If you’d told me a year ago that one of my key takeaways from CES 2014 would be a renewed interest in ZTE smartphone developments, I’d have told you to “go home, you’re drunk” (which would have been a pretty timely reference back then). Nonetheless, it’s true: of the many impressive sights we beheld at this year’s International CES, the wares showcased by ZTE were high on my list – and if you’re my kind of mobile geek, they should be high on yours too.
I need to be fair here and say that not everything from the Shenzhen-based company tooted my horn. ZTE may be the world’s fourth-largest handset maker by unit sales, but there’s a good reason for its relative lack of clout in the US: many of the products it’s brought to American shores just haven’t been all that remarkable. And some of what we saw in Vegas last week, like the company’s (not so) Iconic Phablet and its derivative Blue smart watch, remind us of those ho-hum roots.
But with the latest additions to its smartphone family, ZTE looks to continue the trend it started with last year’s Nubia 5: namely, catching us by surprise. In a good way. Here’s three reasons we’re jazzed to see more from ZTE in the year ahead.
If you tuned in for our coverage of CES 2014, you know that we spent a lot of time checking out the company’s new photo-centric flagship, the Nubia 5S. And while we gave lip-service to the device’s basic specs and glossy casing, we were most enamored of its camera. More specifically, its camera software:
In case you missed it: yes indeed, that’s an artificial horizon baked right into the viewfinder, to help you steady up your landscape photos. What’s more, the three shaped elements are touch-and-drag targets to help you adjust white balance, exposure, and focus – independently. And all of it’s controlled by that holy of holies, a dedicated camera key with half-press-to-focus. True, that’s old-hat for we Windows Phone users, but it’s a genuine rarity on Android … one we’re looking forward to enjoying.
Voice command (the fun way)
Fun fact: I recently enjoyed lunch with a bunch of Google employees, most of whom carried the Moto X. While all were quite happy with their devices, everyone agreed that it would be nice to be able to program a custom keyword to activate its Touchless Control feature. (When more than one guy agreed with me that it’d be great to wake a phone using the classic Trekkie keyword, “Computer,” I knew I was among friends.)
Well, the Moto X might not be able to do that (yet), but your juvenile past-self can rest easy – because ZTE’s Grand S II can. You can set the Grand S II to unlock in response to any keyphrase you want, from something as casual as “Yo dude, wake up” to the decidedly dorky “Picard-Delta-5.” And best of all, it can tell your voice from someone else’s, (ostensibly) adding an element of security to your unlocking experience.
Phones that feel good to hold
Voice command doesn’t top everyone’s priority list, and not every user cares about a fancy camera either … but almost everyone can appreciate a smartphone that feels like it’s built to last. While the Nubia 5S is a little glossy for my taste, it’s still a solid-feeling device – and the metallic backplate on its Iconic Phablet cousin gives that otherwise-unremarkable slab a solid sense of heft in the hand.
More impressive than either of those, though, is the smallest of all the CES entrants: the Nubia 5S mini may not pack the optical stabilization or spec sheet of its larger sibling, but it makes up for that sacrifice with a monoblock construction that looks sleek and feels outstanding in the hand. Think HTC One X shoehorned into the footprint of a Motorola Droid RAZR M … and offered in multiple colors, to boot.
Is this short list of advantages enough to build a stateside smartphone empire on its own? Of course not. But it gives us renewed hope for the prospect of a relatively little-known player to shake things up in the American smartphone space. Back in the summer of 2012, I held similar hopes for Huawei; today, the landscape has changed quite a bit – but our collective appetite for something new hasn’t. Given the company’s large global presence, ZTE seems fairly well positioned to make a play for more American attention in 2014. And while none of these products is likely to get U.S. buyers to stop gobbling up iPhones and Galaxy S devices on its own, the combined force of the whole catalog might at least get people to sit up and take notice of ZTE. That, in itself, would be a victory worth bragging about.