of annoying bloatware. The Render comes with a healthy 4GB internal memory (and 512MB of RAM). That should be enough for most users, but if not, you get an additional 7GB of SkyDrive storage.

With a camera resolution that's limited to 5 megapixels (2,592x1,944 pixels), shooting photos is not the Render’s strong suit. Still, you get a decent amount of features like tap-to-focus, a macro mode, a digital zoom, four white-balance settings, four image effects, adjustable brightness and contrast, metering, five sharpness levels, ISO and EV settings, and flicker reduction. That's all great, though I can't say the editing options made a whole lot of difference. The flash has automatic mode or you can turn it on or off completely.

Outdoor shots were best, but that's not saying a lot. Kent German/CNET
Indoor shots were fine, though there was some noise and blowout areas. Kent German/CNET

Image quality on the Render is middling. The camera performs best outside in strong afternoon light. As you can see in the photo from Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., color accuracy and contrast were decent, though there was a moderate level of image noise. The shot inside CNET's headquarters also fared reasonably well, though the sunlit area in the top left corner was blown out and colors were a bit off. The triangular chairs in the opposite corner, for example, weren't as dark as they should be and the orange couch on the left side was washed out and somewhat blurry. Naturally, the night shot in the rain was poor, but I wasn't expecting a lot to begin with. More troubling, though, is the standard CNET studio shot with flash. There was too much noise, objects were fuzzy, and the image was dark.

Yes, this shot at night in the rain would be challenging for any camera. Kent German/CNET
This indoor shot with the flash was the worst. Kent German/CNET

The Render also has a video player that shoots clips in a 640x480 resolution with or without sound. Features are similar to the still camera and you activate the flash as a steady light. Video length is limited by the available memory, but you’ll want to keep your clips under a minute if you hope to send them by MMS. Video quality is fine as long as you don't move too much. Try to capture lots of action, though, and you're in for a blurry ride.

Internal performance
You'd hardly know that the Render has a 1GHz processor. There was a noticeable lag when performing every function. For instance, it took 30 seconds to boot the Render from a cold start, 5 seconds to open the music player and 28 seconds for the GPS app to load. Other features, like the camera, loaded in 2 seconds, but there also was a 2-second delay when waking the Render from sleep mode.

ZTE Render call-quality sample Listen now:

Call quality and data
I tested the dual-band (CDMA 800/1900) ZTE Render in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., on U.S. Cellular's roaming network. On the whole, call quality was admirable with no obvious weak points. I had no trouble getting a signal and didn't encounter any static or interference. Voices sounded as they should and volume was loud.

OK, I admit I just put in this photo for fun. Kent German/CNET

On their end, callers had few complaints. A couple of friends had trouble hearing if there was a lot of background noise, but that experience was not universal. Automated calling systems could understand me, but the need to be in a quiet place was more apparent here. Unfortunately, the speakerphone delivered spotty sound at all volume levels. Friends didn't have a problem hearing me, but I had a lot of audio cut-outs on my end. According to FCC radiation tests, the Render has a digital SAR of 1.17 watts per kilogram.

Since the Render is limited to the carrier’s 3G EV-DO network (U.S. Cellular does have 4G LTE), data speeds take a back seat. Of course, if you're already on 3G you won't see the difference, but the change is painful if you're used to LTE. The mobile CNET site took 14 seconds to open and the full CNET site loaded in 1 minute, 3 seconds. Another graphics-heavy site, Airliners.net, loaded in 1 minute, 10 seconds. Apps offered a similar experience with popular titles like Twitter taking more than a minute to download.

Performance: ZTE Render (U.S. Cellular)
CNET mobile site load 14 seconds
CNET desktop site load 1 minute, 3 seconds
Airliners.net load 1 minute, 10 seconds
Boot time 30 seconds
Camera boot time 2 seconds
GPS app boot time 28 seconds

The Render has a 1,600mAh lithium ion battery for a rated talk time of up to 4.7 hours and a standby time of 9.2 days. That’s on the low end for a smartphone, but the Render appeared to deliver on its promises in anecdotal use. During my testing period, the Render lasted over a day as I cycled among apps, made a few calls, and used the browser a moderate amount. During CNET's standard talk-time test, it lasted 5.9 hours.

If the Render were free with a contract, or $49 prepaid, I might recommend it. But that's a lot to pay for a device that is outdated from the moment you leave the store. In some ways, the Render is about what you'd expect a starter smartphone to be. But when you consider the whole package, the slow internal performance and 3G data network put the Render well behind other handsets in its class. Windows Phone has an opportunity to extend its reach to more carriers and consumers who don't want a flashy Lumia, but the Render is not the way to do it.


ZTE Render

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 5Performance 6