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In defense of the ZTE Axon M

The ZTE Axon M has some issues, to be sure. But the idea that ZTE is trying to put forward is a bold and exciting one -- even if not everyone agrees.

Published onDecember 8, 2017

I like weird phones. I don’t know why, or what draws me to them, but I like to play with the weird ones. It probably has to do with the boring landscape full of glass sandwiches which faces us every day. Whatever the reason, whenever I encounter a weird phone, I try to really dig deep. I try to understand what it’s doing, or at least what it’s trying to do. With the ZTE Axon M, I got it.

If you haven’t checked out our full review, Joshua Vergara does an excellent job putting the phone through its paces. Joshua also notes the Axon M’s various flaws, which he rightly should as a reviewer. But I have been using the Axon M for about three weeks on AT&T’s network, and I wanted to chime in with a few thoughts of my own.

Let’s be honest, it has got problems

The most obvious flaws of this phone are its price and specs. The Axon M’s most glaring flaw is the Snapdragon 821 processor which powers its dual screens. Combine that with the $750 price tag and a pretty awful camera, and you rightly start to wonder what the hell you’re paying for.

The buttons on the phone — volume, power, fingerprint sensor, TV mode — are all on its left side too. A victory for the world’s southpaws, sure, but I have to question the wisdom of putting the other 90% of the world at a disadvantage. The phone is capable of a mirror mode which shows the same screen on its front and back. If this could be changed to allow a user to choose a primary screen, the problem would be solved.

Whose fault is it, anyway?

Moving on, many reviewers also ding the phone for things that maybe aren’t really its fault. Moving through the phone, it becomes very clear that it’s a 1.0 product. There’s never really been a phone like this, and a lot of innovation is packed in. Adding a second screen to the mix brings an entirely new element into the fold— one that neither Android, developers, nor ZTE were really prepared to handle. At its core, the ZTE Axon M is trying to replace a tablet. It adds additional screen real estate in a way that is wonderful and exciting, at least in theory.

The primary problem with that is literally front and center on the device: the bezel running down (or across, depending on orientation) the center of the screen. As small as today’s bezels have gotten, we haven’t completely eliminated the side bezel just yet, so this is unavoidable. Is it any more offensive than the unibrow of the iPhone X or the cutout of the Essential phone? Critics have widely indicated “you get used to it.” I’m just not sure why those devices get a pass, and the Axon M does not. You do, in fact, get used to it. You stop noticing it at all after a while.

I’m not 100% sure that ZTE is doing the right thing here, though. As it stands, the end of one screen becomes the beginning of the second screen. The problem is the edges are roughly 3mm apart, which stretches shapes in the middle of the screen. Circles become ovals. Faces become elongated. I have to wonder if it would be a superior experience to simply cut the image portion that would have occurred within those 3mm to give the screen a more continuous feel. Perhaps it could be made configurable. I suspect there is no perfect solution to the problem, and that everyone’s taste will be different on the matter. ZTE made a choice; for some it’s the correct one, for others it is not.

Multitasking king

The Axon M really shines in its side-by-side mode, which allows you to run one app on one screen, and another on the other screen. This is a simply brilliant way to multi-task. It completely blows Android’s current implementation out of the water. It can’t be said enough that running two full screen apps, side-by-side is a remarkable experience sorely missed when using other devices.

It’s not perfect. Some apps, like Clash Royale, suspend completely when the focus is on the other screen. This happens even if I just tap on Youtube to start up a song. There’s no reason why it has to, it just does. It’s not earth-shattering, but it’s annoying. Other apps, like Netflix, run just fine when there is a second screen active. It’s this type of inconsistency that demonstrates how much maturing this device still needs to do.

Beta testers are testing betas

Overall, the ZTE Axon M is a 1.0 product with a heavy price tag. Many will feel like beta testers when using it. Paying that much to take part in a beta doesn’t seem all that appealing to me. That said, ZTE is doing some exciting things here. The phone is basically a foldable tablet with a superior multitasking experience. It could redefine how we use phones in the future, but it will take time and a steep learning curve to get there.

Should you run out and buy this phone? That depends. Do you enjoy life on the bleeding edge? Do you enjoy leading the charge, even if that means stumbling along the way? If yes, go for it. But if that life isn’t for you— and it isn’t for a lot of people— then sit back and wait and see what the Axon M 2 is like, if it comes out. That product will be exciting to see.

ZTE has the right idea

The Axon M is a wonderful concept. The commercial product that is out right now has a lot of room for improvement, make no mistake, but the idea is great. If ZTE can take feedback the critics and its customers, and roll all that in to a 2.0 product, then we may get a true flagship phone that brings something awesome to the table. It will still be expensive. After all, it has twice as many screens than most other smartphones.

This phone can shut up a lot of naysayers if it can clean things up. A lot of what’s wrong with the Axon M can be very easily improved in a 2.0 product. If done correctly, the M could stand for “Marvelous”.

By the way, this feature was written using the Axon M and a bluetooth keyboard.