ZTE Blade Z Max Review

We love our high-end, premium phones, but we’d be lying if we said we didn’t love a good deal, too. Last year, the ZTE Z Max Pro was just that — a giant 6″ phone with a 1080p display and extra features like a fingerprint reader. But, a lot changes in a year! In 2017, 1080p displays and fingerprint readers are expected, and even budget phones need to add a little more to stay in the game. ZTE did just that with the Blade Z Max by adding a dual camera and a larger battery, but at the cost of $30 increase in price. Fortunately, we think the phone does just enough to justify the extra cash.

Build

The ZTE Blade Z Max looks a lot like its predecessor, the Z Max Pro. It’s a little unclear from the name, but the Blade Z Max is the direct successor — ZTE is in the process of branding all of their affordable phones with the Blade name, hence the awkward name of this year’s model.

Somewhat appropriate, because as is inevitable for a 6″ phone, it’s a little awkward to hold! It comes with the territory. That makes it one of the rare times when we really appreciate a plastic build — it’s easier to grip securely and it’ll probably do better at keeping the internals safe in case of drops. ZTE also helped their case by switching from a smooth faux-metal finish to a textured surface on the backplate. Despite the plastic build, the back can’t come off, so the battery isn’t replaceable — fortunately, as we’ll get to later, the battery that’s in there lasts a long, long time, and should do so even when it inevitably starts to degrade.

There are some more changes on the rear besides the backplate. While the fingerprint sensor (still fast and responsive) is still centered near the top, there’s now two cameras instead of one, with the array moved to the top left along with the flash. All in all, it’s not as flashy as the Z Max Pro, but it’s a little more practical, even if the decision to put the fingerprint sensor on the back once again is sure to be a divisive one.

Performance

An interesting quirk we noticed about the ZTE Blade Z Max is that ZTE has moved from a Qualcomm Snapdragon 600-series chipset to a Snapdragon 400-series chipset — specifically, from a 617 to a 435. Like last year, the phone also has 2 GB of RAM and 32 GB of storage, plus a microSD card slot. When the phone was announced, we wondered what that chipset change would mean for performance — not much, it turns out.

The newer Blade Z Max scored 46545 on the AnTuTu benchmark test, compared to 47011 for last year’s model. There’s usually enough variance from test to test to make us think the two phone are roughly equal in terms of performance, and at this price, that’s probably fine. It’s a phone suited more for email, web browsing, and watching videos more than intense gaming or VR, so raw power is less important. Still, we are a bit surprised that the cost of the phone went up despite performance staying the same.

In practice, it performs about as well as we’d expect from a budget phone. It can handle the basics fine, but it can take some time to load certain apps or share photos. The lag never gets so bad that it’s distracting, though, and for the price what you get is pretty reasonable.

On the front, we’re still looking at the same 6.0″ 1920 x 1080 panel from last year, which is fine. You won’t get the sharper colors or clarity of high-end phones, but it’s still perfectly fine for watching videos if you’re not too picky.

Like we mentioned up top, one of the best improvements this year was to the battery. The ZTE Blade Z Max has a 4,080 mAh battery. That would be big enough to guarantee all-day use on even a premium phone — with the more modest specs of this phone, I found myself able to use it well into a second day without needing to charge. Even if you watch a lot of videos throughout the day, chances are you won’t need a battery pack with this phone.

Audio is a disappointment. Generally we’re willing to accept the lack of forward-firing speakers given the obsession with bezel cutting, but we at least look for speakers on the bottom edge as a compromise. The ZTE Blade Z Max just has a single speaker on the back, which is bad news for a couple reasons — the speaker is muffled when laying flat on a desk, and it can easily be muffled by your hand if you’re holding it. Even when unobstructed, the speaker doesn’t get very loud — Dolby has supplied their Dolby Surround sound processing, but with the weakness of this speaker, it’s hard to notice. But hey, there is a 3.5 mm headphone port!

Despite the move to a lower-tier chipset, the ZTE Blade Z Max does have a slightly better modem. Max download speeds are the same at 300 Mbps, but max upload speeds go up from 100 Mbps to 150 Mbps. In everyday use, the distinction is irrelevant. This also means we’re still looking at single-band Wi-Fi, so you won’t be able to take advantage of faster 5.0 GHz Wi-Fi networks.

It’s worth remembering that the Blade Z Max, like last year, is a MetroPCS phone. MetroPCS uses parent company T-Mobile’s network, so you’ll want to make sure T-Mobile’s network is strong in your area before buying. Also remember that if you buy a phone through MetroPCS, you’ll need to stick with them for 90 days before they’ll unlock your phone.

Camera

The camera is the biggest improvement on this year’s model, and the best justification for the price increase. Sticking a second camera on the rear isn’t cheap, and might just explain why the price went up despite the chipset switch. The phone uses a 16 MP sensor and a 2 MP sensor, with phase-detection autofocus and flash. On the front, there’s an 8 MP camera.

The main reason for having two cameras on the rear is to enable depth-of-field effects — bringing a subject into tight focus while blurring the background. For a $130 phone, I was pleasantly surprised at how the depth-of-field shots turned out! Granted, you’ll still want decent lighting, but I found that the camera software did a pretty good job at outlining subjects and creating natural-looking photos. There are some limitations, of course — if you’re going to take night photos, you’ll need to either be in downtown in a well-lit city or use the flash. Even during the day, you’ll want to make sure the sun is at your back if you want to take a good photo.

I do like how beginner-friendly the camera app is. If you’re not used to terms like bokeh, each camera setting in the options is accompanied by a picture showing a sample of the kind of photo you can expect. It makes things a lot easier for smartphone novices who just want to take great pictures easily.

Software

The ZTE Blade Z Max runs Android 7.1.1 Nougat out of the box, and as usual, ZTE doesn’t make very many tweaks to stock Android. You won’t find any redundant apps (there’s an email app and a gallery app, which are fine) or questionably useful widgets from the ZTE side, which is refreshing.

Unfortunately, like we mentioned above, the phone does rely on a carrier partnership — you bet there are some apps from that end. Still, it’s not too bad. There’s a MetroPCS news widget that can be removed, and most of the preloaded MetroPCS apps are dedicated to account management or useful features like visual voicemail. There are no third party apps to waste storage space, so all in all, we have to give credit to MetroPCS for keeping things light, too.

Read on for the verdict…

Verdict

As always, the big question is price — do the improvements on the ZTE Blade Z Max warrant an increase from $100 to $130? I tend to think so, although it depends on what you value in a phone. If you don’t care about taking pictures at all, I’m sure you could probably find an even cheaper phone that suits your needs. But, if you can’t spend much on a phone and still want to take pictures that you can be happy looking back on, The Blade Z Max is still a really good deal. I was skeptical, but the camera array does a pretty good job with depth-of-field effects, and pictures taken with decent lighting tend to turn out pretty well for the price.

ZTE found a lot of success by getting the well-priced ZTE Z Max Pro into MetroPCS stores last year. From what I’ve seen, the Blade Z Max should be no less successful — I’m not so sure I’d call it a must-upgrade for Z Max Pro owners, but if you’re in the market for a budget phone for any reason (and want a big one!), the ZTE Blade Z Max is an excellent choice. You can grab one online or in MetroPCS stores for $130.

Despite a price increase, ZTE still holds down the budget Android phablet fort with the $130 Blade Z Max.

The Good: Terrific battery life, pretty good camera for the price, not too many changes to stock Android, user-friendly camera app

The Bad: Poor speaker placement, speaker doesn’t get very loud

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