Hands on: ZTE Grand S2

On paper the ZTE Grand S 2 should be fighting with the big players in the smartphone world. Instead the advancements made in certain areas are let down by poor build quality and cheap-feeling materials.

Shows like CES are often battlegrounds for competitors, where each tries to outdo the other in everything from the glitz of its press event or show booth, to the strength and innovation of the products it launches. This year, there’s an interesting fight going on between ZTE and Huawei, as both announced new high-end flagship phones. In Huawei’s corner it’s the Ascend Mate 2 4G, while ZTE has the Grand S2. In the past the two Chinese firms have been too close to call, but this time there is a clear winner.

The ZTE Grand S2 has a specification which puts it up against phones like the Galaxy Note 3 and the Xperia Z1. A 2.3GHz Snapdragon 800 processor provides plenty of power, and the phone really does zip along. Android 4.3 is installed, and the chip’s serious power helps mask any slowdown created by ZTE’s MiFavor user interface. Even with the animations and flashy transitions turned on, the Grand S2 didn’t frustrate like some previous ZTE phones.

An almost-there smartphone that once picked up, doesn’t inspire you to hold it for very long

A big 5.5-inch screen dominates the front panel and looks fantastic, really crisp and bright. The resolution is 1080p, there’s a 13-megapixel camera on the back, a 2-megapixel cam above the screen, and a sensibly large 3000mAh battery inside. Based on its spec, the Grand S2 should eclipse the Ascend Mate 2, and even take on other pleasant show surprises such as the Lenovo Vibe Z.

Sadly though, the Grand S2 is let down by less than inspiring build quality. It’s serious enough to be distracting, even when playing with potentially fun applications such as the phone’s voice control. The problem lies with the rear panel, which flexes and bends in all the wrong places. You can feel it’s not right when holding the phone in your palm, and even the edges don’t appear to sit flush with the body.

We tried each phone on display, plus a phone provided by ZTE which wasn’t out on the show floor, and all were the same. It’s not something limited to a single color either, as they were all different. It’s a real disappointment, as from the front the Grand S2 is quite attractive, particularly its curvy corners. Turn it over and it’s like a different phone. It looks cheap, and worse, it feels cheap. After putting in all that effort to bump the spec and improve MiFavor, it’s a shame the physical package hasn’t had the same level of attention.

Ultimately then, the Grand S2 is more of the same from ZTE, an almost-there smartphone that once picked up, doesn’t inspire you to hold it for very long. It’s bad news too, as Huawei has made considerable strides in quality and desirability with the Ascend Mate 2, which impresses despite being a phone we’d normally find too large and ungainly. One nil to Huawei at CES 2014.

Not that this may be a problem for the U.S. and Europe, as ZTE still can’t provide any information on whether the Grand S2 will be sold outside of China and other parts of Asia. For once, regrettably, we’re not all that bothered.

Highs

  • Large, crisp and bright 1080p screen
  • Fast Snapdragon 800 processor
  • Improved MiFavor Android user interface

Lows

  • Less than impressive build quality
  • Unpleasant plastic rear cover
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