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The ZUK Z1 is just one of the many new smartphones that are currently making their way into local store shelves, but it may actually be the most interesting. It’s made by a relatively unknown foreign company, one that is owned by a world-famous maker of computers, and it’s running a flavor of Android that’s neither Marshmallow nor even really Lollipop. We’ve spent a short amount of time with it and here’s our first impressions and quick review.

On the surface, the ZUK Z1 is somewhat plain but looks striking. And when you first pick it up, you’ll find that it feels solid and well-made in the hand. The first things that we noticed about it? Its large screen, the smooth unibody frame, and the curious choice of using a third-party customized Android OS.

Software and hardware notes

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When you turn on the ZUK Z1 and pull down the notifications pane, it shows you some options that will remind you of Android 5.0 Lollipop. That’s because the OS on the ZUK Z1 is based on that same exact OS, only customized and tagged with a different name: Cyanogen OS. It is, in a lot of ways, very similar to plain old Android Lollipop. But it adds many useful changes that are intended to make the overall experience a whole lot better.

There are changes to the security, changes to the audio, and changes to the display options that are easy to recognize even with just a few minutes of usage. And these changes are really done for the overall improvement of the device, which we saw immediately. Stuff like a quick audio enhancement switch or the ability to filter out unknown numbers really makes us question why those kinds of features are not standard in other Android or Android-based smartphones.

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And as for the hardware, there are also a number of unique features that will make you go, “Well, I hope that becomes a thing from now on.” For instance, the ZUK Z1 relies on a USB 3-Type C port for its charging and data transfers. So it’s able to do just a bit more than your regular Android phone, with the regular old USB connections that you’re no doubt already familiar with.

With its USB 3-Type C port and bundled wall charger, the ZUK Z1 can be recharged quickly, which is most necessary considering the fact that it has a 4,100mAh battery. That’s yet another plus to the ZUK Z1 in terms of features. It has to be pointed out, however, that this port requires the usage of an entirely new set of USB cables and chargers. Fortunately, it appears that the bundled USB port in the retail box is sturdy and shouldn’t break down easily with normal usage.

Another thing that can be noted about the ZUK Z1 in terms of hardware is the fact that it has its speaker located at the bottom of the phone, beside the built-in USB 3-Type C port. Is it loud? Yes. But maybe not in the most practical location suited for watching movies or playing mobile games. While playing a quick game on the ZUK Z1, we noticed that the sound comes out better if the speaker is aimed straight at your ear. But from where it’s located, it will either be beaming audio to the side or to the ground in most situations, depending on how you’re holding it. It’s not a very serious flaw, but more of a minor niggle.

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From what we’ve seen so far, it seems like the ZUK Z1 is all about reimagining what’s considered “normal” with Android phones nowadays. It does away with stuff like removable batteries, support for standard SIMs or even micro SIMS (it only supports nano SIMs), and even gives you the option to not use the power button, home button, or capacitive menu buttons. It’s like an experiment in showing you, the user, what it’s like to live in the future while not spending enough money to burn a huge hole in your back pocket.

Benchmarks

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Based on quick benchmark results, it appears that the ZUK Z1 can go right up to the top of the local smartphone rankings, holding its own against some of the local competitors which cost around double of its suggested retail price. It scores around 45,000 points in AnTuTu benchmark with the default settings turned up.

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In the benchmark details screen, we can see the Snapdragon 801 and Adreno 330 combo showing its prowess. And apparently Android 5.1.1, the Cyanogen OS base, is running in 32-bit mode.

Gaming performance

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The ZUK Z1 is able to handle First Touch Soccer 2015 in Full HD screen mode without any lag whatsoever. The graphics look wonderful, and the game flows rather smoothly.

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Even in close-up shots, there doesn’t appear to be any jagged edges in the rendered objects in the game. Even with a background full of football supporters in the stands, the game doesn’t stutter or freeze up at any point at all.

Other performance notes

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There’s a powerful rear camera on the back of the ZUK Z1, and though we haven’t fully tested its capabilities, we’ve seen the night mode and slomo video recording performance. It’s like any other smartphone with a camera, in that you’ll need to use the light surrounding you to make the most out of photo opportunities. But if you get the right conditions, the camera on the back as well as the one on the front can apparently produce stellar results.

We’ve read and heard about certain problems that affect the ZUK Z1’s camera performance, and we’re trying to pin down exactly what those are. We’re hoping to get some more info about those by the time our full review wraps up, but for now, we can say that we haven’t run into any major issues.

It’s also worth noting that over the past two days, we’ve received two separate software updates for the ZUK Z1. Maybe those updates include fixes for the camera performance? We’ll know with a few more camera tests.

Wrap up

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Based on our current and ongoing hands-on sessions with it, we can say that the ZUK Z1 is a strong contender for mid-range Android phone of the year. Coming in so late in 2015, you would expect it to have something to offer for the next two odd months or so left, and surprisingly it does.

Between the dazzling display and the future-ready USB port, the ZUK Z1 is showing plenty of promise. We’re going to hold on to it for a little while longer to finalize our thoughts on it with our final verdict.

What do you think about the ZUK Z1? Are you ready to scout local stores for it in the interest of putting it in your Christmas list? Share your thoughts with us below by posting a comment!

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Author

David Gonzales is a geek, writer, and athlete all rolled into one. He specializes in articulating about novel and often shiny things that tend to make whirring noises. He also writes at SemiCurrent.com.

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