If you're trying to entice today's youth to a phone, unlimited music is a surefire way to do it. And that's exactly what ZTE and Cricket have done with one of their devices, the ZTE Score. Their main pitch is that the device is integrated with Muve Music--a music service that gives access to an endless number of artists, albums, and songs.
The Score isn't the first device to come with this feature; that title would go to the Samsung Suede. When we reviewed that phone last year, Jessica Dolcourt wrote that Muve Music still had room for improvement and needed to "iron out the kinks."
It's been nearly a year now, and the same holds true. Muve Music's interface is still clumsy and confusing to navigate. Putting that aside, the ZTE Score has some other problems. Yes, it makes decent phone calls, you don't have to sign a contract, and it's inexpensive--it costs $69.99 at Best Buy, where it's being exclusively sold--but I just couldn't get past the glacial processor and the not-so-sensitive touch screen.
The ZTE Score measures 4.4 inches tall and 2.5 inches wide. At half an inch thick, it has a very sturdy build, but is a little bulky when dropped into a slim jean pocket. This doesn't mean it's too heavy, in fact it only weighs 4.5 ounces, but its thickness is apparent.
There's a nice black matte coating that goes around the edges of the phone, and the back has a glossy plastic backing that gives the device a higher-quality feel that I personally liked. Both the screen and this backing are a magnet for fingerprints though.
On the left side of the phone, you can charge the device using the Micro-USB port that's protected by a little attached door. On top are the sleep/power button and a 3.5mm headphone jack. On the right, there's a volume rocker and below it is a small door for your microSD card. The included SD card is 4GB big, and three of those gigabytes are dedicated specifically to storing your Muve Music. To get it out, you have to press it so it pops up. This might be difficult for anyone who has short nails or large fingers, but it's not impossible.
Below that slot, there's a dedicated camera button. Hold this down for a few seconds and the camera application will open. Unfortunately, this only works if the display is on and your phone is unlocked. This defeats the purpose of having a quick-access button since you still have to click the power button and swipe, but it does shave off the few seconds you'd take to press the camera app on the screen.
On the back of the phone, inside a decorative silver circle that serves no purpose, is the camera lens. At the bottom, there's a small slit for the speaker. You can pop off the backing easily by pressing your nail in a little indent on the device's left side, and you'll find a lithium ion battery inside.
The Score's 3.5-inch HVGA touch screen displays only 262,000 colors. Below the screen are the four usual back, menu, home, and search buttons that dimly light up whenever you touch them. My biggest problem with the display was that it was quite unresponsive to my finger. I had to push down on the screen often in order for it to register my movements, which became annoying after a while.
Aside from the heavily pixelated graphics that I saw when playing games and videos (even the simple outlines of circles in the Settings app were fuzzy), I also thought the screen appeared streaky. Whether or not it was my eyes that were the problem, scrolling through my apps became a bit nauseating because of all the fuzzy lines that appeared across the icons.
The ZTE Score runs on Cricket's 3G network and is powered by a 600MHz processor. Both factors don't make it the fastest phone on Earth, but for some of your basic features like making calls, calculating tip, and text messaging, it'll do the trick. Speaking of text, the phone does not come preloaded with the Swype typing feature. Instead, it uses XT9 text input.
Because it is an Android 2.3 Gingerbread phone, you'll find a lot of standard Google apps such as Google Books, Gmail, Google Maps with Navigation, Search, Google Talk, and YouTube. There are also some Cricket-specific apps, like its Mobile Web browser app, a My Account app for managing your phone payments, and a Yellow Page-esque app called Cricket 411, which you can use to find contact information for the nearest pizza joint, grocery store, or gas station.
Other preloaded apps include two games that you can't uninstall: Uno and a horribly ugly demo game called Bubble Bash 2 that looks like it was designed around the time Netscape Navigator launched. Photobucket and Poynt (another app that searches small businesses and restaurants not unlike Cricket 411 and Yelp) are also included.
General task-management apps such as a calendar and e-mail, news, and weather apps are installed on the device as well. Another neat app, Documents To Go, lets you view Microsoft Word, Excel, and PDF files and even Google Docs on your phone.
Again, the Score's biggest selling point is the Muve Music service. Developed by Cricket, Muve Music lets you download an unlimited amount of music onto your device. The app comes with a feature called My DJ that gives you access to premade playlists organized by musical genres, and Shazam, the popular music-searching app. There's also the obligatory social networking feature, called Get Social, where you can set up your user profile, search for friends, and keep track of your "Shout Outs," where you post songs you're listening to for public viewing. For a more in-depth rundown of Muve Music, be sure to read CNET's review.
Integrating a phone with a music service is a neat idea, but during my time with the feature, I felt as if Muve Music was in some sort of beta stage. Getting music only works when you're connected to Cricket's 3G network, which was spotty in San Francisco. The good thing, though, is that when you're not connected to 3G or even on a Wi-Fi network, you can still listen to the music you already loaded.
Another drawback is that you can't access the music you have on any other device, so it's pretty much stuck on your phone. And once you stop paying your phone bill, access to your songs will also stop. With all this in mind, it's best to think of Muve more as a music rental service than anything else.
This passing sense of ownership over these songs wasn't my main issue with this, however. Instead, it was the horrible user interface. Menu items were confusing and the constant clicking I had to go through (again, on an unresponsive screen) just to download and then play one song was cumbersome. Also, it was unclear at first when a song or album finished downloading, as there is no progress bar. I only started realizing when something was ready for playing when the song title's text appeared in white instead of gray. Talk about subtle.
I also had problems when pausing a song. For a while, I had to go through numerous menu items just to return to a song that was playing and pause it because there is no designated shortcut "now playing" sort of option. I did eventually figure out that if you hold down the menu key on the left for a couple of seconds and wait for it to return to the Muve Music menu, you can select the Music Player icon in the center to get to the song and then pause it. In the end, I still thought that required one too many steps, and it wasn't intuitive.
The 3.2-megapixel camera features a few photo options. It can digitally zoom up to 4x and has five white balance options (auto, incandescent, daylight, fluorescent, and cloudy), photo size and quality adjustments, and color effect menu items that include none, mono, sepia, and negative. You also can change the saturation level of the camera across five different levels.
The video camera includes the same color effects, a white balance meter, and a choice between shooting in high or low quality. If you choose to shoot in high quality, you can record up to 30 minutes of video. If you decide to shoot something in low quality, you can only record for a maximum of 15 seconds.
I tested the tri-band (CDMA 850/1700/1900) ZTE Score in San Francisco using Cricket Wireless' services and the call quality was perfectly adequate. When I used the device indoors and outdoors, voices sounded clear and there was no extraneous buzzing. The volume level could have been higher, however. My callers reported that I also sounded crisp with no noise pollution, and my voice was easy to hear.
ZTE Score call quality sample Listen now:
I thought the speaker volume should have also been louder, however. This was especially true when using Muve. From a phone so focused on giving users a musical experience, I would expect a great output speaker. Although sounds came out clearly, I was disappointed in the maximum volume.
Listening to songs through Muve with the headphones was underwhelming as well. I was using Klipsch s4 earbuds, but music sounded flat and hollow. Perhaps the quality of the music files Cricket chooses to download isn't high, and it certainly did not do Adele or Bon Iver any justice. Even though songs played fine without any skips, the quality sounded the same, if not worse, as a stream off YouTube.
The photo quality of this phone was adequate enough. For pictures taken outdoors and in the sun, photos did not appear "blurry" per se--however, colors did bleed into one another. Especially when viewed on a computer, some photos looked almost like paintings that were drawn with broad brush strokes. Indoor shots looked a little grainy and colors were not as vibrant as they appeared in real life, but objects were not impossible to make out.
Unfortunately, the camera lagged a lot. After pressing the shutter button, I'd have to stand very still for a few seconds until I heard the shutter sound go off. If I moved at all in between those few seconds, the picture would be very fuzzy.
The quality of the videos was subpar. Recordings were pixelated and grainy, and voices sounded muffled. Feedback lagged significantly behind my moving of the camera. Since there was no focusing feature, windows were washed out, and it was hard to distinguish dark or black objects.
Cricket Wireless' 3G network isn't the most robust network, and a few general speed tests showed that. Loading the CNET mobile site, for example, took an average of 55 seconds, while loading our full site took 1 minute and 32 seconds. The wait for the New York Times full site was shorter on average, clocking in at 42 seconds, and its mobile site took 22 seconds to load. ESPN's mobile site took 28 seconds, and its full site loaded in 43 seconds. Ookla's Speedtest app, which is 2.99MB, took a few seconds shy of 5 minutes to download, and showed me an average of 0.08Mbps down and 0.03Mbps up.
And the 18.34MB game of Fruit Ninja took a whopping 26 minutes to download, about the time it would take to watch your average sitcom episode. Surprisingly, playing Fruit Ninja went pleasantly well. The app did not freeze or hiccup at any point when I was playing. Although graphics, again, were pixelated, all the fruits appeared vibrant and moved swiftly. Furthermore, even though I expected the unresponsive screen to not register my finger swipes, I did not notice any continuous moment that my blade went unregistered.
In general, however, the phone did not operate as swiftly as my sword could cut. The device was extremely sluggish whether I was pressing the camera shutter, flicking around Muve Music, switching from portrait to landscape mode, or clicking out to the home screen. As all these applications dragged on, using the phone became a definite drag.
The phone's reported talk time is 4 hours. When we performed our battery drain tests, the phone lasted 5.67 hours. After a day downloading a bunch of songs, making calls, playing games and watching videos, the device still held onto about a third of its battery. According to FCC radiation tests, the ZTE Score has a digital SAR rating of 1.45W/kg.
When you put out the phrase "unlimited music downloads," expect a certain level of scrutiny. Even though linking a cloud music service integrally with a phone is a neat idea, the confusing interface and below-par audio output made me feel I was devolving as far as music portability goes. Everything else I do with music on a phone--using the Google Music app, using other cloud services, finding new music through Last.fm, simply downloading music and putting it onto my phone--seems more convenient than Muve Music. With that aside, the fact that phone makes decent calls still wasn't enough to outweigh the internal lag time and unresponsive screen.