I wouldn't blame you for wondering why you should even consider the ZTE Render for U.S. Cellular. Because in all honesty, you shouldn't. It is, after all, a Windows 7.5 smartphone hitting stores just days before Microsoft releases Windows Phone 8. And as every Windows Phone watcher knows, current Windows handsets won't upgrade to the next version of Microsoft's OS. That alone renders it (yes, I went there) obsolete right out of the gate, a fact that can't be overcome by a promised small upgrade to Windows Phone 7.8.
Behind that mess there’s not much to make the Render worth your time. The 5-megapixel camera produces average photos, the data connection tops out at 3G EV-DO, and the 1GHz processor is slower than it should be. Voice quality is fine, and if the Render carried a different price tag, I'd give it more of a pass. But at $49 with a two-year contract, it's just not worth your time. Unfortunately, it is U.S. Cellular's only Windows device. But even if you're an ardent Microsoft fan, you're better off waiting for the carrier to embrace Windows Phone 8.
Design and display
The Render never departs from a typical slab smartphone design. On a high-end handset I'd scream for more style, but here simplicity goes with the territory. The exterior measurements come in at 4.7 inches long by 2.5 inches wide by 0.5 inch deep. That makes it relatively small as smartphones go, but it's much heavier then it looks at 4.82 ounces.
The 4-inch WVGA touch screen has a 480x800-pixel resolution. Given the Render’s other specs, I can't really complain. Colors are muted and blacks could be blacker, but it's perfectly serviceable for casual users. As with most previous Windows devices, display options are limited with just three brightness levels (that's enough, though) and the option to change the background theme to one of 10 colors. And, of course, you can personalize the home screen by swapping out tiles and moving them around.
Interface and controls
Below the display are three standard touch controls: Back, Home/Windows and Search. They're plenty sensitive, as is the touch interface of the display. Up top is the 3.5mm headset jack (right where it should be) and the power control. On the left spine is the Micro-USB/charger port and on the right spine are the volume rocker (easy to find when you're on a call) and the camera shutter. The battery cover has an attractive lightly textured surface. The camera lens and flash sit in the top left corner.
So, yes, on the outside there's nothing terribly wrong with the Render. My biggest beef comes after you turn it on. Now let me state unequivocally that I like the Windows Phone OS. In fact, I like it a lot. I've used it as my personal device and find it a nice middle ground between the sheen of iOS and the technical prowess of Android. And because I like it, I don't see any reason why you'd buy a Windows Phone 7.5 at the end of October 2012, right when Microsoft is rolling out Windows Phone 8. If the Render were upgradable, I wouldn't complain, but there's no disputing that the Render is device that’s obsolete on arrival. It's disappointing that U.S. Cellular picked the Render as its first handset with Windows; it doesn't represent Microsoft's OS well.
Features and Microsoft apps
As I mentioned, the Render has an entry-level feature set. Basic options include a calculator, a calendar, an alarm clock, messaging and e-mail, and Bluetooth 3.0. The Render also has Wi-Fi and it even can function as a Wi-Fi hot spot. The latter is a surprise, though the 3G data speeds won't blow you away. The People Hub serves as your phone book and (if you wish) integration point for Google, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. The phone book size is limited by the available memory, with each contact storing multiple fields.
Deeper down you'll find the usual assortment of Microsoft apps like the Zune Music player, access to Xbox Live, Maps, the Internet Explorer browser, Office Hub, and Local Scout for searching what's around you. You always can get more apps from the Windows Marketplace. Fortunately, U.S. Cellular adds only its Your Navigator GPS app, which is powered by Telenav. I love that there's not a ton of annoying bloatware. The Render comes with a healthy 4GB internal memory (and 512MB of RAM). That should be enough for most users, but if not, you get an additional 7GB of SkyDrive storage.
With a camera resolution that's limited to 5 megapixels (2,592x1,944 pixels), shooting photos is not the Render’s strong suit. Still, you get a decent amount of features like tap-to-focus, a macro mode, a digital zoom, four white-balance settings, four image effects, adjustable brightness and contrast, metering, five sharpness levels, ISO and EV settings, and flicker reduction. That's all great, though I can't say the editing options made a whole lot of difference. The flash has automatic mode or you can turn it on or off completely.
Image quality on the Render is middling. The camera performs best outside in strong afternoon light. As you can see in the photo from Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., color accuracy and contrast were decent, though there was a moderate level of image noise. The shot inside CNET's headquarters also fared reasonably well, though the sunlit area in the top left corner was blown out and colors were a bit off. The triangular chairs in the opposite corner, for example, weren't as dark as they should be and the orange couch on the left side was washed out and somewhat blurry. Naturally, the night shot in the rain was poor, but I wasn't expecting a lot to begin with. More troubling, though, is the standard CNET studio shot with flash. There was too much noise, objects were fuzzy, and the image was dark.