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

ZTE aims for a top-tier smartphone with the unlocked Nubia 5, and mostly hits its target.

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Lynn La
Lynn_La2.jpg

Lynn La

Senior Editor / Reviews - Phones

Lynn La covers mobile reviews and news. She previously wrote for The Sacramento Bee, Macworld and The Global Post.

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6 min read

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.

ZTE_Nubia_5_35828376-4344.jpg
7.3

ZTE Nubia 5 (unlocked)

The Good

The competitively priced <b>ZTE Nubia 5</b> 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.

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.

Design
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.

The Nubia 5 raises ZTE's bar (pictures)

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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

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.

Performance
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:

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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.

Conclusion
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.

ZTE_Nubia_5_35828376-4344.jpg
7.3

ZTE Nubia 5 (unlocked)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 7
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