ZTE Grand X Max+ (Cricket Wireless) review: The best budget phablet you can buy

In our standard studio shot, the colors are true-to-life and objects are in focus. Lynn La/CNET

The front-facing 5-megapixel shooter also snapped decent images. Though pictures had a noticeable amount of digital noise, and skin color had a tendency to look too orange, the camera was able to take some pretty clear shots. Because it's an 88-degree wide-angle lens, you may see some distorted or elongated angles near the corners of the photos. However, I think this is a small price to pay for being able to fit way more content into each frame.

Though a bit blurry, this photo taken from the front-facing camera captured a lot of content. Lynn La/CNET

Along with digital zoom and flash, the rear-facing 13-megapixel camera has three shooting modes. For all your daily, informal shots there's auto mode, which has HDR shooting, a noise reduction mode, and a timer. The more advanced pro mode includes a horizon leveler, two guideline options (one that displays the rule-of-three grid, and another that shows the golden ratio spiral), and options to adjust the white balance, ISO and exposure levels. You can also turn on and off the gradienter, face detection and night shooting. Lastly, fun mode lets you shoot photos with certain effects like panoramic or a multilayered picture.

There are 10 possible photo sizes ranging from 640x480 to 4,160x3,120-pixel resolution, and you can shoot up to 1080p video. Video options include pausing footage, taking photos, and zooming while recording, and lock-focus.

The front-facing camera doesn't have different shooting modes, but it does have smile detection that activates the shutter, a timer, and a small tool that auto-softens your face to diminish imperfections and blemishes. It can also flip images vertically and can shoot in six different sizes ranging from 640x480 to 2,592x1,944-pixel resolution.

Performance: Call quality

I tested the Max+ at our San Francisco offices using Cricket Wireless' network. Call quality was adequate -- audio didn't clip in and out, and my calls didn't drop. However, during times of silence, I heard a low but steady stream of static. This white noise wasn't overly irritating, and I was still able to hear my calling partner, but it was noticeable nonetheless. Interestingly enough, my partner didn't hear the noise on her end, and said that my line sounded clean and clear.

ZTE Grand X Max+ (Cricket Wireless) call quality sample

The static wasn't apparent when I turned on the speaker, and audio remained clear through that channel as well. However, my partner's voice thinned out and sounded slightly tinny. Overall though, call quality was good through both speakers.

Data speeds, processing speed and battery life

One new advantage the Max+ offers over its predecessor is that it now comes with 4G LTE connectivity. Though a bit slow in our testing area, the data speeds on the carrier's LTE network were consistent for the most part. Though there were a couple of times when a Web page stalled during loading, on average, it took about 13 seconds to load CNET's mobile site and 10 seconds to load the desktop version. The New York Times' mobile and desktop sites loaded in 18 and 13 seconds, respectively. The mobile site for ESPN clocked in at 8 seconds, and 13 seconds passed before its desktop site fully loaded. Ookla's speed test app showed an average rate of 6.29Mbps down and 9.17Mbps up, and the 44.52MB Temple Run 2 game took 2 minutes and 42 seconds to download and install.

ZTE Grand X Max+ (Cricket Wireless) performance times

Average 4G LTE download rate 6.29Mbps
Average 4G LTE upload rate 9.17Mbps
Temple Run 2 app download (44.52MB) 2 minutes and 42 seconds
CNET mobile site load 13 seconds
CNET desktop site load 10 seconds
Restart time 41 seconds
Camera boot time 2.31 seconds

The device's quad-core 1.2GHz Snapdragon 400 processor executes simple and daily tasks smoothly, but there was some lag from time to time. For example, I noticed it while quickly scrolling down Web pages, or when a blur transition effect stalled while swiping through my home screen pages. For the most part though, the experience didn't feel too glacial, and actions like calling up the keyboard or launching the app drawer felt reasonably fast.

Benchmark tests also reflected consistent results for a midrange handset. On average, it took about 42 seconds for the phone to restart, and 2.31 seconds for the camera to launch. The Max+'s highest Quadrant score out of five trials was 8,389. For comparison, that puts it on a par with the LG G Vista and way above the ZTE Boost Max (which scored 8,969 and 4,795, respectively). The device's best Linpack multithread result was 243.738 MFLOPs in 0.69-second.

My observation of the nonremovable 3,200mAh appeared good so far. It lasted the weekend on standby without charging, and it survived a workday with mild use without being plugged in. It has a reported talk time of up to 6.5 hours and a standby time of about 36 days. During our battery drain test for continuous video playback, it lasted an impressive 16 hours and 37 minutes.

A few 4G LTE data times measured by Ookla (left), and the handset's best Quadrant score. Lynn La/CNET

Conclusion

The ZTE Grand X Max+ has its faults. Its call quality could be clearer, and its wide, slick construction makes it difficult to hold. In addition, compared to high-end devices like the Nexus 6 , Galaxy Note 4 and iPhone 6 Plus , its processor is a bit sluggish.

But as far as budget phablets go, the $200 Max+ stands out as one of the better values we've seen. For example, the comparable 5.7-inch G Vista , which has the same processor and 720p display, costs $350 off-contract from AT&T. And while Windows Phone enthusiasts will dig Cricket's other 6-inch handset, the Lumia 1320 , the phone itself costs $280 despite having a 5-megapixel rear-camera and 8GB of internal storage.

Lastly, the Max+ performs more reliably than another off-contract ZTE phablet, the Boost Max . Even though both cost $200, the latter is heftier, has a slower dual-core processor, and less built-in storage capacity. Simply put, theMax+ is the way to go for large-screen budget-seekers.

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