Since its inception, OnePlus has been the primary force in shaping the affordable flagship, at least in international markets. The OnePlus One was one of the best in its class upon launch, and although its successor felt a bit flat, OnePlus’ budget smartphone, the OnePlus X, seemed like a step back in the right direction.

While the recently released OnePlus 3 has been very well received overall, it comes at a time with some remarkably serious competition. One of those competing options is the ZTE Axon 7. Unlike OnePlus, ZTE has been in the telecommunications business for decades and is one of the top cell phone manufacturers. With that said, the Axon 7 is ZTE’s first affordable flagship that has gained some serious attention.

With price tags of $400, both appear to offer a flagship experience at an affordable price. But, which smartphone is a better fit for you? Let’s find out in our comparison between the OnePlus 3 and ZTE Axon 7!

Design


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The OnePlus 3 and ZTE Axon 7 share a number of design elements. Both phones are constructed of an aluminum unibody with very similarly placed antenna lines. The OnePlus 3 is slightly thinner and lighter than the Axon 7, but the difference is not very noticeable in the hand thanks to the Axon 7’s slightly more dramatic curve. The Axon 7’s curve also helps its camera hump stick out a little less than the OnePlus 3’s, although both humps are fairly minor.

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It’s worth noting that OnePlus is offering a multitude of StyleSwap covers for the OnePlus 3, which eliminate the camera bump while also often making the phone easier to grip. While the OnePlus 3’s flat edges do help with handling, the phone can still be a tad too slippery for comfort. These edges do make the OnePlus 3’s corners a bit sharp, and I found them to uncomfortably dig into my hands.

Unless you have large hands, you'll likely find the OnePlus 3 to offer a better handling experience than the Axon 7

Although ZTE’s “no edges” design philosophy gives the Axon 7 a more continuous, elegant look and eliminates any sharp corners, it is more difficult to grip. Therefore, unless you have large hands, you’ll likely find the OnePlus 3 to offer a better handling experience than the Axon 7. It is worth noting that the ZTE Axon 7 does include a case, which could help make the handling a little bit easier, though.

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The power button on each device is located on the right side. Unlike the Axon 7, however, the OnePlus 3’s volume keys are on the top left, which makes them somewhat difficult to press with a single hand. The OnePlus 3 does include a handy alert slider just above its volume keys, however, which makes silencing the phone quite easy. It’s definitely a nice touch, but its absence on the Axon 7 isn’t what I would call a deal breaker.

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The headphone jack on the OnePlus 3 is located on the bottom, opposite of the Axon 7’s top position. This makes it easier to charge the OnePlus 3 while listening to music, but does make taking the phone out of your pocket to use it more challenging.

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Each phone has customizable navigation keys, although I found myself preferring the keys on the OnePlus 3 for multiple reasons. First of all, they are both illuminated and spaced out more than the Axon 7’s keys, which makes them easier to find. There’s also an option in the OnePlus 3’s settings to exchange the capacitive keys for on screen keys. While I do find this to be counterintuitive, it’s nice that there’s the option, unlike on the Axon 7. With that said, the OnePlus 3’s physical-esque home button can feel very disconcerting without any tactile feedback. While the Axon 7’s key is also capacitive, it doesn’t feel or look like it should be pressed.

Display


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The displays on the OnePlus 3 and Axon 7 are surprisingly similar…until you consider resolution. While it is true that both displays are 5.5″ AMOLED panels, the Axon 7’s display is superior with its Quad HD resolution. Although some may argue that the OnePlus 3’s 1080P display is better on battery life, any potential savings are not enough for the phone to outpace the higher resolution Axon 7 (more on this in a bit).

While Quad HD is indeed a subtle step up from 1080P in day-to-day use, it is better suited for use with virtual reality headsets. If you don’t plan on using VR, however, then the OnePlus 3’s display will suit you just fine. It’s also a bit brighter, too, and consequently offers slightly better sunlight readability.

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I noticed several hairline scratches on the OnePlus 3 after simply keeping it in my pocket

Despite both displays offering Gorilla Glass 4 protection, I noticed that the OnePlus 3’s display tended to scratch more easily than the Axon 7’s. I noticed several hairline scratches after simply keeping the phone in my pocket, whereas the same test plus a trip to the beach yielded no scratches on the Axon 7. This is certainly odd, but it may be something to consider.

Performance


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Everyday performance on both phones is quite similar, as both are powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 with the Adreno 530 GPU. It is worth noting that, while the OnePlus 3’s display theoretically has less of a burden on the GPU, I found no discernible difference when launching and using apps.

OnePlus 3 benchmark results:

ZTE Axon 7 benchmark results:

The OnePlus 3's 6 GB of RAM seems nearly ludicrous at the moment

The OnePlus 3’s 6 GB of RAM seems nearly ludicrous at the moment, but it’s definitely safe to say that this phone is future proof in terms of multitasking. While there is a 6 GB variant of the Axon 7, it’s currently not available in the US nor is its estimated price comparable, so I’m going to ignore it for the purposes of this comparison.

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Do you really need 6GB RAM? Honestly, not really. That said, 6GB RAM does potentially make the phone a bit more future proof. When it comes to real world use, however, we doubt you’re going to notice much of a performance difference at all. Still, this is a small edge that could be very important for power users.

Hardware


In terms of connectivity, there is one minor difference regarding the USB Type-C port: while the Axon 7 supports v3.0 for faster file transfers, the OnePlus 3 is equipped with v2.0. Both devices include the same standard options, however: 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.2, and NFC.

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Both devices are unlocked and dual-SIM, but, unlike the OnePlus 3, which is only fully compatible with AT&T and T-Mobile, the ZTE Axon 7 is fully compatible with on all major US carriers. This is a major advantage, because it means it is possible to use the phone will networks like Verizon and Sprint.

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While you’re getting 64 GB of onboard storage with either device, the Axon 7 supports expandable storage via a microSD, up to 256 GB. You do have to give up one of the SIM card slots if you chose to expand the storage, but it’s still a commendable option that, quite frankly, seems odd not to include.

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Although both devices include fingerprint readers, the OnePlus 3’s is embedded in its home button on the front whereas as the Axon 7’s is slightly recessed on the back, below the camera. The Axon 7’s feels quite natural to use when holding the phone, but can’t be easily accessed when the phone is on a table. On the other hand, using the OnePlus 3’s reader can require some hand gymnastics. Regardless of which placement you prefer, both readers are very fast and accurate. I found the OnePlus 3’s reader to be very slightly faster (less than 100ms) most of the time, but it’s nearly impossible to notice the difference unless you compare them side-by-side.

The Axon 7 is still a few steps ahead with its dual independent Hi-Fi audio chips for both listening and recording

One of the key areas where the Axon 7 pulls ahead is in audio. We mentioned that audio through headphones seemed above average in our OnePlus 3 review, but the Axon 7 is still a few steps ahead with its dual independent Hi-Fi audio chips for both listening and recording. If you consider yourself an audiophile, the choice here should be very easy. But if not, do know that while the Axon 7 is much better, the OnePlus 3 is still above average in this regard.

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The difference between the OnePlus 3’s single bottom-firing speaker and the Axon 7’s dual stereo front-facing speaker is night and day. The speaker on the OnePlus is okay and loud enough for most cases, but it sounds fairly distorted. On the other hand, the Axon 7 delivers what is perhaps the best mobile audio experience we’ve ever had the pleasure to hear. With Dolby Atmos surround sound technology, everything sounds more immersive with the Axon 7 than it does with the OnePlus 3.

Battery Life


I found the Axon 7's battery life to be about 25% better in daily use

The ZTE Axon 7’s battery is slightly larger at 3250mAh, compared to the OnePlus 3’s 3000mAh battery. Both handsets should be able to power through a full day of moderate to heavy use, although I found the Axon 7’s battery life to be about 15% better in a Geekbench battery test and about 25% better in daily use. This could be attributed to better power management in ZTE’s software.

Representative battery life test results (first two: OnePlus 3, last two: ZTE Axon 7):

Regardless, you can expect about four hours of screen on time with the OnePlus 3 and about five hours with the Axon 7. Quantitatively speaking, that’s not a major difference, but that little bit of extra battery life is certainly appreciated. For the Geekbench battery tests, I ran both devices from 100% to 1% in airplane mode with the displays set to full brightness. The Axon 7 lasted for 6 hours 9 minutes and 30 seconds while the OnePlus 3 lasted for 5 hours 22 minutes and 0 seconds.

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Unlike the Axon 7, which supports Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0 for a 50% charge in 30 minutes, the OnePlus 3 supports Dash charging for a 60% charge in 30 minutes. Despite the higher charge rate, you can expect the near exact same amount of usage time. While I do like that Dash charging maintains heat in the actual charger rather than the phone, I personally prefer Quick Charge 3.0 for its ubiquity and compatibility with nearly any cable.

Camera


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For cameras, both phones appear to offer pretty good looking cameras on paper, each with optical image stabilization and phase detection autofocus. The Axon 7’s 20 MP f/1.8 camera is actually very comparable to the OnePlus 3’s 16 MP f/2.0 camera in good lighting.

It should go without saying that neither camera provides Galaxy S7-level results

For this comparison, I took about fifty different images with each phone at the same distance and angle in order to compare how each camera performs. It should go without saying that neither camera provides Galaxy S7-level results, but both are still capable of producing nice looking images.

I found that the OnePlus 3’s colors were generally more accurate than the Axon 7’s, although it seems that the OnePlus 3 prefers a cooler color tone compared to the Axon 7’s warmer preference. I personally prefer the warmer tone in most images, but the Axon 7’s color reproduction can be a bit unnatural at times. The colors are more saturated with the Axon 7, however, which makes certain parts of the image “pop.”

Both cameras produced some disappointingly washed out images

With that said, both cameras produced some disappointingly washed out images. I found that the OnePlus 3 generally did this more often than the Axon 7 however. The OnePlus 3 also likes to bring up the shadows, which can make images look more “complete” than the Axon 7’s, but I personally think that this effect should be toned down a bit.

I do prefer the OnePlus 3’s images because of this in a few situations, but, more often than not, I prefer the Axon 7’s way of handling this as it prevents images from looking too flat.

As you may have expected, neither of these cameras do well in low-light conditions. Both produce soft and noisy images with subpar color reproduction. However, the OnePlus 3 does a much better job at distributing light across the image, allowing for oftentimes sharper and more detailed images. It also doesn’t go crazy with noise reduction like the Axon 7 does, so images still look somewhat okay compared to the Axon 7’s very disappointing images.

For 4K video quality, it’s sort of a tossup. Both video sample clips I took are somewhat overexposed, but it’s not terribly noticeable in either clip. The OnePlus 3’s color reproduction is more accurate, but the Axon 7’s colors seem to be more saturated. The Axon 7’s image is more susceptible to artifacts, but it’s less noisy than that of the OnePlus 3. The OnePlus 3’s OIS also doesn’t do quite as well as the Axon 7’s during video recording, and there is a slightly noticeable amount of corner warping.

OnePlus 3 Camera Samples

ZTE Axon 7 Camera Samples

Overall, each camera has a great number of strengths and weaknesses. The “better” camera depends on both the situation and how you expect an image to turn out. Generally speaking, however, the Axon 7 does better in good lighting and during video, while the OnePlus 3 offers slightly less disappointing low-light images.

The Axon 7's camera app offers a bit more in pure functionality

The camera apps are somewhat similar, although it’s clear that OnePlus has gone with a more minimalistic approach. The Axon 7’s camera app does offer a bit more in pure functionality; there are built-in filters, live photos, more built-in modes, as well as the ability to control the camera with your voice. Outside of those features, however, the experience is pretty much the same.

Software


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While OnePlus has shipped the 3 with Oxygen OS 3.2.2, ZTE has taken a different approach with MiFavor UI 4.0. Both phones are running Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow out of the box, but the experience is quite different in some areas.

ZTE takes a more interventionist approach

Whereas OnePlus conforms fairly closely to stock Android while still adding a few useful features and settings, ZTE takes a more interventionist approach with a good number of UI tweaks and unique features. For those that like a more stock-like look, ZTE does offer a stock-like launcher, but obviously the UI tweaks remain in place nonetheless.

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I don’t see any inherent problems with ZTE’s skin, but I do feel that Oxygen OS offers a more polished experience overall. While I really enjoy some of ZTE’s additions, there are areas that still have some rough edges. For example, you have to press the notification bell on the lock screen every time you want to see your notifications. Unlike stock Android, there’s no option to just automatically show the notifications.


Pricing and availability


Both the OnePlus 3 and ZTE Axon 7 are available unlocked in either gray or gold for $400. The Axon 7 is available through various retailers and the OnePlus 3 can be purchased from the OnePlus website.

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It is worth noting that the Axon 7 includes a two-year premium warranty, Axon Passport 2.0, which provides everything from upgrade, replacement, and setup assistance to unlimited out-of-warranty repairs for a deductible. Each repair, whether in or out of warranty, will include a free advanced exchange and free two-way shipping. There’s also a 30-day risk free trial period, during which you can return the phone to ZTE for a full refund if you’re unhappy with it.

ZTE appears to offer much better after-sales support than OnePlus, which has had notoriously lousy customer service. In theory, you would have a better experience dealing with ZTE than OnePlus, especially if you need to replace your phone.

Conclusion


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All things considered, both the OnePlus 3 and ZTE Axon 7 deliver excellent smartphone experiences at very affordable prices. Yes, there are some minor compromises in comparison to true flagship smartphones like the Galaxy S7, but you’re saving hundreds of dollars.

In some ways ZTE’s Axon 7 better fits the ‘flagship killer’ moniker than OnePlus this time around, though there is still a lot to like about both phones.

If you’d like to have an alert slider, 6 GB of RAM, a better camera for low-light scenarios, and a more polished software experience, the OnePlus 3 is likely the best match for you.On the other hand, if you’d rather have a higher resolution display, support for all major US carriers, microSD card expansion, a killer audio setup, better battery life, and a two-year premium warranty, you can’t go wrong with the ZTE Axon 7.

Hopefully that helps you decide which of these two affordable flagships you should buy. We want to hear from you, what do you plan on purchasing and why? Let us know in the comment section below!

Bailey Stein
Bailey has been part of the Android Authority team for years now, contributing high-quality reviews, features, and more.