ZTE has been packing a serious punch with its phones lately. They've made some record growth in 2014 with a 94% growth rate year-over-year from 2013, and it's all thanks to the quality of phones they'd released throughout the year. Moving into 2015 ZTE looks to take the US market by storm again, releasing another hot device at a low end price for the prepaid MVNO Cricket Wireless, making this one of the least expensive phones you can buy from any US carrier while still retaining good specs worthy of calling itself a smartphone powered by Android. We got our hands on the ZTE Grand X Max+ at CES a few weeks ago and have been able to give it a good thorough testing and feel its ready for a primetime review, so let's dive right in and see whether or not ZTE has delivered on its promise of providing affordable handsets with great performance.
Specs are always a great way to compare phones, and at $200 you might just be surprised at what the Grand X Max+ will get you.
- 6.0-inch 720p LCD Display
- Quad-core 1.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 (MSM8926)
- Adreno 305
- 2 GB of RAM
- 16GB internal storage, microSD card support
- 3200 mAh Li-Ion battery
- Android 4.4.4, ZTE skin
- 13MP rear-facing camera, Single LED Flash
- 5MP front-facing camera
These fantastic specs (for the price) also come with full 150Mbps LTE support from Cricket Wireless, ensuring that you've not only got a great low latency connection but plenty of speed to stream whatever you want. Being an AT&T MVNO, Cricket has phenomenal LTE coverage that'll challenge all but maybe Verizon in the US. Here's the spectrum listing just in case you'd like to use it on another carrier or in another country though.
- 2G: GSM 850/900/1800/1900MHz
- 3G: HSPA 850/1900MHz
- 4G: LTE 700/850/1700/1900MHz
Large displays are nothing new in the Android world, and neither are 720p displays for that matter. Many budget phones with large screens stick with 720p displays for a number of reasons, and the Grand X Max+ likely falls into all of these. First they are cheaper to manufacture, which obviously keeps the overall cost of the phone down since the screen is often the most expensive component onboard. Secondly as a lower resolution it keeps the performance of the device high almost no matter what processor you use, meaning you're going to get a great experience even if it's not the best visual quality you've ever seen out of a device.
With that preface out of the way the screen on the Grand X Max+ is probably the best large 720p display I've seen. At this size or slightly smaller there's only one phone that I can think of that looked better, and that's the Galaxy Note II. I actually thought the display might have been 1080p at first since it's so sharp, but after looking up the official specs, running benchmarks and taking screenshots I can definitely confirm it's 720p. Many times at 6 inches a 720p display can be flat out offensive looking, but ZTE has done a good job to keep this from really bothering me at all. The only thing I've like to see changed is the DPI of the screen, which is pretty ludicrously high and makes buttons almost laughably large on such a physically large display. This one won't win any display awards but it's not aiming to, it gets the job done and it doesn't look bad doing it. Best of all there's relatively no latency to it either, so no horrible ghosting or anything like that which tends to ruin the experience.
Hardware and Build
Again being a less expensive phone than most you would expect the build to suffer. Happily I didn't feel that way, and the Grand X Max+ features a glass back, giving it a more premium feel. While the sides of the phone are all plastic they take up very little space on the whole device, and the top and bottom of the phone feature a really unique curve to them that is just easier to see in pictures. It makes a device of this size a little more palmable as it doesn't have sharp corners to dig into your hands. Having a glass back means that the phone will feel different depending on weather conditions, so while you're likely to have little to no problems gripping it in the balmy, humid summer you're definitely going to see this thing fly out of your hands when it gets cold. Get a case, as a phone this big is already a little more difficult to wield, and with a glass back you know it's probably only going to last a good 6 months or so before a drop.
As far as overall design goes ZTE has spared as little space as possible for logos and the like, meaning the screen takes up a rather significant portion of the front of the device. The bezels are small, although not record setting, so the frame of the device isn't much larger than the screen itself. Software buttons keep the chin of the device small and a very minimal set of cameras and an earpiece up top keep it from having a large forehead. The power button, SIM and SD card trays are on the right side, and the volume rocker is on the left. Both volume rocker and power buttons have a really nice brushed faux metal finish giving them an excellent texture that makes them super easy to find blind-folded. On top you'll find the 3.5mm headphone jack, on bottom the micro USB port, and on back a small speaker, camera and LED flash.
Performance and Memory
2GB of RAM is pretty insane for a 720p display, and you'll find that the Grand X Max's multi-tasking abilities will consistently wow you with its performance. As a test I ran four games at a time: Temple Run 2, Ultimate Spiderman, Crossy Road and The Tower. I consistently switched back and forth between all four games as well as between Hangouts, Chrome and the homescreen running a live wallpaper and all of these appeared on the screen immediately after pressing their thumbnails in the recents multi-tasking window. That's unheard of, and it's definitely thanks to a combination of Android 4.4 KitKat's excellent RAM management techniques and the fact that this has tons of RAM for its resolution.
Overall performance of the device was great too. The Snapdragon 400 is a lower-end processor for sure, but it's no slouch in the performance department for 720p and lower phones as we've seen in plenty of reviews we've done for phones that use it. As is normal with the Dalvik stack on versions of Android lower than 5.0 Lollipop you're going to see some hiccups as things are processed through the older stack, and until all phones are running Lollipop there's not a lot that can be done about that. Performance on all the games I ran was flawless, with essentially no lag and great framerates. Again the 720p resolution helps a lot with the performance aspect when many phones now are pushing 1080p or Quad-HD on the high end of the spectrum.
Here's where things get really curious. Having a full 150mbps LTE modem would have you think you'll be getting unthinkable speeds from this device so long as you have an LTE signal, but since Cricket is an MVNO of AT&T the service is capped at around 8mbps down and somewhere around 12mbps up. While this doesn't sound like a lot it's definitely plenty for any phone related tasks you're going to be doing, especially since the screen is only 720p. For the most part I found the network to be pretty fantastic, with a strong LTE signal in many parts of the Orlando metro area.
At my house though it was a different story, as the LTE signal doesn't quite reach my home and I was stuck with AT&T's really, really slow HSPA network. This isn't quite as bad as getting stuck on EDGE or something equally as awful, but it's definitely slow, with pings ranging in the hundreds and download speeds of maybe 1mbps if you're lucky in my tests. LTE is certainly the way to go here, but if you can't get it HSPA is a decent backup plan.
There's no hyperbole here when I say this phone has the greatest battery life I've ever seen in a smartphone. There's a lot to say about a phone that can last 3 days without a charge, especially since I've done plenty on it in those 3 days . The first two were fairly heavy uses, with 3 hours of on screen time each day and streaming music here and there. The last day was all standby but it lasted until bed time with 1% left, which is unheard of on any other phone out there unless you put it in battery saving mode. On top of this amazing regular battery life ZTE has included battery saving modes that should drag it on even longer than what I've seen on my usage of it. If you need long battery life this is the phone you've been looking for! As of now I'm sitting at 4.5 days of standby time and I'm still at 40%. This is with all the normal Google syncing, etc. and no power save mode. What ZTE has done here is nothing short of incredible.
ZTE has kept the interface of the Grand X Max+ pretty clean and fairly stock, although the changes they've made really aren't for the better. ZTE has an interesting tradition of making every one of its phones unique looking, changing the skin to make Android look completely different from one device to the next. Unfortunately the Grand X Max+ got the short end of the stick here and seems to have received a rather ugly looking skin that makes the interface seem "cheap" compared to the rest of ZTE's lineup. I don't know if this was done on purpose or not, but it's not a positive change. Of course after using the phone for a little while you likely won't care as much, as millions of people don't when they use other ugly interfaces like Samsung's TouchWiz.
The UI overall is a pretty mixed bag of styles, and is generally a mash-up of Android 4.0's Holo theme and a more colorful design lanuage. ZTE has redesigned the settings menu to include more commonly used items at the top while offering other settings below, and have changed some things out like battery stats for their own power saving apps. The lock screen uses the fairly standard 4 icons on the bottom for quick launching as well as the camera shortcut in the bottom right. Lockscreen music is fully present and works just like it should on Android 4.4 KitKat, and I have no complaint at all about the press and hold to unlock method ZTE uses on the lockscreen.
Outside of that the included launcher feels very TouchWiz inspired, with its paginated app drawer that locks into place with each page, as well as a number of transistion animation customizations that are more akin to a Chinese OEM's skin. Everything here is a mash-up of features from various devices and while it makes the phone feel a little out of place sometimes with different styles and color palettes, the included features are a welcome bunch and make the whole package feel like it's even more valuable than it already does.
ZTE hasn't put a whole lot of custom apps on the phone, and neither has Cricket outside of three Cricket account type apps. This means very little bloatware and essentially nothing extra to remove out of the box. One of the nicer included apps is a local backup which backs up literally everything on your phone: apps, app data, contacts, messages, etc. You can schedule these to be run at any given interval or even when new apps get installed, so in case something happens to the phone you'll be able to recover your stuff with no hassles. The biggest problem here is that it's local, so unless you're saving them to the SD card you may be stuck without a backup if the phone gets completely killed.
ZTE proudly displays the Dolby logo on the box for the phone and includes an automatic Dolby equalizer app that includes a couple of presets depending on whether or not you're listening to music, gaming, watching a movie or talking. There are also two custom presets that can be manually adjusted to suit your tastes. The interface on the Dolby app was a little bit confusing because at first it doesn't seem like you can actually change anything other than selecting presets. Double tapping on any preset brings you into the options for that preset, so it's not exactly the most obvious thing in the world. The sound output from the Dolby equalizer is phenomenal though and ranks up there with the best phones. What I particularly liked were the way the presets made it easy to adjust the audio without needing much knowledge of a graphic equalizer in the first place, all while giving manual control to those who prefer to adjust the sound themselves.
Sound coming out of the small speaker on the back was pretty rich given the size of the speaker too. Things were sufficiently loud and didn't feel over driven even at max volume. As usual we're not talking Boom Sound levels of volume or clarity but you should never expect that in a single speaker configuration anyway. These do the job just fine and get you through the day.
The ZTE Grand X Max+ comes with what has become fairly standard nowadays, a 13 megapixel camera on the back. While the camera does have a bit more noise than other 13mp shooters out there, ZTE has a rather good denoise filter that helps rid the picture of this noise without erring on the side of being too extreme, a la Samsung's filter. What's impressive here is comparing the amount of detail in the scene even to higher quality 13MP cameras out there. When taking a picture of a room using the Grand X Max, the OnePlus One and the Nexus 6 I was able to make out the small print words on the back of the can whereas the words were more blurry on either of the other two phones. Noise comes into effect in the shot and that's likely why I was able to see more detail, as the denoise filter didn't go into overdrive and kill any detail present in the shot.
HDR shots were impressive on the Grand X Max+ and represented some of the better HDR I've seen from a phone. Shots in good light are taken instantly, although there is some processing time to deal with afterward. Low-light HDR shots take longer simply because of the shutter speed, and require a more steady hand to get a good picture. Overall light and color balance in HDR is fantastic, if not a little saturated at time, but can easily be adjusted in post-processing without problem. There's no haloing or other artifacts sometimes found in software HDR modes.
The software behind the camera is definitely the most impressive part of the whole package, and offers a range of options not present on most phones, let alone a budget priced phone. Three modes are included and are easily switched between via a large button on screen: auto, pro and fun. As you can imagine the auto mode has the fewest settings, with the pro having a considerable amount that aren't normally present on phones. Included are things like denoise filter toggling, independent focus and exposure metering, and a rather excellent panel of information that tells you the ISO, shutter speed and other important levels for more professional photographers. While the overall quality of the photos means that it won't be replacing that SLR in your home it's not designed to, rather this is probably the best experience I can think of on a budget priced phone out there, offering plenty of balance in picture color and quality while retaining the professional modes that some of us crave. Check out the gallery below for samples.
ZTE has delivered another winner, especially when you consider all you're getting for a mere $200. Most of the time this sort of price tag with these specs are reserved for cheaper Chinese phones with little compatibility with US carriers. The Grand X Max+ on the other hand features full US GSM compatibility, and being sold through Cricket means you're going to have a great signal on either Cricket or AT&T's network, since they're the same thing anyway. Software wise this is mostly a bare-bones Android experience, which is generally a fantastic thing anyway. This means relatively no bloatware, nothing to bog the phone down and most importantly a great user experience. You're getting a really good camera regardless of the price tag, rich audio output with a Dolby equalizer, and a screen that's big albiet lower resolution than flagship phones. Still the screen gets the job done and is better than every other large 720p screen I've seen. Since the phone is so large and is made mostly of glass it's probably best to get a case for it, as it's a bit unwieldy especially in cooler weather. Overall this is a winner in the sub-$200 category and one I would recommend over nearly everything else in the category.