The ZTE Reef gives Virgin Mobile two things it never had before: a water-resistant phone that can take a long swim and a handset made by ZTE. What it doesn't get, however, is a device that runs the latest version of Android or a phone that supports the carrier's 4G LTE network. This isn't the first time we've had to compromise between a durable design and the latest features, but that doesn't make it completely right, either. The truth is, I could live without one or the other, but the loss of both Android 4.3 or LTE is harder to swallow.
The Reef's saving grace is that it won't cost you anything if you buy it online. And if you can get it for free, I suspect that you'll care more about its value than the cutting edge features that it lacks (honestly, that puts it on par with most of the carrier's other smartphones). But if you have to pay the full price of $149 (without a contract of course), consider Virgin Mobile's other options before buying.
Design and display
The funny thing is, the ZTE Reef doesn't look much like a water-resistant phone. The plastic battery cover is rather flimsy, it's not encased in rubber, and it's not very big (5 inches long by 2.55 inches wide by 0.44 inch thick) or heavy (4.59 ounces). That's mostly because it's meant to combat only water and not the dust exposure, heat, cold, or other extreme elements that phones like the Casio G'zOne Commando are designed to endure. That should be fine for most users, but you'll need to keep that distinction in mind if you're going on a trip with Bear Grylls.
Still, it was a bit disconcerting the first time I dunked the Reef underwater. It just doesn't feel water-resistant and, heck, it doesn't even have a flap covering its 3.5mm headset jack. Fortunately, though, my worry proved to be unfounded, as the Reef easily survived both a shower under the kitchen sink and a long bath in a vase. The Reef is certified to survive for up to 30 minutes in 3 feet of water (about a meter); I wasn't able to replicate the depth, but I did give it the full half-hour soak.
Below the display (I'll get to that in a moment) are the usual touch controls set into the bezel: Back, Home, and Settings. The dedicated camera control sits on the left spine and up top is the power control and the aforementioned 3.5mm headset jack. On the right spine are two volume controls and the USB/charger port, which does have a protective cover. You'll have to remove the battery to access the microSD card slot, which is inconvenient.
The 4-inch IPS LCD display is on the smaller end of the spectrum, both in size (4 inches) and resolution (800x480 pixels), but it all works on a phone that you can get for free (it's even acceptable for $149). Color accuracy is fine, it gets plenty bright, and personalization options for the five home screens are standard. Granted, the Reef's screen would be disappointing for users hoping to watch a lot of media on the go, but I doubt those folks are considering this phone anyway. The touch interface was quick and responsive as well, and the virtual keyboard supports Swype.
OS and apps
As I mentioned, it's too bad that the Reef doesn't come stocked with latest version of Android. I realize that 4.3 is a lot to ask for, which is why I could easily live with 4.2.2. But come on, 4.1 is more than a year old. On the upside, you still get the usual slate of Google apps, including Google+, Hangouts, Gmali, Maps and Navigation, and YouTube. As always, there's much more available in the Google Play store.
Like most carriers, Virgin Mobile preloads a few apps of its own. Just how useful they are, though, will depend on your perspective. The Feed, for example, shares which music you're listening to with your Facebook friends and Virgin Feed lets you find "pop-culture trends, killer apps, and hot new bands." As someone who's hardly in Virgin's target demographic, my response to the former is "seriously, who cares?" The latter was a bit more interesting, but only for a few minutes. I was glad to delete both widgets and the tray of apps that Virgin recommends.
Dig deeper and you'll find icons for apps like Wikipedia, Yelp, Twitter, and Pandora. Clicking on them, though, takes you just to the Google Play page for downloading the full title. The arrangement makes me wonder about the whole point of including the icons in the first place (sometimes, I also wonder about the whole point of Yelp, but that's another story). Mobile ID, which also is available from Boost Mobile, will download a pack of apps and home screens around a common theme (like entertainment or social media). I've never found the service very useful, but you don't have to use it.
Essential apps include a calculator, a calendar, voice dialing and search, an alarm clock, a timer, a file manager, and a world clock. And as you'd expect, there's e-mail for POP3 and IMAP4 accounts, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth.
The Reef's 5-megapixel is well-stocked with editing options and I appreciate the handy onscreen slider for the digital zoom (you can zoom with the volume control, as well) and the shortcut for choosing the flash mode. Accessing camera features takes a few extra taps, but it's all very user-friendly. Those features include a self-timer, face detection and red eye reduction, a multishot mode, five white-balance options, an adjustable ISO, geotagging, macro and panorama modes, and three color filters. If you like, you can adjust the resolution way down to VGA and choose from three photo quality settings.
Photos from the Reef's camera are average. Like most smartphone cameras of this quality, it does best on clear days when you aren't facing into the sun. Photos taken in shady areas were fine as well, with decent color if you play around with the tap to focus feature. Indoor shots depended on the light level, as well. Under a large skylight on a bright day the image of the CNET rug turned out better than our standard studio shot taken in an interior room with low florescent lights. Also, the flash is bright enough to capture subjects at close range, even if it washes your subjects out. The front one-megapixel shooter is fine for close-up selfies, but that's about it. So, really, it performed just as I though it would.
You can switch to video using the onscreen slider, which is just above the virtual camera shutter (the design of both controls is familiar). Camcorder options are much fewer than with the still shooter -- you get just a self-timer, four quality settings (the highest is 720p), geotagging, and four white-balance settings. MMS videos are capped at 30 seconds; otherwise, you can shoot for as long as the available storage allows. That would be 4GB of internal storage and the microSD card slot can accommodate cards of up to 32GB.
Media and browser
The music and video players are standard Android. You can go to Google Play to purchase content, but the Reef comes stocked with dedicated apps for Play Magazines, Music, Books, and Movies. Otherwise, loading content is easy either via USB or a memory card transfer. News junkies can use the dedicated news and weather widget.
I like that the Reef comes with both a standard Android browser and a dedicated Chrome browser. As with other Android phones like the Optimus Regard, I preferred the latter since you can browse in incognito mode and sync it with your computer or tablet to share tabs and bookmarks.
Processor and battery
The Reef has a 1GHz processor, which is about average for a midrange Android device. It's no powerhouse to be sure, but performance was more uneven than I like. On the upside, there was little lag when opening applications and swiping between menus. On the downside, though, the camera boot time and shutter lag were both about one second and it took a long 50 seconds to restart the Reef. In my tests, the Reef had an average Linpack score of 32.438 MFLOPs (single-thread) with a high of 32.747 MFLOPS. On the Quadrant benchmark it has an average score of score of 1,819.