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Featured Review: Letv Le Max

December 3, 2015 - Written By Nick Sutrich

Letv is one of the biggest rising stars in the fast-moving land of Chinese smartphone manufacturers, and they’ve made a big name for themselves this year by releasing some seriously hot devices that residents of China have been buying by the millions.  This quick rise is because of Letv’s stance on how to build smartphones, or rather “Le Superphones” as they’ve been dubbed, as they pretty much all seem to push the bleeding edge of tech.  We’ve had the Le One Max in house since late August and have had plenty of time to mess around with it, and while it’s not officially sold outside of China you can still get it through a number of great distributors like GearBest.  Is this phone still worth the time and money, or has its luster worn off after a few months?  Let’s take a look.

Specs

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Coming in silver and champagne colors this superphone still pushes the boundaries of tech in every way, even after the launch of the top-tier Fall 2015 phones.  On the front of this beast is a 6.33-inch 2K screen, that’s 2560 x 1440 resolution giving an effective 403 pixels per inch density.  Inside of the all-aluminum chassis sits a 2.0GHz Snapdragon 810 octa-core 64-bit CPU and an Adreno 430 GPU.  4GB of RAM keeps the action going through every app and the 64GB built-in storage is likely plenty for most people out there, which is good since there’s no expandable storage here.  Letv’s EUI 5 is behind the software experience, which sits on an extremely highly modified Android 5.0.2 Lollipop base.

A 3,000mAh battery powers the experience, a USB Type-C port is here for quick charging and there’s also dual SIM card support here with a nano SIM and a micro SIM for added compatibility.  For the camera experience a 21-megapixel rear-facing camera with dual-LED flash, and a 81-degree wide-angle 4-megapixel front-facing camera, both of which feature an f/2.0 lens.  The whole package comes in at a rather large 167.1mm high by 83.5mm wide by 8.95mm thick and weighing a heavy 204 grams.

In The Box

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While this isn’t the most value-laden box ever, what’s included still feels worth the money.  Besides the phone itself you’ll find a clear plastic protective shell case for the phone, along with a wall charger, USB Type-C cable and even a little microUSB to USB-C adapter.  This adapter is tiny though so you’ll need to be careful not to lose it if you’re wanting to make use of those existing microUSB accessories you’ve likely got lying around.  There’s also a pack of manuals and a SIM tray ejector tool in a neat little sliding envelope too, all displaying a high quality packaging that feels premium all the way around.

Display

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Resolution isn’t everything, and while this display is incredibly crisp and bright, the rest of the attributes of the panel could use quite a bit of work.  First off there’s a lot of light bleed from all the edges, and it makes the panel feel cheap all around.  On top of this there are some pretty significant parts of the screen that are unevenly lit, a problem that’s more obvious when there are lighter elements on the screen (such as a web page), and again just make the screen feel cheap.  The refresh rate of the panel is just plain bad, as you’ll find plenty of trailing and ghosting as you scroll around the screen.

On the bright side this panel is insanely bright and has a great range from very dim at the lowest setting to near-torch at the brightest, and is easily viewable in sunlight.  A huge positive for the screen, and touch responsiveness altogether, is the excellent digitizer Letv uses here.  Multi-touch response and speed was nothing short of the best the industry has to offer, and I never found myself missing a key or typing something wrong because the screen was unresponsive, a problem plenty of phones out there still have.  Software adjustments that can be made include changing the color temperature of the panel, as well as resizing all the elements to fit more or less on screen.

Hardware And Build

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With an all-aluminum build weighing as much as this one does, you’ll never find someone saying this feels flimsy or poorly built in any way.  The styling is all Letv without a doubt, and placing it next to any phone will show some immediate differences.  First off the antenna lines are symmetrical on both the top and bottom of the back of the device, giving a unique look over other all-aluminum clad devices.  The camera hump on the back of the device feels a bit weird, and although there’s a raised edge around the lens it feels like this one is going to get easily scratched, not to mention that it makes the phone sit at a slight angle on a flat surface and makes it rock when pressed.  The square fingerprint scanner is below the camera lens, and the dual-tone dual-LED flash is to the right.  There’s also a microphone back here for better directional audio while video recording.

The bottom speaker grills don’t look like an iPhone’s, which is a nice change of pace from some other OEMs, and everything from the placement and style of the power button on the right to the volume rocker on the left, and even the vibration toggle switch are wholly unique looking.  These buttons also have a very satisfying click to them and only depress ever so slightly, meaning barely any touch will activate them.  The vibration motor inside the chassis feels great too, with just the right amount of vibration to give you a tactile response, but not too much to be loud or obnoxious.

On the front the look of having zero bezels on the sides of the screen peels away as soon as the screen turns on, however these are still some incredibly thin bezels that would make most phones blush.  Top and bottom bezels are nearly as small as on an LG G-series flagship phone, with the bottoms ones being slightly larger to hold the capacitive buttons below the screen.  These capacitive buttons resemble Android’s stock software buttons with a square multi-tasking Overview button on the right, a circle home button in the middle and a triangle back button on the left.

Performance And Memory

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This year has been a bit of an oddball for higher end SoC’s when it comes to performance and thermal output.  Some phones that use Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 810 overheat, while others don’t, but all have pretty fantastic performance most of the time regardless.  Part of this is Qualcomm’s move to a new architecture that provides more powerful cores, all while moving to faster memory standards and a significantly faster GPU to push the graphics front of mobile computing.  At Quad-HD/2K resolution like the Letv Le Max sports, there are some noticeable framerate issues in games with higher quality 3D visuals.  This isn’t exclusive to the Le Max and really isn’t a bother to be honest, but it needs to be noted that you’re not going to get a perfect 60FPS framerate in every game just because this utilizes the latest tech.  One thing to note is that the Le Max never got above 36 degrees Celsius, which is about the average temperature of the human body.  This is a stark contrast to other Snapdragon 810 powered devices and clearly shows a mix of thermal throttling to keep heat in check, as well as good chassis design for heat dissipation.

In every day usage, switching between apps, scrolling through web pages and the like, the Le Max flew through everything I threw at it with ease.  Multi-tasking is a beast with the 4GB of RAM inside of this phone, and I almost never found that an app had to reload when switching between them.  There’s a bit of a larger footprint here given Letv’s heavy Android skin and modifications, as well as the higher resolution screen, but it’s nothing that 4GB of RAM doesn’t help make up for.  The multi-tasking interface was a bit slow to come up though, and pressing the dedicated overview button took a full second or so most of the time to appear.  The interface itself is very iOS-ish but thankfully has thumbnails of each app along with app icons, making it easy to identify what’s running in this horizontal scrolling row of apps.  We’ll cover this odd and rather unique looking overview screen in the software section below since it’s packed with stuff to do.

Benchmarks

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Benchmarks show the performance of the phone is right in line with what’s expected from a top-end SoC like the Snapdragon 810.  In general performance seems to be slightly above the Nexus 6p, for instance, which is powered by the exact same SoC and screen resolution.  Internal storage write speed was particularly interesting, as read speed was pretty average but write speed was off the charts.  Check out all the benchmark results below.

Phone Calls And Network

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While this phone is normally only sold in China, the bands supported are pretty well rounded for worldwide use, albeit at 3G speeds.  Residents of China will of course have full 4G LTE coverage, but anyone else using the phone elsewhere in the world will likely only have up to HSPA speeds.  Here in the US I had perfect 3G HSPA coverage on T-Mobile, and in general the signal strength and data speeds were as good as I could ask for in such an environment.  WiFi up to N is supported here, and 5GHz support is here as well meaning you’re not going to get the fastest available WiFi signal but at least it will likely be free of interference from other things like microwaves that can operate at the 2.5GHz channels.

Call quality was excellent as was the volume for both the regular earpiece speaker as well as loudspeaker on the bottom of the phone.  Dual SIM card support is here and there’s even two different sized slots to use; a micro SIM and a nano SIM.  This likely means you won’t need an adapter regardless of which SIM card you use, which is always nice to not have to buy additional equipment.  Check out the full list of supported bands below to make sure it works with your carrier of choice:

2G Bands: 850/900/1800/1900MHz

3G HSPA Bands: 850/900/1900/2100MHz

4G LTE Bands: 1800/2100/2600MHz

Battery Life

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Battery life was good but nothing to write home about.  Battery tests show over 6 hours of heavy usage before needing to charge, but I didn’t see that in real world usage where the phone could only give me a good 3 hours or less of heavy use.  Lighter users will find the standby is also decent but nothing great, with about 15% battery drain when left overnight without charging.  Charging was slow and took well over 2 hours to fully charge the phone from 0-100%.  Some USB Type-C cables seemed to be incompatible with the Le Max, but this isn’t uncommon to see with USB Type-C right now.  Just be wary of what you buy and make sure it’s a proper spec cable before pressing that order button.

Sound

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Sound output via Letv’s specialized DAC is nothing short of phenomenal and sounded great without needing to further equalize the audio via the phone.  This is good since there’s no equalizer to be found on the phone at all, meaning you’re not going to be able to adjust the audio at the software level if it were needed.  Sound output was super high quality and extremely well balanced, and I never found myself wishing it had more or less of any part of the EQ spectrum to make things sound better.  Volume was also excellent too and provided plenty of volume with no distortion, even at max volume.

Audio out of the speaker on the bottom of the device was a completely different story, and at best can be described as serviceable.  The illusion of stereo speakers on the bottom breaks down as soon as you play any audio, and you’ll quickly realize it’s only the right speaker grill that outputs any audio at all.  While the audio this single speaker puts out is definitely loud, it’s not of very good quality and sounds tinny, light and hollow, with almost no low tones and generally very rattly audio.  This is a huge disappointment in a flagship phone, especially given the cost of the device.

Software

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For years many Chinese OEMs tried to flat out copy the iPhone in many ways, from the looks of the hardware to the operation of the OS.  Most Chinese OEMs have gotten away from this, and in the hardware department the Le Max doesn’t look anything like an iPhone.  Software wise is a completely different story unfortunately, and Letv has sought to not only copy Apple in the looks department, it also does so in the functionality department.  This is unfortunate in a number of ways, but mostly in the functionality department since looks are more of a preference anyway.  Like many Chinese OEMs Letv has stripped Google everything out of their OS, making this feel less Android and more like Letv’s own OS in many ways.  It’s difficult to re-Google-ify the phone if you didn’t purchase it from a place like GearBest, which will have already gone through the irritating process of putting Google back into its own OS for you.

The biggest problem is when OEMs like Letv change the core behavior of Android, breaking things like deep linking and default app handling.  The Le Max ships with the standard apps that are all expected from a modern phone, including a browser, messaging app, phone app, camera, gallery, music, email, etc.  Letv has made its own version of all of these apps, and as expected they are all set to be the default handlers for the aforementioned tasks, so when you click a web link it’ll open in the browser, click an email address and that will open the email app to send an email, and so on.  For instance if you click a URL after installing a new browser, like Chrome, Android normally asks you which app you want to open the link with.  This dialog box is completely gone, and all defaults have to be set from the apps section of the system settings menu.  In their tinkering with the OS Letv seems to have completely broken this core behavior of Android, and it is this sort of nonsense that removes a significant part of what makes Android so good.

Carrying this further it seems that changing the default app doesn’t actually do anything anyways, as changing my default web browsing app to Chrome still results in all URLs being opened in the stock Letv browser.  To make matters worse this browser doesn’t support even the most basic of Android functions: deep linking.  This means that opening a YouTube URL, for instance, will never result in the video being opened in the YouTube app regardless of whether or not it’s actually installed.  This is horrendous to say the least and yet again breaks significant core functionality of Android, making it just as frustrating as using iOS in many respects.

Notifications and UI

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There’s absolutely no denying the iOS influence here, from the bright white backgrounds, light gradients, odd looking icons with ambiguous shapes, and of course the famous fogged glass look.  Pull down the notification shade and you’ll only find active notifications here, no quick toggles or any other of the normal adjustments found in Android’s notification shade.  There’s also no notification expansion here, meaning some notifications that should be larger just aren’t, like Google’s Inbox for instance.  Quick toggles are instead found in the overview screen, which is accessible by a single press of the dedicated overview button.  This is a really interesting placement and honestly I don’t mind it at all, even if it took some getting used to, and it gives easier one-handed access to something that would normally take reaching all the way up to the top of the screen for.

In this section you’ll find not only the standard horizontal scrollable row of quick toggles, something that’s familiar to any Samsung or LG user, but also a scrollable row of commonly used apps like calculator, torch, camera and more.  This is all a very iOS design, but has always been something at the heart of Android since Samsung pioneered it many years ago.  What’s broken here is the music control section of this screen, which almost always only works for the built-in Letv music app.  Yet again the default app usage bites users in the butt thanks to Letv’s poor design, forcing them to stick with an app that could be inferior if it doesn’t meet all the user’s needs.  Sometimes I found these controls worked for Google Play Music, and other times they did not.

On top of this there’s no standard lockscreen music support, and to make matters worse lockscreen notifications only appear one time and never again.  Once you unlock the device all lockscreen notifications are cleared and it makes it difficult to tell whether or not you’ve missed something without checking the notification shade.  The only shortcut found on the lockscreen is the camera until you press the overview button, which reveals the “control center” as Letv calls it.  This looks exactly like the overview menu on the phone, minus the running apps, giving you access to all the quick toggles and commonly used apps from this section.  At the very least this placement makes it easier to one-hand the device, even if it is in a weird place (and again looks like iOS).

Letv has removed all the priority modes found in Android since Lollipop has been released, although there are still priority notifications which filter what’s displayed as a pop-up notification.  Do Not Disturb/Priority mode is completely missing and is instead replaced by the hardware vibration toggle switch found above the volume rocker.

Letv Apps

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While the default launcher looks and behaves a lot like the stock iOS launcher, one thing remains purely Android from the get-go: customization.  Full theme support for the launcher is present and easily accessible via a long press anywhere in the launcher.  There are 9 included themes and all of them are very visually different, each featuring its own wallpaper and icon pack that completely changes the look of the phone while in the launcher.  There’s of course full widget support here for all your widget-loving needs.  There’s also a dedicated Letv Live button on the bottom dock that’s unfortunately not removable for those that don’t want it.  The rest of the UI is not themeable though, so what you see in the launcher is all you’re going to get.

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There’s plenty of apps pre-installed on the phone aside from the previously mentioned defaults for common apps, and some of them are a little more interesting than others.  There’s of course the Letv app store here, Le Mall, Letv Live, remote control, Weibo, WPS Office, Baidu Maps and Le Auto to name a few.  Remote control utilizes that IR blaster on the top of the phone and provides a way to easily interface with basically any device out there that has an IR port for accepting signals, including surround sound systems, TVs, set-top boxes and more.  Letv Live is a live online TV service that Letv is known for and provides 24/7 content for users right from the dedicated app.  Letv’s music app utilizes the Xiami Music service (no, not Xiaomi), which is a community-driven streaming service that gives users access to tons and tons of music.  There’s plenty of value here for Chinese users, but most of these services won’t make sense to international customers since they’re normally either accessible from mainland China or all in Chinese anyway.

Security and Fingerprint Scanner

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The fingerprint scanner on the back is likely a big selling point for the phone, and it’s one that works quite well too.  In my use with it the fingerprint scanner was maybe only a hair less accurate than the one on the two new Nexus devices and only missed scanning my finger a handful of times when using it.  The placement is just as good as any with a rear-facing fingerprint scanner, and works best when holding the phone since your fingers are likely already resting on this place anyway.  Unlocking took less than a second after placing my fingerprint on the scanner and can be done either with the screen off or waiting at the lock screen with the screen on.  There’s no hooks in the OS for using the scanner outside of unlocking the phone, so this is all you’re going to get from it.

Security is a big selling point for Chinese OEMs, as most Chinese Android-powered phones have featured per-app permissions for a long time now.  The Letv is no different and is actually a bit more aggressive in its default permissions for apps than some other phones I’ve used.  In fact to get Google syncing to work for contacts and other Google services I had to go into the app permissions section and allow things separately, as they weren’t prompted for me to automatically choose for some reason.  Most of the time though permissions are prompted upon first use, so if you install an app and open it for the first time, the phone will ask you which permissions you want the app to have access to.

Camera

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As we’ve seen in the past with other smartphones, 21 megapixels is just too much to cram on a sensor this small.  Because space needs to be made for the sheer number of pixels needed for a 21-megapixel shot, the pixels themselves have to be smaller.  This results in worse low light performance because the physical restrictions of light don’t allow as much to enter the pixels themselves, resulting in the software having to either push ISO or shutter speed up to compensate.  Unfortunately like most OEMs Letv seems to be scared of any noise in the image as possible, and has not only included an irritating aggressive denoise filter that turns details into watercolor-like images, but also prioritizes low ISO over a long shutter speed.  HDR mode is useless and essentially feels like it’s just ramping up the exposure levels, blowing out anything that was bright at all but at least bringing out the shadow detail.

Translating that into plain English you’re looking at pretty good details for during broad daylight, although not as much as a 21-megapixel sensor would suggest, and terrible low light performance.  This low light performance is one of two things: either the shot is incredibly blurry seemingly no matter how steadily you hold the phone, or everything is very dark.  When indoors I almost never was able to take a shot that was free of blur, and once the lights turned down low or you tried to take a picture of something outside in the dark you can forget being able to see anything.  Flash would certainly help but using the flash on any smartphone is never an option if you actually want a quality photo, so you’re either stuck with dark, blurry shots or overbright flash-ridden shots.  Just not a good alternative and quite simply some terrible performance out of a camera on such a high priced phone.  At the very least the front-facing camera was excellent in every lighting condition and provided some fantastic shots no matter what I was doing.

Like most of the rest of the phone the interface essentially mimics the iOS interface in looks and behavior.  Swiping left and right moves between the four available modes: Slo-Mo, Video, Photo and Panorama.  Swiping up from the shutter button reveals the available shooting modes such as HDR and night shot, while clicking the button in the bottom right brings up the available live filters.  The settings menu is pretty sparse and only gives a few options for adjustment, so users looking for a powerful manual camera or lots of options and adjustments will need to look elsewhere.  Shutter performance is absolutely instantaneous, which is both a blessing and a curse.  There’s never a worry about you missing the shot because of shutter lag for one, but the phone doesn’t try to focus at all before taking the shot, meaning you could end up with a blurry or out of focus one if you didn’t wait for the auto focus or click to focus first.

Default video quality isn’t great, as the 1080p mode seems to be using too low of a bit rate to adequately take in all the detail that’s needed for 1080p content.  4K mode is a completely different story though and looks amazing and sharp, taking in lots of details and action at a solid 30FPS.  The biggest annoyance is the constant focus mode, which becomes jarring after a while, and the bizarre audio recording volume.  At times the audio sounded muffled, while other times the audio was overly loud and exaggerated.  Either way the audio component of the video recording here isn’t great to say the least and leaves quite a bit to be desired.  Check out the Flickr album below for all the pictures and video we’ve got from the phone.

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The Good

Great build

Giant screen

Super high-quality audio output via 3.5mm jack

Top-tier performance all around

The Bad

The UI is atrocious

Core Android behavior changed and broken

Camera is an awful low light performer

Display is mediocre at best

Sound on the phone speaker is bad

Obviously going to be too big for some

Final Thoughts

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There’s certainly plenty of positives when it comes to choosing the Letv Le Max over other smartphones in this price range, but there are simply too many negatives to recommend it.  It’s got an excellent build, super responsive digitizer, excellent audio output and fantastic performance, but that’s about where the positives stop.  The negatives are so big that they mar any of the aforementioned positives, simply because you can get all of those things in other phones for the same price or less.  Letv’s complete transformation of Android in looks isn’t a bad thing at all, rather it’s the complete transformation in how Android works that breaks the experience and makes this nothing more than a giant second-rate iPhone.

It’s this fundamental change of Android’s core that breaks the experience so badly and ultimately makes this a phone that we can’t recommend.  Letv has been updating the handset since we’ve had it and has provided some significant updates, even adding lockscreen notifications at one point where the phone launched without them.  This ray of hope makes me think Letv will eventually fix the problems, but they need to understand that these sorts of core changing practices are simply not OK.