ZTE Nubia 5 (unlocked) review: Solid unlocked value, but lacks LTE

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MSRP: $449.99

The Good The competitively priced ZTE Nubia 5 has a polished design, a sharp camera, and a crisp 1080p screen.

The Bad The handset lacks LTE and storage gluttons won't dig the device's lack of expandable memory.

The Bottom Line Although it doesn't have LTE, the ZTE Nubia 5's impressive specs and reliable performance make it a great value for an unlocked, high-end phone.

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7.3 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 7
  • Performance 7

Though ZTE has plenty of low- and midrange devices under its belt, the number of high-end handsets that it releases for the US are few and far between. So when the Chinese-based manufacturer launched the impressively souped-up Nubia 5 and made it available to US consumers online and through Amazon, needless to say, I was excited.

Compared with ZTE's most recent top-tier phone, the Sprint Vital, the Nubia 5 shows marked improvements: a faster processor, a slimmer profile, and a higher-resolution screen to name a few.

The device does have a couple of drawbacks, however. For example, it lacks LTE capabilities, and offers only 16GB of storage (which turns out to be about 9GB or so left of usable storage) without any option to expand.

But while these factors may keep the handset from being wholly comparable to the current flagships of other, more successful manufacturers (not to mention there's the highly anticipated Nexus 5 to factor in as well, which is expected to be as unlocked and global-ready as its predecessor), the phone still performs great, is reasonably priced at $450, and is a working testament to ZTE's determination to make a serious name for itself in the US.

The Nubia 5 has solid, high-end build quality. Though its aesthetic is nothing we haven't seen before (in fact, it uncannily looks like HTC handsets of recent past, like the Droid DNA or the Butterfly 2), I like its matte, rubberlike back, and the faux-metallic trimming along the phone's sides. Those accents lend a professional feel, and the way the top edge slightly tapers off is also a nice detail.

The device weighs 4.51 ounces, and measures 5.43 inches tall and 2.7 inches wide. It has a slim 0.29-inch profile. If you're like me and have a small grip, you may find the phone hard to maneuver with just one hand. True, the handset isn't noticeably any bigger than some others on the market, like the Samsung Galaxy S4, but it may seem somewhat tall inside certain pockets.

On the left and right edges are a narrow volume rocker and sleep/power button, respectively. Because both keys sit rather flush with the surface of the Nubia, it's difficult to find them by feeling around. Up top is a 3.5mm headphone jack and on the bottom edge is a Micro-USB port for charging.

The Nubia 5 has a trim, 0.29-inch profile. Josh Miller/CNET

The back of the smartphone houses a 13-megapixel camera with flash and two small clusters of perforations for the audio speakers. The camera lens, accented with a stylish red rim, bulges slightly outward from the surface. Because you can't disassemble the back, the 2,300mAh battery is nonremovable.

Equipped with a 5-inch IPS touch screen, the device's display is one of the sharpest I've seen on any ZTE handset. It has a 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution and 443ppi, so HD videos and images appeared crisp, and colors were accurately portrayed. Menu icons and text looked smooth, and the screen had a satisfyingly wide viewing angle. In addition, an issue I've often had with ZTE phones is finding their touch screens less responsive than they should be. The Nubia's display was sensitive and responsive to the touch; typing was accurate and tapping on items was a breeze.

However, the display could be brighter. Though it's indiscernible on a day-to-day basis, it was notable when I saw how much dimmer a video or a swatch of white looked on maximum brightness compared with on the GS4 and the LG G2.

Above the display is a 2-megapixel camera, and below it are three hot keys that light up red when in use. Although it's obvious that the middle circle button is the home key (which you can also long-press to launch recent apps), the other two keys are just small red dots, and their meanings aren't immediately clear. To clarify: the left calls up settings and the right is the Back key.

Software features
The Nubia 5 features a UI that has simple but sleek icons and menus, and lets you choose between a black and a white color themes. I like this UI more than the somewhat immature aesthetic of LG's Optimus 3.0 UI.

Oddly enough, the device doesn't feature an app drawer. Instead, you'll find all your apps in the pages of your home screen, where you can also organize individual app folders. While iOS users may not have any trouble with this, Android users will definitely find this inconvenient. The drawer allows users to have a clean, uncluttered homepage. Without it, your homepage will begin piling up with apps, and you'll inevitably end up having to swipe through several pages or create numerous folders just to get to them all.

ZTE Nubia 5 (homepage)
No app drawer here: similar to in iOS, all apps will be accessible only through the home page. Lynn La/CNET

The device runs Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean and includes the regular mill of Google apps you come to expect: YouTube, Search, portals to the Play Store for Books, Games, Magazines, Movies & TV, and Music, Chrome, Maps, G+ Photos, Hangouts, Gmail, and Google+.

You'll also get basic apps such as native browser and e-mail clients, a calendar, a notepad, a clock with alarm and stopwatch functions, a news and weather app, video and music players, a sound recorder, and a calculator.

ZTE also threw in some extra goodies, like an FM radio and a flashlight, a Smart Tag app that works in conjunction with the phone's NFC capabilities, Twitter, Facebook, the Kingsoft Office mobile office suite, Evernote, Dropbox, and the WeChat messaging app.

The phone has Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity, 2GB of RAM, and 16GB of ROM. Unfortunately, there is no expandable microSD card slot, so unless you start getting into cloud computing or transfer out your Nubia's contents every so often, there's the (likely) chance you'll run out of storage. Especially since those 16GB end up being more like 9GB of usable, formatted memory.

Camera and video
The device's 13-megapixel camera features a Konica Minolta sapphire lens and image stabilization. Though ZTE has made handsets with a 13-megapixel shooter before with the Sprint Vital, the Nubia's photo quality was much better. Check out the photos below and be sure to click each one for the full-resolution version.

ZTE Nubia 5 (indoor)
Even given the dim lighting, cups and other objects inside this Starbucks still come out clear. Lynn La/CNET
ZTE Nubia 5 (outdoor)
In this outdoor photo, these blown-glass figures are vibrant and sharp. Lynn La/CNET
ZTE Nubia 5 (closeup)
A close-up photo of this flower-print scarf shows plenty of detail. Lynn La/CNET
ZTE Nubia 5 (SSI)
In our standard studio shot, you can see the flash gives a blue cast to the white background, but objects remain well-defined. Josh Miller/CNET

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