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ZTE Boost Max review: Goes big in size, but not in specs

Lynn_La2.jpg

When Boost Mobile decided to rebrand ZTE's Iconic Phablet as the Boost Max, the carrier wanted to go big -- 5.7 inches big, in fact.

ZTE_Boost_Max_35834953-7692-010.jpg
6.7

ZTE Boost Max

Pricing Not Available

The Good

ZTE's <b>Boost Max</b> sports a premium build, a competitive off-contract price, and expandable memory.

The Bad

Both the handset's call and camera quality are middling, and 4G LTE data speeds were consistently slow in our tests.

The Bottom Line

Consider the Boost Max if you want a cheap Android handset with a lot of screen. But if you can pay a little extra, the <a href="http://reviews.cnet.com/smartphones/samsung-galaxy-mega-6/4505-6452_7-35662592.html">Samsung Galaxy Mega 6.3</a> is the better budget phablet.

But even though it's touted as Boost's first phablet and has a large touch screen, the Max isn't very "max" at all. Especially when you consider it has just a 720p display, a dual-core processor, and an average-quality 8-megapixel camera.

At $299.99 prepaid though, the device is indeed a bargain. Taking into account other handsets of similar size, it's one of the least expensive supersize phones on the market.

So if you want a phablet for not much cash and are willing to make a few compromises on performance and speed, the Boost Max is worth looking into. However, if you have an extra $50 to spend, consider the superior Samsung Galaxy Mega 6.3. Otherwise, you'll need to save a couple of hundred dollars more for a faster, more premium device.

A look at ZTE's mammoth Boost Max (pictures)

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Design
Measuring 6.5 inches tall, 3.25 inches wide, and 0.4-inch thick, the Boost Max is a behemoth of a device. Don't expect to be able to navigate this one easily with one hand, or to have it fit comfortably inside your jean pockets. Though I don't consider it overly heavy for its size, at 6.87 ounces, this handset is going to be heftier than most smartphones. I wasn't able to prop it between my face and my shoulder while having a conversation for a long time due to its weight, but it felt fine when held with my hand.

The Max's 5.7-inch HD IPS display is topped with Corning Gorilla Glass. Its 1,280x720-pixel resolution is a disappointment for a screen this size, which would benefit most from the standard 1080p resolution of top-tiered devices. True, at 257ppi, it does have a slightly higher pixel density than the Galaxy Mega's 233ppi, but I could still easily see color banding, as well as a "crunchiness" with images and graphics. Even app icons looked blurry. When I zoomed in on text, there was some aliasing along the edges. However, the display itself is responsive and sensitive. It's easy view in the daylight and has a satisfactory viewing angle. In addition, high-definition videos still looked smooth, and thanks to its immense size, watching videos and playing games was more immersive than the experience you'd find on smaller handsets.

ZTE Boost Max (internal)
To access the handset's SIM card, remove the top half of the rear panel. Josh Miller/CNET

On the left are a volume rocker, a Micro-USB port, and a microSD card tray that you can access by inserting a small pin that's included. Up top is a 3.5mm headphone jack, and on the right are keys to power off the phone and to launch the camera app.

The back is made out of an attractive all-aluminum plate that is letterboxed between matte-gray panels. The top half houses the 8-megapixel lens and flash. The paneling also can be removed so users can access the SIM card. At the very bottom is a small speaker grille for audio output.

Supersize me: Giants of the smartphone world (pictures)

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Software features
Like most ZTE devices, the Max runs a nearly skinless version of Android 4.1.2 and has all the staples of Google's biosphere, such as Chrome, Gmail, Hangouts, Plus, Maps with Navigation, Messenger, portals to Play Books, Magazines, Movies & TV, and Music Store, Search, and YouTube.

On top of the Android OS is ZTE's MiFavor user interface. One neat feature included in this UI is called Smart Viewer, which enables you to split-screen two apps at the same time. To do so, long-press the back button. A small menu of apps (and that includes third-party apps, too) will pop up. There you can select and drop the two apps you want to open.

Basic task-managing apps are included, such as a native browser, an e-mail client, a music player, a video player, a calendar, a clock with alarm functions, a news-and-weather app, a sound recorder, a timer, and a voice dialer.

Boost Max (Smart Viewer)
To take advantage of the Max's immense display size, you can use Smart Viewer to split-screen apps. Lynn La/CNET

Boost loaded a few of its own apps, too. One is Boost Zone, a help portal through which you can check your phone balance and fees. Another is Mobile ID, which allows you to customize your phone with preselected apps, widgets, and other items depending on which ID profile you choose. There's also Boost Music, where you can download songs and ringtones.

Additional features include 1GB of RAM, 8GB of internal memory, Bluetooth 4.0, and Dolby Digital Plus, which is a useful software goodie that improves the quality and clarity of audio.

Camera and video
Photo quality for the the 8-megapixel rear lens was acceptable and will satisfy anyone who wants to take casual pictures from time to time. The camera shutter operates quickly, and touch focusing also took no time at all. Colors were accurate, and with ample lighting, the overall picture clarity was good. However, some objects did come out slightly blurry with soft edges. Photos taken indoors also showed a notable amount of digital noise and artifacts.

Boost Max (outdoor)
In this outdoor shot, colors are true to life and objects are in focus. Lynn La/CNET
Boost Max (indoor)
This slightly dim indoor photo displays a notable amount of digital noise, but the Emmy award still looks good. Lynn La/CNET
Boost Max (outdoor 2)
Though I adjusted the camera's focus to be on the purple flower to the left, everything still looked rather fuzzy. Lynn La/CNET
Boost Max (SSI)
In our standard studio shot, objects were a bit blurry, but colors were accurate. Josh Miller/CNET

Video quality also yielded similar, passable results. Nearby audio picked up well, and colors were true to life. Both moving and still objects, in general, remained in focus. However, when I moved the camera around, I could see a subtle, but nonetheless distracting, "pulsating" effect due to the lens readjusting itself for lighting and focus.

The camera holds a slew of editing options, including 11 Instagram-esque filters and three shooting modes: Pro, Basic, or Scenes. Each mode then has six more editing options underneath it. For instance, Basic gives you all your standard photo features like Auto, HDR shooting, panorama, and low-light. Pro has options such as blink and smile detection, as well as timed interval shooting. Scene enables users to adjust for macro shooting or taking photos in the dark or at sunset.

Images ranges from 640x480 to 3,264x2,448-pixels. There's also a timer, white-balance settings, geotagging, and more. As for video, it utilizes the same filters. You can take photos while recording, and there is a time-lapse option. Recording quality spans from MMS video for texts to 1080p.

Boost Max (camera)
The Max has an 8-megapixel rear-facing camera that can record 1080p video. Josh Miller/CNET

Performance
I tested the Boost Max in our San Francisco offices, where I found call quality to be good, but not stellar. Although none of my calls dropped and audio remained consistent without cutting in and out, my calling partner did sound a bit scratchy. The distortion wasn't overly distracting, nor did it render the call unintelligible. However, it was noticeable, and during times of absolute silence when no one was speaking, I could hear the subtle hint of static.

As for audio speaker quality, voices sounded tinny and thin. Increasing the volume made the audio's hollowness even more apparent. But again, even though my partner's voice sounded "pinched," I was still able to understand what was being said.

Meanwhile, I was told that my voice sounded clear on the other end, though just a tad muffled. Volume levels were also appropriate on both ends, and my calling partner said that there was no indication of any background or extraneous noises.

Listen now: ZTE Boost Max call quality sample <="" p="">

Because it is a Boost Mobile device, the handset operates on Sprint's network. 4G LTE speeds were consistent and reliable, but altogether quite slow. For instance, Ookla's speed test app showed an average of 0.48Mbps down and a mere 0.14Mbps up. It also took a whopping 22 minutes and 24 seconds to download and install the 40.89MB Temple Run 2 game. As for Web browsing, it took about 11 seconds and 29 seconds, respectively, to load the mobile and desktop versions of CNET's site. The New York Times' mobile site loaded on average in 12 seconds and its full site took 30 seconds. Lastly, the mobile site for ESPN clocked in at 14 seconds, and 27 seconds passed before its desktop site fully loaded.

ZTE Boost Max Performance
Average 4G LTE download speed 0.48Mpbs
Average 4G LTE upload speed 0.14Mbps
App download (Temple Run 2) 40.89MB in 22 minutes and 24 seconds
CNET mobile site load 11 seconds
CNET desktop site load 29 seconds
Power off and restart time 37 seconds
Camera boot time 2.5 seconds

Powering the smartphone is a 1.2GHz dual-core Snapdragon 400 processor. Small but necessary tasks that are performed daily were executed without a hitch. Browsing through the app drawer, for example, or returning to the home pages and unlocking the screen, were done smoothly and timely. In addition, when I played the graphics-intensive game Riptide GP 2, I didn't notice any stuttering, and the app never force-quit. Compared to high-tiered flagship devices, however, the Max didn't have as high of a frame-rate, and its rendering of images wasn't as smooth.

Moreover, while the 37 seconds it took in order to power off and restart the handset didn't stand out to me, the 2.5 seconds it took to launch the camera definitely did. Even though the camera itself operated swiftly (as I mentioned before), opening it took a hair longer than what I was used to. When I ran benchmark tests on the smartphone for CPU performance, the Max's highest Quadrant score out of three trials was 4,795. For comparison, that puts it on a par with devices like the ZTE Warp 4G Boost and the Huawei Ascend Mate (which scored 4,868 and 4,818, respectively). It also had a Linpack multi-thread result of 227 MFLOPs in 0.74-second.

Boost Max (benchmark tests)
A few of the Max's Ookla results (left), and its best Quadrant score of 4,795. Lynn La/CNET

During our battery drain test for video playback, the device lasted 12 hours and 51 minutes, and it has a reported talk time of 16 hours. In general, its nonremovable 3,200mAh battery was decent, but it takes an abnormally long time to charge. I had to wait about a full workday to have a full battery charge. At the end of another workday (after it had been fully charged), the smartphone would be at 66 percent capacity, even with medium to high usage and the screen brightness cranked all the way up. According to FCC radiation measurements, the handset has a digital SAR rating of 0.91W/kg.

Conclusion
Though it appears that phablets are all the rage right now, the number of reliable but inexpensive devices are slim. Phablets that are the top of their game can cost a pretty penny off-contract (the Samsung Galaxy Note 3, for example, is $708, prepaid, on T-Mobile).

True, the Boost Max may not have the sharpest screen, the fastest processor, or the most powerful camera, but for its 5.7-inch size, $299.99 is a reasonable price to pay for its just-fair performance.

However, if you are able to spend $50 more, the prepaid, 6.3-inch Samsung Galaxy Mega is worth the extra dough. While its screen has a lower ppi ratio, its camera takes better photos, its processor is faster, and it has a handful of nifty and useful Samsung software features.


ZTE_Boost_Max_35834953-7692-010.jpg
6.7

ZTE Boost Max

Pricing Not Available

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 7Performance 6