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Featured Review: ZUK Z1

August 31, 2015 - Written By Alexander Maxham

ZUK is a new smartphone brand and company. It was established back in January of this year. It’s actually a sort of strange company. You have a number of Chinese smartphone makers all working together with ZUK, including Lenovo, and Elephone. The Z1 is ZUK’s first smartphone, and yes it does look a whole lot like the iPhone 6. The ZUK Z1 is going to be available outside of China running Cyanogen OS, while inside China we’re looking at ZUI. Our model here is running ZUI and is the Chinese version. Cyanogen OS 12.1 should be available for it within a few weeks. And we’ll revisit the phone once Cyanogen OS is available.

With the Z1, ZUK is starting to bring their “cheap” but decently specced devices outside of China. Something that others have tried, like Meizu and Xiaomi, but could never get them outside of China for the same price as they are selling inside China. That’s largely due to distributor fees as well as taxes in other parts of the world. The ZUK Z1 is going to sell for right around $300, depending on the market you’re in. But is it worth that $300 price tag? We’ll find out in our full review.

Specs

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Inside, the ZUK Z1 is running a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 chipset, along with 3GB of RAM. There’s also the 5.5-inch 1080p IPS LCD display, 4100mAh non-removable battery inside, along with a 13MP camera on the back and a 8MP front-facing camera. The most surprising spec to me is the 64GB of internal storage. Something you usually don’t see on smartphones coming from China at this price-point. As mentioned earlier, the ZUK Z1 runs Cyanogen OS 12.1 which is based off of Android 5.1, but also ZUI which is also based off of Android 5.1. Throughout this review, we will be looking at ZUI, as Cyanogen OS 12.1 won’t be available for a few more weeks.

Other specs include USB Type-C which is USB 3.0, WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.1, GPS with A-GPS and GLONASS, and unfortunately there is no NFC here. Something that’s pretty common with handsets coming out of China lately.

Video Review

Hardware

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Looking at the ZUK Z1, you’d probably think it’s close to an iPhone clone. Especially if you look at the bottom. This is quite common in China, actually. While the phone is a bit large, as it does have a 5.5-inch display, it doesn’t feel overly large in the hand. You can easily use this phone one-handed. One of my complaints about the ZUK Z1 is actually the material on the back. ZUK has gone with a glossy plastic material for the back, and it doesn’t feel as nice in the hand. ZUK have gone and added the volume rocker and power button both on the right side of the phone. Not really an issue, but if you take a lot of screenshots, it’s going to make it a bit difficult when you are trying to take one with one hand. While on the left side you have your dual-SIM card slot.

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In Asia, Africa and even South America, dual-SIM card slots are really popular. Actually there are a few devices out there now that have three SIM card slots. The advantage of having multiple slots is that you can have two networks at the same time. Instead of swapping out SIM cards. Typically one does 4G LTE as well as voice networks, while the other does EDGE data and voice.

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One thing we’d like to mention is that the back of the device, if pressed in the right spot, you can hear it creak. Now we brought this up to ZUK’s CEO after the event (we had a meeting with him and Vikram from Cyanogen, after the announcement), and he told us that it’s “not final hardware”. A bit strange seeing as they touted shipping 40,000 of these during their presentation. Over the past week or so, I’ve tried to make it creak, but it’s pretty tough to do now. So not sure what was going on there, but it seems to be less of an issue now. Which is a good thing.

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The back of the device seems pretty plain. It’s basically a plain white back, with a ZUK logo at the bottom and the camera, and flash at the top. The camera looks quite small actually, but it’s the same size as most other smartphones. However, I wouldn’t mind seeing ZUK go with a bigger camera, like HTC’s UltraPixel, as it’ll make the camera even better in low-light scenarios. We’ll talk more on that later on.

Fingerprint Sensor & Home Button

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This seems to be a pretty popular topic as of late. When I was in Shenzhen at the ZUK Z1 event and I was talking with a few of ZUK’s employees, they were touting how fast the fingerprint sensor was. I pulled out the Galaxy Note 5 and asked if it was faster than the Note 5. They didn’t even hesitate to say that, yes it is faster. Now after using them both simultaneously, I have to agree. The Z1’s fingerprint scanner is crazy fast. We have a video that you can take a look at and see just how fast it is. It’ll be embedded down below.

The fingerprint sensor is nice and all, especially with its speed, but it can only be used for unlocking the phone, unfortunately. With the Galaxy Note 5, you can also use it for logging into LastPass, PayPal, Samsung’s Account and a few other things. Hopefully that can be worked on for the second generation ZUK. They’ve done a great job of implementing it and making it blazing fast, now we just need more reasons to use it.

The home button is a bit interesting here. It doesn’t act like a traditional home button. Using a feature that ZUK has dubbed “U-Touch”, you can perform all kinds of gestures on the home button. For example, just touching it will go back, you can swipe left/right to jump between apps. And a double tap takes you into recent apps. Of course, a regular press of the home button takes you home. It took about a day or two to get used too. But after using it, I actually kinda prefer it, over the capacitive buttons on the Galaxy Note 5.

Now what’s interesting here is that the Cyanogen OS model, which is the exact same hardware, has capacitive buttons. So it appears that they are inactive when using ZUI but with Cyanogen OS they are active. We’ll have to test that more when Cyanogen OS is available. If you take a look at our hands-on images from their event earlier this month, you’ll see two dots on either side of the home button. Looks a lot like what ZTE has done with their AXON Pro smartphone.

Call Quality & Data Speeds

It’s important to preface this section by stating that this is a Chinese smartphone. Which means it is not optimized for the US network. And in fact, I can’t even get LTE here on T-Mobile or AT&T. I did use the ZUK Z1 on T-Mobile, and made a few calls. Those on the other end said that we sounded great. Although there is no HD Voice here since the phone is not made for T-Mobile. As far as data speeds go, they seemed about on par with other phones running on HSPA+ on T-Mobile. Which is about what I expected.

Storage

There’s 64GB of storage here, and out of the box, we have about 53-54GB of storage to use. After installing all of my apps and taking some pictures and videos, I am currently sitting at around 51.24GB of free space left. So for most of us, this should be more than enough space. ZUK is not selling any other sizes of the Z1, at least not at this point. So there’s no choice in storage, but 64GB should be enough for everyone.

Battery Life

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With a 4100mAh battery inside, you’d expect pretty good battery life right? Right. I got through almost two full days of use here with over 7 hours on screen. And if I had been using it hardcore, I could have probably gotten close to 10 hours. That is both Mobile Data and WiFi as well. Now in China, because of the networks that China Mobile and China Unicom use, they consume more battery. So while in China, the battery life wasn’t that good. That’s also why you see plenty of phones with huge batteries.

A couple of gripes about the battery, well more about charging here. One, it doesn’t have Quick Charge. I used Ampere to measure the speed of it charging, and it was charging at about the speed of other devices without Quick Charge. The other is the fact it has a USB Type-C port. So this means that if I have the USB Type-C cable plugged in at my desk and go to plug it in next to my bed, I can’t. Also, I wasn’t able to use it with Android Auto without bringing my charging cable to the car with me. I know these are first world problems, but it is also a glimpse into the near future with USB Type-C.

Software

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As mentioned already, this is running ZUK’s own UI, called ZUI. We’ll be reviewing the Z1 again when Cyanogen 12.1 is available. ZUI looks a lot like the other UI’s available on phones in China. First thing you’ll notice is that there is no app drawer. Very common in China. So you have all of your apps on the home screens. One thing that ZUI has that a lot of other UI’s from China doesn’t have, is widgets. Long-press on the home screen and you are able to add widgets to your home screen. By default it has a nice transparent clock/weather widget on the default home screen. I actually really like it myself.

With ZUI being for China, there is no Google Play services installed and no Google apps either. But that’s a simple fix. Just find the Google Play Store APK and sideload it. And you’re all ready to go. Of course, you’ll also need to then download all of the apps from the Play Store. ZUK has their own app store, simply named “AppCenter”. I was unable to use it, as the store is all in Mandarin, and I wasn’t able to find a way to switch languages. ZUI also has their own GameCenter, which from what I can tell appears to be like Google Play Games and iOS’ GameCenter. But it was a bit tough to tell because, again it was all in Mandarin, except for a few parts. There’s also a “UserCenter”. Now this is where you can sign into ZUK’s cloud service, which backs up your contacts, Photos and SMS. There’s also ZUK Care inside, which you can purchase and get piece of mind in case your phone is stolen.

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There is a bit more bloat pre-installed here compared to other phones I’ve used from China. Mainly Meizu’s offerings. But we have Weibo, WeChat, and a few others as well. Now these are all very popular apps in China, basically replacing Twitter and WhatsApp here in the US. But on the bright side, all of these can be uninstalled or you can disable them.

One of the things users should pay attention to is the results of applying new wallpapers. Basically you crop your wallpaper and it shows up as a square on the lockscreen. Then it’s stretched and blurred out on your home screens. It looks kinda cool, but if you don’t want it to be blurred at all there’s unfortunately no way to counteract it. So with the Z1, I’d recommend sticking with patterned wallpapers.

Camera

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Does a 13-megapixel camera still go as far as it used too? Well, sorta. So ZUK gave us a 13MP camera here on the back. I got some really nice pictures out of the camera, and even in low-light it performed quite well. Video was also pretty impressive, however it only does 1080p and not 4K. Additionally the settings for the camera are not in the camera app, but in the settings app. The only settings in the camera app are for the flash, HDR, switching the cameras, and choosing between video and stills. The shutter is pretty fast, almost instant. Something that’s becoming more and more popular these days with these phones.

The camera app is pretty barebones. That’s actually a good thing. It means that you’ll be focused on actually taking the picture rather than playing around with the settings. Which I like. Although I do wish there was a settings shortcut in the camera app. It would make it easier to change things, I think. You can find samples of photos from this camera down below.

The Good

  • Plenty of storage here. I’m starting to think that smartphones need to come standard with 64GB of storage. Especially with these cameras getting better and better
  • Speaking of the camera, while it doesn’t hold a candle to the Galaxy Note 5’s camera. It’s still quite good. And I’d be okay with it as my daily driver. We’ll see if that changes when Cyanogen is available.
  • With Cyanogen OS on the Z1, I believe that ZUK is going to get really popular, pretty quick.

The Bad

  • No word on US availability. No word on it supporting US bands either. Luckily Chinese bands are largely the same as Europeans.
  • The glossy plastic on the back isn’t what I’d prefer, but that could be just me
  • The fingerprint sensor needs a bit more functionality. It’s plenty fast, now we just need reasons to use it more often.

Final Thoughts

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I was a bit skeptical of the ZUK Z1, yet still excited. With the specs of the Z1, and the fact it’ll have Cyanogen OS, I was pretty excited. And ZUK did not let me down. Even their own ZUI, is pretty darn good. Although there are the occasional typos throughout the OS. That’s likely due to the translation not being spot on. Overall it’s a pretty impressive device. And if there is a model that comes out with support for US bands, I wouldn’t hesitate in telling everyone to go pick one up.

I’m really excited for the Z2 next year. Which we were told by one of the company’s SVP’s that it’ll be out in January with the Snapdragon 820. He also said it could be the 830, but I’d keep my money on the 820. And they could be launching in India. For those here in the U.S., the ZUK Z1 can already be purchased through GearBest for $339.89 which is quite a good price point considering everything you get.