ZTE Nubia 5S Mini review: A great traveling companion, but don't count on its camera

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MSRP: $279.99

The Good ZTE's attractive Nubia 5S Mini offers fairly speedy performance for a great price, and it's unlocked, too.

The Bad The Nubia 5S Mini is running on Android 4.3 Jelly Bean, and its cameras aren't all they're cracked up to be.

The Bottom Line Smartphone photography buffs might be disappointed, but the ZTE Nubia Mini 5S is a capable, budget-friendly unlocked phone that should prove great for travel.

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7.7 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 7
  • Performance 7

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.

The logo is illegible, but the phone is rather svelte. Josh Miller/CNET

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 camera's features are plentiful, but poorly organized. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

Note the general fuzziness on this brightly lit close up of a flower. Nate Ralph/CNET

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.

Locking the focus and exposure helps, but fine details are still lost on the stems of these tomatoes. Nate Ralph/CNET

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.

San Francisco is obscured by the fog, but any details in the trees are muddled by image noise. Nate Ralph/CNET

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.

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