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ZTE ZMax Pro Review: A Mid-Range Phone at a Budget Price

A wise and famous YouTuber once said, “Good phones are getting cheap, and cheap phones are getting good.” And what better phone to fall into these categories than one of ZTE’s latest offerings. Called the ZMax Pro, this smartphone boasts unexpected specifications you’ll likely never find on a sub-$100 phone no matter where you go around the world other than one carrier (which I’ll get to in this review). I’ve gotten the chance to mess around with the device for the past few weeks, and here’s my thoughts on it.


Design

The design of the ZMax Pro is overall pretty solid. You’ve got a soft touch back that adds a level of gripability, a nice sloped design for ease of use in one hand, and plastic rims around the sides that give the impression of a metallic or aluminum finish. But I can assure you, it’s all plastic here. Nice copper accent colors accommodate the volume buttons, power button, camera ring and LED flash, and fingerprint sensor (yes, there’s a fingerprint sensor on the ZMax Pro which I’ll get to soon) which gives off the impression that this phone is likely expensive, but of course it isn’t at just $99. All in all, this phone doesn’t look like it costs under $100 at all thanks to these design elements, so in the end I’ve been very pleased with the look and feel from the ZMax Pro.

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On the right side of the phone you’ve got your power button which is positioned so you can actually click it without shimmying your hand half way up the phone alongside two separate volume up and down buttons which, to some users, may be hard to reach. However, it’s not really a struggle for me as I have relatively large hands.

 

On the bottom is where a USB-C port lives which is definitely nice to have in a phone that costs under $100, while on the left you’ve got a SIM/microSD card tray and on the top a 3.5mm headphone jack that actually features a really satisfying sound when you plug in your headphones. I don’t know why it’s as clicky as it is, but I really love it and thought it’d be worth noting.

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On the front of the ZMax Pro is where a 6-inch 1080p IPS LCD display lives covered in Corning Gorilla Glass 3. This display makes the ZMax Pro absolutely massive, trust me. Even though the screen to body ratio is relatively large at ~71.7%, this device dwarfs the Moto Z and any other phone that’s come out in recent memory, including 2014’s Nexus 6. Unless you have pretty big hands, you’ll be using this phone with two hands starting from the moment you pick it up for the first time. Just a warning…

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In my experience, the actual screen on the ZMax Pro was pretty decent. You can’t really see many pixels unless you look really close and burn out your eyeballs, while viewing angles are okay if not pretty good (they’re not the best by any means, but they’re decent enough to be actually good opposed to other devices’ displays that cost $99). Unfortunately, colors aren’t very vibrant and are pretty bland most of the time, but you can still make everything out regardless. All in all, I’ve enjoyed using the ZMax Pro’s display as it’s nice and sharp and gets pretty bright even in direct sunlight. Of course, phones like the Moto Z or Galaxy Note 7 will absolutely crush this screen regardless of who you ask, but it’s nevertheless pretty good.

While there’s nothing really flashy that stands out about the ZMax Pro’s design, what ZTE included has been absolutely enough. In fact, I couldn’t think of a better design for a phone that costs less than a sweatshirt at Tommy Hilfiger. It’s not chunky, it’s not uncomfortable, it’s not heavy at 175 grams – and while it is pretty massive, the overall design is still really sharp.


Specs & Performance

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Inside the ZMax Pro is an octa-core Snapdragon 617 processor with 2GB of RAM and an Adreno 405 GPU. The overall performance of the phone isn’t anything special, but it is quite decent to some extent

It’s worth noting that the 617 chipset isn’t the fastest in the world by any means. You may be enticed by the octa-core factor, but only four cores are present while doing light stuff like checking Twitter or sending emails which, by the way, the ZMax Pro does pretty well (as it should with a 617). The other four cores are used for heavier operations like editing Word documents or playing intense games. For this test, I tried out Madden NFL Mobile and checked to see how the graphics performed. I have to say, my expectations were pretty low as I was looking for just a stuttery mess through and through. However, I’ve actually be pleasantly surprised by the ZMax Pro’s performance during gameplay. Only a few times did I notice a dropped frame, while slight stuttering did occur as I was making a touchdown. Nevertheless, you should be fine if you’d like to play some football on this phone as you should be able to get some nice speeds out of it.

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Regarding the RAM amount, 2GB in this day and age is pretty rock bottom. I mean, sure 1GB is even less, but nowadays more apps require more RAM which, while unfortunate, is the way it is. And overall, I haven’t been blown away with multitasking on the ZMax Pro. Sure, I can have about 5 apps open and continuously switch between then without any redraws necessary, but anything more than the number 5 and you’ll start noticing the phone slow down. I was really hoping I could multitask on this puppy nice and smoothly, but this wasn’t the case. Of course, my usage is more than just Twitter and Facebook constantly, so you may experience smoother operation. But to me, 2GB isn’t enough.

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Next, let’s get to that fingerprint sensor. First off, this security measure is mounted to the back of the ZMax Pro where your index finger will naturally rest when you pick up the device. This makes for a great experience while using the reader. I’m able to jump into the phone while the display’s off relatively quickly. I’ve definitely seen faster sensors like the iPhone’s Touch ID reader, but for $99, how much more can you ask for? And while I can’t use the reader for Android Pay payments as the ZMax Pro doesn’t feature NFC, I still enjoy using the sensor as I’m a big fan of fingerprint readers since its way faster than entering a password or PIN. All in all, buyers of this device will surely enjoy this feature, no doubt.

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Finally, I’d like to touch on something not many do when talking about the ZMax Pro: this phone has Dolby Audio capabilities. This allows you to enjoy crystal clear audio quality while watching movies or listening to music via either headphones or the built-in rear-firing speaker that gets decently loud. A number of presets are available to fine tune your experience, while users will have two custom profiles they can modify to their liking. I tend to go a bit deep on the low-end as I enjoy plenty of base to my music, however I did lift some mids and highs to make the sound not too muffled or absent. Overall, this has probably been one of my favorite features of the ZMax Pro as I’m a heavy music listener while writing articles for MBEDDED (I’m currently listening to my Apple Music playlist on the ZMax Pro as I type this).

All in all, the specs and performance of the ZMax Pro won’t blow anyone away, but they are very decent for the price. The Snapdragon 617 gets the job done, 2GB of RAM is probably plenty for most people (myself disincluded), gaming should be fine for people to enjoy, and audio quality will no doubt be met with satisfaction. Of course, with stutters throughout the experience while operating lots of apps at once or playing a graphic-intense game, the phone’s internals aren’t perfect, but once again for $99, you can’t really ask for much more.


Software

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Making the ZMax Pro operable is a lightly skinned version of Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow. Throughout the OS, you’ll notice some slight tweaks made to the vanilla-based software which will surely please purists as there’s not giant, heavy skins bogging everything down. But of course, not everything’s perfect.

Starting with the lock screen, ZTE has tweaked the interface you see when powering on your device with something no one’s used to: a long press to unlock your phone. Normally with Marshmallow or even Lollipop, you swipe up on the display to unlock your phone. That’s not the case with the ZMax Pro. In order to enter your PIN or password, you need to long press on the lock screen itself, no swiping about it. The screen will then glide up on its own and user input will become available. I’m not a fan of this method of logging into your phone, so at least 90% of the time I just used the fingerprint sensor to unlock the device. It’s just way more convenient.

Next up, let’s talk about some of the tweaks made to the overall OS. For starters, black and transparency seem to be the name of the game here, with the Quick Settings panel matching these two design choices alongside some of the notifications when an action is taken upon them like the deletion of an email from the shade. I really don’t mind this tweak as I actually kind of like it, but it’s definitely worth noting here. What’s more, some options within Settings have been moved to other locations, while additional settings have been added to suit the ZMax Pro’s hardware. For instance, users can reprogram the capacitive keys at the bottom of the phone alongside set an app to open or action to take place when setting your finger on the fingerprint scanner. I didn’t use this feature much, however I did reprogram the buttons so the back button’s on the right and the overview button’s on the left.

Looking past the light skin, one big indicator that the ZMax Pro doesn’t run stock Android is present and you’ll always notice it wherever you go while navigating the phone, and that’s bloatware.

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As if you weren’t expecting this, MetroPCS has loaded plenty of bloatware and useless apps to the ZMax Pro that no user will likely use ever. For instance, an entire folder storing shortcuts to the various MetroPCS apps installed is present on the home screen, while a few widgets on the home screen are also here which you’ll probably remove right away. I didn’t for the sake of my review, but I can’t say I wasn’t tempted to do so. In addition, a secondary photos app, music app, email app, video player, and more all come loaded on the ZMax Pro which, while can be disabled, are pretty annoying. Since there’s 32GB of storage available, all these apps take advantage of it and hog 10GB of the available space, leaving the user 22GB to work with. This is without a doubt not ideal whatsoever, so if you’re concerned about storage, you may want to pick up a microSD card.

Besides the skin, bloatware, and unnecessary apps, what you’re looking at is a pretty stock Android experience. I’d say about 75% of the phone is stock, while the other 25% is made up of said customizations. While the tweaks made to the OS aren’t really that bad, I still believe they could’ve been toned down a bit (I’m looking at you, bloatware). Nevertheless, you probably won’t have many problems with the ZMax Pro’s Android OS since the skin isn’t as bad as TouchWiz and the bloatware and added apps can all be disabled.


Camera

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On the back of the ZMax Pro is a 13MP with an f/2.2 aperture, phase detection autofocus, and a single LED flash. While there’s not much special about this sensor, it does take some pretty decent pictures. By all means, they’re not the best in the world, but they’re okay for snapping a quick photo for Instagram or just to remember a certain moment in time.

Here’s a gallery of some of the photos I took:

Each of these photos were taken with a good amount of light in the scene, hence their relatively high quality. Good focusing, a little over-sharpening, and decent exposure are all present while natural colors seem to be presented in each of the photos as well. Yes, I’m positive some additional saturation was added, but nevertheless the rear camera of the ZMax Pro is fine. Like I said before, you only should use this sensor for Instagram or Facebook as you won’t be getting very high quality photos like you would with a Galaxy Note 7 or iPhone 7, but for $99, you can’t argue with these results much.

Video wise, we’re looking at 1080p at 30fps for the rear camera of the ZMax Pro (sample above). Overall, quality is just fine for the average user, but when compared to other cameras, this device’s back sensor will likely be crushed. Nevertheless, image quality is okay, focus is relatively quick, and saturation makes everything kind of pop to some extent. I wouldn’t use this camera for making movies or anything, but it gets the job done.

Regarding the front facing camera, a 5MP sensor is present. And, you guessed it, it’s basically the same story with the rear camera. With good light, you shouldn’t have many problems, but if you’re in low light, things get pretty horrible. Overall, a quick video call or selfie are good tasks for execution with this camera, but vloggers or movie makers won’t want to use this sensor as it’s not very good.

In darker conditions, both the front and rear cameras of the ZMax Pro really struggle. You won’t get basically any light in the scene unless there’s a street lamp or two around or if you use the flash the entire time, while photos just lose their detail and you really can’t enjoy your memories like you wish you could. Therefore, I recommend not using these sensors at night whatsoever.

While both cameras seriously suffer in low light, with a good amount of sunshine outdoors or any light at all, you’ll likely get pretty decent results. Of course, camera geeks will likely not be a fan of these sensors, but like I said before, for $99, you can’t complain much. In fact, you might as well feel lucky you have cameras let alone good ones.


Battery

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Inside of the ZMax Pro is a non-removable 3400mAh battery. On paper, this cell should last you at least a day and, if not, two on a full charge since the screen’s only FHD and the chipset and RAM count is just a Snapdragon 617 and 2GB, respectively. Unfortunately, this assumption isn’t true and you’re only looking at around a day’s use out of it. This doesn’t go without saying that the phone’s battery is pretty good, it’s just not great.

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In my use, I got around 2 – 3 hours of screen-on time with the ZMax Pro which, by today’s standards, is pretty “meh”. In reality, I was looking for something more like 4+ hours of screen-on time, however that unfortunately didn’t come to pass. By starting my day at around 8:30AM and finishing it at 11:00PM, I tend to have around 20-30% of juice left. It’s worth noting that when this occured, I used the phone pretty lightly throughout the day. This meant barely any gaming, some music listening, and a scan of my various social media profiles for a few minutes at a time. If you’re looking to pay games all day on this guy, be sure to bring your charger as you’ll drain pretty quickly.

To charge this battery, ZTE built a USB-C port into the ZMax Pro. This port has been known to make its way to phones costing $350 or more, but never to a phone or other device costing less than $100. And while it’s only USB 2.0, it’s nevertheless nice to have since it supports a level of quick charging and is reversible. Regarding the former, you can charge the ZMax Pro’s battery half way in about a half hour or so. This I really enjoyed having since I didn’t have to wait 3 hours for my phone to be charged in full. All in all, expect some pretty great charging times with the ZMax Pro.

In all reality, the battery life of the ZMax Pro should be fine for most people. The average consumer isn’t looking for a battery that lasts two days on a full charge so they can brag about it to their friends. All they want is a phone that can get them through the day, and that’s the ZMax Pro’s specialty. With its combination of mid-range specs, battery size, and USB-C-powered fast charging, one day is the best way to measure this device’s life span. In short, don’t expect anything amazing from the handset’s battery, but do expect it to last a full day.


Final Thoughts

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While the ZMax Pro is by no means perfect, it does check off all the boxes for what a mid-range phone should have. However, this statement gets even more interesting when considering the price. For just $99, this phone is an absolute steal and probably the best bang-for-your-buck handset on the market today. With the Snapdragon 617, 2GB of RAM, lightly skinned Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow OS, okay cameras, good battery life, and really nice build quality, how much can you ask for regarding the price? Of course, there’s plenty of room for improvement, but then ZTE would have to jack up the price, which probably isn’t happening anytime soon.


Pricing & Availability

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The ZTE ZMax Pro is available for $179 with an $80 online-submitted rebate through MetroPCS only. If you choose to pay off the first 3 months of service with the phone, you can then get the carrier to unlock the phone for you in order to bring it to another network like AT&T. I recommend doing so if you’re on another network and really want this phone as you won’t be spending more than $250 on the whole package (unlocking fee included).


What do you think of the ZTE ZMax Pro? Let me know in the comment section below!

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Max Buondonno is a technology enthusiast who has been working as a journalist in this industry for more than a year. He has grown up in the age where everyone has a smartphone which has influenced his decision to become a professional technology writer, his passion in life. He's dipped his toes in the development of websites, while you can ask him anything about Apple, Google, or Microsoft and he's bond to give you an answer. He's reachable on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, and email.

6 comments on “ZTE ZMax Pro Review: A Mid-Range Phone at a Budget Price

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