Nov 22 AT 1:08 PM Brooks Barnard 7 Comments

ZTE nubia 5 review

ZTE nubia 5 feature-2

If you haven’t heard of ZTE, and you’re one who likes to go the unlocked device route, it may be time to take notice. ZTE is a Chinese telecommunications company, and by 2012 unit sales, it was the world’s fourth largest phone manufacturer. They’ve actually been manufacturing phones for carriers in the US for sometime, including prepaid carriers MetroPCS and Cricket. According to analysts, ZTE has been the fastest growing smartphone manufacturer in the US recently thanks to low-end smartphone sales. ZTE’s the big player in the mobile industry you’ve never heard of. Now, they’re ready to make a splash in the high-end market.

Enter the ZTE nubia 5. Released about a month ago, the ZTE nubia 5 became a player in the US in the unlocked Android device arena. This is ZTE’s first attempt to show the US market what they can do. ZTE released two devices at the same time, the nubia 5 and the Grand S. The nubia 5 is the higher-end model. I’ve had my hands on the device for about two weeks, and this is a full review of the ZTE nubia 5.

1. Hardware

Size: 5.42″ x 2.7″ x 0.29″
Weight: 4.51 oz
5″ 1080p FHD IPS LCD (443 ppi)
1.5 GHz Quad-Core APQ8064
2300 mAH non-removable battery
13 MP rear facing camera
2 MP front facing camera
Radio: GSM 850/900/1800/1900 UMTS 850/1900/2100
Wi-Fi: 802.11 b/g/n
Bluetooth 4.0

2. Design

I wrote quite a bit about the design in my first impressions post on the ZTE nubia 5. The nubia 5 is designed to impress. It has a non-removable soft-touch plastic back very similar to what you will find with the current Nexus series. You’ll find the 13 MP shooter protruding from the back. Around the camera is a beautifully styled red metallic ring, reminiscent of the HTC EVO series. Commenters from the first impressions post said it looks like the Droid DNA, and they’re right. Beneath the rear-facing camera is the LED flash, and then the name of the device, “nubia,” in shiny metallic letters. If you take a look at the ‘a’ in nubia, you’ll find another red circle, which is a consistent theme throughout the device. On the bottom of the back are two rear-firing speakers, which have great sound output.

Unlike the Droid DNA, the nubia has a brushed metal (it probably is just aluminum) frame for the sides of the device. Button placement is pretty standard; the power button is on the right side, and a volume rocker is on the left. On the top of the device, you have both the 3.5 mm headphone jack and the sim card slot. On the bottom you have your microphone and micro-usb port. On the top front of the device you’ll find your speaker grill and front-facing 2 MP camera.

The nubia 5 has three capacitive buttons on the front of the device. This is one of the places where the red ring theme comes into play. For the home button on the nubia, you have a red ring that also doubles as your notification light. To the left and right of the red ring home button, you have your back button (right) and menu button (left) both as just red dots. Neither of these buttons are obviously labelled as a back, menu, or home button. It didn’t take me long to get this figured out, but for a novice smartphone user this might be pretty irritating to get the hang of. The styling looks great, but it’s not immediately user friendly.

3. Build Quality

The ZTE nubia 5 has exceptional build quality. I feel like the designers of the nubia 5 paid attention to detail to created a device that feels great in the hand. I might be partial, but I’m a fan of the soft-touch plastic, and the nubia 5 has a very solid feel. No creaking. Buttons are nice and clickly. I have experienced no disappointments in the build quality department.

4. Display

The nubia 5 is sporting a 5″ 1080p FHD IPS LCD display with a pixel density of 443 ppi. Five-inch 1080p displays seem to be the new gold standard in the Android mobile industry of late, and this display is no slouch. With IPS LCD technology, you’re not going to see the deep blacks and heavy saturation as with Samsung’s AMOLED displays, but the nubia 5′s display is bright and crisp. I do feel like the colors were deeper compared to the Nexus 5′s IPS LCD display. Viewing angles are reasonable. It’s a really beautiful display, and I’m sure if you have the nubia in hand you’ll have very little to complain about.

5. Software

If I had to have a beef with the nubia 5, I would choose software as my least favorite part of the experience. It surprises me how well crafted the device is compared the software that, to me, feels like an afterthought. The launcher is fairly standard except for the fact that it has no app drawer. This will remind you of an iOS layout, where all installed apps will be added to a homecreen. This isn’t, however, where my issues lie; there are misspellings that I’ve found and grammar mistakes. Also, there are some features, such as new words being added when working with the stock keyboard, that are completely in Chinese. I know ZTE is a Chinese manufacturer, but this shouldn’t be an excuse. Samsung is Korean and I’ve never run into reminders of that. Lastly, I ran into issues with force closes and slow loading with the stock launcher when trying to return the home screen. This issues aren’t all the time, but they were there under normal use. If there is any caveat to these issues, it’s that there are plenty of replacement launchers out there that will work really well. About a week into my review, I switched to my usual Action Launcher Pro and had a very smooth experience with the rest of my time with the device.

Beyond the launcher, the lock screen continues the red-ring theme; press and hold the red ring to unlock the device. At first, I didn’t like having to press and hold to unlock the device, but I quickly got used to it. You can also swipe a camera icon or music icon into the red-ring to quick launch your camera app or whatever music app you set to default. I liked that I could set Spotify there as my music default and that ZTE didn’t force me to use whatever stock music app came with the device.

ZTE includes some interesting apps with the nubia 5. These apps include a backup app for personal info like contacts and SMS as well as system settings, a file manager, flashlight, FM radio, notepad, an app to create profiles for home and work, screen projection, a search app and a sound recorder app. I think most of these apps were nice to include. ZTE offers an option to record phone calls with their sound recorder app. Maybe that’s creepy? I don’t know. But I used it when I interviewed ZTE’s Waiman Lam, director of wireless in the US. It was handy to have to review what we talked about. I do not like that ZTE includes their search and clock app. It makes some of the functions with Google Now that I use on a daily basis less functional. If I ask Google Now to set an alarm, it will only open up the clock app and not actually set anything.

One other software item to note: I didn’t hate the stock keyboards on the nubia 5. It actually comes with the stock AOSP keyboard or the TouchPal Keyboard. Both of those keyboards are nice options and I actually never put my go-to SwiftKey keyboard on the device the whole time I was using the nubia 5. I don’t think the TouchPal keyboard is better than SwiftKey; I just didn’t hate it, so I kept using it.

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6. Performance

I would describe the performance experience you will get from the ZTE nubia 5 as medium to medium-high. If you didn’t notice from checking out the hardware specs, the nubia 5 basically has the Nexus 4′s guts with a bigger and nicer display and camera. So this is last year’s processor in a device that’s fairly high-end elsewhere. That said, the Snapdragon S4 APQ8064 is no slouch. Most functions performed on the nubia 5 will be snappy and quick. Lag is not something that comes around often with the nubia 5, but it will rear its ugly head occasionally.

Gaming on the nubia 5 was nothing but a positive experience for me. All the games I typically love to play and use to put a device through its paces performed great. Riptide GP2, Granny Smith and Dragon Fly all ran perfectly without any lag. If you’re into gaming on big beautiful screens and nice loud speakers with no lag, definitely keep this phone in the running.

7. Call Quality and Audio

The ZTE nubia 5 packs a radio that supports GSM 850/900/1800/1900 and UMTS 850/1900/2100 bands. I tested the nubia 5 on AT&T’s network in the Spokane, WA area. I had no issues with connectivity or dropped calls.

I wanted to get you all some side by side data speed tests, but for some weird reason I couldn’t get the app to work. Also, because it seems like this is the most appropriate place to put this, I felt like WiFi connectivity was really good. For one, I know that the graphic that ZTE uses for WiFi always showed about one more bar compared to other phones I use around my house, although signal strength actually wasn’t stronger. The nubia 5 may handle low signal strength better than the Nexus 5.

One thing I was slightly disappointed with was the volume level coming out of the headphone jack. I don’t have a crazy sound system in my car, but with the volume blasted on the nubia 5 through my car stereo, I wasn’t pushing the speakers as hard as I have been able to with other phones.

8. Camera

The camera on the ZTE nubia 5, in my opinion, is very interesting. The camera is a 13 MP shooter with some pretty big-name hardware in there. IT features a Konica-Minolta 5—piece prevision lens made of scratch-resistant sapphire. The camera has an F2.2 constant aperture on both the front-facing and rear-facing cameras, a Sony CMOS chip sensor, a blue glass composite IR filter, a Voice Coil Motor (VCM) to improve focusing accuracy and a 1A OSRAM high intensity flash with precision machining lens (users can thread precision up to 20m). I have no idea what most of that stuff means. I’m certainly no camera guru, but I can tell you about my general average-user experience.

The general camera layout is very understated. In auto mode, the options you have to play with are simple. You can turn on face detection, HDR mode, turn on/off flash and switch between front and rear facing. There aren’t a whole bunch of different shooting modes like you’ll find with a Galaxy S 4. The camera does have a burst mode, though, that takes an insane amount of pictures. So if you want to make sure you capture that magical moment of your kid, this nubia 5 will definitely have you covered. Additionally, the nubia 5 offers a “Fun” shooting mode that offers all the filters you’ll ever want to ruin your photos with.

Where the nubia 5 camera really stands is with the “Pro” shooting mode. According to ZTE, this mode incorporates the core function of a professional DSLR, including metering and focusing separation, level meter and compass assisted composition. You can separate the focus and the white balance of the image capture, which is a cool feature, but I don’t know if I’d throw the word DSLR in there. However, ZTE really feels like this camera (and what they allow you to do with it) separates this device from the rest. If you’re someone that wants more professional options out of your picture taking experience, the ZTE nubia 5 offers some compelling hardware and software options for you.

As for the actual output comparison, I’ve taken a few shots comparing the nubia 5 with both the Nexus 5 and the Samsung Galaxy S4. I feel like the image output between the nubia and Galaxy S4 were pretty comparable. What do you think?

2013-11-18 08.39.44 Nexus nubia HDR Nexus nubia indoor Nexus nubia outdoor1 Nexus nubia outdoor2 GS4 nubia indoor flash GS4 nubia indoor GS4 nubia outdoor GS4 nubia outdoor1

One last word on the camera: video recording. The nubia 5 filters the audio it picks up when recording video. This is pretty helpful if, for example, you’re shooting video while someone is vacuuming. It does a really decent job making a video that isn’t crazy obnoxious and loud. However, the nubia 5 did not pick up my son giving a speech in a classroom environment where the sound was less direct. The audio cut in and out a lot in that case, and I was a little disappointed by that. Lastly, I noticed a lot of autofocusing and quick adjustments going on while video recording that ended up being quite distracting when watching the video. I think these issues could be fixed with software updates, but these are things I ran into while using the device. Overall, I gave the camera experience an average rating. I think the camera was really cool, but its video/audio recording could use some work.

9. Battery Life

The nubia 5 comes with a non-removable 2300 mAH battery, which seems a little on the light side, but I personally had zero trouble getting this device to last me a normal day.

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10. Extras

Have I mentioned the box the nubia 5 comes in yet? It’s a rad box. I’m not quite sure why I feel like it’s such a big deal, but I guess it left an impression on me. In terms of other extras, the nubia 5 does come with a pair of headphones and the standard wall charger and micro-USB cable. Other than the box, these “extras” are fairly standard for high-end devices.

ZTE nubia 57 / 10

Overall, I’m giving the ZTE nubia 5 a 7/10. I’ve had a generally good experience with the device. It’s a beautiful piece of hardware with room for improvement in the software arena. Who would I recommend this phone to? I would recommend this device for someone who’s looking for an unlocked device with a great media experience and above average camera. It has a beautiful display and great sound output. Who would I not recommend this device for? Your mom. Seriously though, I don’t feel like the nubia 5 is the easiest device to use out of the box. I’m not saying your mom is stupid. I’m sure your mom could figure it out. But ZTE has shown that they are shooting for looks over function. That works great for me, but this device isn’t for  someone who needs a simple device to use.

The nubia 5 is available exclusively on Amazon. As of the time of this posting, the device is going to set you back $432.90, which is an impressive price for a device with this kind of specs. This price seems to fluctuate a little, so keep an eye on that. Definitely let me know if you have any questions about the nubia 5. I probably missed something, so call me out and ask away.

What are your thoughts on the nubia 5? Is ZTE going to make any sort of a splash in the US market with this device? Does the nubia 5 stand any chance in the unlocked market against the Nexus 5? Is a better camera worth $80+? Let us know in the comments below!

Brooks is an engineer living in the Bay Area recently dislocated from the Great Northwest. He's an Android enthusiast who decided to start doing something (productive?) with his countless hours Android modding and theming. He has a hot wife, is a father of three, an avid F1 fan, and enjoys watching sports when he can. His current devices include the Nexus 6 and 7 (2103) both running stock roms and may or may not be rooted. You can follow Brooks on Twitter @Brooks_Barnard.

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  • Christopher Chavez

    I saw some sample pics a friend took with his Nubia Z5 and was blown away. Easily the best smartphone camera on the market. Sucks the Z5 comes at a cost (UI, lack of updates, etc.) :/

    • Brooks Barnard

      The camera is pretty slick. It blows the Nexus 5 away. Especially if you’re taking pictures of things that move.

      • donger

        Good to know.

  • Arthur

    I would be more interested in a longer stint spent on battery life testing. I believe the N4 has a 2,100mAh battery and it can never get me through the whole day unless I barely use the thing but as soon as I do it drains like no ones business.

    The fact that underneath the Nubia 5 is essentially a N4 hardware wise and doesn’t have any issues with battery life with a slightly larger battery is a bit hard to believe. Maybe ZTE was able to optimize power management better with the skin they are using as opposed to stock Jellybean/KitKat on the N4.

  • uzunoff

    The good review, but looking at the evaluation marks, they dunt really match the review. Bad software and force close is definattely a big negative mark. Not neutral as portrait.
    This makes me think of a paid review.

  • Barbara

    Why are you implying that moms (or, let’s say, women older than 40) might prefer a device that’s easy to use? I’m a 34-year-old woman who roots her mobiles herself and regularly flashes new roms and kernels, and I feel kind of discriminated by comments like this.

    Please don’t use “your mom” as a synonym for less tech-savvy people. The tech-savvy moms out there will thank you for this.

    • SGB101

      We, the geeky few, that root and rom, are in the minority, if you then spit that minority in to sex/age etc, the Middle age lady is a minority of the minority. So I’d say it’s a valid responce.