Affordable. Large, sharp display. HPUE support and dual-band Wi-Fi. Latest Android software.
Unimpressive camera performance. Limited internal storage. Bloatware.
- Bottom Line
The ZTE Max XL phablet on Boost Mobile delivers solid performance, a nice display, great network connectivity, and the latest Android software for an affordable price.
By Ajay Kumar
ZTE has been making a lot of big, affordable phablets lately, and the Max XL for Boost Mobile is no exception. $129.99 gets you a phone with a crisp 6-inch display, a capable processor, and the latest version of Android. It's also the first non-flagship phone to support HPUE, a network technology that allows for better coverage and faster data speeds on Sprint (and, in turn, Boost). All that makes the Max XL a terrific value for the price, and our Editors' Choice.
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Design, Display, and Features
The Max XL lives up to its name, measuring in at 6.5 by 3.3 by 0.4 inches (HWD) and a hefty 6.4 ounces. It's bigger all around than the LG Stylo 3 (6.1 by 3.1 by 0.3 inches, 5.3 ounces), and notably heavier than the metal-clad HTC Bolt (6.1 by 3.0 by 0.3 inches, 6.1 ounces). Even if you're used to phablets, you still might find the Max XL to be a bit unwieldy. It's too wide to reach across with your thumb, and a sizable bezel on the top and bottom make using it with one hand impossible, though the textured gray plastic back offers decent grip.
A pair of volume buttons are on the right side, with a clicky textured power button below. The top has a 3.5mm headphone jack, a USB-C port is on the bottom (still uncommon at this price point), and a SIM/microSD card slot is on the left. The microSD card slot worked with a 256GB card. The fingerprint sensor on the back is responsive, and also functions as a camera shutter key when you're in the camera app.
The phone has a 6-inch, 1,920-by-1,080 IPS display that's great for multimedia. It offers solid resolution for the size, packing 367 pixels into each inch. Text and video look crisp, with no noticeable pixelation, and viewing angles are good. With the brightness dialed up to maximum, the XL is easy to see in direct sunlight. There are several backlit capacitive buttons under the display for navigation.
Network Performance and Connectivity
Boost Mobile uses Sprint's network, so service is identical between the two carriers. The Max XL supports CDMA (0/1/10), GSM (850/1900MHz), UMTS (2/4/5), and LTE bands (2/3/4/5/7/12/25/26/41). Like the Stylo 3, it supports 2×20 carrier aggregation and automatically switches between 4G LTE and LTE Plus when available. Where the Max XL differs from the Stylo 3 is with HPUE—High Power User Equipment—which improves 2.5GHz coverage on band 41 devices on Sprint's network. In practical terms, this translates to better outdoor coverage strength and indoor signal penetration.
During testing in Midtown Manhattan, the XL largely matched the Stylo 3's speed, hitting 34.7Mbps down and 12.7Mbps up. But it pulls ahead in areas where network strength is poor. In a series of ten side-by-side tests, the XL regularly had connectivity in places the Stylo 3 didn't, and recovered from dead zones faster. If you use your phone in area with iffy Sprint connectivity, you want a phone that supports HPUE.
Additional connection options include dual-band Wi-Fi (2.4GHz and 5GHz) and Bluetooth 4.2. There's no NFC, but that's not a feature you typically find at this price point.
Call quality is generally quite good. Voices sound natural and transmissions are mostly clear, with only the occasional crackling or pop. Earpiece volume could be a bit louder, and the rear speaker is pretty tinny, but noise cancellation blots out traffic and other background noise.
Processor, Battery, and Camera
The Max XL is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 435 processor clocked at 1.4GHz. In the AnTuTu benchmark test, a measure of overall system performance, it scores 45,486, just ahead of the Stylo 3 (42,131) which has the same chipset. Compared with ZTE's older, Snapdragon 410-powered Warp 7 (26,882), performance is significantly better.
The phone's 2GB of RAM is enough to handle a decent amount multitasking without any slowdown. Performance is smooth overall, and demanding games like GTA: San Andreas are playable, but you'll occasionally experience dropped frames and sluggish controls.
Battery life is decent, but not as exceptional as its 3,990mAh capacity would lead you to believe. The phone clocked 5 hours, 15 minutes when streaming full-screen video over LTE at maximum brightness, which is less than the Stylo 3 managed (6 hours, 33 minutes). The LG X Power's slightly larger 4,100mAh battery ups the ante considerably, clocking 8 hours, 48 minutes. This is most largely due to the XL's bright, supersized display, which sucks up power much more greedily than smaller, dimmer screens. With more moderate usage, I never had a problem getting the XL to last all day.
The XL's 13-megapixel rear camera is a low point. It takes passable pictures in good lighting, but most shots tend to look a bit dull and grainy. On cloudy days and in lower light conditions, there was quite a bit of noticeable artifacting. Overall photo quality is similar to what you'll find on the Stylo 3, but I prefer the Stylo for its brighter colors and smoother post-processing. The Max XL does pull ahead somewhat thanks to manual controls, allowing you to adjust exposure, focus, shutter speed, ISO, and white balance to improve shots. But there's only so much you can do. The 5-megapixel front-facing camera is fine. Both sensors record in 1080p at 30fps, though video can be a little jittery.
It's rare for budget phones to offer the latest software. The Max XL is running the very latest Android 7.1.1 Nougat, the same build currently on the Google Pixel XL. That's impressive in and of itself, but what's even better is that the Max XL's UI is pretty close to stock. Aside from some minor additions in the Settings menu, like the ability to remap the capacitive keys, everything should be familiar to seasoned Android users.
ZTE's big win in the software department is somewhat tempered by a healthy dose of bloatware. There are 12 apps from Boost, five Amazon apps, Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, and NextRadio. Most of the Boost apps and NextRadio can be removed, but the rest can only be disabled. Even after you delete everything, you're left with a paltry 3.12GB of available storage. It's a good thing you get that microSD card slot.
For $130, the ZTE Max XL gets you solid performance, a big, bright 1080p screen, the latest Android software, and better connectivity thanks to the presence of HPUE. Compared with the aging and overpriced competition, the Max XL offers better overall performance at a more affordable price. Unless you're keen on using a stylus to take notes and want a removable battery, the Max XL has more to offer than the Stylo 3, and it's $50 less. That makes it the best budget-friendly phone you can buy on Boost Mobile, and our new Editors' Choice.
By Ajay Kumar Mobile Analyst
Ajay Kumar is PCMag's Analyst obsessed with all things mobile. Ajay reviews phones, tablets, accessories, and just about any other gadget that can be carried around with you. In his spare time he games on the rig he built himself, collects Nintendo amiibos, and tries his hand at publishing a novel. Follow Ajay on Twitter @Ajay_H_Kumar. More »
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