Sometimes the tech world manages to take several steps back, while attempting to take one step forward. Case in point is the ZTE Anthem 4G, which is ZTE's first 4G LTE offering. It might be built for the latest in network speeds, but the design is something of a throwback, and not in a stylish, retro kind of way.
With a build we'd describe as "overly solid" and Android 2.3: Gingerbread running on the inside, is it worth accepting a dated device in exchange for a low monthly rate from Metro PCS? Then there's the question of the phone's initial asking price, which, like the ZTE Anthem 4G itself, is surprisingly weighty.
The first thing you'll notice when picking up the ZTE Anthem 4G is the heft. It's a solid brick of a device with some thickness to it, with weight and size connote "old" rather than "techy" in this age of light, wafer thin devices. While it is thick, the back casing has a rubberized, gripped texture and a unique swivel pattern.
The front is fairly standard with a 4.3-inch 800 x 480 pixel screen taking up most of the front of the device, along with your standard four touch buttons at the bottom of the screen.
The bezel is a chromed plastic trim, with a volume rocker and a micro HDMI connecter on the left side, with a power button and mini USB port on the right. There's only a headphone port on top, with a microphone pinhole and thumbnail slot to pop off the back cover at the bottom.
The back cover itself is textured plastic, with a notch for the 5-megapixel camera and LED flash and a small, embedded speaker opening. Underneath that cover you'll find a large 1780 mAh removable battery, and a Kung Fu Panda 2 4 GB micro SD card, preloaded with the feature film. But the frills stop there with a power charger rounding out the bill and no included headphones.
While the outside is fairly nondescript, things really get weird once you power the phone on and begin to actually use it. For starters, ZTE has introduced its first 4G LTE phone by running the older and underperforming Android 2.3: Gingerbread system software.
While Gingerbread is still the most widely used Android OS right now, it has been showing its age since it was introduced in December 2010, and the second most current Android 4.1: Ice Cream Sandwich feels a lot peppier and offers more options. You would assume that when you're launching what should be one of your fastest, multimedia phones, you would want to do so with some updated software. But, that's not the case here.
Contacts and Calling
Thanks to the large screen, the Anthem handles contacts very well, presenting them in white on a black screen. You can view them in landscape or portrait layout, and they basically look large and friendly.
Avatars will import for your friends, fetched from your Google account, and you can easily add contacts, check a call log, create groups, or look at your most contacted. Although in our test run, the two "most contacted" were just people we happened to have emailed twice the day before.
If this phone is built to do one thing very well, it's to make phone calls. The Anthem 4G supports Bluetooth and the unit itself has two microphones and supports noise cancellation, which in turn leads to superb calls.
While cell phone call quality without a separate headset seems to have lessened in priority over the last few years, the Anthem does a great job of bringing it back to the forefront.
Messaging and Internet
Standard SMS messaging is very straightforward on the Anthem 4G, with the ability to type or swype messages. You can easily attach photos, videos, slideshows, audio, contacts and more.
The built-in Messages app presents your conversations in a voice balloon style that might be too cute for some, but it handles the job just fine and was quick and responsive in all of our tests.
The reason most people will be attracted to this camera is the 4G LTE connection, which gave us results of roughly 950 kbps downloading, and 200 kbps uploading, with a 172 ms ping.
In higher coverage areas with four bars of Metro PCS service, we still only got a 127 ms ping, with 2424 kbps and 4272 kbps.
Not exactly speedy, but the Metro PCS coverage is also fairly weak in our area, which didn't help matters much. When we hooked up to WiFi, the phone did get some blistering speeds, but the 4G LTE coverage disappointed us.
Camera & Video
The back camera on the Anthem runs up to 5-megapixels, although the front-facing camera is a measly .3 megapixel VGA job that was barely adequate for video chat. The images we took here all appeared weak, especially when using the built-in flash.
Everything somehow managed to look washed out, grainy, and with a tinge of greenish hue throughout. While five megapixels should be decent for a casual camera, they just don't do the trick here.
Video is even worse than the photos, with the phone promising HD 1080p resolution, but delivering it with a lot of grain and stuttering framerates in many cases. It's not a camera you would want to use to record family events or keepsake moments. And it goes without mentioning that the front-facing camera should only be used if you find yourself with your hand trapped under a boulder while hiking.
Music and Movies
ZTE's Anthem includes multiple paths and venues for listening to music, including Play Music from Google, a Music Player built-in app, and a large advertisement for Rhapsody on your home screen.
While it depends on personal preference what you go with, the sound is relatively the same for all of them. Which means it comes down to how the music sounds on the phone. With a headset that we provided, the sound was strong and punchy, but with the onboard Dolby Mobile speaker, the sound was distorted at higher volumes.
The same goes for movies as well, and we thought it was a nice touch that Kung Fu Panda 2 comes included on the phone. Although you do have to have a strong connection to "activate" the movie so it will begin playing.
Once it was going, it looked and sounded fine, with a couple of stutters along the way. A slight annoyance, seeing as how we were playing it all of the micro SD card, and not streaming it. The video looked fine on the 4.3-inch screen, although hitting the zoom button actually stretches the image larger, and doesn't simply zoom in.
Battery life, connectivity and apps
We're glad the Anthem's battery is replaceable, because the battery life was very low. We tended to get roughly three hours out of the phone when using it for video and web browsing, and talk time ate into that number further.
It's obvious that the large battery included here adds to the weight of the phone, but doesn't seem to do much for the longevity of the phone. If you're a power user, or expecting to use this on a cross-country trip, pack an extra battery or two.
The Anthem offers multiple ways to connect with the world of data, including Bluetooth, GPS, EV-DO, LTE, Wifi, USB, micro-HDMI, and more.
It also includes a 4G Mobile Hotspot app, although that requires a feature on your rate plan, and a strong 4G signal.
The Anthem comes with a ton of pre-installed applications, the standard Google suite of apps, but it also packs in a lot of additional, unnecessary apps like M Studio, Pocket Express, IntroNow, and others.
However, we quickly found that these were just shortcuts to download the actual apps, which makes them little more than foot-in-the-door opportunities for app creators. There is the AppStore app, but chances are that you'll turn to Google Play, which is included, for most of your app needs.
Are great call quality and solid construction what users really want in a 4G phone? Will that be enough to overlook the lukewarm data speeds provided by Metro PCS? And should anyone be buying an Android 2.3: Gingerbread phone in the year 2012?
As far as phone calls go, the ZTE Anthem 4G offers up some of the strongest call connections we've heard in a long time, on both ends. The solid construction and noise cancelling microphones work well here. It's also a phone that feels like a hefty piece of equipment, which sometime causes us to instill more trust in it.
The inclusion of Google's standard bevy of apps is always a nice touch, and the Anthem plays nice with all of them, including our favorite Navigation app that offers up turn-by-turn navigation easily. Including HDMI out and a micro SD card is also a nice feature, especially when it includes a feature film about a butt-kicking, kung fu panda.
By now, we've become more than accustomed to drop-down notification screens that give us real options, and the ability to view our home screens in landscape mode. The Anthem 4G may have a 1.2 GHz dual-core Snapdragon processor from Qualcomm, but with Gingerbread, that's like putting a V8 engine in an old Honda. That OS omission feels like it hobbles nearly every experience on the phone, from browsing the web to adjusting your personal settings.
The camera was also a large disappointment in a time where capturing video and photos while mobile has become increasingly important and social. With both the older OS and the unflattering camera, the Anthem feels like it should have come out a few years ago, rather than rather new offering.
It's hard to recommend ZTE's Anthem, despite the 4G connection and solid call quality. The main reason is the older software and the camera, but the price also is an enormous factor. With a mail-in rebate coupon, the phone prices out at $219 plus tax. But Metro has long prided itself on affordable monthly plans, which could attract budget buyers who need to keep their plan costs down.
We would recommend looking at other phones in a similar price range, because you can find cheaper (and more expensive) options that offer you a much more robust OS. If you're willing to settle for 2.3: Gingerbread, the Samsung Exhibit II 4G isn't a bad option. Even Metro PCS has plenty of options that can keep you within a budget, while getting a bit more cutting-edge. Even Metro PCS has said that this phone will only be available for a limited time, which makes it sound more like it's headed for the bargain bin, not a collector's shelf.