Nubia Z20 review
I suspect I’ll always have a soft spot for dual screen phones. It’s the most absurdly over-engineered solution to a simple problem – minimising the impact of a selfie camera on the display – but the sheer, unadulterated novelty of having two screens on one phone is hard to overstate.
The first dual screen phones admittedly weren’t great, but the Nubia Z20 feels like a surprisingly mature example of a charmingly immature design, and the best case yet for slapping an extra screen on the back of a phone, thanks to a combo of attractive design, clever interfaces, and a strong price point.
Price and availability
You can buy the Nubia Z20 right now, and the best way to do that is simply to buy the phone outright from the Nubia website – it’s unlikely to be stocked by any UK or US carriers.
If you’re in the UK it’ll cost £499, while if you’re elsewhere it’s $549 or €549. That basically puts it up against the likes of the Asus ZenFone 6 (with an equally out-there design), the Xiaomi Mi 9, or the Honor View 20 in our best mid-range phone chart – pretty stiff competition, but none of them will let you run a neon flamingo always-on animation on the back of your phone, will they?
Screens: Two for the price of one
So yeah, this phone has two displays. The main one is a 6.42in AMOLED FHD+ panel that covers the whole front of the phone, free of any notches, bezels, or pinholes – though it’s worth noting that there is still some black bordering, as it’s not quite edge-to-edge.
It’s a bright, responsive panel with inky blacks and vivid colours. It’s not the brightest I’ve tested – and the auto brightness setting is a little screwy, requiring manual adjustment more often than I’d like – but on the whole it’s a pleasure to use. If you’ve never had a full-screen phone before it really is a treat to use, and it’ll be hard to go back to a notch or bezel afterwards.
Then there’s the back, with a separate 5.1in screen (also AMOLED, also FHD+) that sits below the camera module. Understandably this doesn’t cover the whole rear of the phone, and feels a bit dinky after switching from the front – in part thanks to the decision to preserve the front screen’s aspect ratio rather than fill out to the sides, as on the Vivo Nex Dual Display earlier this year. It’s still a very usable size, but only in brief bursts – any longer than 30 seconds and you’ll probably just want to switch back to the main display anyway.
The Z20 is available in either blue or black finishes, and as you can see one of its best tricks is that the secondary screen blends into the body – even with the blue model – making it tricky to even tell there’s a screen there if it isn’t turned on.
It does mean that my blue model has a slight tint to rear panel that takes getting used to – not helped by the decision to leave the blue light eye protection mode on by default, so I spent a few days wondering why the rear panel looked quite so yellow until I realised I could turn that off.
Nubia offers a few different ways to use the two different displays, so you really can figure out what works for you. You could set each power button to trigger a different screen for example, so that whichever way you pick the phone up the right-hand power button will turn on the correct display – though it’s still all too easy to nudge the other fingerprint sensor and trigger the other display.
There’s also the option of a floating button to swap between screens, or an automatic setting that detects the motion of you flipping the phone and switches screens as you do – though this gets a bit confused if you’re using the phone at an odd angle, like while lying down.
Then you can choose whether to use the separate screens for multi-tasking, running different apps on each, or to simply mirror one display to the other for switching between. Throw in separate always-on display options for each panel and there’s an impressive wealth of options.
Design and build: Twice as nice
To accommodate the dual displays, the Z20 also has two power buttons, each with an integrated fingerprint sensor – which could also make it accidentally ideal for the left-handed or ambidextrous among us.
There’s still only one volume rocker (on the right), along with a down-firing speaker and USB-C charging port on the bottom of the phone, but no headphone jack.
At 186g it’s actually a fairly lightweight phone, and feels relatively compact despite all the tech packed inside. That means it’s still comfortable to use one-handed – on either side of the phone – though it’s definitely not a small phone by any means.
I’m a fan of the blue finish, though it’s an absolute fingerprint magnet, and lacks the textured or gradient finishes popular on other coloured phones these days – understandable when there’s a screen to worry about. Basically this isn’t the most attractive phone you’ll find at this price – but it is one of the most striking, and it makes its aesthetic work.
Specs and features: Double down
Arguably the most impressive thing about the Z20 is that packing in the second screen hasn’t either driven the price up or the core specs down – this thing is still a powerhouse.
The flagship Qualcomm Snapdragon 855+ is at the heart of the phone – the fastest chip the company offers right now. It’s paired with 8GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, which should be more than enough for most people – though it’s a slight shame that there’s no option available with more storage.
In our benchmark results the Z20 lags slightly behind even slightly older mid-range handsets on CPU performance, suggesting that there’s some software optimisation needed to really get the most out of the hardware, but in all honesty you won’t notice this in use – and its graphical benchmark results are fantastic. The phone is fast, responsive, and capable of everything from video editing to playing games.
27W wired fast charging tops the 4,000mAh battery up quickly, though battery life itself is… variable. Essentially it depends a lot on how much you use the second display – use an always-on display on both panels at once and the phone will drain in half a day, but with more conservative settings you can get between a day or a day and a half of use, which is pretty typical for Android right now.
The side-mounted fingerprint sensors are both quick and easy to use, and still preferable to the slightly slower in-display sensors for the most part. With no selfie camera there’s no face unlock – not even on the rear display – so it’s fingerprint or PIN only though.
Cameras: Less is more
An extra screen perversely means fewer camera lenses. The whole point of slapping an extra screen on the Z20’s back is to avoid putting any cameras on the front. Instead, you simply use the rear cameras for every photo, turning that screen on when you want to take a selfie.
There’s a benefit there, as it means getting to use the high spec rear cameras for selfies, rather than putting up with a lower res camera squeezed into a notch. And Nubia has leant into the Z20’s camera specs – though actual performance doesn’t quite live up to the promise on paper.
The main lens is 48Mp, as you’ll find on a whole range of high-end phones this year – though as with most of those, it defaults to taking 12Mp photos and using pixel binning to up the quality.
HDR support does a good job of managing exposure and light levels, helped by an f/1.7 aperture, but on the standard photo mode Nubia’s camera software heavily over-saturates photos and unless you’re willing to delve into the complex pro mode there’s no real way to tweak those settings.
The autofocus often struggled to pick out the correct spot, especially in low light, resulting in quite a few shots that are just a little too fuzzy. There’s also a passable but unremarkable night mode, and a portrait mode.
Flanking the main lens are a 16Mp ultrawide and an 8Mp 3x telephoto lens. Neither offers quite the same dynamic range as the main shooter, but colours are fairly consistent between the three. Unfortunately that means they’re consistently over-saturated, but that’s still something.
If you flip the phone round to take a selfie, the software is smart enough to recognise which screen you’re using and adjust the settings appropriately, taking away the night mode and telephoto options to focus on stuff you’re likely to want for a selfie. One consistent annoyance is that this includes a beautification mode that is on by default and won’t remember any other default – in short that means that if you don’t want an AI beauty mode, you’ll have to remember to turn it off for every single selfie.
The second screen offers another advantage beyond souped up selfies. It also lets you turn on both screens simultaneously while using the camera – pointless most of the time, but handy for portrait shots where you want the subject to see the shot before you take it.
As for video, the main lens can shoot in 4K at up to 60fps. It can even shoot 8K video, but since it’s limited to 15fps and you probably don’t own an 8K display to run it on, there’s not really much point. HDR10 support is a more useful addition, as is OIS – though the stabilisation is fairly basic, and may disappoint compared to some rival phones.
Software: Double trouble
Unfortunately it’s not all rosy, and while Nubia has mostly done a good job of incorporating the second display into the phone, there are still software quirks that irritate.
The Z20 ships with Android 9.0, but doesn’t feature the gesture controls that Google began including in that Android version. That means you’re stuck with the regular navigation bar at the bottom of the screen the whole time, negating some of the benefit of the full-screen display.
Translation issues abound in Nubia’s custom parts of the OS – mostly devoted to the second screen – meaning it’s very unclear what some settings will do. One option lets me ‘select lamp efficacy’, while ‘Secondary screen space’ is the name of the part of the settings menu devoted to managing multi-tasking across the second display.
None of these are dealbreakers of course, and I’ve been using the phone with pre-release software so it’s possible that some things will have been changed by the time you get your hands on the phone.
To be fair to Nubia, beyond those small flaws there’s actually a fair amount to like from the software here. The company has stuck fairly close to the stock Android experience, mostly tweaking it only to add in its own extra functionality. The phone even ships with the stock Google apps for most things, and there’s no pre-installed bloatware to deal with either.
A dual-screen phone won’t be for everyone, but the Z20 is the closest you’re likely to get to a second display with mass-market appeal. A variety of settings and options mean you can use the second display as little or often as you like, while still enjoying all the benefits of the main camera for selfies, but it still feels a little awkward even at the best of times.
It’s just a shame that camera isn’t better, with strong hardware let down by software that’s only OK. Then again, factor in the price – and super specs – and the Z20 delivers plenty of bang for its buck, competing surprisingly comfortably with phenomenal mid-range offerings from Xiaomi, Asus, Honor, and more.
If you want a second screen, the Z20 is almost certainly the best dual-display phone on the market right now – but it’s probably not quite enough to win over any new converts.