For just $80 off-contract, you might be able to look past the ZTE Sonata 4G's chunky design, so-so screen quality, and underwhelming camera. Overall, the unassuming Android phone -- sold on AT&T's prepaid Aio Wireless network -- gives you decent value when you consider its strong 4G network speeds and reliable call performance.
Still, a little more money can pocket you a better phone, like Aio's Motorola Moto G for $149.99. And, if you can't budge from the $80 mark, but can change carriers, we'd still take MetroPCS' LG Optimus F6 with LTE any day.
Though compact in size (4.9 inches tall and 2.56 inches wide), the Sonata 4G sports an unflattering and thick 0.45-inch profile that renders it a snug fit in jean pockets. In addition, though the smooth white battery door looks chic, it makes the device quite slippery in the hand.
The left edge houses a volume rocker and a microSD card slot for up to 32GB of expandable memory. Up top you'll find a 3.5mm headphone jack and a sleep/power button. Finally, the Micro-USB port for charging is located on the bottom edge.
On the back is a 5-megapixel camera with flash and there's a small slit for the audio speaker to the left. You can take off the battery door using a small opening at the bottom, and access the removable 1,785mAh battery and SIM card slot.
As for the 4-inch display, it has a 480x800-pixel resolution. This isn't very high at all, indeed, the menu icons look can look grainy, and you can see notable color-banding with the default wallpapers. Furthermore, the touch screen has a narrow viewing angle. Tilt it slightly to the left or right and the display will wash away. And while its brightness is fine indoors, the screen is difficult to look at in direct sunlight. Below the display are three hot keys that light up white when in use for back, home, and menu.
The phone runs Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean and as such contains several Google apps: Chrome, Gmail, Plus, Hangouts, Maps, YouTube, and access to the Play Store's Books, Games, Movies & TV, Music, and Newsstand portals.
Other apps include Facebook and Twitter, an alarm clock, native browser and e-mail clients, a calculator, a calendar, a news and weather app, a notepad, a sound recorder, a timer, and a voice dialer.
Users will also get TouchPal X, an optional keyboard and text inserting function you can activate, and the mobile office suite, Kingsoft Office. Finally, additional features include 4GB of internal memory, Bluetooth 3.0, and 1GB of RAM.
Camera and video
The 5-megapixel camera's photo quality was middling, and showed a notable amount of blurriness. Objects in photos lacked focus and edges were ill-defined. You can also see some digital noise, especially in dimly lit areas, and graininess. Colors also came off a bit muted and washed-out. For more on the camera quality, check out some test shots below, and be sure to click on the pictures for their full resolutions.
Features include touch and autofocus, a 4x digital zoom, flash, five white-balance options, five ISO levels (from 100 to 1600), geotagging, compositional grid lines, and three photo qualities. It can shoot in five photo sizes (from 640x480 to 2,592x1,944 pixels) and has three photo filters, three antibanding options, rapid capture and panorama shooting modes, a timer, and separate meters to adjust for exposure, brightness, contrast, saturation, and sharpness.
For video options you get zoom, four video qualities (from MMS to 720p), the same five white-balance options, and geotagging. You can also take a photo while recording video and record a time-lapse movie.
Recording quality was just as mediocre. Both moving and still objects were heavily blurred and pixelated, and colors looked muted. Even when I recorded from just a few feet away, people looked indistinguishable and were hard to make out. Moreover, though audio could be heard on the phone itself, recordings didn't have sound when played on the computer.
I tested the Sonata 4G in our San Francisco offices using Aio Wireless' service (which runs on AT&T's network). Call quality was good, but there were times when my calling partner sounded a bit muffled.
The amount of static wasn't overly distracting, and it didn't render her voice even remotely incomprehensible, but it was noticeable. Other than that, however, none of my calls dropped, there weren't any extraneous noises, and calls continued consistently. When speakerphone was activated, audio came off thin and flat, but the volume range was appropriate, and I could still hear my partner's voice well. Likewise, I was told my voice came off decent and clear as well, and that I was easy to understand.Listen now: ZTE Sonata 4G (Aio Wireless) call quality sample
Though 4G doesn't compare to the superfast speeds of LTE, this device clocked respectable and, most notably, consistent data times on AT&T's network. Ookla's speed test app showed an average of 3.93Mbps down and 1.14Mbps up. It also took an impressive 1 minute and 49 seconds to download the 44.22MB game Temple Run 2. As for Web browsing, the mobile sites for CNET, The New York Times, and ESPN each took 6 seconds to load. The corresponding desktop site took 17, 15, and 8 seconds, respectively.
|ZTE Sonata 4G||Performance|
|Average 4G download speed||3.93Mpbs|
|Average 4G upload speed||1.14Mbps|
|App download (Temple Run 2)||4.22MB in 1 minute and 49 seconds|
|CNET mobile site load||6 seconds|
|CNET desktop site load||17 seconds|
|Power off and restart time||40 seconds|
|Camera boot time||2.02 seconds|
Inside the handset is a 1.4GHz dual-core Snapdragon 400 processor. This will you give enough power to execute daily tasks like return to the homescreen, call up the keyboard, and flip through your app drawer. More complicated tasks were carried out without a hitch as well, but don't expect the phone to be blazing-fast. Though the graphics-intensive game Riptide GP 2 never force-quit or stuttered during my gameplay, I've seen smoother frame rates and graphics. On average, shutting off and restarting the Sonata 4G took 40 seconds, and launching the camera took about 2.02. Lastly, the device scored a 5,544 Quadrant score and its best multithread Linpack result was 269.867MFLOPs in 0.63 second.
The 1,785mAh battery doesn't sound like much, but anecdotally it yielded enough power to last a full workday with mild usage. According to ZTE, it has a reported talk time of 5 hours and a standby time of 13 days. During our battery drain test, the phone lasted 8 hours and 2 minutes for continuous video playback. According to FCC radiation measurements, the phone has a digital SAR rating of 1.05W/kg.
You can't expect much from an $80 prepaid smartphone like the ZTE Sonata 4G. Owners won't play high-speed games, capture ultrasharp photos, or even use the latest version of Android.
On the other hand, they will get a reliable handset with decent 4G speeds that makes solid phone calls, and have some cash left over in the bank to boot.
But if you're not tied to the Android OS, you can consider the Nokia Lumia 620, which is also offered by Aio. The Windows Phone handset costs $80 as well, comes in a wide array of colors, and is equipped with a better 5-megapixel camera. In addition, if you can scrape up another $70, the highly customizable Moto G is an excellent Android 4.3 device, despite lacking LTE.
Otherwise, the only other prepaid phone I'd consider at that $80 price level is the LG Optimus F6 on MetroPCS. It has a larger 4.5-inch screen screen with a higher resolution and a sharper 5-megapixel camera, and does ZTE's handset one better by offering a faster form of 4G.