ZTE's ZMax Pro dares to break the $100 smartphone barrier: hands-on from the launch event


The economics of smartphone manufacturing exhibit a fantastic trickle-down effect, where the components that helped build even the highest-end, most expensive flagship-class phones just a few short years back have now become commodified to the point where it's no sweat at all for a manufacturer to use them in some of the most affordable phones you can find. And as we noted when reviewing the new Moto G4 and Moto G4 Plus, there's a fantastic amount of competition in the budget space where phone makers are eager to show who can build the highest-performance, most premium-feeling phone at a price that's practically giving the hardware away. ZTE may have just set the bar in this regard, as today the company introduced its stunningly affordable ZMax Pro for MetroPCS.

Following the ZMax and ZMax 2, the new ZMax Pro pushes the family to new phablet heights, with a six-inch 1080p display. The phone runs a Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 chip – a popular model with some of the better-performing mid-rangers out there – and comes in one storage configuration, getting 32GB of flash memory alongside 2GB of RAM. There's support for microSD expansion, and a 3,400mAh battery promises more than a day of solid talk time. The handset recharges over USB Type-C, though it's worth noting that this still uses an older USB 2.0 interface – no 3.0 here.

For imaging, ZTE's given the ZMax Pro a 13MP main camera with phase-detection auto-focus, joined by a 5MP front-facer for selfies. And around back you'll find a fingerprint scanner for all your authentication needs.

That all adds up to some decent-sounding hardware, and it's easy to draw comparisons to phones like those Moto G4s we just mentioned, which the ZMax Pro sounds like a slightly larger version of.

But then there's the price.

It's almost a shallow thing to put front and center as a new phone's primary selling point, but what a price! While those Moto G4s started at $200 (and even then you wouldn't have 32GB storage or a fingerprint scanner like ZTE's got here), the ZMax Pro easily undercuts that. Not by $25, and not by $50. Instead, MetroPCS is going to sell the ZMax Pro for what works out to just under $100 after instant rebate.

There have been plenty of sub-$100 phones before (and such models helped keep Windows Phone alive for as long as it has been), but we're not talking about 720p displays or Snapdragon 200-series chips here. The ZMax Pro is designed and built like a phone that normally goes for a lot more.

Sure, it's not some metal-clad ultra-high-end flagship, but it's not trying to be – instead the ZMax Pro is what sure feels like a decent $200 phone – only one where some poor retail clerk messed up and posted the wrong price tag on the shelf.

ZTE still has some work ahead of it in making the new ZMax a huge success, and while carrier involvement in general is usually a good thing for phones, MetroPCS is hardly the most illustrious brand – even parent carrier T-Mobile might have been an improvement. But with pre-registration open now ahead of early August availability (and register quick for the chance to score a free leather case), we're nearly about to see if this ZTE/MetroPCS teaming has what it takes to convince shoppers of the ZMax Pro's fantastic value.

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