ZTE Boost Max: A totally capable mid-range phablet

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Michael Homnick

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The word “bargain” doesn’t have to have a negative connotation. There are a handful of mid-range to low-end phones I’d consider using for myself if my budgets was tighter, or if I was just trying on a phone for size. If I were in the market for a phablet-sized smartphone, the ZTE Boost Max would be a solid choice.

The ZTE Boost Max has plenty to boast about: a cool chassis, a bright 5.7-inch display, and an 8-megapixel camera that’s capable of capturing even the most mundane of Instagram moments. At $300 off contract, it’s a relatively low-priced handset for those who aren’t too concerned with having the latest and greatest specifications, but who’d appreciate having that bigger screen in a handsome chassis. 

Premium-looking, but affordable

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At first glance, ZTE Boost Max doesn’t look like a mid-range device.

The Boost Max is actually the ZTE Iconic Phablet announced earlier this year at CES, rebranded for the U.S. market. At 6.5 x 3.25 x 0.4 inches, it’s about half an inch longer than the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and about as big as I can handle phablet-type devices at this point. It’s not really fit for your pants pockets, unless you have particularly large or roomy pants.

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The ZTE Boost Max (middle) pitted next to the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 (left) and the LG G Flex (right). 

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...Yeah, it won’t find in your pants.

As mentioned, the ZTE feels more premium than other mid-range devices with its matte-gray plastic and all-aluminum backing, and it’s certainly more stylish than Samsung’s midrange 6.3-inch Galaxy Mega. You can snap off the top portion of the back to reveal a MicroSIM expansion slot, but there is no removable battery.

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You can pop off the top to reveal a microSIM slot, but there is no removable battery. 

ZTE inconveniently placed the MicroUSB port on the bottom left side of the Boost Max’s chassis. If you’re charging the device, it’s hard to use the phone for things like turn-by-turn navigation or watching a video. There’s also a dedicated camera shutter button toward the bottom of the right-hand side, which I found awkward to use. It would have been better placed halfway up the chassis, like on Nokia’s Windows Phone devices.

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It’s not a high-resolution screen, but it’ll do. 

At 257 pixels-per-inch, the Boost Max’s 5.7-inch IPS display has a higher pixel density than the Galaxy Mega’s 6.3-inch display with 233 PPI. It doesn’t have the best viewing angles, but the the vibrantly colored, clear display makes up for the fact that it’s not fully 1080p.

The specs are just alright

The Boost Max is fueled by a 1.2GHz dual-core Snapdragon 400 processor and 1GB of RAM. Though its internals are about a year old, this particular System-on-Chip (SoC) and its variants are beginning to see a comeback in several other mid-range devices, like the LG G2 Mini and Motorola Moto G. Rest assured that the ZTE Boost Max is in good company.

As for performance, the Boost Max often felt snappy—except when it didn’t. There were times where the interface would stutter while transitioning between apps. The lag was apparent as I switched back and forth between them, and especially when I tacked on a hefty number of active widgets to the Home screen. Prince of Persia: Shadow & Flame took longer than usual to load and simple animations were choppy as they were loading. 

But if you’re just interested in reading email, browsing the web, and doing it all on a bigger screen, the Boost Max’s processor will suit you just fine. Hardware junkies know where else to look. Also pay mind that the phone only comes with 8GB of onboard memory, but you can add more with the MicroSD expansion slot.

Battery life was a little above average, but not by much. The Boost Max’s hefty 3,200mAh battery pack managed 10 hours and 25 minutes before it petered our on our battery rundown test. That’s about 20 minutes more than the Galaxy Mega, and three more hours than the Moto G. 

A totally capable camera

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Snap a photo with the Boost Max’s totally capable 8-megapixel camera. 

The Boost Max’s 8-megapixel camera is typical of a mid-range device, but it’s perfectly capable for sharing those all-important moments with your vast social networks. It tends to work better on sunny days than cloudy ones, however. 

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At dusk, I had a hard time deciphering the objects in several photos because of the low exposure.

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The Boost Max fared better when there was ample sunlight out. Look at the colors!

Image sizes range from 640 x 480 to 3,264 x 2,448 pixels and you can utilize a variety of camera modes, including HDR, Panorama, Best shot, Low light, Macro, Sunset, and Landscape. I especially appreciated the Low light option and the end result wasn’t half bad.

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This low-light camera mode is pretty impressive. 

Nearly skinless Android

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A nearly skinless Android.

As far as Android overlays go, ZTE’s MiFavor UI could be worse. The Home screen and App Drawer have remained mostly untouched, but there are still a few quirks that will take some getting used to.

For instance, the Notifications shade gets crowded when you expand the Quick settings toolbar, or when there are too many notifications screaming out at you. There is no Slide to unlock, either; instead, you’ll have to long-press from the Lock screen. ZTE also followed in Samsung’s footsteps by requiring you to long-press the Home button to get to the app switcher, with the third hardware button remaining a dedicated Settings button.

Rest assured, there are a few neat features that come standard with MiFavor that aren’t total gimmicks. If you hold down the Back key, for example, you’ll launch the Smart Viewer pop-up for the split-screen mode. It’s similar to Samsung’s Multiview and works with any of the apps you have installed.

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Smart Viewer is pretty neat if you like to do two things at once from time-to-time.

ZTE also packed up the Boost Max with its own suite of apps, like a browser, email client, music and video player, calendar, and alarm clock. None of ZTE’s apps can be removed, though they can be disabled. Boost Mobile also included a few of its own applications, like the Boost Music store and Boost Zone, but you can uninstall those if you feel you have no use for them.

If only it wasn’t on Boost

It’s a shame that ZTE’s Boost Max is limited to Boost Mobile at the moment, because it’s a solid mid-range phablet.  I only ever experienced frustration with the Boost Max when I was trying to connect to the Internet. The network is typically geared for those who are looking for all-inclusive or pay-as-you-go plans, and it piggybacks on Sprint’s mobile network. While it claimed that 4G was prevalent in most areas, download speeds were achingly slow.

Overall, if you’re looking for your introduction into phablets and don’t want to fork over a whopping amount of money, the ZTE Boost Max is a great starting point. 

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