Galaxy J7 Max review: An excellent budget phone held back by poor performance

India is an important smartphone market, and every manufacturer worth its salt knows that. Samsung has been particularly active at taking steps to cement its position in the country’s highly competitive mobile space, and the fact that Samsung launches devices exclusive to India (followed by launches in a couple of small neighboring countries) is a good indication of the company’s intentions.

Last year, one of these exclusive devices that hit India was the Galaxy J7 Prime. The J7 Prime brought many first-time features to Samsung’s budget Galaxy J lineup, features that people were expecting would debut on the globally available 2016 editions of the Galaxy J5 and Galaxy J7. The J7 Prime had a full metal body, a fingerprint sensor (one that is always active and doesn’t need to be pressed for device unlocking), and even a notification LED. It made for an impressive package that would have done well globally, but Samsung decided to keep its availability limited to Indian shores.

Galaxy J7 Max review: An excellent budget phone held back by poor performance

Now, less than a year later, the Galaxy J7 Prime’s successor has made its way to the Indian market in the form of the Galaxy J7 Max, with a price tag of. The Galaxy J7 Max is notable for being Samsung’s second Android phone to be powered by a MediaTek SoC, replacing the Korean giant’s entry-level Exynos chips that have been at the heart of most of its recent budget devices. It also brings back a feature that no one wanted: Smart Glow, which is a large notification ring around the rear camera that is supposed to be a better alternative to the simple yet always effective standard notification LED.

In other respects, the Galaxy J7 Max is similar to the Galaxy J7 (2017), although it gets more RAM (4GB vs. the latter’s 3GB) and higher storage (at least when compared to the J7 (2017)’s European edition). As I said in our hands-on of the device, the MediaTek chip (a Helio P20 clocked 2.39GHz) is a worrying aspect of the Galaxy J7 Max, as MediaTek processors aren’t known for their performance. But then again, neither are Samsung’s low-end Exynos chips, so real-life performance should be rather similar, right?

That’s one of the questions our official Galaxy J7 Max review will answer, along with a detailed look at other aspects of the device. Let’s get to it.

Galaxy J7 Max Review: Design

Galaxy J7 Max review: An excellent budget phone held back by poor performance

At first glance, you would be hard-pressed to tell the J7 Max apart from any other recent Samsung phone (well, except the Galaxy S8). But the J7 Max also looks rather handsome, at least on the black variant that I received for review. It’s a big device thanks to that 5.7-inch display, and its imposing figure makes for a visually appealing design.

At the back, Samsung has gone for a new design style that we haven’t seen on other Samsung devices. There’s this thin line running across the top and back and around the edges that would make you think the phone has a removable back, but that’s not the case. This is a metal unibody like all recent budget phones from Samsung, although the overall feel in hand is something like a mix of metal and plastic. The phone tends to stick well to my hand as a result, and the only issue I have is that the back can get visibly dirty with just a few hours of use.

Of course, the Smart Glow ring around the camera is another thing that stands out. Other things, like the ports and buttons, are exactly where they usually are on Samsung phones. The loudspeaker is placed above the power button, similar to the J7 Prime and 2017 versions of the Galaxy A series phones.


Galaxy J7 Max review: An excellent budget phone if you can look past the lag and stutter

It’s disappointing that Samsung didn’t complement the handsome looks of the Galaxy J7 Max with a Super AMOLED display. The LCD display on the J7 Max isn’t bad. In fact, it’s one of the excellent panels I’ve seen on a budget phone. It’s a Full HD display (5.7 inches in size) so the sharpness is spot on, and the contrast and viewing angles are also impressive. Maximum brightness is where the display falls behind Samsung’s AMOLED panels, although I didn’t actually have issues making out things on the display out in the harsh Indian sunlight.

Still, it just doesn’t feel right that Samsung isn’t offering a Super AMOLED display on the J7 Max, despite keeping it a feature on the more mainstream Galaxy J handsets. Unsurprisingly, there is no support for Always On Display, which is offered on the Galaxy J7 (2017). Overall, the screen on the J7 Max doesn’t disappoint, but an AMOLED display would have made the deal notably sweeter.

Smart Glow

Galaxy J7 Max review: An excellent budget phone if you can look past the lag and stutter

Well, this is where the J7 Max differentiates itself from other J series devices launched this year. The Smart Glow notification ring was introduced on the Galaxy J2 (2016) as an alternative for the standard notification light (which was offered on the J7 Prime but isn’t there on the J7 Max). It’s a nifty idea, especially given Samsung offers a great deal of customization for the ring’s colors, but it’s a useless feature for anyone who doesn’t keep their phone upside down.

Smart Glow on the J7 Max works exactly as it did on the Galaxy J2 (2016), so I will simply point you to the latter’s review if you need more details. Again, it’s a feature that won’t be handy for anyone who doesn’t keep their phone upside down when it’s not in use. Samsung says it’s designed with college students in mind, but Smart Glow would be infinitely more useful if it were something around the home button. Or, well, Samsung could just do away with it and stick to a standard notification LED, as that hasn’t ever let anyone down.


Galaxy J7 Max review: An excellent budget phone if you can look past the lag and stutter

The Galaxy J7 Max has what Samsung calls an “f/1.7 flagship camera”. Confused? Well, so was I at first, until I realized Samsung is equating this camera to a flagship because it has the same low aperture as the cameras on the company’s flagships phones. f/1.7 is the lowest aperture you can find on smartphones, and compared to the usual f/1.9 cameras on Samsung’s budget and mid-range phones, the J7 Max’s camera manages to capture noticeably more light because of the reduced aperture.

I’ve already written about the cameras on the Galaxy J7 Max, on how the device brings a good camera experience to Samsung’s budget lineup, so I will try to keep it short here. The 13-megapixel rear camera on the J7 Max can take great pictures, at least when you consider the phone’s price tag. Photos taken outdoors in good lighting have plenty of detail, although the colors do come out a bit too dull at times, and Samsung’s camera app no longer tends to blur out images. The camera can take an extra second before responding once the shutter button is pressed, but I found it took shake-free photos for the most part, something I can’t say about the 2017 editions of the Galaxy A lineup.

At night, the f/1.7 aperture helps in letting in more light. Night photos and those taken indoors aren’t usually too sharp, but again, for a budget smartphone, the result is often very usable and of a higher quality than what one could achieve with Samsung’s former budget smartphone cameras. Naturally, shake creeps in extremely dark situations, so it’s best not to get too comfortable and a good idea to keep the phone as stable as possible when you’re shooting in extra dark conditions. Or, well, you can always turn on the flash.

Here are samples from the rear camera:

The selfie camera on the J7 Max is also a 13-megapixel sensor, with f/1.9 aperture. Photos aren’t as detailed as one would expect, but I found that selfies taken on this phone look quite clean, with barely any noise when lighting is good or when you’re shooting outdoors. Even indoors, the phone manages to grab plenty of light, with just a tiny bit of noise creeping in as one would expect. Thankfully, the front flash works wonders in improving selfie quality in poor lighting conditions, with the screen also turning white when the flash is on to further increase the amount of light that gets thrown on your face.

As for the camera app, it’s the same as the one found on the Galaxy S8 and S8+, with the floating camera button from the A (2017) series included. The J7 Max does have a unique feature that you won’t find on any other Samsung phone: Instant Share. With Instant Share, before you start taking pictures, you can add a couple of WhatsApp, Messenger, and other contacts to the camera app. Then, after you’re done taking pictures, you can hit either of the contact names on the screen, and the camera app will take you directly to the relevant app, with the images already added to that particular app’s share function.

The J7 Max also gets a dedicated camera mode that takes the help of Smart Glow to take selfies via the rear camera. You aim the rear camera at yourself, and if your face gets detected, the Smart Glow ring will flash once before a timed capture is initiated. Other modes on the camera app include dedicated modes for night and HDR photography, and also an Anti-fog mode that I wasn’t able to test out properly to see what kind of difference it makes. For the front camera, you get a wide selfie (panorama) mode, and you can also take images with sound of up to 9 seconds in length via the Sound and Shot mode.


Galaxy J7 Max review: An excellent budget phone were it not for the lag and stutter

Android 7.0 Nougat with Samsung’s newest user interface is onboard the Galaxy J7 Max. It’s the Samsung Experience UX that debuted on the Galaxy S8; there’s no Bixby here, but you have the new app icons and overall user interface that are found on Samsung’s flagship. Well, a blue light filter option is also missing, but that is probably an inconsistency issue rather than something Samsung will continue with other devices, as the Galaxy J5 and Galaxy J7 (2017) do have the feature.

Since this is the same interface as the S8’s, you get an updated launcher where accessing the app drawer is done by swiping up or down on the home screen, with the option to remove the apps button from the home screen dock. You can also disable the app drawer and put all app shortcuts on the home screen, giving you a higher degree of customization than has been seen on previous Samsung phones (even those that have gotten the Nougat update).

Elsewhere, the Galaxy J7 Max has many of the features that are now common across Samsung’s lineup, including support for themes, Multi Window multitasking, and Secure Folder. A new feature called Dual Messenger, which lets you use two different versions of the same social networking app so you can use different accounts, comes loaded on the J7 Max, and also other 2017 Galaxy J handsets. It’s exclusive to the J series, but will hopefully come to other devices in the future.

The J7 Max also comes with Samsung Pay Mini. It’s a stripped down version of Samsung Pay and only supports wallets (like PayTM and Mobikwik) and India’s Unified Payments Interface (UPI) service. UPI can be accessed on any feature or smartphone with a SIM card inside, but Samsung Pay Mini does make the process of using UPI a lot more convenient. Convenience, in fact, is what Samsung Pay Mini is about, and it can’t offer the usefulness of the full-fledged version of Samsung Pay.


Galaxy J7 Max review: An excellent budget phone were it not for the lag and stutter

If you follow SamMobile on a regular basis, you have probably stumbled upon this article I wrote about how Samsung’s software, which isn’t the most optimized out there, and a MediaTek processor are a match made in hell. Well, in case you didn’t, that article was about how the Galaxy J7 Max suffers from performance issues in less than a month of use. Since then, performance on this device has become even worse, and it’s something that simply negates all the positives of the phone in my opinion.

From taking a few seconds to unlock (especially when you open a notification from the lock screen) to getting stuck when I’m trying to take a picture after firing up the camera, the J7 Max can lag and stutter at the most inopportune moments. At one moment, things will be going smoothly, and at the next, you’ll find the phone taking its time to do what you’re asking it to do. Most of the stutters happen when you’ve been using an app or two for a while and suddenly go, for example, to the home screen or open the camera app to take a picture. Switching between two apps by double tapping the multitasking/recent apps key also makes the phone lag at times, taking away the benefit that the Nougat-specific gesture is supposed to offer.

Is MediaTek to blame? Is it Samsung’s software, which simply isn’t as optimized as other custom Android skins? Is it a combination of both, with Samsung possibly not fully capable of optimizing the MediaTek chip just yet? I have no clue, but I do know that this sort of performance during regular usage is not acceptable, and Samsung should have worked harder at optimization before releasing this device on the market.

Galaxy J7 Max review: An excellent budget phone were it not for the lag and stutter

Thankfully, gaming is handled with aplomb by the J7 Max, at least when you consider the performance problems of the general software. High-end titles like Modern Combat 5 and Asphalt 8 offer a playable frame rate as long as you stick to the default graphics settings. Multitasking also benefits from the 4GB of RAM, which is higher than the J5 (2017) and J7 (2017). The 32GB internal storage means you can install a ton of apps before the phone complains of low storage, and you also get proper expandable storage in addition to two SIM slots.

The Galaxy J7 Max has a quick fingerprint sensor, similar to the one that we saw on the J7 Prime. It’s always-on, so you don’t need to press the home button to unlock the phone, although, like any of Samsung’s phones, the fingerprint sensor can often fail at detecting your fingerprint. You also get facial recognition on the J7 Max; it doesn’t always work, and when it does, it’s not always too quick. It’s still nice to have, though, given the price tag of this phone.

Audio and Call Quality

Galaxy J7 Max review: An excellent budget phone were it not for the lag and stutter

The J7 Max has a pretty good external speaker. It’s loud and doesn’t notably distort at full volume – it’s so loud that a few folks in my office complained when the phone started ringing on an incoming call. It’s tuned towards high frequencies (treble); that’s not to say it totally lacks depth, but sometimes the speaker can sound a bit too shrill, especially in lower quality audio and video. But overall audio output from the speaker is impressive.

The supplied earphones are budget-grade, so don’t expect great quality when you plug them in. As always, there’s not a lot of depth to the audio output over the earphones, and it’s only the high volume that manages to stand out. As for call quality, I had no issues with the J7 Max at any moment. I could always clearly hear the person at the other end, and my voice also went through without trouble. Network performance was not a problem, either, with the phone managing to offer fast LTE speeds and catching on to a signal on either of my SIM cards.

Battery Life

Galaxy J7 Max review: An excellent budget phone were it not for the lag and stutter

A full day, with moderate to heavy usage. That’s the kind of battery life the Galaxy J7 Max’s 3,300 mAh battery manages to offer, both on Wi-Fi and LTE and with two SIMs inside, on most days. You can easily make it to the next morning and continue using the phone well into the afternoon with sparing use, but if you’re looking for two-day battery life, you will probably have to cut down on usage and maybe remove the second SIM card if you’re using one.

But again, the phone easily gets through a day no matter what, and slightly more if you use the built-in power saving modes. What you don’t get is fast charging. It doesn’t matter if you hook it up to a higher rated charger than the one Samsung supplies – the phone easily takes around 2 hours and 30 minutes to reach full charge.


Galaxy J7 Max review: Lag and stutter mar this otherwise great budget phone

Never before have I used a budget Samsung phone that does so many things well, even matching mid-range phones in some aspects. The camera is the best I’ve seen on any non-flagship Samsung phone in the last two years, the phone has a premium design with all-day battery life (and more, if you don’t subject it to heavy use all the time), and it gets nifty features like facial recognition.

Which is why it’s extremely disappointing that the J7 Max suffers from poor performance, even with not-so-demanding usage. You can never tell when the phone will start lagging and stuttering, and it makes for an irritating user experience. The performance issues are what you will have to live with if you intend to buy the Galaxy J7 Max. They are certainly dismissable given the other strengths of the phone, and if you can live with the lag, the J7 Max suddenly becomes an impressive budget phone in Samsung’s stable.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are quite a few alternatives from other manufacturers that you should take a look at. There’s the Moto G5 Plus, which also has a flagship-like camera (it comes with dual pixel autofocus, same as the Galaxy S8), and Xiaomi’s Redmi Note 4. Even the Nokia 6 will soon be releasing in India, although that device will only be made available via a flash sale model, meaning it won’t be too easy to get your hands on one.

In Samsung’s camp, the Galaxy J7 Prime is a better, cheaper alternative. It doesn’t match the J7 Max on all specs and its camera can be called strictly average, but again, for a lower price, it makes a lot of sense. If you can increase your budget, the Galaxy J7 Pro is also an interesting device, with the same camera as the J7 Max, an AMOLED display, a bigger battery, support for Samsung’s Always On Display feature, and even the full-fledged version of Samsung Pay.

But, if you have your mind set on the Galaxy J7 Max, it’s certainly a good phone to spend your money on given its list of positives. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you when the performance issues arise just a few weeks later and make you feel like you made the wrong decision.

Good cameras that defy the price tagAbysmal performance at times in regular usage
Solid design, good to holdNo AMOLED display
Competent, sharp LCD displaySmart Glow not useful for everyone
All-day battery lifeWhy is blue light filter missing?
Good quality output through speakerBattery life could have been better
Latest Samsung software
Dual Messenger is handy
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