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Hands-on: ZTE Star 2 – The Voice Controlled Phone

January 4, 2015 - Written By Nick Sutrich

I was able to sit down with a handful of representatives today from ZTE at a private hands-on event in Las Vegas for the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show.  Of the four devices ZTE let me have time with only two had just been released.  The one you see in my hand here is the ZTE Star 2, the successor to last year’s ZTE Star that debuted ZTE’s voice command software.  As you would expect ZTE has improved their voice control software in every way possible over the original, and while I’ve not been able to use the first Star to try that out I can imagine that to be the case in my time with the second.

Mr Waiman Lam, Senior Director of Technology & Partnership Strategy & Marketing for ZTE, was on hand to demonstrate the Star 2 and began by greeting the phone with the custom voice wake up code he set it up with.  In explaining the technology behind the Star 2 he told me it was powered by the Snapdragon 801, which as many of you will know is behind powerhouse phones like the OnePlus One, Galaxy S5 and HTC One M8.  The key behind this platform, besides the power and battery friendly nature of it, is a dedicated always-on listening chip that ZTE has taken complete advantage of.

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While many companies that have used this chip will only use it for a wake up command or always-on Google Now listening, ZTE has taken it a step further than even Motorola has in providing true system level control over essentially any function you can think of.  ZTE backs this technology with over 1,000 patents, 158 which are specifically related to voice control.  With the phone off you can simply speak a command, or you can hold down the home button to bring up the visual voice control as seen in the picture above.

While playing music Mr Lam simply has to say “pause music” or “previous track” to move around, all this while the phone had its screen off.  There’s no need for a keyword for some of these commands, which makes them super convenient, and with 3 noise canceling microphones I was assured that these commands work even in a loud environment.  Mr Lam also stated that the voice system has over a 90% accuracy rate and a 1.2 second response time for commands, making this lightning fast versus most other commands.  You also don’t need a network connection for the commands either, as was demonstrated on the unit with all the radios off.  Other system-level commands such as turning WiFi or Bluetooth on or off, opening the browser, reading a text message and others were available, and if you’re ever wondering how many commands there are you can just ask it for help.  It also works with 3rd party apps with no SDK needed to develop for, making this a perfect companion with something like Google Now instead of a replacement.

ZTE has already launched the Star 2 in China on December 18th with full Mandarin support for around $400.  While there’s no domestic US release that does seem to be in the cards for ZTE, specifics aren’t available at this time. Outside of the flagship voice control the phone feels super premium and features a 5-inch 1080p display, 2.3GHz Quad-core Snapdragon 801 processor, 2GB of RAM, a 2300mAh battery (which is rated for all-day use), and 16GB internal storage.  The rear-facing camera is 13MP with f/2.0 aperature, and the front-facing camera features a 5mp sensor and an ultra-wide 88° wide-angle lens for group shots.

The build quality was what you’d expect from a premium device.  Glass flank both the front and back of the phone, and the edges all around were pure aluminum with chamfered edges on both front and back.  ZTE has a really interesting curved design at the top and bottom of the phone giving it a unique appearance and feel in the hand.  It’s deceptively light and very comfortable to hold too.  We definitely look forward to getting more time with the Star 2 in the future and hope it makes its way across the ocean to other countries too, as my time with it was very favorable indeed.