ZTE Nubia Z9 Review
Not for the light of heart
Before we dig deep into the Nubia's interface, we wish to warn you that if you are looking to purchase the phone right now – you will only be able to get the Chinese version of the handset. Its user interface does have an English translation, but the phone comes with no Google framework installed. This means that if you want to get Google Play Store, Gmail, Play Music, YouTube, et cetera Google services, you will need to root the Z9 and install them manually. The task doesn't require a degree in rocket science, sure, but it's not for the light user, who just wants a pick-up-and-go smartphone. Of course, this could all be remedied if ZTE launches the phone for US markets, which was reportedly planned for Q3 of 2015, though, it hasn't happened yet, and September is nearing its end.
Now that we've got that issue aside, let's check out the interface. As with phones from other China-based companies, the iOS influence is quite apparent – from the lack of an app drawer, to the design of system icons and toggles. Still, the manufacturer added quite a bit of its own style and tools, so we wouldn't call the interface a clone.
It is obvious that ZTE wanted to create a very slimmed-down UI – it's drop-down menu is much less cluttered than the ones on many other Android handsets, with only a brightness bar and three toggles – Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Mobile data – greeting you as you pull it down. Another button reveals the rest of the essential controls – Airplane mode, Auto-rotate, Vibrate, et cetera. Under the toggles panel, you can find your notifications, which can be filtered – if you often find this area to be full of information you don't care about, a Notifications sub-menu in settings gives you the choice to not display certain apps' notifications.
The settings menu is a bit too simple, we'd say – so much so that it will even stump experienced Android users, as some well-known options are flat-out gone. For example, we have absolutely no access to Android's well-known battery usage diagram. Instead, we have to rely on a separate Powersaver app, which is much less informative, and quite unrealistic in its “remaining usage time” calculations. Additionally, a lot of the English translations for the different settings are way off and give next to no information – it is up to an experienced Android user to figure out what exactly the text is about, and we imagine that someone who hasn't met with a variety of similar options before would have a hard time trying to set up everything.
We also found the notifications of the phone to be a bit unreliable. For the first few hours of real-life use, chat programs, such as Facebook Messenger, Viber, Hangouts, did not produce any sort of sound. It was not a settings issue – the phone would ring for calls and alarms just fine, and for chats – it would display all the proper notifications and chat heads. However, it produced no sound until we entered the Notifications Management menu and made sure that the apps are allowed to actually pop up in the Notification bar. They were, and we changed nothing in the menu, but the mere act of entering it “unclogged” whatever pipe our sounds were stuck in and the problem was gone.
Additionally, the phone's “close all apps” button is quite the powerful tool – it literally obliterates all background processes, which, in some cases, left us with a lot of Facebook messages not being pushed through until we started the chat app manually (or just coming through late). This particular feature just makes the phone an unreliable tool for chats (and potentially other processes as well), and we recommend anyone who intends to get a Z9, or already has one, to use “Close all” (or “Accelerate phone”, as ZTE calls it) with care!
Still, we do have some words of praise for the Niudin security app. It gives us access to all of the apps' permissions and lets us single them out – revoke a permission, make the app prompt us for one each time it needs a specific asset, or allow it indefinitely. It holds an “Autostart apps” whitelist, which we assume should be a remedy for our previous complaint about the “Accelerate phone” feature, however, we did not find it to work as desired – with Messenger whitelisted, chats were still stuck until we actually opened the app.
There are a couple of things in the interface that we do really like, however. For one, the split-screen functionality we found pretty impressive. In fact, we would like to call it “True split-screen”, as it literally allows you to load anything in the display's halves – you could have two home screens if you so desire, or two different games, or any two apps. In comparison, dual-screen UI functions from Samsung and LG will only allow users to have certain apps in split-screen mode.
All in all, we really like where ZTE was going with the Z9's interface. It's simplistic at first sight, but has a layer of neat trickery underneath. However, the whole experience left us feeling like the software still requires a lot of polish, as it is unreliable, a bit hard to understand, and lacks options where one would logically expect to find them. So, we reiterate – even though it may try to look like it, this UI is not for the user who just wants a pick-up-and-go smartphone, at least not yet.
The Nubia Z9's Edge touch control is an interesting idea. ZTE made use of the rounded-off edges of the screen by giving them gesture control support. These consist of the following: swipe up, swipe down, quickly rub an edge, and swipe while touching both edges simultaneously. The latter will control the phone's brightness and is not customizable, aside from turning it on or off. Rubbing an edge will cause the phone to launch its “Accelerate” function, which basically “close all apps” – this is also an un-customizable gesture. The swipe up and swipe down, however, can be set to perform user-customizable tasks – for example, you can set swipes along the left edge of the phone to cycle through your recent apps, while swiping up and down on the right edge can be set to launch two of your favorite or most often-used apps. There are also advanced functions that will enable one-handed mode or will open the camera, depending on how you grip the device – palm the Z9 and wrap your fingers around the edges and the screen will shrink towards your thumb; hold it with two hands and raise it as a viewfinder, with your fingers barely touching the edges of the screen in all 4 corners, and the phone will start the camera app.
Processor and Memory
Bleeding-edge hardware, uninspiring performance
The Nubia Z9 is armed with the 64-bit, octa-core, flagship-class Qualcomm Snapdragon 810, clocked at 2 GHz and coupled with 3 GB of RAM. We encountered no hiccups or slowdown issues with the phone. Gaming-wise, it was a hit-and-miss experience – Mortal Kombat X ran absolutely fine, Hearthstone ran with no issues or force-closes, but Modern Combat 5 would sometimes cause framerate drops. So, despite the edgy hardware, and some impressive benchmark scores, power users may not be too pleased by the Z9's performance.
As far as heat goes, we did notice that the phone tends to warm up a bit too quickly, both when dealing with heavy tasks, such as watching video or playing games, and while doing something as simple as browsing our photos. On the flip side, the phone doesn't get hot to a point where it is uncomfortable to hold, even after prolonged use.
Storage-wise, the Nubia Z9 comes with 32 GB of internal space, 6.8 GB of which are taken up by the system, leaving the user with a bit more than 25 GB to work with. Unfortunately, there is no microSD card slot for extra breathing room.
Internet and Connectivity
As an Internet-browsing and streaming device, the Nubia Z9 is solid. The stock browser has the Safari-inspired looks, but we found it to be a bit unreliable in performance and slow with tab-switching. Fortunately, Google's Chrome ran without a hitch on the device.
The Z9's screen lends itself great for both text and clips, while the phone's hardware assures that all activities go smoothly. It's LTE-capable, though the current model only covers the following TD-LTE Chinese bands: 3, 1, 7, 39, 40, 41, 38. The phone, of course, supports Bluetooth 4.1 and Wi-Fi 802.11 b/g/n. The Nubia is of the dual-SIM kind, and its slots accept nano-SIM only.