The Sprint Vital offers a lot of bang for your buck, but it's not for everyone, especially given the carrier's handful of other budget-friendly options.
Things have changed quite a bit over the past year in terms of what $100 can buy you, and for those who can’t stomach dropping more than a Benjamin on a new smartphone, there’s never been a better time to upgrade. Budget-busting flagships are no longer the only devices worthy of writing a check for – Android has come a long way, and yesterday’s specs are becoming more and more evergreen.
The Vital, made by Chinese manufacturer ZTE yet sold under the Sprint moniker, isn’t cracking any glass ceilings – a game changer this is not. But it does mark a welcome new addition to the growing “high-end budget” market, which is great news for consumers. It faces some stiff competition on Sprint’s shelves, though, especially given the carrier’s recent promotions offering some of yesterday’s top-shelf phones for pennies on the dollar. For Sprint customers looking to save some money on their next smartphone, the Vital is just one of many choices offering some serious bang for your buck.
The Sprint Vital is your best budget-friendly option if you're in the market for a 5-inch display; it's also the cheapest stock Android experience on Sprint's shelves. Performance is top notch, and the camera is pretty admirable too ...
... unless you're using it in low light, in which case results are a mixed bag. The Vital is bulky in just about every sense of the word, and it's design is pretty uninspired. And despite its LTE capability, Sprint's high-speed network is laughably sparse.
Inside this review
The Sprint Vital is a well made device regardless of what its price tag might suggest: it feels sturdy and strong without weighing you down. It won’t win any world’s-thinnest titles, as it’s one of the bulkier devices on Sprint’s shelves at .39 inches thick and weighing in at 5.43 ounches. It's not uncomfortably large, but if you’re looking to save space in your pocket, look elsewhere.
Its size is due in large part to that massive 5-inch display – it’s bright, crisp, and vivid, thanks to its impressive 720p resolution. There’s no skimping here – this is about as high-end a display as you can get without jumping into flagship, 1080p territory. Unless you’ve become spoiled beyond repair by the likes of an S4 or HTC One, this display is going to go above and beyond your needs and expectations. It’s truly gorgeous.
Underneath the removable backside you’ll find a whopping 2,460 mAH battery, which managed to keep chugging well throughout a full 24 hours. During my time with the Vital I never once worried about my battery giving out, though keep in mind I was never able to surf on Sprint’s LTE, battery-sucking bands (more on that in a bit). Even if you are in an LTE zone, this battery shouldn’t be an issue.
It’s a good thing the battery is so large and capable, as it certainly has a lot of power to sustain: the Vital’s packing a Snapdragon S4 Plus processor clocked at 1.5 GHz with a gig of RAM. Again, nothing mind-blowing, but definitely plenty to keep things moving smoothly. This is a powerful device, make no mistake about it, and it should be able to handle just about anything you throw at it without a slowdown.
The Vital is capable of operating on Sprint’s hide-and-seek LTE network, which is plenty fast when you manage to find it. Here in New York I saw LTE on this device for a split second on a trip downtown – most of my time was spent above 60th street, where I never saw the Vital leave 3G territory. Sprint says that its LTE footprint is expanding, and if you’re in one of its markets all the power to you, but then again, this isn’t really news to the carrier’s long-time customers.
Here’s where things get interesting. One of the best things about ZTE’s lower profile here in the states is that the manufacturer doesn’t yet have the resources to create a UI from scratch, ala TouchWiz or Sense – what we’re left with, then, is a nearly stock version of Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean. That’s especially exciting considering that it’s one of the few 5-inch devices packing a (nearly) vanilla Android experience, save for the much pricier Google edition of the Galaxy S4.
Where ZTE has wielded its influence is in a number of the stock applications, which have undergone a custom treatment – you’ll find that ZTE has taken a stab at the music, email, browser, and camera applications, though even there the company’s touch is a light one. It’s a sign that ZTE is indeed building up an arsenal for a custom UI of its own, but that still seems further down the road.
Here’s what ZTE and Sprint are hoping to catch your eye with. The Vital packs a whopping 13 megapixel rear camera, activated by one long press of the oh-so-handy dedicated shutter button. Fire it up and you’ll find a nearly stock Android camera, peppered with ZTE’s own flilters and shooting modes. While this isn’t the most well-equpped camera software on a smartphone, it gets the job done. Modes like sunset and party work surprisingly well to capture the mood, while the extensive list of filters have cribbed a page right out of Instagram’s book. You’ve got the tools here to take photos in just about any condition you’ll find yourself in.
As for photo quality, you’ll notice that those 13 megapixels do indeed go a long way in both stills and 1080p video. Images are detailed and clear, prime for enlarging and cropping, and videos are smooth and crisp. Hurdles start popping up in low light, though – unless you’re in prime lighting, the Vital’s camera will stutter and struggle to hang onto focus. Results are a mixed bag but certainly aren't the worst I've ever seen.
And remember, all of those megapixels add up to create large, dense, data-hungry photographs. If you're planning to share your shots via your data connection, keep in mind that you'll likely be chugging through your monthly allotment faster than usual.
All in all, the Sprint Flash is a pretty respectable phone given it’s price tag and spec sheet. It’s exciting to see such a nice device available for less than $200, a sign of just how rapidly Android devices are evolving.
But the Flash isn’t for everyone, including those on a tight budget. Right now, Sprint customers can snag a Galaxy S III, which remains one of the best Android devices ever made, for the same price as the Flash. For those looking to buy into an ecosystem rather than just a device ,that’s a deal that’s nearly too good to pass up. And if $100 is still a bit too steep for your budget, you can grab a similarly-spec’d LG Optimus G for the oh-so-nice price of free.
So who exactly, then, is the Sprint Vital designed for? For starters, those looking for a budget-friendly 5-inch device will find no better. Without jumping up to the $200 price point, this is about as beautiful a display as you’ll find.
But those who should really closely consider the Vital are Android purists – though this isn’t 100% vanilla Jelly Bean, it’s pretty damn close, and a hell of a lot closer than anything from Samsung or LG will get you. The Galaxy S III might be more well-rounded device, but you’re definitely buying a “Samsung” phone more so than an “Android” one; similar can be said about the Optimus G and LG. There’s really no two ways about it: Sprint customers looking for pure Android will come closest with the Vital, regardless of how large or limited their budget may be.
Standing alone without comparison, the Vital is a great device no matter which way you slice it. For $100 you get a beautiful 5-inch display, a fast, nearly-vanilla Android experience, and a more-than-capable camera. That lower price point means you’ll have to sacrifice some things ,namely a sleek and slim design, but for most, that’s a small price to pay.
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