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ZTE Speed (Boost Mobile) review: You won't feel the need for this Speed

Ignore the name -- this $100 prepaid phone from Boost Mobile is anything but fast.

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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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7 min read

As smartphone technology advances with higher-end features and specs, finding a low-cost device that gives a great value is becoming an increasingly difficult task. And at first, the ZTE Speed's competitively low $100 price on Boost Mobile may be a tempting offer.

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5.0

ZTE Speed (Boost Mobile)

The Good

The ZTE Speed is compact, comfortable to hold and comes at a bargain prepaid price.

The Bad

It has a slow processor, a mediocre camera and a low-res screen that can be unresponsive to the touch.

The Bottom Line

The Speed's price may be tempting, but skip it for better prepaid handsets that are faster and more reliable.

But don't be fooled -- despite its name, the Speed's quad-core processor lags with even the simplest task. Its 5-megapixel camera also takes underwhelming photos, and its low-res display requires a few repetitive taps from time to time due to unresponsiveness.

What compounds the ZTE Speed's faults even more is the fact that there are plenty of phones on the market that perform smoother and more reliably than the Speed at nearly the same price. Boost Mobile offers some (like the LG Optimus F3 ), and other prepaid carriers have alternatives too (Cricket Wireless' HTC Desire 510 for instance). Whichever channel you choose though, it won't be hard to find a phone that's much faster than the ironically named ZTE Speed.

Slow down with the ZTE Speed (pictures)

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Design

Though it's compact at 5.3 inches tall and 2.6 inches wide, and rather lightweight (it weighs only 4.8 ounces), the Speed is thick, measuring 0.4 inches on its side. That means that while it can slip into jean pockets, it will be a snug fit. It's still comfortable to hold though. I can easily maneuver it with just one hand, and I had no problem reaching across the display with my thumb.

The handset sports a 4.5-inch LCD display with a 960x540-pixel resolution. Though text and images are still legible and easy to see, they didn't look sharp or crisp. It doesn't take a very close eye to spot blurry or pixelated edges, and aliasing around letters. The display can also stand to be brighter on its maximum level, and at times, it's unresponsive. There were occasions when I had to tap or swipe repeatedly to get an action to register, which was frustrating.

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The handset features a 4.5-inch LCD display with a 540p resolution. Josh Miller/CNET

On the left edge is a Micro-USB port for charging and up top are the 3.5mm headphone jack and sleep/power button. To the right is a volume rocker. All the keys are raised slightly above the surface, making them easier to find with your fingers. On the back are a 5-megapixel lens and flash, as well as two small slits at the bottom right corner for the audio speaker.

The battery door is made out of a soft, matte plastic, which does well to ward off fingerprints and improve grip. Unlike most backings, the battery door isn't a flat plate -- instead it curves around all four edges of the device. You can still pry off the backing by using a small indentation on the left bottom corner, but it'll require a little muscle. Once removed, you'll have access to the microSD card slot. Unfortunately, the 2,000mAh battery inside is embedded. That's not a deal breaker for me, but it might be a sour note for users hoping to swap the battery when it runs low.

Software features

The phone ships with Android 4.4.4 KitKat and comes with a number of Google's services, like the Chrome Web browser, Drive, Gmail, Search, Plus, Hangouts, Maps, Photos and YouTube. The Google Play stores for apps, Books, Games, Movies and TV, Music and Newsstand are included as well.

There are other several preloaded apps too like 1Weather, the social-networking portal AirG, a gaming portal called PlayPhone, Amazon, TouchPal (which activates an optional keyboard and text-inserting function), NBA Game Time, Next Radio, the rideshare service Uber and the navigation app Scout. Fortunately, if you don't find many of these apps useful or relevant, you can uninstall them.

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A glipse at the phone's app drawer (left) and the pre-loaded Mobile ID app interface. Lynn La/CNET

Boost Mobile threw in some of its own apps like Boost Music, Boost Wallet and Boost Zone, where you can check your usage and account information and stay updated with carrier news. Messaging Plus is an SMS and video calling service and, lastly, there's Mobile ID. This lets you download preselected apps, widgets and other items depending on which ID profile you choose.

Of course, there are basic apps too, such as a native email and and browser client, a calculator, a calendar, a clock with alarm functions, a voice dialer and an audio recorder.

Additional features are 1GB of RAM, 8GB of internal storage and Bluetooth 4.0.

Camera and video

Photo quality for the 5-megapixel rear camera was passable, but don't expect to take crystal clear photos. While objects are easy to make out, edges can look blurry. Faces especially looked particularly fuzzy. There was also a notable amount of digital noise and graininess, and some photos had light sources that casted a slight blue tint.

In general, colors looked muted and dark hues were hard to distinguish. The camera itself is also slow -- you'll need to wait a few beats before it can ready itself to take another shot. For more on photo quality, check out the images below and click on each individual picture to see it at its full resolution.

Video quality yielded similar results. Although both moving and still objects were easily identifiable, images weren't particularly sharp and had blurred edges. Light sources retained that same blue tint, and varying dark colors were simply reduced to jet black. Fortunately though, both nearby and distant audio picked up well.

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In this outdoor shot, dark hues are hard to distinguish, and the details in the building facades blend together. Lynn La/CNET

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Here you can see the random blue tints that were casted by light sources. Lynn La/CNET

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In this close up photo, the edges of the flower petals in the foreground are still a bit fuzzy. Lynn La/CNET

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Aside from some of the center area, objects in our standard studio shot are blurry and out of focus. Lynn La/CNET

Photo features and tools for both cameras include grid lines, geo-tagging, a 4x digital zoom, shooting time-lapse videos and being able to take pictures while recording. In addition, the rear-facing camera has a timer; eight different shooting modes including panorama, HDR and macro; 11 Instagram-esque filters; six picture sizes (ranging from 640x480- to 2,592x1,944-pixel resolution) and it can shoot in five different video resolutions (from MMS to 1080p). Meanwhile, the front-facing selfie shooter has three picture sizes (from 640x480- to 1,600x1,200-pixel resolution) and four video qualities up to 720p.

For additional editing options, you can tinker with your pictures in Google's Photo app, or the device's native gallery app. With the former app, you can auto-backup your photos to a cloud service, while the latter includes decorative borders and clipart that you can overlay, along with your own text and doodles. Both apps, however, let you crop and rotate images, apply filters and tilt-shift blurs, and more.

Performance

Call quality

I tested the Speed in our San Francisco offices, and call quality was adequate. My calling partner's voice was clear and easy to understand, and volume range was appropriately high. Also, none of my calls dropped and audio remained continuous. Every so often though, I could hear a bit of static when my partner spoke, and his voice did sound a little hollow. On my partner's end, I was told that I sounded clear.

There was one instance, however, in the very beginning of one of our calls, that my partner picked up feedback, and he heard his voice echo back into the earpiece. Luckily, it quickly ended after a few seconds.

Podcast

Audio from the speaker also came off clear and on maximum volume was satisfactorily loud. As with many phone speakers, voices did thin out even more. Compared to the in-ear speaker, my calling partner sounded slightly tinny and sharper. All in all, however, holding a conversation on either speakers was audible and easy to understand.

Data speeds, processing speed and battery life

The phone features Sprint's brand of high-speed 4G LTE called Spark, but data times for downloading content and browsing the Web on this Speed were quite slow. For example, on average it took 6 and 9 seconds to load CNET's mobile and desktop sites, respectively. The New York Times' mobile page finished loading after 17 seconds and its desktop version loaded in 5. Both the mobile and desktop site for ESPN clocked in at 12 seconds each.

The 44.52MB game Temple Run 2 finished downloading and installing in about 2 minutes and 24 seconds on average. Download rates averaged out on Ookla's speed test app to 5.47Mbps, while upload rates were 5.24Mbps.

ZTE Speed (Boost Mobile) Performance Times

Average 4G LTE download rate 5.47Mbps
Average 4G LTE upload rate 5.24Mbps
Temple Run 2 app download (44.52MB) 2 minutes and 24 seconds
CNET mobile site load 6 seconds
CNET desktop site load 9 seconds
Restart time 57 seconds
Camera boot time 2.14 seconds

As I mentioned before, the device's quad-core 1.2GHz processor is anything but fast. Simple and small tasks like calling up the keyboard, launching apps and returning to the homescreen felt sluggish. And more complicated actions like switching from the camera to the video recorder and loading games felt laggy too.

For the most part, benchmark tests reflected these observations. On average, the handset took 57 seconds to restart and about 2.14 seconds to launch the camera. Its best multithread Linpack score was 203.704 MFLOPs in 0.83 seconds. Funnily enough, however, its best Quadrant score was 10,181 -- a high result that frankly does not quite match my real-world experience.

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Some of the device's LTE data times (left) and its best Quadrant score. Lynn La/CNET

Anecdotal observations for the 2,000mAh battery has been decent so far. It has a reported talk time of 14 hours and it easily lasted a weekend on standby. With medium to high usage, it can survive a workday without a charge as well. It lasted 10 hours and 56 minutes during our battery drain test for continuous video playback.

Conclusion

$100 for an off-contract smartphone is a good value -- especially for a device that has 4G LTE, Android 4.4 KitKat and a 5-megapixel camera. Unfortunately, the ZTE Speed isn't the only bargain phone currently in existence, and there are plenty of better alternatives.

On Boost Mobile, the $120 LG Optimus F3 is older and smaller with its 4-inch display, but its 5-megapixel camera takes sharper photos. And despite having a dual-core CPU, the device performs faster and smoother. In addition, the $150 Sharp Aquos Crystal may be a 50 percent price jump from the Speed, but it has an 8-megapixel camera, expandable memory up to 128GB and a unique bezel-less design.

If you want to expand your options even further, other prepaid carriers have capable handsets that are even cheaper than the Speed. The LG Tribute 4G LTE for Virgin Mobile and Cricket Wireless' HTC Desire 510 are $80, and both sport sharper designs, more nimble cameras and slightly higher-capacity batteries. Indeed, all these devices won't cost an arm and leg and manage to outperform the ZTE Speed.

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5.0

ZTE Speed (Boost Mobile)

Score Breakdown

Design 5Features 5Performance 5
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