Boost MAX review: big phone, small performance
ZTE has never been a strong smartphone competitor here in the States, but it aims to change that in 2014.
Our own Jaime Rivera reviewed the Nubia 5 back in December, and he was rather smitten with the unlocked device from ZTE. The real question is: can ZTE keep building the momentum with quality devices for the US market?
That’s at least the plan with the Boost MAX on the Sprint MVNO Boost Mobile. It wants to provide a sufficient competitor to oversized devices like the Galaxy Note 3 for substantially less. With the exception of Samsung’s Galaxy Mega series, every so-called phablet to date has come with over the top specifications. But even the extra large Mega handsets came with steep price tags.
Is the Boost MAX worth the $299 price tag? More importantly, can it be what the Moto G is to the Moto X for the Galaxy Note 3? We’ve spent 14 days extensively testing the Boost MAX, and below is our take on ZTE’s prepaid phablet.
Video Review · Specs & Hardware · Software · Camera · Performance · Pros and Cons · Pricing/Availability · Conclusion · Scored For Me
Specs & Hardware
The design and build of the Boost MAX is easily the best part of the phone. At first glance, it reminds us of some legacy HTC smartphones, mainly because of the two-tone design with a matte finish at the top and bottom, contrasted by the metallic finish in the middle.
Once you pick the Boost MAX up, however, it’s quite clear this is no HTC. The metallic body is not metal: it’s a plastic housing which, for what its worth, had us fooled at first.
Despite the casing being made essentially entirely of plastic, the Boost MAX is no lightweight. It’s a massive 201g. Comparatively, the similarly-sized Galaxy Note 3 weighs just 168g. The Boost MAX’s dimensions are massive, too. It’s 160mm tall, 82mm wide, and 9.3mm thick. Again, for comparison sake, it’s 8.8mm taller, 2.8mm wider, and 1mm thicker than the Note 3.
In other words, the Boost MAX is big and heavy, even for a phablet. It’s actually closer in size to the Galaxy Mega 6.3 than the Galaxy Note 3, which has the exact same size display. That is likely due in large part to cost cutting.
There are some other oddities with the Boost MAX, too. With the exception of the 3.5mm jack and microphone, all of the ports and buttons are found along the left and right edges of the phone.
What’s so unusual (at least by today’s standards) about that is the micro USB port being located along the left edge, on the bottom. We’re not thrilled about its location, as it makes the phone somewhat difficult to use and charge at the same time. The Boost MAX also comes with a camera shutter key, opposite the microUSB port. Unfortunately, this shutter key is not a two-step key, so you can’t use the shutter button to focus before you shoot. Instead, you have to select focus and exposure on-screen, then use the on-screen button or physical shutter button to capture. Finally, the microSD card slot is found above the volume rocker on the left edge. Unlike most microSD card slots, which are intentionally easily accessible, the Boost MAX’s microSD card slot is only accessible via removal tool, not unlike many SIM slots.
Nitpicking aside, the Boost MAX is built exceptionally well for such an affordable smartphone. In fact, as far as build quality goes, we’d parallel it with the Moto G, which is saying something, even if the MAX is nearly double the price of the Moto G. So many affordable competitors have seriously failed in the hardware and design department.
In fact, the only two real complaints we have about the hardware are the touch responsiveness of the capacitive buttons on the face of the device and the display. We’ll talk more about the display in just a minute.
The internals of the Boost MAX are where this story takes a slight turn. We’ve seen underpowered hardware perform fantastically in the last 10 months. The Lumia 520 is easily one of the prime examples, as is the Moto G. Even the HTC First was a contender and received a glowing review from me, for such a seemingly unimpressive handset.
Inside, it houses a Snapdragon 400 MSM8930 SoC, which is composed of a 1.2GHz dual-core Krait CPU and Adreno 305 GPU. It comes with just 1GB RAM and a not-so-stellar onboard storage capacity of 8GB. Fortunately, that’s expandable via microSD. Its rear shooter is rated at 8 megapixels and the front camera is 1-megapixel. It has a massive battery inside – 3,200mAh. And it comes with standard connectivity: Bluetooth 4.0 LE, Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n, and LTE.
We originally reported that the LTE SIM card is embedded in the Boost MAX. It was only when we noticed the notch on the top right corner that we found the SIM slot. Pop off the top cover on the back to access the SIM card and your device serial number information.
The display, unfortunately, is the low point of the Boost MAX, particularly because a gorgeous display is typically a draw for a device this size. People want a larger display for a superior multimedia experience, reading, web browsing, and great visuals. A mediocre display really hurts the appeal of this device for us.
Measuring 5.7 inches diagonally, the Boost MAX display is a 720p IPS LCD panel.
At arm’s length, it doesn’t look so bad. And even up close on a colorful picture or home screen, it’s passable. Colors are relatively vibrant. But upon closer inspection, you will find pixelation around the corners of icons, widgets, and text; wide angle visibility isn’t great; and light leakage from the bottom of the display is visible on darker images. Worst of all, the display is visibly warm, making whites appear creamy, rather than true white. Blacks aren’t terribly inky either.
To those who aren’t pixel junkies, the Boost MAX display won’t look horrible. But UI elements are visibly fuzzy all throughout the software, and that’s not something we want to see, even on a budget smartphone.
All things considered, the hardware is great. The display fails to meet expectations and the specs aren’t the best, but the build quality is fantastic for a device which sells at less than half that of its competition. And for that, we commend ZTE.
The software situation could certainly be worse. The Boost MAX ships with a mostly stock version of Android. Unfortunately, that version of Android is not KitKat, but rather Jelly Bean version 4.1.2 – more than two versions behind the current Android iteration.
Kudos to ZTE for keeping the changes minimal, though. The main visual changes are the custom lock screen, the indicator dots at the bottom of the home screen and app drawer pages, the signal label, quick settings toggles in the notification shade, and the handful of custom ZTE apps, which replace some of the standard Android apps – Calendar, Calculator, Music, Email, etc.
There is some bloat which comes pre-installed on the Boost MAX, most of which can thankfully be removed. Boost’s own music store, Boost Music, provides a content library alongside from Google Play. Boost Zone gives the user app recommendations, account and device information, and other important Boost-related information. You will also find iHeartRadio, Full Share, Lumen Toolbar, Kingsoft Office, NextRadio, Scout, Sound Recorder, SoundTracking, Time, World Time, and TouchPal X pre-installed.
ZTE has also attempted to bring value to the Boost MAX and make the most of the enhanced multimedia experience people have come to expect of a larger device.
It comes with a Dolby Digital Plus EQ app to improve the rear loudspeaker sound quality. The Dolby app could certainly be better, however, as when setting custom EQ settings there is no visual representation of what you’re changing. Out of the box, the sound was admittedly pretty awful. But after blindly tweaking the settings within the Dolby app, we were able to noticeably improve the audio quality with Bose MEI2i earbuds plugged in.
And like many devices of similar size, there is a split-pane mode on the Boost MAX, which ZTE calls Smart View. It works much like Multi-Window on the Samsung’s Galaxy devices, but there are two notable improvements: there is a per-window mute switch to control which pane plays audio, and any installed application can be opened using Smart View.
We were upset to learn the Boost MAX ships with Jelly Bean, rather than KitKat, but we’ve been informed it will be updated to KitKat later this year.
The camera interface on the Boost MAX is strikingly similar to Samsung’s older camera interface found on the Galaxy S III and Note II, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s crammed with a lot of shooting modes and adjustable settings while still easy to navigate and figure out. There are 11 different effects with 18 different scenes, and plenty of settings to tweak for just the right shot.
The bad thing is, you will probably need to use those settings more often than not. In great shooting conditions, the Boost MAX’s camera was more or less average, though it has the tendency to wash out colors and err on the cool side. With an 8-megapixel sensor, the level of detail was fair.
Low light performance was par for the course, too. Noise and artifacts were prevalent, but we were surprised to see how bright low-light shots were. Low-light images still weren’t fascinating, but they weren’t the worst we’ve seen either.
For what it’s worth, the camera is as good, if not better, than other cameras on smartphones in this price range.
The biggest problem with the camera was not with the quality itself, but rather the shutter button and auto-focus mode. We had trouble locking focus on close objects, even after backing the camera up several times. Tapping to focus would lock focus, but it would lose focus upon hitting the shutter key. It often took several attempts to get a steady, in-focus shot.
The front-facing camera is yawn-inducing, but we’re not losing sleep over it. After all, it’s a front-facing camera. It will take very washed-out selfies with very low detail, with a max resolution of 1,280 by 720 pixels. Yes, even stills.
The effects of the Boost MAX running Jelly Bean are widespread. KitKat, which is optimized for running smoothly on lower-end hardware, would have been a perfect match with the Boost MAX’s specifications. The Snapdragon 400 on the Moto G – albeit a quad-core CPU instead of dual-core like the Boost MAX – runs virtually flawlessly. You can watch our comparison to see the great contrast in performance between the two.
We can, however, summarize the performance of the Boost Max in one word: disappointing. We’ve seen several Snapdragon 400-powered phones run just fine, even on Jelly Bean. But the Boost MAX is constantly stuttering, lagging, and freezing.
At times, the Boost MAX would run fine, sans lag. But it typically only took a few minutes of not-so-intensive tasks to slow the MAX down. Simply switching between apps would sometimes cause the phone to hang for a few minutes. Loading YouTube would sometimes take several minutes to load a video over Wi-Fi, while other devices on the same network had no trouble loading the same video instantly.
And all of this is without even firing up the Smart View software. To be concise, Smart View was a great thought, but the Boost MAX simply cannot handle two applications at once without quickly grinding to a halt. While shooting the video review and comparisons, we could order lag on demand.
The thing is, we don’t necessarily think it’s the hardware or even Jelly Bean at the root of the MAX’s performance problems. It ran graphic intensive games like Asphalt 8 with ease, and its performance in benchmarks was fair in comparison to the similarly-spec’d Moto G.
This wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen OEM customizations hinder performance, but we’re hopeful the incessant lag and hiccups are snuffed out in the forthcoming KitKat update. However, we’re not certain when it will arrive – only sometime later this year.
ZTE was also kind enough to send us a second unit, since we thought we may have simply had a defective unit. It arrived over the weekend. We used it for several hours, without installing any third-party applications, and experienced similar performance, albeit not as severe. And it persisted through installing our own suite of applications.
Both Boost’s and Sprint’s coverage maps for the Charlotte metro area show strong 4G LTE coverage throughout the entire area, but we spent the vast majority of our time with the Boost MAX on 3G coverage with only one to two bars of service. And data speeds have been abysmal, taking several minutes just to refresh our Twitter feed in Talon. Most of the times we attempted to run speed tests, the Boost MAX failed to connect to the server and would not complete a test. Of the few which completed, we got an average downlink of 0.40Mbps and an average uplink of 0.39Mbps.
Fortunately, call quality wasn’t terrible. Callers sounds relatively crisp, and I had no problems placing calls or disconnecting, despite the spotty service. And we had no complaints from callers about our own voice quality.
The rear speaker grill on the Boost MAX is large, and thusly, the speaker has a great deal of volume to it. The actual quality of the output is a tad tinnier than we’d like, however, and even the Dolby Digital Plus technology didn’t seem to help significantly when we adjusted the settings within the app. It improved the sound, but not tremendously.
Battery life, on the other hand, has been impressive. The 3,200mAh battery managed to power us through no less than a day and a half, but we often stretched to upwards of two days on a single charge through syncing three Gmail accounts; Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and Instagram notifications; taking dozens of photos; running benchmarks and speed tests; playing games, browsing the Web, and more. Note, however, we did spend far more time on Wi-Fi than we typically do with a review unit, and that may have been a cause for the two-day-plus stamina. Your mileage may vary, but we’re fairly confident users will only have to charge every day and a half.
+ Great battery life
+ Extremely affordable service
+ Nice design and build quality
+ Affordable no-contract pricing
– Incessant lag and performance issues
– Mediocre display
– Low RAM and inbuilt storage
– Comparatively large footprint
Pricing and Availability
The Boost MAX by ZTE launched on Boost Mobile late last month for $299. The prepaid pricing begins at $55 per month for unlimited minutes, text, and data, and over the course of 18 months, the monthly rate can shrink to as little as $40 per month.
However, Boost Mobile is currently running a promotion until March 31, 2014, where you can purchase the Boost MAX (or any eligible Boost smartphone) and activate it for the $35 per month promotional plan for the next six months.
Where does that bring us? We’re more hopeful for the future of this device than anything else. If it weren’t for the lag and performance hangs throughout our entire review period, we probably would have come away from this review a little more jazzed about the phone.
No, the display isn’t mind-boggling like some other devices in this size category, the storage is a bit low for our tastes, and the need for a removal tool too access the microSD card still boggles us a bit. But a few compromises are par for the course when building a budget phone. It’s important to remember how small Motorola’s profit margins are on a device like the Moto G, and the quality of that device shouldn’t take from the accomplishments ZTE has made with the Boost MAX.
For the price, the build quality is impressive, its battery life if fantastic, and the camera performance could have been much worse – that’s usually the first corner cut in a budget device.
So should you invest in the Boost MAX? If you’re after something solely for value, a device like the Moto G may suit you better. But if you’re looking to spend less and still get the phablet experience, the Boost MAX is your best option, which, after all, was ZTE’s goal. It isn’t perfect, but mission accomplished.