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Considering the USA is a market where Chinese phones get little attention, Nubia is doing a great job at making a name for itself here. Last year they put a large focus on their affordable Nubia 5S Mini, but they are planning to step it up in 2015 and go up against the top dogs with the release of the Nubia Z9.
This flagship phone is hitting the USA very soon, but what does it really have to offer in such a competitive market? The Nubia Z9 packs top-tier specifications, a border-less display and some very unique features. The real question is whether it’s good enough to earn a spot in your pocket. I have been testing the Nubia Z9 for a good amount of time and am ready to tell you all about my experience with it.
Editor’s note: we’ve reviewed the Classic model of the Nubia Z9 (3GB RAM, no fingerprint reader).
Nubia’s smartphones have become known for their design language, something that isn’t changing with the Nubia Z9. We can say they took a conservative approach by adopting the same design formula we have seen a few times in the past. I personally believe this is not really a bad thing.
The Nubia Z9 adopts a rectangular slab shape. It’s made of high-end materials, sporting a metal frame sandwiched by a glass front and back. These characteristics, along with the chamfered edges, make for a smartphone that manages to feel great in the hand. It truly gives off the impression of being a very solid and high-quality handset. It also helps that its angular design and unique edges provide a good grip on the device. One would imagine a phone made predominantly of glass should be slippery, which is not really the case with the Nubia Z9.
A lot of manufacturers these days sacrifice specs and power for a svelte body. I believe I am not alone when I say that’s not the smartest choice, but the industry is all about it. Not Nubia, though! This smartphone is 9 mm thick, so it won’t be winning any thinness contests. It’s noticeable the manufacturer wasn’t focusing on this, as there is no taper on the back trying to simulate a thin profile, either. You will feel every single millimeter when you pick this phone up.
It doesn’t help that this is not the lightest phone, weighing in at 200 grams. The weight will definitely take some getting used to, especially if you come from one of those super thin smartphones, but it’s something you can definitely get over once you realize the benefits a thicker handset can offer; among them is a larger battery (more on that later). Not to mention, the thickness and weight gives the Nubia Z9 a solid feeling. You will be reminded this is a high-quality device every the moment you pull it out of your pocket.
In terms of ports, buttons and connectivity, the Nubia Z9 comes with a pretty standard set. You can find the 3.5 mm headset jack up top, as well as a microphone and IR blaster. On the right side there’s a metal power button, accompanied by the volume keys and a dedicated camera button (these all offer great feedback and a solid quality).
On the bottom we can find a lonely microUSB port (which does look like a USB-C port, but isn’t) and what may appear to be dual speakers. The key word in there is “appear”, as only one of them is a speaker – the other is a microphone. Finally, the left side of the phone houses nothing but a dual-SIM card slot.
The design team adds some contrast by including a red ring around the camera, as well as the home button in the front. There’s also a couple glowing red capacitive buttons right next to the home button (menu and back). By the way, you can easily switch around their order in the settings.
I have to say the display is likely the main attraction in the Nubiz Z9. This screen is fantastic! It sports a 5.2-inch 1080p panel. It may not have that Quad HD we have gotten so used to by now, but we have often said a good display is not always the one with the most pixels.
A quality screen is graded by other factors. The Nubia Z9 makes up for the 1080p resolution by offering bright and vivid colors, as well as spectacular outdoor visibility and good viewing angles. Not to mention, its 400+ PPI pixel density makes for a more than fair reading and media experience.
Aside from offering a quality panel, Nubia managed to make the Z9’s screen stand out (literally) by adding a curve along the edges. They had to use 2.5D glass to achieve this, but it’s totally worth it. The screen has been raised above the frame, giving it a much more prominent curve and making it a pleasure to swipe across the screen. This design element gives the impression that one is simply holding a completely bezel-less phone, but you can certainly find the edges upon closer inspection.
It resembles the Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge in a certain way, but the curves on the Nubia Z9 are not drastic enough to alter your viewing experience. Nubia did add some nifty software tricks to take advantage of this peculiar display, but more on will be covered later in the review.
Performance will be slightly different depending on which version of the device the customer gets. You can opt for either the Classic, Elite or Exclusive editions. The main difference between these rests in the RAM, internal storage and the inclusion (or exclusion) of a fingerprint reader. All devices come with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor, but the Classic version (the one we have for review) sports 3 GB of RAM. The Elite and Exclusive editions tout a mighty 4 GB of RAM, while only the Exclusive edition features a fingerprint reader.
Regardless, we have had a great experience with the Nubia Z9 in terms of performance. Basic tasks like navigating through he UI and using apps are a breeze. We also found no issues trying to multi-task (of course, this thing has a massive amount of RAM memory) or playing graphically intensive games.
The Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor was off to a bad start, with plenty reports suggesting phones were getting exceedingly hot. Is the Nubia Z9 plagued by the same cumbersome heat? It sure does get warm, but we found it was never an extreme over-heating case. It was nothing to worry about.
In terms of the differences between 3 GB and 4 GB of RAM, we believe there won’t be a significant gap. Sure, in theory the 4 GB version will likely run a little better and feature superior multi-tasking, but 3 GB is plenty of memory for a smartphone. Differences will be small at best.
Another important difference between available Nubia Z9 versions is the storage capacity. The Classic model comes with 32 GB, while the Elite and Exclusive iterations are granted a nice 64 GB of storage. If this is an important factor for you, though, you should make the right choice from the get-go. This phone does not feature expandable storage, which means you will be stuck with whatever amount you choose when you purchase the device.
Once we move past storage we start finding out this is a very well-endowed smartphone. Even audiophiles get a special treat in the form of HiFi audio and Dolby 7.1 surround sound. You will really notice the difference while listening with a good pair of headphones. The integrated speakers are not built to take full advantage of these features, but they still pack quite the punch.
The speaker is loud enough to hear even in relatively noisy environment, and the sound is fairly clean. My only complaint is that the speaker’s location makes it susceptible to muffling with the hand, especially when in landscape mode. Not to mention the fact that all the sound comes from a single speaker on one side of the phone, which makes for an unbalanced listening experience.
Another great hardware feature was the inclusion of a fingerprint reader, but this one is not for everybody. It is exclusive to the… Exclusive version. The placement of the fingerprint reader will certainly have some people raising eyebrows, as it’s located on the side of the phone, as opposed to the front or back. This is unlike what we are used to seeing, and sadly we really can’t comment on how well it works. Our version of the smartphone doesn’t have a fingerprint reader.
The Nubia Z9 runs on Lollipop, but you would never know this if you didn’t jump into the settings to check all the details. Nubia’s UI is completely different and doesn’t go in line with Google’s Material Design. Instead you get a much more colorful interface filled with transparency effects. Thankfully there are plenty of themes in the built-in theme store, which will help you customize the design to your liking.
The biggest difference you will find in the Nubia Z9 is that the company ditched Google’s standard app drawer. Nubia focuses on the experience by dumping all apps and widgets straight into your home screen (much like iOS).
Aside from that, we would like to say the Nubia Z9 does have a bunch of very neat software tricks up its sleeve. I personally like Screen Division, which is practically Nubia’s version of Multi-Window. One can also take advantage of the convenient double-tapping to wake function. It’s easy to shrink the screen for one-handed use by simply long-pressing the back button. Drag 3 fingers upwards and the phone will create a screenshot.
Those are just some examples of the software optimizations found in the Z9, but things get more interesting once you start messing with Nubia’s FiT (Frame Interactive Technology). This is what we were talking about when we mentioned the curved screen edges were used for some pretty awesome features.
You can swipe up on either side of the glass to launch a specific application or switch to apps that are currently running in the background. In addition, one can quickly launch the camera app by turning the phone sideways and touching four fingertips on the edge of the glass. You can also perform various grip-based gestures to unlock the phone, or take a screenshot just by simply squeezing the phone.
These may seem like odd gestures at first, but they totally change your experience once you get used to them. Nubia swears they will save you plenty of your precious seconds in the long run.
Nubia needs to offer amazing camera quality if it really wants to go toe-to-toe with all the major flagships in the USA, and we are glad to report the Nubia Z9 shooter handles itself pretty well. The device sports a 16 MP rear camera with OIS (optical image stabilization), and they also didn’t skimp out on the front-facing shooter, which features an 8 MP sensor.
The manufacturer has been known for placing high emphasis on their camera software, which usually comes with a plethora of manual options for fine-tuning your shots. This device offers a bevy of features, including time-lapse, multi-exposure, slow shutter, HDR, panorama and full manual controls.
Picture quality was surprisingly good, with great color reproduction, dynamic range and pristine detail. I do have to say HDR is a bit too aggressive in processing. It makes colors a bit over-saturated, skin tones appear unnatural and shadows are heavily reduced. This makes for very unrealistic photos that make the image resemble a watercolor painting.
Low-light photos are average and I found the camera can handle prominent light sources (like lamp posts) pretty well. There’s a big increase in noise once you start taking pictures indoors, in dimly lit environments. This is due to the higher ISO levels the camera needs to use to take in more light. It’s really the biggest downfall to the camera, but the phone offers a relatively pleasant shooting experience with fair results, even if it’s not the best in-class.
The 16 MP sensor is good for 4K video recording, and the OIS sure helps stabilize the footage and make those clips smooth.
You will be happy Nubia added a few millimeters to the Z9 when you realize this phone packs a 3000 mAh battery. Battery life is impressive, guys. Even with several hours of heavy gaming and plenty of pictures taken, the phone was still able to go a full day without charging. Screen-on time was anywhere between 4 to 4.5 hours. You will be able to extend those numbers much farther with casual or light usage.
Do keep in mind our version of the phone is Chinese, though. This device doesn’t feature Google Play services, so the phone doesn’t have to handle any typical data syncing. This will likely have an effect on battery life.
Price and conclusion
The Nubia Z9 is available in other markets, but we have to wait until Q3 2015 to see it launch in the USA. Prices start at $564 for the Nubia Z9 Classic edition. The price tag is then raised to $645 and $725 for the Elite and Exclusive versions, relatively.
These are certainly high-end prices. And even if the Nubia Z9 is a high-end phone all in all, it will have a lot of catching up to do against competitors like the Samsung Galaxy S6 and LG G4. The USA is a very competitive market, but Nubia has what it takes to at least make an impression.
This phone is going up against the big guys, and it has all the specs and features to provide a fair battle. We are not sure if this will be enough to “change the game”, but that bezel-less screen will definitely turn some heads. Overall, we believe it’s one hell of a phone and users will certainly enjoy it, probably even more than some of those popular flagship smartphones.