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It used to be that prepaid, no-contract carriers offered weak feature phones cleverly pitched to resemble their more capable smartphone cousins on traditional networks. The market has changed, however, and the Android invasion has spilled over into this uncharted territory. ZTE's $199 Warp is a sign of that shift, offering the full power of Android with enough speed to handle it.
When I first laid eyes on the ZTE Warp, I wasn't too impressed. Perhaps it was the theft-proof bubble packaging I had to tear open, or the Warp's nondescript black slab shape. What's more, it reminded me of my aging HTC HD2---only molded from plastic rather than metal. Measuring 5 inches tall by 2.7 inches wide by 0.5 inch thick, it won't win any awards for being compact, but the 5.3-ounce phone has some reassuring heft and feels solid in the hand. The back of the phone has a pleasant rippled texture that makes it easy to grip and resists fingerprints.
Most of the ZTE Warp's front consists of its 4.3-inch (800x480-pixel-resolution) LCD screen. While nowhere near as bright or high-contrast as the AMOLED or Super LCD displays that grace modern handsets, the Warp's screen pumps out an acceptable amount of light. Colors look vivid enough even if they lack the impact and saturation seen on higher-end devices. Also, the thick bezel surrounding the Warp's display makes it appear small. In addition, the touch screen felt less responsive than I'm used to, perhaps because of the special Gorilla Glass that improves durability.
By default, the Warp's input method is the XT9 virtual keyboard. Its gray keys are wide with enough spacing and they provide light haptic feedback. My fingers flew across it, banging out messages quickly using the suggested text function. You also can select the basic Android keyboard, which is practically identical but with a black background and square keys.
Above the display is a silver earpiece speaker, but the lack of a front-facing camera means that video chat is out of the question. There's also a notification light, something that's becoming a rarity on today's devices. Below the Warp's display sit capacitive buttons for basic Android functions (Home, Menu, Back, and Search). Otherwise, ZTE keeps physical key options to a minimum. On the right side are a Micro-USB port and a dedicated camera button, on the top are a small black power key and a 3.5mm headphone jack, and the left edge has only a volume rocker. I found all keys to be within easy reach and especially liked how the volume bar is scalloped to indicate up and down.
Around the back are the Warp's 5-megapixel camera with LED flash and the main speaker. Removing the textured battery cover, which is thin and unnervingly flexible, reveals the phone's big 1,600mAh battery. ZTE fills the microSD card slot with a 2GB card (expandable to 32GB max) that you can thankfully access without messing with the battery.
The ZTE Warp offers a very bare-bones Android experience, which I think is extremely refreshing in these days of custom skins and irremovable bloatware. While not Google's latest and greatest Ice Cream Sandwich version of the operating system, the phone's OS is a respectable Gingerbread 2.3.5 that brings all of the powerful customization and flexibility features Android fans love. There are the five standard home screens that you can populate with widgets and favorite application shortcuts, and the device links to the Android Market for Google's library of music, books, movies, and more than 250,000 apps.
ZTE preloads the Warp with a staple selection of Google software, such as apps for Gmail, e-mail, messaging, and GPS navigation. You'll also find the basic multimedia players for music and video here, a My Files app for sifting through the Warp's data directory, and a few helpful utilities like an alarm clock, stopwatch, and voice recorder. Plus, there's Boost Mobile's BoostZone app for checking your account balance, adding extra funds, and downloading suggested software.
The only attempt to tweak the interface is a Mobile ID feature, ported from Sprint, which is Boost Mobile's parent company. With Mobile ID you can download a number of themes for the Warp, including MTV, Socially Connected, and Professional, built around differing wallpapers and apps supposedly tailored to match them. It's a waste of time since a huge draw of Android is having the freedom to tweak your phone to your liking, not someone else's.
Equipped with a mediocre 5-megapixel camera, the ZTE Warp takes passable pictures in a pinch, but it won't blow anyone away with its image quality. Colors in my test shots were washed out and details were fuzzy, and the autofocus takes a long 2 seconds or so to lock on to subjects. The Warp's LED flash didn't blow out people or objects in the foreground, but it did paint them with a bluish hue in low-light conditions.
Though the camera software is typical for Gingerbread, the phone does offer more advanced settings such as 50Hz and 60Hz Anti Banding, manual ISO, saturation, and sharpness.
Like the still shots, video was disappointing. The Warp's camcorder tops out at VGA resolution, and sadly movies I recorded in both MPEG4 and H.264 formats were blocky and poorly detailed, with muted colors.
I tested the CDMA (EV-DO, Rev. A) ZTE Warp on Boost Mobile's network, technically Sprint's, in New York. Voices came through the earpiece very loud and crystal-clear. Callers on the other end also reported that I sounded remarkably clean, warm, and without any distortions. Calls piped though the ZTE Warp's speakerphone, while not booming, also had a satisfying amount of volume.
ZTE Warp call quality sample Listen now:
Those expecting a high-octane Android fire-breather will not find one in the ZTE Warp's middling specs. The handset is powered by a 1GHz single-core Snapdragon processor and 512MB of RAM, and its Linpack benchmark score of 37.7 (single-core) is underwhelming. Still, I experienced no lag when navigating menus and opening apps.
The phone's slow 3G data connection isn't too exciting either. I logged average download speeds of a low 1.35Mbps with uploads clocking in 0.87Mbps. That's certainly not in the 4G ballpark, which can scorch the airwaves at 15Mbps down and 7Mbps up (Verizon LTE). Still, the Warp's data performance was typical for 3G. In fact, it was faster than the iPhone 4S on Sprint's network (0.45Mbps down, 0.47Mbps up), the same infrastructure Boost Mobile uses.
ZTE makes rather vague claims about the Warp's battery life. The company says it provides a usage time of five days and standby time of nine days and 9 hours. I can verify that the phone definitely has staying power for an Android device, staying powered up for over 24 hours with light use (checking e-mail, making quick calls, and playing audio files).
ZTE's Warp isn't exactly a tech lover's dream. The $199 handset is specced out with mediocre parts, including a camera that won't wow anyone, wrapped in a pretty tame design. Still, the Warp provides all the Android Gingerbread essentials plus enough horsepower to get the job done, if not in style. If you can live with the Warp's pedestrian 3G data speeds, it's a compelling no-contract smartphone option.