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ZTE woos US consumers with cheap new phablet

ZTE hopes it can win customers away from Apple, Google and Samsung by focusing on one thing: price.

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Lixin Cheng, CEO of ZTE's United States division, hopes low prices will attract customers to the company's large-screen phones. Lynn La/CNET

LAS VEGAS -- ZTE, the Chinese smartphone manufacturer, hopes going big will help it compete with formidable foes like Apple and Google.

The company on Monday unveiled the Grand X Max+ , a 6-inch phone also known as a "phablet" because its screen is larger than a phone but smaller than a tablet.

But ZTE is trying undercut other jumbo offerings from Apple, Google and Samsung by edging out the tech giants on one thing: price. The Grand X Max+, which is offered only through AT&T's prepaid arm Cricket Wireless, will cost $200 without a contract from a wireless carrier. By contrast, Apple's 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus starts at $750 without a contract. Google's Nexus 6 starts at $650, also without a contract.

"A premium device doesn't have to be $500," Lixin Cheng, CEO of the company's United States division, said during a press conference at the International Consumer Electronics Show. "It's very clear the whole market has shifted toward affordable premium devices."

The announcement highlights the Chinese smartphone maker's efforts at making a name for itself in the United States; the company claims it's now the fourth largest smartphone manufacturer in the US. ZTE has 7.8 percent of the US smartphone market, said Cheng. Apple, the smartphone handset market leader, has more than a 40 percent share, according to ComScore.

ZTE is not new to the phablet game. The company in September announced the ZMax, another 6-inch phone offered only through T-Mobile. Samsung popularized the big-screen phone market in 2011 when it introduced the Galaxy Note. That has since spurred demand for large phones and opened competition as more rivals to try to slice away a piece of the market. Apple and Google joined in last year with with larger devices of their own.

ZTE points to a survey it commissioned, saying 83 percent of people the company asked had said they want a bigger phone, but only 22 percent are willing to pay a higher price.

Cricket hopes affordability will be a deciding factor. "Price is very, very important to our customers," Jennifer Van Buskirk, Cricket's president, told CNET. She said the low price tag makes phablets "accessible to the masses."

ZTE also unveiled a new smart projector, called the S Pro 2 , which projects online videos onto surfaces like a traditional movie projector would. The projector also doubles as a wireless hot spot for up to 10 devices and can project a video up to 120 inches. The company introduced the first version of the projector last year.

The company also announced a new venture fund aimed at helping app developers get their programs on the ZTE's mobile devices. It's unclear how many software developers or startup companies ZTE will fund, or how much money it will give them.

CNET's Jessica Dolcourt contributed to this report.

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