Assuming you're able get Cricket Wireless' LTE coverage in the first place, the ZTE Source delivers LTE speeds at a decent $189.99 price. In fact, that's the carrier's most budget option for an LTE device by quite a wide margin. Its second-cheapest handset, the Samsung Galaxy Admire 2, costs $250.
True, the Source isn't banging on all cylinders (naturally, you'll have to spend more dough if you want better specs): it can be sluggish at times and its camera's image quality is less than stellar. However, it does feature a decently sized 4.5-inch screen, expandable storage, and Cricket's recently revamped Muve Music service. Altogether, that makes the handset a worthy value if you're on a tight budget.
The ZTE Source measures 5.31 inches tall and 2.64 inches wide. Given that it's 0.40 inch thick and weighs 5 ounces, the device is hefty. I immediately felt its weightiness the moment I picked it up, and it feels bulky when I put it in my front pockets.
The edges are accented with a silver chrome-like finish, and on the left is a Micro-USB port for charging and a narrow volume rocker. Up top is a 3.5mm headphone jack and on the right edge is a sleep/power button.
The back houses a 5-megapixel camera with flash, and on the bottom left corner are two small slits for the audio speaker. Coated with a matte soft-touch material, the battery door surprisingly traps a lot of fingerprints and oils, but you can easily wipe them off. Using a small indentation on the bottom left corner, you can pry the battery door off to access the microSD card slot (which accepts cards of capacities up to 32GB), and the 2,070mAh battery.
Equipped with a 4.5-inch display, the handset has a 480x854-pixel resolution and 218ppi. This isn't the sharpest resolution, and indeed, you can see a subtle "crunchiness" when it comes to default wallpaper photos and high quality YouTube videos. The graininess isn't overly distracting, however, and the screen is still sensitive and responsive to the touch. I had no problem typing (either by pressing on the individual keys or by Swyping), and tapping on apps with my fingertips was a breeze.
Above the display is a 1-megapixel camera and below are three hot keys (for back, home, and menu). You can long-press the center home button to access recent apps.
The phone features many of Cricket Wireless' own apps, which include its own navigator; a My Account app to manage your phone payments; and MyBackup, which lets you store your contact information in a cloud. There's also a White Page-esque app called Cricket 411, where you can access information for the nearest pizza joint or grocery store; and a Cricket storefront that lets you purchase graphics and applications.
Finally, there's Muve Music. Muve is a subscription service tied to your service plan, and it lets you download and play (offline, even!) thousands of songs and albums. It's preloaded onto the Source, and after finally receiving a desperately needed face-lift, the service is more manageable and easier to use than ever. Features include Muve Mixes (formerly known as My DJ), which lets you access premade playlists organized by musical genres. There's also a New Releases section and Shazam, the popular music-searching app. The app can be accessed as a home-screen widget, wherein you can launch the Shazam tool directly, and pause and skip music tracks.
The device runs Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean and as such contains several Google apps: Chrome, Gmail, Plus, Hangouts, Maps, access to the Play Store's Books, Games, Movies and TV, Music, and Newsstand portals, and YouTube.
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, a voice dialer, and a world clock.
Camera and video
Casual shutterbugs shouldn't mind the handset's photo quality too much, if all you're looking for is to take some informal shots here and there. However, don't expect to take impressive photos. For one thing, colors tended to look muted, and ran on the cold, bluish side. The camera also struggled to focus at times; even when I held it extremely still, nonmoving objects still managed to appear blurry with ill-defined edges. It also didn't take much to take pictures riddled with digital noise. Even a well-lit indoor setting can produce the issue quite easily. For more on the camera's picture quality, check out the images below. And feel free to click on them to view them at full resolution.
Both the 5-megapixel and front-facing camera has autofocus, a 4x digital zoom, five white balance options, five ISO levels (from 100 to 1600), geotagging, compositional grid lines, and three photo qualities. However, the rear camera can shoot in five photo sizes (from 640x480 to 2,592x1,944 pixels), while the 1-megapixel camera can only shoot in two (from 640x480 to 1,280x720 pixels).
Furthermore, the 5-megapixel camera has touch focus, a flash, nine Instagram-esque photo filters, four shooting modes (like rapid capture and panorama), a timer, and 16 scene modes. It also has two face detection options, and separate meters to adjust for exposure, brightness, contrast, saturation, and sharpness.
Video options for both cameras include digital 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. Continuous flash and a time lapse option is reserved only for the 5-megapixel camera.
Video quality fared just as adequately as the camera. Though it wasn't exactly seamless, focus shifted fast enough when I moved from one sort of lighting to another, and audio picked up well. Objects were easy to make out, and the camera didn't have that subtle "pulsating" effect that often plagues camera phones. However, images didn't look quite as crisp as I'd like, and colors looked as washed out as they did with the camera.
I tested the tri-band (800/1,700/1,900) Source at our San Francisco offices and call quality was average. Although none of my calls dropped and I didn't hear any extraneous buzzing or noises, voices did come off a bit staticky. My calling partner sounded tinny and pinched, and there were one or two times where her words clipped at the end (though, again, this was rare). Likewise, I was told I sounded muffled, but I was still easy to understand. The external speaker yielded similar results: voices sounded sharp and hollow, and maximum volume could stand to be a tad louder, as I had to hold the device closer to my ear to hear my calls.
ZTE Source (Cricket Wireless) call quality sample Listen now:
Although the handset is LTE-enabled, I was only able to latch onto Cricket's 4G, non-LTE network. Data speeds were glacial, and it didn't look like I could change my settings to another network, just in case 3G fared better. On average CNET's mobile site loaded in 50 seconds and our desktop site loaded in 2 minutes and 24 seconds. The New York Times' mobile and desktop site took about 35 seconds, and 3 minutes and 13 seconds, respectively. ESPN's mobile site took 1 minute and 6 seconds to load, and its desktop site loaded in a minute and a half. Ookla's Speedtest app showed me an average of 0.15Mbps down and 0.34Mbps up. It took a whopping 36 minutes and 34 seconds on average just to download the 37.61MB game Temple Run 2.
|Average 4G download speed
|Average 4G upload speed
|App download (Temple Run 2)
|37.61MB in 36 minutes and 34 seconds
|CNET mobile site load
|CNET desktop site load
|2 minutes and 24 seconds
|Camera boot time
The phone is powered by a 1.2GHz dual-core Snapdragon processor from Qualcomm. Though it can be laggy at times (for instance, it takes 42 seconds for the Source to reboot and 2.21 seconds to launch the camera), necessary and daily tasks were executed in a satisfactory amount of time. Returning to the home screen, browsing through the app drawer, and opening up the lock screen didn't take much time at all. And while I've seen higher frame rates and smoother graphics on higher-tiered devices for the game Riptide GP, the app played consistently, and I didn't experience any stuttering or force quits during gameplay.
Inside, you'll find a 2,070mAh battery that has a reported talk time of up to 15 hours and a stand by time of nearly 10.5 days. Anecdotally, the battery life didn't impress. It didn't last the weekend on standby, and after a full workday under medium use, it needed a plug to juice up for the rest of the evening. During our battery drain test, the phone lasted 8.12 hours for continuous video playback. According to FCC radiation measurements, the handset has a digital SAR rating of 1.41W/kg.
If you're able to receive 4G LTE coverage from Cricket in your area, the ZTE Source is a satisfying, low-cost option. But if you can spare another $60, opt for the carrier's Samsung Galaxy Admire 2. Though it has a smaller screen, it has a better camera and a slightly larger battery. In addition, you'll still be able to access Cricket's Muve Music service.
However, if you're not tied to the carrier, other phones are worth considering. For example, if you get better LTE coverage through Sprint's network, its prepaid arm, Virgin Mobile, currently offers the Samsung Galaxy Victory 4G LTE for $10 more. Moreover, both the $199 LG Optimus F6 on MetroPCS, and Boost Mobile's LG Mach have a better 5-megapixel camera (which can record 1080p HD video as well) than the Source, and perform smoother and more reliably. The latter is also $10 cheaper and features a physical sliding keyboard.