Jan 27 2015

Review: Lenovo VIBE Z K910

Lenovo K910 VIBE Z

Lenovo is currently (early 2015) the third largest smartphone manufacturer in the world, after first-place Samsung and a runner-up Apple, and has a wide selection of models to target all consumer segments from low-range to high-range. Lenovo K910 VIBE Z sits at the upper part of mid-range with high-quality components from well-known companies such as Qualcomm and Sony. It is a very exciting Android smartphone with well-thought components and a decent price tag ($260/210 €) but how does it perform in real life?

What is Lenovo?

At least here in Europe, Lenovo is known for its enterprise ThinkPad laptops, the sturdy choice for a work PC laptop for most employers and employees, and not for its smartphones. As a matter of fact, almost none of my friends had heard that Lenovo even makes phones. However currently (early 2015) Lenovo sits on the third spot on the list of largest smartphone manufacturers in the world2.

Lenovo Logo

Lenovo is a Chinese, turned into a multinational computer technology company that manufactures computers, tablets, mobile phones, smart televisions among other technology gadgets. In 2013, Lenovo was world’s largest PC manufacturer measured in units sold. Lenovo was founded in Beijing in 1984 as Lianxiang (“connected thinking” or “creativity” in English) and was later incorporated in Hong Kong in 1988. Its official English name however was Legend but as the company planned expanding to international markets they needed to come up with a new name since Legend was already taken in many markets. In 2003 they announced the new name Lenovo, “Le” coming from Legend and “novo” from Latin word meaning “new”.1

After early trial and error of trying to import televisions and marketing a digital watch, Legend/Lenovo got success in the 1990’s with their PC, “Tianxi”, that helped inexperienced Chinese users to use computers and the Internet. Tianxi had a dedicated button to open up the Internet connection and fire up the browser. By the year 2000 Tianxi became the most sold computer in China, having sold a million units in 2000 alone.1

In 2005 Lenovo acquired IBM’s PC business thus adding the ThinkPad series into its arsenal and made Lenovo the third largest computer manufacturer measured by units sold. In March 2008, Lenovo sold its smartphone and tablet division wanting to concentrate on PC business but later on bought it back in November 2009. In 2012 Lenovo entered into the Chinese smartphone market with a large variety of different devices and quickly became popular vendor in China. With huge number of units sold in China, Lenovo became the third largest smartphone manufacturer in the world until Xiaomi passed it in late 2014. Lenovo then acquired Motorola from Google and yet again became claimed the third spot. Lenovo is now eyeing the number one spot in the world that is currently (early 2015) occupied by Samsung and followed by Apple.1, 2

(Official) Specs

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Priced at $260/210 € (late 2014):

  • 5.5″ 1920×1080 display
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 MSM8974, Quad Core, 2.2GHz
  • 2 GB RAM + 16 GB ROM
  • Adreno 330 GPU
  • Dual SIM
  • 3G WCDMA 850/900/1700/1900/2100 MHz
  • 4G FDD-LTE 850/1800/2100 MHz
  • 13 MP Sony Exmor RS IMX135 back camera (f/1.8 aperture) + 5 MP front camera (f/2.2 aperture)
  • 3000 mAh battery
  • Dimensions: 149.1 x 77 x 7.9 mm
  • Weight: 145 g (with battery)

Unboxing

The box is really stylish, having “VIBE” cut out from the top. Once you slip the inside off, the outside cover reveals beautiful red interior seen through the cut. The box includes a manual in Chinese, a warranty card in Chinese, a charger, a micro-USB cable, nice quality headphones and a SIM tray ejector pin besides the phone.

Chassis

In short, the chassis feels thin and lightweight, yet very sturdy. Build and finish are very high quality, no loose parts, no gaps, no rattle. The silver back and chrome chin give the phone premium look and feel.


There are three physical buttons: volume up/down rocker along the left side and the power button on the top. The dual SIM tray is along the right side. A standard 3.5 mm headphone jack is on the top. The micro-USB connector is along the bottom side but please note that is “upside down” so bear this in mind if you try to shove the charger plugin in the dark.

I always measure the thickness and the weight myself because the measured values have often turned out to be more than those officially announced by the manufacturers. Lenovo K910 is no exception here as I measured its thickness to be 8.53 mm and its weight as 150 g against the official values of 7.9 mm and 143 g, respectively.

The dual SIM tray is made of metal and is really sturdy.

Display

The display is great, it is sharp, has great viewing angles and brightness.

The colors are really vivid and although I loved it, some others might find them too saturated. The bezels are 3.2 mm wide.

VIBE UI

Lenovo has its own heavily modified Android user interface called VIBE UI. It does not have the app drawer like normal Android does but all the apps are located on the “desktop”, the multiple home screens. In my opinion it is really beautiful with its transparent icons and flat design. Eye candy everywhere. Version 2.0 is based on KitKat 4.4.2.

Newly installed apps show the red “new” sign in their icon. Some really creative and unique apps come bundled.


VIBE UI 2.0 has nice features that I have not seen in any other Android ROMs. Recent apps are displayed on the lock screen as bubbles. If you long-press the lock screen, it will give you a quick game to enjoy. Wallpaper can be changed by swiping down from a corner as it will flip a new wallpaper like a page of a book with a nice animation. Just watch the video above.

Updating VIBE UI

Here’s a word of warning: updating VIBE UI may lose Google Apps (Google Account, Google Calendar, Google Play, Gmail, Maps, etc)! I updated the phone to VIBE UI 2.0 only to realize that the Gapps were gone. I then struggled several days to get them back but I finally did and wrote a separate Howto article about it. So if you are about to update the VIBE UI, please read my article how to restore the Gapps in case you lose them too.

Languages/Locale

There is a plethora of languages supported.

GPS

Like other Qualcomm-powered phones, the K910 got GPS fix super fast, around six seconds outdoors, and it was really accurate.

Software

Like many other Chinese phones, the K910 comes with many Chinese apps that are useless outside China. Luckily you can uninstall/disable most of them and place the rest in a folder away from the desktop. However there are three apps that can be very useful and deserve to be introduced here: Lenovo Music Player, Power Manager and Themes.

Lenovo Music Player

The best music player that I had tested so far was the great MIUI music player. Until now. The Lenovo Music Player is something spectacular. Not only can it download and show cover art and artist biography, it can also show lyrics real-time so the text scrolls up as the song progresses. It also highlights the current row in karaoke-style. In addition there is a music streaming service like Spotify. There are Chinese and Western charts to choose from plus thousands of songs if you use the search. There are couple of things that are just amazing: the streaming is free and you may choose to have it download all songs to the phone that you listen! I don’t know how Lenovo does this, do they pay some amount of money to the music streaming service per handset (like Nokia Music) or what? The player also has nice set of preset audio adjustments and you can manually adjust bass boost, surround sound and channel balance. It can also access online radio stations and even has a sleep timer so that you can fall asleep listening to your favorite tracks and it will shut itself down automatically after a specific amount of time.

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Unobtrusive Call Recording

None of the “mainstream” Android smartphone manufacturers (Samsung, HTC, Sony, LG) support phone call recording at all. It is available in some of the custom ROMs, such as MIUI, for the large manufacture phones. Call recording was possible with a 3rd party app on Nokia phones but it resulted in nasty “beep” sound that was constantly audible on the receiver end. The Chinese manufacturers are a welcome exception. Unobtrusive call recording has been in Xiaomi Mi2, Jiayu G3, ZTE Nubia Z5 mini, TCL Idol X that I have previously reviewed and now in Lenovo K910.

The recording button is conveniently placed on the call screen where you can find some familiar items as well, like numpad, hold, mute and speaker. The recorded phone calls will be placed neatly in their own directory where they can be played back later if needed. In my opinion this should be normal in all phones! Understandably there are different national legislations that may prevent or make the feature illegal.

Benchmarks

AnTuTu places the Lenovo K910 between LG Google Nexus 5 and Xiaomi Mi3, performance-wise. Both Nexus 5 and Xiaomi Mi3 have Qualcomm Snapdragon 800, 2 GB RAM and Adreno 330 GPU just like the K910 so the performance is right on the level it should be.

3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited gives a score of 17,000 points compared to Nexus 5’s 16,000 and Xiaomi Mi3’s 18,300 points so it sits nicely where it should be.

GFXBench benchmark places the Lenovo K910 above such mobile devices as LG Google Nexus 5 (Qualcomm Snapdragon 800, 2 GB RAM and Adreno 330 GPU), LG G2 (Qualcomm Snapdragon 800, 2 GB RAM and Adreno 330 GPU) and iUNI U2 (Qualcomm Snapdragon 800, 3 GB RAM and Adreno 330 GPU). It gets slightly lower score than for example Sony Xperia Z1 (Qualcomm Snapdragon 800, 2 GB RAM and Adreno 330 GPU) and iUNI U3 (Qualcomm Snapdragon 801, 3 GB RAM and Adreno 330 GPU) so nothing unusual here either.

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Finally Vellamo benchmark results. Now here things get pretty interesting. The Metal chapter measures the single core CPU performance and the K910 ranks between LG Nexus 5 (Qualcomm Snapdragon 800) and Samsung Galaxy S5 (Qualcomm Snapdragon 801) as it should be, nothing special here. The ranking is the same in the Multicore chapter, as expected. However in the Browser chapter the K910 scores a whopping 3,554 points and blows out the competition as the second place HTC One (M8) scores 2,878, followed by OnePlus One with the score of 2,796. I really don’t understand why the Lenovo K910 gets so much higher score than even the best flagships of other manufacturers. Feel free to weigh in your thoughts in the comments.

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Charging

Please note that the micro-USB plug goes in “upside-down” so do not try to shove it in with force in the dark. So be careful with the correct rotation of the cable. There is a LED indicator that lights up when charging and it changes color to green when the battery is full. However this LED does not show any notifications of apps (Whatsapp, Facebook, Messenger, etc). I believe this is a bug in the VIBE UI ROM and it was not corrected even in the VIBE UI version 2.0.

Camera

I was really excited to have the opportunity to review another quality camera with a Sony Exmor RS IMX135 sensor. However, looking at the photos I took, there is something seriously wrong with the camera setup. That is not the high quality I have been accustomed to seeing. I have two possible theories:

  1. the optics (lens) are bad quality and/or software processes the photos really poorly
  2. the sensor is not the IMX135 as claimed but of some Chinese make

I remember having read that Lenovo would have changed the camera sensor in the later production batches but I could not confirm it, yet this is the most plausible explanation to the poor quality of the photos. Please comment below if you know something about this.

With the large aperture of f/1.8 I expected good quality photos. Large aperture should mean good photos in low lighting and excellent bokeh in macro shots meaning that while the object is sharp, the background is softly blurry. The resolution of the 16:9 photos is 4160 x 2340 which yields 9.73 million pixels per photo. The reason why the photos do not have 13 million pixels even when the sensor is 13 MP, is that the sensor actually has a native aspect ratio of 4:3. The 16:9 aspect ratio is achieved by simply cutting the picture from the top and bottom and thus losing some of the pixels of the “full frame” photo. What annoys me is that we are living the year 2015 and still all camera sensors are 4:3 even though we have not had 4:3 televisions or monitors or displays in ages.

Camera Settings

This is where Lenovo has really made some effort, the settings and different modes are numerous.

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Normal Shots

The winter in Finland is not the most optimal weather to take test photos as the scenes will be without color, even sepia-like and dark but on the other hand, it requires much more from the optics and the sensor than bright summer days with colorful scenes.

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Macro Mode

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Macro mode gives good focus and a nice bokeh (blurry background) but there seems to be some white substance (“fog” if you will) in the photos as if the lens was covered in greasy fingerprints (which it was not).

HDR Mode

The High Dynamic Range can help when the lighting is challenging, there are bright and dark areas and if you adjust the shutter speed to the other, then the other will be over/under exposed. The HDR mode takes several photos (usually 2-3) with different shutter speeds and then combines the optimally exposured areas from each photos into one result photo. I love HDR and I use it personally really often. What it also usually does is that it saturates colors giving the photos more vivid and richer colors. Not all photographers like the color saturation but it is a matter of personal preference.

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I like Lenovo’s HDR a lot. It gives really sharp photos and there is no sign of fuzzy fogginess that bothers the normal shots. Now this indicates that the fog comes from bad camera software optimization rather than bad optics/sensor.

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Panorama Mode

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Panorama capture mode is fast and it delivers sharp photos with little distortion. Also notice that there is no fogginess here either like in normal mode.

Low-Light Conditions

I dare to say that all modern smart phone cameras take good pictures when there is enough light, for example in bright daylight or sunshine. The true quality of the optics is revealed when there is little light available.

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There is some normal noise in night scenes but there is also softness and blurriness that is seen in the normal well-lit scenes as well. But overall I was satisfied with the low-light scenes.

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Secondary Camera

The secondary or “selfie” camera optics seem to be just fine for self portraits. Nothing spectacular here.

Video

The same problems occur in the videos as in still photos naturally because of the poor sensor. The colorless fall/winter scenery of Finland is not the perfect environment to showcase camera capabilities but you can still notice the lack of sharpness all over the scenes.

Battery Life

With the 3,000 mAh battery, I could never run out of juice in a day, often getting 40-60% of battery come bed time. On the other hand, I don’t play intensive 3D games that drain the battery fast. But with a normal use (social media apps, instant messaging, browsing, video and music streaming) you should easily get a full day of use.

Pros & Cons

Pros:

  • Excellent build quality
  • Nice and stylish
  • Great display
  • Lightweight
  • Music Player is awesome!
  • Beautiful VIBE UI
  • 4G FDD-LTE

Cons:

  • Bad main camera/software not optimized
  • LED light does not support app notifications
  • Rattling vibration motor
  • Updating VIBE UI can lose Google Apps

Where to Buy?

Several Chinese resellers have it, including Merimobiles, Fastcardtech and AliExpress. The price is around $260/210 € (late 2014).

The Lenovo K910 VIBE Z in this review came from an AliExpress seller FTC Official Flagship Store.

Summary

Lenovo K910 VIBE Z is a good all-around phone and if the camera software was more optimized I would highly recommend it. However if the camera is not a vital part of a phone for you, it gives excellent value for money.

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