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Virgin Mobile Awe review:

Slow on speed, high on value

Both the 5-megapixel and front-facing cameras have autofocus, digital zoom, five white-balance options, five ISO levels (from 100 to 800), geotagging, compositional grid lines, three photo qualities, and three antibanding options. However, the rear camera can shoot in six 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, 11 Instagram-esque photo filters, 17 shooting modes (like HDR and panorama), a timer, burst shot, and five interval shooting modes. It also has four face detection options, and separate meters to adjust for exposure, contrast, saturation, and sharpness.

Virgin Mobile Awe (outdoor)
In this outdoor photo, the fountain is in focus, but the tree on the left is blurry. Lynn La/CNET
Virgin Mobile Awe (outdoor 2)
Even with outdoor lighting, you can see a lot of digital noise. Lynn La/CNET
Virgin Mobile Awe (indoor)
In this well-lit indoor photo, objects like the chairs have fuzzy edges. Lynn La/CNET
Virgin Mobile Awe (SSI)
The flash casts a severe blue hue against our white backdrop in this standard studio shot. Josh Miller/CNET

Video options for both cameras include digital zoom, four video qualities (from MMS to 720p), time lapse, the same five white-balance options, and geo-tagging. Understandably, only the 5-megapixel camera includes continuous flash, and it also has touch focus.

Recording quality fared as unimpressive as the camera. Though audio picked up well and colors were true-to-life, the camera's constant refocusing resulted in footage that appeared to be "pulsating." Both moving and still objects looked patchy and indistinct, and details like people's faces (who were only a few feet away) were lost.

I tested the tri-band (CDMA 800/850/1900) device in our San Francisco offices. Call quality was good. None of my calls dropped, I didn't hear any buzzing or extraneous noises (even during times of absolute silence), and audio didn't clip in and out. In addition, volume was adequate and I had no trouble hearing my friend. However, voices did sound a bit staticky. I could hear a very subtle buzz while my friend spoke, though it wasn't overly distracting or annoying. Likewise, I was told that I could also be heard fine and clearly, but that it was obvious I was speaking on a cell phone given the slight static she heard as well.

Speakerphone fared a bit worse. Though I could make out what was being said, voices sounded tinny and harsh, as if being sharply pinched through the small speaker. This was especially apparent on high volume, so the effect did lessen as I lowered the volume level.

Virgin Mobile Awe call quality sample

Listen now:

Because the handset runs on Sprint's 3G network, you're not going to get blazing-fast Internet speeds. However, the Awe clocked in consistent and respectable times for such a network. On average CNET's mobile site loaded in 20 seconds and our desktop site in 40 seconds. The New York Times' mobile site took about 12 seconds, while its desktop version took a minute and 40 seconds. ESPN's mobile and desktop sites took 23 and 30 seconds, respectively. Ookla's Speedtest app showed me an average of 0.16Mbps down and 0.54Mbps up. It took an average of 30 minutes to download the 35.01MB game Temple Run 2.

Virgin Mobile Awe Performance
Average 3G download speed 0.16Mbps
Average 3G upload speed 0.54Mbps
App download (Temple Run 2) 35.01MB in 30 minutes
CNET mobile site load 20 seconds
CNET desktop site load 40 seconds
Power-off and restart time 42 seconds
Camera boot time 2.09 seconds
Camera shoot-to-shoot time 1.67 seconds

The handset is powered by a 1.2GHz CPU. Though basic tasks like unlocking the screen, and transitioning to the home screen pages showed little lag, more complicated tasks took more time. For instance, switching the keyboard between portrait and landscape mode, opening up the browser, and clicking the camera's shutter (as previously mentioned) were laggy. Opening Temple Run 2 especially took a few seconds more than usual. On average, it took almost 42 seconds for the device to restart and about 2.09 seconds for the camera to fully launch.

The 1,650mAh battery has a reported talk time of 11 hours. During our battery drain test for video, the device lasted 7.78 continuous hours. Anecdotally, it provided a good amount of power, but don't expect it to last throughout the workday and into the night with heavy usage. According to FCC radiation measurements, the phone has a digital SAR rating of 0.79W/kg.

Given its sluggish processor and ho-hum camera, you do indeed "get what you pay for" with the Awe. However, at $100 off-contract, what you "get" is actually pretty satisfying. Especially considering that ultra-basic Virgin Mobile smartphones start off at $30 and rise upward to $400, like the Samsung Galaxy S3. Indeed, I'd recommend the Awe over the LG Optimus Elite (which is also the same price), due to the Awe's bigger screen and more recent OS.

But if you can fork over the extra cash, do so. The Samsung Galaxy Reverb is only $40 more and it has a great 5-megapixel camera and long battery life. In addition, the $149.99 LG Optimus F3 4G LTE has (you guessed it) 4G LTE data speeds and a better camera as well, making its higher price not only justifiable, but worth it.

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