Lauren Goode

T-Mobile’s $20 Prism Sacrifices Speed, but Not Call Quality

For the first time, the majority of adult mobile-phone subscribers in the U.S. are now using smartphones, according to a recent report from Nielsen.

But smartphone ownership dominates by just a slim margin, which means a lot of people are still using regular old cellphones. Some people may not feel the need to run lots of apps or to be connected to email all the time, while others may not be able to afford high-end smartphones, which can cost hundreds of dollars — not including the monthly data plans.

Stripped-down, inexpensive smartphones — known as “budget phones” — do a lot of the same things that fancier smartphones do, but make some sacrifices that impact performance.

I’ve been testing one such smartphone: T-Mobile’s new Prism, which is aimed at first-time smartphone buyers and costs just $20 for contract customers after a $50 mail-in rebate. The Prism is made by Huawei, and was introduced in early May. It’s currently available through T-Mobile’s retail stores and Web site, as well as through Walmart and Best Buy stores. It runs Android’s Gingerbread operating system, which isn’t the newest flavor of Android.

After five days of testing the Prism, I found it to be a pretty decent phone with good call quality, a device that first-time smartphone buyers would probably find easy to use. But it runs on T-Mobile’s slower 3G speeds, Web browsing was slow, and its build felt cheaper than some other budget phones. Also, it’s really not meant for heavy media consumption, so those with an inclination toward that will want to steer clear of this phone.

For two-year contract customers, T-Mobile has Value Plans and Classic Plans that offer up to 10 gigabytes of data service per month for around $65 dollars.

Month-to-month call and data plans are also available for this phone, ranging in price from $30 for 1,500 minutes or text messages using as much as 30 megabits of data, up to $70 for unlimited talk, text and Web, with the first 5GB of data at faster speeds.

Here’s where it gets confusing: Most of these month-to-month schemes, called Monthly4G plans, are designed for phones with faster 4G speeds, even though the T-Mobile Prism is a 3G phone. T-Mobile confirmed that with the Prism, users can get unlimited data — just at a much slower speed. After you surpass that data usage, you’ll be notified that you’ve reached your limit and the phone will switch to basic 2G service.

I ran speed tests in various locations around New York City, comparing the performance of the Prism, a competing Sprint budget phone, and a Verizon iPhone. The average download speed with the Prism was 0.71 megabits per second, and the average upload speed was 0.17 Mbps; the Sprint LTE ZTE Fury averaged download and upload speeds of 0.77 and 0.55 Mbps. The average download speed with the 3G Verizon iPhone was 0.88, and the average upload speed was .93 Mbps.

In terms of hardware, the Prism is about the same size as an iPhone, though with its curved plastic back it’s not as angular. It has a 3.5-inch touchscreen display. This 4.4-ounce featherweight phone felt much less solid than something like the Sprint ZTE Fury, another $20 budget phone of about the same size but with more substantial hardware.

People who are used to tactile “push” keys on a phone or fatter touchscreen keys will probably bristle at using the tiny touchscreen keys on the Prism. However, the keypad does have Swype, an input method that lets you drag your finger from letter to letter and formulates the words for you.

The 3.2-megapixel camera on this device isn’t great. I took side-by-side photos with this phone and an iPhone, which has a five-megapixel camera, and the Prism’s photos didn’t look as crisp as the iPhone’s.

But one thing this phone doesn’t sacrifice is call quality. I made and received several calls from it, and never had trouble hearing anyone; it really didn’t sound that different from an iPhone or a sleeker Android phone.

The Prism also works with T-Mobile’s built-in Wi-Fi calling app, which allows you to make phone calls over an Internet connection, provided you have access to Wi-Fi. This worked fine for me, but the person’s voice on the other end sounded much less clear than it did with non-W-Fi phone calls.

The Prism also has good battery life. I first charged it on a Sunday morning, and it lasted until early Tuesday, after I’d made several calls, checked email consistently, and used a couple of social-networking apps. T-Mobile says the Prism should get 6.5 hours of talk time.

A first-time smartphone user would likely find it easy to get the hang of email on this device, both through the native email app on the phone and via email apps that are available for download through Google Play, the new name for the Android app market.

In addition to checking email incessantly, as I do, I also downloaded Twitter and Instagram and tested those apps, along with Facebook. This experience wasn’t much different from using these apps on a high-end smartphone. T-Mobile has put its stamp on the phone by cluttering the interface with some carrier-branded apps, but those can be moved or deleted.

The biggest drawback of the Prism was its sluggish Web browsing. I found myself on a street corner one evening, looking for a nearby grocery store and a wine store, and cars whizzed by for a few minutes before I could pull up some pertinent results. The Prism has a processor that’s on the slow side, compared with both high-end phones and some other budget phones.

The Prism is a decent starter smartphone, but, as one might expect for the price, it’s not a genius phone. Some of these budget phones require an ounce of patience, and reasonable expectations about what they can and can’t do. Also, if this phone doesn’t float your budget-friendly boat, there are plenty of other budget smartphones on the market from Nokia, Samsung, Sony, LG and others that you might want to consider.

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— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work