Just a few short years ago, ZTE looked like being the next big thing in the consumer smartphone space. That never quite happened for us here in the UK, but they remain a huge manufacturer and are in or on the cusp of the top 5 worldwide regularly.
They recently announced and released the Blade S6, a mid-range handset sitting above the budget range and offering great bang for your buck, at least on paper. It is available for around £169 off contract but cheaper deals can be found. For that relatively meagre outlay you are getting some fantastic specs and interesting design features.
Yes, it is fair to say that ZTE are aping the look of some other well known brands with some blatant rip-offs including their "Designed in California" missive found on the back of the phone, but sometimes that imitation leads to good results.
Hardware and design
The front of the phone is dominated by its 5" 720p IPS LCD display. This is far from the best display in the world but it is still rather nice. The resolution and pixel density are high enough that there should be no complaints. The colour gamut and saturation are not fantastic with bold hues being particularly muted and while contrast is acceptable it struggles to reach the heights of some devices even at this end of the market but I really had no complaints. In direct sunlight the screen is OK, nothing more.
In a manner that is less common than I would like, the glass curves slightly towards the edges of the display and the fit is such that the seam between the glass and the body of the phone is very minimal. It is not as refined as some devices but still works well making swiping gestures all the more pleasant.
Underneath that screen is the blue lit home button fashioned as a circle. I like the way this looks. Annoyingly though, the capacitive home and menu keys (yes, it has a menu key) are just dots which light up on demand next to this circle. The dots are customisable as to which is menu and which is back.
On the back we see the 13mp camera and its single LED flash and a speaker aperture with a little nubbin to raise the phone up slightly so it can be heard when resting on its rear. The body of the device is entirely plastic and I am not convinced by the metallic effect ZTE have gone for.
The right hand side has a volume rocker and the power button both of which are positive enough in their feel. On the left side we find the slots for the dual nano SIM cards and the microSD card.
Overall, ZTE have built the Blade S6 averagely. It creaks and moans occasionally when being used and feels a tad flimsy. It is nice and light but does not have that solidity I hope for in a phone.
Switching the screen on reveals a customised version of Android Lollipop called MiFavor 3.0 UI. The name does the Blade S6 no favours but in reality the software skin is reasonably good. The Android notification drawer and quick toggles are left intact as is the status bar.
The MiFavor launcher has no app drawer but offers some flexibility. Swipe up when on the home screen for options to change the wallpaper and the animation when moving between pages. Widgets and app icons can be laid out as you see fit and I do like the widget drawer that ZTE provide. There is no way to change the order of homescreens though.
ZTE have left the settings menu largely as it was adding only a few custom options of their own. Similarly, the lock screen is basically stock Android for which ZTE should be applauded.
There are a lot of pre-installed apps, but almost all can be either uninstalled or disabled. I shouldn't have to do this but at least it can be done. Most of these apps are not very useful and I especially disliked the ZTE calendar, but of course there is full Google Play access so you can install anything else you like. Once I had my own launcher and all the Google apps installed, the experience feels very stock Android and given how easy it is to make the phone look that way, I question the value of ZTE's efforts in offering their custom software, but there we are.
One interesting feature of the Blade S6 is that it offers dual SIMs. One is for LTE with all UK bands supported and the other only received GSM signals. The setup works well and as expected is flexible as to which SIM is used for calls and messaging.
So how about the experience of using the S6. Well, it is pretty fast. ZTE have used the new Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 SoC here paired with 2Gb of RAM and 16Gb internal storage (about 10Gb available). The 615 is a fairly new SoC and I can confirm that it is fast. Apps load relatively quickly and once loaded are very fast. The whole interface is fairly smooth and pleasant to use. In fact, I was so impressed with this chip, I started to wonder why you would need anything more.
I would go so far as to suggest that the Snapdragon 615 is a game changer for Android in both a positive and negative sense. It is clearly a fast chipset and I suspect it has good enough battery endurance too. It never seems to run hot and is an all round great SoC. The problem for OEMs might be convincing people that higher end devices with faster chipsets are worthwhile, the performance differential is becoming negligible.
Unfortunately, the Blade S6 is riddled with little bugs and all of them are on the software side. The problems with Android Lollipop are well documented and all of them are here including weird battery drain and slow downs as well as some obvious memory leaks. Add to that many more app crashes than I would expect and a surprising number of spontaneous device resets and it is clear there are some issues.
ZTE launched the device with Android 5.0 and have updated it to 5.0.1 now with some fixes. After doing the upgrade, which annoyingly involved wiping the phone, it was smoother with fewer crashes and resets, but all these issues still existed. It is a real shame as some well optimised and stable software would lead to a truly fantastic experience.
The touchscreen on the S6 is good but not perfect with a few phantom touches and a fair number of issues differentiating between taps and swipes. The capacitive buttons respond to the touch nice and positively but the use of a menu button rather than the usual task switch button is simply baffling these days. It slows down multi-tasking and essentially makes a whole hardware component of the device completely useless. ZTE could and should do very much better here.
Cellular connections are reasonably strong with good data transfer rates. Call quality though is very weak with the other person on a call often completely unable to hear me. Volume levels in the earpiece are also a bit too low.
Talking of volume levels, I found audio quality to be only OK both through headphones and the built in speaker and the maximum volume to be almost laughably low at times.
Like many manufacturers, ZTE have used a Sony sensor in the S6 camera, a 13mp one in this instance, and whether the sensor is good or not, the overall camera output is fairly poor. ZTE clearly have a long way to go to match the best even at this price range. It is a real shame as their camera interface is not too bad. It loads to a simple view with not much in the way of manual control visible.
Press the red circle on the left and full manual control is enabled. There are lots of options here and they are implemented in a fairly nice way but ultimately I never bothered using them as the camera is simply not good enough to warrant it.
There are a number of effects available including an HDR mode which is very aggressive in its processing. I just left it in normal mode all of the time though.
You can see some camera samples here, as always click on the images to see the full size versions:
The front facing camera is a 5mp sensor and seems to have a fairly wide angle lens in front of it. The quality is very average and although I don't take many selfies, when I did with the S6, I was left disappointed.
Battery life is a constant problem on smartphones and the 2400mAh unit in the S6 combined with the concerns about Lollipop battery endurance had me worried. I am looking for solid battery performance but more than that, consistent battery performance. I want to feel confident that when I look at my battery gauge, I can accurately guess how long I have until it will be dead.
I have never seen such variable battery life as I had with the S6. I had more than one day where I got through the day with four hours screen time quite easily, impressive stuff. I also had more than one day where I was searching for a charger by early afternoon with only one hour of screen on time. This variability was more of an issue for me than the generally average battery performance I felt it really gives. ZTE need to work on getting this more consistent.
I did test using a second SIM in the phone to see the impact on battery life but it was so variable, I cannot really comment.
Should you buy the S6? If you want a dual SIM device at a relatively low price point with fairly stock Android Lollipop, then maybe. Otherwise, I wouldn't.
ZTE have done a decent job with the Blade S6. It is very fast and generally nice to use. It looks good enough not to give the impression of being cheap, at least from afar. However, there are too many issues for me to recommend it. It feels a bit cheap, there are far too many software bugs and the camera and battery are problematic.
If you are looking for a phone at this price and don't need dual SIM slots, we would still recommend the Moto G, especially the second generation model with LTE. It is worth waiting a month or two though as many more Snapdragon 615 powered devices are coming to the market.