ZTE Nubia 5S Mini review: A great traveling companion, but don't count on its camera
While not the photography powerhouse it's cracked up to be, the ZTE Nubia 5S Mini is a great contract-free smartphone.
ZTE's Nubia 5S Mini is something of a rarity among unlocked phones. It's a quad-band LTE phone with a quad-core processor, an attractive 4.7-inch display, and 5- and 13-megapixel front- and rear-facing cameras that ZTE claims offer "dSLR-like photography."
But you won't find any bloatware, the performance is strong, and when it's available from Amazon on August 27, it'll cost a mere $280. That's all great. But while the phone makes for an attractive prospect, its cameras don't measure up.
Design and specs
The irony of calling a device with a 4.7-inch display "mini" isn't lost on me, but phones -- especially Android phones -- are getting bigger, and that's great for folks like me who are cursed with gigantic hands. The not-mini ZTE Nubia 5S , by contrast, has a 5-inch display; I suppose that 0.3-inch makes all the difference.
The Nubia 5S Mini isn't at all unwieldy though: just 0.3-inch thick and relatively light at 4.5 ounces. The plastic chassis feels smooth, and it's very comfortable to hold. At 5.4 inches tall and 2.7 inches wide, it should also fit into most pockets with ease. It's something of a looker too, with soft curves and a thin bezel bordering that screen.
The bright white back is also eye-catching in an understated sort of way -- though I'd imagine that if anyone asked for the phone's name, it would be because the stylistic logo is actually indecipherable, at first blush. ("What's a 'nudio'?") A single speaker sits right underneath the logo, and the anemic, tinny sound it pumps out is dismal -- stick to headphones.
At 1,280x720 pixels, the display's resolution looks a little meager alongside the 1080p screens on phones like the Samsung Galaxy S5 or the Nexus 5 . Text is still plenty sharp at that resolution though, and images look crisp on the bright screen. Viewing angles are also quite good, and colors remained true no matter what how I held the phone. The Nubia 5S Mini's 312ppi display is just shy of the pixel density on Apple's iPhone 5S, which sits at 326 pixels per inch.
The Nubia 5S Mini's front-facing camera has a 5-megapixel resolution, which strikes me as quite a bit for a selfie-cam. A 13-megapixel shooter sits on the rear, alongside the LED flash. The camera offers all of the features you'd expect to find on a modern smartphone packed into three shooting modes, which you swap between by tapping a button on the display.
There's Auto mode, so you can just jump in and take photos. Fun mode offers seven different creative styles and even more effects to choose from -- this is where you'll find the burst mode, panoramas, and HDR photo shooting modes, for example.
Of particular interest is the "Clear Object" setting, which is supposed to analyze the scene you're shooting, and gives you the option to remove an offending item or person from the picture. I found it hard to predict what counts as a removable object unfortunately, and in shots with too many objects in close proximity, the shooting mode failed to find anything removable at all.
Pro mode is where I spent most of my time, as it's admittedly pretty cool. In Pro mode, a horizon level is superimposed right on the screen, so you can get everything in a shot lined up just right -- that's something I'd really like on my Nexus 5, or even my dSLR and Sony Alpha A6000 .
Hold the phone horizontally facing the ground while you're in Pro mode and that level turns into a compass. I'm not entirely sure why it turns into a compass, but I could get lost in my tiny apartment, so I won't begrudge its presence. More importantly, Pro Mode offers up focus and exposure locks when you're shooting pictures or video. When you want to get the perfect shot, direct control over the autofocus and exposure levels will prove invaluable.
The slew of options and modes to jump between is precisely where the camera falls apart. When you're shooting in Auto mode, you're pretty much at the software's mercy. Sometimes images turn out nicely. More frequently, highlights are blown, the autofocus struggles to keep with an active subject, or the exposure is off.
I can switch to Pro mode and take control of the situation, but I often found myself missing decent shots as friends and cats refused to sit still while I fussed with settings. To make matters worse, you actually need to cycle between the three shooting modes in order. If I want to take a Panorama shot for example, I need to get to Fun mode -- one tap from Pro, two taps from Auto -- then press the creative styles icon, and then select Panorama. On my Nexus 5, I'd just swipe in from the left.
If the shots were great, I'd scowl at the cumbersome interface and move on. But the shots are not especially impressive. Most of the images I took were plagued with noise, and devoid of finer details should you try to zoom in.
You'll never be in doubt about what the subject is of course, but the generally fuzziness around most of my images was far short of what I was expecting, and most of my pictures were taken on bright, sunny days -- optimal conditions for this sort of thing. The front-facing camera tends to wash out skin tones and isn't especially sharp either.
The camera shoots 1080p video and is admittedly an improvement over the still shots. The footage I shot was generally much sharper than my still images, but colors were still rather faded. The autofocus system also struggled in some clips: in the most egregious cases, the autofocus struggled to focus on my subject, flickering in and out of focus in a subtle but annoying way that's especially noticeable on a large display. I likely could've fixed the issue by locking the focus while I was shooting, but that isn't the sort of calculation one makes while trying to show your friends the very cute thing this cat is doing.
Software and features
The Nubia 5S Mini might throw Android fans for a loop, as ZTE has saddled the phone with a custom Android skin that changes quite a bit about the stock experience. To start with, there's no app tray. It's been a few years since an iPhone was my primary device, and I'd all but forgotten how cluttered things can feel when all of the apps you've downloaded are plopped right onto your home screens. You can of course just arrange everything into their own folders, but I also tend to use quite a few widgets, which complicates matters.
The Nubia's skin does offer a neat temporary tray you can use to organize apps. Press and hold on apps and they'll drop down into this tray, where you can move them to different screens en masse.
The phone is saddled with Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, which was released back in October of 2013. That's a bummer if you like saying "OK Google" to get your phone to respond to voice commands, just one of the many features introduced in Android 4.4 KitKat. Holding down the home button also activates the task switcher -- if you love Google Now, you'll need to access it from the Google search app.
Neither one of those changes will affect folks who don't use those apps, but they're two of my favorite Android features on my Nexus 5, and the ease of access is sorely missed.
Perhaps the greatest benefit of buying the phone unlocked on Amazon over getting it from a carrier is the near absolute lack of bloatware. ZTE has provided the WeChat messaging app, the very attractive File Manager and Calendar apps, the GameChoice app store, and a few tools like a flashlight and FM radio, but there's nothing you can't simply ignore or uninstall. That's maddeningly rare these days and a serious nod in ZTE's favor -- even my Nexus 5 has that HP Print Service plug-in I can only disable but not remove.
The 5S Mini packs a 1.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon processor, paired with 2GB of RAM, and offers 16GB of storage space. You can expand that storage with 32GB microSD cards, but the microSIM card tray and the microSD slot are hidden underneath the phone's backplate, which isn't ideal if you expect to swap those out often.
The 2,000mAh battery also isn't removable, but it held up well against days packed with Web browsing on LTE, streaming music to a Bluetooth speaker, and a fair amount of gaming -- for testing purposes, of course. On especially busy days spent traveling around the San Francisco Bay Area I would definitely seek a charger by the evening, but I never worried about finding an outlet when I was just making calls or checking directions with Google Maps. The phone is rated for up to 30 hours of standby time, and lasted an impressive 11 hours and 10 minutes during our lab test for continuous video playback.
The Nubia 5S Mini's performance is pretty good. Navigating around the home screens and in and out of menus is effortless, with nary a hint of lag. Ditto for firing up apps: I might gripe about the camera's quality, but it was up and ready to shoot within about 2 seconds of swiping up from the lockscreen, and slightly faster when I tapped the icon directly from the home screen.
Gaming performance was pretty good too. I tried out some relatively hardware-intensive Android games, like Dead Trigger 2, Real Racing 3, and Asphalt 8, and things chugged along smoothly. I did notice some dropped frames and the occasional bit of stuttering, but nothing egregious enough to sour the experience.
As I mentioned earlier, this quad-band LTE-capable phone is sold unlocked and will work on AT&T and T-Mobile's networks. I tested it on AT&T in San Francisco and Oakland, and download speeds generally hovered at about 8Mbps, though I occasionally saw faster -- up to 13.5Mbps -- as I roamed the city. AT&T's network can be spotty in some parts of Oakland, so always make sure you check coverage maps before settling on a carrier.
Call quality was excellent: I spoke to people across town and across the country, and their voices always came through loud and clear. I received no complaints about my voice quality, either.
ZTE is billing the Nubia 5S Mini as a great phone for folks who want to take great photos on a smartphone, but that's just not the case. Even my Nexus 5 -- a camera I turn to begrudgingly -- generally cranked out more satisfying shots than the Nubia 5S Mini, albeit at the Nexus 5's lower 8-megapixel resolution. The presence of Android 4.3 Jelly Bean as opposed to 4.4 KitKat gives me pause as there's no word on when an upgrade to the current version of Android might be due. That's especially worrying in light of the recent revelation of Android L.
I'm also not a fan of the Nubia's Android skin, but I'm a stickler for barren home screens and love saying "OK Google" to save myself the effort of swiping around on my phone. But then I come back to the price: $280 for an unlocked, LTE-capable phone with a fairly speedy processor is a great deal. And while there's only 16GB of storage space, that 32GB of expandable memory sweetens the deal.
As someone who loves to travel and picks up a local SIM card whenever possible, an unlocked phone is an absolute must for me. And I paid just over $100 more to get my unlocked 32GB Nexus 5 last year -- there certainly isn't a $100 margin between these two devices. With no word on when a Nexus 6 might rear its head I'd personally be hesitant to pull the trigger on the Nubia 5S Mini when it becomes available on August 27.
But if you want an attractive, capable, contract-free smartphone that will serve you well at home and on your next trip abroad, the ZTE Nubia 5S Mini will not disappoint -- especially if you've got a beefier camera on standby.