Head to an online shopping website these days and you will notice plenty of new smartphones popping up online in the Rs 10,000 to Rs 14,000 segment. They may not offer the most exciting designs or flawless construction quality, but you do get great hardware inside (in terms of raw processing power) which should be good enough for day to day WhatsApp messages, the occasional photograph and bit of gaming with a focus that is always on battery life.
The ZTE Nubia Z11 Mini is one such smartphone. The Chinese smartphone maker is indeed looking for its niche in the budget smartphone segment with the Z11 Mini but with so many options from so many brands, it is going to to be a tough sell even with a capable specifications sheet.
Add to this smartphones like the Xiaomi Redmi Note 3, the legendary Motorola Moto G4 Plus and others and it gets really tough to settle down on one. So is the ZTE Nubia Z11 Mini worth its Rs 12,999 price tag? Well, that's exactly what I am going to conclude by the end of this review.
Build and Design: 7.5/10
A short glance at the ZTE Nubia Z11 Mini and you will notice how similar it looks to the iPhone 6s from the front and the sides (see images below). The design looks simple but comes with some classy touches that will make it stand out from the current crop of budget-friendly smartphones like the plasticky Moto G4 Plus and the Redmi Note 3.
The Nubia Z11 mini features a glass and metal design with rounded corners and it also features 2.5D glass on the front and back.
The front facing glass which also protects the display, is made of Gorilla Glass 3 and features an oleophobic coating. The one on the back however does not and due to the lack of the same coating, makes it a smudgy mess. This is more so for the black model than the white one.
There are capacitive keys below the display on the front and the fingerprint reader sits on the top half at the back.
However, what is most impressive about this design, is the fact that ZTE has used plastic bits at the top and bottom parts of the frame. The left and right side of the frame are made of metal and you can barely tell the difference between the two even if you look at them closely. What gives it away is the feel. The side of the frame feel cold (because its metal) while the top and bottom feel normal (because its made of plastic). It is a neat trick and it looks a lot better than the plastic inserts seen on smartphones like the Xiaomi Redmi Note series.
In short, the specifications are very similar to what you get on the Motorola Moto G4 Plus. You get a smaller 5-inch Full HD display (441 PPI) with a Gorilla Glass 3 screen to protect it. Inside, there is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 chipset clocked at 1.5GHz along with an Adreno 405 GPU and 3GB RAM. There's 32GB of internal storage (eMMC 5.1) and the memory can be expanded up to 200GB using a microSD card.
As for communications, you get 3G, WCDMA, 4G and LTE band support (VoLTE) with a dual SIM (nano+nano) dual-standby (4G+4G) setup. You get Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and a USB Type C port at the bottom.
Coming to the cameras, the setup is once again similar to the Moto G4 Plus. There's a 16MP Sony IMX298 sensor on the back with an f/2.0 aperture and an 8 MP Sony IMX179 (f/2.4) on the front for selfies. All of the above is powered by a 2800mAh battery in a package that weighs in at just 138 grams.
With 5-inch Full HD display with 441 ppi it gets really hard to point out some flaws. The display looks vibrant and produces some well-saturated colours. Sharpness levels are as good as it gets with the budget range and the display had no problems in dealing with bright sunlight.
The viewing angles are pretty good for a smartphone in this range. While the colours remained intact even when viewing from a very steep angle, the brightness did drop, by few notches.
Talking about colours, the display did seem a bit over-saturated. But this can be toned down to ones preferences by heading into Display> Screen display preferences and adjusting the saturation and hue levels.
Still then, this smartphone easily has one of the best displays in its class.
The ZTE Nubia Z11 Mini features a functional and polished UI. It looks similar to the many offerings from other Chinese smartphone makers like Xiaomi, LeEco and more. And it is functional too. It supports side swipes and even packs a few practical tricks up its sleeves. One of those handy features is the ability to switch between active apps by simply swiping your finger vertically along the edge of your screen. This works pretty well and within all apps (third-party ones as well) and outcomes of the swipes can also be customised. You can even use the feature on the left side bezel instead of the standard right which is handy. The software at no point felt heavy and showcased some minor animations in some unexpected places as well.
But there are things that it gets wrong. While the UI appears polished, it is still running an ancient Android 5.1.1 Lollipop underneath. This also means that you should not expect great battery life with doze and even the handy Google Now on Tap that is now a standard with Android Marshmallow. Having old software itself would be a deal breaker.
While the software was unsatisfactory, you do get some updated hardware on the Z11 Mini. The performance figures (in terms of raw power) are pretty much in line Motorola's Moto G4 Plus. This is once again an updated Snapdragon 615 with a higher clockspeed so you cannot expect mid-range performance that you would get on a Redmi Note 3 or a LeEco Le 2.
With that said, we did not face any problems related to performance in day to day usage as the old software somehow played nice with the updated hardware. The smartphone did not heat up and this is good since the 617 was built to address that very issue. Games played well, albeit with lower textures and the smartphone can be used to play some intensive 3D games as well. The phone did not heat up while gaming.
Call quality is what you would expect from a budget smartphone and it sounds great. Audio quality using the built-in music player was pretty good and I could hear the bass and treble notes perfectly. The built-in DTS added more punch and depth to the music which could also be customised to one's tastes. The speaker on the other hand was not as loud as we wanted it to be as I could barely hear the output in quieter outdoor surroundings.
The ZTE Nubia Z11 Mini packs in a 16MP sensor from Sony IMX298 with an f/2.0 aperture. The primary camera performed really well and produced pleasing images. The images looked sharp and well-saturated. And the images remained sharp from corner to corner which is impressive for this budget smartphone. However at times, images did look a bit over saturated. In fact some of them were so bright, that I had to resort to the HDR mode to add some amount of realism.
While many would prefer contrasted and saturated images, it is indeed not the real thing. The Moto G4 Plus showcased realistic colours without taking things overboard so this is something to do with the Nubia's processing algorithms.
Switching to low light, the camera still managed to impress. Both, luminance and chroma noise seem to be suppressed very well and the Z11 Mini produced some good images with minimal noise which was once again impressive.
Moving to dim lighting or night scenarios, ruined things completely. Noise was over the top and the images appeared blotchy to an extent that they almost looked like oil paintings. Indeed I could blame ZTE image processing algorithms here as the camera performed really well in the previous two scenarios. Overall, this is still a great camera that would shock many with its performance.
The camera interface also packs in some additional modes, like Slow Shutter (which improved the night or twilight shots to an extent), Multi-Exposure, a Light Painting mode and a Star Tracking mode as well. But one look at the screenshot above, and you know where the inspiration is coming from.
Battery Life: 6.5/10
As I mentioned at the very beginning of this review, battery life is important when it comes to budget smartphones. Customers may not expect the best camera, but they will sure look at battery life when considering a budget smartphone. And this is where it starts to get really tough for the Z11 Mini. While it packs in a new-age Snapdragon 617 chipset, it does not pack in Android 6.0 Marshmallow, which means no power-saving 'doze'. This combined with a 2,800mAh battery and a 5-inch Full HD display means that you are not going to get much out of this smartphone.
While the battery life tests gave me a decent 7 hours and 45 minutes, the usage time was just good enough just for a single work day. This would include two email accounts on sync, plenty of WhatsApp, Telegram, Slack and the occasional photography meaning that I would be hunting for a charger by the end of the work day, around 6PM, which is decent and not exactly stellar for a budget smartphone. ZTE should have included a bigger battery considering that an update to Android Marshmallow (forget Nougat) is nowhere in sight.
Verdict and Price in India
What I liked about the Z11 Mini was its design and that camera. What I did not like was the battery life and the outdated Android 5.1.1 Lollipop software. And it is a tough market out there with a lot of choices in the budget smartphone range. The ZTE Nubia Z11 Mini priced at Rs 12,999, does not stand a chance against the mighty Moto G4 Plus even though its priced higher at Rs 14,999. The same can be said about the current king of the ring, the Xiaomi Redmi Note 3, which is priced Rs 11,999, but packs in better hardware and a bigger battery. What you don't get is a microSD card slot. With that said, It is hard to recommend the ZTE Z11 Mini especially with an outdated version of Android on board.
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