ZTE isn't the most popular phone maker and U.S. Cellular isn't one of the big-four networks, but nevertheless, is this a match made in heaven? The $100 ZTE Grand S Pro offers U.S. Cellular's 4G LTE service plus a skinless version of Android 4.3, Jelly Bean and minimal bloatware. Is the Grand S Pro worthy of your hard-earned Benjamin? Read on to find out.
ZTE doesn't make you choose between a black phone or a white phone -- it sandwiches both colors into the Grand S Pro. The black front side features a 5-inch HD touch screen with three capacitive buttons along the bottom. Measuring 5.6 x 2.8 x 0.4 inches, the Grand S Pro is slightly thicker than the Galaxy S5, but 0.1 inches shorter. In the hand, it feels less unwieldy than the S5 due to its slightly curved back.
One of the first things we noticed about the Grand S Pro is its weight. The phone tips the scale at 5.48 ounces, more than the Galaxy S5 (5.1 ounces) and the LG G3 (5.3 ounces). Though we've become accustomed to phones with a little more junk in the trunk like the HTC One M8, there's no sexy metal chassis on the Grand S Pro, just lots of plastic.
The Grand S Pro doesn't have a ground-breaking design -- like numerous other Android devices, its face is a smooth slab of black glass. At the bottom of the display sits three Android buttons: back, home and menu. Unlike the Samsung Galaxy S5 and the LG G3, the Grand S Pro doesn't have a button for recent apps. The menu button is a little redundant, since Android has moved to integrating menus into its apps.
The removable white backside of the phone reminded us of Wall-E's floating friend, Eve, thanks to the glossy strip of black housing the camera, flash and speaker. Though plastic, the smooth, nonglossy back felt nice in our hand and never felt slippery.
The black and white sides of the phone hold the volume rocker and microUSB port on the left and nothing on the right. Along the top edge you'll find the headphone jack and power button. Frustratingly, we found that we routinely nudged the sensitive volume rocker buttons when we used the phone in landscape orientation.
The 5-inch HD LCD TFT/TFD display screen on the Grand S Pro gives images an almost three-dimensional effect. Though it sports a lower 1280 x 720 resolution than the top of the line Galaxy S5 (1920 x 1080), the screen still looks gorgeous. A trailer for The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey looked crisp and deep. Though the trailer is filled with drab colors, the images still popped off the screen, and the sweeping landscape shots appeared very realistic.
Click to EnlargeThe Grand S Pro's display test results reinforced our perception of the screen. While the Grand S Pro's average brightness of 411 lux (436 nits) wasn't as bright as the Galaxy S5 (493 lux and 373 nits), its color reproduction was impeccable. The phone registered a Delta-E score of 0.2 (lower numbers are better), much lower than the Galaxy S5 -- a score bested only by the iPhone 5s's score of 0.05.
The Grand S Pro comes equipped with a Dolby audio enhancement app with settings for movies, music, games, voice and two custom presets. In our tests, the Grand S Pro had a top volume of 80.5 decibels while the Galaxy S5 had a top volume of 73 decibels. The similarly priced LG G3 came in loudest with a measurement of 84 decibels.
The Grand S Pro does keep the budget in mind, and it's evident with its audio speaker. When we listened to Echo & the Bunnymen's The Killing Moon, the song sounded muddy. The signature guitar riff was thin and harsh-sounding, and singer Ian McCulloch's voice was muffled.
Click to EnlargeUnlike Samsung and HTC, ZTE doesn't customize the Grand Pro S with a fancy Android skin and whiz-bang features. The interface experience is much closer to the Nexus 7 tablet than it is to the Galaxy S5. Speaking of which, the Grand Pro S ships with Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, a full version behind Google's most recent OS release, Android 4.4 KitKat. No matter how good of a deal a phone might be, there's a distinct disadvantage to committing to a carrier and handset for two years with an OS that's already out-of-date.
Still, the phone feels zippy and easy to navigate. Hold down the menu button to access the list of recently used applications. Likewise, a long press on the home button will open Google Now.
Click to EnlargeWhile there's not a fancy skin on the Grand Pro S, ZTE does throw in a few of its proprietary apps: Mi-EasyAccess, which allows access to apps from the lock screen; Mi-POP, which adds a permanent on-screen button that mimics one of the capacitive buttons below the screen; Mi-Power, a battery optimizer; and ZTE MHL, the company's wireless display solution.
U.S. Cellular mostly restrains its use of bloatware on this smartphone. The carrier includes City ID, an app that lists the city and state of unknown incoming calls; Dolby for optimizing sound; Evernote, Facebook, Gameloft, Slacker and Twitter. Plus, there's Google's suite of apps, which includes Chrome, Google Music, Google+ and Hangouts. The carrier's own apps, including Mobile Data Security, Mobile TV, Tone Room Deluxe and Your Navigator round out the software package.
The Grand Pro S is equipped with a 2.3-GHz quad-core Snapdragon processor and 2GB of RAM. The phone quickly changed orientation while we were watching a YouTube video and there was never a lag when we pulled up the keyboard or quickly changed the screen orientation.
Click to EnlargeLoading the demanding game N.O.V.A. 3 took the Grand Pro S 19 seconds, 3 seconds longer than the category average, but the Galaxy S5 took the same amount of time to accomplish the same task. However, the HTC One M8 with the same Snapdragon processor completed the task 2 seconds faster.
On Geekbench 3, which tests the performance of the processor and memory, the Grand Pro S scored an impressive 2575, well above the average of 1916, and on par with the iPhone 5S (2556). However, it still didn't beat the Galaxy S5's score of 2974.
On our graphics test, the Grand Pro S flexed serious muscle, scoring 20,585 on Ice Storm Unlimited, well above the Galaxy S5's score of 18,285 and a hair below the HTC One M8's score of 20,965.
Unfortunately, the Grand S Pro only comes with 8GB of built-in memory. After adding a few apps and taking a handful of pictures and video, we found ourselves left with less than 500MB of available space. Thankfully, there's a microSD slot capable of holding an additional 32GB of memory. It would have been a nice perk to include at least an 8GB microSD card from the get-go.
Click to EnlargeThe Grand S Pro features a 13-megapixel rear camera with LED flash and a 2-megapixel front-facing camera. The rear camera includes several options for photo adjustment, including HDR, panorama, low light, blink detect and night portrait. Additionally, there are several filters to give your photos everything from a sepia tone to a solarize effect to a sketch effect.
Unfortunately, the camera produced deceptive results. Photos we thought were focused and crisp on-screen looked the opposite when we opened them up at full resolution on our laptop. Small, hot-pink roses had faithful color reproduction, but looked soft and blurry compared with the leaves around them.
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A video taken with the phone had crisper focus, but our white dog chasing a tennis ball was completely blown out against the green grass and wood fence.
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The camera was also ultrasensitive to the slightest hand movements while we were filming, even when we were not zoomed in.
The ZTE Grand S Pro comes equipped with a 2300-mAh battery that U.S. Cellular rates for up to 10 hours of use and 264 hours of standby time. In the Laptop Battery Test, which involves continuous Web surfing over U.S. Cellular's 4G LTE network, the Grand S Pro lasted a short 6 hours and 36 seconds with the brightness set at 50 percent. That's well below the smartphone average of 8 hours and 7 minutes. The Grand S Pro only bested the Apple iPhone 5S, which lasted a mere 5 hours and 46 minutes in our tests.
U.S. Cellular's Network
U.S. Cellular's 4G LTE network is prevalent throughout Wisconsin, Iowa, Southern Illinois and parts of Oklahoma and Texas. The carrier plans on adding more 4G LTE towers in Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri by the end of the year. Ironically, though the company has its headquarters in Chicago, U.S. Cellular no longer offers service there. In May of 2013, the company sold large parts of its market to Sprint, including Chicago; Champaign, Illinois; and South Bend, Indiana.
While testing the device in Galena, Illinois, a mountainous area just east of the Mississippi River, we found that U.S. Cellular frequently had more bars and a more consistent LTE signal than AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile. Verizon also found an LTE signal.
On the Ookla Speedtest, the ZTE Grand S Pro had an average download speed of 8.5 Mbps and an average upload of 5.1 Mbps. While these aren't the lightning-fast speeds we've seen in our 4G LTE testing, we found the fact that we were getting any sort of consistent LTE speeds in hilly, rural areas impressive.
Click to EnlargeFor $100 plus a two-year contract, U.S. Cellular has better options than the ZTE Grand S Pro. While its graphic performance and display are impressive, the short battery life, deceptive camera and outdated version of Android give us pause. We would be more inclined to spend $100 more for the Samsung Galaxy S5 or save $50 and buy the Apple iPhone 5S. Either way, you'll get a better camera and similar performance.