Nubia Z20 (2019) Australian review: Coin Toss
Should I buy the Nubia Z20 (2019)?
The Nubia Z20 is more of a curiosity than commendable. It’s not an outright failure but, outside of those rare moments where the unique hardware is able to shine, it’s a mostly mediocre device with a pretty good gimmick.
I keep checking my notes but Nubia’s math that two screens are better than one remains unconvincing. Even if you hate most of the other options, I’d struggle to recommend the Z20. Still, it's a standout effort from Nubia and I hope they don't lose their experimental streak anytime soon.
Price when reviewed
In Australia, the Nubia Z20 can be found for as little as AU$670 (Catch).
Nubia Z20 (2019) full review
Cutting straight to the good part: the Nubia Z20 is a phone with screens on both sides.
On one side, you’ve got a FHD+ 6.42-inch AMOLED screen. Then, there’s a 5.1-inch HD AMOLED display on the other. This duality continues onto the edges of the device. Rather than settle for a mere single fingerprint sensor, the Z20 has two.
Portwise, the only thing you’ll find at the bottom of the Nubia Z20 is USB Type-C port used for charging. There’s no headphone jack to be found here. The device also lacks NFC connectivity, wireless charging, a microSD slot or any sort of water resistance. In the Faustian bargain exacted by the Z20, those are all the things you’re going to have to learn to live without.
However, as much fun as I had showing it off to friends, the experience of actually using a dual-screen phone like this one is a decidedly-mixed bag. The Nubia Z20 is rarely terrible but it never quite taps into its full potential either. For every design problem it attempts to solve, two more are created.
More critically, any sort of reasoning for investing in something with a secondary display like that found on the Nubia are few and far between. Sure, you can take better selfies and you do get a notchless display. Unfortunately, the everyday pain of living with the Z20’s dual-screen setup rarely justified the moments where it proved genuinely convenient.
Nubia ship to Australia through their own website here.
In addition, you can import the Nubia Z20 through the following:
Obviously, since it isn’t officially available locally, you can’t get the Nubia Z20 through any Telstra, Optus or Vodafone postpaid mobile plans. Check below for a round-up of the best SIM only plans:
Design - Look, Feel, Features and Camera
It’s hard to start talking about the design of the Nubia Z20 without skipping right to the good part.
This is a phone with screens on both sides. On one side, you’ve got a FHD+ 6.42-inch AMOLED screen. On the other side, you’ve got a 5.1-inch HD AMOLED display that seamlessly blends into the reverse-side of the Z20. Think a version of the Galaxy Fold’s external display that’s a little more conventionally proportioned and you’re on the right track.
Why go for two screens when most settle for one? The biggest answer for Nubia seems to be notches. If you have screens on both sides of your phone, it doesn’t make much sense to have cameras on both sides as well. And, if you get rid of the selfie camera tech, achieving a notchless front display is that much easier.
Nevertheless, despite this two-pronged approach, the overall form-factor of the Z20 isn’t that different from what you’ll get out of most smartphones. After all, most phones these days tend to feature curved glass on both sides. The Nubia Z20’s core conceit might seem radical but, to hold and handle, this thing isn’t really that different from an LG G8s ThinQ.
The theme of duality here continues onto the edges of the Z20. Rather than settle for a mere single fingerprint sensor, Nubia’s latest has two. There’s one on either side. Their logic here seems to be catering to the comfort of both left and right handed users. However, like the dual display, this design choice ultimately proves to be something of a double edged sword. The buttons themselves are quite sensitive, so I often found myself accidentally turning the screen off during regular usage.
Portwise, the only thing you’ll find at the bottom of the Nubia Z20 is USB Type-C port used for charging. There’s no headphone jack to be found here. The device also lacks NFC connectivity, wireless charging, a microSD slot or any sort of water resistance. Those are all just flagship perks you’re going to have to live without in order to live that dual-screen lifestyle.
Similar in some ways to Samsung’s Galaxy Fold, the Nubia Z20 is a device that’s practically begging to be shown off. During my time with it, I struggled to resist the urge to show it to friends and family. When not actively in use, you can see an always-on display on both sides - which makes for a slick showpiece. For the most part though, this thing is a bit of a mixed bag.
The use cases for the smaller secondary display here are few and far between. Nubia’s big reason for incorporating it is that you can use the triple-lens camera kit on the back of the Z20 to take better selfies - but that’s about it. After a week with it, I’ve yet to come up with any other or better reasons to rely on it and certainly none that justify the unique pains of living with this kind of smartphone.
All too often, I’d try to unlock my phone only for it to think I was using the screen facing away from me rather than the one I was looking at. All too often, I’d end up paw at the power button more to no avail. All too often, it felt like any genuine convenience that the Z20’s distinct display configuration garnered felt entirely eclipse by drawback after drawback.
It’s rarely outright terrible in the way that something like the V50 ThinQ 5G is but the Z20 never quite taps into its full potential either. It’s riddled with compromises. Wherever it seems like Nubia have solved one pain-point, two more sprout like heads on a hydra.
The main screen on the Z20 might be notchless but the secondary one comes across as cramped next to the device’s triple-lens rear camera setup. In terms of the hardware here, the Nubia Z20 is equipped with a 48-megapixel (f/1.7) wide angle lens, an 8-megapixel (f/2.4) telephoto lens and 16-megapixel ultrawide (f/2.2) lens.
In bright environments, you can get some nice snaps out of this thing.
If you’re a bit of a power-user when it comes to the photography side of things, you’re probably going to be better served by something from Huawei or Google.
Unfortunately, low-light remains the biggest thing that separates the best from the rest and the Nubia Z20 falls into the latter designation.
Performance - Specs, Software, Benchmarks and Battery Life
Processor: Snapdragon 855+
Operating System: Android 9
MicroSD slot: No
Headphone Jack: No
Fingerprint sensor: Yes, one on either side
Connectivity: Bluetooth 5, Wi-Fi (802.11ac), 4G
Rear Camera: 48-megapixel (f/1.7), 8-megapixel (f/2.4) and 16-megapixel (f/2.2)
Front-Facing Camera: N/A
Dimensions: 158.6 x 75.3 x 9 mm
While I wouldn’t say that software experience found in the Nubia Z20 was particularly bad when it came to bloatware. However, it lacked a lot of flair and functionality found in other recent Android handsets. It’s not as smooth as something closer to stock Android might be and there’s no unique apps to sweeten the deal either.
It’s not awful and it wouldn’t be difficult to make your own using custom launchers etc but, compared to many of the alternatives, Nubia’s Android skin comes off as dull and uninteresting.
One particular pain-point I encountered here was that it didn’t seem possible to enable any of the swipe-based navigation controls introduced in more recent versions of Android.
Overall, the software experience powering the Nubia Z20 was inoffensive but unexceptional. You can do worse - but you could also do better.
In terms of how it rated against the rest of the 2019 flagship crowd, the Nubia Z20 performed well but not as well as most of the other options. It might well be cheaper than Samsung and Apple’s latest but across the board, it frequently failed to keep up when it came to performance.
PCMark Work 2.0: 9409
3DMark Sling Shot Extreme OpenGL ES 3.1: 5715
3DMark Sling Shot Extreme Vulcan: 5128
Geekbench: Single Core 688, Multi Core 2368
Geekbench Compute: 2264
To my surprise, the fact that there are two screens on this thing didn’t really have a massive impact on battery life.
The Nubia Z20 would get us through about a day and a half of regular usage on average. If we had a long day or one that was more intensive when it came to screen-time, we’d probably need to recharge it overnight. If things swung in the other direction, however, we’d easily be able to cruise through and into a second day of usage.
The Nubia Z20 supports 27W fast charging but not Qi wireless charging.
The Bottom Line
A better version of this concept might not be so bad but this particular gamble by Nubia doesn’t quite break even. In the pursuit of solving one problem, they create dozens more. Ultimately, the company’s bet here that the benefits of having a screen on both sides of your phone just doesn't pan out.
The Nubia Z20 is a good phone that’s drowning in bad idea debt.
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