Nubia Z20 review: Dual screens and good value
The Nubia Z20's dual-screen gimmick misses the mark, but there's a lot of value to be had out of this interesting smartphone.
You shouldn't buy the Nubia Z20 for its dual-screen set-up, which introduces more problems than it fixes, but it's well worth considering if you want premium phone specifications for a sub-$1,000 price.
- Nicely powerful
- Camera set-up gives lots of selfie options
- Full screen with no notch at all
- Fair battery performance
- Dual-screen gimmick doesn't work that well
- No wireless charging
- Lacks NFC
- No water resistance
- No HD Netflix support
You've almost certainly never heard of Nubia, a Chinese phone maker that originally started as a subsidiary of the much larger ZTE. ZTE has had a presence in the Australian market for years, mostly as a maker of house brand phones for the likes of Telstra and Optus, but Nubia is a little known brand.
The Nubia Z20 certainly stands out thanks to its dual-screen gimmick, where both sides of the phone provide usable displays. But once the novelty – and in some cases limitations – of that approach wears off, what you're left with is, surprisingly, a good phone for the asking price.
- Primary full-screen 6.4-inch display
- 5.1-inch secondary screen on the back
- Dual fingerprint sensors
- No water resistance or headphone jack
At first glance the Nubia Z20 appears to have a relatively simple design, with a front-facing 6.4-inch 1,080 x 2,340px OLED display facing you. Look a little closer, and you'll notice that there's no sign of a notch, punch hole or any other obvious front-facing camera array. That's not a unique idea, with plenty of phone makers offering up pop-up cameras to allow for full-screen displays, but Nubia has gone down a different path with the Nubia Z20.
Flip the phone over, and at first it appears to just have a horizontally arranged triple lens system above a curved back, but the rear of the phone is in itself a display. In order to fit in those cameras, it's smaller than the primary display at just 5.1 inches, but that's still a workable size for actual Android apps. It's also lower resolution at just 720 x 1,520px, or effectively 720p. I'll get into the utility of that approach in the performance section below because the Nubia Z20 is definitely a phone where design very much informs the overall performance.
The use of dual screen displays – only really seen on a handful of phones to date, most of which have never made their way properly out of China – isn't the Nubia Z20's only design trick.
While in-display fingerprint sensors are very much the style of the time, Nubia has instead opted for side mounted fingerprint sensors as its unlocking technology of choice, but you don't just get one of them. There's one mounted on each side, and either acts as the power button for each side's screen. There's a definite learning curve to making sure you power on the display you want to look at, which most of the time will be that primary screen and hitting the right button. More than once I've picked up the Nubia Z20 and accidentally switched on the rear screen by holding it too closely on the left-hand side.
Rather surprisingly, Nubia provides a case with the Nubia Z20, which you might think would be an impossible task. It's a simple clear plastic case, so it's nothing too stylish, but it does a serviceable job of protecting that rear screen while also adding just a little extra curvature around the power buttons. Once I'd installed the case I found the Nubia Z20 a lot more manageable in terms of its power buttons.
All that design trickery does come with a price, however. There's no stated water resistance at all, and that's fairly common in premium phones. Likewise, if you want to use cabled headphones, you'll have to do so by a USB-C adaptor, because there's no headphone jack either.Back to top
- Triple cameras are OK but not quite premium
- Wide choice of selfie modes
The unusual design of the Nubia Z20 means that its three lenses on the back of the phone have to do all of the phone's heavy lifting, including any selfie taking. The primary lens is the Sony's 48MP IMX586 f/1.7, flanked by a 8MP f/2.4 telephoto lens and 16MP f/2.2 ultrawide lens.
That does give you a decent degree of photographic flexibility, and especially so when you're shooting selfies. If you were a big fan of the wide angle selfies found on the Google Pixel 3 family, you can replicate that here – or shoot right up your nose with the telephoto lens if the mood strikes you. The one caveat here is that while the Nubia Z20's inbuilt camera does feature a reasonable portrait selfie mode, it's limited to that primary 48MP lens, which strongly suggests it's using the secondary lenses for bokeh effects.
You also get access to a night shooting mode that again limits you to just that primary lens. Results here aren't quite as good as the very best in premium class phones, but then the Nubia Z20 sells for quite a bit less than those handsets.
There is one notable downside to the arrangement of cameras on the Nubia Z20, and that's when you come to use any app that presumes there's a distinct selfie camera available. For video calling apps, for example, you've got to remember to switch to that smaller, lower resolution screen before you start or accept the call, otherwise your call recipient won't be looking at your face at all – they'll get a shot of whatever's behind the phone because that's where the cameras are.
- Snapdragon 855 Plus is good value for this price
- Dual screens remain a gimmick, not a must-have idea
- Lacks widevine certification for HD Netflix
- No NFC for contactless payments
Aside from its dual screen nature, the underlying hardware in the Nubia Z20 is entirely predictable for a flagship 2019 handset. It's running on the Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 Plus with 8GB of ROM on our review unit, as well as 128GB of onboard storage. Nubia does appear to make other variants with 6GB ROM/128GB RAM and 8GB RAM/512GB RAM, so it's well worth checking which model you're being sold before you purchase.
The underlying hardware of the Nubia Z20 matches that of most flagship phones, and so it's not a surprise that in benchmark terms, it performs rather well. Here's how it compares using Geekbench 5's CPU test:
And here's how it stacks up for 3D games performance with 3DMark's Slingshot Extreme test:
For day-to-day usage the Nubia Z20 is mostly pleasant to use, with a relatively light launcher on top of Android 9. It was notable that it was already lagging a touch behind in Android security updates during the testing period, which doesn't bode that well for it getting a full upgrade to Android 10 any time soon.
Of course, there's also the matter of the dual screens and how well they work, and that's where the Nubia Z20 does falter relatively quickly. There's something undeniably cool about showing off the dual screen feature to your friends when you first get it, but you'll quickly revert to only using that secondary display when you have to – which is to say when you're using the cameras.
While it's not as annoyingly small as the secondary display on the Samsung Galaxy Fold, there's just not a real app use case for that second screen as yet.
Nobody's produced any apps that would use both screens at once – and that would be rather unwieldy, really – and while it's easy enough to switch screens if you want to, I quickly ran out of reasons to do that. You can enable an onscreen switching icon that floats to a position of your choice, but I disabled that too because all too often it was simply in the way of what I wanted to actually do.
The Nubia Z20 does support an "always on" display mode for the secondary screen so you can have a clock running there, but it only kicks in when the primary display also isn't being used.
The full screen display of the Nubia Z20 should make it an ideal platform for your commuting Netflix binges, but there's a catch here we've seen on plenty of Chinese-produced phones of late. The Nubia Z20 has a 1,080p display, so it's technically capable of HD playback, but it lacks the necessary Google widevine certification for anything but SD playback. You can run your own HD content on the display, but Full HD Stranger Things won't be part of the mix.
It's also entirely lacking in NFC, although that's not entirely surprising given the entire rear display is itself a screen. That does mean its locked out from contactless payments via platforms such as Google Pay.Back to top
- 4,000mAh battery works well for a dual-screen phone
- No wireless charging
The Nubia Z20 comes with a 4,000mAh non-removable battery, which is entirely in line with where premium 2019 phones have tended to play. I was curious to see how well it would fare given from a pure screen inches point of view it's running way more than its competition.
While it didn't lead the pack in our YouTube 1-hour battery test, it fared well enough to suggest that it should easily get through a day's regular usage. Here's how it compared against a range of flagship phones:
More anecdotally, I've been able to run the Nubia Z20 as my day-to-day phone for around a day and a half before it peters out; that second screen, even when enabled as a clock really doesn't sap the battery any more than on a regular phone screen.
Charging is via USB C only; again another casualty of the second screen design is that there's nowhere to put in a magnetic Qi charging coil.Back to top
Should you buy the Nubia Z20?
- Dual screen isn't a great gimmick
- A good buy on specifications at this price
If the Nubia Z20's only claim to fame was that it was a dual display device, it wouldn't be worth buying. The compromises around NFC, wireless charging and water resistance aren't entirely worth abandoning for what ultimately becomes a cute gimmick rather than a feature you'll use every day.
However, by providing a laundry list of 2019's flagship internal components at a price point that's essentially around half that of most premium phones, it poses a good argument for its value if you do need that kind of premium performance. There are quirks to deal with, and while Nubia will ship to Australia there's no local warranty support. So as long as you're comfortable with that arrangement, there's a good degree of value here.Back to top
Pricing and availability
The Nubia Z20 sells through Nubia's own website with free shipping for US$549, which equates to around AUD$790 at the time of writing. We've seen other online merchants undercut that price already, so it's well worth shopping around, but make sure you're getting the 8GB/128GB model for that price. Nubia's representatives tell us that the other storage models are based on reflashed Chinese market models of the phone, and won't get warranty support through Nubia directly.
If you do crave multi-screen action you do have some choices, although nothing at or near the Nubia Z20's price point.
LG's dual screen LG V50 ThinQ is a 5G-capable handset that sells in Australia with the bolt-on dual screen accessory as standard, but it'll cost you quite a bit more than the Nubia Z20.
Samsung also has a play in this space with the Samsung Galaxy Fold, but that's an even more expensive proposition.
Nubia Z20 Specifications
Power, storage and battery
|Display size||6.42 inches|
|Resolution||1080 x 2340|
|Pixels per inch (PPI)||401|
|Rear camera megapixels||48MP + 16MP + 8MP|
|Rear camera aperture size||f/1.7 + f/2.2 + f/2.4|
|Front camera megapixels||N/A|
|Front camera aperture size||N/A|
|Dimensions||158.63mm x 75.26mm x 9mm|
|Network category speed||N/A|
|Processor||Qualcomm Snapdragon 855+|
|Operating system||Android 9|
|External storage support||Up to N/A|