Review: ZTE Grand X Max+ for Cricket Wireless
ZTE's latetest Android smartphone for Cricket is the high-class Grand X Max+. This phone is a bargain for phablet lovers.
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Is It Your Type?
The ZTE Grand X Max+ is for customers who want a big, stylish, and sensible smartphone with a prepaid plan. It's classy and probably Cricket's best value.
The Grand X Max+ boasts appealing design aesthetics, impressive specs, and easy affordability. It takes what was good about last year's X Max and makes improvements (almost) all the way around. The X Max+ carries over the appearance of the X Max, but makes significant changes under the hood.
The X Max+ is a phablet, and a big one at that. It's about equal in size to devices such as the Nexus 6 or Lumia 1320. It measures 6.38 by 3.27 by 0.31 inches, which makes it tall and wide, but rather thin when viewed from the sides. The front and back surfaces are formed from glass and are held together by a polycarbonate frame. Some might say it resembles Sony's line of Xperia Z handsets. It's a good-looking phone. The design may be somewhat simple, but it is effective and attractive to my eyes. The materials may not be class-leading, but they are good.
I'd call the X Max+ a two-handed device. I was able to perform some tasks with just one hand, but my thumb could only reach about half the screen when I held the device normally. It doesn't have a one-handed operational mode, like Samsung's Galaxy Note 4 or LG's G3, so you'll find your other hand becomes necessary much of the time. The X Max+ doesn't fit that well into average pockets.
The front surface is all glass. Only a fraction of the frame extends to the front, at the top and bottom. The glass panel is set into the frame a bit, which has rather sharp edges along the left and right sides. The ZTE and Cricket logos - both painted on in chrome - are the only things that break up the otherwise solid black surface. There's a small grill at the top for the earpiece, and the user-facing camera is visible when viewed from the right angle. There are no physical buttons to control the operating system; instead, the X Max+ uses on-screen buttons that come and go as needed.
You won't have any trouble finding the volume toggle along the left edge of the device; it has an excellent profile. The volume control works well, but makes a rather cheap-sounding "click" when pressed. Like most big phones, the screen lock button is placed about midway up on the right side. It also has a good profile and solid travel and feedback. You'll see two trays above screen lock button. One is for the SIM card and the other is for a memory card. You'll need a pin tool to eject them. There's no dedicated camera button. The headphone jack is on the top and the USB port is on the bottom. They are both easy to use.
Like the front, the back surface is all glass. It's set into the frame and cannot be removed. That means you don't have access to the battery. I rather like the faux carbon fiber pattern in the glass. It helps give the phone just a bit more personality. The camera is positioned practically against the top edge of the phone. I found I sometimes covered it with my finger when reorienting the phone to take pictures.
In sum, the X Max+ is a fine piece of hardware.
The display measures 6.0 inches across the diagonal and consists of 1280 x 720 pixels. It's not remotely the best size-pixel ratio in the market, but it still manages to look pretty good. ZTE did a good job optimizing most of the elements you'll see on screen for the resolution available. That means icons, menus, and other bits of the UI all appear smooth and free of pixelated edges. Text is a different story. You'll notice the lower pixel density most when reading small text on web sites or in Google Docs. High-def movies look good. The screen offers plenty of brightness. I was able to set it quite low most of the time indoors, and only had to ramp it up a little bit outside. I had no trouble using the phone as a camera outdoors under a sunny sky. Viewing angles are excellent. There's only a minor drop in brightness even when viewed from extreme angles.
New phones from Cricket, including the X Max+, operate on AT&T's network. One of the improvements the X Max+ made over last year's phone is the addition of LTE 4G. The X Max only had access to HSPA. The X Max+ can use LTE anywhere AT&T offers it. In that respect, the X Max+ performed on par with other handsets I've tested on AT&T's network in the metro NYC area. It connected all the calls I made on the first dial and never dropped or missed any calls. LTE speeds weren't the fastest I've seen, but that didn't seem to impact how long it took to load web pages or upload images to Facebook. The X Max+ did well even in areas with weak coverage.
I was quite impressed with call quality. Voices come through the earpiece speaker loud and clear. I was able to hold conversations in most everyday environments - such as coffee shops and local shopping centers - without worrying about missing anything. I didn't experience any interference or choppiness, just clean sound. Those I spoke with through the X Max+ said I sounded "far away." The speakerphone isn't quite as good. Since the speaker is on the back, I'd recommend you place the X Max+ on a hard, flat surface, such as a desk or table, for the best sound. Volume is good enough for an office with a closed door or other semi-quiet spaces, but I had a hard time hearing conversations in the car when I had to hold the phone in my hand. Quality also dips a bit. Ringtones and alerts will get your attention most of the time, even if you're in a different room. The vibrate alert is quite strong, and the phone offers five different vibrate patterns.
ZTE managed to squeeze a large 3,200 mAh battery into the svelte profile of the X Max+. It's an ample power supply that never wavered in delivering a full day's use to the X Max+. The 720p HD screen has half as many pixels as a 1080p HD screen, and that helps keep power drain in check. I consistently had battery capacity left to spare at the end of the day while testing the X Max+.
The phone has a great battery saver tool, as well. It provides a detailed look at what's draining the battery and how much uptime you have left with a handful of activities, such as voice calls, music playback, video playback, and web browsing. Moreover, there are three operational modes for the phone that help conserve battery life. The most extreme of them is called Long Standby Mode, which kills all functions except the ability to make/receive calls and send/receive text messages. With this mode enabled, the phone's battery life extends for days.
The X Max+ runs Android 4.4.4 KitKat with ZTE's user interface skin. The skin is mostly aesthetic, which means the basics of operating the X Max+ are the same as with other Android phones. There are a few changes here and there, but they are tasteful for the most part.
The lock screen supports up to five shortcuts. There's a permanent shortcut to the camera, but users can elect to add the phone, messaging, email, or contact apps if they so wish. The shortcuts function well even if you choose to set a password to lock the phone. The lock screen includes a bright clock in addition to access to the notification tray and Quick Settings.
Three home screen panels are active when you first boot the X Max+ and they are busy with Cricket-branded apps and widgets. As always, you can customize the screens with folders, wallpapers, or shortcuts to suit your own needs. The app drawer is rather limited. All apps are listed in alphabetical order and displayed in a grid. You can't rearrange them, create your own folders, or view the apps in list form. That's a disappointment. At least you can hide apps you won't use.
The notification shade includes four radio toggles across the top, but a drop-down tab lets you see all the tools in the Quick Settings panel. There's also a button that opens the full settings menu. Speaking of which, ZTE dressed up the settings menu, but it functions just the same as it does on most Android handsets. All of the options for tweaking the behavior of the X Max+ are laid out in a single column. General settings are closest to the top, followed by controls over the wireless radios, device, personal data, accounts, and so on. It would be nice to see a setting for a one-handed mode, but there isn't one.
The X Max+ traded in the X Max's Snapdragon 200 processor with 1GB of RAM for a Snapdragon 400 processor with 2GB of RAM. It feels fast most of the time. I didn't see any significant performance problems, though I noticed a few pauses and crashes here and there. It's not the fastest phone I've tested, but it certainly isn't slow.
The X Max+ relies on the stock Android Phone and People apps. The Phone app opens swiftly. It offers a standard set of features, such as mute, Bluetooth, and speakerphone. I find the app works best if you take the time to set up favorites for faster dialing. You can answer calls with the motion of simply picking up the phone, but this function needs to be turned on in the settings menu.
The People app is useful for managing your various online accounts and syncs with most of them. Contact cards can hold tons of data these days and will sync with social networks if you choose. There's a single home screen widget that packages up your favorite people in a grid. Oddly, there's no way to set up direct dial/message shortcuts on the home screen. Some users may consider that a turn-off.
The X Max+ 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. ZTE's messaging app looks and behaves differently compared to the old Android messaging app, but most of the features are the same. It's easy to manage conversations with the app. I like the idea of using Hangouts to handle SMS and IM conversations, but the UI is a muddy mess. Twitter and Facebook aren't preloaded.
Google's Play-branded apps constitute the bulk of the media apps found on the X Max+. The Play Store serves as the content warehouse for music, movies, books, and magazines and the separate apps for enjoying these bits of content are all on board. Google has revised most of these apps since October; they feel fresh thanks to Material Design.
The X Max+ also offers stand-alone music and video player apps for side-loaded or memory card content. These two apps are functional and serve well. The phone also includes the trusty YouTube app.
ZTE tossed the Dolby app on board for good measure. It lets users dial in sound preferences to suit their tastes. The Dolby app has several presets (movie, music, game, voice), but also supports two user-defined EQ curves. This is something I appreciate. I tested the Dolby app up against my best headphones and can report that each of the presets offers a unique sound profile. For example, the soundstage is much wider when using movie mode than it is with music, and the voice mode sounds flatter than the others.
At the end of January, Cricket will retire its legacy Muve Music service and replace it with Deezer. Deezer is totally optional, but provides access to 35 million songs for $6 per month.
The camera app for the X Max+ is a brand new one from ZTE. It's much more attractive and modern than what we saw on last year's ZTE phones. It opens quickly from the lock screen shortcut, but it's a pity there's no dedicated button for it.
There are three basic operating modes: Auto, Pro, and Fun. The default is Auto, but you can cycle through them with a button in the upper right corner. The Auto mode is fairly straight-forward. The left side of the screen has five small buttons running along the edge for switching to the selfie camera, setting the timer, turning HDR on/of, setting the flash, and adjusting certain settings.
If you switch to Pro Mode, the five buttons on the left remain the same, but the settings menu changes dramatically and lets you adjust everything (image size, white balance, ISO, exposure, gradient, face detection, and so on.) Perhaps its best feature is the built-in level that helps you align your shot.
The Fun Mode simply lets you adjust the exposure time from 0 seconds to 60 seconds with a slider on the right side of the screen. I'm not exactly sure what's fun about that, but that's the gist of it: it's a long-exposure mode.
All three modes let you set focus and exposure by touching anywhere on the screen. I figure most people won't bother switching from Auto mode most of the time, but more advanced users may appreciate the additional options available in Pro mode.
I found the camera app to be a bit slow and unresponsive at times, which, I'm afraid, is a characteristic common to devices with the Snapdragon 400 processor. It's the only app that performed somewhat under par as far as speed is concerned.
The X Max+ improves the camera resolution from 8 to 13 megapixels. Even so, getting a good shot is more a happy accident than anything else. The X Max+ was wildly inconsistent at everything. Sometimes white balance, exposure, and focus were all good, and sometimes they weren't. Typically only two of the three were accurate and the third was way off. You can see the overexposed wall behind the shrub below, the wacky white balance in the shot of the canoes and sit-n-spin, and the soft focus of the wire-frame deer. I was stunned the shot of the sunset in my backyard worked, but it's loaded with grain. Bottom line: you can't trust the X Max+ to get the job done consistently. That's a shame.
The X Max+ can shoot 1080p HD video and does a better job of it than it does with the camera. It was better at scoring accurate exposure, focus, and white balance all at the same time. I did notice plenty of grain, though, even when the subject was brightly lit. You're apt to get usable video from the X Max+, but I'd still turn to dedicated equipment for important events.
The Grand X Max+ relies on the old Android photo gallery, but also has Google Photos. I've been recommending people move away from the older app in favor of Photos+, only because the former is being phased out. The new Photos has most of the tools average people need to tweak the appearance of their photos. That means basics such as contrast, 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. The old gallery app has fewer features and an outdated design.
Cricket and ZTE did a great job keeping the X Max+ free of bloatware. Aside from three Cricket-branded apps, there's no real junk on the X Max+. That's a bonus in my book. The extra apps included are potenially useful, and include Amazon Kindle, AskMD, Evernote, and Kingsoft Office.
The X Max+ has Bluetooth 4.0 on board. I thought voice calls routed to my favorite wireless headset sounded good, but I've heard better. I was disappointed with the loss of clarity when compared to using the regular earpiece, but volume was typically good. Music sounded decent when sent to a Bluetooth speaker, but again I've heard better. The X Max+ sadly doesn't support the aptX profile for top-quality Bluetootg music.
You'll find a generic browser and Chrome on the X Max+. I'd recommend you stick with Chrome. The generic browser is skinned by Cricket and is rather flaky. The address bar and other tools could be more user friendly. Chrome is better, though it has its own quirks. Most importantly, I found Chrome to be consistently better at rendering web sites quickly and accurately over AT&T's network. The X Max+ never felt hindered by its somewhat slower LTE performance.
The clock on the lock screen is a simple, white digital clock. There's nothing fancy about it, and it cannot be changed or altered. The X Max+ has a bright display, which means you can read the clock even when the sun is high in the sky. You do have to pick your wallpapers carefully to contrast with the white numbers.
Google Maps is the only preinstalled navigation tool and that's just fine. I found it worked really well on the X Max+. The phone interacted with GPS quickly and accurately pegged my location. The X Max+ was able to stay on top of turn-by-turn directions without falling behind or getting lost.
ZTE did a fine job with the Grand X Max+. It owns a great spot in Cricket's roster of handsets and should do well for the prepaid carrier.
The hardware is about the best I've seen from ZTE. The glass sandwich design is sleek and appealing. The materials are quite good and I was pleased with the quality of the massive screen. Sound quality was above average and so was battery life. The phone handles the basics with ease.
ZTE has taken a no-frills approach with the software, and that's a good thing. The phone is preloaded with only a small, useful selection of apps. The user interface is a breeze to use and performs well thanks to the Snapdragon processor. I appreciated the addition of Dolby's app for customizing the phone's sound, though most users will probably ignore it.
The biggest stumbling block is the camera. I wasn't thrilled with the results I saw from the X Max+ and wouldn't rely on it for my vacation shots. The video camera does a slightly better job.
The ZTE Grand X Max+ is not perfect, but no phone is. Frankly, you can't ask for much more from a device that's available for $200 without a contract. The phone sits in the middle of Cricket's lineup as far as cost is concerned, but it's a much better buy than the flagships that Cricket sells for full price.
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