Initial impressions of the ZUK Z1 $300 Cyanogen-powered Android smartphone

ZUK, a Lenovo subsidiary, is getting ready to launch its new Z1 smartphone and we've spent a few days testing it out. The software will be finalized in September and it's a low-cost device to consider.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer

Yesterday, Apple announced the new iPhone 6s and 6s Plus smartphones with prices ranging from $650 to $950. They are very capable and gorgeous devices, but for those who want to spend hundreds less there are also other alternatives to consider.

A couple of week's ago ZDNet's Liam Tung posted that the Cyanogen-powered ZUK Z1 was launching soon for around $300. I've been testing a ZUK Z1 with a preview version of Cyanogen OS 12.1 for the last three days and am very impressed.

ZUK is a Lenovo subsidiary and the retail box has Lenovo and ZUK branding on several sides. It's rare to find a Lenovo phone available in the US, but the ZUK Z1 is coming in the next month with a current price of $319.90.

Retail package and out-of-the box impressions

The ZUK Z1 comes in a stiff white box with ZUK branding embossed in silver on the front cover. Opening the front flap reveals the ZUK Z1. Flip this container over after removing the phone to gain access to the USB Type-C cable, A/C adapter, and SIM card removal tool.

The ZUK Z1 is about the size of an iPhone 6 Plus and appears similar to the iPhone when you look at the white front and physical home button. The silver aluminum edges have glossy beveled edges and openings cut into the metal. It's an attractive device that looks a lot more expensive than $300.

Walk around the hardware

The front of the Z1 is dominated by the 5.5 inch 1920 x 1080 pixels resolution IPS Corning Gorilla Glass display. Below the display you will find a hardware button that also serves as a fingerprint scanner. Software, discussed below, can be accessed to customize actions resulting from pressing on the hardware button.

The fingerprint scanner is as fast as the Samsung Galaxy Note 5 and worked extremely well even with this preview software installed on the ZUK Z1. There are capacitive buttons on the right and left of the hardware button for back (right) and multi-tasking (left). You can also switch to using on-screen buttons if you like.

Above the display is an 8 megapixel front facing camera and headset speaker. A 3.5mm headset jack is positioned on the top of the device.

The dual nano SIM card slot is on the left side while the volume and power buttons are positioned on the right. The speaker and USB Type-C port are located on the bottom.

A 13 megapixel camera and LED flash are centered near the top of the back. The camera has a f/2.2 aperture, and optical image stabilization.

The ZUK Z1 is powered by a Snapdragon 801 with 3GB of RAM and 64GB internal storage. A massive 4,100 mAh battery is provided to give you plenty of battery capacity. The Z1 dimensions are 155.7 x 77.3 x 8.9 mm and 175 grams.

It looks and feels great in your hand. While the back cover is glossy white plastic, the beveled aluminum edges and curve of the back help give it a good in-hand feel.

ZUK Z1 Cyanogen-powered Android smartphone image and screenshot gallery

Initial thoughts on the software

I've never used a device with Cyanogen OS so was very surprised to see that the ZUK Z1 offers a nearly pure Google experience. Cyanogen preview 12.1 is currently installed on this evaluation device with a full release scheduled for the end of September. I'm withholding my final rating until after I get the chance to test out the final release software.

I understand that the Chinese release of the ZUK Z1 includes the ZUI, based on Android 5.1.1. Cyanogen 12.1 is also based on Android 5.1.1.

There is no bloatware at all on the phone and even just a minimal number of applications. Thankfully Google Play Services is supported so you can install and use all of the great Google services right out of the box.

The only utilities loaded that are not stock Android include AudioFX, a file manager, an image gallery, and a theme changer.

There are some impressive settings available on the ZUK Z1, including the ability to control two SIM cards and custom ringtones for each SIM card.

You can control the LCD density by selecting from 320 dpi up to 560 dpi. I've never seen such control over the display experience before and loved being able to control the size and how much content appears on the display.

You can customize the status bar, the power button, and even the home button. I have the Z1 setup to launch Google Now with a long press and launch the camera with a double tap.

There are many other settings available to let you personalize the ZUK Z1 to your exact preferences.

Summary thoughts

While the ZUK Z1 is coming to the US as a SIM-unlocked device, it does not have support for T-Mobile LTE so I was limited to using it on HSPA+. It has support for the following LTE bands: 1, 3, 7, 28, 29, 40, and 41 with WCDMA support for 850/900/1900/2100 MHz.

The reversible USB Type-C port is cool, but since I don't have any other USB Type-C cables it isn't a major bonus for me yet. There is no wireless support for charging the ZUK Z1.

ZUK has created a very capable device in the ZUK Z1, especially when you consider you will soon be able to purchase one for around just $300. I plan to spend more time testing the camera, Cyanogen software updates, and more. Please let me know if there is anything in particular that you want me to test out.

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