Unless you’re a hardcore tech lover and you follow all the Android fan blogs, odds are good that you’ve never heard of the Axon 7 and had no idea it was in the works.
The word “elegant” doesn’t usually come to my mind when I think of ZTE (the Chinese phone manufacturer is mostly known for its inexpensive, midtier handsets), but with the announcement of its latest Axon 7 flagship, I can’t help but think the phone looks, well… pretty elegant.
While ZTE still stuck to a competitive price (the device costs $450 unlocked, or approx. £346, AU$604), it features powerful enough hardware to satisfy Google’s recently announced virtual reality platform, Daydream. And compared with its other high-end competitors, it’s one of the cheapest marquee handsets on the market.
The phone will be available today in China and then roll out to other markets in mid-June. There will be two variants: One with 64GB of internal memory and 4GB of RAM, and another that has 128GB of storage and 6GB of RAM. The former, however, will be more widely available and it’ll be the only one sold in the US.
I had a chance to spend some meaningful time with the Axon 7, but it didn’t have its final software version loaded just yet. That being said, I was still able to get a good look at the device and I ran some preliminary tests too. Of course, once we get a final model in, I’ll update my impressions with a full review. If you also want to see how the handset’s specs compare to its competitors, head down to the comparison chart below.
(PS: And, if anyone out there is wondering what exactly happened to Axon 2 through 6, don’t worry — there weren’t really any. ZTE decided to include its Grand S and Star series in the flagship lineage and then jumped to 7 because reasons ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ).
Fit for a Daydream
A week ago during its annual developer’s conference, Google announced a new VR initiative called Daydream, which was a hardware and software platform that would guide Android phone companies to make VR headsets. (For a deeper dive of the endeavor, check out our feature with Google’s VR chief Clay Bavor.) The tech giant said a bunch of manufacturers are already on board with Daydream-ready phones including LG, HTC and ZTE.The Axon 7 is one of these handsets that fulfill Google’s VR standard. This includes hardware like a 9-axis gyroscope, Hi-Fi audio (which I’ll get into later) and a powerful processor. Though it will be some time until anyone gets their hands on a Daydream headset, ZTE gains a lot by throwing its name behind Google’s. By being Daydream-ready, the Axon 7 will be able to keep up with its competitors and attract users who are already interested in VR.
Easy on the eyes
With its unibody design, metallic aesthetic and solid build quality, the Axon 7 is the best-looking phone ZTE has created so far. Its 5.5-inch display has a sharp 1,400-pixel resolution and the screen is bright enough to view in the sunlight outdoors.
Given its luxe looks, though, I did notice that it felt heavy in the hand. Tipping the scales at 6.52 ounces (185g), it weighs more than any of its competitors (again, see chart below). However, it’s still comfortable to hold and maneuver in general.Similar to the LG G5, the device features a fingerprint reader in the back, which you can use for extra security. The sensor works quickly, and I didn’t notice any lag from when I pressed the reader and when the screen unlocked. If you don’t want to use your fingerprint, you can also use your voice to say a pre-programmed phrase and unlock the handset that way.
On the front top and bottom bezels are the dual audio grilles. ZTE put a big emphasis on the phone’s audio experience. In addition to the two speakers, the Axon 7 is decked out with Dolby Atmos audio technology and an advanced chipset that will allow the device to both play and record crisp, high-fidelity audio. When I played a few music tracks and movie clips on the handset, audio was indeed loud and clear. It also had a lot of depth and didn’t come off as “crunchy” as phones with small, narrow audio grilles usually do.
Software goodies with optional stock Android
The Axon 7 runs Google Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow. This newest version of the mobile OS includes more emojis, security updates, and you can launch the camera by double pressing the power key.
Aside from a few new voice and gesture controls (you can activate the camera shutter, make a call, get the device to read out texts just by speaking to it), the handset doesn’t have anything particular new or compelling in terms of software.
It will give users, however, the option to switch from ZTE’s own MiFavor user interface to stock Android. Because the unit I have doesn’t have the final software version loaded, I wasn’t able to check out this feature yet. (When I do, I’ll be sure to update this piece.) Until then though, I welcome this option. I’m a big fan of vanilla Android due to its clean aesthetic and simplicity, so the ability to switch to it is great. However, because this isn’t a Nexus phone (they also run the stock UI), it won’t receive software updates from Google as soon as they are available.
New camera, new tricks
The Axon 7 is equipped with an 8-megapixel front-facing shooter and a 20-megapixel camera in the rear that can record 4K video. Last year’s Axon had two rear cameras (a 2- and 13-megapixel) that enabled users to adjust and refocus the background and foreground after they captured an image. Though this year’s device only has one camera, ZTE loaded it up with software that still lets users change an image’s focal point. For the most part, this tool isn’t totally necessary (especially if you like to get your photos right the first time), but it was pretty fun to play around with when I wanted to make my pictures look more dramatic.
Overall, the camera was fast, and images were sharp and in focus. Colors looked true-to-life and lighting was exposed properly and evenly. For more about photo quality.
Other features include short live photos that turn pictures into moving GIFs and timelapse video. The latter isn’t new to high-end handsets in general, but it is new for a ZTE phone.
Checking out the hardware
The Axon 7 runs smoothly and tasks like fingerprint unlocking, launching the camera and returning to the home screen were executed quickly. Its 2.2GHz quad-core Snapdragon 820 processor is the same used in other flagships and it clocked in some of the highest benchmark results we’ve seen. In fact, it was on par with the Samsung Galaxy S7 with our 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited test, as well as both Geekbench 3 tests. It also edged out the HTC 10, the G5 and the Google Nexus 6P. Anecdotally, though, all the devices performed comparably, and when it comes to day-to-day tasks, I couldn’t really tell that the Axon 7 is any “faster,” than the rest. Its impressive benchmark numbers, however, is a notable indicator of how far ZTE handsets have come in terms of hardware performance.
ZTE beefed up the battery just a tad going from last year’s Axon Pro’s 3,000mAh capacity to 3,140mAh. During our lab test for continuous video playback on Airplane mode, the phone clocked an average (out of two trials) of 11 hours and 18 minutes (compared to last year’s 8 hours and 8 minutes). It also has Quick Charge 3.0 technology from Qualcomm, which promises a 50 percent charge in 30 minutes. When I tested this claim, the device had a 47 percent charge in half an hour. A full charge takes about an hour and a half.
For comparison, ZTE’s handset didn’t outlast the G5’s 12 and a half hour scour, nor the Galaxy S7’s 16 hours. But it did edge out the HTC 10 and Nexus 6P, both of which lasted 11 hours and 15 minutes.
ZTE’s time to shine
Though I’ll hold out any final judgements until I get my hands on a final post-production unit, the ZTE Axon 7 has a lot of potential. The fact that it performs comparably well to the flagships of Samsung, LG, HTC and Google is a testament of how far the company has come in just the last year with its Pro predecessor. In addition, by being compatible with Daydream, the phone will keep up with the mobile wave as it makes its way into VR waters.
At $450 unlocked (which converts to about £346, AU$604), the device’s low price tag and high-end specs — like its 20-megapixel camera, Snapdragon 820 processor and booming audio speakers — make it a tempting buy. True, it won’t fit everyone’s needs (for instance, you can’t take out the battery, and its stock version of Android won’t get updated as quickly as a Nexus handset) and ZTE still struggles with low brand recognition. But so far, the Axon 7 certainly hits a lot of the right marks that goes into a solid flagship.