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Hands on: ZTE Grand X3

ZTE’s Grand X3 shows $130 goes a long way in the smartphone world of 2016

The $130 ZTE Grand X3, with its curved glass and big screen, proves cheap no longer has to mean nasty.

It’s now possible to buy flagship spec smartphones for less than $400, so it makes sense that the price of mid-range smartphones is also dropping; but the cheaper mobiles get, the worse they usually become. That rule of thumb doesn’t apply to the new ZTE Grand X3, which somehow manages to cost just $130 without a contract on the Cricket network, but comes with a solid spec list wrapped up in an attractive and solid body. We had the chance to try it out at CES 2016.

A slim, simple phone

The body may not be aluminum, but it’s slim at just over 9mm, and relatively light at 170 grams. Around the back is a textured plastic panel that feels way better than it looks in the pictures — think of it like a less course version of the sandpaper-like OnePlus 2’s rear panel, and you’re almost there. However, it’s around the front things take a very cool turn. The screen is covered in a 2.5D piece of glass, neatly curving around the edges and making the phone very comfortable to hold.

Related: ZTE Axon review

This is important. Cheap things are usually uncomfortable. Buy a pair of $10 sneakers and compare them to a $70 pair after a month’s worth of wear, and see which feels better. The Grand X3 isn’t expensive, but it doesn’t feel or look cheap when it’s in the palm of your hand, and that’s a huge step forward for low-cost smartphones, especially those bred exclusively for carriers. It’s not the first time we’ve seen ZTE have a go at covering both these bases. The old ZTE Blade S6 almost managed bring everything together, but ruined everything with a nasty, creaky plastic back. The Grand X3 does it right.

Respectable mid-range specs

There’s a big 5.5-inch, 720p screen under the glass, and it’s bright and clear. Any pixelation wasn’t obvious when we checked the phone out, but obviously it won’t display pictures in the same way a phone with a 1080p or beyond screen will. That said, it displayed the Android 5.1.1 operating system well, and we’re happy to report ZTE has left it almost completely standard, aside from a few carrier apps and slight visual tweaks. Plus, the big 5.5-inch screen is just about as fashionable as phone screens get. So if you’re envious of a friend’s LG G4 but can’t justify the cost, the Grand X3 will at least match it in size if not in resolution.

The Grand X3 isn’t expensive, but it doesn’t feel or look cheap when it’s in the palm of your hand

A Snapdragon 210 quad-core processor with 2GB of RAM powers the device, which certainly handled the OS without a problem, but we haven’t been able to play any challenging games or run any power-intensive tasks yet. That’s the same situation with the cameras — it has an 8 megapixel on the rear, and a 2 megapixel above the screen — but the rear cam does have autofocus, and the app seemed responsive in our brief test.

Related: ZTE wants your ideas to help shape future phones

While those specs don’t make the Grand X3 standout, the USB Type-C connector and fast-charging 3,080mAh battery are very welcome, as is a MicroSD card slot. Remember, this is a $130 phone, and there are devices costing a lot more than that with smaller batteries and the old Micro USB charging ports still on sale. There’s no fingerprint sensor, NFC, or anything really flashy; but for the price, we wouldn’t expect there to be. What we expect is what the Grand X3 seems to offer: great build quality, a strong design, and specs that won’t embarrass anyone. It sounds easy, but it’s not, and rarely does the result come in at such a competitive price.

Yes, you’ll need to go to Cricket to get one, but if that’s not a problem, the Grand X3 appears to be another low-cost winner from ZTE. Go and hold one to see for yourself, and prepare to be surprised by how much smartphone $130 can buy you in 2016.

Highs

  • Strong build
  • 2.5D glass
  • Big, bright display
  • Almost stock Android
  • Fast-charging USB Type-C connector
  • Low cost

Lows

  • Only for the Cricket network
  • Performance is an unknown