If you miss 2007-era flip phones, don’t miss the ZTE Cymbal-T ($99.99). It’s big, it’s weird, it’s imperfect, and it’s only available on TracFone. But it’s also the only device of its kind, a flip phone with a traditional number pad, but with full Android 5.1.1 app compatibility. We’ve occasionally seen Android flips in Asia, but this is the first one we’ve actually seen for sale in the US. That makes it worth a look for curiosity seekers, nostalgia fiends, and smartphone newbies.
Here’s where you might decide to stop reading: The Cymbal-T is a TracFone exclusive, running on the Verizon Wireless LTE network. It is impossible to unlock and will not work with any other service, not even Verizon’s own. TracFone is a prepaid carrier with a complex system of “airtime cards,” “triple minutes,” and percentage discounts that make its service unusually difficult to figure out. Its rates also tend to be a little higher than other prepaid carriers: for instance, 750 minutes, 1,000 texts, and 1GB is $35, while Cricket’s 1GB plan is $30.
But let’s talk about the phone. To start, the Cymbal-T is huge. Closed, it’s 4.7 by 2.4 by 0.7 inches (HWD); open, it’s 8.75 inches long. That’s because the top half contains a dim little 3.5-inch, 320-by-480 touch screen to run Android. It weighs 5.82 ounces.
The three traditional Android navigation buttons have been turned into physical buttons on the bottom half of the keypad; there are also physical buttons for the music player, email, camera, pick-up, hang-up, and a mute button. The phone really takes a lot of what’s virtual about Android and makes it physical, which is helpful for newcomers. The keypad is excellent, with big, well-defined physical keys that are hard to mis-press. As with older flip phones, there’s also a tiny black-and-white 128-by-64 display on the outside that shows time, date, signal, battery, and caller ID information. If you’re playing music, it shows the song.
Let’s talk about text entry. By default, messaging apps on this phone pop up a very tiny on-screen keyboard, which only operates in portrait mode. You can peck out words, download additional Android keyboards, or use the number pad for triple tap or a strange hybrid predictive text, where you punch out words as if it’s T9, but have to tap on the resulting word on the screen. It’s not the best text entry method by any means, but it’s not awful.
Calls and Battery
Call quality is important, and it’s surprisingly good given how far the microphone is from your mouth. The earpiece is loud, and the tone is harsh—there’s no HD Voice, Wi-Fi calling, or VoLTE—but it’s very comprehensible. I was pleasantly surprised by how well the mic cancels background noise. The speakerphone works while the phone is open or closed, and it’s loud enough to be heard outdoors. When you holler through it, it doesn’t sound like you’re at the bottom of a well. Bluetooth and wired headsets both connect just fine.
The phone runs on the Verizon network, although TracFone’s version is clearly speed-limited. It also has single-band, 2.4GHz Wi-Fi, and for Internet access, I mostly used the Wi-Fi.
The phone’s result on our video streaming battery test, 6 hours 16 minutes, isn’t bad at all. You’ll want to recharge it every two days or so—it’s a smartphone, after all—but the small screen makes up for the relatively tiny 1,800mAh battery.
Android and Performance
The Cymbal-T has a Snapdragon 210 processor and 1GB of RAM. It runs a pretty stock version of Android 5.1.1, although it’s clearly been rewired to work with all the physical keys. The keys are used really intelligently—in the camera app, for instance, you can use the physical select key as a shutter button.
The phone is a bit sluggish and benchmarks similarly to other low-end phones, like the Alcatel Streak, but with one key difference. Game performance is surprisingly snappy because the screen is so low-res, although you’ll want to use games like Temple Run that work in portrait mode. Landscape games, like Angry Birds, make you turn the phone sideways, and it becomes unbalanced and rather hard to handle.
It’s way too easy to use up the phone’s 3.23 GB of available internal storage with apps, especially if you’re also taking photos and caching music. You’re going to have to sock in a microSD card—it read our 64GB card with no problem—and move apps and media to the memory card, which you can do via the Settings app. Or, since this phone is clearly designed for the not-so-tech-savvy, you just don’t load a lot of apps on it. If all you’re trying to run is Skype to talk to the grandkids, you’ll be fine.
Speaking of Skype: It’s pretty much what the cameras on here are for. Technically, there’s a 2-megapixel front camera and a 5-megapixel rear camera. They’re both very 2007—often blurry, with no low-light performance to speak of. They capture 720p video at 30 frames per second outdoors, but frame rates drop sharply in low light, to 15fps with the main camera and a jerky 7fps with the front-facing camera. On the other hand, your pictures will auto-upload to Google Photos, if you want—a standard Android feature, but something no other flip phone does.
Comparisons and Conclusions
Comparing other phones with the ZTE Cymbal-T isn’t easy. Yes, there are flip phones out there like the Jitterbug Flip, but they don’t run Android apps. There are simple Android phones like the Doro 824, but they don’t have a hard keypad. The Freetel Musashi and Samsung Galaxy Folder are comparable—they’re both Android-powered flips—but they aren’t available on the US market.
I know this review might sound a little harsh for a device that admittedly made the phone geek in me squeal with glee. I just want you to know what you’re getting into here. There’s a certain niche who will flock to this phone—thosewho miss physical buttons with a vengeance and don’t use apps heavily, but want to be able to check Facebook feeds or video chat on the go. If that’s you, the Cymbal-T is unlikely to disappoint.