I reviewed the ZTE ZMax Pro last year and thought it was the bomb. “But wait, it has a junky processor and 2GB of RAM. How is that possible?” Well, friend, the device costs just $99 after rebate. It’s an absolute steal for a phone with a 6-inch 1080p display, a Snapdragon 617 processor, a 13MP camera, Android Marshmallow (at launch), a large 3400mAh battery, and even a fingerprint sensor. Now in 2017, most of these specs are tossed around from price range to price range, and OEMs are doubling down on what can be bought for under $100. Moto’s obviously killing the game this year with devices like the E4 and G5 Plus, but ZTE had to make a move, and they did so with the new Blade X Max. It, like the ZMax Pro, is also $99 when activating a new line on Cricket or $149 outright, and I have to say, it definitely justifies what you’re putting down.
For starters, the Blade X Max has an all-plastic body with a polished frame for the border. It’s nothing to write home about, and quite frankly, I think it’s a downgrade from last year’s matte plastic ZMax Pro. Luckily, the 6-inch 1080p IPS LCD display has returned, and so did the rear-mounted fingerprint sensor. Both of these features are pretty stellar for such a low price, as the display gets bright enough for outdoor viewing and the fingerprint scanner adds an extra layer of security. Sure, the screen isn’t the most colorful by any means and the scanner isn’t the fastest, but for what you pay, it’s totally worth it.
It’s worth noting the pure size of this handset, however. Much like the ZMax Pro, nearly no one will ever be able to use the Blade X Max with one hand. It’s simply massive to hold, and it’s even surprisingly hard for me to handle as I have relatively large hands. ZTE doesn’t make any software changes to make operating the phone with one hand easier other than a quick pull-down from the home screen to access the notification center, so if you pick this guy up, know you’ll be using two hands more often than you probably ever have.
For ports, ZTE includes a headphone jack at the top (thank God) and a USB-C port on the bottom for charging and data transfer. I have to say, having a USB-C port on a $99 phone is simply stupendous. I love having the ability to carry one cable for both my laptop and phone. And since I can do that with a phone a seventh of the price of most flagship smartphones with the same connector just makes it even more worth while. Of course, if you have an older smartphone and are upgrading to the Blade X Max, you’ll need to buy new cables since chances are you’ve been using microUSB. But let me tell you, it’s definitely worth it in the end.
As for buttons, the Blade X Max has volume up and down keys alongside a power button that’s textured for distinction. They’re placed a bit high up the right side of the phone, so you’ll need to do a hand shimmy when things are too loud or quiet or you just wanna turn your screen on. The left side of the phone is blank besides a SIM card tray that can accept both nano SIM cards and microSD cards for expanding the device’s 32GB of storage, while the front features capacitive keys for navigating the handset’s software. The keys on the left and right of the main home key are dots since they’re both programmable so you can switch which one is assigned to Recent Apps and which is Back.
Speaking of software, ZTE has included a pretty clean version of Android 7.1.1 Nougat with only a light skin on top. There aren’t any major customizations in place other than a custom launcher, and that’s really it. ZTE’s known for providing a clean software experience, and I’m glad they included it on the Blade X Max, especially since it’s running on budget hardware which needs the optimizations present in stock Android.
The only major problem I have with the software on the phone is what Cricket, the exclusive carrier of the Blade X Max, is doing. For whatever reason, there’s a billion different apps preloaded on this device, and at least half of them can’t be disabled. This means you’ll be stuck with Deezer, Dolby Audio (note that I don’t really mind this one, but some might since it’s still intrusive), myCricket, and Visual Voicemail. ZTE also has their own pack of Android apps in place that pretty much fulfill the holes where Google’s apps used to go. So you’re also getting an imitation browser, calculator, calendar, backup and restore feature, clock, contacts app, downloads view, email app, gallery, messages app, sound recorder, and video player. That’s a ton of bloatware, and I don’t really know why it has to be there instead of Google’s own tools. Guess ZTE couldn’t resist.
The device also ships with a suite of games that you only see in advertisements in other games, but luckily they’re uninstallable. Praise the good Lord.
Overall, for $99, the software experience on the Blade X Max is what you’d expect and then some. You get your typical boat-load of imitation apps and carrier bloatware you’ll never touch, but at the same time you’re also getting the latest version of Android. Hopefully, ZTE keeps up with the software on the handset and at least gives it an upgrade to Android O. I wouldn’t count on it, but it’s definitely possible.
The specifications in the Blade X Max aren’t too shabby, either. You’re getting a Snapdragon 435 processor which is slightly worse than last year’s 617 in the ZMax Pro, but there isn’t too much of a speed difference. You’re also getting 2GB of RAM again and 32GB of storage paired with an Adreno 505 GPU. Overall, performance on the phone is okay for everyday activities like checking email and browsing Twitter. However, throw anything intensive like Asphalt 8 or Microsoft Word and you’ll notice regular stutters. But hey, for $99, you can’t really complain. But if you really want to, do it about the measly 2GB of RAM because, quite frankly, multitasking on this device is practically impossible.
As for camera quality, the 13MP on the back of the Blade X Max is fine for what it’s worth. You’re not getting Galaxy S8 or iPhone 7 quality by any means, but for $99, you at least get decent sharpness and color saturation. Of course, highlights are hard to score properly in auto mode which could totally ruin your shot, but there is a professional mode if you wanna fiddle around with the sensor’s settings.
The 5MP selfie shooter is also fine for uploading pictures to Snapchat or Instagram, but not much else. In fact, I’m a little embarrassed by its quality that I’ve chosen to do neither of these things, but at least this camera exists on this handset, amirite?
For those wondering, you can shoot 1080p video on the rear camera, and it’s not very good. But you can be the judge if you want if you scroll down a bit.
Regarding the phone’s battery life, the 3400mAh cell inside the Blade X Max gets the job done. I usually get around 13 to 14 hours of use out of the device which is enough for a full day of use starting at 7:30 AM. During that time, I get about 3 to 4 hours of screen-on time which, mind you, isn’t ground-breaking by any means. But at least it’s on par with phones seven to eight times its price, so it definitely doesn’t slouch in this department. Charging over the USB-C port is also pretty snappy, with the battery going from 0 to 100% in roughly 2 1/2 hours. This is thanks to the quick charging ZTE included this year that’s highly appreciated.
Overall, for the price you pay, the Blade X Max should suit your needs. Admittedly, I don’t like it more than I liked last year’s ZMax Pro, but in the same breath, I don’t like it any less. Essentially what you’re getting here is a software upgrade to 7.1.1 Nougat, and ZTE could push that out tomorrow to last year’s option. So should you buy it? Of course you should if $99 is your strict budget. But if you can afford a bit more, you may wanna look at other options like the Moto G5 Plus which is pretty regularly on sale for about $180 and is available all the time for that price from Amazon’s Prime Exclusive program. But if you need a phone now and you have a Franklin lying around you’ve been holding onto for a new phone, you won’t really get much more bang for your buck than the Blade X Max.