The ZTE Director is proof that nothing is truly free. This Android smartphone for U.S. Cellular may not cost a dime, but you’re sure to spend a lot of time feeling frustrated with it. It would’ve been a perfectly decent phone a couple of years ago, but now it’s hampered by slow performance, a small, unattractive display, a lackluster camera, and middling call quality. It’s worth it to spend a little money on something better.
Design and Call Quality
The Director uses the same humdrum slab design we’ve been seeing for years. It measures 4.65 by 2.46 by 0.47 inches (HWD) and weighs 4.94 ounces. The phone is encased in a thick layer of soft-touch black plastic, with a linear light gray pattern on the back panel. There’s a plastic silver band around the top three edges of the phone and a disproportionately large amount of bezel underneath the display. At least it’s comfortable to hold.
There are three capacitive touch buttons below the 3.5-inch, 480-by-320-pixel LCD. That resolution is low, too low, so everything has a grainy look. Even with brightness turned all the way up it still looks dark, and viewing angles are poor; you really need to view this phone dead-on to see it properly. On top of all of that, the screen is surprisingly reflective. The phone’s on-screen keyboard is a little small, so I had to spend extra time to make sure I entered everything correctly.
The Director is a tri-band EV-DO Rev. A (800/850/1900 MHz) device with 802.11b/g Wi-Fi. In New York where I tested it, U.S. Cellular phones use Sprint’s network. Reception on the Director is average, though call quality leaves a lot to be desired. Voices sound fuzzy and harsh in the earpiece, and cause the phone to vibrate at top volume. Calls made with the phone sound muffled and distant, even when calling from a completely noiseless room. And noise cancellation is virtually nonexistent, so callers became virtually inaudible when there is a lot of background noise. The speakerphone sounds fine and is just loud enough to use outdoors. Calls also sound fine through a Jawbone Era Bluetooth headset. I was able to trigger voice dialing with it, but the app wouldn’t work properly, over Bluetooth or not. Battery life is okay at 7 hours and 46 minutes of talk time.
Processor and Apps
The Director is powered by a single-core 1GHz Qualcomm MSM7626A processor. At this point, you’re doing yourself a disservice buying any phone that isn’t at least dual-core. The Director performed poorly on all of our benchmark tests, and you could feel it struggling to keep up with even simple tasks, like swiping through home screens. This isn’t a good phone to buy if you want to play games or run a lot of different apps.
The Director runs Android 4.0.4 (Ice Cream Sandwich). I wouldn’t expect to find Android 4.1 or 4.2 (Jelly Bean) on a free phone yet, but it would’ve been a nice surprise. There’s no word on whether this phone will receive an update to Jelly Bean, but it’s highly unlikely. ZTE hasn’t done much to customize the version of Android you get here, aside from a somewhat confusing lock screen you must swipe across to pull up a menu of apps you can choose to open the phone to.
There’s a good deal of preinstalled bloatware, but thankfully, much of it can be deleted. The phone comes with five home screens out of the box, but you can add an additional two. ZTE had loaded those first five home screens with a bunch of apps and widgets, but this being Android, you can customize to your heart’s content.
All of the standard Android apps are here. You get Google Maps Navigation for free voice-enabled, turn-by-turn GPS directions. The phone syncs email, calendars, and contacts for Gmail and Microsoft Exchange accounts, and works with many other popular email accounts. You also have access to the Google Play store, which is home to over 800,000 apps, though I wouldn’t count on all of them being able to run well.
Multimedia, Camera, and Conclusions
The Director has 2.15GB of available internal memory. There’s also a free microSD card slot beneath the battery cover; my 32GB and 64GB SanDisk cards worked fine in it. I was able to play AAC, MP3, OGG, and WAV music files, but not FLAC or WMA. The standard 3.5-mm headphone jack means you can use the Director with just about any pair of wired earbuds. Music also sounded fine through a pair of Altec Lansing BackBeat Bluetooth headphones. For video, the Director was able to play back all of our video test files except DivX at resolutions up to 800-by-480.
The Director can really use a better camera. It has a 3-megapixel sensor with an LED flash that takes barely average photos. Shutter speeds are fine; it only takes 0.6 second to capture a photo. The problem is the photos themselves, which look terrible. Many of the shots I took were lost to motion blur, even though I was holding the camera just as still as always. Even in usable shots, detail is lacking across the board and colors are just average. The video camera isn’t any better. Recorded videos max out at 800-by-480 resolution, and play back at a smudgy-looking, choppy 17 frames per second. There’s no front-facing camera, so video chat is out.
The ZTE Director would’ve been passable a couple of years ago, but even for free, I can’t see this being the right phone for anyone today. If you’re looking to keep things cheap, your best bet is to spring $30 on the Samsung Galaxy Axiom, which gets you a bigger, sharper display, a faster dual-core processor, 4G LTE support, and a better camera. The Motorola Electrify 2 gets you all of those features for the same price, minus the 4G. Even the free HTC One V, which doesn’t have 4G or a dual-core processor, is a better buy, thanks to its clearer call quality and much nicer display. Shop around. It isn’t hard to find a better phone than the Director.
|Phone Capability / Network||CDMA|
|Screen Resolution||480 x 320 pixels|
|Dimensions||4.65 x 2.46 x 0.47 inches|
|Video Camera Resolution||WVGA|
|Battery Life (As Tested)||7 hours 46 minutes|
|Available Integrated Storage||2.15 GB|
|Processor Speed||1 GHz|
|Service Provider||US Cellular|
|Total Integrated Storage||4 GB|
|High-Speed Data||EVDO Rev A, CDMA 1X|
|Screen Type||TFT LCD|
|Operating System as Tested||Android 4.0.4|
|Camera Resolution||3 megapixels|
|Screen Pixels Per Inch||165 ppi|
|Bands||800, 850, 1900|
|Form Factor||Candy Bar|
|Screen Size||3.5 inches|
|Bluetooth Version||2.1 + EDR|
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc