Nubia Z20 review: Two-face enigma


In the age of the modern smartphone you don’t come across too many ideas that are significantly different to what most others are doing. That’s because companies generally have a good idea of what technologies are important to consumers, so know how to build their phones. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting ideas out there.

One company, Nubia, seems to live and breathe slightly wacky ideas. In 2019 it showed off a bizarre smartwatch that was also a mini flexible smartphone. It also launched the Z20: a smartphone with two displays and no front-facing camera. It’s packed with great specs and is actually available for a reasonable price. But does the two-screen experience bring any real additional benefit?

Dual sided symmetry

  • Dimensions: 158.6 x 75.3 x 9mm / Weight: 186g
  • Diamond Black or Twilight Blue colours
  • Glass and metal design

Look at the Z20 from the front and you probably won’t notice anything all that remarkable. It looks like a smartphone; the usual combination of glass and metal, where the front glass is curved at the edges.

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Power up the display, however, and you’ll see that there’s no notch and no hole-punch cutout for a selfie camera. That is, of course, because there’s a second screen on the back, which can be used with the rear camera to act as a selfie system. 

That means this phone has slim bezels all the way around, with nothing creeping into the screen’s space. We like that a lot. As seems to still be the case for most Android phone makers, the bottom edge is still chunkier than the others. This still seems to be an area that’s proving difficult to shrink.

We really like the finish of the polished metal around the edges too. The Z20 has this dark, glossy look to it that’s not quite pitch black, but more of a smokey grey. This is where you’ll notice something unusual: it has a fingerprint sensor/power button on both sides, placed at exactly the same height on both right and left edges. To its credit, the placement is ideal for using with a thumb on either hand, and that makes it a truly ambidextrous phone that’s as convenient for a left-handed user as it is for a right-handed one.

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It also means you can use it easily whether you’re using the primary or secondary screen on the back. Using our thumb, we found it also had a high accuracy rate, unlocking the phone quickly virtually every single time, without any ‘not recognised errors’.

It’s perhaps not the most technologically advanced fingerprint sensor available now, but we understand why it’s done this way. An in-display fingerprint sensor would mean it only worked on one side. Likewise, using advanced facial recognition would require, well, a front-facing camera to make sense, which isn’t the point of this phone’s design. It’s the best compromise for what Nubia wanted to achieve.

Turn the handset around to see the Z20’s selling point: that second screen. However, Nubia isn’t the first company to think putting a screen on the back of its phone is a good idea. YotaPhone’s only selling point was the fact that it had an e-Ink display on the back of its phone, kind-of like a mini Kindle. Chinese manufacturer, Meizu, also had a screen on the back of Pro 7, except this one was a tiny, colour screen that did little more than show notifications and the weather.

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Nubia’s approach is vastly different to both, more akin to the Vivo Dual Display that launched in China in 2019. Both handsets offer a full colour, high refresh-rate, proper screen on their rears. For the Nubia it’s not as big as the main display, but it’s not tiny by any means, filling a good proportion of available space.

Is the secondary screen actually useful?

  • 5.1-inch rear curved AMOLED screen
  • 19:9 aspect ratio, 720 x 1520 resolution

Now we don’t mind companies thinking outside the box. In fact, as tech fans that like to get excited by new things, we encourage it. After all, the last thing we want is for everything to be exactly the same.

After more than a decade of primarily using smartphones with one main screen, there’s definitely a bit of a learning curve trying to remember that there’s a second screen on the back. It’s not instinctive to flip a phone over and use the secondary screen. The only time it feels natural is when taking selfies.

Because there’s no dedicated front-facing camera, the rear screen becomes your selfie screen when taking photos of yourself. That does mean you don’t have to use a much poorer camera to take selfies – which is normally the case – so that’s one positive to come from this somewhat bizarre phone. 

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Where we do perhaps see some use for the screen is with the phone turned over on the desk. You still have an always-on display facing upwards, irrelevant of orientation, which can show you when you have notifications. And if you want to check them quickly without using a lot of the phone’s battery, you can switch the screen to its most battery efficient state – essentially black and white.

So is it useful? Yes, sometimes. Is it essential? No, not even a little bit. While interesting, even after using it for a while, it feels like it really doesn’t need to be there. What’s more, the fact that it’s on the back, and mostly being held in the hand, it quickly gets covered with fingerprint smudges.

Media consumption is hit and miss

  • Main screen: 6.42-inch AMOLED display
  • 1080 x 2340 resolution
  • Corning Gorilla Glass 5
  • Single loudspeaker

As for the primary screen on the front, that’s actually a decent panel. It’s big, colourful, sharp and plenty bright enough. Use it to display the right content and it looks quite stunning at times. Launch a game like Alto’s Odyssey and the colours and detail just pops on the screen to give you a fantastic visual treat.

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Sadly, with Netflix, that’s not the case: it seems Nubia’s phone can’t play the highest resolution on the streaming giant’s mobile app, so while colours, light and shadow looks good, details are a little fuzzy. And when one of the most popular video apps on the Play Store doesn’t seem to be used optimally, it’s disappointing. Similarly, with the rounded corners, sometimes we found parts of the image were slightly cut off.

Add the fact that you only have one loudspeaker firing sound out of the bottom edge and the Z20 can sound a little underwhelming. The loudspeaker itself isn’t the best quality either, the sound can get loud, but is quite tinny and doesn’t have any of the bass we’ve become accustomed to in modern flagships.

Flagship performance

  • Snapdragon 855+ processor, 8GB RAM
  • 4,000mAh battery
  • 128GB storage

For the most part, the Z20 acts like the flagship it is, thanks to being powered by one of Qualcomm’s most powerful processors. It’s the Snapdragon 855, the same you’d find in pretty much every high-end Android phone from 2019.

What that means is when loading apps, or gliding around the user interface, it launches quickly and smoothly. Put the Z20 side-by-side with the uber smooth OnePlus 7T, and you might notice the Nubia’s lack of a higher refresh-rate screen though.

Like its general speediness and performance, the Z20’s battery was solid in our testing. With a 4,000mAh capacity, that’s to be expected. On what we’d consider a pretty normal day with a little gaming, lots of social media, web browsing and some music, we got to the end of the day with between 30-40 per cent remaining. It’s not really a two-day phone, particularly not for heavy use, but it’ll comfortably get most through a full day. 

Camera

  • Triple camera system
    • 48MP primary sensor, optical image stabilisation (OIS)
    • 16MP ultra-wide
    • 8MP telephoto

It almost seems commonplace now to see this triple camera system on the back of a Chinese Android phone, so it’s no surprise to see a 48-megapixel primary sensor joined by both an ultra-wide camera and a telephoto/zoom camera. 

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What this enables is a camera that has the versatility you’d expect to find on a premium smartphone, giving you three distinct focal lengths in one product, with no bulky additional lenses.

In the camera interface, you can quickly switch between the ultra-wide 0.6x, 1x and 3x modes, without losing any detail. There’s also the option of a 5x zoom and 10x zoom, but you’ll notice the picture starts to get quite ‘splodgy’ if you decide to take it that far. 

Overall, the results are fine. Sure, they might not blow you away with their dynamic range, or the way harsh brightness is balanced out with dark shadows, but for the everyday shot, in decent light, you’ll get more than passable results. 

Verdict

The Nubia Z20 is a perfectly good phone, especially at its price point. It performs well, looks good, has a great (main) screen, and a version of Android that isn’t overloaded with lots of extra bloat or a heavy custom skin.

Its biggest issue, really, is that we’ve not even mentioned the second screen – because it feels somewhat alien to get a great deal of use out of it. As that’s the main selling point here, we struggle to be allured.

Plus, there’s strong competition out there. At a similar price you can pick up something from OnePlus and get a smoother, faster phone with a screen – and just the one! – that’s undoubtedly one of the best displays on the market. Nubia might have two screens, but that doesn’t really make it better than one.

Alternatives to consider

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OnePlus 7T 

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If you want a Snapdragon 855+ equipped phone with fast, smooth performance and a triple camera, you can get that from OnePlus. The OnePlus 7T is a fantastic device, and while it costs a little more than Nubia’s phone, it’s a lot more widely available. 

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Xiaomi Mi 9T Pro 

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If price is what’s important to you but you still want great performance and can handle a slightly lumpy software experience, the Xiaomi Mi 9T Pro is super easy to recommend. It’s a stunning phone for its price point.