Introduction, design and display
Update: Our ZTE Axon 7 now includes final benchmarks and a recommended badge due to its design, specs and performance at a reasonable price.
The Chinese phone maker is ambitiously trying to compete with the flagship manufacturers from the US and South Korea, so much so that it designed the phone outside of China – right in the US.
What we end up with is an Android Marshmallow smartphone with a polished metal design, 2K display, front-facing speakers, and software customizations often found in a more expensive handset.
It shouldn’t be long before its operating system is upgraded, too. ZTE has promised to be the first Google Daydream VR smartphone as soon as the the proper Android Nougat update arrives.
It’s not quite inexpensive enough to be part of our best cheap phones list, but it’s definitely a candidate for TechRadar’s next best phones list update. Let’s break down why that is.
Release date and price
The ZTE Axon 7 release date was July 27 in the US, following pre-orders for the new phone that began on July 13. But you won’t see it in the UK just yet or even US carrier stores.
A UK launch for the Axon 7 is planned at a later date (we’ll keep you posted on this page), and its name won’t change to Elite or anything else this time around like it did for the original Axon. ZTE said that it sees the value in making a unified, global push for its 2016 flagship phone.
You’ll have to buy this phone unlocked on Amazon or another retailer and pay full price. It won’t be sold at US carriers like AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon or Sprint and you shouldn’t expect subsidies.
While it technically has enough bands to support all US phone networks, it only works with AT&T and T-Mobile nano SIM cards for now. Verizon and Sprint compatibility is due “possibly later in the year,” resting in the hands of the two CDMA carriers to flip a switch. All of the antennas are inside – this isn’t just a GSM phone.
The good news here is that it’s packed with 64GB of internal storage and costs $399 (about £300, AU$525). Plus, you won’t have to deal with a pesky two-year (or any) contract or carrier app bloatware for that price.
There’s also a 128GB ZTE Axon 7, which includes the company’s own take on a “Force Touch” display, an always-on screen and 6GB of RAM. That makes it faster than the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, but there’s no price or availability information. We’ll have to see if that one ever makes it out of China.
All of this contrasts with the 32GB Samsung Galaxy S7 unlocked at $669 and 64GB iPhone 6S at $749. Take note that a 16GB iPhone is no longer acceptable for a comparison when the Axon 7 comes with 64GB as standard. That’s only fair.
ZTE Axon 7 is the grown-up version of last year’s ZTE Axon Pro thanks to its all-metal design and considerably less chunky. It’s ready to compete with Samsung, LG and Apple.
You can hold it in one hand, but with palm-stretchig dimensions of 151.8mm x 75mm x 7.8mm and a slippery aluminum design, you’ll find yourself struggling to reach for the corners without using two hands.
Luckily, there’s an ultra-thin silicone case included in the box along with standard earbuds and a USB-C-to-micro USB adapter. The clear case makes it grippable without completely detracting from the stylish metal design or matte gold color.
What ZTE did nicely on the front is it maximized the real estate for its 5.5-inch display thanks to a nearly edge-to-edge screen and overall minimalist look. Besides the 2K display, the phone face is limited to awesome-sounding dual front-facing speakers, a small front-facing camera and three out-of-the-way capacitive buttons.
These always-present, yet subtle buttons are an improvement over ZTE’s original on-screen buttons that vanished to allow the display to go “full screen” in certain scenarios (usually right when you want to hit the back button).
These small capacitive buttons are also better a use of space than going to the other extreme. For example, Moto Z makes room for a larger-than-necessary chin that includes a “Moto” logo, fingerprint sensor pad AND on-screen buttons. That’s too much bottom bezel and not enough screen.
Our only wish was that these ZTE’s tiny buttons lit up for better nighttime phone use. Your brain will have to adjust to memorizing their location.
You won’t find a fingerprint-sensing home button taking up space on the front here. Instead, the biometric sensor is elegantly embossed on back. It’s easy to reach the fingerprint sensor on a phone of this size (easier than I found it to be on the taller Nexus 6P) and it’s as just fast and accurate as its top competition, using the same Swedish sensor supplier, Fingerprint Cards.
ZTE also resisted the temptation of stamping its logo on the front of the device, favoring the back to splash its name. It creates an undeniably cleaner look all around. So far, the ZTE Axon 7 color of Ion Gold is the only out out there, and the included earbuds take on a matching gold trim. In the future, the company plans to launch a Quartz Silver color, too, but it’s not available at launch.
The ZTE Axon 7 display is 5.5 inches with a 2560 x 1440p quad HD resolution. It’s the same resolution as last year’s Axon, but different in that it’s an AMOLED display instead of an LCD.
That may not seem like a big deal at first, but the color really pops this screen, and it has longer lasting battery life as a result.
The 2K display shines brightly (even outdoors) once it’s on, but ZTE didn’t go as far as to include an always-on screen on the Axon 7 with 4GB of RAM, as we have seen with the Samsung Galaxy S7 and LG G5.
We found out that ZTE is saving this special display (along with its version of Force Touch) for the souped-up 6GB of RAM version of the phone. But this more powerful phone hasn’t show its always-lit face just yet.
The Axon 7 screen is really being set up to not only look good on the phone, but to support VR. Really, that’s the only reason to make displays of this size go from 1080p to 2K in our opinion – when it’s that close to your face, then a higher resolution matters.
It also doesn’t hurt that the company put together a nice selection of wallpaper that really lets the lock screen show what it’s capable of – it’s scrollable and randomized by default. We really can’t understand why phone makers stop short on presenting a vibrant set of default wallpapers when you first boot up its 2K display (read: LG G5’s a sickly green gradient). ZTE sells itself better from the get-go.
A smaller, but still noteworthy display change comes in the form of Gorilla Glass 4 instead of Gorilla Glass 3. It’s not quite as durable as Gorilla Glass 5 or shatter-resistant like the Moto Z Force. But you’ll appreciate it if (admit it: when) you drop your phone after just having paid full price.
Specs and performance
The ZTE Axon 7 doesn’t just resemble a Samsung or Apple handset on the outside, the inside is also able to compete with top-of-the-line Android phone internals despite its fair price.
It has a Qualcomm 820 processor running at 2.2GHz, and 4GB of RAM, matching chip-for-chip what we’ve seen in the LG G5, HTC 10, Moto Z, Moto Z Force and Samsung Galaxy S7, S7 Edge and Note 7 (well, Samsung’s US version of their phones, at least).
Even without the 128GB/6GB option at launch, there’s still a big differences between the Axon 7 and other Android phones when it comes to storage. The default 64GB of internal storage doubles ZTE’s competitors (except for the new OnePlus 3 and Note 7).
Not enough space? It has expandable storage with a microSD card slot or, if you’re not using that, you can turn the empty tray into a second SIM card slot thanks to dual SIM card support. That’s right, the ZTE Axon 7 remains a dual SIM phone for the US and UK models when most manufacturers rudely change the design on Western variants. Not this time.
The option is a welcomed change for travelers who want to keep their main number active for phone calls and texting while overseas, but allocate costly data to a cheaper foreign SIM or simply T-Mobile’s priceless international-included plan (at slower, but acceptable 2G and 3G speeds) outside of the US.
The ZTE Axon 7 is snappy and showed no signs of slowdown when put through our tests. Best of all, at no time did the phone overheat like the ZTE Axon Pro did with the Snapdragon 810 processor.
Qualcomm did a much better job with its latest chip, and the Axon 7’s Geekbench 3 benchmarks show just that. Its processor, along with an Adreno 530 graphics chip and 4GB of RAM, sped up to multi-score average of 5,393.
It edged out the Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge by a small margin (5,342), at least in the US where Samsung’s phone also has the Snapdragon 820 processor. Everywhere else in the world, the Galaxy 7 series uses Samsung’s Exynos chip, and those phones rank way better (6,500).
Whether or not the ZTE Axon with 4GB of RAM is faster than the Samsung Galaxy S7 is a split decision, fully dependant on where you live. But, no matter what, the benchmark tests tell us that this phone performs well under pressure.
Beating the S7 US variants is a noble accolade, but the similarly priced OnePlus 3 (5,425) and its 6GB of RAM beat all US phones. Axon 7 also faces new challengers right away: the Asus Zenfone 3 Deluxe may outperform all of these phones with the new Snapdragon 821 processor in addition to its aforementioned 6GB of RAM.
The thing is, this is very much a meaningless numbers game at the moment. You won’t notice a speed difference during the first year of owning this phone. Apps just don’t take advantage of 6GB yet, so you’re safe with the 4GB Axon 7 for now.
Android and apps
ZTE Axon 7 comes with Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow running out of the box, which is a relief because, funny story, at the phone’s launch event in Beijing, everything “Google” was blocked.
As a result, we initially had trouble nailing down the Geekbench-rated performance of its System-on-a-Chip and running basic apps during our hands-on because the Google Play Store doesn’t work in ZTE’s home country.
Don’t worry. ZTE has a good working relationship with the search engine giant, so much so that the Axon 7 is poised to get Android Nougat sooner rather than later.
After all, ZTE must upgrade to Google’s first maintenance firmware, the one that launches after Nougat, to work with the Daydream VR platform at all. That will speed up the process. Faster Android updates are a side benefit to VR, even if you’re not one to step foot into virtual reality.
What’s on the phone right now is extremely close to stock Android Marshmallow. In fact, it’s the default theme, with an optional ZTE MiFavor skin that’s also close to the pure Android interface found on the Nexus 6P.
Lockscreen notifications are here, but initially hidden inside of a bell icon in the top right corner. Tapping the bell reveals all of your alerts in their usual place. You’ll either love this extra privacy measure or hate the extra step. It’s grown on us and lets the fantastic wallpaper to shine on the AMOLED.
Chinese phone makers are known to run amok with operating system changes, but this one keeps things tidy while still maintaining the app drawer. That’s one change that irks users most when (primarily Chinese) companies make tweaks.
There are just twelve ZTE apps pre-installed and they’re all relatively harmless. You won’t find carrier bloatware, either. Axon 7 gets you started with the basics: Gallery, Calendar, Email and Clock, and provides its own red-flavored Mi Music and Video multimedia players. There’s a File Manager to dive into the system folders, but don’t look for a way to unlock the bootloader if you like tinkering with Android phones. It’s not there.
The My Voice app does a solid job of complimenting Google Now and its voice commands, with extra features like voice unlock, music playback, photo capture and app launcher. You also can train it send SMS messages, make calls and perform nitty-gritty system functions down to raising the brightness.
Buried within the My Voice menu is a neat (non-voice-related) trick to automatically answer calls when the phone is put to your ear. It works so naturally and it’s a shame the idea isn’t in more phones already.
The No. 1 feature consumers continue demand from new phones is better battery life, and the capacity on this phone has increased beyond last year’s 3,000mAh ceiling.
There’s a 3,250mAh battery inside the ZTE Axon 7, and it’s a tremendous improvement. We were able to finish each day with anywhere between 15% to 20% juice remaining after 18 hours of mixed use. Having a phone with day-plus battery life is what we expect from the best phones, so we’re particularly impressed to see this here.
Our real-life experiences included turning on the screen regularly, snapping dozens of photos and pumping music through its dual-front-facing speakers for 20 minutes a day. Its lightweight, near-stock Android operating system overlay does well not to overly tax the battery.
TechRadar’s lab tests confirmed all of this, with a respectable battery drain of 17% after we ran a 90-minute looped HD video on a fully charged ZTE Axon 7. It beat the OnePlus 3’s smaller battery, but both the LG G5 and Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge lasted longer. You get phones that push beyond a day and a quarter to a solid day and a half for all of that extra money.
What’s great about the ZTE Axon 7 and almost all most Android phones in 2016 is that it supports fast charging, in this case the Qualcomm’s QuickCharge 3.0 technology. With a QuickCharge-compatible charging adapter and a USB-C cable (both are included), we were able to charge up a dead phone back up to 25% within 15 minutes, and 50% within 30 minutes.
The charging pace slowed down after that, with a 74% charge in 45 minutes and 91% resorted in an hour’s time. But it topped 100% after just 88 minutes. That’s incredibly quick for a powerful Android phone that’s prepared for another day (and change) of use in a little more than an hour.
The ZTE Axon 7 camera will be able to go pixel-to-pixel with phones in its price range in most well-lit scenarios, specifically the similarly priced Huawei-made Google Nexus 6P.
It has a sharp 20MP camera, f/1.8 lens and optical image stabilization (OIS), all of which put it in a class with most 2016 Android phones that snap better quality photos than Apple’s much more expensive iPhone 6S Plus.
You won’t be able to tell the difference between the ZTE Axon 7 and Samsung’s top phones in daylight photography without looking closely at the two resulting photos side-by-side. But, we did just that and can see differences. Axon 7 photos are almost always a bit duller in color than the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge’s always-vibrant, mobile masterpieces.
Trust us, that’s not really a problem when you’re posting day-lit photos to your social media feeds and paying considerably less for your smartphone. But when it comes to low-light photography, that’s when the ZTE Axon 7 can’t match Samsung’s post-processing capabilities.
Photos in dimly lit rooms or outdoors tend to be either too dark, or overcompensate for the lack of light by brightening things up way too much. It’s not the noise that’s an issue, but whites being too white in an effort to reduce the surrounding shadows. It turns a lot of people in ghosts, which means these photos are only appropriate for Snapchat, where they won’t exist after 24 hours.
There’s a fix in the form of a manual mode to properly adjust shutter speed, ISO, exposure, white balance and focus. The dual LED flash also helps. It’s enough to brighten up dark subjects with some artificial white and amber light. We often see phone firmware updates fine-tune the cameras within several months of its release. LG has done that in years past to much success. If it’s a software issue, this can be remedied.
In addition to manual mode, the straightforward default camera app includes Live Photos, which automatically take short videos before and after you hit the shutter button. Just like Apple’s Live Photos feature, this one works on both cameras, the 20P rear and 8MP front-facing camera.
There’s no manual mode for the selfie cam, however. It’s replaced by a beauty slider, which you’ll likely want to slide all the way down, then “accidentally” slide back up “just a notch or two” depending on your age. The good and bad news is that the front-facing camera could be better, so it’s not going to pick up a whole bunch of detail anyway.
Super Night Mode seems like a solution that seemingly turns a darkened 8pm night into noon, but it requires the absolute stillness of a tripod and motionless subjects. Our reaction was to tell everyone, “This would work great if you all weren’t breathing right now, okay? Thanks!”
The Axon 7 camera’s more useful modes include panorama, slow motion, multi exposure, sports magic exposure and time time lapse. There’s also a handy, but hidden interval mode, which snaps a photo every one to 60 seconds.
Low light photography samples
Selfie camera samples
We liked the ZTE Axon Pro a year ago, but gave it 3.5 stars out of 5 because there was room for improvement, even with its cheaper price. ZTE listened to many of our complaints. What a difference one year can make for a company few people have ever heard of outside of China.
Our first reaction was “This is a $400 (about £300, AU$525) phone?” Yes, we do talk like that here, with pricing conversions memorized on command. It pushes out the original Axon’s plastic caps at the top and bottom in favor of an all-metal unibody design. Its sleek and elegant in your hand, even if it still takes two to operate the phone. We also complained last year about the lack of expandable storage. The ZTE Axon 7 not only includes a microSD card slot, it turns into a dual SIM slot if you’re not using it for its primary function.
Axon 7 is a big step up for audiophiles with Hi-Fi and front-facing speakers that sound much better than the iPhone and Androids with a single speaker grill on the back or at the bottom. Sights and sounds are definitely are definitely a highlight of this phone. Its clean front design focuses on the 5.5-inch display and speakers, while the fingerprint sensor is wisely moved to the back.
The Axon 7 isn’t for everyone, specifically if it’s not available on your network. Launching in the US first, it’s limited to AT&T and T-Mobile, even though it has the right antennas for Verizon and Sprint. This is an expensive phone upfront, so know if it works for your carrier before paying for it through Amazon.
Finally, be aware of these two final cautions: as nice as it looks, it’s slippery without using the included case, and, as great as the daytime photos look, it can’t compare to the low light prowess of recent Samsung phones.
The ZTE Axon 7 is a beautiful phone at any price. It just happens to also be one of the most affordable top-tier mobile phones that we’ve ever recommended. It has a minimalist design that places emphasis on the contrast rich, 5.5-inch AMOLED screen, flanked by powerful dual front-facing speakers.
Inside, it has the specs that match almost every new Android on sale in 2016, a slightly bigger battery than the average and a generous 64GB of internal storage coupled with a microSD card.
If you don’t care about the very best low light camera in the world, buy this phone, save your money and take a vacation. This one is dual SIM compatible, perfect for traveling overseas.
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