ZTE has been around the smartphone market for a number of years now, and when they announce a new flagship lineup plenty of people pay attention. ZTE’s Nubia line of phones is their cream of the crop, and this year they’ve released not one or two, but three different SKEWs of the Nubia Z9. This includes the flagship Nubia Z9 which retails for around $600 with top-end specs, whereas the Nubia Z9 Max and Z9 Mini feature slightly less impressive internal hardware with differing screen sizes and price points. Today we’re going to look at the smallest of the Nubia Z9 phones, the Nubia Z9 Mini, and try to stack it up against the myriad of other $300 phones out there that have launched since the OnePlus One shook up the price point last year. Does it stack up against the other phones in this price range or fall short? Let’s decide!
$300 or so was once an inconceivable price point for phones that were worth more than a simple “budget” moniker before the OnePlus One came around, and since then we’ve seen more than our fair share of phones come in or below this price point with comparable specs. The Nubia Z9 Mini moves many of these specs to 2015 tier levels including a top-end 16MP camera, Qualcomm’s latest mid-range Octa-core processor and new EMMC 5.0 flash memory for improved speeds.
16GB internal storage, microSD card support up to 128GB
2,900 mAh Li-Ion battery (non-removable)
Android 5.0.2 Lollipop
16MP rear-facing camera, Dual-LED flash
8MP front-facing camera
69.8mm wide x 141.3mm tall x 8.2mm thick
Dual-SIM Card Support
1080p has come to be expected at this price point and beyond and thankfully ZTE followed suit here with that expectation. 5.0 inches is smaller than the average phone nowadays, earning it the “mini” tag on its name and keeping that 1080p display about as crisp as it could possibly get. Colors are super vibrant and by default are pretty natural, if not ever so slightly saturated. ZTE has added a simple to use display preferences app that gives users the option to choose between three different saturation options including the more natural “soft” setting, a more vibrant “standard” setting and a super oversaturated “glow” setting. There are also three different hue options that let you alter the screen’s tone between warmer and cooler settings.
Ghosting is nearly nonexistent and viewing angles are nothing short of phenomenal. Black levels are good for IPS panels and generally fair better than the average IPS display in this area. There’s no obvious light bleed from the sides of the screen even when turned at extreme angles, and the black levels don’t diminish significantly regardless of which angle the screen is held at. The digitizer is high quality, which is always great to see, but should be expected at this price point anyway. Touches were registered quickly and accurately, and typing or other multi-touch gestures were taken without a hitch.
Hardware and Build
If you’re familiar with many Chinese phones out there, particularly with Huawei’s Honor series, you’ll recognize the design language here immediately. When the phone is sitting on a table it’s nearly indistinguishable from a large iPhone 4/4s except for the obvious size difference as the screen is a full inch larger than that phone. The entire phone is made of plastic and glass, with a grey trim around the phone all the way around that looks like it could be metal from afar. The back of the phone is a transparent material that feels more like plastic than glass and lends to the overall cheaper feeling nature of the device. There are different materials slated to debut on the back such as wood and fabric, but at the moment ZTE has only made the black and white variants available for early adopters. The pattern under the glass back sort of lends itself to a circular brushed metal design although up close it’s more of a dotted pattern. This back and the metallic red ring around the camera lens are the most defining features of the phone but ultimately aren’t enough to set it apart visually from the rest of the iPhone-like designs out there.
ZTE places both volume rocker and power button on the right side of the phone, while the left side is reserved for the SIM tray. Up top is a 3.5mm headset jack and a noise-cancelling microphone, and on bottom is a single speaker on the opposite side of the micro-USB charging port. The front of the phone houses the 5-inch screen with fairly average sized bezels, while three capacitive keys lie below the screen: home, back and menu. The configuration here is a bit unique because the home button is a red circle that’s physically marked on chin so it’s always visible, while the back and menu keys are represented by two simple red dots on either side of the home button that only light up when the device is awake and in use. This configuration still baffles me as the menu key has been dead in Android for many releases now and should be a dedicated Overview button instead.
Performance and Memory
Initially the Nubia Z9 Mini was not a fast phone, and I actually had thought I might have had the wrong model sent to me or something. Running AnTuTu didn’t give me a clear answer as to what powered the phone but after double checking with some other resources I was sure the brand new Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 octa-core processor was in this device. Sure enough after a few days’ usage the phone sped up considerably and felt as fast as I expected it would have out of the box. This break-in period was strange to say the least but I’m glad it went away. In fact this phone is quite the mid-range beast in terms of specs and is the first actual phone I’ve used with both a 64-bit chipset and 64-bit Android Lollipop too, giving this a possibility of being one of the better performers out there at this price range.
The design of the Snapdragon 615 is one that features a lower-power quad core to save on battery when not needed but is paired with a high-performance quad-core when heavy lifting is required. As a result of this more powerful core the Nubia Z9 Mini is able to run games that some less expensive phones just can’t, like Brothers in Arms 3 for example. Qualcomm’s chipsets are still more widely supported than MediaTek or other ones out there meaning that some games might run better on here than if it were another manufacturer’s chips even if it isn’t as powerful as those.
Multi-tasking is generally a good experience although it’s going to be up to the user’s preference here. Not having a dedicated Overview button for quick multi-tasking is the biggest killer here, as the home button needs to be pressed and held to see what apps are open. This wastes time and makes multi-tasking annoying as a regular tool, but thankfully ZTE has included a 3-finger swipe gesture to quickly switch between apps. ZTE has ripped the multi-tasking style straight from iOS complete with tall thumbnails of each app and their respective icons below hand. Swiping down on an app in this list locks it into memory, keeping it from being closed even when the phone gets low on RAM. Swiping up subsequently removes the app from memory and closes it. This style is just that, a different style, so while I certainly prefer Google’s vertical scrolling list of apps from stock Lollipop other users may prefer this style instead.
Often times at this price range and slightly below you’ll find some phones that specialize in either battery life or performance, not usually both. While the Nubia Z9 Mini doesn’t feature some massive 5,000mAh battery or something the way the Elephone P5000 does for example, it still packs a slightly larger battery than most phones this size would. The design of the Snapdragon 615 is great when it comes to saving power, and that’s particularly obvious in the superb standby time of the phone. For the first 3 days I only used the phone lightly, and while I only had 2.5 hour on-screen time I had been streaming music and using Hangouts for chats on the phone here and there over a 3-day time span without charging it. That’s impressive in any right and would be even more so if someone needs to just leave the phone on in their bag while not using it, resulting in days without having to charge it. Heavier users will find the average days’ lifespan that phones are expected to deliver nowadays.
Phone Calls and Network
As is the case with most modern Chinese phones the ZTE Nubia Z9 Mini will perform admirably on most worldwide 3G GSM networks. T-Mobile and AT&T, along with their MVNO’s like Cricket and Straight Talk, will accept the Nubia Z9 Mini with no problems on 2G and 3G, but those looking for LTE support will have to be residing in mainland China where TD-LTE is used. Call quality was excellent and nothing negative can really be reported here. Dual-SIM card support is here with two nano-SIM cards that fit in the tray, keeping the tray the same size as a regular SIM would be. Coverage was great on T-Mobile and I have no complaints with the antennas included. A plastic build likely helps keeps the attenuation from reaching too high or low thanks to its receptive qualities.
Here’s where one of the biggest differences can be found between it and other Chinese phones of a similar build or price. ZTE’s latest skin is built on top of 64-bit Android 5.0.2 Lollipop and uses a fair bit of what Google has redesigned from the ground up with Lollipop. The full notification drawer with swipeable and expandable cards is present here, as well as the quick toggles when pulling down for a second time. ZTE includes an interesting always-present search bar here that can be turned off if desired too, as well as a few additional useful quick toggles for things like SplitScreen as well as quick volume controls. Entering ZTE’s notification center section of the settings menu allows the user to customize what apps can display lockscreen or regular notifications. By default apps can only display regular notifications, giving a slight level of security and privacy over stock Android that’s welcomed. It’s a shame this isn’t more obvious at first though as I went through a few days thinking no notifications were on the lockscreen before stumbling onto the individual options for apps.
The UI in general is very light, mostly consisting of whites with a few black and red highlights throughout the experience. There’s plenty of iOS influence here but enough Lollipop left over to where it isn’t nauseating. Everything moves fast and fluidly as we would expect from an Android Lollipop powered phone, but it feels like ZTE just doesn’t care for the tinted status bar that Lollipop introduced. None of the ZTE apps had anything other than the plain old black status bar while many apps from the Play Store have already adopted this change. It’s possible that ZTE’s 3.0 UI could include these changes, as the Nubia Z9 Mini was on version 2.8.1 as of this time of writing.
ZTE has significantly simplified the settings menu, opting to nest options under sections instead of presenting everything on the main page. There’s positives and negatives to this solution but ultimately it makes things less overwhelming at first. Many aspects of the behavior of the UI can be altered such as the breathing light found within the home button and of course notification customization as listed above. There are plenty of touch gestures here including double-tap to wake, palming the screen to lock and the tri-finger multi-tasking option. ZTE has also included a profile manager that breaks settings down between one-hand mode, pocket mode, powersave and desktop mode. Pocket mode is particularly great since it keeps the phone from accidentally turning on when it hits the users leg, helping those embarrassing pocket dials from ever happening.
SplitScreen mode does exactly what it sounds like and cuts the screen in two so that two apps can be used at once. We started seeing this first on the Galaxy Note series years ago where it makes a little more sense thanks to the increased screen retail. While it’s a little less useful here because of the screen size its ZTE’s implementation of the feature that makes it really interesting. Instead of just having two apps which are restricted to the proportions of the split screen, the phone is actually running two instances of itself at a time in this mode instead. This means that even apps that aren’t intended to be run this way will work, albeit running in a weird letterboxed form. This is a really cool way to implement non-compliant apps or ones that just don’t make sense to squish into a small space, but it makes the smaller apps more difficult to use. The boxes can be adjusted to fit apps better by pressing and holding the small blue sphere in the middle of the screen split. Touching the quick toggle in the notification shade activates the mode while double-tapping the home button turns it off.
The sound output quality is far and away the worst feature of the phone, an unfortunately note for many out there without a doubt. Audio coming through the 3.5mm headset jack lacked punch and was missing sections of the audio that should normally be there. More subtle tones are simply missing or at the very least are incredibly subdued, and using the built-in DTS sound profile manager did very little to help or even hurt the audio at times. Bass and treble sliders appear to do nothing or again at least very little, and even turning off this incredibly poor equalizing feature left a lot to be desired in general. Bluetooth audio was the same, with almost no audible lows coming from even the better Bluetooth speakers I have on hand. This can be fixed with software and absolutely needs to be addressed in an update, it’s a huge problem.
The speaker on the actual device is pretty good for a single speaker. Being located on the bottom has its positives and negatives but it’s always better than one on the back. The speaker is loud, clear and produces nice sound for a tiny driver, which is a nice change from the audio output listed above.
Arguably one of the best parts of the phone is the camera, which is powered by a 16-megapixel 1/2.6″ sensor. This larger sensor by any smartphone standard is a 16:9 cropped widescreen sensor and produces some absolutely phenomenal results in any lighting condition. ZTE’s software generally focuses on shutter speed over higher ISO, which unfortunately can sometimes result in a picture that looks slightly out of focus or blurry in certain lighting conditions, but overall usually does a great job of producing crisp images. Even when the ISO is high as can be seen in some of the night shots in the city the amount of noise is more than acceptable, and most importantly the denoise filter doesn’t go into overdrive which helps to avoid pictures that come out looking like watercolor paintings devoid of detail. Light and color balance are superb and it often got the exposure and lighting conditions perfectly, showing plenty of shadow detail and creating natural looking photos without needing to tweak the image.
ZTE’s camera software has become increasingly sophisticated over the years, often packing in a manual mode that would make most point and shoot cameras blush. This time around is no exception and the Nubia Z9 Mini features an enhanced manual mode likely thanks to Android Lollipop’s new camera2 API. This includes full manual control over ISO, shutter speed, white balance, focus and other factors with simple to use visual sliders and a live preview that changes with the sliders. Manual focus even includes focus peaking, a method of highlighting the edges of objects in focus with a red line for easier manual control. This is necessary especially on a screen with a digital slider, as the tactile feel of an SLR’s lens isn’t available. It also helps ensure focused objects even in manual mode.
The software overall is easy to use in auto mode, with big shutter and camera record buttons right on the screen without having to change mode. Pro mode even has a dedicated button right on the main screen of the camera, making it simple to jump in and make those manual adjustments if needed. The rest of the software is unfortunately pretty convoluted, feeling like a bunch of pieces were thrown together to make a big piece of software rather than being designed seamlessly together. Clicking the gear in the top left reveals additional settings and sub-modes, and there’s little explanation of these other than a somewhat vague name for each. Different main modes are selected from a left-hand slide-out menu that actually features some decent tutorials on how to use them, something that’s sorely needed for the sub-modes too.
These additional modes consist mainly of different shutter speed modes and tricks including Light Painting, Star Track, Slow Shutter, Electronic, Special Effect, Video Maker and Panorama. The actual viewfinder is a mixed bag, presenting a 16:9 image behind the UI elements that seemingly cannot be hidden. This often resulted in shots that are all a little off center, as the center of the screen appears to be between the UI elements but is actually the center of the screen itself. In video mode this doesn’t happen, as it’s a full-sized viewfinder, and there seemed to be no way to adjust this either. Exposure control is excellent and includes separate on-screen elements that can be dragged to different areas of the shot for focus and exposure. Independent exposure can be very important when you want to focus on an object that’s in a tricky spot.
Video was overall great quality even though being restricted to simple 1080p instead of 4K as the Nubia Z9 can do. This is likely more of a CPU limitation than anything, as the 16MP sensor has more than enough pixels to physically record a 4K video. What’s really amazing here is that the independent exposure and focus controls are also present in the video mode, something I can’t recall seeing on any other phone on the market, much less one in this price range. Check out the full resolution sample shots below and come to your own conclusions.
At first I didn’t like the Nubia Z9 Mini at all. The experience felt slow, clunky and missing key features from Android Lollipop that I had come to know and love. After a few days the phone sped up and I was able to uncover the features I had thought were missing, removing nearly every complaint I had about the phone in the first place. This is going to be confusing for many users who don’t sift through menus and settings however, and may result in an ultimately frustrating experience for these users. Once you can get past this, however, the Nubia Z9 Mini is a very well rounded phone that really only falters in the audio department. Its strong suit is most certainly the camera and very likely the size of the phone for many users out there that don’t like phablets. The build quality could be better but at least it doesn’t feel flimsy, and everything from the screen to the performance of the device is excellent.
At this price range there’s a fair amount of competition, namely the OnePlus One, but seeing as how that’s a bit larger of a phone it may not be an option for some users. Those looking for a great deal on the ZTE Nubia Z9 Mini can look no further than GearBest, where we’ve got a special pricing of $276.98 for our readers. Head on over to the GearBest website here and make sure to use coupon code NZ9MINI to get the special price, which is a significant percentage off the regular retail price!
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