The ZTE Blade V8 Pro is better than it has any reason to be.

I'm always a little shocked at how little people know (or care) about the Chinese companies slowly (and in some cases, not so slowly) eating into market share in the West. Through missteps and massive marketing campaigns, giants like Huawei and ZTE are encroaching on the feeling, if not the actual doorstep, of popular culture, largely because they have found success in their home country and feel it's replicable in the U.S.

But the powers that be are not ready to concede the traditional handset market to these agitators, at least not at the carrier level, so the likes of ZTE have to play the hand they have. And my, what a hand.

The quick take

The ZTE Blade V8 Pro is the series' first entry into the U.S., and it's a stunner. From the incredible build quality to the excellent performance and admirable camera performance, this is a phone that does not betray its $230 price point.

The Good

  • Excellent build quality
  • Snapdragon 625 gives effortless performance
  • All-day battery life
  • Restrained software touches
  • Competitive price

The Bad

  • Big and bulky
  • Dual camera setup doesn't improve photos
  • Ships with Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow with no timeline for Nougat

All this for $230?

ZTE Blade V8 Pro Full review

In these kinds of reviews, price is always the most important factor: What do you get for your money? At $229.95 unlocked, the ZTE V8 Pro is one of those phones that offers far more than its price tag would suggest, undercutting a significant portion of the entry-level smartphone market.

Its immediate competitors would seem to be the $229 Moto G5 Plus, which shares a Snapdragon 625 processor platform at its core, and the Honor 6X, which eschews Snapdragon for Huawei's own Kirin chipset. Let's take a look at the V8 Pro's spec sheet.

Category ZTE Axon 7
Operating System Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow
Display 5.5-inch, 1920x1080
LCD
Gorilla Glass 3
Processor Qualcomm Snapdragon 625
Octa-core 2.0GHz
Adreno 506 GPU
RAM 3GB
Storage 32GB
Expandable microSD up to 2TB
Dual-SIM Yes
Rear Camera Dual 13MP rear camera sensors
f2.0 lens
4K/30 video
Front Camera 8MP f/2.2
1080p/30 video
Battery 3140 mAh
Charging Quick Charge 2.0
USB Type-C
Water resistance No
Fingerprint sensor Yes, front home button
Headphone jack Yes
Connectivity Wi-Fi 802.11ac dual-band, Bluetooth 4.2 LE, NFC
GPS, GLONASS
Network GSM LTE Band B2/B4/B5/B7/B12
HSPA 850/1900/AWS/2100 MHz
Network CDMA N/A
Dimensions 156 x 77 x 9.14mm
Weight 185 g

Hardware

Generally, the spec sheet is in line with what one would expect from a mid-range device in early 2017, but ZTE has done a good job compiling the package into something cohesive. First, this phone is big: It resembles ZTE's other phones from the past year, but it's beefier, with a girth and weight that may keep it out of the hands of those looking for something more one-hand-manageable. Me, I like that it is substantial, because in its solidity is the presumption of reliability.

The Blade V8 Pro is big, even by big phone standards.

You'll be forgiven for not knowing much about ZTE's Blade line. While Motorola's been providing U.S. users with the affordable Moto G line since 2013, and Huawei's Honor phones have been optimized for U.S. carriers since 2016, this is the first time ZTE has broached the subject. But the company had a great 2016 and impressed me with its high-end-but-affordable Axon 7 — which has only improved since its release — and has since released a number of other great options, including the diminutive Axon 7 Mini.

But the Blade V8 Pro is not diminutive — it's big, even by big phone standards. And unlike the Axon line, there is nothing sleek about this. It doesn't hide its fingerprint sensor on the back, and it doesn't try to cut down on thickness. It's a truck and unabashedly loud about that fact. A fingerprint sensor is embedded in the front home button, a Galaxy derivative that works here; it's responsive and easily accessible, and while you actually have to turn on the screen to register a fingerprint unlock, I don't mind, since the mechanism is so well-built.

The phone's sides are made of aluminum, and the brushed finish feels more expensive than many phones double its price. The backplate, a rubberized plastic, feels a bit like the Kevlar finish on the back of the BlackBerry Priv but without the pretension nor the flex. I love the unabashed utilitarianism of the whole thing. A USB-C port sits in the middle of two identical cutouts on the bottom — one for the mono speaker and the other the microphone. A 3.5mm headphone jack lives on top, while the power and volume buttons are to the right of the phone's 1080p LCD display, exactly where they need to be.

Touch responsiveness is one of the most under-appreciated specs, and the Blade V8 Pro passes with flying colors.

Like its peers in this price category, the V8 Pro's display is not wantonly over-pixeled; at 5.5 inches, its 400 ppi pixel density is more than sharp enough. More importantly, its fundamentals are good: colors are not overly saturated nor off-kilter to my eyes but calibrated correctly. And touch responsiveness, an under-appreciated notch on a phone's spec sheet these days, is excellent. It also gets really bright — good enough to use in direct sunlight and better than many more expensive phones from just a year ago. The commodification of smartphone components is a wonderful thing.

The phone's home button also acts as a gesture control: You can program a particular finger (up to five can be stored) to open a particular app or initiate an action. While I would have preferred ZTE to blatantly copy Samsung's double-tap-to-open camera shortcut for the home button, being able to program my left thumb to do the same immediately after unlocking the phone is almost as good.

Camera

Around back, there are two 13-megapixel camera sensors, neither of which are of particularly high quality, but as you'll see in a moment, I was able to eke some impressive photos from the setup, and the artificial "bokeh" plus the ability to isolate particular colors directly from the camera app, yielded some fun, if not particularly impressive results.

The camera app itself launches quickly, and is nearly identical to the one that ships with the Axon 7 and other ZTE phones. It's not complicated in any way and does the job, with most of the essential modes within a single tap and a robust manual mode that allows for the tweaking of everything from shutter speed to focus.

As expected, the camera's only truly usable in daylight, with the small-pixel sensors pushed to their limits during difficult, low-lit nighttime scenes. Without optical stabilization, phase detection autofocus, or laser autofocus, the sensor relies on contrast between light and dark scenes to fix on an object, and while it has no trouble doing so quickly during the day, at night the lens tends to wobble between subjects. Nighttime scenes, once focus is fixed, are muddled and grainy but usable in a pinch; daylight scenes, on the other hand, are remarkably good for a phone of this price.

I also had a lot of fun shooting with the phone's dual camera mode; like Huawei's implementation in phones like the Honor 8 and Honor 6X, the phone has trouble differentiating between fore and rear subjects and gets easily confused by complex scenes with fences. These qualms are easily forgivable, though, since the fundamentals are so strong.

That said, there were more than a few examples of the dual-camera engine getting it absolutely dead wrong, to the point where not only was the photo rendered unusable, but it became very clear that ZTE has made very little effort to extract nuance.

Battery life

As for battery life, the Blade V8 Pro manages well over a day with its 3,140mAh cell (rechargeable in no time with Quick Charge 2.0 support and a USB-C connector) and Snapdragon 625 processor. This chip continues to be the workhorse of 2016 well into the new year, though we are anticipating a refresh in the form of the Snapdragon 626 in the coming months. Still, there's a clear advantage over the Kirin 655 inside the Honor 6X, and from tests I've seen elsewhere, the Blade V8 Pro outlasts Honor's latest mid-ranger despite a 6% smaller battery.

Software

The final piece of the puzzle is at once the most reassuring and disappointing: ZTE has outfitted the Blade V8 Pro with what it calls a "stock" version of Android, which largely means that it has made as few disruptive changes to the UI as possible. And that's true — the experience is pretty darn unfettered, and good.

But it's running Marshmallow. Android 6.0.1 with the December 1, 2016 security patch. This isn't redeemable and not something that I want to implicitly endorse by recommending this phone. That said, I have tried to find reasons to reject the phone outright for shipping with a version of Android approaching its second birthday and I can't; for most people, this phone does, and will do, everything it needs to. Moreover, being sold unlocked, it's not encumbered with carrier bloatware and all the other stuff that slows down the average Android build.

It's just frustrating that I have to be qualifying this review with such a phrase — that in March 2017, the same company brandishing Android 7.1.1 as a selling feature for its $399 flagship, the Axon 7, would ship a phone this good with software this old. After using the Blade V8 Pro for two weeks as my daily driver, there are only a couple of things I really miss from Nougat: in-line replies and stacked notifications; and proper display scaling.

Everything seems huge on this phone, since Marshmallow has no native way to shrink the objects on the screen to a manageable level. Beyond that, there's very little I can't get back with Nova Launcher and some proverbial elbow grease, but it's not a great position to be in.

Odds and ends

  • As far as the Blade V8 Pro operates as a phone, it's a dual-SIM product, the second slot of which also doubles as a microSD card slot. For American users, the additional SIM slot is likely superfluous, but the Blade V8 Pro is indeed a phone sold around the world, and there's no inherent downside.

  • The Blade V8 Pro's single bottom-firing speaker is quiet — not terribly so but annoying nonetheless. The headphone jack and earpiece are fine, and perform well.

  • The capacitive buttons to the left and right of the home button are reversible — they can stand in for either back or multitasking, depending on your comfort. While I'm not a huge fan of this type of setup, the home button is so clicky and responsive that, to me, it's worth it.

Get it

ZTE Blade V8 Pro Final Thoughts

This is probably the best experience with a $230 phone I've ever had, and that's saying something. I am really excited about trying the Moto G5 Plus, which has a similar spec sheet and newer software, but in the meantime I am really happy recommending this phone, which is, pound for pound, slightly cheaper than Motorola's latest mid-ranger.

Despite the phone shipping with Android 6.0.1, it has no real weaknesses, and though ZTE won't commit to an upgrade schedule, the Blade V8 Pro should receive Android 7.x Nougat in the next few months. Should. If that's too vague a timeline for you, I'd move on to something else. But if you want a near-flawless $230 unlocked phone that does a lot of things right, this is the phone for you.

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