The Nubia Z9 is a new smartphone from China that is positioned at the high end of the market, with an entry level price tag of RMB3,499 (US$532), and has serious intentions of disrupting the space currently dominated by the likes of Apple and Samsung.
Can it deliver? Business Traveller Asia-Pacific finds out.
Nubia Technology has chosen a metal unibody frame for the Z9 (in black, white or gold) with a bezel-less design and chamfered edges, delivering a sleek, premium look.
The front and back feature tough Corning Gorilla Glass 3. While this is more damage-resistant (an accidental drop revealed no visible damage), the smooth glass provides little grip, making the phone susceptible to sliding from the gentlest of inclines (hence the aforementioned mishap).
The glass casing appears to be dust-proof, which is a benefit, but fingerprints are another story (although these are easily wiped clean with a soft cloth).
A slight trade-off for the high-quality materials is the weight. At 192 grams, the Z9 is noticeably heavier than many other mobile devices of its size – comparable to the larger sized iPhone 6S Plus.
Possibly the ace in the hole for the Z9, the phone boasts a 5.2-inch screen with a colour saturation ratio of 90 per cent. Colours are bright and vivid, making pictures appear even better on the Z9 than when viewed on a computer.
Additionally, the thick, curved glass on the display creates an impressive 2.5D vision reflection effect (an illusion of 3D).
The 1920 x 1080 resolution may sound underwhelming given the growing number of phones boasting quad HD capabilities (2560 x 1440). However, with a 5.2-inch screen and generous pixel density of 421ppi, it hardly seems necessary to cramp even more pixels onto an already excellent screen.
The Z9 is powered by an octo-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor and the Adreno 430 graphics chip.
Performance-wise, it’s difficult to fault the eight-core processor. The Snapdragon chip offers plenty of juice to handle even the most strenuous tasks. For example, streaming large 4K Ultra HD videos is no problem for the Z9. (In tech-speak, a test on Geekbench 3 delivered a single-core score of 1292 and a multi-core score of 4353 – top-of-the-line results comparable to the Samsung Galaxy S6 edge.)
Graphic-intensive apps run well on the Z9, but it soon became apparent that heating was an issue, causing some lag and performance issues.
The base edition comes with 3GB of memory, although Nubia also offers an elite version with an extra gigabyte of RAM.
Nubia has outfitted the Z9 with two robust cameras. On the front is an 8MP shooter, while the rear sports a 16MP lens. Both perform admirably.
The rear camera particularly shines. In well-lit environments the colour reproduction is excellent, delivering rich and vivid images. The auto focus is fast, which makes it great for shooting on the move.
The performance in low-light situations is also very good but we recommend turning off the flash as this typically leads to overexposed images. For shots in the dark, the camera’s sensor does struggle noticeably and images tend to feature a bit of noise. However, it is still possible to improve image-taking quality by adjusting the ISO.
We must commend Nubia on its in-built camera app, which comes preloaded with a large number of effects and modes including all the favourites – panorama, timelapse and filters – plus an extremely nifty “Slow Shutter” mode, which allows the user to adjust exposure time in dim conditions or to shoot moving objects.
Meanwhile, video recording is also excellent with a default video quality of 720p, which is more than sufficient for everyday use. Videos can also be recorded in super hi-res 4K - although this eats up a hefty chunk of storage, which is a burden given the Z9 does not offer expandable storage - one of its major drawbacks.
The standard Z9 model comes with a fairly meaty 32GB of storage and the elite version has 64GB. Unfortunately, the phone’s storage cannot be expanded any further via SD cards, which is truly a pity. Still, perhaps that’s what cloud-based services such as Dropbox and Google Photos are for.
The Z9 sounds great. The AL4961 audio chip is high quality, and there are two fairly good speakers located at the bottom of the phone.
We were also pleasantly surprised by the ZTE Smart Earphones that came with the phone. While they may have been a little heavy on the bass, the audio quality was crisp and sharp, with no distortion when the volume was ramped up.
With a battery capacity of 2900 mAh, the Z9 will easily last a full day on a single charge under moderate use. Power does drain much more quickly when the system is under heavy load, but the majority of users should be satisfied with the battery life.
Nubia's Frame interactive Technology (FiT) allows users to activate specific apps with a series of gestures. It takes a bit of time to get used to the swipe and grip movements, but once we mastered the relevant gestures, we found the experience to be seamless.
For example, a simple squeeze of the phone allows you to take a screenshot, while turning the device sideways and holding it by the corners automatically launches the camera app.
Another great feature of the Z9 is its dual SIM capabilities, which will surely appeal to many business travellers. Users can store both their primary SIM, and one from a foreign country of their choice, simultaneously.
One drawback on the Z9 is the lack of a fingerprint sensor for security. Accessing the phone is still limited to either a numerical passcode or Android’s pattern password – strange for a high-end device, particularly given that this feature is now commonly seen on most top-end smartphones in the market.
Overall, the Nubia Z9 leaves a very positive impression. A superb display and powerful internal hardware makes the phone a very attractive choice. However, the lack of expandable storage and fingerprint sensor is a pity. Can it give Apple and Samsung a run for their money? In terms of performance – absolutely. However, it will probably still take consumers some time to get over preconceived notions of Chinese-branded products.