“The Cyanogen-powered Z1 is late to the party, but shouldn’t be dismissed outright”
We’ve known smartphone companies to come up with sub brands to address different markets and audiences. You’d have heard of Huawei’s Honor, and Micromax’s YU, but in case you didn’t know, Lenovo also has one too in the form of ZUK. Pronounced zee you kay, ZUK Mobile is a spin off of Lenovo’s smartphone business, and came up with its debut smartphone in August last year, creating waves with its loaded specs. The ZUK Z1, as it was called, is finally making way to our shores, but in India, the device will be labelled as the Lenovo Z1, powered by ZUK.
The move seems surprising, considering that in the phone world, devices get stale faster than cooked food in rainy season. You see, the Z1 is powered by a Snapdragon 801 chip, and this processor is now three generations old, and doesn’t even support 64-bit computing. We’ve seen this processor in quite a few flagships like Xiaomi’s Mi 4 (review) and the OnePlus One (review), and these were all pretty capable devices. However, these devices are over a year old by now. That said, our experience with Snapdragon 801-powered phones have been pretty good for the most part, and there’s no denying it’s a capable processor. And if one can ignore the specs, smartphones are more about the user experience anyway. And a smooth user experience is exactly what Lenovo’s promising with the Z1. Another thing surprising about the Z1 launching in India at this time is the fact that the phone’s successor, the Z2 Pro, was recently unveiled in China, and the new handset rocks some truly powerful specs. Hopefully, now that the Z1 is here, the Z2 Pro won’t be too far behind.
More than the hardware itself, the main pillar that the Z1 stands on is its software platform. The phone runs Cyanogen OS, which is one of our favourite Android-based platforms for the customisability and tweaking options it adds on top of a near-stock interface. If you remember, the OnePlus One was the first smartphone to bring this platform officially to India back in December 2014, but its thunder was soon stolen by Micromax-backed YU, which won exclusive rights to Cyanogen and launched its debut device, the Yureka with it. The tussle between OnePlus and Micromax grabbed quite a few headlines back then, and eventually ended with the former choosing to develop its own OxygenOS instead of relying on Cyanogen. That’s all water under the bridge now, so let’s get our attention back to the ZUK Z1, aka the Lenovo Z1…
The Z1 is an elegant-looking phone, but not stylish or head-turning in any way. The build seems solid, thanks to the metal frame that surrounds its chunky body. It’s a large phone that doesn’t care too much about slimness, but the heft feels reassuringly solid.
The corners are rounded, and the device looks plain Jane from the front. Black bezels surround the 5.5-inch display, and are quite wide on the top and bottom. Above the screen, you’ll see the usual earpiece and front camera, while the bottom has a rectangular home button that sits flush with the body. The button can be physically pressed and also integrates a fingerprint scanner. We’re told that the fingerprint sensor supports 360-degree scanning, so it should recognise your finger no matter which way you place it on the sensor. It’s also supposed to work with wet fingers, a claim which we’ll be putting to the test soon. On either side are two backlit capacitive keys, indicated by dots. The functions for these can be swapped in settings, and since it’s Cyanogen at work here, you can even disable these in favour of onscreen navigation keys.
On the left spine sits an ejectable tray that gobbles up a pair of nano-SIMs, but there’s no place to insert a microSD card. The right is where the volume rocker and power key are placed.
The 3.5mm headset socket can be found on top, as expected, while the bottom bears speaker holes and a USB Type-C port.
The rear is curved gently, and is fashioned out of polycarbonate. Here, you’ll find the primary camera encircled by a chrome ring, along with a dual-LED flash housed inside a small, oval-shaped cavity. A ZUK logo can be seen closer to the bottom.
The ZUK Z1 runs CM 12.1, which is based on Android 5.1. We’re told that CM 13, which uses Android Marshmallow, will be available via an update sometime in June. Cyanogen on the Z1 is pretty standard and doesn’t hold any surprises. You should check out our OnePlus One review for an in-depth overview of what it brings, but the proposition is quite compelling. The concept of a stock Android UI, boosted by tons of tweaking options is quite interesting, and this is exactly what made Cyanogen popular in the first place.
There’s extensive theme support for customising the look of the UI, along with quite a few other customisation options available under settings. You can tweak button behaviour, change options on the status bar, customise the sequence of quick settings, control notifications and more. Other staple Cyanogen features, like Audio FX sound enhancements, Truecaller integrated with the dialler, and support for gestures like double tap to wake are all there.
Then there are the extensive security and privacy features, such as the powerful permissions manager built into the platform. The LiveDisplay feature optimises the screen based on time of day and ambient lighting conditions in an attempt to make it easier on the eyes. The battery mode can be set to power save, balanced or performance depending upon your preferences and requirements.
The camera app is also the same as the one we’ve seen on Cyanogen before, with the same interface and features, and modes that can be switched by swiping up or down on top of the viewfinder.
In terms of the core specs, the 5.5-inch screen bears a resolution of 1080p, while the Snapdragon 801 chip inside works in tandem with 3 gigs of RAM. The 64GB internal storage isn’t expandable, but should be enough for most users. The primary camera sports a 13MP Sony sensor and offers optical image stabilisation, while the front shooter has an 8-meg sensor. Supplying power is a 4,100mAh battery, and that seems to be another highlight, promising long usage on a single charge.
In some sense, the Z1 doesn’t really have anything outstanding to offer, in terms of design, specs or features. This means that pricing will be key, and Lenovo is saying that the Z1 will cost less than the Vibe X3, which was launched around the Rs 20k mark. However, Lenovo is also promising a smooth user experience with the Z1, and says the hardware and software have been optimised to work perfectly with each other.
The 5.5-inch FHD screen on the Z1 boasts 100 percent NTSC colour saturation, higher contrast, and 450nit brightness, and promises great visuals. Indeed, in our brief usage, the screen did seem quite capable. The performance seemed pretty smooth too, while a couple of test shots indicated good image quality. However, it’d a tad early for us to say anything more at this point, without putting it through its paces properly. Lenovo also says that the Z1 is equipped with a special feature that switches to the power supplied by the charger once the battery is charged fully. In most other cases, a phone usually switches to battery power once it’s fully charged, even with the charger connected, and once battery levels drop a little bit, starts charging again. This degrades battery performance over a period of time. The Z1’s battery therefore, should be able to last longer in terms of the life of the battery, without degradation in the long run. Another interesting thing Lenovo is promising Z1 buyers is the permission to unlock the bootloader and root the phone without fear of voiding warranty, and that’s something we’re sure will appeal to the geeks and the power users.
All said and done, the Z1 does look like a fairly interesting proposition, and we’ll wait and see how aggressively it’s priced before we comment on the competitive landscape. It’s worth mentioning that the plethora of options and brands that exist in the Indian market, with new offerings coming in almost every day, the Z1 does face an uphill battle when it lands. However, if it can deliver what it promises, we don’t see any reason why it should not be considered as a compelling option.