The Bottom Line

Pros

Large screen, low price
Snapdragon 400 performs well
Incredible standby time, good overall battery life
When camera hits, it hits very decently
Near stock version of Android

Cons

Large screen is an average performer
Handling can be awkward
Odd material design choices
Camera misses more than it hits

Bottom Line

If you want a big phone without the big price, ZTE delivers with the ZMax.

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Inexpensive phones are sometimes few and far between, especially when talking about the large-screen devices of today. It’s almost become an industry standard that a big screen equals a big price. But while the majority of device manufacturers stick to really high costs for large phones, ZTE has found out a way to rise to the challenge and offer an inexpensive alternative. In fact, they’ve become quite good at it over the past few years.

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The ZTE ZMax  is one of the company’s latest, bringing a slew of mid-range specifications to an extremely inexpensive price. At around $250 off-contract, could this T-Mobile exclusive phablet possibly be worth the money? Find out in our comprehensive review of the ZTE ZMax!

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It’s apparent that design and price directly correlate with each other, especially when it comes to ZTE’s latest. Around front, sits a big 5.7-inch, 720p display that’s encompassed by quite a bit of visible bezel. The chin of the device needs to be a bit bigger to compensate for the capacitive buttons, but in turn, it makes the device much taller than it needs to be. ZTE’s choice to include capacitive vs. on-screen buttons is an odd one, especially considering the near-stock Android UI on the software front.

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The front also shows a glossy plastic material on the top and bottom, held together by a semi-matte finish around the back. Though the phone looks pretty sleek, the choice of materials slightly hinder the handling experience of the device. It’s one thing to try to hold a huge 5.7-inch phone, but the plastic backing makes it even more difficult than it needs to be. What’s more, the button placement is somewhat curved to the back of the phone, making it very difficult to press any of them with your thumb. It’s a bit easier to press the buttons with your index finger, but that setup is far from ideal.

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We get the feeling that ZTE used two different design languages on the ZMax. The glossy plastic doesn’t mesh well with the semi-matted material, and it made the overall presentation of the device slightly disjointed.

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The ZTE ZMax comes with a 5.7-inch 720p display, resulting in a pixel density of 258ppi. While the display is definitely a decent performer, it does not display images and text as sharp as smartphones with a 1080p display, obviously. That being said, it’s large, produces colors well, and displays text and images quite decently. We’ve been spoiled as of late by a slew of 1080p and even qHD displays, but these are all on smartphones that are nearly three times the price unlocked.

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To be critical though, the display isn’t perfect. We didn’t really notice the bad aspects of the TFT display, until we began moving around text on the screen. It was then that we could see the separation in the pixels. When viewing media or playing games, this wasn’t as noticeable a problem because of the native resolutions of these apps, but this was a small consolation, as colors weren’t particularly vivid, and that flatness translated to media. Regardless, it’s more than sufficient at displaying whatever you throw at it and will likely please most users.

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The ZTE ZMax sports a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 processor, clocked at 1.2 GHz, and backed by the Adreno 305 GPU and 2 GB of RAM. This is the current standard when it comes to mid-range devices in the Android world, and as such, the performance is pretty much at par with what you’d expect.

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This isn’t the fastest or smoothest processing package available, but will definitely get the job done for any moderate user. The difference is obvious when moving from the current high-end processors available, but the extra few milliseconds it takes to load applications isn’t unbearable by any means. Some jarring and stuttering transitions are found occasionally, but that isn’t a testament to the capabilities of the processing package, but has more to do with the software experience this device provides.

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Continuing with its mid-range nature, hardware features on the ZMax are largely standard affair, though its inclusion of a microSD card slot over the 16 GB of internal storage is one that is always welcome. It can take up to a 64GB microSD card, which is something we encourage more manufacturers to do with their devices.

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As T-Mobile is the main place to get this phone in the US, its performance on the LTE network was expectedly solid. Call quality, on the other hand, sounded well enough, though a noticeable lag from spoken word to digitized voice on either end happened on more than one occasion. The rear facing speaker suffered from the issue any rear facing speaker faces, but its general sound quality yielded a very narrow soundstage, with a distinct lack of body and richness to the sound as well.

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Battery life is one area where there was little to complain about, as it handled pretty heavy usage and lasted over 12 hours, and solid day’s worth is pretty much guaranteed with this 3,400 mAh powered unit. That said, when pit against other large devices that fall in this category, the battery performance is certainly not more than average. With light to moderate usage, you will find a surprisingly incredible standby time, and if you’re not going out of your way to keep the screen on, you can easily push the battery life to at least a couple of days, if not more.

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The ZTE ZMax comes with an 8 MP rear shooter, and a front-facing 1.6 MP camera, with video modes of 1080p and 720p respectively. The camera app is really simplistic, like the rest of the software suite, but does provide some modes for a bit of creativity though. Night modes bring down the shutter speed for better low light shots, and HDR actually does add some color to an otherwise blown out subject. Bursts are taken advantage of for Best or Group Shot modes, where you can select the best of the bunch.

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Picture quality is certainly decent in well-lit situations, where you can definitely get some usable shots. As ISO limit of 1600 means that low light situations will be difficult, and the quality does reflect that. Using the flash in this case does more to flood the subject, rather just illuminate it. It’s clear that despite some mode additions, the camera is meant to get the job done without really performing above and beyond.

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The software experience is decidedly spartan, as the very stock-like version of Android KitKat 4.4.2 comes with this device. Anyone looking for a more “pure” Android experience will get it here, but some questions about the choices made in its implementation do come up.

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The lock screen requires a press and hold to unlock the device, which isn’t a huge change, but doesn’t feel as fast as a quick swipe. Close to no ZTE additions make it into this build, and it feels highly generic more than anything. But keeping things minimalistic, and therefore cost effective makes a lot of sense, and provides the software experience that many users do want. We applaud ZTE though, for keeping things so close to pure Android.

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What stands out is the inclusion of a capacitive menu button, which feels almost archaic here. Nonetheless, this is a case of Android’s spartan build being easily used for any number of manufacturer’s devices, and it still feels just fine as a means to bring the Android world to any device.

As mentioned, the ZTE ZMax is available from T-Mobile in the US, with no money down under T-Mobile’s payment system. Buying the device outright works out to $252, certainly making it one of the cheaper devices available in the size range.

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So there you have it – the ZTE ZMax! ZTE is able to bring a large screen experience to the very affordable segment of the Android space, but does so under a decidedly mid-range scope. When you factor in how affordable it is, the ZTE ZMax stands out from the pack. After all, there are plenty of people out there that want to enjoy a large screen without spending an arm and a leg. And in that case, ZTE has succeeded in making that a reality. There will, of course, be better performance pretty much all around from higher-end models, but that isn’t the point of the ZMax, and thats what makes a welcome, yet decidedly midrange addition to Android.