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Review: ZTE ZMax for T-Mobile / MetroPCS

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Dec 31, 2014, 9:30 AM   by Eric M. Zeman   @phonescooper

The ZMax is a budget phablet available from both T-Mobile and MetroPCS. This Android handset should appeal to cost-conscious buyers who want the biggest screen they can afford.

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Form 

Is It Your Type?

The ZTE ZMax is for phablet lovers on a budget. It sports a huge screen, mid-range specs, and solid build quality for a lot less than Samsung charges for the Galaxy Note or Apple charges for the iPhone 6 Plus. The ZMax is an affordable smartphone that should appeal to dollar-conscious consumers who want the most for their money.

Body

The ZMax is an ambitious handset for the Chinese smartphone maker. It's the best-spec'd device the company has released in the U.S. and it clearly targets some of the most popular phablets in the market. It still offers that unmistakable ZTE-ness, though, which puts the ZMax in its own niche.

By modern standards, the ZMax is a bit plain as far as the design is concerned. It has a basic, rectangular footprint with an almost blunt look. The surfaces, all of which are black, vary in their finish; some are glossy and others are matte. The side surfaces are curved deeply towards the back surface. The top and bottom are severe and look like they were lopped off. The back plate is completely smooth and devoid of any sort of design elements. It comes off as pedestrian and simple, in a bad way.

The quality of materials and manufacturing is fairly good. The metallic frame is strong and the seams are all tight. The glossy plastic that forms the end caps cheapens the overall look of the device, but you don't touch them with your hands very often.

Body  

Thanks to the 5.7-inch display, the ZMax is big. It's bigger than an iPhone 6 Plus, for example. I couldn't wrap my hand all the way around it. The width is daunting and it often required two hands to use effectively (but this is true of most devices this size.) My thumb could only reach about 50% of the screen when holding the phone normally. Thanks to its girth, stuffing it in your pocket is a challenge no matter how large it is. It's also heavy. I was constantly aware of the ZMax when I carried it around; it's not comfortable to have in your jeans.

The glass forming the display is set down into the frame a little bit, which creates a rim around the screen. The rim protects the screen, but I don't like the way it felt against my skin when I used the phone. The frame is made of metal, and it's incredibly thin (but not thin enough to warrant any fear over its strength). The earpiece speaker is formed by a slit in the glass at the top of the display in addition to holes drilled into the thin bezel. Speaking of which, there are large blank areas above and below the display that make the phone extra tall. It's iPhone-like, and that's not a good thing here. The chin has three capacitive buttons for controlling the Android operating system. Those three buttons worked very well.

You'll find the volume toggle on the left edge of the phone. It has a great profile, making it easy to find, but travel and feedback are disappointing. The SIM card tray is positioned just above the toggle. These are mirrored by the screen lock button and memory card tray on the right side of the phone. I was much more pleased with the lock button. The headphone jack is on top and the USB port is on the bottom.

You won't be able to pull or swap batteries. The ZMax is locked up tightly; there's no access to the innards. ZTE's logo is stenciled on in chrome letters and the camera module is rimmed in a chrome ring. Both help break up what would otherwise be a stark black surface. There's a thin slit close to the bottom so the speakerphone can be heard.

The ZMax hardware is bulky, but functional.

Performance 

Screen

The ZMax features a 5.7-inch display with 1280 x 720 pixels. This isn't the best combination. The large size means those 921,000 pixels have a lot of space to fill - and they don't quite get the job done. Individual pixels are plainly visible even when the phone is held more than a foot away. In other words, the screen isn't nearly as sharp as it could be. That said, 720p screens are less costly than 1080p screens, and this lesser component helps keep the ZMax's price point down. Lack of pixels aside, the ZMax's display is crazy bright and viewing angles are excellent. I had no trouble seeing it outdoors - as long as the screen was clean. ZTE must not employ an oleophobic coating, because this thing collects fingerprint smears like no other phone I've tested this year. Gross.

Signal

The ZMax performed admirably on T-Mobile's network in the metro NYC region. I'd say it's on par with other devices I've tested on the UNcarrier. Whether the signal was strong or weak, the ZMax connected calls on the first dial while I tested it. However, maintaining calls wasn't as great; I had a couple of dropped calls here and there, mostly in moving vehicles. The ZMax interacted well with T-Mobile's HSPA+/LTE data networks. Speeds were generally good, though they fell short of incredible. I noticed slowdowns in weak coverage areas, but that's typical behavior.

Sound

The ZTE isn't the best phone I've used for making calls, nor is it the worst. Volume is decent through the earpiece, but quality left something to be desired. There was a bit more interference than I cared to hear. Those who called me while I was testing the ZMax said I sounded "far away." The speakerphone works best when placed on a hard, flat surface. It can generate some serious punch, but clarity could, again, be a bit better. Ringers and alerts were loud enough to get my attention most of the time, but there were a few instances when I missed calls for not hearing the phone. The vibrate alert is good but not great.

Battery

With a 3,400 mAh battery under the hood, staying power is one thing the ZMax has in spades. Neither the big screen nor the LTE radio can put a dent in the battery. The ZMax consistently delivered a full day of battery life and left me with plenty to spare at the end of the day. Casual users should be pleased with the ZMax's battery performance, and power users should be able to get by without issue. It's solid.

Basics 

Menus

The ZMax runs a nearly skinless version of Android 4.4 KitKat. That means it behaves like most other Android smartphones released in the last year or so, with just a smattering of ZTE-designed apps here and there. ZTE hasn't yet said anything about updating the ZMax to Android 5.0 Lollipop, so we'll have to assume for now that it will be on KitKat for the foreseeable future.

Disappointingly, there are no app shortcuts available to the home screen. You can lock it with a PIN, password, pattern, your face, or leave it unlocked entirely. The choice is yours. The Quick Settings panel is accessible from the lock screen (even when protected) but notifications aren't. The phone does support lock screen widgets, though, so you can see your Gmail or SMS inboxes if you want.

The ZMax has five home screen panels active out of the box and they are (thankfully) devoid of manufacturer and carrier apps or junk. The main app drawer lists apps in alphabetical order. You can drop them in folders, but the ZMax doesn't support lists or customized views. The settings menus look and function just like they should on any Android KitKat phone. They run in a vertical list with white text on a black background. At least ZTE tossed some colored buttons into the setting menus to brighten it up.

A Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 serves as the ZMax's application processor. It's got four cores at 1.2 GHz each. This is Qualcomm's workhorse processor and I've tested it in what feels like dozens of phones this year. It performs really well in the ZMax. I didn't see any lagging or slow performance. Nearly all the ZMax's features functioned perfectly with the 400 providing the oomph.

Menus  

Calls/Contacts

The ZMax relies on the stock Android phone and people apps. The phone app, which is located in the dock at the bottom of the home screen panels, opens in a jiffy. The call log, dialer, and contacts are sorted into tabs. You swipe sideways to switch between them. Google assumes most people will initiate calls from their contacts or favorites list, rather than actually dial numbers, so the dialer's importance is downplayed. T-Mobile's WiFi Calling service isn't available to the ZMax.

Calls  

The contact app can pull in contacts from myriad sources, including Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft/Exchange. Contact details can also be pulled from your social media accounts (Facebook/Twitter) to help flesh out contact cards. The contact app lets you put direct dial/message shortcuts on the home screen if you wish, but there isn't a larger home-screen widget for contacts. I do wish the native people app were a bit less white.

Contacts  

Messaging

The ZMax comes with Gmail, email, messaging, Hangouts, and Google+. Google has updated many of these apps so they are the same no matter what version of Google you're running. The latest Gmail app is great and now incorporates other email services. It's a toss up whether you use the older Android SMS app or Hangouts for SMS these days. The old app is a barren service, while Hangouts is richer but much more confusing to use. Twitter and Facebook aren't preloaded, so you'll have to find them and any other social networks in the Play Store.

Messages  

Extras 

Media

There are no surprises in the media department. The ZMax relies on the Google's standard Play Store and associated apps for music, video, and other content. Like the messaging apps, Google has overhauled these, too, and the newest versions are the best yet. They all work fairly well when it comes to purchasing and consuming content.

There is an unbranded music app for spinning side-loaded MP3s and a T-Mobile-branded video app for playing side-loaded video files. T-Mobile also stuck its MobiTV-made movie/TV app on there for good measure. This app — which works best over LTE — offers video content for a monthly fee. You're best off sticking with YouTube.

Music sounds good through headphones, but I wasn't overly impressed with the quality of video playback on the screen. My eyes want more pixels.

Media  

Camera

Placing a shortcut on the home screen is the quickest way to get to the camera. There's no access from the lock screen and there's no dedicated button.

As with most modern smartphone cameras, the ZMax's software offers two sets of controls, down the left and right sides, though there's still plenty of room on the screen for the viewfinder. The shutter controls are on the right, and there are separate buttons for still and video capture.

The different shooting modes and scenes — of which there are 18 — can be dialed in below the shutter buttons. The ZMax offers auto, normal, HDR, panorama, best shot, manual, smile, group, clear, blink detect, interval, macro, portrait, night portrait, sport, sunset, landscape, and low light shooting modes.

Best shot takes a 10-shot burst of photos and lets you pick the best one. “Photo clear” mode lets you erase objects in the background. Smile capture automatically fires the shutter when the camera senses the subject is smiling. Group shot mode takes a handful of shots and lets you combine the best series of faces into a single image. The interval mode allows you to take a short time-lapse of 6 pictures over 30 seconds, 12 pictures over 60 seconds, or 18 pictures over 90 seconds. I found each of the modes worked as expected.

Last, the settings allow you to adjust the brightness, white balance, color effects, timer, and so on.

The tools all work well, but the software has a somewhat dated appearance.

Camera  

Photos

The ZMax has an 8-megapixel camera. It does a decent enough job that most people should be able to get away with leaving their cameras at home for all but the most important events. As far as everyday imaging needs are concerned, it gets the job done. Exposure, focus, and white balance are generally accurate, though getting all three accurate at the same time is a rare hat trick. I saw lots of grain when shooting indoors, and the flash doesn't help mitigate that at all. As is typically the case, you'll get the best results on sunny afternoons outdoors. I'd take a real camera on vacation or to weddings, but using the ZMax to snap shots of your friends at happy hour is perfectly acceptable.

Photos  

Video

The ZMax can take video up to 1080p full HD resolution. For the most part, the video looked good. The video results were consistently better than those of the still camera. Focus and exposure were most consistently matched. As with the still camera, you can get away with using the ZMax for everyday needs, but I'd step up to dedicated video gear for important events.

Gallery

The ZMax uses the old Android photo gallery, but also has Google Photos+ on board. I've been recommending people move away from the older app in favor of Photos+, only because the former is being phased out. It has most of the tools average people need to tweak the appearance of their photos. That means basics such as contract, exposure, and saturation, as well as artistic filters and effects. Sharing via social networks is a breeze. Photos also automatically backs up all your photos to the cloud if you want.

Gallery  

Apps

Third-party apps are few on the ZMax. T-Mobile stuck its MyAccount app, as well as T-Mobile TV, and Visual Voicemail. You'll notice the Amazon app and Lookout Security. ZTE didn't put anything on there at all. Everything else is stock Android. It's a breath a fresh air to see so few junky apps on the phone.

Bluetooth

I had no trouble connecting the ZMax to other devices, such as headsets, speakers, and so on. All of the features worked as expected. However, call quality through my favorite headset was iffy at best. Both volume and quality were off. I'd say the same thing concerning music playback through a Bluetooth speaker. It just wasn't as good as what I've heard from other devices, especially since it doesn't support the high-quality aptX profile.

Browser

Chrome is the only browser on the ZMax and that's fine by me. It does a great job of rendering web sites whether they're optimized for mobile or not. I found it to be fairly quick on T-Mobile's network. Most web sites popped up in fewer than 10 seconds, though weak coverage would drag things out a bit. Desktop Chrome users can take advantage of advanced features, such as syncing bookmarks and browsing history.

Browser  

Clock

Were it not for the killer brightness of the ZMax's display, you'd never see the clock. The white, digital clock is hardly visible thanks to the smudge factor on the screen. The bright display helps the clock poke through the grimy gunk just enough so that you can make out the time.

GPS

Google Maps is the only location service preinstalled. It interacted with the ZMax's GPS radio just fine. The phone found me quickly and accurately. I didn't have any problems navigating from A to B. It worked perfectly.

Maps  

Wrap-Up 

ZTE did a decent job with the ZMax. It's a solid device that gets most of the basics right, though there's nothing particularly awesome about it. It's well made, but relies on ZTE's rather staid design language.

The main selling point of any phablet should be the screen. As much as I like the ZMax screens' brightness and color, the resolution is somewhat disappointing, particularly with video content. The signal performance is OK and call quality is average, but battery life is killer.

The apps are almost all standard Android, which means users should be familiar with how they work. The camera app has some great features, but the app looks dated and the sensor itself could do better.

The ZTE ZMax is a bargain on T-Mobile's network. The price point is the real story here. It costs $250 at full price or just $10 per month with one of T-Mobile's Simple Choice plans. At that price, you're getting a solid performer for the money. It's not the best phone T-Mobile sells, but few offer as well-rounded a feature set for just $10 per month.

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