ZTE ZMax Pro review: A budget-friendly behemoth of a smartphone

While budget-conscious phones are getting better, the ZMax Pro feels stuck in the past.

ZTE has already shown us how much phone you can get for $200 with the Grand X Max 2 for Cricket Wireless. And now, in a bid to outdo itself, ZTE takes aim at the $180 price point with the ZMax Pro for T-Mobile users.

The ZMax Pro boasts a six-inch HD screen, expandable storage, fingerprint sensor, USB-C, a 13-megapixel rear camera, a 5-megapixel front shooter, 2-gigabytes of RAM, and a Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 processor.

Is the ZMax Pro enough phone for the budget-minded T-Mobile user? Let’s take a look.

Can we stop, now?

zmax pro screen on Jason Cipriani

For a 1080p display, the ZMax Pro looks just fine.

At some point, the madness of manufacturers trying to outdo one another with a bigger phablet has to end. We’ve seen Samsung reach 5.7-inches on the Note7, but the company made admirable efforts to minimize the overall footprint of the device, making it feel smaller than it truly was.

At 6-inches, the ZMax Pro is huge. “Yuge” even, with ZTE doing very little to try and hide its bulk.

It’s a difficult device to hold with one hand, and doesn’t fit in my jeans pocket. Nor does it fit in my car’s cupholder.

As someone who admittedly didn’t get the fad of bigger-screened smartphones at first, I now love them. But at some point, this has to stop. I propose it stops with the ZMax Pro.

The ZMax Pro’s saving grace is the grippable material used to cover its back, making it easier to hold on to than if the company had used smooth plastic—a mainstay on inexpensive smartphones.

On the right side of the phone are the power and volume buttons, with the SIM tray and microSD card holder on the left side. The fingerprint sensor is located on the back of the device, which is actually a convenient spot considering how big the phone is and the hassle it’d be to constantly reach down to the bottom of the screen with your thumb to unlock it.

I suppose if you have really big hands, the ZMax Pro is a good fit. For nearly everyone else, it’s too much phone to handle.

Small tweaks

zte zmax pro press and hold screen to unlock Jason Cipriani

You have to relearn the unlock process with the ZMax Pro—remember, leave your finger on the display!

The ZMax Pro runs Android 6.0 Marshmallow with ZTE’s own tweaks and customizations. Part of those customizations include things like swiping left on an alert to disable notifications from an app or swiping right to clear the alert. Or long-pressing on the lock screen to unlock the device, instead of swiping to either side or up as is the case on almost all Android devices.

Beyond those two annoying changes to how Android typically operates, the amount of customization done by ZTE to the ZMax Pro is minimal, such as app icons reskinned with a cartoon-like flair. There's minimal bloatware installed on the ZMax Pro, with the typical T-Mobile listing of apps and little else.

Performance

zte zmax pro usb c port Jason Cipriani

It’s nice to see phones on the lower end starting to adopt USB-C. The quicker everyone moves over, the better.

The ZMax Pro's benchmarks put it near the bottom of the list when it comes to performance. Typically, benchmarks don't tell the entire story when it comes to a phone; real world use does. But in this instance, the low bar set by the benchmark results were mirrored in daily use.

Performance hiccups were most noticeable when I had multiple apps open and switching between them. On one occasion, I was switching between apps and needed to open Chrome. I tapped on the icon, and waited at least two-seconds for the phone to begin to respond. I actually began to question if I even touched the app icon, and then it opened... slowly.

For its size, the ZMax Pro has a relatively small battery at just 3,400 milliamp-hours. That's nearly the same size battery the Google Pixel XL has, at 3,450mAh. You can get through an entire day of moderate use on the ZMax Pro but not much more.

Camera performance was also slow, with the time to focus and actually take the picture taking too long. In well lit environments, the end result is an acceptable picture. However, in low lit scenarios the camera is really bad.

The first photo below was taken with the ZMax Pro, on automatic. The second photo was taken a few seconds later with the Google Pixel XL, also set to automatic.

zte zmax pro photos of emoji

A dark, dreary dog is really not dark or dreary.

google pixel xl photo of emoji

He's really happy, and full of color.

The ZMax Pro photo is dark and grainy with nearly no color. The Pixel XL photo is bright, vivid, and has plenty of color.

Not enough bang for the buck

zmax pro back of phone

An all-around nice phone, just not enough oomph.

While the ZMax Pro performance meets the minimum expectations of a $179 smartphone, it doesn't do anything to go beyond that. In other words, this is a budget phone where I felt like you are getting what you pay for. Unlike the similarly-priced Moto G4 line, where at the end of the day you kind of feel like you ripped Motorola off by paying so little for a phone with performance that exceeds its price tag.

That said, a budget phone with a 6-inch display is few and far between. And if having a giant screen is of utmost importance, and you're tightly price-constrained, then the ZMax Pro is a worthy contender.

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