6-inch, $200 smartphone: Bargain or bust?

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When you’re knee-deep in tech like many in my line of work are, it can be easy to forget that the vast majority of consumers are not. Let’s face it: Keeping up with an ever-changing marketplace like that of the modern mobile phone is a tall order. There are bills to pay and chores to do and fantasy teams that need tinkering with, after all.

Perhaps this is you. Perhaps you learn of the ZTE Grand X Max+ (MSRP $ 219.99)—with its cheap price, its huge screen, and its month-to-month wireless plans via budget carrier Cricket—and get excited. It’s gigantic, affordable, and almost commitment-free.

However, it’s a bit more complicated than that. How much those complications mean to you is ultimately dependent upon your personal needs, but I’d be remiss if they weren’t examined.

Despite its remarkably long-lasting battery, the Grand X Max+ suffers from precisely the type of hardware issues one would expect from a 6-inch, $200 smartphone. Its processor and camera don’t nearly make the grade, and its size and build combine for an inherently unwieldy package.

The Grand X Max+’s woes begin with how it feels. The back of the Grand X Max+ is outfitted with a glossy, reflective plastic that can best be described as “slippery.” Not only can the phone be tricky to hold onto, but it’ll often slide around if the surface it’s resting on isn’t level.

With that said, it’s the phone’s 6-inch body—not the slippery, frictionless material—that’s primarily responsible for its cumbersome nature. Fans of mammoth smartphones like the iPhone 6 Plus will likely feel right at home with a device this big, but if you’ve been hanging out with a more modestly sized phone for a while, the transition will be jarring.

Overall, I’m just not impressed with the ergonomics of the Grand X Max+. Even after several days, I never got used to using it in a way that made me feel as though I was in control.

While the Grand X Max+’s design leaves something to be desired, its battery is among the best we’ve ever encountered in our labs. Our usage test clocked the battery at a whopping 6.6 hours of active, intense use, which is nearly the highest result we’ve ever clocked. For comparison, the iPhone 6 clocked in at just 3.4 hours.

Unfortunately, there’s a catch: The reason the Max+ is able to squeeze so much life out of its battery is because its wimpy 1.2 GHz quad-core processor is markedly underpowered. Video playback, gaming, and general multitasking are all sluggish when even slightly pushed.

The Grand X Max+’s standout feature is that whopping 6-inch screen, which is paired with a modest 720p display. For a $200 smartphone, you could do a lot worse. The Max+’s screen gets bright enough, so it’s good for outdoor use, which makes up for its relatively low resolution.

The Grand X Max+ is equipped with Android 4.4—or KitKat—which isn’t the newest iteration of Android OS. Given the hardware limitations, however, you’re probably better off.

Simple tasks—swiping through home screens, scrolling through menus, opening apps—are carried out with the kind of jittery performance of much older smartphones. Slightly more complex tasks, like jumping from app-to-app and general multitasking, can try your patience.

The problem doesn’t lay with KitKat. Instead, the lousy experience can be attributed almost exclusively to the clumsy size and crummy hardware of the Max+. Most of the time it feels like the phone is working against you.

If a decent camera is something you’re after, you’ll want to pass on the Max+. Like most affordable smartphones, the camera was merely an afterthought.

What makes it so poor? Well, in addition to underperforming in every-day, bright light conditions, our tests revealed unforgivably poor low light performance.

As far as your shooting options go, don’t hold your breath for much customization. ZTE defaults to Google’s barebones camera app. And the Max+’s front-facing camera is a meager 5 MP, which is also something to consider if you do your fair share of selfie-taking.

Still photography isn’t the only problem area for this ZTE’s camera, either. Video playback reveals a host of additional issues that will undoubtedly sour your experience. Most notable is the camera’s inability to render smooth, judder-free motion. It’ll be fine in a pinch, but important life events deserve better.

With a 6-inch screen and a $200 price tag, the ZTE Grand X Max+ is tempting. After all, the very fact that a 6-inch smartphone exists for this price is incredible. Its battery is an absolute beast, too, able to go longer than a day with ease. But what’s the point of those features if the rest of the phone leaves you wanting?

Even in the realm of budget smartphones, there are better phones available — like Motorola’s excellent Moto G — if you’re willing to pass on the gigantic screen.

Ultimately, the Grand X Max+ is not a long-term smartphone solution; it is a short-term compromise, and only fit for someone who wants a big screen, a long-lasting battery, and doesn’t care about the camera. But if that sounds like you, the Max+ might be a proper suitor.




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