ZTE doesn't try to turn your head with eye-catching specs on the budget-minded ZTE Obsidian. There's only one feature that matters on this phone, and that's the price tag. For $99 (or less, depending on the offers available through T-Mobile or its MetroPCS prepaid subsidiary), you can get an entry-level smartphone with a slew of close-enough features to keep you connected. It would be an acceptable option for bargain hunters, too, if the Obsidian's battery life weren't so puny.
Design: Back in black
The Obsidian graduated from the hunk-of-plastic school of design that characterizes most budget phones. That said, the all-black look that clearly inspires the phone's name is pretty striking, even if the rest of the phone's appearance — the rounded corners, the slick back — have a been-there, done-that feel. One of the Obsidian's few departures from conventional design — the charging port is on the right side of the phone — seems like a misfire, as it left me fumbling to plug in the phone.
ZTE has designed a fairly compact phone with the 5.4 x 2.7 x 0.4-inch Obsidian, though the device's rear has a little bit of bulge to it. Take the LG Tribute 5 (rebranded as the LG K7 with T-Mobile), which is taller and wider than the Obsidian, but also thinner, at 0.35 inches. The Obsidian's thicker frame doesn't add much weight, though: ZTE's phone weighs 4.65 ounces, compared to 4.8 ounces for the Tribute 5.
Carrier: T-Mobile, MetroPCS
Phone Display Size: 4.5 inches
Display Resolution: 854 x 480
OS: Android 5.1
CPU: 1-GHz quad-core Cortex A-53
Memory Expansion Type: microSD card, up to 32GB
Bluetooth Type: Bluetooth 4.0
Size: 5.4 x 2.7 x 0.4 inches
Weight: 4.65 ounces
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Display and Audio: Bright screen, bad viewing angles
Budget phones often don't have the brightest of displays, but that's not an issue with the 4.5-inch screen on the Obsidian. We measured 426 nits of brightness with a light meter, just below the average brightness for a smartphone (437 nits) but better than our favorite sub-$100 phone, the unlocked Moto E (393 nits). The Obsidian's display proved bright enough that I could use it outdoors on a sunny day, something I had a harder time doing with the Tribute 5's dimmer screen (293 nits).
The Obsidian has more of an issue with color, displaying only 89.3 percent of the sRGB color gamut and tallying a Delta-E color-accuracy score of 3.67. (Numbers closer to zero are better on that latter test.)
The bigger issue with the Obsidian's display, other than a lackluster 854 x 480 resolution, is that it offers pretty poor viewing angles. While watching The Martian stream on HBO Go, I noticed the Red Planet became shadowy when I tilted the Obsidian slightly to the right. Severe viewing angles created almost an X-ray effect. This is not the phone you'll want to use when gathering people around to share photos and videos.
At least, the sound is quite good. Whether listening to Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" or streaming 30 Rock on Netflix, audio from the Obsidian's rear speaker filled the room and only became slightly distorted when I maxed out the volume.
Performance: Mixed results
You don't expect a lot of firepower from a budget phone, which is good because that's exactly what you'll get from the Obsidian's 1GHz quad-core processor. I would tap an app icon and then wait anywhere from 4 to 8 seconds for the app to spring to life.
The phone actually did fairly well on some tests, relative to other low-priced smartphones. Its score of 1,353 in the Geekbench test of overall performance topped the Moto E (1,282) and even ZTE's Zmax 2 phablet (1,321), though it lagged behind the average smartphone (3,127), as you would expect. The Obsidian converted a 204MB video from 1080p to 480p in 12 minutes, 1 second — slow, but faster than the Tribute 5, which took more than 13 minutes.
Graphics were another story. The Obsidian's 2,616 score on 3DMark's Ice Storm Unlimited fell way behind the Moto E (4,492) and Tribute 5 (3,355). It's something I noticed even when playing a casual game like Jetpack Joyride; the side-scroller would occasionally pause as the phone tried to keep up with action.
Camera: A lack of focus
Like a lot of the Obsidian's other specs, the 5-megapixel camera on the rear of the phone won't blow you away. But I found that under the right circumstances — lots of ambient lighting and not a lot of movement that might throw the camera out of focus — you can get some pretty decent shots.
A picture of a mural painted on a downtown Oakland building accurately captured colors, and you can also pick out the assorted nicks and dents in the side of the building. Even a pedestrian walking into frame as I snapped the shot remained in focus.
I also took a pic of the Oakland skyline from an escalator descending into a subway station. The iconic Tribune clock tower pops out against the bright blue sky and scattered clouds, even if the nearby buildings aren't nearly as sharp.
I had less success taking pictures of people, particularly when they didn't stand perfectly still. In a candid shot of my nephew walking down a hallway, he's simply a blur.
The same goes for a shot of my daughter in a dark dance studio: Her face is in focus enough that you can make out her blue eyes and reddish hair, but her arms and polka-dot dress are blurs as she and her friends twirl around.
The rear camera also shoots video. By default, it's set to 640 x 480, but if you dive into the settings, you can up the video quality to 720p. The problems with focus remain, but you'll get better footage.
Give up all hope of getting a decent selfie from the 2-MP camera on the front of the Obsidian. A self-portrait taken on a bright, sunny day kept me in focus, but the details of my features were lost to shadows. Indoors, at night, you can at least tell what color my eyes are, but my skin looks blotchy and my hair's an indistinct mess.
The placement of the on-screen shutter-button is also problematic for self-portraits. It's just under the camera, so you run the risk of your hand making an unwanted cameo in the shots. Though I'm right-handed, I snapped selfies with my left just to keep my hands out of frame.
Software: So many apps, so little space
Our Obsidian review unit came from T-Mobile, and the Uncarrier packs in a lot of bloat — seven T-Mobile apps, by my count, along with other third-party offerings such as Instagram, MLB At Bat, HBO Go, Facebook, Sling and SlingPlayer. You can get rid of the third-party apps, but the T-Mobile apps must remain.
Bloatware is a fact of life for nearly every carrier-tied budget phone, but it's especially a concern with the Obsidian, because the model available from T-Mobile and MetroPCS offers only 8GB of storage. You can boost that to 32GB with the addition of a microSD card.
The Obsidian runs Android 5.1. That's an older version of Android, but you'll find it on most budget phones at the moment.
Battery: Off the mark
You can live with a lot of trade-offs on a sub-$100 phone, but a device that can't make it through the day on a full charge shouldn't be one of those concessions. The Obsidian's battery life simply isn't up to snuff. In our battery tests, which involved surfing the web on T-Mobile's LTE network with the screen set to 150 nits, the Obsidian lasted 6 hours, 8 minutes. That's a little more than 2 hours worse than the average smartphone's time of 8:21.
Other budget phones can last longer, too: the Moto E ran for 8:32 in our test, while the Tribute 5 lasted 7:55. Another budget offering from ZTE — the Zmax 2, which costs $99 through AT&T and around $150 unlocked — can run for more than 9 hours on our test, making the Obsidian's poor time even more disappointing.
At least you can swap in a new battery if you peel off the plastic back of the phone.
T-Mobile and MetroPCS subscribers who want to pay as little as possible for their phones will find an attractively priced option in the Obsidian. And most of the device's shortcomings are common to budget phones — that is, until you get to the battery, which will leave you out of power long before your workday ends.
Both T-Mobile and MetroPCS offer the Alcatel OneTouch Fierce XL and LG K7 (sold as the Tribute 5 at other carriers) for around the same price as the Obsidian. And while both phones have issues of their own, they'll last longer on a charge than ZTE's budget offering. If you're able to go the unlocked route, the bloatware-free Moto E offers long battery life and decent performance, all for around $100. The price of the ZTE Obsidian is hard to ignore, though you will get exactly what you paid for with this phone.