Vas' Website2017-09-29

Zuk Z2 Review

In June, I was looking for a phone for my sister, when I stumbled upon the Zuk Z2. At this point, my own phone had been falling apart. Pieces of the body were falling off because they were adhered to it instead of being part of it; a terrible idea, by the way, and shame on Sony for going with it. Performance was questionable at best and always had been, especially in web browsing, which in retrospect should be expected from the shitty SoC. Most importantly, the antenna was problematic, so that any momentary loss of signal (which could happen anytime) was misinterpreted as a SIM card failure, and the software would raise its hands in surrender until the device was rebooted and it could try again, a process that took 2+ minutes. The ageing Lollipop software didn't help. It was time for an upgrade. Or, well, two months later, I guess.

I don't know why it took until August to ship the damned thing, but nevertheless it arrived in one piece and conservatively packaged and everything. Kudos to the Chinese person who had the foresight to charge the device to 50% or so before shipping, otherwise the battery would have been all kinds of dead. If you don't know, the batteries used in consumer electronics discharge permanently if left at extreme states for a long time, so don't do that.

package, sealed package, sealed 2 package contents
The package.

This is the first time I've heard of Zuk, and most of you are probably in the same position. It's a Lenovo brand, apparently, and it has some truly obnoxious advertising. The package included the phone, a case, a screen protector, a charger, a cable, and the manuals.

Inside

I'll start with the main feature of this device, which is a Snapdragon 820 for €160 or so (the price has gone up to €220 since). My previous phone cost €250, almost €100 more! That's a price that's utterly unheard of. In fact, it's so low that the best way to reason about it is picturing it as a free device, but the shipping costs are €160 cause it's from Singapore. I won't tire you with details; it performs just as well as any 820 device would. It's the same flagship SoC that the Google Pixel and Pixel XL use, and it doesn't disappoint. My old device doesn't even come close to it.

xperia m2 benchmark zuk z2 benchmark
M2 vs. Z2 benchmarks. Try to guess which is which.

I wanted something powerful this time round because I rarely upgrade my electronics, including my phone. My laptop and desktop are both over five years old now and may even make it to the decade mark, and I only really upgraded my four-year-old phone because the antenna issues were pissing me off. I honestly can't understand people who upgrade their devices every two years or sooner; to me they look like idiots throwing away too much money. But anyway, if I'm to keep a device for four or more years, I figured I should make some effort to ensure it ages well, unlike my previous devices.

In using it, it became obvious the 820 is overkill for what I do. Straight up, if you aren't planning on doing some really hardcore gaming on your device, you don't need an 820. I do game on mine, but emulating Nintendo/Sony handhelds and playing 2048 aren't particularly demanding on the hardware; even my old M2 performed admirably on those tasks. You're better off with a 600-series SoC. There's some 630/660 devices coming out soon, so if you can wait a bit, grab one of those, otherwise 625 is alright. You won't notice the performance difference, but you will notice the energy consumption difference.

Under load, the Z2 warms up a bit, but it never becomes uncomfortable. There is no smartphone in existence that doesn't have problems with thermal throttling, and the Z2 is neither astounding nor egregious here; that's just how the physics of modern silicon behave. I consider its margins acceptable, but if you live in an a really warm area, much warmer than Greece, this could become an issue. I'm talking temperatures in excess of 40°C on a regular basis. Then again, I'm not aware of any device that could handle hardcore gaming while being blasted by 40°C's worth of sunlight.

I got 9-10 hours of SoT on the M2, and unfortunately the Z2 only manages 7-8 despite having a much larger 3500mAh battery. Honestly, it isn't much, but I did find charging it much more often than I used to. Given processor and display improvements, the trade-off isn't too bad, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't expect better. Part of it may be due to software, which we'll get to later. Another factor is that I actually do more with it now than I used to. For example, video playback, including YouTube, was torture on the M2, but it's very enjoyable on the Z2. Relaxing on the couch while watching a video is one of my favourite things now.

The Z2 has 4GB of RAM, which is all kinds of overkill. There's no reason a device needs more than 2GB, but Android devices are a dick measuring contest, so that's what you get. I do notice the difference compared to my 1GB M2, but you will never get desktop-grade RAM performance because that's simply not how the Android memory manager works.

It also has a USB type-C connector, which makes it my first device with a such a connector. I'm not sure how to describe it, but it's very nice using it. It's reversible and very simple to use. It feels like living in the future. The charger in the box had an adaptor for European power sockets. Charging is several times faster than the M2, so ironically it spends less time charging despite doing it more often.

The Z2 has two SIM card slots, but no SD card slot. This is a disappointment, but on the bright side the internal memory is 64GB, which is twice the size of what I used on the last device for the OS, applications, and user data combined. I don't think forgoing SD cards is reasonable, but nevertheless I was willing to compromise for the price and the rest of the package.

Outside

zuk z2

Unlike the clearly superior OnePlus devices, the display is plugged in the right direction, so there isn't any jelly effect. I'm sure this has already given many of you heart attacks, but please take your medicine and drink plenty of water, cause I'm not done yet. It also has a good ol' headphone jack. That's right, my dudes: a headphone jack. Surely such a lack of COURAGE 🤔🍆💦🍩💨😎 is a crime against Apple-kind, but it is true. Oh, I forgot mentioning it earlier, but the battery hasn't exploded yet. I know, I feel scammed too. The horror! The agony! Omighawd! Kill me now.

Display

The screen is the largest piece on the front. It's a 5" full HD display and very nice to look at. It's IPS, and not a super good one, so if you compare it to the display of a flagship device, like from Samsung, LG, or Essential, you'll be disappointed. However, it's better than what my M2 had. I'm very much in favour of IPS displays versus OLED as the technology stands today. I know this is controversial among professional reviewers and YouTubers, who like having saturation cranked to the max, but I prefer colours that are closer to life. I used to be an artist, and inaccurate colour replication still pisses me off.

Something I didn't anticipate at all is that the display is matte. Visually, it refracts light in a completely different manner, so it isn't reflective, like most phones are. I like how it looks, but more than that I love how it feels. It's orgasm for your fingers. You have no idea how glorious it is. It's so amazing that I don't understand why every manufacturer doesn't use it. It even attracts fewer fingerprints. I strongly advise buying a matte screen protector or something for your device to try it out if you don't know what I'm talking about. I didn't know how much I loved it before I got my fingers on it.

The brightness is great. I live in Greece, so I challenge you to find a sunnier location that isn't the Sahara desert or something. Even under direct midday summer sunlight, I could make out what was on the display, which I couldn't do with the M2. To be fair, I can't think of an instance when I had to make use of that, but I guess it could prove useful on a beach. Electronics and beaches don't mix well, by the way, especially in the Mediterranean, which is very salty, so take care. The screen can also be super dim, much more than the M2, which is great if you do a lot of reading, like I do. It can get so dim that it might deter you from buying an e-ink reader.

The rest

The bezels are "large" by hipster standards, which means there's room for a proper earpiece, selfie camera, and a hardware home button. For the record, the home button is an actual, physical button, the kind that moves and clicks. Truly we are genociding all kinds of Apples today. I have no comment on the selfie camera as I've never used it (selfies are vain and dumb; take a proper photograph like a real man, you fucking metrosexual). The earpiece is alright and sound during phone calls is exactly what you expect it to be. Nothing surprising here.

The home button is very interesting. It's a single one, and if you want it to, it can replace the standard Android software buttons, giving you more screen real estate. You can customise it quite a bit, such as the pressure, duration, or amount of touches, and even gestures. I got used to the functions I assigned very fast, and I was surprised by how useful I found it. I'm a huge fan of hardware buttons and the Z2 is amazing in that respect.

The home button also doubles as a fingerprint sensor if you're into that sort of thing, and it's reasonably accurate. Modern flagships have a tiny latency in sensing fingerprints, so it feels instantaneous, and this is absolutely not what you'll be getting here. Personally, I prefer sliding to unlock my device, but I tried the fingerprint sensor for a few days to test how it worked.

There's nothing on the top and left sides. The volume and power keys are on the right side, and they are satisfyingly clicky, just like the home button. All buttons have a very slight wobble to them (not a defect, that's just how they are), so as usual many Apples are voluntarily throwing themselves into concentration camps and turning themselves into soap bars. I'm only pointing this out because many other reviewers apparently believe that's a huge problem for some reason. I dunno man. I've been gaming my entire life and all of my favourite controllers have far more severe wobble. If this is a problem for you, then may I suggest killing yourself?

The bottom side has the fabled (forbidden! outrageous! weakly! cowardly!) headphone jack, which is fucking amazing and shouldn't go away any time soon. I think we should be ashamed as a species that you can spend €1,000 on a high end phone and get fewer features than a feature phone. What the fuck, man. Anyway, there's also the USB type-C port and the speaker. It's mono, boring, and moderately loud. The quality is very meh, but if you're serious about smartphone audio, you shouldn't be buying anything without stereo front-facing speakers. For what it's worth, it's better than the M2, and about the same as my friend's Xiaomi Note 4. I use it for YouTube sometimes and it's okay, I guess.

On the rear there's the camera and the flash. The flash is better than the M2, and so is the camera, especially when it comes to preserving details. Overall, I think it's on the bad side, but it's so much of an improvement compared to what I had that I don't give a fuck. It takes very nice pictures of cats, preserving details on the fur instead of blurring them out.

kitten on a ladder
One of our young kittens.

Overall build

I've got the white model. The Z2 only comes in black and white, and black was out of stock, so it isn't like I had many options. I actually prefer white, so I would have bought that anyway; no problem there. It's a nice colour, easy on the eyes, and doesn't clash with the display even with maximum contrast. I think black is a bit too bland for my tastes, and it makes finding your device in the dark harder. In a perfect world, I would have liked cyan, like what the Nextbit Robin or the Hatsune Miku Xiaomi Note 4 Special Edition use, but anyway I look at the display more than its surroundings, so it doesn't matter all that much.

What I really dislike is that the entire phone is made of glass (except for the sides and side buttons). It isn't Gorilla Glass. It's simultaneously very slippery and very fragile. I don't know what great mind thought of that, but they're fucking retarded. I understand that it's done to imitate a high-end device, but there are plenty of premium-feeling plastics out there they could have used and have made the phone more durable as a bonus. My friend owns a super expensive Corsair mechanical keyboard, and despite the keys being plastic, they feel amazing. Please round up all those glass-loving hipsters in a room, and then nuke the room five or six times so we can be sure this trend dies for real.

Since the phone is so fragile and slippery, and also the physical design of its corners, the included plastic case isn't optional. It really ruins the aesthetics of the device and messes up the feel in the hand, but seriously, it's extremely easy to crack. For the record, the case refracts the light from the camera flash, so it fucks up your low light photos big time; you need to take it off in those instances. You might also consider the screen protector, which adheres electrostatically instead of glue or whatever. However, it leaves significant air gaps, and the matte feel of the display is so much better, so after a month I couldn't tolerate it any longer.

I guess it goes without saying, but the back isn't removable and neither is the battery. The device isn't waterproofed either, so you get the worst of all worlds. Waterproofing isn't just about what happens if you drop your phone in the toilet, but also your own bodily fluids, such as your hand sweat. This may sound weird, but all Apple devices constantly break due liquid damage, so this is serious business. Of course, you solve most of this problem by buying decent hardware instead of that pretentious, overpriced, and poorly designed garbage. Despite my gripes with their corporate practices, Lenovo devices are great in liquid resistance across the board.

Back to the design, the Z2 has a boxy look, kind of like the Xperia line or the iPhone 5/5S/SE. I've owned a couple of such devices thus far, and while I like the aesthetics of the sharp angles, rounded corners are far superior when holding the device, especially those in the more recent iPhones. There aren't many Android manufacturers with those design cues (Huawei is one), but I'm definitely giving up on the sharp corners after this device.

The Z2 is pretty thick (and the case makes it moreso), which exacerbates this problem. I actually prefer thick devices, it's just that this specific design isn't very ergonomic. The smartphone industry's thinness fetish is almost as dumb as its glass fetish. The Z2 has to be this thick in order to house its battery; due to its 5" display and modest bezels, there simply wouldn't be enough room otherwise. For comparison, it has a larger display diagonal than the M2 but much smaller surface size and it packs a larger battery.

This device is unique in that it has the smallest width out of all devices manufactured with an 820 or an 821 SoC. Yes, I checked. Before holding it, I was curious about how it would fare in one-handed operation; perhaps it could be the iPhone SE of the Android ecosystem, whose build I really liked. Unfortunately, even completely naked, it doesn't come close to that. It's in an uncanny valley of phone sizes, in that it's too large to be small, and it's too small to be large. Unless you can find something much smaller than the Z2, you're better off with a device with a 5.5" (or larger) display. It'll be just as uncomfortable to hold, but it'll also double as a tablet.

Software

Software is where you'll make the biggest compromise. The Zuk Z2 is meant for the Indian market, and by default you get the ZUI skin, which is thorough, outdated, and bloated as all hells. The translation is so-so, and it comes with some bloatware. Frankly, this is Lenovo software, so you should only expect the worst, and also for your every private moment to be sold to disreputable Russian hackers, the NSA, and the pervert down the street. The government will imprison y'all lolicons. Even if you are fluent in an Indic language, I would never use ZUI for the privacy concerns alone.

Zuk devices have a surprisingly active developer community, and thanks to them, you can flash a custom ROM that'll give you a more proper Android experience. I personally use LineageOS, but it really doesn't matter what you prefer, so long as you rid yourself of the ZUI cancer. Flashing isn't easy as pie, but the steps are well documented and straightforward.

I had to make an account on Lenovo's website to download an image which allowed me to unlock the bootloader, then I flashed a custom recovery image, which makes flashing custom ROMs easy. All of this was possible using adb on Debian and I experienced no problems. Obviously, I can't read any Chinese script, but Google Translate was helpful and the process was super fast. Lenovo may be oppressing flat chest aficionados and conspiring with Big Brother, but at least we get decent service in return.

After that, the experience is standard LineageOS. I like it because it's open source, and I install as many or as few Google Play services as I want—and I want very few of them. Strata may find this interesting. You'll probably get worse battery life than on ZUI, which is the reality of custom ROM development. Twice, I experienced a bug which prevented my device from going into deep sleep and kept waking it up, so it completely discharged overnight even though I had left it with 20+% charge. However, under normal circumstances, idle discharge is just a little bit worse than on the M2, which has legendary standby time. I ended up liking LineageOS so much I even installed it on my old device, should using it again ever become necessary in the future.

Final Verdict

The Zuk Z2 is a phone of contradictions. It packs flagship specs and a few unique tricks of its own, trying desperately to be a true flagship killer. At €160, it makes even the hottest OnePlus deal look like a joke by comparison. On the other hand, it has plenty of shortcomings, some borne of its desperate attempts to beat Apple or Xiaomi, others emblematic of the low-to-mid-end price range. There is no device that is perfect in every way. The compromises aren't easy to weigh, and whether they're worth it depends heavily on who you are.

What's in a "flagship killer"? If you're used to paying €500 or more for a phone so that you can enjoy the bleeding edge of the smartphone industry, you'll be disappointed. You won't get the best camera, the best build, the best software support, and the best features. You'll have to import it from China, and it'll take more than a few days to arrive. If it breaks, it isn't clear where you ought to go for repairs. Most importantly, perhaps, you won't get a recognisable brand; though owning this device might give you some brownie points in Android enthusiast circles, Zuk isn't and will never be a status symbol. FYI, no amount of money will ever fill the gaping hole the hypocrisy of the social signalling leaves in your heart.

But I don't think that's the target audience here. I think those people are me; people who spent €250 or less for a Sony Xperia M2 four years ago, people with phones which bordered on the obsolete the day they were released. Alternatively, people who who paid €150, €100, even €50 for barely functional "smart" phones. For these people, there is now the option of paying less for more, of getting a taste of the flagship experience for the price of a low-end phone. This demographic would never buy a flagship, either cause they can't afford to or cause they can't justify their ever-inflating prices.

Perhaps there's a third group to be found here: people who tired of living on the edge. No matter how much you're willing to pay, every Android device is always going to lag behind the iPhone; it's going to be less responsive, the applications will be worse, and the benchmark scores will be crippled by Qualcomm's almost monopolistic dominance. But if you buy Apple, you'll get devices crippled in their own ways, by software trapped in their walled garden, by embarrassing OS support, by the shortcomings of iTunes. Sometimes, the cost of "progress" is battery life and audio ports. If the most your money can buy won't even get you a full phone, you might as well pay a fraction of it to get most of it anyway; you could fit four, five, six, even eight of these for the price of a flagship. You could buy phones for your entire family, grandparents and all, and forge some genuine relationships instead of vapid materialistic bullcrap.

So overall, would I suggest the Zuk Z2? Unless you won't settle for anything but the 800-series of Snapdragon SoCs, no. With the release of the Snapdragon 630/660 SoCs, you're better off waiting a bit for those devices. Xiaomi is a great choice, with a gigantic developer community, slightly less price, and godlike customer support. Even if you dislike them, there will be others, perhaps with different trade-offs and better deals, or you could try buying a used device. Be that as it may, on its own merits, the Z2 is a very good device, but due to major problems with the build, the materials, and the software, it falls short of greatness.

Score: 7/10

The good

The bad

The ugly