When Chinese tech giant ZTE started selling phones in the United States, it pounced on a niche market and stuck stubbornly to it: obscenely cheap phones running Google’s Android operating system. Its first strong budget phone, the ZMax, debuted for $200; and its successor, the ZMax 2, hit the street for $50 less ($150). That strategy proved to be a good one: Last year, ZTE sold more than 15 million handsets. Now it’s back with the $100 ZMax Pro.
But while a low sticker price may once have constituted a selling point, that couldn’t be further from the truth today. So-called budget phones like Motorola’s G4 and G4 Plus, as well as Huawei’s Honor 5X have raised the bar with superb specifications, excellent ergonomics, and great user experiences.
Budget phones have gotten so much better that the best ones challenge the conventional wisdom that a high-end phone must necessarily be expensive.
In response to newfound competitors, ZTE stepped up its game aggressively this year with the budget ZMax Pro. It’s not only the company’s cheapest phone yet — it starts at $100 with an instant rebate — it’s also the best-endowed budget phone ZTE has ever made. It features a titanic HD screen, an enormous battery, and accoutrements typically reserved for smartphones hundreds of dollars above its price point, like a fingerprint sensor and USB Type-C port.
It goes without saying that the Pro is a highly competitive budget smartphone.
If the ZMax Pro looks a tad familiar, that’s because it takes a few design cues from flagships like the Motorola Nexus 6. It’s a behemoth of a smartphone, which is to say it feels every bit of its 6-inch diagonal screen size. My thumbs struggle to reach the very top of the screen, so I have to shimmy my hands upward to even get close. But luckily, it’s not as hefty as other gigantic phones. It’s feather-light compared to the Nexus 6, and the generous screen real estate justifies any minor discomfort.
The ZMax Pro’s protective front-facing Gorilla Glass 3 is “2.5D,” which is to say it’s ever-so-slightly raised above the bezel of the Pro’s 6-inch display and contoured around the phone’s four edges. It not only looks fantastic, but it feels fantastic, too. Thanks to the sloping curves around the Pro’s edges, it’s fluid beneath my tapping thumbs and index fingers.
That same attention to detail doesn’t extend to the rest of the Pro’s front side. Its earpiece, three horizontally aligned circular cutouts next to the handset’s front-facing camera, look slapdash in comparison with the glass. So too, do the three white capacitive buttons beneath the Pro’s screen: two nondescript dots on either side of a hollow circle. They function as software navigational buttons, but annoyingly don’t conform to Android’s design guidelines — the button on the right is a dedicated back button and the one on the left is an app-switching shortcut, but the two are identical in appearance, so they’re easy to confuse.
The Pro’s sides are up to snuff, thankfully. They’re curved, like the glass, and although they’re made of plastic, the brushed texture and anodized silver is a dead ringer for aluminum.
On the handset’s right edge is a raised volume rocker and power switch, both of which feature neat bronze accents. The buttons are thoughtfully styled: the power button is textured with a tactile diamond pattern, which makes fumbling around for it in a pocket a lot less of a chore. The raised “volume up” and “volume down” buttons on the volume rocker are bifurcated by a flush segment of plastic, which makes them easy to find. In contrast to the buttons on most budget phones, including the Moto G, they’re sturdy and satisfyingly firm to the press.
The Pro’s left side is less remarkable. It houses a combination SIM card slot and Micro SD card slot reader. The top and bottom sides don’t pack any surprises. There’s a USB Type-C below the phone’s capacitive keys, which is a rarity on budget phones, and a 3.5mm jack sits on top.
The back of the ZMax Pro packs more of a visual punch. In a word, it’s gorgeous. The aforementioned bronze accents continue in earnest along the rear-facing camera module and flash’s outer housing. The camera is a perfect circle, flanked by a thick black aperture blade and silver-and-bronze rim. The tiny flash sits beneath it, and a fingerprint sensor finishes it off.
Related: 8 powerful smartphones you can buy for $400 or less
The minimalist aesthetic that channels the Moto G4 in its simple geometry: every component, save the ZTE logo in the center and speaker in the lower-left corner, is symmetrically arranged. It’s thoughtfulness I frankly didn’t expect to see at a $100 price point.
Given the price, you’d be forgiven for predicting that the Pro doesn’t have good specs, but you’d be wrong. The octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 is the same one that powers the Moto G4 and G4 Plus, and I’m pleased to report it performs just as well in the Pro.
Swiping around the home screen, app drawer, my Gmail inbox, and various Instagram feeds feels as smooth as butter, and apps opened generally without delay. Any perceptible slowdowns and stutters were rare — I even opened 22 apps on a whim, and that didn’t throw the Pro for a loop.
However, some tasks pushed the Pro to its processing limits. Zooming in on high-resolution web pics seemed to strain the low-end Adreno 450 graphics chip — panning in Chrome became jittery. Thanks to the Pro’s measly 2GB of RAM, opening more than fifteen or so tabs at once often resulted in the premature closure of one or two webpages.
In benchmarks, the Pro didn’t fare much better. It scored a 368 in 3D Mark’s Sling Shot ES 3.1 test, which is about even with the Moto G4 (384) but far short of the pricier competition. The year-old Nexus 5X, for instance, averages about 1,487.
As our reviews of the Moto G4 and G4 Plus revealed, the Snapdragon 617 seems to sip power conservatively, and that certainly seemed to be the case with the ZMax Pro. I never felt the slightest bit constrained by the non-removable 3,400mAh battery, which typically lasted a full workday.
Only twice in the course of a week did my battery dip precipitously low, but those were days I ran the Pro through its multitasking paces. Somewhat amazingly, battery life averaged about 15 hours when I stuck to light tasks like emailing and checking Snapchat — on par with the Moto G4.
Recharging was quick thanks to the Pro’s support for Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 2.0 technology. Using the included AC adapter, it typically took about an hour and change for the Pro’s cells to replenish fully, which is in line with Qualcomm’s estimates. As I pointed out in my review of the Moto G4 Plus, that’s not quite as speedy as Qualcomm’s third iteration of fast charging, Quick Charge 3.0, which can theoretically charge a device up to 80 percent in 35 minutes. But that’s picking at straws.
What’s not nitpicking, though, is the ZMax Pro’s lack of NFC. Contactless platforms like Android Pay are gaining steam, as are mobile ticketing apps for public transit. And NFC opens a myriad of other labor-saving doors, like fast pairing and file transfer via Android Beam, physical business cards that store digital data, painless Wi-Fi hotspot pairing, and adhesive tags that trigger everything from navigational apps in your car to a morning alarm by your bedside. ZTE’s not the one to blame, here — the Pro is far from the first budget phone to ship without NFC. But it’s carrying on a trend that, at its core, is consumer-hostile. It’s hardly a deal breaker, but all the same, it’s disappointing.
Luckily, that’s the Pro’s only connectivity omission. The handset has Bluetooth 4.1, GPS, and support for dual-band Wi-Fi networks. In terms of cellular, it’s compatible with GSM (850/900/1800/1900MHz), HSPA (850/1900MHz), and LTE (2/4/12) bands – chiefly those associated with T-Mobile, the parent company of ZTE’s launch partner, MetroPCS. The ZMax Pro may also head to other networks in the future, but it’s stuck on MetroPCS for now.
Truly awful smartphone screens are the exception rather than the rule these days, and the ZMax Pro has a decent 1080p screen. It’s a TFT LCD panel, and while its brightness doesn’t match that of the Moto G4, it’s brilliant enough to overcome sunlight and overhead fluorescents. Contrast is a bit muted, though, and colors, particularly reds and yellows, don’t especially pop. Worse, the raised design of the screen’s glass has a tendency to catch and reflect light. On the plus side, the viewing angles are impressively wide.
The relatively high resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels is a feature I came to quickly appreciate: I could see the pixels if I squinted a bit; but no app, photo, or video ever had that “blurry mess” quality that rears its ugly head on low-resolution displays. Many budget phones stick with 720p screens, but that’s not acceptable anymore.
Touch responsiveness was good for the most part, too, although the screen occasionally registered touches where it shouldn’t have or failed to recognize a sustained swipe across the screen. The protective glass’s appreciable distance above the screen gives an effect not unlike peering through a looking glass — some objects appear oddly magnified. Luckily, the distortion is minor and never impacts text on webpages or in apps.
The Pro’s rear-facing 13-megapixel camera is a different story. In fairness, it focused speedily both outdoors and indoors — thanks in large part to a phase detection auto-focus sensor, it identified focal points on subjects almost instantaneously — but it also produced bothersome artifacts. Photos in the evening sunlight had a yellowish tinge, and pics of dark environments were consistently marred by noisiness and poorly resolved detail around objects and shadows. In one picture of a jogging path, it’s difficult to tell where a flowerbed ends and the pavement begins. The camera tended to overexpose even milder sources of direct light, such as the ceiling fixtures in Digital Trends’ New York office.
The front-facing 5-megapixel camera isn’t much better, sadly. Its lack of flash contributed to poor performance in low light, and its field of view is disappointingly narrow.
That’s not to suggest that the Pro’s pics are unusable — far from it. The photos are decent for a $100 phone, but the cameras aren’t much better than the ones on other budget phones. Beyond Facebook, Instagram, and perhaps the occasional text message, I’d be hesitant to depend on The ZMax Pro’s camera day-to-day. Compared to competent budget shooters like the Moto G4 Plus, its cameras just don’t measure up.
For adventurous types who are resolved to eek a decent image out of the Pro, ZTE’s default camera app makes it easy enough. There’s a multi-exposure mode that lets you merge two photos into one; pre-defined color filters like “Cool,” “Lomo,” and “Sepia”; and a high dynamic range (HDR) option that, in my experience, didn’t seem to improve picture quality too noticeably.
There’s an interval timer and a fairly standard array of parameters you can change, including picture size, a focus-assist grid, geo-tagging, and the default storage location, among other tweaks. Finally, ZTE even offers a manual mode that lets you adjust shutter speed, ISO, exposure, white balance, and focus.
If I didn’t know any better, I’d mistake the Pro’s software for Stock Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow. The icons haven’t been switched out with stylized alternatives, and the settings menu and lock screen remain as close to the vanilla experience as possible. There’s the occasional aesthetic touch here and there, like a translucent notification shade, but the core elements appear untouched. It even ships with Google’s default launcher.
ZTE keeps bloatware to a minimum, too. In terms of third-party applications, there’s a Dolby Audio equalizer that lets you funnel the phone’s audio through software presets and there’s Lookout, a mobile security suite. ZTE, for its part, has pre-installed a basic audio recorder, an FM radio app, and a simple file manager.
The whole of MetroPCS’s suite is present and accounted for: There’s the myMetro app for account management, nameID for phone number lookup and call blocking, and Visual Voicemail for transcribed voice mail. MetroPCS has an app store of curated games and tools, too, although they’re not exclusive — you’ll find the same content in Google’s Play Store.
That may sound like a lot of unnecessary apps, but the Pro is hardly rife with them. Even the Galaxy 7 isn’t immune to bloatware: The Verizon variant contains more than five carrier-branded apps. On the opposite end of the pricing spectrum, a relatively new class of phones, among them the BLU R1 HD, is subsidized with a combination of pre-installed apps and pop-up advertisements. The Pro, by comparison, seems relatively unblemished.
Luckily, the pre-installed apps only take up about 10GB of the Pro’s 32GB of internal storage, and all are uninstallable.
ZTE provides a standard one-year limited warranty on the ZMax Pro. It offers replacements and repairs on Pro units that are found to be “defective in material or worksmanship,” offers to refund said product if repair is for whatever reason impossible. It doesn’t cover unauthorized modifications made to the Pro, of course, and accidental damage is similarly out-of-bounds. In other words, if the Pro’s screen is accidentally shattered or its casing scratched, those repairs will have to be paid for out of pocket.
Put simply, the ZMax Pro is the bargain of the year. You’ll be hard pressed to find a phone with a 6-inch screen HD screen, octa-core processor, 3,400mAh battery, and fingerprint sensor for $100, much less $200. The Asus ZenFone 2 starts at $200, but features a smaller (5.5-inch) screen. The $200 Huawei Honor 5X, meanwhile, packs a smaller battery (3,000mAh) and an odd skin on top of Android, which occasionally results in lag.
The ZMax Pro’s only real competitors are the $200 Moto G4 and the $250 Moto G4 Plus. The G4 Plus is our top budget phone pick, but it will cost you $150 more than the Z Max Pro. The fact that it’s unlocked makes it a good pick for budget buyers who aren’t on MetroPCS, though, and its cameras are better. If you have the extra money, spend it on the Moto G4 Plus. If you’re on a strict $100 phone budget, you won’t be disappointed by ZTE’s latest budget phone.
ZTE’s ZMax Pro is the most uncompromising budget phone in its price range. It’s disruptive. That’s not to put the Pro on a pedestal. The little niggles add up: the cameras aren’t nearly as good as the competition. The omission of NFC is inexcusable. Performance isn’t top of the line, and the navigation buttons are oddly configured.
However, the Pro is only $100 — the same price as a Fire TV, a decent Fitbit, or a bespoke dual breakfast sandwich maker — and ZTE doesn’t take that price bracket for granted. The ZMax Pro feels and functions as well as phones that are far more expensive, and for that, it deserves heaps of praise.