Nubia brings flagship photography to a cheap phone

Alas, no love for the US.

It was 10 months ago when we talked about how China's Nubia was bringing its camera-centric Z9 smartphone to the US market, but if you check now, the store link on its official English website is no longer available. Instead, Nubia will be focusing on the Latin American, European and Indian markets, starting with its brand new Z11 Mini mid-ranger. This is a 5-inch 1080p device in a rounded glass-metal-glass sandwich that's only 8mm thick, and its 16-megapixel f/2.0 main camera is powered by Sony's IMX298, which is the same sensor inside other flagships like the Huawei Mate 8, Xiaomi Mi 5, Oppo R9 Plus and Vivo Xplay5. You also get 3GB of LPDDR3 RAM, 64GB of internal storage, microSD expansion and a fingerprint reader on the back. Given its 1,499 yuan price point (about $230), you'll forgive Nubia for using the octa-core Snapdragon 617 chipset instead of an 820 here.

In fact, thanks to the Snapdragon 617, the Z11 Mini does Cat 6 LTE (up to 300 Mbps downlink), VoLTE, Bluetooth 4.1 and 802.11ac WiFi. In China, it also supports all three major networks to make things easier for local folks. As with previous Nubia devices, the Z11 Mini can take two SIM cards -- one Micro SIM and one Nano SIM (software toggle for picking the main SIM for data), though the latter will take up the microSD slot.

The chipset uses two quad-Cortex-A53 clusters -- one clocked at up to 1.5 GHz and the other up to 1.2 GHz, which has allowed Nubia to boldly claim that the phone's fixed 2,800 mAh battery can last up to two days on normal usage. We'll see about that. When it's almost out of juice, you'll have to recharge using the bundled USB Type-C cable, though there's no word on whether the charger in the box does Quick Charge 2.0 or 3.0.

There are many other goodies as well. For selfie addicts, there's an 8-megapixel front camera with large 1.4um pixels and a dedicated flash light, though the f/2.4 aperture is a tad slow compared to what other flagship phones are offering -- at least you have the various beautification modes to patch things up, if needed. Both this and the main camera benefit from Nubia's strong set of camera features, namely the separation of focus point and exposure point, quick exposure adjustment, local tone mapping (which is described as an advanced version of HDR), 3D digital noise reduction and ISO of up to 12800. The camera app also has dedicated capture modes for time lapse, light painting, star trail, raw photography and a fun "handheld stabilization" mode that lets you clone a person up to five times in a single photo (by merging multiple shots into one with automatic stitching).

The Z11 Mini runs on Nubia's latest custom ROM based on Android 5.1, and it comes with some handy tools. There's "Super Screenshot" which lets you take long screenshots and screenshots in various shapes, plus you can record your screen activity while doing a voiceover. Another useful one is the ability to virtually clone certain social apps -- including WeChat and QQ -- so that you can be logged into two accounts simultaneously. Nubia says many of its recent models will also be receiving this upgrade, and it'll be releasing monthly incremental updates as well as quarterly major updates.

The Z11 Mini is already available for pre-ordering online in China, though this model might change in the near future. Facing tough local competition like Xiaomi and Huawei with their aggressive online marketing, Nubia will instead focus on the offline market in China, which is currently dominated by Oppo and Vivo. Local electronics retail chain, Suning, owns 33 percent of Nubia (the rest owned by ZTE), and its retail network aims to sell at least 10 million Nubia devices over the next three years.

As for overseas, Senior Vice President Ni Fei told Engadget that Nubia hasn't quite given up on the US market, adding that even though the Z9 received positive feedback from reviewers, it was hard to work with US carriers as a relatively young brand. Which is why his company is instead prioritizing other parts of the world for the time being. "We just need to get more people to know us." Ni is also not concerned about ZTE's recent troubles in the US, since Nubia operates as an independent brand and apparently played no part in the investigation.