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Smartphones

Nubia X dual screen phone first impressions: notch-free handset well designed, but cameras are a let-down

  • LCD front display is almost bezel-free, while smaller OLED screen serves as viewfinder for your selfies on this smartphone from China’s ZTE
  • Sleek, light, but let down by its poor performance on nighttime photography, this is one for the geeks
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2018, 12:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 November, 2018, 1:30pm

It’s more than a year since the first smartphone with a notch cut into the top of its edge-to-edge display appeared, and Chinese brands are still coming up with wild ideas to avoid this design.

We’ve seen pop-up camera modules, slider phones and now, with the Nubia X, we have a phone with a second screen on its back.

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Hardware and design

The main purpose of that extra screen is to let you take selfies with the rear camera system, because the X has no front-facing cameras – hence no need for a notch; manufacturers use it to hide a camera lens.

That leaves the 6.26-inch 1080p LCD display up front uninterrupted, and it takes up more than 93 per cent of the phone’s “face”. But back to the second screen – clearly the highlight of this phone.

This screen measures 5.2 inches, has a lower resolution of 720 pixels, and is not as immersive because it does not come close to stretching edge to edge. But in certain instances the second screen looks better than the front display, because it’s an OLED panel, so blacks are deeper and reds pop more.

One can argue whether this design is a meaningful innovation or a gimmick, but there is no denying that it is an impressive piece of hardware engineering, especially considering that this phone is relatively cheap.

The rear display, when not in use, blends seamlessly into the rest of the glass back plate, almost looking like it’s not there. The front of the phone is about as bezel-less as a phone can get right now, and the whole package feels sleek and light.

Software and features

Anything you can do with the front screen you can do on the back, so the Nubia X is fully functional using just the back screen. This is why there are two fingerprint readers too, located on the left and right sides of the phone. The idea is that, no matter which screen you’re using, you’ll always have a fingerprint scanner near your thumb.

Nubia has done an admirable job of optimising the software to account for the second screen too, as switching between screens is seamless, and the phone is smart enough to light up the side of the screen that is facing towards you when your finger registers against either scanner.

However, other than using the second screen as a viewfinder for selfies, there’s very little practical reason why you’d ever want to use the smaller display to do anything.

The software here is the outdated Android 8.1, and it runs Nubia’s heavy skin on top, which is a blatant copy of iOS, down to the design of some icons.

Performance and battery life

The Nubia X has impressive camera specs on paper – a 24-megapixel main lens with a 16-megapixel secondary shooter that is purely for depth detection – but they do not add up to much.

Photos in the day will turn out absolutely fine; beautiful even, if you have the right setting. But every phone can do that. At night the X’s cameras fall apart: it has really slow shutter speed that results in easy blurring and it struggles mightily with exposure. There’s also no stabilisation at all when recording videos.

At least the second lens is doing its job: bokeh portraits tend to turn out nice and natural. This is good news because the camera system is also the selfie camera.

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Performance everywhere else is fine, as the Snapdragon 845 processor and either 6 or 8GB of RAM does the job. But the 845 is on its final days as a flagship chip set, as Qualcomm is replacing it with the 855 in a few weeks.

Battery life, as is the case with all Chinese phones, is outstanding. Whether it’s Nubia, Xiaomi, Huawei, or Oppo, Chinese brands all use a combination of larger battery sizes (in this phone’s case, a 3800 mAh cell) and heavier battery optimisation to achieve all-day battery life.

The micro-management of battery usage could get annoying at times, but use a Chinese phone for a month and jump back to an Apple, Samsung or LG, and you’ll notice the drop in battery life, and the fact you have to carry a battery pack on you again if you’re out all day.

Conclusion

We may be at the peak of smartphone manufacturing right now, both in terms of sheer output and quality. Everyone has got really skilled at making phones look and feel great. For years, ZTE – the parent company of Nubia – had crafted phones that performed well but looked relatively clunky and unattractive.

The Nubia X is the company’s best looking phone yet. Unfortunately, the inferior camera and software make it a hard recommendation if you’re looking for the best phone possible at this budget.

However, the second screen is a fresh, quirky idea that will intrigue. Considering the modest price, the X should have a market for gadget enthusiasts.

Dimensions: 154.1mm x73.3mm x 8.4mm

Weight: 181g

Displays: 6.26-inch 1080p LCD (main); 5.2-inch 720p OLED (secondary)

OS version reviewed: Android 8.1 with Nubia UI on top

Processor: Snapdragon 845

Cameras: 24-megapixel, f/1.7 main; 16-megapixel, f/1.8 secondary

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Memory: 6/8GB of RAM; 64/128/256GB ROM

Colours: “blue gold”, “sea blue”, “black gold”, “deep grey”

Price: 3,299 yuan (6GB RAM, 64GB ROM); 3,699 yuan (8GB RAM, 128GB ROM); 4,199 yuan (8GB RAM, 256GB ROM)