When asked to list the top smartphone brands in the country, most people would rattle off a combination of the usual suspects. Apple… Samsung… LG… Nokia… HTC… BlackBerry… Sprint? While the nation’s No.3 carrier certainly doesn’t belong on that list, there will be some people who skip the big names when buying a smartphone in the coming months and opt instead for the Sprint-branded Vital. With features like a 5-inch HD display, a 13-megapixel camera and a stock Android Jelly Bean experience, this unexpected smartphone packs quite a punch for a handset that costs less than $100. For some users, in fact, the Vital is an even better option than many of the leading smartphones on the market.
Sprint’s upcoming new Vital smartphone is built by China-based up-and-comer ZTE, and the best word to describe it is surprising.
My expectations were admittedly low when I took delivery of BGR’s review unit last week. It is, after all, a carrier-branded smartphone. After using the device for just a few minutes though, it was easy to see that the Vital isn’t your typical off-brand handset.
First and foremost, the display is shockingly good. Measuring 5 inches diagonally, this high-definition 720p display is very crisp, with blacks that are nice and deep, solid contrast and colors that really pop. The 5-inch canvas provides ample room for watching videos and the rear speaker is shockingly loud, though audio distorts at higher volumes.
A $99.99 smartphone is not supposed to have a display this impressive.
The hardware itself is nothing to scoff at either. I wouldn’t say it has a premium feel to it, but it’s actually on par with several phones from leading vendors. In fact, the Vital has a better feel to it than some top Samsung phones.
The face of the handset is almost entirely glass and the back is a thin plastic with a rubber-like finish. It grips well and has a nice feel to it. The plastic that surrounds the edges of the Vital has a cheaper feel though, and the plastic buttons make matters worse.
In terms of design, the phone is actually shaped a lot like Microsoft’s Surface tablet. The front and back are flat and parallel but the edges are chamfered, sloping inward from front to back. It’s a nice shape that adds a bit of differentiation to a smartphone that would otherwise be just another slab.
The front of the phone is home only to three capacitive Android navigation buttons, a front-facing camera and the ear speaker, which provides fair audio quality during voice calls. I found that sound was a bit tinny for my taste.
I should also note that I had issues with the capacitive buttons on the Vital. The device often failed to register my taps, requiring me to poke at a button two or three times before my touch was recognized. The touchscreen itself did not have any issues with responsiveness though, and a Sprint spokesperson confirmed that no problems regarding navigation button responsiveness had been reported prior to my inquiry, so the issue is likely unique to my review unit.
The top edge of the phone holds the power button, a standard audio jack and a secondary microphone for noise cancellation, while the left edge is home to volume buttons and a microUSB charging port. A dedicated two-stage camera button sits on the right edge of the phone, and it can be used to launch the camera, focus and to capture photos. The primary microphone is alone on the bottom edge of the handset.
The back of the Vital is smooth and clean, with a small opening for the loud-speaker near the bottom of the phone and a somewhat large raised area near the top that holds the camera, an LED flash and a rear-facing microphone that records audio while the phone is capturing HD video. The camera is a 13-megapixel unit and I found that it captures images that are on par with many leading phones. In fact, flash-assisted photos taken in low light come out better than similar photos captured by many high-end camera phones.
Overall, I like the hardware on Sprint’s Vital but it certainly isn’t on the same level as handsets from leaders like HTC, Apple and Nokia. At 9.95 millimeters, the phone is also quite thick compared to smartphones like the Galaxy S4 and iPhone 5.
Moving from the outside of the phone to the inside, the software will be quite familiar to anyone who has used a Google Nexus device because the Vital runs a nearly stock version of Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean. There are some tweaks here and there as well as some Sprint bloatware, but the vocal minority always in search of smartphones with stock Android will likely be satisfied with this phone.
Key specs include a dual-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm processor, 1GB of RAM, 8GB of internal storage and support for up to 64GB of removable memory. The Vital is also compatible with Sprint’s 4G LTE network, though coverage is still limited. Sprint hasn’t yet officially launched LTE in the New York City area, but download speeds were above 12Mbps in areas where I was able to get a signal.
When I was stuck on 3G, data was painfully slow.
Most functions on the Vital are smooth, though the phone runs a few beats slower than leading flagship handsets. I did find that problems can arise under very heavy loads though, and I even had the Android Launcher crash when I was first setting up the device and Google Play was trying to download 10 or 11 app updates.
Apps launch quickly on the Vital and scrolling is generally smooth. Animations are also nice and fluid out of the box, but enabling hardware acceleration in the device’s developer settings kicks everything up a notch and eliminates any hiccups so that even graphics-heavy apps like Instagram scroll smoothly.
Finally, thanks in part to the omission of any resource-hogging UI and service layer like TouchWiz or Sense, perhaps, the battery life on the Vital is very impressive. I was able to squeeze nearly 36 hours between charges, and that was with moderate usage that included pushing two overly active email accounts, plenty of Google Reader and Twitter use, some Instagram, some music streaming, plenty of Web browsing and some Google Maps.
In the end, this is a smartphone that completely took me by surprise.
A $99 off-brand handset is not supposed to feature a gorgeous 5-inch break-resistant display with HD resolution. It’s also not supposed to include a terrific 13-megapixel camera, 1GB of RAM, 4G LTE, Bluetooth 4.0 + LE, fantastic battery life and stock Jelly Bean. Sprint’s Vital is definitely an outlier.
This is not a phone that will draw any meaningful amount of sales away from the big names. It won’t be propped up by billions of marketing dollars like the Galaxy S4 and iPhone 5, and it won’t launch alongside a wave of hype like the HTC One. The Vital might offer the best value of any smartphone at Sprint right now though, and it could definitely turn some heads when it launches on June 14th.