smartphones

ZTE Nubia 5S Mini LTE Smartphone Review

ZTE's affordable mid-range phone brings great value and an awesome camera app.

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ZTE is certainly not the first name you think of when it comes to smartphones here in the US, but the Chinese company has been making waves in the past year by selling fairly priced, well-equipped phones direct to consumers. The latest such phone to hit US shores is the Nubia 5S Mini LTE, a mid-range 4.7-inch smartphone packing decent specs, LTE connectivity, and an attractive design.

Most intriguingly, the Nubia 5S Mini is available unlocked for just $279.99 and compatible with AT&T and T-Mobile LTE networks. That's $70 less than the LG-made Nexus 5 and the Motorola Moto X, two of the most popular LTE-ready unlocked smartphones on the market.

Does the Nubia 5S Mini do enough to stay competitive, even at that price? We got ZTE's latest into our labs to answer that question.

Design & Usability

Half iPhone, Half Android... not half-bad.

Pick up the ZTE Nubia 5S Mini LTE and it feels like most high-end smartphones on the market: it has a smooth plastic back, rounded edges, and a Gorilla Glass-protected front display. Our review unit in particular has a nice two-tone white-on-black color scheme, accented with red rings around the capacitive home button on front and around the camera lens on back.

The phone itself has a nice heft to it, with excellent balance. The display is 4.7 inches diagonally, slightly wider than the iPhone 5S but narrow enough that you can easily turn it over in your hand without losing control. The body itself is quite thin—about on par with the Nexus 5 and iPhone 5S—but it is solidly built and doesn't feel flimsy at all.

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The ZTE Nubia 5S Mini has a nice 4.7-inch HD screen despite its sub-$300 price tag.

The Nubia 5S Mini runs the slightly older Android 4.3, but it has some unique design elements that are actually more in line with iOS. For example, all your icons live on separate homescreen pages; there's no separate app drawer where all your apps live. This can be easier for novice users to remember (since you can see all your apps all of the time by just swiping left or right), but the home screens feel more cluttered as a result.

The icon design also seems to draw from flat design principles—something that Apple's iOS 7 shares—and it makes for an attractive experience. The custom apps are excellent, carrying over similar minimalist design cues. From the built-in messaging, contact, and dialer apps to the superb camera app (which we'll get to in a bit), ZTE has really done a great job of making the default experience feel clean while still giving you loads of custom options.

In general it's like most smartphones: it takes some time to get used to its quirks, but you'll adapt quickly enough. The default apps all run smoothly, you can customize it as much as any other Android phone, and it executes the basics superbly. If we had one complaint it would be the navigation keys—home, back, and multitasking—just below the front display, which are confusingly left unmarked. Once you learn your way around you'll be fine, but more than once I found myself wanting to go back or switch apps and struggling to remember which key did what.

Camera

The 5S Mini's excellent camera software is undermined by so-so hardware.

When we first laid eyes on the Nubia 5S Mini's specs, we were excited to see what it could do. It combines a 5-megapixel front-facing camera with a 13-megapixel backside-illuminated rear camera. Our initial guess was that this would be the same Sony-designed 13-megapixel BSI camera sensor found in flagship-level phones from numerous manufacturers. Getting flagship-level image quality from a phone that costs less than $300 unlocked would be a steal.

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The Nubia 5S has one of the best default camera apps we've used to date, with tons of control and a nice user interface.

Unfortunately, upon closer inspection this doesn't appear to be quite the same unit. At least, the images aren't quite to that level. The Nubia 5S Mini LTE is capable of some nice shots, but generally speaking there's nothing here that will blow your hair back. In low light image quality and sensitivity are questionable, at best, and dynamic range is still very limited.

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The default camera app on the Nubia 5S Mini gives you lots of useful extras, like a golden ratio overlay.

What really shines here is the built-in camera app. It's not perfect, but it's far better than what we typically see on even the best smartphones on the market. There are some interesting design choices and touches that need optimizing, but it offers a level of control that is sorely lacking in the smartphone photography world. It also has some of the best auto white balance we've seen in any camera—let alone any smartphone—giving you accurate whites in any lighting situation.

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The ZTE camera app even provides common camera controls like ISO and noise reduction settings that are usually absent from other smartphones.

The camera app offers three basic modes, including Pro, Auto, and Fun. The Auto mode is what most camera apps offer, taking the heavy lifting out of taking photos. The Fun mode includes preset filters and other goodies that spice up your shots. The Pro mode is our favorite, however, offering white balance settings, ISO adjustment, exposure compensation, and even the ability to turn noise reduction on and off. These are common controls on any basic point-and-shoot camera, but they're almost entirely absent on competing smartphones.

The app's design is also aesthetically pleasant. The icons are a little small, which could frustrate some, but the menus are easy to navigate with a single hand. The app even includes helpful shooting guides such as the golden ratio, a digital level, and gridlines for framing, helping you get the most from the camera.

Performance

The 5S Mini feels like a high-end device, even if its performance is firmly mid-range.

The Nubia 5S Mini LTE costs just $279.99 off-contract, but it performs like a phone that costs a good bit more. Though the Snapdragon 400 processor and 2GB of RAM employed here can't quite keep up with the heavy-hitting flagship phones on the market, the full HD screen is very nice for the price point and battery life is well-managed.

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Despite its svelte body, the battery isn't half bad under extreme web browsing.

Beginning with the screen, it's a 4.7-inch 1920x1080 display, good for a pixel density of 467ppi. That's far above the "Retina" quality standard of 300ppi and better than any of the current iPhone models on the market. Though the screen's gamma is only average, the color accuracy of the panel is superb. The LCD panel also gets extremely bright, hitting 540 nits (cd/m2) in our lab test. That's just better than the iPhone 5S, which should help daylight visibility—even though the screen also proved more reflective than we would've liked.

In our processor benchmarks the Nubia 5S Mini got by, but still lagged significantly behind flagship-level phones. The Snapdragon 400 being used here just doesn't keep up with the top-end phones on the market. For power users we recommend jumping up to something like the Moto X or Nexus 5. In practical terms this mostly shows up as a slight delay whenever you try to open certain apps or app folders, with multitasking or gaming only exacerbating these issues.

In our processor benchmarks the Nubia 5S Mini got by, but still lagged significantly behind flagship-level phones.

The other question mark that came up in our testing was with the phone's battery life. On the positive side it outperformed the iPhone 5S and came in just behind the iPhone 5C when tested using taxing browser-based benchmarks, so it's good for about a typical day's usage. In our video-playing battery test, however, the battery drained in a little under 5.5 hours. With most phones offering over 7 hours of life in this test, the ZTE was a disappointment here.

Conclusion

An excellent off-contract value with one truly killer app.

Buying a smartphone in the US typically involves picking up a heavily subsidized phone in exchange for putting pen to paper on a new two-year service contract. But what if you don't want to be locked into a two-year agreement? What if you shatter your phone two months into that contract and it's too expensive to get fixed?

A couple of years ago your options were either dig an old phone out of a drawer or pick up a cheap, ugly burner phone and be silently judged by your peers. But affordable, powerful off-contract smartphones are now more plentiful than ever. The ZTE Nubia 5S Mini LTE isn't quite as powerful as the $350 Nexus 5 or Moto X, but at $279.99 for AT&T and T-Mobile customers, it's just as good of a deal—for the right consumer.

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No, we can't really read the logo, either.

After spending quite a bit of time with the Nubia 5S Mini both in and out of our testing labs, we have to say that we're liking what ZTE is bringing to the table here. Though it's not quite as cheap as the $229 Moto G with LTE, for under $300 you get a decent processor, a very attractive user interface, acceptable battery life in most situations, and the best default camera app we've seen yet. Also, ZTE is offering to cover any and all damage on the phone for up to 18 months after purchase so long as you pay $50 if you send it in. Not a bad deal at all.

A couple of years ago your options were either dig an old phone out of a drawer or pick up a cheap, ugly burner phone and be silently judged by your peers.

Is the ZTE 5S Mini as good as the Galaxy S5 (or even the Galaxy S4)? Probably not. It's certainly got its limitations. Battery life while playing videos was atrocious, the camera's image quality leaves a lot to be desired, the screen is bright but highly reflective, and this processor is thoroughly outpaced by current flagships. But it's a good-looking phone with a nice 1080p display that costs less than most of the competition.

If you're looking for better battery life in this part of the market, we definitely recommend passing on the Nubia 5S Mini and going with the cheaper Moto G. It's got basically the same all-around performance but with a better (albeit smaller) screen and far better battery life. If you want a little more horsepower on a budget you can find the Moto X or the Nexus 5 for right around $325 on sale usually. But if you want just a good all-around phone that doesn't cost a lot of money and feels like a modern, powerful phone, the ZTE Nubia 5S Mini LTE is a perfectly fine option.

Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
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Our editors review and recommend products to help you buy the stuff you need. If you make a purchase by clicking one of our links, we may earn a small share of the revenue. Our picks and opinions are independent from any business incentives.
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