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

The hefty 5.7-inch ZTE ZMax is far from perfect, but at $252 off-contract, it's a viable option for budget-conscious T-Mobile customers.

Lynn_La2.jpg
Lynn La
Lynn_La2.jpg
Lynn La Senior Editor / Reviews - Phones
Lynn La covers mobile reviews and news. She previously wrote for The Sacramento Bee, Macworld and The Global Post.
7 min read

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.

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6.7

ZTE ZMax (T-Mobile)

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.

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.

ZTE's ZMax has a mini prepaid price (pictures)

See all photos

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.

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In this outdoor photo, objects like the phone, drink glasses, and even people's hands are blurry. Lynn La/CNET

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Taken indoors with dim lighting, this picture is clear but colors look muted. Lynn La/CNET

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In this close up picture, many of the potato skins are blurry and the white hues have a bluish tinge. Lynn La/CNET

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For our standard studio shot, the blue tint appears again and dark hues are hard to discern. Josh Miller/CNET

Video recording yielded similar results. Though it took a few seconds for the camera to adjust for different lighting situations and focus points, both moving and still objects were clear and easy to make out. Audio also picked up well, and I didn't notice much lag between my moving of the camera and the viewfinder feedback.

Photo features and tools for both cameras include grid lines, a timer, geo-tagging, a 4x digital zoom, shooting time-lapse videos and being able to take pictures while recording. In addition, the rear-facing camera also has 18 different shooting modes including panorama, HDR, sunset and macro; nine Instagram-esque filters; nine picture sizes (ranging from 640x480- to 3,264x2,448-pixel resolution) and it can shoot in five different video resolutions (from 176x144 to 1080p). Meanwhile, the front-facing shooter has two picture sizes (from 640x480- to 1,280x720-pixel resolution) and three video qualities up to 720p.

For additional editing options, you can tinker with your pictures in the native gallery app. There, you can crop and rotate images, add decorative borders and clip art, apply tilt-shift blurs and overlay your own doodles and text.

Performance

I tested the ZMax in our San Francisco offices and call quality was decent. None of my calls dropped and connection remained continuous and consistent. Audio could have been clearer, however. At times when my calling partner's spoke, she sounded muffled and static-y, though it wasn't enough to render her completely incomprehensible. Volume for the audio speaker could stand to be louder too. I was still able to hear the conversation fine, but my partner's voice was a bit low. Her voice also sounded slightly thin and pinched through the speaker. As for my line, I was told that aside from a little static here and there, my voice came in clear and consistent.

Podcast

Though network speeds depend on many variables, browsing on T-Mobile's 4G LTE was a tad sluggish on the device -- especially when considering how fast I've seen T-Mobile's network perform on handsets such as the LG G3 . Download rates, for example, averaged out on Ookla's speed test app to 4.93Mbps, while upload rates showed 7.53Mbps.

It took 9 and 14 seconds to load CNET's mobile and desktop sites, respectively. The New York Times' mobile page finished loading after 9 seconds and its desktop version loaded in 6. The mobile site for ESPN clocked in at 7 seconds, and 10 seconds passed for the full Web page. Lastly, the 45.80MB game Temple Run 2 finished downloading and installing in about 2 minutes and 16 seconds on average.

ZTE ZMax (T-Mobile) performance times

Average 4G LTE download speed 4.93Mbps
Average 4G LTE upload speed 7.53Mbps
Temple Run 2 app download (45.80MB) 2 minutes and 16 seconds
CNET mobile site load 9 seconds
CNET desktop site load 14 seconds
Restart time 43 seconds
Camera boot time 1.75 seconds

The phone's quad-core 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 processor is the same featured in other mid-range devices, including the recently released LG G Vista (which also has a 5.7-inch display). Simple and necessary tasks carried out without a hitch, like launching the app drawer, returning to the homescreen, and scrolling through webpages. Playing the graphics-intensive game Riptide GP 2 also went well, without any stalls or stutters. However, compared to higher end handsets, the frame rates didn't look as smooth.

Its best Quadrant score was 8,698 and the ZMax's highest multithread Linpack result was 231.367 MFLOPs in 0.73 seconds. Though the latter result slightly edged out the G Vista (which scored 230.734 MFLOPs in 0.73 seconds), the LG phone held a small advantage with its 8,969 Quadrant result. On average, the ZMax took 43 seconds to restart and 1.75 seconds to launch the camera.

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Some of the device's 4G LTE data times on T-Mobile (left) and its highest Quadrant score. Lynn La/CNET

The device's 3,400mAh battery has a reported talk time of up to 14 hours. Anecdotal observation appears decent so far -- with mild usage and the screen brightness turned all the way on, it can survive the workday without a recharge. During our battery drain test for continuous video playback, the device lasted an impressive 16 hours and 43 minutes. According to FCC radiation measurements, the phone has a SAR rating of 0.37W/kg.

Conclusion

There are plenty of things not to like about the ZTE ZMax. It's heavy, it doesn't fit nicely in your hand, and its mid-range specs can make it a slow performer.

But when you compare its price to other phablets on the market, the device is a pretty darn good deal off-contract. The $616 Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and its successor, the upcoming Note 4 , for example, are ultra-powerful handsets with tons of productivity features and a smart S Pen. But they're also incredibly pricey, with the Note 4 costing nearly three times as much as the ZMax.

Even if we hit the mid-range level, the phone's price is still hard to beat. For example, the $355 LG G Vista is a solid device with a much better screen, and if you have the extra $103 to buy it off-contract from AT&T, I strongly suggest you do. But that's still a steep price jump to take if your budget is tight.

And while the $280 Nokia Lumia 1320 from Cricket Wireless is great for Windows Phone enthusiasts and comes closer to the ZMax's price range, Android users will likely prefer the ZMax's access to the number of Google Play apps and services instead.

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6.7

ZTE ZMax (T-Mobile)

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 7Performance 7
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