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Looking at the current crop of high-end and mid-range smartphones, it is immediately noticeable that design has become a very important aspect of the smartphone experience. The availability of various color options, different material choices, and the use of premium build materials from the likes of Samsung, LG, HTC, and Motorola means that ZTE had a difficult task on their hands as far as design was concerned, and fortunately, the Axon Phone delivers.
The body of the Axon Phone is made entirely of a smooth metal that gives it that high quality premium feel that we all expect from any high-end smartphone, and a tapered back with rounded corners, similar to what is seen with a device like the HTCOne M9, makes the device sit very comfortably in the hand. The great feel aside, the smooth metal finish can make the phone feel a bit slippery, and not helping the handling experience is the fact that the device is quite tall due to the large bezels and front speaker grills. Reaching up to the top to access something like the notification shade does require some hand gymnastics, and makes the phone feel even less secure when you can’t maintain your grip.
The Axon Phone is clearly not in the race for being the thinnest or lightest device either, with it weighing just shy of 175 grams, and coming in at just a little over 9 mm thick. This isn’t a bad thing though, as the added heft makes the phone feel even more substantial than it already is.
To give the Axon Phone a unique design element, ZTE added a distinctive grill pattern that can be found in multiple locations, such as the earpiece, front-facing speaker, and the rear camera. This is designed to make the phone stand out and focus the attention on certain parts on the device without being too over the top, and it definitely works. The grills aesthetically flow well with the overall design of the phone, and there’s no denying that it will garner a double take when out and about.
Taking a look around the device, the buttons are in very ergonomic locations, which helps alleviate some of the concerns with regards to the handling experience. The power button is on the right side, with the volume rocker and the SIM card slot on the opposite side. Also on the right side is a dedicated camera shutter button, which is something we do appreciate but is unfortunately not often seen with Android smartphones. Up top is the headphone jack next to a microphone, and the microUSB port is at the bottom, also next to another microphone. Finally, the Axon Phone features a capacitive circle home button, with the two dots flanking it, which act as the menu and recent apps keys. A nice touch with the home button is that it also doubles as a notification light, and will pulsate any time you get a notification or to indicate that the battery is low, which certainly proves to be very useful.
For ZTE to truly compete with the heavy hitters, the Axon Phone had to be packed to the gills with the latest and greatest in current smartphone tech, and once again, ZTE manages to deliver, with it all starting with the display. The Axon Phone features a 5.5-inch IPS LCD display with a Quad HD resolution, resulting in a pixel density of 534 ppi, and there’s no doubt that this is a fantastic looking screen. It is is big, bright, and beautiful, with accurate color reproduction, and great viewing angles and contrast, making for a display that is an absolute pleasure to use. The large size and high resolution make it ideal for any sort of content, and there’s a nice amount of saturation that makes the screen pop. Brightness isn’t an issue either, and outdoor visibility is comfortable, and while you may not get the deep blacks afforded by AMOLED panels, the black levels on this LCD screen are still pretty good.
Under the hood, the Axon Phone features the octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 processor, clocked at 2 GHz, and backed by the Adreno 430 GPU and a whopping 4 GB of RAM. Despite some known overheating issues, this processing package is still one of the best in the business right now, and that is reflected in the performance of the Axon Phone. Opening, closing, and switching between applications are all smooth, multi-tasking is an absolute breeze, and playing graphically intensive games caused no trouble at all. As good as the processor is, some of the credit for this fluid and lag free performance has to be given to the software which isn’t bogged down by a slew of pre-installed applications or unnecessary features.
As mentioned, the Snapdragon 810 is notorious for running hot, but this wasn’t exactly the case with the Axon Phone, which is a good thing. The device did get warm on a few occasions, but that was only during long gaming sessions, and would happen with almost any smartphone out there. Feeling the heat permeate through the metal body is a little bit jarring, but it has yet to get the point where the device got uncomfortably hot to the touch, and/or rendered any features or applications inoperable.
ZTE made a very big deal about the audio experience provided by the Axon Phone, and deservedly so. The Axon Phone is the first smartphone to be released in the U.S. with a Hi-Fi audio chipset built-in for both listening and recording. You can use any pair of headphones or earbuds that you are comfortable with, but ZTE does include a very nice pair of JBL earphones in the box, available for free if you took advantage of the pre-order system, but will otherwise require an additional $50. The Hi-Fi audio definitely works well and it was easy to notice a difference in audio in comparison to a couple of other flagships like the Galaxy S6 and HTCOne M9, while using the same JBL earphones with all of them.
On the Axon Phone, the sound is not only louder, but it is also a lot fuller, with depth especially along the mids and lows.
One aspect of the audio experience that isn’t quite what you might expect, however, is the front-facing speaker. The presence of dual speaker grills would lead you to believe that the device features a dual stereo speaker setup, but that is unfortunately not the case with there actually being only a single speaker on the bottom grill. The speaker does sound good and gets quite loud, but without a second speaker up top for a true stereo sound, the audio can be very lopsided, especially when using the device in the landscape orientation while watching videos or playing games, and is not particularly impressive overall.
Apart from the standard suite of connectivity options, the Axon Phone also comes with 4G LTE support for the AT&T and T-Mobile networks in the U.S. As far as storage is concerned, 32 GB is available on-board, but rather odd and disappointing is the lack of expandable storage via microSD card. 32 GB of storage should still be enough for most users, but if you’re heavily media-centric, some memory management will be required on your part.
When it comes to the battery, the large 3,000 mAh battery that powers the Axon Phone allows for some good battery life, but it isn’t spectacular. It is good enough to provide a full day of use with around 4 hours of screen-on time, but that is the upper limit as far as screen-on time is concerned. Even on a day with heavy usage, that involved playing a lot of games and taking lots of pictures, the phone still managed 4 hours of screen-on time, despite lasting only around 8 hours off the charger. With more casual usage, that number jumps drastically to between 13 and 16 hours, but with the screen-on time showing only a slight increase to around 4.5 hours. If you do end of charging the device halfway through your day, you will be able to take advantage of its fast-charging capabilities via Qualcomm QuickCharge 2.0. that will have you back up and running in a short amount of time.
Another big highlight of the Axon Phone is when it comes to the camera. The main camera on the rear is a 13 MP shooter with a f/1.8 aperture and OIS, but there is also an additional 2 MP camera for capturing depth information, similar to the Duo Camera setup seen with the HTCOne M8. Selfie lovers will be happy with the 8 MP front-facing shooter with a wide angle lens, that should provide for some great self portraits, and also allow users to easily fit additional subjects into the frame.
The camera UI is simple, and navigating through the various elements involves swipes across the viewfinder to switch between modes. Typical modes like manual, panorama, sport, HDR, slow motion video, and more are all available but the one that stands out the most is the bokeh mode, which takes advantage of the refocusing capabilities of the camera. What is interesting about this bokeh mode is that it allows for manual f stop control, or at least, that is what you are led to believe. It does alter the depth of field or background blur, but unlike a real aperture change as possible with a DSLR, it doesn’t affect how much light enters the lens, regardless of if you’re shooting wide open at f/1.0 or f/8.0.
Shooting in this mode will allow for images to be refocused after the fact, along with the level of blur to be adjusted, and the camera does a really great job of separating objects in the foreground from the background. It can look very artificial if you get too carried away with the blur effect, and it can only fully refocus on a different part of an image if it hasn’t already been blurred out by the camera’s natural bokeh. It’s cool and can be rather convincing if you follow the appropriate guidelines, but right now, it still feels more like a novelty than a must-have feature.
In terms of general every day picture taking, the camera experience is mostly more positive than negative. The shutter speed and auto focus is very quick, which makes it very easy to snap photos, helped along by the inclusion of a dedicated camera shutter button. While the physical button is a nice touch, some unfortunate omissions are the lack of the half press to focus feature as well as the fact that the button cannot be used to launch the camera from a sleep state, but is hopefully something that will be addressed and added in a future update.
In fair to good lighting conditions, the camera is able to produce some pretty excellent images with adequate, natural looking colors, and maintains a high level of sharpness and clarity even when zoomed in. Dynamic range is just okay though, and tends to crush the darks a little too much, resulting in the loss of a lot of detail because of it. HDR works well to alleviate that in most situations, but in some cases it does tend to bias towards a more overexposed look with less natural looking colors. Macro shots can also be very hit or miss. The camera can sometimes find the right focus point quickly, but other times, it almost becomes an exercise in frustration to get the image that you want.
Even with OIS and a f/1.8 aperture, low light and night time photography is decent at best, and the image processing may be to blame. There’s a lot of noise reduction going on, which leads to softer details, and colors are much more muted in these situations, that it makes it tough capture an appealing image. As a whole, the camera is good, but as it stands right now it seems to fall a bit short of the hype.
On the software side of things, the Axon Phone offers a very clean Android experience in comparison to the far more heavily skinned iterations seen with other ZTE devices. The device ships with Android 5.1.1 Lollipop, and it is mostly a stock Android experience with all of Google’s Material Design elements kept intact. There are a few changes, like the custom launcher that offers the typical features like widgets and wallpapers, but you can also change the home screen scroll effect to something a little more dynamic. Themes are also available, but the theme engine isn’t very robust at the moment, leaving users with only a few choices to pick from.
The Quick Settings toggles have also been slightly tweaked, allowing users to rearrange the shortcuts to any order they find useful, and there are a lot more toggle options available as well, beyond what you find with stock Lollipop. Another functional change from Lollipop is the addition of a quick info panel that is accessible with a swipe from the bottom, which houses a music player, starred contacts, a step counter, and sports news from Yahoo. It can be useful to some, but I found it to get in the way more than anything, especially when trying to swipe away the notification panel, which launched this quick info panel instead.
ZTE has also kept the app experience extremely clean by not bogging things down with a slew of pre-installed bloatware. There is only a couple of pre-loaded applications with Argus and RockMyRun, both of which are geared towards health and fitness. Argus is a simple pedometer to help keep track of your steps, and can constantly keep you updated on your lockscreen and notification panel. You can even connect with friends to see how well they are doing, and helps keep you motivated towards meeting your health goals. The RockMyRun app on the other is essentially just a music player, but can tailor the tempo of the beat to the pace of your run to help keep you going. Listening to the music is free, but if you want manual control over the tempo, or have it automatically change based on your pace, you will have to pay a $4.99 per month subscription fee for the service, which also removes any in-app ads.
|5.5-inch TFT LCD with 2560 x 1440 resolution, PPI 534
2.0 GHz Octa-Core Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 (MSM8994)
Dual lens rear: 13MP, 2MP, dual LED flash, 4K HD, Front: 8MP, 88 degree wide-angle, 1080p video and 4K at 30FPS
T-Mobile, AT&T network compatible: LTE B2/B4/B5/B12/B17/B29/B30, LTE IR B7/B3/B1/B13, USM/HSPA 850/1700/1900/2100 MHz, GSM/EDGE 850/900/1800/1900 MHz, CA Band 2/4 + Band 17, LTE (Cat 6)
Android 5.1 Lollipop
6.06" x 2.9" x 0.37" (154 x 75 x 9.3mm)
Pricing and final thoughts
The Axon Phone is available now for directly through ZTE and other outlets like Amazon, Ebay, and NewEgg, for $449.98, with the color options including phthalo blue, ion gold, and chromium silver. To make users feel more at ease with buying an unlocked phone, the Axon Phone comes with Passport 1.0, a protection plan that offers free premium protection, along with a 2 year warranty, advanced exchanges, and free two-way shipping should anything ever happen to your device.