ZTE has been slowly and repeatedly trying to penetrate the Indian market amongst the Chinese competition that somehow, always seems to get the upper hand. Last year I reviewed the ZTE Nubia Z11 Mini. It was a well-designed smartphone that packed in Android 5.0 Lollipop, and average battery life. The Nubia Z11 Mini was priced at Rs 12,999, which basically meant that it was built to compete with the Redmi Note 3. Despite its well-designed exterior, it were the internals that were a let-down.
But now it’s a new year with a new Xiaomi Redmi Note 4 out, and ZTE had to come up with an answer.
Behold, the ZTE Z11 Mini S! It’s ZTE’s answer to the new Redmi Note 4, and it comes with a ton of hardware improvements over the old model, including a 23MP camera and a battery-happy Snapdragon 625 chipset. But with a price tag of Rs 16,999, is it worth it?
Build and Design: 8.5/10
The ZTE Nubia Z11 Mini S has a pretty long name, for what appears to be a good-looking smartphone that can be operated using one hand.
The design is nothing new, but the construction offers something different for those who are looking to upgrade from a Xiaomi Redmi Note 3, a Moto G4/G4 Plus or a Vivo V5. This is because ZTE gives you a well-finished metal body that could easily be mistaken for a premium smartphone.
Starting from the front, there is nothing exciting out here apart from the 2.5D curved class. It looks like a slab of black glass with the usual red Nubia breathing light at the bottom end.
However, things get interesting when you flip the smartphone over.
At Rs 16,999 it is really impressive what ZTE has pulled off here. There’s no plastic used anywhere in the construction, just metal and glass. The back is rounded and bulges towards the centre, a surface that appears to been flattened. But even with flattened back, the phone keeps spinning around when placed on a table and will wobble a bit every time you tap on the display.
The sides are well-rounded and polished, meaning that there are no rough edges anywhere, just a smooth and seamless metal back.
At the top and bottom of the rear are the plastic inserts in the antenna gaps, which look a lot like those on the iPhone 7. Also sitting at the back is a fingerprint reader.
I liked the red detailing of the camera ring and also how the camera lens and the flash unit are protected by their individual metal rings.
The Z11 mini S indeed packs in everything you can think of and more when you consider its price tag.
While it may seem a bit less when compared to a Redmi Note 4, it does make up for it in other areas.
There’s a 5.2-inch Full HD IPS LCD display on the front, along with the usual array of sensors and a 13MP front camera that sits to the left of the receiver. Inside, you get a tried and tested Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 chipset clocked at 2.0GHz with an Adreno 506 GPU. The chipset is paired with 4GB RAM and 64GB of internal storage that is expandable up to 256GB using the second SIM slot.
On the back, the primary camera features of a 23MP sensor with f/2.0 aperture, PDAF, and an LED flash, which is the second highlight of this smartphone.
You get the usual connectivity options, which include, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth v4.1, GPS and FM Radio and even NFC. There’s even a USB Type-C port at the bottom that keeps up with the times.
Powering all of the above is 3,000mAh battery, which is a tiny improvement over the 2,800mAh unit on its predecessor.
The 5.2-inch display on the Z11 Mini S is a fine-looking unit. It does not go over the top with colour saturation and features some decent looking blacks keeping its price tag in mind. With a Full HD resolution, its 424ppi pixel density ensures that text looks crisp, even if it is set at smallest setting. The same can be said about the images, which made viewing videos a great experience.
The screen over the display feels solid and looks great with 2.5D finish around the corners, something that adds to the premium look and finish of this mid-range smartphone. The screen does accumulate fingerprints easily, but thanks to its oleophobic coating can be wiped off with minimal effort.
Coming to the negatives, the display despite being an IPS LCD unit does look noticeably dull when viewed at an angle. Adding to what appears to be insufficient levels of brightness, is a noticeable pink tinge.
The software that governs the ambient light sensor seems a bit too aggressive and will rarely crank up the brightness even in brighter environments. I ended up keeping the Auto Brightness feature turned off most of the time.
The software along with Nubia UI 4.0 does have its advantages. Head on to Settings and under Display you will also find a Screen display preferences section that lets you customise the displays, hue and saturation levels, which is a good touch.
The ZTE Nubia Z11 Mini S features a customised version of Android 6.0 Marshmallow called Nubia UI. This is Nubia UI 4.0 and while it comes with some interesting customisation and gesture functions, is quite a mess considering its premium-looking exteriors.
Indeed, I have seen better customised mobile operating systems (or skins) from Xiaomi, Vivo and Oppo but there’s literally nothing like what you get on a ZTE.
First let’s begin with the positives. The software feels light and does not appear to bog down the hardware that already consists of low-powered Cortex-A53 cores. There’s gestures, plenty of them. In fact, there are so many of them, that they end up hampering the user experience. The side edge gestures were my favourite. And each of them can be customised to an extent.
You can how hold down the edge, to quickly break down into card view and select the desktop of your choice. You can even swipe up or down the edge of the screen to switch between apps (pretty handy). You can swipe down both edges of the display to adjust the brightness and there are still a few more.
While they did make for a fun way to use the smartphone, with so many gestures turned on, I did end up with the touch sensitivity of the corners and edges of the display being turned off during normal app usage. This led to issues when you tap on the corner of the keyboard to switch the numeric keys, where half the button gets ignored thanks to the overlay of the touch gesture, that takes 4-5mm off your touch area from the corners.
Eventually, it went from fun to annoying and I ended up turning every single software gesture off.
Then there’s the inconsistency in the UI. Everything from the text, to the buttons to the layout of the buttons to the layout of the text, is a complete mess.
Thanks to this severe lack of optimisation, you will find text for many menus and headers in native apps scrolling through because they don’t fit inside the UI button or tab.
While typing and copy pasting text, I often found myself waiting for the text to stop rolling so I could figure out which one was copy, paste and cut. ZTE could have simply gone in for stock Android and solved the problem entirely, but then again it seems to favour its swipe-happy Nubia UI over Spartan stock Android Marshmallow.
Issue of text wrapping was even visible in the notifications tray where I often ended up with lines of text that got cut into half thanks to the additional notification from the same app below it. Indeed there is a lot to work on out here.
Similar to Xiaomi, Lenovo, Asus and Vivo, ZTE goes in for the same chipset that is both capable and delivers great battery life. There are no slowdowns while using the smartphone and games and apps open and close quickly, without lag. In fact, at a point it gets hard to tell that there is a battery-friendly chipset inside, thanks to the well-optimised software. Gaming is not a problem either and most of the current favourites run without problems, provided the graphics settings are set to medium. With just A53 low-power cores inside, there are no heating problems either.
Call quality was fine and the caller on the other side could be heard loud and clear. The same can be said about audio quality while listening to music though the headphones. The output was well balanced.
What I did find annoying was the low speaker output. The volume levels were almost half of what the Xiaomi Redmi Note 4 offered. This is disappointing since the phone comes across as a premium device, at a price tag that is a higher than the rest of the competition.
For a smartphone that comes with budget processing chops, I assumed that the high resolution 23MP camera at the rear was a gimmick. But I was wrong.
To begin with, the software interface of the camera is brilliant. There are a ton of photo modes available under Camera Family and most of them are worthwhile provided you have tripod handy.
Everything that is available on the camera interface actually works. The handiest one of them all was the ‘Gradienter’ that basically shows a bubble level on the shutter button itself that will help you frame your images perfectly. There is a separate Pro section with the usual manual controls and even your now standard, Beauty mode for selfies.
Click on the Flickr gallery below to check out the image samples of the ZTE Nubia Z11 Mini S
Coming to image quality, the lack of OIS can clearly be felt. But the Sony IMX318 Exmor RS sensor is pretty darn good. The images shot using the primary camera looked impressive for a smartphone in this range. They are not perfect, but showcased balanced and natural looking tones with the right level of sharpness. There is a bit of lens barrel distortion present, but the images showcased enough detail with the noise reduction on, made me forget about it. The camera also has the tendency to over expose at times, but keeping the HDR mode on Auto takes care of this problem.
Focusing thanks to PDAF was really quick (even in low light) and the built in modes that offered a zoomed preview for the Macro mode is well thought of.
Low light is a slightly different scenario. With noise reduction turned on, the images in auto mode, showcased flat textures. This however varied from scene to scene. At times the noise reduction was useful while at others I had to turn it off (available in More Settings) to get some detail in the image. Switch to the Pro Mode and here is where the noise reduction really shines with long exposures (using a tripod) that are sharp and literally noise free at ISO 400.
The video department also has some good stuff including satisfactory 4K video and 1080p video at 60 fps which was impressive considering this smartphone’s price. The selfie camera produced photographs with good detail at 13MP resolution as you can see in the camera samples gallery above.
All in all, the ZTE Z11 Mini S comes with a great camera module and thanks to its software bits makes the most of it. Enough for me to call it a camera smartphone. Something, that you usually do not find in this price range.
With a Snapdragon 625 inside, paired with a 5.2-inch Full HD display and just a 3,000mAh battery I did not expect the worst. True to my expectations, the smartphone performed really well although not as well as the Asus Zenfone 3S Max, which is the current king of ring in terms of battery life.
I got more than a day of use continuous use and 12 hours on PC Mark for Android test, from this smartphone, which is pretty impressive. Indeed, ZTE has worked on optimising the software which is why I ended up with such great battery life results despite the tightly packed 3,000mAh battery.
Verdict and Price in India
The ZTE Nubia Z11 Mini S is a great smartphone, that’s stuck with unfinished software; something that the company can work on and fix. It features the perfect hardware combination and I have no complaints regarding its Rs 16,999 price tag because it offers a lot more than the competition. There’s a capable 23MP camera, great battery life and a premium looking design, one that even gives the Asus Zenfone 3 (5.2-inch model) a run for its money.
With that said, the camera on the Asus Zenfone 3 that is priced at Rs 21,999 is better, but not by large margin.
As for the rest of the competition that falls behind the Mini S, you get the Asus Zenfone 3S Max (Rs 14,999), the Vivo V5 (Rs 17,980) and the Redmi Note 4, which offers similar hardware at a much lower price tag of Rs 12,999. There's also the recently launched Moto G5 Plus, but our review for now still stands pending. Our first impressions of the G5 Plus are out and you can have a look by clicking here.
What ZTE has with Nubia Z11 Mini S is the right-sized package with a good balance of hardware that justifies its price tag. Go for it if you are coming from any of the budget smartphones mentioned above or are looking for premium design and capable camera in the sub Rs 20,000 range.
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