Many in India may have not heard about ZUK. A Chinese Internet company, ZUK is similar to LeEco, and now even Xiaomi, which was founded in April 2015. From the little that we do know about the company, we also know that it is into mobile Internet and Internet of Things (IOT) and has a talent pool of more than 400 competitive innovators from other famous Internet companies.
Still then, even with an introduction like the one given above, it is still hard to associate or compare ZUK to any other brand. Now add the fact that Lenovo has backed the company, and things get a lot more interesting. This is more so as ZUK can function independently of Lenovo and need not follow the Lenovo strategy like design guidelines, software restrictions, etc.
With that said, the company’s latest venture is the ZUK Z1 smartphone or as it has been tagged for in India, the Lenovo ZUK Z1. At first glance it indeed seemed like another Chinese smartphone that packs in an older Qualcomm chipset combined with updated Cyanogen OS software bits, which is expected to make for an interesting buy. The smartphone was launched in September of 2015, but plenty has changed since then in terms of newer budget and mid-range chipsets from Qualcomm. But as we used the smartphone for a week, we discovered that the Lenovo Zuk Z1 does have a lot going for it even with that older processor.
Build and Design: 8/10
While most buyers these days, do prefer a smartphone with an all-metal construction. It is indeed a bit expensive to build one given the need to bring down prices. In ZUK’s case the price needs to compete with other Chinese smartphone offerings as well, so it is indeed a bit of tough call. To make things simpler, ZUK went in for a metal frame that is sandwiched with a Corning Gorilla Glass screen on the front and a non-removable plastic cover on the back.
With that out of the way, we can easily say that the build quality is top notch. There are no creaking sounds whatsoever and the anodised finish on the metal frame perfectly matches the look and feel of the plastic back. The plastic back also means that there is little interference for the smartphone’s radios so the only breaks in the metal frame are the two tiny slits at the top and bottom of the handset.
We really liked the seamless placement of the fingerprint reader something that we have never seen on an Android-powered smartphone in the past.
Another benefit of going with the plastic back is that the weight of this smartphone is in check. For a smartphone with a 5.5-inch display that offers a 4100mAh non-removable battery, the handset does not look chubby and weighs in at a comfortable 175 grams.
The overall design language presents a clean and polished look that felt comfortable to hold and offered a certain amount of grip as well.
With an older Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 chipset inside, it initially seemed that there is nothing to brag about. Turns out, this handset does pack in some goodies. There is a 5.5-inch Full HD IPS LTPS display on the front with Corning’s Gorilla Glass screen protecting it. Inside, there is a tried and tested Qualcomm MSM8974PRO-AC clocked at 2.5GHz, which is the last version of the chipset produced by Qualcomm and according to ZUK, also the most stable one in the 801 lineup. There’s 3GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage that cannot be expanded.
Coming to the cameras, we get a 13MP Sony-made IMX214 unit that features a 5P Largan lens setup and OIS, while the front-facing unit packs in an 8MP unit with an f/2.2 lens.
Connectivity options include, Dual SIM 4G LTE (nano+nano), Wi-Fi 802.11b/g/n/ac, Wi-Fi Direct, Bluetooth v4.1 and USB 3.0 with a Type-C port for 5Gbps data transfer speeds.
The handset runs Cyanogen OS 12 and Android 5.1.1 Lollipop underneath. A 4100mAh non-removable battery completes the package and can be charged using a quick-charger provided in the box.
The Lenovo ZUK Z1 sports a Full HD (1920×1080 pixels) IPS LCD display. We really liked the colours that it produced, which were pretty accurate and not as saturated as the ones on AMOLED displays these days. With a pixel density of 401PPI, text looked crisp no matter how much we tweaked the smartphone’s built-in DPI scaling feature, in order to display more lines of text on the same display area.
Images looked sharp as well. And we really appreciated Cyanogen’s LiveDisplay setting that allows a user to tweak not just a preset display colour profile, but also the colour temperature, manually. Heading into Advanced mode even lets users calibrate the on-screen colours (more on this in Software).
Sunlight legibility was a bit of problem as we found that display was not bright enough to tackle the bright summer sun out here in Mumbai. Otherwise we have no complaints.
Cyanogen OS was once exclusive to Micromax’s YU handsets in India. So when we initially got hold of the handset for review, we kept forgetting that we were holding a Lenovo device (ZUK). However, this is possibly the best software that we have seen on a smartphone coming from Lenovo so far. It runs smooth, does not get in your way and you can customise it exactly the way you want, even down to the boot animations!
Everything on this smartphone that runs Cyanogen OS 12 with Android 5.1 Lollipop as the base is customisable. You can change the font, the icons in the notifications shade (status icons), the toggle buttons and more.
Even more impressive, and something which was also available on the YU-branded handsets by Micromax, is the ability to enable Advanced mode in Settings. This gives users the ability to open up a deeper level of customisation that lets users do even more. Advanced mode gives users access to more options in the Settings menu that are normally hidden from view. This would include the ability to calibrate the display’s colour, enable per-app performance profiles, change the LCD density of the display (that lets you see more content in the same space) and more. Indeed, this is something that we wished was available in most Lenovo smartphones to begin with.
There is very little or no bloat packed in apart from the email client and calendar combination that comes from Boxer, which was good at what it did.
And with minimum bloat comes smooth performance. While the Snapdragon 801 did not perform well on the OnePlus X, it did a great job on board the ZUK Z1. The animations are smooth and the processor kept up with the demands of the software, which even with Lollipop on board did a fine job. ZUK put up a post on the company’s website stating that they are working on an Android Marshmallow ROM as well so when it’s out, things will only get better.
Gaming on the Lenovo ZUK Z1 was not an issue even with the old Snapdragon 801. We did fear that performance would take a hit given the average (for today) benchmark scores, but the Z1 ran most games without a hiccup and at high texture settings. The 5.5-inch Full HD display, 2.5GHz clock speed and 3GB of RAM paired with a 4100mAh battery not just made gaming hassle-free but delivered a great video viewing experience as well. The Z1 did heat up while playing games, but this was only with new titles. The older set of games, chugged along with no problems whatsoever.
Coming to call quality, the audio was loud and clear and the same can be said about the speaker as well. Listening to music was great experience even though the audio was a bit heavy on the bass. Cyanogen’s AudioFX equaliser really helps customise the listening experience to your needs and we liked the simple UI that comes with presets that lets you tweak plenty of other settings (like Bass and Virtualisation) as well.
While we loved the seamless look of the fingerprint scanner that also acts as the Home button, it works flawlessly and unlocks the smartphone instantly without any sort of visible lag.
There’s really not much to complain out here, but then again, the photos we got were not some sort of an achievement either. With a 13MP camera accompanied by Cyanogen’s software suite, we did not expect anything stellar for a smartphone in this price range. And our expectations were spot on indeed.
The camera with 5P Largan lens setup delivered shareworthy images that will impress viewers on both the smartphone and even on a desktop. The colour saturation levels were spot on and the autofocus was quick to lock focus in daylight conditions as well. More impressively, it did lock accurately and we think the optical image stabilisation (OIS) contributed significantly to this.
The images clicked in both standard and HDR modes were sharp and thanks to the HDR we managed to click some interesting low-light shots as well. The OIS really helps capture some impressive shots at night like the image of the skyscraper in the image sample gallery.
The camera however did overexpose images in some brightly lit situations, but it was nothing to complain about. The capable sensor along with Cyanogen’s no frills camera interface provides an easy to use shooting experience. We did however miss a manual mode that would have really helped get some better low-light shots especially with OIS onboard.
Video recording at 1080p was smooth, but it did not impress with its slow continuous autofocus.
While the Lenovo ZUK Z1 packs in a 4100mAh battery and the scores that we got using our standard PC Mark Work Battery test did impress. Once you consider that this handset packs in a 5.5-inch Full HD display and is powered by a processor that a couple of generations old (28nm fabrication process) it really makes one wonder what ZUK did to accomplish such figures.
We managed to get more than a day of usage. This would include switching between Wi-Fi and 4G data, with continuous WhatsApp, playing 3D games, YouTube video streaming and two email accounts on sync. In fact, we had a tough time trying to deplete the battery by the end of the work day when using “balanced mode”. Switching to performance mode did improve the sync times but it was not really needed as the phone ran smoothly with the latter enabled.
Verdict and Price in India
Priced at Rs 13,499, the Lenovo ZUK Z1 (or the ZUK Z1) is worth your money. And it does pack in some goodies like a polished metal body, optical image stabilization and bloatware-free buttery smooth Cyanogen OS. Then there’s the large 4100mAh battery and a decent camera on the back that may not be spectacular, but gets the job done just fine.
Being the only smartphone to be launched with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 this year, the chipset may sound a bit too dated. But the chipset proved its mettle when paired with Cyanogen OS 12.1.
With that said, the only worthy comparision to the Lenovo ZUK Z1 is the Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 (Rs 11,999 for the 3GB /32GB ROM version) that packs in a Snapdragon 650 chipset, one that will easily run circles around the Z1’s 801. It packs in a bigger 16MP camera as well, but as we pointed out in our full review, it was not up to the mark. You do get the latest MIUI 7.0, but as of now, it uses Android 5.1 Lollipop as the base with no clue as to when the next update will be rolled out. Other competitors would include the LeEco Le 1s (priced at Rs 9,999) that packs in plenty of power, but again falls short on battery life and packs in an average camera.
While the absence of an updated processor may be a deal breaker for many, it is what Lenovo and ZUK offer as package that will appeal to plenty, add Cyanogen OS to the mix and we think it’s a winner.