With a string of carrier-commissioned and cheap unlocked handsets, ZTE has been struggling to work its way into the U.S. market. The same can actually be said for most areas outside of Asia and its home country of China, as ZTE has tried to expand its mainland success out into the rest of the world. It can likely be said that the unveiling of the Grand S LTE was its best shot back at CES in January of this year, but that launch was generally fumbled and the device really didn't make any waves.
But as the Grand S finally makes its way to the U.S. in an unlocked form sold directly by ZTE, another handset with similar specs but a new design has emerged — the Nubia 5. With a nice display, simple look and an adequate spec sheet, the Nubia 5 actually seems as though it might have a few things going for it. And at $450 unlocked with a full U.S. warranty, it may just be a handset sold in the states that ZTE can be proud of. Read along after the break for our full review of the ZTE Nubia 5.
While no phone is just all about the specs, here's your breakdown of what's inside the Nubia 5 keeping things running:
When taking the Nubia 5 out of its svelte and well-made box, you won't be faced with a breathtaking design that is revolutionary in any way. But that's not necessarily a bad thing — ZTE has put a few little pieces of flair into an otherwise structurally sound and thought-out design with the Nubia 5.
This isn't breathtaking design, but it's well executed
Starting off on the front, you'll find a 5-inch 1080p display surrounded by adequate bezels, with a set of sensors and front-facing camera at the top, and a trio of capacitive keys on the bottom. Edged around the screen is a single piece of brushed metal that makes its way down half of the sides, and meets up with a soft touch coating that covers the rest of the phone. The band is only broken on the sides by a plastic volume rocker and power button, as well as a headphone jack on top.
The black soft touch material feels fantastic in the hand, and is very reminiscent of the HTC One X and Nexus 7 (2013) in both feel and quality. The material does tend to pick up quite a few fingerprints, but provides just the right amount of grip and great feel in your hand. The back plate design is generally simple, with a pair of speakers at the bottom flanking a "ZTE" logo, and a big camera lens at the top. An LED flash and "Nubia" logo round out the features of the back plate.
We quite like the design of the Nubia 5 — with its simple, clean lines and basic black, silver and red color scheme it looks very svelte. Build quality backs up the first impressions as well. Seams are tight or nonexistent on the Nubia 5, and the entire device feels extremely solid. The screen meets the metal band smoothly, and the transition between materials is spot on.
The only flaw here we can find is in the use of capacitive buttons
While we see how it fits into the overall aesthetic of the device, the one design feature we would change on the Nubia 5 is the capacitive keys. The red dots are interesting, as is the pulsing home button, but you're getting a subpar experience having hardware menu button in this age of Android design. Furthermore, the buttons give you no indication of their function — they're both just dots, which can be confusing at first — and make it impossible to get to Google Now without hitting the "Google Search" app manually.
We're really stretching to find flaws with the Nubia 5's physical design though, this is a great design worthy of coming out of any top-tier manufacturer today.
On the inside, the Nubia 5 offers a decent set of radios to get you up and running on AT&T and T-Mobile (or any of their MVNO partners) here in the U.S.
Unfortunately if you pick up this device you'll be limited to just HSPA+ 21 for either network — no HSPA+ 42 or LTE available here. It's hard to fault ZTE for not springing the money for LTE in a $450 unlocked device, but in late 2013 there are certainly other options out there that do include LTE or at least HSPA+ 42.
ZTE has historically offered pretty nice displays on its devices, and when you get up into this price level the panels start looking even better. The Nubia 5 is rocking a 5-inch 1080p IPS display, and we found it to look quite nice compared to any other phone in its price class out there today. At 440 ppi you'll never see individual pixels, and viewing angles seem to hold up to off-axis viewing as well.
Not the best brightness or colors, and a non-removable screen protector is pointless
We found the color balance to be off just a little bit, with whites not quite standing out as much as you'd expect from an LCD.
Part of this may be due to the Nubia 5's factory-installed screen protector, which like the ones Sony has been using isn't supposed to be removed by the user. The design of the phone is meant to include the full-front screen protector, which likely cuts down on some of the visual quality of the display. When you remove the factory-installed screen protector things improve just a bit, but by the looks of it ZTE is expecting you to keep it on the screen.
Raw brightness of the display wasn't top-notch either when compared to other high-end devices, but again at this price point the display performed better than we would expect. In normal usage, we didn't notice any glaring issues here that would make us run away — you're still getting more than what you paid for in display quality here.
In a land of phones being released with Android 4.2 or 4.3, and with 4.4 ready to hit Nexus devices in the coming weeks, ZTE is still shipping the Nubia 5 with Android 4.1 on-board. Now of course it's hard to show a perceptible difference between 4.1 and 4.3 to the average person, but it doesn't make us very confident in ZTE's ability to keep this phone up to date, nor does it instill confidence in how much time was spent preparing the Nubia 5's firmware.
Launcher and interface
To its credit, although it is running just Android 4.1 the Nubia 5 has a consistent software design throughout the OS. The biggest customizations come in terms of a new launcher, which follows the design language found in other Chinese manufacturer's phones. Very similar to the offerings of OPPO and Huawei, ZTE's launcher ditches the traditional app drawer for a set of home screens that hold all of your apps, and use the leftmost home screen as your primary screen.
A consistent design, but one that has a few visual miscues that we didn't care for
The design of ZTE's first-party app icons match the rest of the software but are generally off-putting, and the clear boxes put around apps you download just don't make much sense to our eyes. Luckily the launcher is quick to swap out for something more "traditional" if you'd like, and you won't see any downside to doing so.
The rest of the interface is pretty simply designed, with everything in a similar place to what you're used to on any other phone. The settings and notification bar have been re-skinned in different colors and subtle tweaks, but the main functions of the system are pretty much unchanged from "Stock." Out of the box you're given a choice of a light or dark theme, which changes the look of the launcher and settings screen as well as some dialogue boxes.
Based on the size of the massive camera pod on the back of the Nubia 5 you expect something impressive in terms of imaging, and you are definitely getting something high quality here. Inside that camera bulge is a 13MP f/2.2 Sony CMOS sensor with a five-element lens, accompanied by a single LED flash.
A basic camera interface with a core set of features that work well
In terms of interface, ZTE has kept things pretty basic. Your primary camera mode is "Auto," which simply gives you two options — toggling HDR and face detection. You can always tap to focus and expose, but the shutter is relegated to an on-screen button, which can be tapped once for a single frame or held for a burst mode. The gallery groups burst shots into one folder, which you can then use to make animated GIFs, a clever little addition.
You can flip over to a "Pro" mode, giving you the option to shoot panoramas, add grid lines and a timer, but you won't get any options to adjust white balance, ISO, or any other advanced features. A "Fun" mode gives you a selection of live filters for your photos. We noticed a couple wonky lock ups of the camera app when resuming it after an initial launch, but they seemed few and far between.
Pictures and video
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The Nubia 5 took impressive photos in HDR mode, with good color balance and fast capture times
Keeping the Nubia 5 locked into HDR mode, we were impressed by what the camera was capable of, even in some grey and foggy weather up here in Seattle. Colors popped just the right amount without seeming unnatural, and when using tap-to-focus we always seemed to get accurate white balance and exposure for the scene. Having 13MP of resolution to work with we found little grain or noise in photos, which is a plus.
Shutter speeds (and therefore capture time) seemed good even when in HDR mode, but autofocus did seem to be slow unless you prompted it to choose a spot with tap-to-focus. Video quality from both front and rear cameras seemed good as well — right on par with other phones that capture 1080p with a similar sensor — but audio quality while recording video seemed to have trouble managing levels.
Using the Nubia 5
Once we swapped out ZTE's stock launcher for our own and made a couple tweaks to the system settings, we felt right at home using the Nubia 5 as our daily device. Both in terms of how it fit in our hand and the way we navigated the interface, there wasn't much of a learning curve to getting used to using this phone.
Performance was good overall, but inexplicably slow in some apps
Performance seemed about on par with high-end devices of the same specs released throughout the end of 2012, but we still found a few troubling hiccups. While getting through the interface was generally a smooth affair, some animations and loading of certain settings screens just hesitated enough for us to notice. Popping up the multitasking menu was especially slow at times, as were the animations and actions therein.
Inside most apps the experience was solid, but a few apps were inexplicably slower than the rest in scrolling and load times. Google+ and Facebook had a noticeably low frame rate when scrolling, but most web pages seemed to keep up with our actions in Google Chrome. Games performed extremely well, however, making the intermittent performance struggles even more curious. Perhaps the inclusion of a 1080p display on this level of hardware is just too much for the CPU and GPU to handle in some apps, but there doesn't seem to be a consistent reasoning behind the slowdowns.
Besides the random performance hiccups, the software seemed relatively stable. We experienced only a couple app force closes and freezes — nothing out of the ordinary for any other phone.
There's no reason to have separate partitions on a phone without removable storage
A quick note on the storage capacity of the Nubia 5 — while the tech specs may list 16GB of storage, that doesn't tell the entire story. In a bit of an "old school" approach, ZTE has partitioned the storage of the Nubia 5 into two portions, a 2.63GB "system storage" partition and a 9.04GB "internal storage" partition. The internal storage acts pretty much like an SDcard would, except there's no expansion option here.
We had issues with unmounting and remounting that internal storage to be accessed by a computer, causing some apps to lose files and folders. There's really no reason to partition internal storage, especially when you don't offer SDcard expansion, and we wish ZTE would've just given access to everything in one big partition instead. Nobody needs USB Mass Storage that bad.
With just a 2300mAh battery inside and a 1080p LCD on front, the Nubia 5 had us a bit worried as to how the battery life would turn out. Fortunately, the worries were generally unwarranted. With our casual usage of the device that includes mainly keeping up on email and social media apps, along with some casual gaming and podcast listening, we averaged around 15-18 hours of usage, including 2+ hours of "screen on" time. Comparing to other handsets, we found the battery life most comparable to that of the Nexus 4, which makes sense considering the similarity of internal specs.
Battery life isn't a cause for concern, but you won't be going over 20 hours on a charge
Naturally when stepping out of the house onto mobile data and cranking up the screen brightness to 100 percent, the battery dropped quite quickly. When we ventured out to take some picture and video samples, pinging the GPS and keeping the camera on often, we dropped to 50 percent battery in about 3 hours — not always the most confidence inspiring, but not unexpected during heavier use.
ZTE surely isn't up to speed on battery life like other 2013 flagship devices, which all regularly pushed over 20 hours of usage in our tests. But considering its price and generally 2012-esque spec sheet, we're not surprised by the battery life here. It isn't a cause for concern in the least, but don't expect amazing longevity out of the Nubia 5.
After spending over a week with the device, we think ZTE has put together a pretty impressive package at $450 unlocked for the Nubia 5. The build quality and materials on offer are higher than the price point, and while the design is simple it is effective in giving off a high-end look and feel. Camera quality is great as well, and although ZTE stumbles a bit with its software and is only offering Android 4.1 out of the box, it's hard to find too many faults in its execution of software design or performance.
The Nubia 5 is basically 2012's flagship device repackaged and sold at the end of 2013, with an unlocked price to match what it has to offer. Again at $450 it competes quite nicely with other high-end devices that regularly retail for $150 more, and for the price-sensitive consumer looking to pick up a solid phone it's hard to recommend against having the ZTE Nubia 5 on your short list.
Unfortunately as October comes to a close there's another phone that is also likely to be on that short list — the yet-to-be-announced Nexus 5 and its expected pricing of $349 unlocked. But if you're not necessarily one that is persuaded by what a Nexus has to offer and want a good "bang for your buck" unlocked device, have a look at the Nubia 5, we think you'll be impressed.
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