Not everyone wants to spend a lot of money on a phone, and if you can’t quite see the value in a $799 or $999 phone, ZTE is looking at you with a $299 phone. Is this a bargain, or just plain cheap?
You might never have heard of the brand “ZTE”, but just like Huawei, they have been doing business in smartphones for quite a while.
In fact, the comparison between the two is apt, as just like Huawei, ZTE once spent most of its time making products for telcos, building smartphones, tablets, and mobile broadband devices and releasing them with the badging of a telco rather than that of their own company.
Recently, though, ZTE has been doing what other manufacturers have been doing and making more than just another phone for another telco, branding their own gear and selling it online and in retail stores.
The Blade S6 is an example of this, and is ZTE’s latest attempt to storm the budget-to-mid-range part of the market, offering a top-tier-like gadget without a top-tier-like price.
Starting this off is the screen, and that’s an area ZTE hopes to attract people, with as 5 inch 720p HD In-Plane Switching (IPS) touchscreen, providing a resolution of 1280×720 and delivering a pixels clarity value of 294 pixels per inch.
Under this, you’ll find the guts of the phone, with ZTE going with one of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 615 octa-core processors made from a 1.7GHz quad-core and a 1.0GHz quad-core setup paired together. This is matched with 2GB RAM and 16GB storage, and there’s even a microSD slot here if you decide to expand on this later on.
Google’s Android OS is also here, setup at Android 5.0 “Lollipop” out of the box, making it pretty much up-to-date.
Cameras are of course offered in the ZTE Blade S6 — it’s a phone, after all, and that is par for the course — and you’ll find a 13 megapixel shooter with a flash on the back, while a 5 megapixel camera can be found on the front without a flash.
Connections are more or less par for the course as well, with 802.11a/b/g/n/ac WiFi provided alongside Bluetooth 4.0 with A2DP, GPS with A-GPS, as well as microUSB for wired, and Category 4 4G LTE providing the mobile connectivity.
Ports for the phone are fairly standard too, and there are few of these, with a 3.5mm headset jack up top, a microUSB port at the bottom, and two pin ejectable trays on the left edge providing access to the SIM tray with two nanoSIM areas and the microSD slot for upgrading the storage.
Buttons are also relatively standard and limited, with a physical power button and volume rocker found on the right edge, with three soft buttons found below the 5 inch LCD screen.
The main soft button resembles a circle and always sends you home, a blue light shining underneath, while the remaining soft buttons — two of them — can be found on either side of that home button, providing back and menu button options, though the choice is yours in software as to which each button represents.
The battery in the ZTE Blade S6 is rated at 2400mAh and is not removable.
New phones tend to cost an arm and a leg, but not all manufacturers take the same approach. Some, in fact, deliberately aim for the entry-to-mid range part of the market, an area that’s really beginning to pick up steam due to just how much phones are costing these days, as many brands hit for the above $800 price tag.
Not everyone is willing to plonk down that sort of change, and so companies like ZTE are trying to get in there with models of their own that make a play for the mid-to-high end space, but for noticeable less of moolah.
ZTE’s bizarrely named Blade S6 is one such phone, and while the “S6” part of its name is a little confusing and sounds like a direct play for Samsung, not just because ZTE hasn’t had a Blade S1 through to an S5, the phone appears on paper as a way for people to tackle mid-range with a price that even bests that area.
Pick up the phone, however, and you’d be excused for thinking ZTE had spent time in the design labs with Jony Ive and the rest of the Apple ilk.
Make no mistake, the ZTE Blade S6 looks like an iPhone, complete with a circular icon underneath the screen, a thin softened rectangular slit of a speaker above the display, and with a silver back and small circular camera on the far left on the rear.
That said, it’s a hell of a lot cheaper, with ZTE forgoing the premium metal materials and replacing them with plastic, like what would normally be an aluminium back on the iPhone 6 is a silver plastic back on the ZTE S6.
The glass is still there on the front, but there are no physical buttons, with soft buttons only — press ‘em and they vibrate, with haptic feedback underneath — and blue LEDs simply telling you that there are buttons.
The easiest button to identify is the one under a circle, and that’s your home button.
It’ll be pretty obvious when you pick up the phone, but what won’t be as obvious will be the left and right soft buttons, because without being switched on, they’re simply white, with no markings.
Once the phone is on, you’ll see two blue dots light up, with one acting as back and the other as the older Android “menu” button, though you can change which is which in the software for the phone.
Overall, the layout isn’t totally clear at first, but you get used to it.
That said, we think ZTE could have just forgone the button markings, minuscule as they are, and just made the soft buttons appear on the screen, as so many other Android smartphones do. That would have made more sense, and could have meant either a bigger screen or less bezel, in theory, anyway.
With the phone on, however, you can get stuck into using it, and being a smartphone, there are, of course, a numbers of things you can do.
You can make phone calls, you can surf the web, you can write notes and take photos and listen to music and capture images with the camera and tweet and Facebook and play games and generally just use the phone.
And you’ll do it all with a barebones basic version of Google’s Android 5.0 “Lollipop”.
Forget the niceties of an overlay, because they can’t be found here, and even Google Now’s menu and news screen is missing here, meaning there’s no stock swipe to the left to find your day and any suggested reading materials loaded for you, nor is there that familiar set of app icons on a white backdrop that Lollipop typically shows.
You could always load Google’s Now launcher later, but the ZTE comes with the a totally barren edition of Android.
That’s not a bad thing, either, and it’s not a good thing. It’s just a thing, and a thing that feels a little out of date, revealing menu layouts and home screen looks similar to that of an older version of Android from when before Google made its Now launcher more friendly.
At least it’s fairly up to date, which is more than some manufacturers can say for other phone releases.
Performance is mostly strong, though, and while the Blade S6 doesn’t arrive with the fastest of processors, its Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 is no slouch either, providing eight-cores of processing power to work alongside 16GB storage and 2GB RAM.
This combination of technology helps the ZTE Blade S6 to handle itself quite well with just a hint of lag as you jump from app to app, browse the menus, and generally use the phone.
Sometimes it can be fairly noticeable and is more than a hint, and we’ve even found an app that was able to crash the phone, with one of our synthetic benchmarks working once with poor results, and then crashing out the whole handset every other time.
We’re not sure what’s going on there, but overall, the performance is quite surprising, especially given the $299 price tag, and it’s something we can likely attribute to the combination of excellent specs and up-to-date operating system.
Storage isn’t bad either, with 16GB storage offered out of the box, and a little over 11GB of that available to you.
If you start to run out, ZTE hasn’t cut off upgrades like another S6 manufacturer has, and you’ll find a pin ejection tray offers up a microSD slot for you to throw some extra storage into.
The display isn’t bad either, and while we’ll always prefer a higher resolution screen, the 5 inch 720p IPS display offered up in the Blade S6 is definitely pretty enough, featuring decent viewing angles and relatively clear text and images.
Sure, it’s technically not Retina grade, sitting at roughly 294 pixels per inch compared to the 326 of Apple’s iPhone 6, but you’ll still find a decent screen is being offered up in this phone.
Mobile performance is also equally strong, providing 4G speeds between the 15 and 35Mbps mark on our tests with the Telstra 4GX network in Sydney’s CBD, but also possible at providing even superior speeds thanks to the Category 4 modem found inside the hardware.
While it is totally network dependent, the Blade S6’s Cat4 setup means speeds as high as 150Mbps down and 50Mbps up are possible.
And the inclusion of two SIM slots might actually make some people happy, both with nanoSIM, which is a first for us.
Battery life is a little less impressive, though, netting a day but not much more.
Mind you, that’s more or less on par with other phones that this model targets, devices in the mid- and high-end spectrum, all which provided a general 24 hours of life, but not much more, and we suspect that’s the octa-core chip making a dent there, because devices with a high definition 720p screen and either a duo-core or quad-core chip tend to handle around two days of life.
We suspect you could get that if you wanted it, but you’d have to not use the display all that often, or the phone much, either.
The camera could also be a lot better, and is proof that a larger megapixel amount doesn’t always amount to something capable.
While the 13 megapixel shooter on the back might appear to be a fairly sizeable choice, results from the camera are questionable at best, and they’ll do the job for social media, but won’t be useful for much else.
Images out of the rear camera were frequently blotchy and didn’t focus with the same ease as you’d expect, which is one of the first times we felt a phone camera totally missed the marks in years.
Despite appearing sharp on screen, images were often far from it, with an infinity focus point often yielding images that were blurry.
When the camera did pull off a decent shot, images were sharp enough from afar, but with blotchy details up close, helping to make this camera feel as cheap as its plastic heavy build.
Low light performance wasn’t much better, and those soft details popped up again, though at least the colours were a little more vibrant than we expected.
ZTE’s choice of front-facing selfie camera doesn’t help the situation much, with weak low-light performance and obvious noise in places where there was light at the time.
Again, social media junkies will probably not notice this as much, but this isn’t the best 5 megapixel selfie camera we’ve seen, and you’ll get better results out of some of the 1.3 and 2 megapixel front-facing cameras.
It certainly is nice to see some manufacturers finding a way to get in well under the $500 mark with something that would typically cost around that much, and that’s sort of what the ZTE Blade S6 appears to be.
To answer our original question, “is this a bargain, or just plain cheap,” ZTE’s S6 appears to be both a bargain and cheap, packing a spec-driven punch for a cost that we’ve seen budget 3G phones of a lesser quality hit.
While the name could certainly do with some work — seriously ZTE, you’re not fooling anyone that this is an S6 — as could the style and design — again, you’re not fooling anyone that this isn’t an iPhone — ZTE’s take on what constitutes a mid-range phone for a less-than mid-range price is intriguing, and would certainly be compelling for someone keen for a new phone who has no qualms about trying a brand that isn’t totally recognisable.
If that’s you and there’s definitely a budget for a new phone, ZTE’s $299 outright smartphone is worth taking a look at, if only because it offers great value above else.
But if you need a good camera and something with style, we’d take a gander at something else as neither are really offered here.