Overview, Design & Features
Just like Huawei, ZTE is a Chinese telecommunications equipment and systems company. While its main business is supplying networking gear such as routers and switchers to global telcos, ZTE is also trying to expand its consumer-device business (smartphones) to fuel growth.
Following the footsteps of Xiaomi's global expansion, ZTE recently expanded its presence in South East Asia with the launch of three smartphone models, the Nubia Z5S Mini, Blade L2 and KIS 3. Earlier today, the company just announced the launch of the Blade VEC 4G, Blade L2 and KIS 3 in Singapore.
Of the three models, the Blade VEC 4G stands out the most as it is the flagship device and comes with a sweet price tag of S$299. At this price point, the Blade VEC 4G is competing with the recent phone models such as the ASUS ZenFone 5, HTC Desire 610, Motorola Moto G with 4G and Xiaomi Mi 3.
It's obvious that ZTE is engaging a price war with Xiaomi and the other phone vendors in Singapore. So what does ZTE and the Blade VEC 4G bring to the table that its competitors do not? Can it really take market share away from Samsung as it boldly claimed? Well, let's find out in this review. Before you read on, here's a quick overview of the three ZTE smartphones launching here:
Design & Handling
The Blade VEC 4G looks like a hybrid between the Huawei's smartphones and Motorola Razr Maxx with its design choices. Its curved top and bottom seems to be inspired from the deliberate design element of Huawei's phones such as the Ascend G6 4G, P6, and P7. While it may seem like ZTE is mimicking its competitor, it does make the Blade VEC stand out from the rest of the phones which sport the typical flattened top and bottom.
Its rear is made of glass fiber with a patterned stripe design, which looks very similar to the kevlar fiber coated back of the Motorola Razr Maxx. ZTE claims that this not only makes the Blade VEC 4G look fashionable, it also "effectively avoids scratches". The glass fiber finish may not boast the same level of scratch resistance as the renowned Corning Gorilla Glass, but it seemed to be doing its job quite well as we did not notice any scratches on its rear after a week of usage. It also masks fingerprints and smudges quite well.
The back is non-removable, which means that its battery cannot be removed as well. Its micro-SIM card slot is located at the left side of the device. Having said that, the Blade VEC 4G does not support dual-SIM unlike the Blade L2 and KIS 3.
The build quality is somewhat decent; like most other phone manufacturers, ZTE chose to use plastic in the construction of the chassis. While it's nowhere as solid as the ASUS ZenFone 5 and Xiaomi Mi 3, there was almost no flex in the phone's body. The Blade VEC 4G is also surprisingly light at 131.8g when compared to the ZenFone 5 and Mi 3, both of which weigh in at 145g.
Overall, the lightweight and compact form factor makes the Blade VEC 4G easy to use in one hand. ZTE also got it right by placing the power button and volume controls on the right side of the device, making it easy for us to reach out for them. There are still phone makers out there who fail to understand this simple usability logic when designing their phones. One example is the HTC Desire 610 where the power button is located on the top side. When a phone is sporting a 5-inch screen or thereabout, you can't quite continue the same design aspects from smaller sized devices.
There are, however, some design choices undertaken by ZTE that differed from the established norm. The 3.5mm audio output jack and the micro-USB 2.0 port switch locations; the audio jack is at the bottom right side while the micro-USB port is on the top left side. As most phone models sport the opposite configuration, users of the Blade VEC 4G may take some time to adapt to the different layout, but it's certainly something that's adaptable.
If you haven't noticed by now, the Blade VEC 4G lacks a memory card slot. As such, you have to make do with the available storage space on the device. Even though the Blade VEC 4G comes with 16GB internal storage, only 12.86GB of user storage space is available.
5-inch HD Display
The Blade VEC 4G comes with a 5-inch HD (1,280 x 720 pixels) IPS display. This is in-line with the ZenFone 5 and Motorola Moto G with 4G, but a step down from the Mi 3 which has a Full-HD (1,920 x 1,080 pixels) display. Nonetheless, the resolution on the display is plenty dense enough at 294ppi. As expected of IPS panel, viewing angles are great on the Blade VEC 4G and screen brightness can be a little over the top if pushed to its maximum.
One of the Few Non-Nexus Phones to Ship With Google Now Launcher
Last month, ZTE announced that the Blade VEC 4G is one of the first few smartphones among non-Nexus and non-Google Play Experience (GPE) devices to ship with preloaded Google Now Launcher (GNL). Starting with the Blade VEC 4G, ZTE will preload GNL on all its smartphones running on Android 4.4 and above.
Our review unit did not come preloaded with GNL. We've checked with ZTE on this and they clarified that they are in the midst of testing GNL on the local networks. The retail units from end-August will be preloaded with GNL. So what's the hype over using GNL on its smartphones?
A star feature of GNL is the "Ok, Google" voice command, where you can search the Internet, play music, set alarms/reminders and send text messages. It was an exclusive feature of the Nexus 5 for many months before Google made it available for the other Nexus and GPE phones in February. Other benefits of GNL touted by ZTE include a visually appealing interface, and a fast and snappy user experience.
While we applauded ZTE's close partnership with Google to implement this across its smartphone portfolio, it is no longer a major marketing or selling point for ZTE. Google has made GNL available for all Android 4.1+ devices more than a week ago. Besides GNL, users can choose two other launchers on the Blade VEC 4G which are its own launcher and a Family Mode.
Like many other Android vendors, ZTE has a customized launcher for the Blade VEC 4G. While ASUS, HTC and Samsung came up with unique names for their customized interfaces, ZTE simply called it "Launcher". On the surface, Launcher looks no different from stock Android. However, it differs in some aspects:
Most, if not all mobile operating systems - Apple iOS, BlackBerry 10 OS, Google Android and Windows Phone - require you to swipe across the lock screen to unlock. ZTE decided to take a different approach by making it mandatory to long press on the screen. It may be a deliberate attempt by ZTE to differentiate its phones from the pack, but we viewed it as unintuitive.
By going against the common practice, ZTE is making it a tad harder for the user to adapt to its style. It took us quite a while to adapt to ZTE's implementation and when we eventually got used to it, we find ourselves long-pressing on other Android smartphones which irritated us further. Changing to GNL does not address this issue.
Despite running on Android 4.4 KitKat, the Launcher does not allow you to add widgets by long-pressing on the home screen. Doing so only brings up the settings to change the wallpaper for the home screen and lock screen. You have to access the App List to swipe to the Widgets section, touch and hold to pick up the widget and drag it to the home screen.
Virtual Key - Ability to hide the navigation buttons
As there is no hardware navigation buttons on the Blade VEC 4G, you have to rely on the software keys to navigate the interface. The on-screen buttons can interfere with game play and reading, hence ZTE includes an option to automatically hide them after five seconds. To access them again, simply swipe up from the bottom. This feature is also used by Huawei for some of its smartphones such as the Ascend Mate.
To make the Blade VEC 4G easier to use for the elderly, ZTE has a Family Mode where the interface will sport bigger fonts, larger app sizes, and offers easier access to important functions such as the call log and sending text messages.
It also has an Emergency feature, which when enabled, it will appear as a shortcut option on the lock screen. In the event of an emergency, the user only needs to long press on the SOS option for it to automatically make a call and/or send a text message to a preset number after 10 seconds.