Introduction, design and display
Update: Make way for the ZTE Axon 7, the 2016 successor to the original ZTE Axon (technically named Axon Pro in the US and Axon Elite in the UK). Here’s a look back at what the now cheaper ZTE phone did.
The ZTE Axon is the best sign yet of Chinese phone manufacturers finally starting to build flagship-level US smartphones at a fraction of the price of the iPhone and Androids.
Here we have a new Android phone with a metal build, 5.5-inch quad HD display and specs that are enough to rival today’s best phones, all for $450 unlocked.
That obviously contrasts with Android handsets that cost $600 at full retail, like the Samsung Galaxy S6, LG G4 and HTC One M9. Even more expensive are Apple’s iPhone 6 at $650 and, for a more accurate size comparison, its 5.5-inch iPhone 6 Plus at $750.
The ZTE Axon does cut some corners, of course. Its admirable, albeit thick aluminum design isn’t a sleek unibody frame, and it uses Qualcomm’s troubled processor that runs hot and eventually throttles when under pressure. You get what you pay for.
Then there’s the fact that it’s only available at full price as an unlocked GSM phone for AT&T and T-Mobile. Verizon and Sprint customers need not apply.
With the right carrier conditions met, ZTE Axon is a step up from the cheaper plastic phones Chinese makers have been hawking online and unlocked for the past few months. It’s still considered a budget phone, but one that takes several more cues from its pricier competitors.
Release date and price
The official ZTE Axon release date was July 27 through the manufacturer’s retail site, but most stores are fulfilling pre-orders starting August 1. This includes Amazon, eBay and Newegg.
Don’t expect this particular ZTE handset to show up in AT&T and T-Mobile’s carrier stores. It’s an unlocked 4G LTE phone without US carrier subsidies.
The ZTE Axon costs $449 (about £290, AU$617) upfront, which is unsurprisingly lower than most high-end flagship phones that the company is trying to live up to. You’ll end up saving $150 by choosing it over name-brand Androids, and between $200 and $300 on a new iPhone.
It’s still a little more expensive than the plastic-based Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3, Asus Zenfone 2 OnePlus One and OnePlus 2, meaning the ZTE Axon price is sandwiched right in between its high-end rivals and these low-end handsets.
The ZTE Axon raises the price of ultra-affordable unlocked phablets, but, thanks to its spacious display and metal design, it also raises the bar when it comes to their construction.
The phone is encased in aluminum rather than cheap plastic or that deceiving metallic paint we saw coating the LG G4. It feels solid in my hand, except for its seam-filled plastic accents at the top and bottom. Luckily, my hands hardly ever cross these disruptive borders, their only function being to house the phone’s antennas.
Other accents on this ZTE device work in its favor, namely the gold-colored fringe around the buttons on the frame and the dual camera lenses in the back. Gold contrasts well on my dark Phthalo Blue review phone. It also comes in Chromium Silver with the same gold accents and Ion Gold, wherein the gold is swapped out for a silver finish.
For extra flair, the capacitive home button, which sits at the bottom of the display, takes the form of a dimly lit ring and doubles as a smartly engineered notification indicator.
All of the color options back up the phone’s mostly premium materials. The same cannot be said for its weak physical buttons, which are thinner than they needed to be given the phone’s thickness. Why are the power and volume buttons on my iPhone 6 larger than the ones on this less svelte device?
Axon’s dimensions are 2.95 x 6.1 x 0.7 inches (75 x 154 x 9.3mm) and it weighs 0.39 pounds (175g), so it has more heft to it all around. The iPhone 6 Plus has a depth of 0.28 inches (7.1mm) and Samsung Galaxy S6 just 0.27 inches (6.8mm).
It does use some of that extra space to include a dedicated camera button on the side. Located on the bottom right, it acts as a handy shutter button whenever any camera app is open. Sadly, it stops short of actually launching the default camera app, even though the directions call for this to happen when it’s pressed twice. A firmware update would fix this oversight.
The ZTE Axon design clearly doesn’t get everything right when it sits next to premium flagship phones. But that’s okay. It still pulls off that premium look and feel everyone is after, with a metal body and gold-colored highlights. You’ll find no rubber and very little plastic on this Android.
There’s no shortage of smartphones with hand-stretching 5.5-inch displays, but the ZTE Axon doubles the pixel count of the typical 1080p handset with a quad HD, 2,560 x 1,440 resolution.
It ends up packing in 534 pixels per inch, which is equivalent to what we’ve seen on the LG G4. More important than the density of pixels, however, is the brightness of the LCD.
ZTE went with one of Sharp’s TFT LCDs, and it’s actually brighter than my iPhone 6 and able to keep up with the LG G4. No one is surpassing Samsung’s AMOLED displays these days.
Screen brightness really matters under sunlit conditions. It soured me on the Asus Zenfone 2 on a clear day when I reviewed that phone. Axon faired much better outside in similar conditions.
The display-related feature that I miss when using this phone is the knock-to-wake functionality found on devices like the LG G4, HTC One M9 and Nexus 9.
I’d rather double-tap the screen to turn on the phone, as if the Gorilla Glass 3-protected screen were a big button, instead of feeling around for that weak and way-too-small power button.
Specs and performance
The ZTE Axon keeps up with higher-priced Android competition on the inside, too. In fact, the internal specs are identical to this year’s HTC One M9 and the new OnePlus 2.
It has the sometimes-fast Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 octa-core processor that’s comprised of a combined 2GHz quad-core and 1.5 GHz quad-core CPU.
This System on a Chip has an Adreno 430 GPU running graphics duties and a high-ceiling 4GB of RAM, which actually outpaces the 3GB of RAM in the HTC One M9.
So, how does it perform? Exactly like the LG G Flex 2, the first phone to use the Snapdragon 810: it starts out as the fastest chip around, but then slows down and makes the phone hot.
That’s frustrating, because it had a great Geekbench 3 multi-core score of 4,507 initially, rivaling everything but the Samsung Galaxy S6, but then it sank lower and lower in each subsequent benchmark test: down to 3,806, then down to 3,128 and all the way down to 2,442 by the end.
All of these figures translated into occasional menu stutters, four random resets and a much warmer phone. But that only happened when running multiple applications, so not everyone is going to be taxing their $450 phone to the hilt.
Some may be quicker to experience a different kind of bottleneck: maxing out the 32GB of internal storage. That’s the only option for the ZTE Axon. You won’t find a 64GB upgrade and, more disappointingly, there’s no microSD card slot onboard for expandable storage.
The ZTE Axon speaker grills at the top and bottom of the phone don’t accurately reflect what’s heard from the AKM 4961 audio chip, sadly. While voice calls come out of the top speaker, it’s non-operational for movies, music and even speakerphone calls.
That’s all handled by the bottom speaker for a disappointingly mono setup. ZTE does include high-end JBL E13 earbuds – valued at $50 – in the box to make up for this omission.
Whether I’m using the fancy earbuds, the speakerphone or the phone up to my ear, I can hear everything loud and clear. The call quality is on-point and the volume is loud enough carry on a conversation in a moderately crowded restaurant.
Android and apps
ZTE Axon ships with the latest version of the Android operating system out of the box, Android 5.1.1 Lollipop, and it doesn’t come preloaded with too many junk apps.
This unlocked phone is almost a pure Android experience, with ZTE only offering minor tweaks to Google’s interface. Everything from the keyboard to the settings menu are the nearly identical to stock Android.
What has changed is often for the sake of convenience. Quick settings in the drop-down menu can be re-sorted, the “back” and “recent” capacitive soft keys can be swapped (much to the delight of Samsung fans), and widgets, wallpapers, themes and effects are easier to cycle through by simply pressing down on the home screen.
ZTE’s operating system overlay also fixes the volume rocker functionality that Google broke in its Android 5.0 Lollipop update. Here, it transitions from an audible call volume, to vibrate to completely muted via the volume rocker. Google’s update last year rudely took away the mute option with vibrate being the lowest setting, and – surprise, surprise – it’s returning in Android M.
My only complaints are that ZTE’s lockscreen shows just one notification before asking me to tap on “more”. Also, there’s a menu powered by Yahoo that is way too easy to activate accidentally, as you have to swipe up from the bottom of the screen to access it.
The lack of dramatic changes is great news for anyone who loathes Samsung’s improved, but still childish-looking, TouchWiz interface on the Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge.
It also saves ZTE phone owners time usually spent installing manufacturer and carrier-imposed sponsored apps. The Axon came with just a few: Argus, an activity tracker, RockMyRun, a running app, FM Radio, File Manager and Dolby Audio.
Most of the Google apps suite is also here pre-installed, and so are ZTE’s own versions of those apps with Gallery, Music, Video Player, Task Manager and note-taking app Mi-Moment.
While the Axon doesn’t set out to offer the most customizable phone interface like the Asus Zenfone 2 does, it does let me change a number of settings while staying true to Android 5.1.1.
The ZTE Axon poses as a high-end metal phone at a low price, so there was a big debate regarding its camera. Does it take excellent photos or is it simply a budget shooter?
Like almost everything seen so far, the ZTE Axon camera is decidedly mixed. With enough light, it’s able to capture decent, but not remarkable photos through its neat dual-lens camera.
There’s a 13-megapixel (MP) camera on the back along with a smaller 2MP accomplice right above it. The combination allows me to refocus pictures, even after they were taken, as long as I’m using the special bokeh effect mode. It’s similar to HTC One M8’s Duo Camera, only I get slightly better results with the Axon camera.
The problem is that, while all of my outdoor shots look better than any indoor photo, they were too sometimes overexposed when there was a lot of light. More often, pictures exhibited softer detail. It was almost as if that somehow-popular skin smoothing beauty effect on “selfie” cameras were used for this rear camera, too, and applied to everything in sight.
I appreciated the entertaining bokeh mode, the optional manual controls and the dual LED flash. However, the lack of detail really becomes apparent, given Axon’s stepped-up quad HD display. This is one area in which ZTE doesn’t quite live up its rivals, despite all of its fun refocusing powers.
The 8MP front-facing camera is closer to the quality of its higher-priced competition and boasts an 88-degree wide angle lens to capture more of your selfie… self. I find the shots too grainy in low-light situations, but passable.
What really helps here is the side-mounted dedicated camera button. It’s a nice touch for snapping selfies when your arm is stretched out to the max. There’s also a neat software trick that detects a smile and captures shots when you’re beaming your pearly whites.
There’s not too much happening with the ZTE Axon’s video capturing capabilities. The no-frills default camera software starts recording as soon as you switch over to video mode. It’s able to shoot at a 4K HD resolution of 2160p at 30 frames per second, though lower resolution options are still available: 1080p, 720p, 480p and a convenient MMS video setting. The front camera maxes out at 1080p, as expected.
Here’s one area the ZTE Axon matches the iPhone 6 Plus, and that’s not a good thing. Its battery life presents a real challenge to power users looking for a full day of use.
The Axon’s battery capacity is 3,000mAh, but like we’ve experienced with the LG G4, a bigger battery pack combined with a large, QHD screen doesn’t always mean more juice.
The non-removeable battery struggles to last into the night with heavy use, and our battery tests reflected that issue with a poor score.
A 90-minute HD video saw a 27% drop in battery life from 100% capacity. It ended up with just 73% after finishing the looped video at full brightness and a normal, movie-watching volume.
That’s the same battery life drain we saw with the iPhone 6 Plus, with only the Snapdragon 810-equipped HTC One M9 fairing worse with a 31% drain.
There are way better options out there for a longer-lasting phone. The Samsung Galaxy S6 only saw a 16% drain, while the chunkier Samsung Galaxy S6 Active dropped just 7%. You could easily get a day and a half or more out of Samsung’s waterproof phone.
That’s just not the case here, though I should point out that the ZTE Axon does charge rather quickly. It has Qualcomm’s QuickCharge 2.0 capabilities, and a fast charger included in the box brings the battery back to 100% in just an hour and a half.
Axon introduces the US to a nearly all-metal phone that’s $200 cheaper than an iPhone 6 and $300 less expensive than an iPhone 6 Plus. They’re both aluminum, but this one is way more affordable at $450. There’s a two-year warranty just in case you don’t trust ZTE yet.
It has a bright, quad HD display that’s 5.5 inches, a fun-to-use dual lens camera and runs Android 5.1.1 with more improvements than bloatware. Its specs are top-of-the-line as of this writing, too, with a newer Snapdragon processor and 4GB of RAM.
The price is a double-edged sword. It’s just $450, or more technically $449.98, but that doesn’t help ZTE reach US consumers who are suckered into paying $199 for a new phone every two years, and then paying through the nose over the course of a binding two-year contract.
When it comes to actual features, the Snapdragon 810 processor runs hot against the metal back and, worse, slow at times. This is Qualcomm’s newest, but not finest chip. The camera offers mixed results and the internal storage comes in one 32GB size with no microSD card slot.
ZTE presents an interesting proposition in that the Axon is basically a composite of higher- and lower-end handsets, one that retails for an appropriate middle-of-the-road price.
The phone’s classy-looking, metal design is almost as polished as an iPhone or the Samsung Galaxy S6, it has a screen that’s as bright as the LG G4, and its dual camera outperforms the HTC One M8’s. It’s a likeable phone save for its unreliable processor, limited storage capacity and soft photos.
But while Axon’s full retail price approach is a better value for consumers in the end, the sticker shock will likely send people walking. So will the fact that it’s not available for the popular Verizon and not-as-popular Sprint CDMA networks. This is a GSM-only phone.
This is not something that going to rank on our best phones list, but I’d list it as ZTE’s best phone to launch in the US. The Axon is a sign of better things to come of this unlocked, online-only trend in phones.
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