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ZTE Blade S6 review: An iPhone 6 lookalike at a budget price

Powered by an octa-core Snapdragon 615 processor, the $250 handset offers Android 5.0 Lollipop on the cheap in Asia and Europe.

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Aloysius Low
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Aloysius Low

Senior Editor

Aloysius Low is a Senior Editor at CNET covering mobile and Asia. Based in Singapore, he loves playing Dota 2 when he can spare the time and is also the owner-minion of two adorable cats.

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8 min read

The ZTE Blade S6 looks almost embarrassingly like the iPhone 6 , right down to the round edges and faux-aluminum rear (it's actually plastic). Missing only are the antenna band markings.

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6.8

ZTE Blade S6

The Good

The ZTE Blade S6 has decent hardware for an affordable $250 or £180. Frequent travelers will appreciate the ease of switching networks on the fly thanks to the dual 4G SIM slots, and there are some well implemented gesture features.

The Bad

While it resembles the iPhone 6, its plastic build quality feels cheap. The camera tends to take quite noisy pictures.

The Bottom Line

Though it looks like the iPhone 6, the ZTE Blade S6 feels like a cheap Android phone. However, its low price and some useful features makes this a viable choice for those on a budget.

Intended for Southeast Asia and Europe, the phone sells online at Aliexpress for $250 (which converts to around AU$320) with free shipping, and should soon be available in stores in India, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. It's also now available in the UK via eBay, for £180.

The Blade S6 exceeded my (admittedly low) expectations -- I'm not a fan of the design, given that most copycat phones from China tend to focus on imitating a popular design while failing on the software part. That said, ZTE has done well to get the software part right -- adding some useful gesture features -- and the copycat design makes the phone look refined and cool, even if it does feel like a cheap plastic phone at the end of the day.

Still, $250 isn't a bad deal if you're in the market for an iPhone lookalike but don't want to pay the iPhone premium. It's no iPhone though. At best it's a decently performing Android phone with some interesting features, a disappointingly plastic build and a poor camera.

It definitely shouldn't be your first choice, but if you're on a budget and looking for a unlocked phone with some design panache and interesting features, it's worth looking into.

Design

Let's be brutally honest here. The ZTE Blade S6 rips off the iPhone's design, to the point where I had friends asking me if I had started using the iPhone again. When they picked it up, however, they discovered two things: one, the phone feels much lighter than you'd expect, and two, it doesn't feel as classy as the Cupertino-designed handset.

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Which is which? Aloysius Low/CNET

The Blade S6 is slightly larger with a 5-inch display and thicker at 7.7mm. It's also no surprise to find that the phone's front glass display shares the same rounded corners as the iPhone 6.

You'll find the home button at the bottom of the display, a round circle that seems to invoke Apple's TouchID sensor (but there isn't one). There are two additional buttons, the back and menu, but these are hidden when not in use. You're able to switch the back button to either the right or left, too. These keys are touch sensitive and vibrate when tapped.

Turn the phone around and you'll find a faux-aluminum plastic rear. It feels cheap to hold, and there's even a "Designed by ZTE in California" marking, seemingly just to further emulate Apple. Located further up on the back is the 13-megapixel camera, and the placement's pretty similar to where you'll find it on the iPhone. As it's quite close to the edge, however, you'll have to make sure not to block it with your fingers when taking landscape shots.

On the left side, you'll find the microSD card slot and the dual 4G nano-SIM slots. Instead of having two separate trays for the SIM cards, the ZTE Blade combines both into one tray. The audio jack is located right at the top of the phone.

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Aloysius Low/CNET

On the whole, I didn't like the Blade S6's design. It seems to blatantly rip off Apple's thoughtful design process, which is not uncommon with some China-made phones. Other Chinese companies such as OnePlus and Xiaomi have already shown they are capable of being original, however, so it just seems to be bad form on ZTE's part. Furthermore, the liberal borrowing of Apple design elements means it's unlikely to be released in the US, where I suspect Apple would be more than happy to take legal action to defend its work.

Hardware and software

For a $250 phone, the Blade S6 is no slouch but it won't exactly set the world on fire, either. It packs a midrange 64-bit Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 octa-core processor, a 13-megapixel camera and 4G LTE dual-SIM capabilities.

Of course, to get hardware like that at this price point, compromises need to be made -- particularly the screen. It has a 720p display, not the 1080p resolution usually found on higher-end devices. This isn't necessarily bad, since it's usually very hard to tell the difference between these resolutions on a smaller device. The colors, vibrancy and viewing angles of the display are pretty good as well, so it's no loss here.

A closer look at the phone's buttons and the MiFavor UI. Aloysius Low/CNET

Internally, it has 2GB RAM and 16GB of onboard storage, and a microSD card slot as well. The phone is powered by a 2,400mAh battery, which is a tad on the low side these days (see below for my battery test).

Like newer phones released this year, the Blade S6 comes running Android Lollipop 5.0, but with a custom MiFavor 3.0 skin on top. The skin comes with its own color schemes, themes and the ability to change the animations of the home screen easily. The flat UI of MiFavor helps give the phone a little more style, but that's not all the ZTE has up its sleeve.

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The Blade S6's MiFavor UI has its own look, but keeps much of the Lollipop notifications and other elements, such as the dialer. Screenshot by Aloysius Low/CNET

To stand out from other Lollipop phones, ZTE has included a software tweak called Smart Sense, which are basically gesture commands you can use to quickly access certain features. Before you get all hung up over the custom skin job though, ZTE has kept some elements of stock Lollipop, such as the notification system and the dialer.

The Smart Sense features aren't turned on by default, so you'll need to enable them in the settings. From there, you can select the various features you want enabled. For example, shake the phone to turn the flashlight on and off, or raise the phone up to a landscape position and hit the volume up button to turn on the rear camera.

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ZTE has, however, added some custom elements such as gesture and motion controls. Screenshot by Aloysius Low/CNET

Some of these gestures aren't very intuitive, and don't really work unless it's done in a very specific manner. Here's a good thing though -- because many of the movement based gestures require you to hit the volume keys to activate, there's less of a chance to accidentally activate them.

Camera

The phone's 13-megapixel camera has the same Sony sensor found on the Xiaomi Mi Note, but it sadly wasn't capable of delivering pictures anywhere near as good. That said, the phone's camera does launch pretty quickly, so you can get right into the action without feeling like you have to wait.

ZTE has added a bunch of features to the stock Android camera software. The default setting is called Simple mode, which as the name suggests, is basically your default point and shoot. You can tap on the settings button to change how the camera takes pictures, such as HDR, panorama and a fun photo clear mode that tries to erase moving objects in your shot. It's there in the event you actually need to take a photo of something with moving objects that you prefer not to show (such as a continuous stream of people walking by).

If Simple mode's not for you, you can also switch to an Expert mode that lets you play around with ISO, exposure and white balance settings. I wouldn't bother with this unless you're an expert, but it's there if you feel up to it. The Blade S6 snaps pictures really quickly, but as with all smartphones, it doesn't handle motion blur well, so make sure your subject isn't moving too fast when snapping shots.

Images taken with the camera's default mode were noisy, and there's a general lack of detail at times. The camera's autofocus doesn't work in low-light situations, resulting in blurry lights that aren't accurate to the scene on hand.

Check out the test shots below.

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Even in the bright outdoors, there's still visible noise, especially near the metal railings at the bottom left. Aloysius Low/CNET

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I tried three times here, but I wasn't able to properly take a night shot -- the camera just refused to focus on the lights in the background. Aloysius Low/CNET

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Sometimes the Blade S6 manages to take a passable picture, but I'm still not too impressed, especially since the foreground focus is a little soft. Aloysius Low/CNET

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The camera manages to handle itself slightly better here, but the details are slightly muddy. Aloysius Low/CNET

Performance

I set the Blade S6 the Quadrant benchmark test and the octa-core Snapdragon 615 scored a mere 2,993. It's possible that there could be some bugs in either the OS or the chipset that's causing such a low score -- the Oppo R5 uses a similar Snapdragon 615 processor and scored 16,849. Anecdotally, however, the Blade S6 does run smoother than the Oppo R5 (which suffered from poor day to day use, likely due to the R5's software). On Linpack, the Blade S6 did a more respectable 514.229 MFlops -- what you'd expect from a midrange device.

Playing Asphalt 8, the game ran fine without any noticeable drop in framerate, adding to the evidence that the Quadrant benchmark score could be a bug. I did notice that the phone did get sluggish after some use, which could be due to a memory leak bug in Lollipop 5.0. Generally though, the Blade S6 handles well for day to day use, and you'll really only notice lag when you first boot up the phone, but it goes away almost immediately.

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There seemed to be a bug with the benchmark scores, though the phone ran fine. Screenshot by Aloysius Low/CNET

Battery

On our CNET Video Labs test, the phone lasted 11 hours and 15 minutes. From my own experience, the phone will last you just a day on the 2,400mAh battery. It's decent, but since the battery isn't removable, you'll want to carry a battery charger around with you if you're a heavy user.

Call quality and audio

I had no issues with the audio when making calls -- the other party came through crisp and clear. The speaker was also loud enough to be heard even when the phone was in my bag. However, while it's not a big deal given the compromises needed to keep the price down, the S6 Blade doesn't come with dual speakers.

Conclusion

ZTE's Blade S6 isn't the most original of devices, but it does offer a very affordable Lollipop experience, especially for those looking for an iPhone lookalike without the hefty price. The midrange hardware holds up well, and the custom UI doesn't overwhelm with features you may not need.

Still, I do wish ZTE gave more thought to the design, but perhaps emulating the best-selling phone in its home country will help it out somewhat. I have a feeling the Blade S6 will do well, but compared to say, the Oppo R5, the build quality of the latter impresses a lot more. That does come at a price though -- $449 compared to the Blade S6's $250.

If you're looking for something cheaper from Chinese manufacturers, perhaps Xiaomi's wallet-friendly Redmi 2 $120-ish smartphone could be a good choice as well. Lastly, if you're willing to fork out $40 more, last year's $299 OnePlus One will offer you flagship performance without breaking the bank.

The ZTE Blade S6 is a decent phone at a reasonable price. The dual SIM slot is a neat feature for travelers and the built-in gestures can be useful. If you can look past the cheap-feeling build and shoddy camera it's worth investigating, especially if you often travel to different countries. Otherwise, there are better cheap Android options out there.

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Aloysius Low/CNET

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6.8

ZTE Blade S6

Score Breakdown

Battery 7Features 7Design 6Camera 6Performance 7
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