Review

nubia Z20 review: Two screens, one great phone

Typically, when you think of dual-screen devices, you might think of something like the LG G8X, or Microsoft's Surface Neo and Duo. nubia, however, had a different vision for a secondary screen, which it first showed off with the nubia X concept phone. Now, it turned that concept into a real product you can buy with the nubia Z20.

Aside from the dual-screen implementation, it's a flagship phone with top-of-the-line specs and a pretty good camera setup. The software also has some tricks up its sleeve to make use of the unique hardware, which make the Z20 a pretty interesting phone right off the bat. I should note that this review was conducted on a pre-production device, so some aspects might not be 100% final.

Specs

CPU Snapdragon 855+, 2.96GHz Kryo 485, triple-core 2.42GHz Kryo 485, and quad-core 1.78GHz Kryo 485
GPU Adreno 640
Body 158.63x75.26x9 mm (6.25x2.96x0.35in), 186g (6.77oz)
Display

Main: 6.42 inches, 1080x2340, AMOLED, 401ppi
Rear: 5.1 inches, 720x1520, AMOLED, 330ppi

Camera 48MP f/1.7 (Standard), 16MP f/2.2 (Ultra-wide), 8MP f/2.4 (Telephoto)
Video capture 8K - 15fps, 4K - 60fps; Using the rear display: 1080p - 30fps
Storage 128GB
RAM 8GB
Battery 4000mAh
Color Diamond Black, Twilight Blue
OS Android 9.0 Pie
Price $549

First impressions

Design

The nubia Z20 is a beautiful device, and I'm very glad that I got the twilight blue model. It doesn't have any special reflective patterns like you might find on some other phones, but the blue sheen on the rear glass and metal frame are absolutely beautiful. In that rear glass, you'll find the triple-camera setup, flanked by two sets of LED flashlights, one for regular pictures and one for selfies. We'll get to that later.

Under that camera setup is the secondary display, which is very well disguised under the mirror finish of the glass. There's also an earpiece grill at the top of the back panel, so you can still take calls without a second thought if you're using the rear display.

One the right side of the phone, you'll find the volume rocker and one of the power buttons that doubles as a fingerprint sensor. The fingerprint sensors are pretty fast for my standards, but they're a little too easy to activate. There have been times where I had to put in my PIN because I supposedly tried to use my fingerprint too many times, which wasn't the case. Sometimes the phone will also just unlock immediately after I press the power button to lock it because it scans my finger before I lift it up.

On the left side, there's a SIM card tray and another fingerprint sensor just like the first one. It's there so you can easily unlock the phone regardless of which screen you're using. By the way, the bottom half of the phone's frame is pressure-sensitive, similar to Google's Pixel phones, so you can use a squeeze for additional shortcuts. You can't really use it to summon a digital assistant, but I found it useful for things like turning on the flashlight or taking a screenshot.

At the top, there's a microphone, and at the bottom, there's another microphone, a speaker grill, and a USB Type-C port for charging. The top and bottom edges of the metal frame are interesting because, where most phones curve outward around the edges, the Z20 actually curves inward. I don't think it looks better or worse, but it is certainly distinctive, and I appreciate that.

On the front, there's a big 6.4-inch display with very small bezels all around. Along the top bezel, there's an earpiece, proximity and ambient light sensors, and an LED light. The light only seems to indicate low battery and if the phone is charging, but that's about it.

The dual displays

The biggest defining factor of the nubia Z20 is the fact that it has two screens, both of which can be used for your regular smartphone tasks. This enables some interesting multitasking scenarios, and it also allows the phone to rely on its main camera to be a selfie camera, but we'll get more into that in a bit. If you want, you can just make it so that the screens show the same content.

I actually don't multitask that often on my phone, so I didn't feel the need for a second screen as much as some other users might. I mostly used it to keep Telegram open on the rear screen so I could come back to it while doing something else. Apps you have open on one screen will stay on that screen unless you actively close them, so you can do anything you want on the other screen, and then come back to what you were doing. You can also send apps from one screen to the other with a three-finger swipe, though this may be hard to get right every time.

Because the rear display is smaller and has a lower resolution, it can help you save some battery. It offers some additional blue light filtering options, but I found this to be more of a problem than a benefit. Android already has a Night Light feature and it works fine, but this Super Eye Care mode overrides it, but only for the second screen. So, as you flip the phone over, you'll actually see it changing the color temperature as it disables one feature and enables the other. I've also found that, on rare occasions, the backlight for the rear display will be completely turned off when I flip the phone over. It's been very rare, though, and something that's relatively easy to work around.

Since both displays are AMOLED, you can use both as an always-on display. You can set it so that both screen turn on, or only one of them, and you get plenty of customization options for it, including using a custom picture, videos, or GIFs, though they don't stay in motion indefinitely. While you can use the main display, I think there's something almost magical about seeing the always-on display come up on the back of the phone, because it blends so well into the glass panel. The always-on display isn't actually always on, and you can set an interval between 5 and 60 minutes for it to stay on after locking the phone. One thing I've found is that even if you're using just the rear display, the main screen will very briefly flash white when the always-on screen turns off. I also wish the always-on screen showed notifications.

There are even more little tricks to the rear display, and they'll feel familiar if you read my review of the Red Magic 3, which is also made by nubia. That phone had touch-sensititve triggers on the side of the phone, but here, you can just use the rear display as a touch area for that purpose. The screen is divided in half, so you get two virtual buttons that you can assign to any area inside a game. I felt like this could have been expanded, with the rear screen being as big as it is, it would have been cool to have even more mappable buttons. Hopefully, this is something that will be added later.

Finally, you can have custom lighting effects going on in the rear screen while you're doing certain things on the main screen. You can set effects to be displayed while you're on a call, playing a game, or listening to music. This is just a way to show off, and while I think it's cool, it's also somewhat limited. For example, the music effects only work if you're using Google Play Music, so my standard music app can't use them, and the animation for games only plays for the first few seconds after you launch it.

On a more standard note, the screens look fine at 1080 by 2340 pixels for the main screen and 720 by 1520 pixels for the rear screen. They're just 60Hz, and while it's not as smooth as a 90Hz display, I still like it. Scaling on such a big display at this resolution is still a little large for my taste, but that can be adjusted easily in the settings. I've mentioned a slight color distortion issue on some of my previous reviews (including the Red Magic 3), and while it's still here, it seems to be the least noticeable of any of the phones I've tested so far. I've been completely fine with the display as it is, and I'd say it's only visible if you look for it, and you have to be looking at a dark background in a dark room.

One thing that's worth noting is that the phone comes with a clear case, and it covers the rear screen. It's thin enough that the screen is still usable, but it would be a lot better if the case was cut around the screen so the touch responsiveness would be better.

Camera

The camera setup on the nubia Z20 has three sensors, starting with the 48MP Sony IMX586 that many phones seem to use these days. There's also a 16MP ultra-wide camera and an 8MP telephoto lens for 3x optical zoom. This is the first phone I've tested that has more than one camera where the additional cameras aren't just used for depth sensing. And because they double as front-facing cameras, you get very good quality selfies out of it and use the wide-angle lens for group pictures.

Flanking the cameras are two sets of LED flashlights. One is a dual-tone LED flash, and that's what will be used for your regular pictures and videos. If you're using it as a selfie camera, you'll use the other flash, which nubia calls a soft light. It's meant to light your face more evenly so your skin looks more natural, and it also prevents the background from darkening too much. Here's a quick comparison between the regular flash (on the left) and the soft light:

In general, these are the best cameras of any of the phones I've tested. Shots are much sharper than phones I've tried before, and the mere ability to go from a 0.6x zoom all the way to 30x (digital zoom) is amazing. I've found it so entertaining to scroll through pictures taken from the same spot and seeing how much closer you can get to an object from the same place. The phone can also use the wide-angle camera for a macro photography mode, so you can get pretty close to subjects.

There is a substantial shift in the contrast and white balance as you transition between the different sensors, but it's not something I hate. You can see it clearly in the pictures I took of a persimmon, where the macro shot is significantly more orange than the one from the standard camera.

My only real issue with the camera, specifically the standard one, is the white balance and contrast. Colors often feel flat, and I prefer my pictures to have more contrast and punchy colors. If you get close enough to a subject, you can get more realistic and vibrant colors, but as you move further away, they get washed out.

Another thing that really impressed me about this phone is the night mode. The only other phone I've tried with a night mode was the OPPO Reno Z, and it wasn't great. The night mode on the Z20 is much more serious, and it does a really good job of bringing out colors from the dark. Not only that, it can actually help tone down highlights, so areas with a lot of light don't get blown out. In the vast majority of the situations I tried to use it, night mode significantly improved the final result.

Take a look at some of the comparison pictures, and also note the last couple of pictures. I didn't even consider taking a regular picture of that scene because there was almost no light. While it looks very blurry, it captured an amount of light and colors that I couldn't even see for myself.

I'm not in a position to say this is an amazing camera compared to something like a Pixel. But this combination of camera and flagship specs at this price isn't something you'll find in a lot of devices at this price point.

The nubia Z20 offers recording options up to 8K at 15 frames per second, or 4K at 60 frames per second. For whatever reason, nubia cripples video recording if you're using it as a selfie camera, so the best quality you can get there is 1080p at 30 frames per second. However, you can always duplicate the viewfinder and use the main display to start a recording, so you'll get all the features you usually would.

Battery life, performance, and software

I felt a little underwhelmed by the battery life on the nubia Z20. I never ran out of battery before the end of the day, but I was also never able to get two-day battery life out of it, and my average usage is fairly light, mostly consisting of texting (on Telegram), browsing Twitter, and watching YouTube for a couple of hours. I like getting two days of battery life with my regular usage because it gives me confidence that I'll be able to use it more heavily if I need to, such as when I need GPS to travel somewhere.

As far as performance goes, it's pretty much what you'd expect from a flagship. AnTuTu gives a score of 462964, placing it near the OnePlus 7 Pro, which is actually still running on the original Snapdragon 855. Using the nubia Z20 for games was fine, and it handled Asphalt 9 and PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds Mobile just fine.

Like with the Red Magic 3, I'm a little upset at the lack of NFC for payments. But at least, the camera on the Z20 scans QR codes just fine, which some terminals in Portugal support as a form of payment, so it's not as much of a problem.

In terms of software, the nubia Z20 is nearly identical to other nubia phones. It sticks very close to a stock Android Pie experience, except it doesn't support gesture navigation or the ability to only rotate the screen when needed. It also comes with older versions of Google apps that don't get updates from the Play Store, so you'll need to install them separately if you want that. All of nubia's custom settings are added on top of the default Settings app, so there won't be much of a learning curve if you're coming from that experience.

The nubia Z20 also borrows the Game Space app from the Red Magic phones, along with all of the same features, including a new video recording capability for special in-game moments. Sadly, you can't start a recording manually.

Conclusion

The nubia Z20 is easily my favorite phone among the ones I've used. The dual-screen implementation is thoughtful, and nubia found multiple ways to make good use of it. The pressure-sensitive edges are a feature I didn't expect to see and it's proven to be pretty useful for me. Meanwhile, the camera is easily the best one I've used, with a pretty great night mode to go along with it.

The phone isn't without its flaws, but the majority of the problems I pointed out are minor and not inherent to the hardware. They could easily be fixed with future software updates, and that would make this phone even better. At $549, it's not easy to find a phone with this combination of specs, camera quality, and innovative new features. Even in its current state, it's very easy to recommend, and it's only likely to get better if nubia keeps supporting it with updates. If you're interested, you can buy it from nubia's website for $549.

 

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