With a 64-bit processor, Android 5.0 Lollipop, nice front and rear cameras, the ZTE Blade S6 is a great deal at less than $250. It’s clearly an iPhone 6 copy, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in terms of design.
In the budget smartphone race, it manages to cram a lot of specs into a low-priced device, but it’s definitely not perfect. Let’s take a look at this budget Chinese smartphone.
At the end of the review, we’ll be giving it away to one lucky reader.
The simplest way to explain the physical design of the ZTE Blade S6 is to imagine a plastic iPhone 6. ZTE really didn’t make any attempt to hide the fact that this is a blatant copy of Apple’s design.
A unibody plastic back wraps the entire device in a shiny silver. It has a 5″ screen with curved glass at the very edges for a smooth feeling when swiping out to or in from the edges (though that’s pretty much nullified if you put a big case on it).
Along the bottom, there’s an obvious circular button in the center for the Home button, but there are two other hidden buttons on either side. To the left of the Home button is the Options button, and to the right is a Back button (those these can be swapped in the settings). It’s unfortunate that they went for an Options button rather than a Recents (multitasking) button, but you can still access the Recents by holding down the Options key, just as you can access Google Now by holding down the Home key.
The Options and Back keys are invisible until you press them, at which point they glow blue. It should be noted that the three capacitive keys glow blue whenever you have a notification or are charging the device. That’s actually a pretty cool alternative to an LED, but it’s not customizable, and if you charge your phone while you sleep, it will be brightly glowing blue on your bedside table. Ironically, they also glow constantly once you pass 15% battery to tell you that you’re low on battery.
The power button and volume rocker are on the right side of the device, the headphone jack is up top, the microSD card slot and nanoSIM slot (that’s right, not a microSIM) are along the left, and the microUSB charging port is along the bottom. Due to the unibody build, you need a small pin to pop out the microSD or nanoSIM. Additionally, those two slots don’t line up quite flush with the device, giving it an unpolished feel along the left side.
As far as plastic bodies go, this one isn’t great. It looks nice, but it has quite a bit of squeak when you grip it in certain places. The plus side, however, is that it doesn’t collect fingerprints at all.
There’s a tiny speaker along the back with a small bump next to it to keep it elevated when resting on a table, but it’s extremely quiet and tinny sounding.
Overall, it’s not going to be winning any design awards, but it is a sleek and iPhone-esque device (so much so that several people mistook it for an iPhone as I was using it).
ZTE’s Android skin is called MiFavor 3.0, and it screams iOS. The icons are colorful and rounded, and you can swipe up from the bottom to customize it. There is no app drawer like with stock Android; instead, all your apps are out on the home screen like in iOS. You can sort them into groups, of course, and it’s a pretty good experience.
Aside from that, though, you’re mostly getting a stock Lollipop 5.0 experience. The lock screen shows notifications and allows quick access to the phone and camera apps. One annoying aspect is that because it’s a dual-SIM device, if you only use one SIM, it will constantly display a “NO SIM” message at the top for the second slot.
Overall, it’s a pretty nice experience. If you don’t like the iOS-style home screen, you could always download an alternative launcher.
Lastly, there are the motion controls. I found them more a hindrance than anything and ended up keeping them off, but maybe others out there would like them. Air gesture allows you to play music by holding the volume down button and waving your phone in a V or O shape. You can also silence calls by moving your hand over the screen or turn on the flashlight by shaking your device.
Several others exist under the motions tab like flip to mute, quickly activating the camera by holding the volume button and raising it horizontally, and a few others. It feels like the same type of gimmicky stuff that Samsung tries to cram into their Galaxy S line.
There are lots of extra bits of software loaded onto this device, but the good news is that they’re mostly either useful or can be uninstalled. There’s a Task Manager app that reveals information about your CPU, RAM, and storage.
The basic built-in apps like Notepad and Calendar have rather, ugly skeuomorphic designs, but there are much better options out there for those kinds of tasks anyway.
Other preloaded apps include: UC Mini, AliveShare, Mi-POP, Backup, WPS Office, Camera360, Chaatz, and Navigate. Most of these are available on the Play Store anyway, but Mi-POP is pretty unique, and it allows you to have an onscreen home or back button for easier one-handed use.
AliveShare works pretty well if you have another user download the app. It can be used to locally send videos and pictures, play multiplayer games, or transfer phone data (all without using your 3G/4G data plan).
The Blade S6 is equipped with a 13MP wide-angle rear-facing camera, while the front has a 5MP wide-angle camera. Both take pretty good photos, in my opinion — and the camera interface is actually decent.
For 16×9 photos, the max resolution you’re going to get is 9MP on the back and 4MP on the front, but it’s still worthy of some praise. And in my testing, I felt like both cameras had significantly better low light performance than other smartphones I’ve used. That could be helped along by the f/2.0 aperture on the back and f/2.2 aperture on the front.
The camera interface has a simple mode (indicated by the red circle on the left) and an expert mode, which allows for tinkering with the ISO, white balance, and all of that.
In the rainbow settings icon (why rainbow? We may never know), you’ll find options for different shooting modes including a “beauty mode” for your selfies and a “straighten mode” for photographing text or documents.
Overall, one of the biggest weaknesses of this device is the battery life. With only a 2,400mAh battery, it was barely able to make it through a full day with regular usage. Under heavy usage, it wouldn’t make it anywhere near that (and that was only on 2G, mind you, as we’ll discuss later).
I never got more than about 3 hours of screen time, as the phone seemed to drain pretty quickly even when I wasn’t using it. That being said, this is about average in the realm of smartphones, so I wouldn’t call it bad battery life — it just won’t exceed anyone’s expectations.
Before I got started, I thought there was no way that the Snapdragon 615 in this device could compare with the Snapdragon 801 in my OnePlus One (a device that has its own unique pros and cons). I was wrong.
I rarely encountered lag when using the Blade S6. Moving between screens, switching apps, and playing games — none of that ever introduced lag, even with apps updating in the background. I was more than impressed. Using the device was a quick and fluid experience, and I found myself reaching for this phone more often because of that.
The most noticeable bit of lag I encountered on a regular basis was the delay between hitting the power button and the screen turning on. It’s a tiny delay, but it’s enough that you have to wait an instant before the device is functional. Considering how often most people turn on their screens, it could get annoying.
My only other complaint would be that the phone could get quite warm while multitasking, but again that’s a problem on most phones. With a 64-bit processor, it is at least future-proofed for apps that will support the additional processing power.
Data & Support
Here’s the biggest caveat of all: as an imported device, the ZTE Blade S6 has very specific 3G and 4G bands, and therefore can only get 2G speeds in the United States. Internationally, you should check with your wireless carrier to see if they’re compatible with UMTS 900Mhz and 2100Mhz bands for 3G, or the FDD-LTE bands 1, 3, 7, 8, or 20 for 4G LTE speeds.
This wasn’t much of a problem for me since I’m connected to Wi-Fi 90% of the time, but not even being able to access 3G really makes this phone unappealing to the American market.
To add to that, when the phone arrived, I thought it might be compatible with 3G, and I contacted ZTE support to understand if it could get 3G speeds. I was told over the phone that my model, the Blade S6, did not exist in their database, so they gave me an email address to send my question to. I did. I heard back later and was told to contact AT&T. So I went to an AT&T store and was told that the phone isn’t compatible with their 3G network.
Long story short: don’t expect 3G or 4G in the US, and ZTE support isn’t the best in my experience.
Should You Buy It?
Despite the squeaky plastic back, the low-quality rear-facing speaker, and the slightly less than average battery life, I actually really enjoyed using this phone. It’s light and responsive and just a joy to use. If you’ve got a charger nearby most of the time and don’t mind a plastic phone with mediocre speakers, it’s certainly worth the $250. And not to mention, it’s only $250 unlocked!
But the biggest downside here is really the limited 3G and 4G bands, which is disappointing because it’s such a tiny issue that really affects what countries you can use this phone in. Because of that, we really can’t recommend this phone for the American market.
Buy it. If you’re in a country and have a carrier that supports the correct 3G and 4G bands for this device, it’s a great deal at $250. You get the fluid, responsive experience of much more expensive phones for a fraction of the cost, all wrapped into a nice iPhone-like package. The real concessions are in battery life and speaker quality, but they’re basically average for a smartphone.