A year or two ago, mid-range devices were nothing to gush about at neighborhood barbeques. Fast-forward to 2013, however, and smartphones listed at those middling price points are much more desirable. After all, a large number of them would have been considered high-end flagships -- had they launched last summer. The ZTE-made Sprint Vital may well have been one of those phones, given its specs: the handset features a 5-inch 720p display, dual-core Snapdragon S4 chipset, 13MP camera and solid battery. In short, the Vital is very much a 2012 phone trying to find its way in 2013. Sprint's strategy, therefore, is to sell the device for the standard mid-range price ($100 for existing customers on-contract), and see if people are willing to spend the next two years of their lives with this curious piece of workmanship. Throughout this review, we'll see for ourselves if it's worth our time, energy and focus, especially as it goes head-to-head against headlining phones from LG and Samsung. Head beyond the break for those answers and more.
Handling the Sprint Vital, we never got the impression that the white-labeled device was attempting to be anything that it wasn't. On the contrary, it's almost a little too humble; as you can see in our images, the Vital is your run-of-the-mill 5-inch phone, with very few features that help it stand out in the crowd. If you've never found branding particularly endearing, there's virtually none here -- there's no indication that this is a Sprint device, nor can you tell that it's produced by Chinese manufacturer ZTE.
Granted, that's part of the Vital's intrigue and Sprint's most recent modus operandi: the absence of a carrier-sanctioned logo makes it all the more easier for the Now Network to push its handsets to prepaid subsidiaries Virgin Mobile and Boost. There's enough bloatware on the inside to make sure you don't forget which network you're using, of course, but we'll go over that shortly.
Measuring at 142.0 x 71.4 x 9.95mm (5.6 x 2.8 x 0.4 inches) and weighing 5.43 ounces (154g), the Vital is not the smallest, thinnest or lightest 5-inch smartphone by any stretch of the imagination. The Samsung Galaxy S 4 is noticeably smaller -- despite having a display of the same size. Not that we're surprised a lower-tiered smartphone is a bit larger. And to tell the truth, we weren't put off by it either. In fact, in case you aren't in love with the GS4's glossy, slippery back and can't grip the phone's thin edges very well, the Vital may actually be a better fit. The dark blue plastic battery cover is about as soft-touch as you can hope to find on the market these days, which slightly improves your ability to grip the device and lessens the likelihood of leaving fingerprints behind (grease, on the other hand, still shows up rather easily). The front of the Vital is wider than the back and the edges are gently sloped, also contributing to your increased ability to hold the phone without it slipping out of your hands.
The front houses a 5-inch, 1,280 x 720 IPS panel which will work just fine for most users. The whites are brighter than AMOLED, though the blacks are a bit lighter as well. However, the screen's rather easy to see in direct sunlight and the viewing angles are as good as we've come to expect on an IPS display. At 293 ppi, the pixels are visible, but not exactly easy to spot from a reasonable distance.
Above the display sits the front-facing camera, LED notification light and usual arrangement of sensors. On the opposite end, you'll find three capacitive buttons for back, home and menu (recent apps can be accessed by long-pressing the home button, though we haven't found a similar shortcut for Google Now). The keys can be difficult to press, as on many occasions we needed to touch them multiple times before getting any result. The volume rocker and micro-USB charging port are on the left side of the phone. A lonely mic sits on the bottom and a power button, 3.5mm headphone jack and noise-canceling mic hang out up top. Camera enthusiasts, take note: there's a dedicated double-detent shutter button (and camera shortcut) on the bottom right, which will help you make the most of that 13MP shooter.
There's not much to say about the battery cover, since it's devoid of any branding or logos. However, you'll still find a couple interesting features: a slightly raised speaker grille on the bottom-left corner and a circular camera module on top. After two weeks of using the Vital, we noticed that standard wear and tear (simply keeping the phone in our pockets on a regular basis, with no drops or obvious scratching) resulted in a few nicks in the metallic ring encircling the orifice. You'll see the LED flash immediately below the lens, with some inscriptions on the left and right. Pry open the cover on the bottom-left corner and you'll be whisked into a wondrous world that contains a 2,500mAh battery, a micro-SIM slot and an empty microSD reader capable of accepting up to 64GB cards. Given the device's paltry 8GB internal storage (roughly 4.5GB of which is user-accessible), you'll want to fill that slot at your earliest convenience.
142.0 x 71.4 x 9.95mm (5.6 x 2.8 x 0.4 inches)
1,280 x 720
8GB (4GB user-accessible)
microSD (up to 64GB)
1080p, 30 fps (front and back)
LTE 1900; CDMA 800/1900; no global roaming
Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Plus (MSM8960)
Continuing this theme of simplicity, the ZTE Vital runs an almost completely stock version of Android 4.1.2. Since the phone maker takes a few small liberties here, however, the device still has a personality of its own. Essentially, the most significant departure from the vanilla experience is the lock screen, where you'll need to hold down the center button to unlock the home panel; you can also do the same for quick access to the camera and a sound profile toggle switch.
The camera, which we'll discuss in more detail shortly, also comes with a completely different user interface -- though any change from stock Android in this particular department is surely welcome. On top of this, you'll also find ZTE made a few tweaks to the alarm, default web browser, calendar, calculator and settings menu. Naturally, Sprint's also added its own influence to the mix: Sprint Zone, Sprint ID and Sprint TV & Movies are here, along with Lookout Security, Twonky's Media Share and Real Racing 3. You'll want to be cautious of the latter game, as you're required to download over 1GB of material if you'd like to take it for a spin. Some of the bloatware is uninstallable, but the majority of pre-installed apps are there to stay.
We said it in our review of the HTC One and we'll say it again: don't get caught up in the megapixel war. As easy as it is to associate high resolution with great quality, it doesn't always tell the full story. The Vital's tale, for instance, involves a 13MP protagonist riddled with a roller coaster of ups and downs. Let's set the scene.
Although the majority of the Vital's user experience relies on stock Android 4.1, the camera interface represents a happy departure. The right sidebar features the shutter, gallery view and camcorder toggle buttons, while filters, settings, modes and front-facing cam toggle are ever-present on the left. ZTE offers several more options than your typical stock camera app, such as HDR, ISO, white balance, exposure adjustments, burst settings, macro mode, a few low-light profiles and numerous other customization options. Since long-pressing the software shutter results in a series of burst shots, we were pleased to have the double-detent hardware button, which gives you the ability to lock your focus and exposure. The viewfinder is capable of tap-to-focus as well, so you have very few excuses if you get a blurry shot in daylight.
Gallery: Sprint ZTE Vital 13MP camera samples | 71 Photos
Direct sunlight is not a friend to the Vital's camera, as lighter colors (think: legs, feet and hands) tend to get washed out. Darker hues don't suffer quite as much, at least. The camera's dynamic range is too limited for our taste, as the sensor has a difficult time capturing both dark and bright areas in the same shot; since the sensor heavily favors one side of the light spectrum at a time, either the shade will be too dark or the bright areas will be completely overexposed. That said, the Vital's HDR capabilities made a huge impact in this area, expanding the dynamic range of daylight shots while adding a generous amount of color to pictures we took at dusk; we actually found ourselves defaulting to HDR on a regular basis.
If you're only dealing with an average amount of light, you'll find that the resulting shots are completely acceptable and in many cases they turn out incredibly well. Unfortunately, the Vital will not be your go-to device if you plan to take a lot of photos at night or in any other low-light situation; if you're trying to find the defining characteristics of a mid-range phone in the Vital, this is definitely one area you'll want to look at. Unfortunately, it captures extremely dark pictures despite an aperture of f/2.4, and if you're trying to take shots of moving objects -- say, children -- anytime around or after sunset, you'll be painfully frustrated, as you'll end up with plenty of blurry memories.
Video capture is set at a max resolution of 1080p with a frame rate of 30 fps and 20 Mbps bit rate. The majority of our movies turned out pretty nicely, with detail and smooth motion only taking a slight decline when compared to the GS4. We had no problem with capturing our voices -- along with our callers' -- even when we were in the midst of a moderate breeze.
Performance and battery life
The Vital takes advantage of a Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Plus (MSM8960) chipset with a 1.5GHz dual-core Krait CPU and Adreno 225 GPU. It's the same setup found in 2012 flagships like the Motorola Droid RAZR HD, Samsung GS3 (US) and AT&T HTC One X; notable 2013 phones like the BlackBerry Z10 and Nokia Lumia 920/925; and a load of other mid-rangers still taking up space on shelves at retail stores. While the experience may not be as refined as many of today's quad-core (and octa-core) powerhouses, it's still acceptable for most people who don't need the best of the best. Take a look at the scores below to see how the Vital holds up against a couple of its peers.
LG Optimus G
SunSpider 1.0 (ms)
GLBenchmark Egypt 2.5 HD Offscreen (fps)
SunSpider: lower scores are better
Initially, we were a little disappointed to hear that ZTE and Sprint opted for an S4 Plus instead of the newer Snapdragon 400 (we imagine the older chipset was the result of corner-cutting efforts). In many benchmarks, however, its results when compared to the HTC First -- a stock device (if you turn off Facebook Home) that operates with a 1.4GHz dual-core S400 -- are either too close to call or better when factoring in the difference in clock speed. When you take into account the fact that many current devices still use the same setup, this shouldn't be too much of an issue; and frankly, most consumers shopping for a mid-range handset aren't as likely to nitpick about such seemingly trivial things.
What those potential buyers will nitpick about, however, is battery life. The Vital isn't a disappointment in this area, but it doesn't excel either; we had no problem squeezing out 12 or 13 hours of moderate use, and we snagged over a day and a half with relatively low use (in other words, we occasionally took it out of our pockets to look at email, make calls and so on). In our standard video rundown test, the device lasted six hours and 37 minutes before bidding us a digital farewell. All in all, it's perfectly average -- precisely what we'd expect a mid-range smartphone to be.
Call quality was slightly on the tinny side when we were in areas with weaker reception, but we could hear others quite well otherwise. The noise-canceling mic worked great during our calls, and the speakerphone was more than sufficiently loud. We were also impressed by how quickly the Vital's GPS could track our location. Unfortunately, its performance on Sprint's LTE network left a lot to be desired: in areas with four to five bars of LTE reception, we were only getting an average of 7 Mbps downlink / 3 Mbps uplink. This was fair for most common tasks, but we were pretty disappointed in the results, since Sprint's next-gen network is still relatively new and should be capable of much faster speeds.
Pricing and competition
As we mentioned earlier, the Vital is a mid-range device priced at $100 with a two-year commitment. At the time of this writing, new customers are able to get that cost knocked down to nothing. But how does the Vital compare with other smartphones in the same price range? For an identical price, you could get an Optimus G, LG's flagship from last fall, which offers a 4.7-inch display with 1,280 x 768 resolution, quad-core Snapdragon S4 Pro and 13MP camera. You could also choose the Samsung Galaxy S III, last year's Galaxy S flagship, or the iPhone 4S, which is now nearly 2 years old. LG's darling trumps the rest of the pack spec-wise, and is still one of our recent favorites. While the Vital has a lot to offer, it faces tough competition against foes that are much more familiar with the US battlefield.
So where does this leave our assessment of the Vital? Overall, it's a pleasant device to use, though it has very few qualities that make it memorable. There's not much about the handset we truly loathe, but mainstream consumers are becoming much more picky about what they carry. On one hand, this particular phone is a great deal for new customers who can grab it for no cost other than the two-year contract. On the other hand, current subscribers who are stuck with forking out a hundred dollars for a perfectly average ZTE handset may feel otherwise. No matter which hand you consider, however, it's simply easier to justify the identically priced Optimus G -- whether you're opening your wallet on the day of purchase or not.