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ZTE ZMax (T-Mobile) review: Prepaid 'phablet' cuts design corners, but is worth the budget price

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The Good T-Mobile's ZTE ZMax has a competitive prepaid price, a spacious display, and a sizeable battery.

The Bad The ZMax is heavy and uncomfortable to hold, its screen is dim, and it lacks NFC.

The Bottom Line Though the ZTE ZMax has some design flaws, they're minor enough to overlook if you want an incredibly inexpensive phablet off-contract.

Visit manufacturer site for details.

6.7 Overall
  • Design 6
  • Features 7
  • Performance 7

Review Sections

By far, the ZTE ZMax isn't the best big-screen smartphone out there. Even when making allowances for its 5.7-inch screen, it's too heavy and cumbersome to comfortably hold in one hand. Its camera is passable, but not great. And while its 720p display is pretty standard for budget phablets, it's still dimmer than other mid-range handsets of comparable size.

On the other hand, the ZTE ZMax is cheap. Off-contract on T-Mobile, it's only $10.50 a month for 24 months, or $252 in total. And when you consider that top-tier phablets can run up to $750 prepaid, and mid-range ones around $400, that's a significant value -- and ultimately the device's saving grace.

What's even better is that the ZMax is a decent performer too. Sure, its specs aren't firing on all cylinders. The processor can be slow, and it doesn't run the most recent Android OS. But the phone will carry out your basic needs like making calls and browsing the Web on 4G LTE without much issue. At the end of the day, if you're looking for a low priced phablet, the reliable ZMax will serve you well.

Design

Measuring 6.4 inches tall, 3.3 inches wide and 0.35 inches thick, the ZMax is a large device that can be unwieldy to use, especially since its top and bottom bezels add a hefty amount of mass to it. By comparison, the LG G Vista for AT&T has a 5.7-inch display too, but it's nearly 0.41 inches shorter and 0.77 ounces lighter (the ZMax weighs 6.7 ounces). As such, the phone is difficult to maneuver with one hand unless you have a particularly wide grip. You can forget about it fitting nicely in your jean pockets, and because its back side is completely flat, it doesn't contour to your palm and is uncomfortable to hold.

On the left edge are a volume rocker and a microSD card slot that's expandable up to 32GB. Up top is a 3.5mm headphone jack and the right edge houses the SIM card and sleep/power button. To open both the SIM and microSD card, you'll need to use a small included pin key to pop out the tray. At the very bottom sits a Micro-USB port for charging.

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The phone is equipped with a large 5.7-inch, 720p display. Josh Miller/CNET

The back houses an 8-megapixel camera with flash and a small slit for the audio speaker. Because the back plate is embedded, the battery is non-removable. The plate is also made of a slick plastic material that collects fingerprint oils easily. Combined with the sheer size of the device, there were many times I felt that I would drop the ZMax while using it with one hand.

Above the display is a 1.3-megapixel camera, and below are three softkeys for back, home, and settings. To access recent apps, you can long-press the settings key. As for the 5.7-inch display itself, it has a 1,280x720-pixel resolution with Corning Gorilla Glass 3. Though 1080p displays look great on devices this size, a 720p resolution is pretty standard for mid-range phablets.

But even considering the phone's class, I wasn't very impressed with the screen. Though it's responsive, and text and menu items were sharp, colors look washed out. Whites were tinged with a slight grey, and it could stand to be brighter. I especially noticed the screen's lack of vibrancy when I viewed it side by side with the G Vista. Despite being the same size and resolution, LG's device had a much superior display.

Software features

The ZMax runs a lightly skinned version of Android 4.4.2 KitKat. In addition to the search and voice assistant Google Now (which you can access by long-pressing the center home softkey), expect your usual package of useful Google apps like the Chrome browser, Drive, Gmail, Plus, Hangouts, Search, Maps, Photos, and YouTube. There are also several portals to the Google Play storefront, including Books, Games, Movies and TV, Music, and the Newsstand.

T-Mobile has preloaded a conservative amount of its apps. Users will receive T-Mobile My Account, which gives you information about your phone and data plan; apps that help set up your visual voicemail and mobile hotspot and a 30-day trial offer to the media-streaming service T-Mobile TV, which streams channels such as Fox News and ESPN. Other goodies include Amazon's app and the security service Lookout.

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The phone's lightly skinned Android 4.4.2 user interface (left), and App Source, which organizes and categorizes your apps. Lynn La/CNET

For your basic task-managing needs, there's a calculator, a calendar, a clock with alarm functions, a second native email client, a flashlight tool, a file manager, a notepad, music and video players, a sound recorder and a task manager. Lastly, for heavy app downloaders, there's an app and widget called App Source that lets you organize and categorize your apps to make them easier to find.

Other features include 2GB of RAM, 16GB of internal memory and Bluetooth 4.0. Surprisingly, the device doesn't have NFC. Though it may not be very commonly used, the technology is usually found in mid-range Android handsets, so it's odd to see it missing here.

Camera and video

Photo quality for the 8-megapixel camera is decent, but not impressive. Though pictures were easy to make out and looked clear overall, I spotted many objects outside the center focus area to be blurry with soft edges. Colors also looked muted, and even with ample lighting, there was a notable amount of digital noise and artifacts. Dark hues were hard to distinguish, and at times the flash cast a bluish hue across white backgrounds. For more on photo quality, check out the images below and click on each individual picture to see them at their full resolution.

zte-zmax-outdoor.jpg
In this outdoor photo, objects like the phone, drink glasses, and even people's hands are blurry. Lynn La/CNET
zte-zmax-indoor.jpg
Taken indoors with dim lighting, this picture is clear but colors look muted. Lynn La/CNET

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