Build quality and design
For being an affordable smartphone, ZTE has created a very neatly-built handset. The Nubia 5S Mini is built to feel and look solid, even if made of plastic. No part feels flimsy or loose. The front merges perfectly into the back with flush sides, despite its removable back.
The volume rocker on the left side is solid and offers great feedback, just like the power button on the top side. The power button is accompanied by a 3.5 mm headset jack, and the microUSB port in the bottom is housed by what looks like a metal frame (probably isn’t).
The Nubia 5S Mini is built to feel and look very solid, even if made of plastic.
Removing the back plate will display nothing but the SIM card slot and a microSD card slot. Sorry, guys – no removable battery, which is probably one of the reasons the Nubia 5S Mini feels so well-built. Over all, the device looks and feels amazingly good, giving it an advantage in first impressions.
Turn on the device and you will be welcomed by what could be the most beautiful boot screen I have seen. It will display a collage of images that will tout just how good this screen is. The device definitely doesn’t loose the war on definition. A 720p display is by no means considered great in this day and age, but the price and 4.6-inch display size make up for it (312 pixels per inch). Of course, you can notice the pixels if you look close enough, but the text is crisp and images stay looking great.
I found the display to be a bit under-saturated for my liking, but not enough to make the image seem washed out. Contrast is still very good and colors are vibrant enough, it just won’t be great for those who like their deep blacks and dense hues. If your priorities include color accuracy and “true to life” colors, this will not disappoint.
This phone also made me realize how comfortable a 4.6-inch phone can be, a factor that may play a substantial part in your experience. The device fits in any pocket or palm, making on-handed use a breeze. I still prefer my gargantuan screens for fast typing and media consumption, though.
The device fits in any pocket or palm, making on-handed use a breeze.
Performance and hardware
It’s said you get what you pay for, a statement that is definitely accurate with the ZTE Nubia 5S Mini. The device’s Snapdragon 400 processor and 2 GB of RAM keep it running fairly smooth, but you will definitely notice the downgrade if you are used to high-end smartphones.
Opening apps can sometimes take a little longer than expected, while occasional hiccups are often to be experienced. General home screen transitions and animations are fluid, though, making sporadic lag much easier to handle.
I must also say this little device handles its small 2000 mAh battery like a champion. The ZTE Nubia 5S Mini gave me about 10-12 hours of usage, after which I would still be at over 50%. Of course, these numbers will vary depending on how you treat your device. I would consider myself an average user. I usually didn’t have more than about two hours of screen-on time.
I must also say this little device handles its small 2000 mAh battery like a champion.
In short, the device never died on me mid-day, making it a winner in my book.
The USA is no stranger to manufacturer UIs, but it seems most of our devices follow a certain set of software rules. Asian manufacturers can have a weird approach on software and ZTE is not the exception. It’s not horrible, it just offers an experience that is unlike what we are used to.
My main gripe about the ZTE Nubia 5S Mini’s software is the lack of an app drawer. Nuts, right?! In a way, it’s similar to iOS or MIUI, but it lacks that organized feeling the other interfaces innately offer. All your applications are on your home screens, making it a huge pain to organize your apps and widgets.
Of course, this may be something you can get used to, but to me it created nothing but confusion. Move past that (big) issue and you will find a fun experience, though. The lock screen is clean and gorgeous, offering only unlock and camera options. ZTE also managed to make their pull-down notification widgets very helpful (with a plethora of options) while keeping them unintrusive.
Needless to say, the ZTE Nubia 5S Mini is nearly bloatware-free, another benefit of selling this device without carrier affiliations.
Saved the best section for last. One of ZTE’s main selling points for this device is its “DSLR-quality” camera. Is this camera phone deserving of such title? As a photography enthusiast I will have to say it’s not.
When I first read that statement I thought the camera app would be blessed with a plethora of settings and controls that would let me handle aperture, shutter speed and the like. Now, this doesn’t mean the camera is not worth its salt. In fact, it is quite an fun and capable camera.
One of ZTE's main selling points for this device is its DSLR quality. Is it?
I did find some complex controls that you won’t often find in other devices. Pro mode will allow you to separate your shooting controls, for example. The UI will display a square, a circle and a diamond (if you set White Balance to “Independent”). You can move these around the screen freely in order to select the focus point (square), light source (circle) and white balance point (diamond).
The compass and level meter also help you keep your images straight and balanced. Pro mode is a beauty for those who like this much control over a shot. Is it DSLR quality? No, but it is awesome.
I did find some complex controls that you won't often find in other devices.
Fun mode offers a series of effects and shooting modes that can unleash your creative innards. These involve multiple shots, allowing you to create effects like Timer Shot, Multi Exposure, Clear Object, Trajectory, Video Maker and Panorama. If the modes are not enough, you can also add your Instagram-like special effects.
And if you prefer having no complications, Auto mode works very well too! I must also say I did expect better quality images from such a touted camera. The 13 MP sensor makes for large images, but these tend to be a bit washed out and grainy, especially once in darker environments. Photo quality is not horrible, it’s just not the DSLR-killer ZTE puts it out to be.
Get past your high expectations over an affordable phone, though, and you will realize the camera offers awesome modes and very fun effects.
- Android 4.3 Jelly Bean
- 4.7-inch 720p display
- 1.2 GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 400 processor
- 2 GB of RAM
- 16 GB of internal storage (microSD expandable by up to 32 GB)
- 13 MP rear-facing camera with f2.2 aperture, BSI image sensor, five-piece optical lens, sapphire lens and IR filter.
- 5 MP front-facing camera
- 2,000 mAh battery
- UMTS B2/B4/B5, GSM 850/900/1800/1900, HSPA+ 42 Mbps, 4G LTE B2/B4/B5/B17
Pricing and final thoughts
No matter how many pros or cons we can find in a device, the final decision always comes down to the price. Is the phone’s shortcomings worth the cost? This phone launches in the USA on August 27th, but it will go up for pre-order from Amazon starting today for just $279.99.
Undoubtedly a good price, but is it good enough to pull you from the competition? The ZTE Nubia 5S Mini is entering our market during a very tough time. You can get a Moto G with similar specs for $80-$100 less. One could also buy a Nexus 5 with far superior specs for $350, about $70 more.
The bottom line is: it’s a great phone in a market with great competition. I can say the build quality, design and camera would make me choose it over the Moto G if I could afford it. Then again, if I had the extra cash I would also choose a OnePlus One or a Nexus 5 over the Nubia 5S Mini.
Is $279.99 your absolute limit for a phone? If so, this is a great option for you!