ZTE Nubia 5 (unlocked) review:

Solid unlocked value, but lacks LTE

For one thing, the camera operated much quicker (though if you're shooting in HDR mode, you will have to wait awhile for image processing), and images were well-defined and in focus. Though there is no obvious macro zooming function, close-up shots turned out detailed and sharp. Moreover, colors had more pop and were more accurate than with the Vital, and images taken in dimmer lighting still came out less grainy or "crunchy-looking."

One issue I had with the camera, however, was its lack of settings and customization. You don't have much say in terms of choosing your white balance, your exposure levels, your photo sizes, and so on -- options that are pretty standard on Android handsets. Of course, if you never were the type to really dive into these functions, you probably won't mind, but it's something to consider.

However, this doesn't mean the camera lacks editing features. Along with digital zoom and flash, the rear-facing camera has three shooting modes. For all your regular, informal shots you take on the daily, there's auto mode, which has HDR shooting and face-tracking. The more advanced pro mode includes a timer, a horizon leveler, and two guideline options: one that displays the rule-of-three grid, and another that shows the golden ratio spiral. Lastly, "fun mode" lets you apply 10 Instagram-esque filters to your photos. Aside from the zoom, the 2-megapixel front-facing camera has none of these options.

ZTE Nubia 5 (camera effects)
The pro mode (left) with its golden spiral guidelines, and the fun mode (right) with its photo filters. Lynn La/CNET

Additional editing options are built inside the gallery. Just tap the editing button when viewing a photo and there you can access more photo filters, rotate or crop the image, add text or frames, whiten skin tones, adjust sharpness, apply bokeh effects that shift focus, and even remove blemishes or acne on an image.

Video image quality was also on par with the camera. Images, both moving and still, stayed in focus with no visible pixelation, and lighting quickly adjusted as I shifted the camera's focus between objects in the background and foreground. I did notice, however, that audio was inconsistent. At times, recordings sounded fine, but some videos I shot had backgrounds that were entirely inaudible. Other sounds that were should have come off more prominently ended up sounding incredibly muffled, as if underwater.

I tested the quad-band phone (GSM 850/900/1800/1900) in our San Francisco offices using AT&T's network, and call quality was solid. Though voices came off a bit tinny or harsh (especially on maximum volume) through both the in-ear and audio speakers, none of my calls dropped. I also didn't hear any extraneous buzzing or noises, and audio didn't clip and out. When I tested the Nubia outdoors, my friend's voice sounded the same: clear and easy to understand. My friend did report that I sounded "far away" when I stepped outside, but she noted that it didn't render my voice incomprehensible and I still sounded fine.

ZTE Nubia 5 (AT&T) call quality sample

Listen now:

As I mentioned before, I used an AT&T SIM card to test the device, which includes checking out its HSPA+ data speeds as well. Though it's not LTE-enabled, the handset still clocked consistent and respectable times. On average, it loaded CNET's mobile site in 7 seconds and our desktop site in 13 seconds. The New York Times mobile and desktop sites took about 8 and 16 seconds, respectively. ESPN's mobile site took 8 seconds, and its full site loaded in 13 seconds. It took just 1 minute and 26 seconds to download the 37.61MB game Temple Run 2. For the life of me, however, I could not get Ookla's Speedtest.net app to run on this phone. I kept getting "network communication issues" with the app, even though I could easily browse the Web and download games all throughout my time handling the Nubia.

ZTE Nubia 5 Performance
App download (Temple Run 2) 37.61MB in 1 minute, 26 seconds
CNET mobile site load 7 seconds
CNET desktop site load 13 seconds
Power-off and restart time 61 seconds
Camera boot time 2.36 seconds

Powering the device is a quad-core, 1.5GHz Snapdragon S4 processor. In general, the handset runs smoothly; simple but necessary tasks like launching apps, flipping through the home page, and calling up the keyboard were all executed swiftly. In addition, playing the graphics-intensive game Riptide GP went off without a hitch, and the motion graphics played fluidly.

However, there were times when I saw that not all the icons would immediately appear when I returned to the home page, or the handset would pause for just a split second when switching from landscape to portrait mode. On average, it took about a minute for the phone to reboot and 2.36 seconds for the camera to launch. In addition, Quadrant results showed a score of 5,286. This is comparable to results from midrange devices like the Samsung Galaxy S3 Mini (which scored 5,764) and the Motorola Electrify M (which clocked in at 4,924).

ZTE Nubia 5 (camera effects)
Quadrant results for the Nubia show a score of 5,286. Lynn La/CNET

Anecdotally, the 2,300mAh battery lasted adequately long. Though it can survive overnight on standby, it wasn't able to last a workday without a charge when I used it intermittently throughout the day, with screen brightness cranked up to the maximum level. During our battery drain test for continuous video playback, the phone lasted only 4.92 hours. According to FCC radiation measurements, the handset has a SAR rating of 0.225W/kg.

With its small amount of internal storage, lack of LTE, and inconsistent video-recording performance, the Nubia 5 isn't perfect. If you can wait, it's probably smarter to see what the unlocked Nexus 5 has in store since it's expected to be a global-ready and reasonably priced phone as well.

But if you're in the market for an unlocked phone right now, the Nubia 5 is a solid choice. Sure, there are cheaper options -- the Nexus 4 is currently priced at $250, and you'll undoubtedly get more reliable performance and faster OS updates with that handset. However, as far as quad-core, 1080p devices go, the Nubia 5 is great. Not only are its specs on par with what you see today in high-end devices, it also comes with a low $450 price tag. Compared with the unlocked HTC One or Galaxy S4, which cost $599 and $649 respectively, the Nubia is an obvious value.

And even though ZTE has a long way to go if it wants to be a top contender in the phone market, this device is definitely a step in the right direction. No matter how well (or not) the handset ends up selling, it's still great to see ZTE raise its own bar for the quality and performance of its devices.

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