I finally left Virgin Mobile!

Ah, the ZTE Max XL… the phone they should have named the “ZTE Max RD”, ‘cos you need to reboot it daily! Gather ‘round children, and let me tell you the story of the phone that was so bad it finally made me quit Virgin Mobile!

I got the ZTE Max XL last Christmas. And it seemed pretty awesome at the time – a Qualcomm Snapdragon 435 octa-core processor, a 6” 1080×1920 screen, a 13 MP camera, a 3990 mAh battery, a fingerprint sensor on the back, all wrapped up in some Nougat 7.1 deliciousness! And the thing was only $125 on Virgin’s site! Sounds killer, right? What’s not to like?

ZTE Max XL
(pic via Virgin Mobile)

Well, plenty.

For one thing, the screen is glitchy. Do you remember when a VGA cable would get loose or start to die, and if you brushed against it with your foot, you’d get weird streaks or other artifacts on the screen for a second or two? Yeah, the ZTE Max would often do that when playing YouTube videos, or when I’d play my slot machine games. It wasn’t especially bad – maybe 1 or 2 very short glitches during 30 minutes of game play or video watching – but it was certainly enough to make me worry.

And speaking of “worry”, the entire time I owned this phone I worried constantly about the battery. I’ve never owned a device that ate battery quite like this phone. After charging overnight on my nightstand, I’d wake up, unplug it and spend 15 minutes or so checking my email, catching up on headlines, and seeing what was going on with Reddit. And it wasn’t uncommon for that short usage to drain the phone to 92% or so. Yes, the phone used 8% of a charge just by using Outlook for Android, Google News and Weather and Relay for Reddit for 15 minutes. But that’s better than what I got doing chores: I like listening to music while doing dishes, and 35 minutes of Spotify + Bluetooth headphones could easily eat 20% of a charge. It got to the point where I’d eat dinner and let the phone charge back up to 100%. Then I’d do the dishes, only to watch the battery drain from 100% to 79% in a mere 35-45 minutes. It also didn’t help that the phone had the battery percentage RIGHT THERE on the notification bar, with no obvious way to disable that feature. It was almost like it was taunting me: “You want to listen to the new Sylvan Esso album? Hahaha! That’ll cost you 10% of this charge!”

You might have noticed I said “Outlook for Android” in the previous paragraph. That’s because almost anything Google-related on the ZTE Max did not work once the phone reached a certain amount of uptime.

I noticed this almost immediately – the native Gmail app would simply stop syncing with Google’s servers. I’d wake up in the morning and my inbox would be exactly the same as when I went to bed. I’d have to manually refresh the app to get new mail, and even then it only worked half the time. I’d have to reboot the phone to get it syncing again. And still, it might only work for an hour or two before syncing would stop. Outlook for Android – though not without its own problems – at least handled the basic task of “push email”. And, for the record, Outlook for Android has some nice features, like the ability to choose what swiping left or right does to messages, and it has a built-in calendar that’s “good enough” that I could uninstall Google Calendar. So… good for you, Microsoft.

But that’s just one way Google services failed on the ZTE Max XL. For some reason, Play apps simply would not update once the phone had been on for a certain amount of time. You’d check the app store (I don’t think the ZTE ever once actually notified me that there were updates) and you’d be given a list of updates, just like you’d expect. But if you tapped “Update All”, the first app in the list would change to “Downloading…” and that was it. Four hours later, you’d check the phone, and that first app was still downloading. Oh, I tried all the obvious fixes – killing and restarting Play Store, killing and restarting Google Play Services, clearing cache, clearing cache + data on both apps – but the only thing that actually worked was to reboot the phone: once the home screen came up, you’d see the apps start updating in the notification bar. Even then, though, the phone was ridiculously slow. I have a Nexbox (an Android TV box), and one day I updated both devices at the same time. I was amused to find that the Nexbox was able to update 8 apps (including Spotify) in less time than it took the ZTE to update just Spotify on my phone.

But that’s not all. I’ve tried a dozen news apps over the years, but the one I keep going back to is Google’s “News and Weather” app. For all its flaws, it’s the app that works for me. Only, it didn’t always work on the ZTE Max. I guess it’s somehow related to the other Google issues, but often News and Weather would simply stop updating, and the only way to fix it was to – you guessed it – reboot the damn phone. Sure, you could kill the app, but that wouldn’t help. You could delete cache, but that didn’t help, either. You could delete data, but then you’d have an app that still wouldn’t update, only it had lost all my location and news preferences.

And then there was the issue of getting multiple text messages. This is a known problem with the phone – you can find many people complaining about it online, even in ZTE’s community forum. It’s also mentioned in several Amazon reviews. It didn’t always happen, but when it did it was annoying as all get out. I have my Amazon account set up to text me when orders are delivered. One night, I got SEVEN identical text messages letting me know that an order had arrived. And, for maximum annoyance, they just didn’t come one after the other: the first came as expected. Another came 47 minutes later. The next one came in 24 minutes after that. The next one came in 82 minutes after that. And so on. I guess I should consider myself lucky: some people reported getting the same text message 20-30 times!

But none of this was as frustrating as the 3 times the ZTE Max didn’t even work as a phone. Smartphones are just small computers, right? Like all computers, apps can get hung up or develop memory leaks and whatnot, so that the whole system slows down and gets “laggy”. I assume the “phone” part of Android is simply another app on the phone, albeit one with high system priority, which is why a phone call can interrupt other tasks, like watching YouTube videos or listening to Spotify. Except, there were 3 times when the phone was so slow that the “phone app” didn’t work as designed. A friend called, but none of the buttons worked. I couldn’t answer him in time. After a couple minutes the phone seemed to regain composure, so I tried calling him back. But the “phone” app just froze… only to try and call him after I’d given up and put the phone down. Insane. While I’m here, I guess I should also mention that the alarm clock would sometimes go off 10 minutes late, I guess ‘cos the phone got hung up on something else.

All this would be one thing if Virgin Mobile’s Sprint-based service was great. But it wasn’t. It’s gotten better – when I first joined Virgin Mobile in 2009, I could not get any service at all – no voice, no text, no data, literally “No Service” – in my suburban Charlotte town’s downtown district. Now I could at least get voice service – and sometimes even data! – downtown. But I still got limited service at my local CVS and Chick-fil-A, despite that fact that both are located within sight of a major interstate. The missus and I often go to trivia at a popular restaurant in a nearby town… which is located in – you guessed it – another Sprint dead zone. And since Sprint uses such a high frequency (which has a tough time penetrating buildings) I almost always had very limited (or no) service in big box stores. I can’t even begin to guess at how many times I looked wistfully at people talking on their phones inside Walmart – almost every time I needed to call the missus for clarification on a Walmart trip, she told me that I was “breaking up” and that she “couldn’t understand me”. Or I’d finish my shopping and leave Walmart, only to get halfway home and receive a text message she’d sent 25 minutes earlier asking me to pick up some milk while I was there.

For all my bitching, Virgin Mobile was pretty good to me. I rarely had problems with the service at home – there’s a Sprint tower located almost directly across the Catawba River from my house. And I almost never had trouble inside the Charlotte city limits… it’s just too bad that I don’t go to Charlotte often enough to make it worthwhile. And I love that Virgin added Spotify to their “data-free music“ plan, meaning I could listen to Spotify via LTE all day long and not have it count towards my data cap. I’ll certainly miss THAT… but I won’t miss much else.

I found an identical plan (sans data-free music) from Total Wireless, a Verizon-based MVNO owned by the Tracfone\Straight Talk\Net10\SIMPLE Mobile\Walmart Family empire. And I got myself a Samsung Galaxy J7 Sky Pro. It’s older. It has Marshmallow. It can’t begin to compete, spec-wise, with the ZTE. But you know what? It’s been off the charger for five hours, I’ve used it for a half hour… and it still shows 100% charge! Amen to that.

EDIT: it just dawned on me that I didn’t even mention the specific reason why I ditched the Max XL! On Monday afternoon (3 days ago), I got an “Invalid SIM” error on the phone. I rebooted it and it worked for 5 minutes before the “Invalid SIM” message returned. I reseated the SIM and restarted the phone, but again got an “Invalid SIM” error within 5 minutes. I got in touch with Virgin’s tech support via Twitter, and they said they could order me a new SIM and it would be there “in a few days”. My GF got a Straight Talk Samsung J7 Sky Pro via a Black Friday sale last year, and she’s repeatedly mentioned its “awesome battery life”. So I checked Amazon and found a Total Wireless version for the same price she paid on Black Friday, available with free Prime Same Day. I was already weary of Virgin, and not having a phone for “a few days” while waiting for a new SIM was just… not an option, since Amazon could fix the whole damn problem in less than 12 hours.

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