Sprint Vital review

The Sprint Vital smartphone gets you a big screen and a solid camera for a good price, but everything else is just average.
Photo of Sprint Vital

Have you been wanting to get into the phablet game, if only they weren’t so expensive? Then Sprint has just the phone for you. The $99.99 Sprint Vital boasts a 5-inch, 720p display and a solid 13-megapixel camera for about half the price you’ll pay for a similarly sized phone anywhere else. It’s a good pick if you’re looking to get the most screen for your money, but otherwise-average specs mean this phone won’t stay fresh as long as most of the pricier options.

Design, Call Quality, and Network
It looks like Sprint and ZTE are continuing to keep their relationship on the down-low. The Vital is Sprint’s third smartphone from ZTE this year not to feature any manufacturer branding. That’s probably because ZTE doesn’t carry the same type of cachet in the U.S. as companies like HTC and Samsung do. But if it keeps making more phones like the Vital, that could change. This is the nicest phone from ZTE that we’ve seen stateside yet.

The Vital measures 5.59 by 2.81 by 0.39 inches (HWD) and weighs 5.43 ounces. It isn’t light, but that weight makes it feel solid rather than bulky. ZTE uses a standard slab design, with minimal embellishment other than the iridescent blue color of the soft-touch back panel. There’s a matte grey band around the middle of the phone, and a shiny blue plastic band around the display. The front is one big glass panel, with three touch controls beneath the display. There’s a camera Shutter button on the right side of the phone, Volume buttons on the left, and a Power button on top. It’s also ULE Platinum Certified for its sustainable build.

The 5-inch IPS LCD features 1,280-by-720-pixel resolution, which works out to 293 pixels per inch. It looks great. Text, images, and video all look detailed and crisp. Given the large display, I had no troubling typing comfortably on the Swype-enabled onscreen keyboard. Just make sure to keep in mind that this is a large phone. We consider any phone with a display of 5 inches or larger to be a phablet, and any phone with a display larger than 4.5 inches to be potentially difficult to use with just one hand. With the Sprint Vital, for instance, I’m unable to hold the phone in one hand and drag the notifications bar down with my thumb, which is frustrating. But a lot of people love big phones, and the Sprint Vital will work for them.

The Vital supports Sprint’s new 4G LTE network as well as its much slower 3G network. In last year’s tests for the Fastest Mobile Networks we found Sprint’s 3G network to be the slowest nationwide. We got a chance to test Sprint’s 4G LTE network in New York City and found it to be a vast improvement. Unfortunately, LTE availability is still extremely limited, so chances are you’ll be trudging along with 3G until it comes to your town.

Sprint LTE is limited in New York City, where we did most of our testing on the Vital, so the bulk of our tests were conducted over 3G. I did get a chance to test 3G data speeds on Long Island, and found them to be a lot better than I’m used to seeing in the city, with an average of 1.6Mbps down and 1Mbps up. I was able to latch onto a precarious patch of LTE for a few minutes and saw speeds jump to 6Mbps down and 2Mbps up, but my connection was tenuous at best and faded quickly, so take these results with a grain of salt.

Reception was good, but call quality is mixed. Voices sound clear and full in the earpiece but just a little digitized. On the other end, however, calls made with the Vital sound extremely thin, tinny, and grating. They are almost painful to listen to, which could be good if you’re looking to get a telemarketer off the line. The speakerphone sounds fine, but isn’t quite loud enough to hear clearly outside. The phone had no trouble pairing with my Jawbone Era Bluetooth headset and standard Android voice dialing worked fine. The large 2,500mAh battery was good for an impressive 13 hours of talk time, and it’s removable, so you can carry a spare.

Android and Apps
The Vital is powered by a 1.5GHz dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Plus MSM8960. That’s the same processor you’ll find in last year’s top Android phones like the Samsung Galaxy S III. The key words here are last year’s. Benchmarks scores were solid, and while the Vital is plenty powerful today, that processor has been around for over a year, which can be measured in dog years in the mobile world. You won’t have trouble running any of the 850,000+ apps in the Google Play store now, but certain apps, like 3D gaming, aren’t going to hold up as well as time goes on. If you’re looking for a high-end experience to match your big screen, you’ll get better performance for a longer period of time with a quad-core phone like the Samsung Galaxy S 4.

(Next page: Camera, Multimedia, and Conclusions)

The Vital is running a basically stock version of Android 4.1.2 (Jelly Bean). That’s not the newest version of Jelly Bean available, but you aren’t missing out on any huge improvements since then. And if you like stock Android, you’ll find a lot to like here. You get all of Google’s built-in apps and services, like a fast Chrome browser, excellent email support, Google Now, and YouTube.

But while ZTE may not have made many changes to Google’s OS, that didn’t stop Sprint from loading some bloatware onto the phone. Thankfully there isn’t a ton of it, but you can’t delete any of what’s there. There’s also a ton of unnecessary widgets and links spread across the phone’s five home screens, but luckily you can modify those however you please.

The Twonky Media Share app is included for you to beam music, pictures, and video over to compatible devices, like an HDTV. And the Vital includes NFC support, which still hasn’t become a must-have feature, but you’ve got it just in case.

Camera, Multimedia, and Conclusions
The Vital has 4.08GB of free internal storage and an empty microSD card slot underneath the battery cover. You don’t need to remove the battery to access the slot, and my 32 and 64GB SanDisk cards worked fine.

For music, I was able to play AAC, MP3, OGG, and WAV audio files, but not FLAC or WMA. Sound quality isn’t great. It’s a little too bass-heavy and muddy over 3.5mm headphones, but tinny and harsh over Bluetooth. For video, all of our test files played back at resolutions up to 1080p except for DivX, but audio over Bluetooth was way out of sync, and the same audio quality problems remain. At least videos look great on the phone’s large display.

If audio performance is a disappointment, the 13-megapixel camera is a bright spot. We’ve seen a bunch of 13-megapixel cameras lately, and most of them don’t measure up to their lofty sensor rating. But compared with the Samsung Galaxy S 4′s 13-megapixel shooter, which is one of the top phone cameras available, the Vital holds its own quite nicely.

The camera snaps photos quickly, with just a 0.2-second delay on average. And compared with the GS 4, photos taken with the Vital look soft instead of noisy, and colors are accurate, though they can get a little washed out in bright lighting. Details look closer to a good 8-megapixel camera than 13, but that’s not much cause for complaint. The video camera is good as well, shooting sharp 1080p video at a smooth 30 frames per second. There’s also a perfunctory 1-megapixel front-facing camera for video chat.

The Sprint Vital is ZTE’s best smartphone yet, and a good choice if you’re looking to buy a big-screen phone on a budget. Though it costs more than twice the price, the Samsung Galaxy S 4 is still your best bet. It gets you a faster quad-core processor, a sharper 1080p display, much clearer call quality, and an even better camera; it’s our favorite Android phone available right now. Another good pick is the HTC One. It too is more costly than the Vital, but features a sharper, though slightly smaller, display, a faster processor, and an unsurpassed build quality. But if you’re convinced that bigger is better, there’s also the Samsung Galaxy Note II, which, at 5.5 inches, has the largest phablet screen available, along with a faster processor.

Specifications
Phone Capability / Network CDMA, LTE
Screen Resolution 1280 x 720 pixels
NFC Yes
Dimensions 5.59 x 2.81 x 0.39 inches
802.11x/Band(s) 802.11 b/g/n
Video Camera Resolution 1080p Rear
1080p Front-Facing
Battery Life (As Tested) 13 hours 00 minutes
Available Integrated Storage 4.08 GB
Processor Speed 1.5 GHz
CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Plus MSM8960 Dual-Core
GPS Yes
Service Provider Sprint
Total Integrated Storage 8 GB
High-Speed Data EVDO Rev A, LTE, CDMA 1X
Weight 5.43 oz
Screen Type IPS LCD
Operating System as Tested Android 4.1.2
Physical Keyboard No
Camera Resolution 13 MP Rear
1 MP Front-Facing
Screen Pixels Per Inch 293 ppi
Bands 800, 850, 1900
microSD Slot Yes
Form Factor Candy Bar
Screen Size 5 inches
Bluetooth Version 4.0 + LE

Verdict
The Sprint Vital smartphone gets you a big screen and a solid camera for a good price, but everything else is just average.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc