GUANGZHOU, China — At its launch event here at Guangzhou’s Canton Towers, China’s tallest building, ZTE demoed its new flagship phone, the Star 2, which has an impressive level of voice control. It lets you make phone calls, go into and exit apps, control the camera, and search for locations while driving — all without having to hit a button on the phone. The Chinese company has worked hard on its software to deliver what, potentially, could be one of the best integrated voice assistants around.
Specs-wise, the Star 2 packs a 13-megapixel camera using Sony’s fourth-generation sensor, dual-LED flash and a 5-megapixel front shooter. The phone also has 4G LTE, a 2.3GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of onboard storage, a 2,300mAh battery and microSD support.
Voice smarts aren’t all the ZTE Star 2 has going for it. The 6.9mm thick phone feels premium, thanks to its aluminum chamfered edges and glass rear.
The rounded edges at the top and bottom of the phone make it comfortable to grasp, though I do worry that if you have sweaty hands, you may not get a very good grip on the glass rear. I’m also not a fan of the physical keys — soft keys make for a cleaner looking phone.
The Star 2 sports a 5-inch full-HD display — that’s 1,920×1,080 pixels — that I found bright, with pretty vibrant colors. The thin bezels around it made the display look larger than it was, though I find that phones with 4.5-inch to 5-inch screens are optimal.
Integrated voice control is the Star 2’s claim to fame, and ZTE says it’s way ahead of the competition when it comes to voice controls. From what I’ve seen, it’s hard not to be impressed, although those demos were in Mandarin. I managed to get my hands on a unit that I set up to be in English, and to my surprise, many of the features still worked.
I tried out the camera controls, and I could easily take pictures by just saying, “capture” or “cheese.” I could even turn on and off the flash, and switch to the front camera without having to touch the screen. And to exit the app, I could do so by saying, “Exit camera.”
It’s impressive, and certainly the way forward when it comes to voice controls. I don’t find myself using the voice assistants on my current phone and tablet much, because I don’t really see the point. But ZTE’s seamless implementation, where you can pretty much use your voice to control the entire phone, makes a lot of sci-fi sense.
Besides working the camera, you can hit the power button, lift the phone to your ear, and the Star 2 will ask you who you would like to call. You can also tell it to open apps or switch to another app, and if it isn’t installed, it will ask you if you want to install it. Very cool.
The phone is running Android 4.4 KitKat, which isn’t the latest version, with the company’s own MiFavor 3.0 skin on top. Like most Chinese custom skins, it does away with the app drawer, and puts all your apps on the home screens. There are plenty of color combinations to choose from to suit your taste and ZTE has made the skin as flat as can be.
It’s similar to what we’ve already seen in handsets such as the LG G3 and Asus ZenFone 5, which is no bad thing, but it’s hardly original.
The ZTE Star 2 may not stand out hardware-wise, but other companies may find it hard to emulate its impressive software features. While the English voice features aren’t yet ready for the US, UK and Australia, the phone looks primed for the Mandarin market.
Chinese customers can order the Star 2 today, with global availability yet to be announced. It’ll cost RMB2,499 — the same as the Honor 6 Plus that Huawei announced earlier this week — which converts to roughly $400,