ZTE Nubia 5 (Unlocked) review

The ZTE Nubia 5 is an affordable, well-built, and well-equipped unlocked Android phone, but its half-baked Android skin really holds it back.
Photo of ZTE Nubia 5 (Unlocked)

On paper, the ZTE Nubia 5 ($449 list) has all the trappings of a high-end device with a beautiful 5-inch 1080p display and fast quad-core processor. And in person, it even has the look and feel of a premium device—until you turn it on. There’s no denying the raw potential here, but ZTE’s gaudy Android skin does all it can to cripple what could have been a top performer. As far as unlocked options go, the Nubia 5 offers strikingly similar specs to the Sony Xperia ZL for nearly half the price. But it just seems like ZTE went down a checklist of features, without regard to the overall experience—the whole here ends up being less than the sum of its parts.  

Design, Features, and Call Quality
ZTE has crafted a really handsome phone in the Nubia 5. It makes you wonder how so many more-expensive handsets from more-established manufacturers can look and feel so cheap. At 5.43 by 2.7 by 0.29 inches (HWD) and 4.51 ounces, it’s thinner, lighter, and narrower than the Xperia ZL, which was already impressively compact for packing such a large screen. There’s a brushed metal rim around the Nubia’s edges, and its soft touch plastic back feels sturdy. Volume and Power buttons are on the left and right sides, respectively, while the SIM card tray and 3.5mm headphone jack are on the top panel. On the bottom is a centered micro USB port with capacitive buttons for Menu, Home, and Back navigation below the display. It’s bad enough that ZTE forces this non-standard Android setup, but it’s made worse by the fact that the Home button is marked by a large circle while the other two buttons use identical single red dots. Once you’re accustomed to the placement it’s fine, but it will likely be confusing at first.  

The 5-inch, 1080p display is impressive considering the relatively low price. Text looks sharp, viewing angle is superb, and colors look vivid without being oversaturated. Brightness is simply average, though, and I had some trouble seeing the screen in bright, direct outdoor light.  The bezels around the display are pretty minimal, making it more comfortable to use the phone with one hand—I could reach completely across the display with my thumb, but still struggled to pull down the notification bar.

The Nubia 5 is an unlocked phone that supports CDMA (800MHz), GSM (850/900/1800/1900MHz), UMTS (2100MHz), and HSPA+ 21.1. I tested using the phone with a T-Mobile SIM card in New York City. Call quality was generally good, with clear audio coming through the earpiece and strong reception. Volume could be a bit louder, though, and the speakerphone was too weak to hear over moderate street noise. Transmissions through the mic sounded full and defined, but noise cancellation struggled to block out ambient noise. I also noticed a good deal of pesky static on calls made with the Nubia 5. While it can’t access T-Mobile’s faster HSPA+ 41 network, in my tests, the Nubia 5 still turned in a respectable 5-6Mbps down and 1Mbps up. That’s in line with the results we saw in our Fastest Mobile Networks survey, but it can’t touch LTE speeds that can easily exceed 10Mbps.

There’s 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi here, but only on the slower 2.4GHz band, which is disappointing. Also onboard are Bluetooth 4.0 and GPS, both of which worked fine in my tests. Inside is a sealed 2300mAh battery. We’re testing the Nubia 5′s battery life now, and will report here when we get our results.

Performance and Android
The Nubia 5 is powered by a quad-core 1.5GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro APQ8064 processor with 2GB RAM. It’s the same setup found in phones like last year’s Google Nexus 4, but performance on synthetic benchmarks was curiously inconsistent. That bore out in real world usage as well, however, as the Nubia 5 suffered from buggy software and generally sluggish performance. During testing, the home screen routinely had to redraw all of its elements when waking the device from sleep or even simply after exiting an app. There was noticeable lag between pressing an app icon and launching that app. The recent apps page was also unusually slow and buggy—trying to quickly switch between multiple running apps can be pretty frustrating. Gaming performance is one of the Nubia 5′s stronger points, as it was able to produce moderately smooth and playable frame rates in games like Need For Speed Most Wanted.

The most likely culprit for the frustrating performance issues is ZTE’s Android skin. The Nubia 5 runs a heavily modified version of Android 4.1.2. I can deal with the dubious cosmetic changes and themes, but some modifications to key Android features leave me scratching my head. ZTE removed the app drawer entirely, opting for an Apple-esque approach that puts all of your icons on a home screen instead. You can still hide them away in folders, but it ends up making things look more cluttered. The recent apps screen represents running apps as cards that you swipe through horizontally. It looks nice enough, but you can only see two at a time. The whole deal wouldn’t be that bad if it wasn’t so clearly saddling the Nubia 5 with annoying levels of lag.

Multimedia and Conclusions
The Nubia 5 supports MP3, FLAC, AAC, OGG, and WAV audio files, but couldn’t play back WMA. For video, there’s MP4 and H.264 support, but no DivX, Xvid, or AVI support out of the box. There’s no microSD card slot and of the 16GB total onboard storage, you get 9.04GB free.

ZTE makes some lofty claims when it comes to the Nubia 5′s camera prowess. Beyond the 13-megapixel sensor, the lens is apparently made from sapphire and features an F2.2 aperture and Konica-Minolta 5-piece design. On the software side, ZTE baked in independent focus and exposure points. You can have the camera focus on one area, while setting the exposure based on another area in the frame. I actually really like these two features, but image quality was still a bit too inconsistent in both good and low-light scenarios. The Nubia 5 had some trouble finding and maintaining focus, which often led to blurry images, and indoors, the camera struggled with grainy shots. Under ideal lighting and with a steady hand, I was able to capture some pretty impressive shots, but for every great one, I’d also get a handful of disappointing images. Video capture reaches up to 1080p, but showed inconsistent and choppy frame rates regardless of lighting. Video detail is decent, but the frame rate issue and lack of stabilization make the footage pretty jerky. I’d rank the Nubia 5′s camera toward the top of what I’ve seen with other Android smartphones, but I think ZTE’s SLR comparisons are far too ambitious.

The ZTE Nubia 5 has so much potential, from its beautiful display, solid design, and fast quad-core processor. Throw stock Android on here and I think ZTE would have a serious contender on its hands, especially at this price point. It’s nearly half the price of similarly equipped, unlocked smartphones like the $759.99 Sony Xperia ZL. As it stands, though, the Nubia 5′s half-baked software is a big drag on what would otherwise be a well-equipped and affordably priced unlocked option.

Specifications
Phone Capability / Network GSM, UMTS
Screen Resolution 1920 x 1080 pixels
NFC Yes
Dimensions 5.43 x 2.7 x 0.29 inches
802.11x/Band(s) 802.11 a/b/g/n
Video Camera Resolution 1080p
Available Integrated Storage 9.04 GB
Processor Speed 1.5 GHz
CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon APQ8064 Quad-Core
GPS Yes
Service Provider Unlocked
Total Integrated Storage 16 GB
High-Speed Data UMTS, HSPA+ 21
Weight 4.51 oz
Screen Type IPS LCD
Operating System as Tested Android 4.1.2
Physical Keyboard No
Camera Resolution 13 MP Rear
2 MP Front-Facing
Screen Pixels Per Inch 441 ppi
Bands 850, 900, 1800, 1900, 2100
microSD Slot No
Form Factor Candy Bar
Screen Size 5 inches
Bluetooth Version 4.0

Verdict
The ZTE Nubia 5 is an affordable, well-built, and well-equipped unlocked Android phone, but its half-baked Android skin really holds it back.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc