ZTE Axon 7
Design & Build Quality - 75%
Hardware - 90%
Display - 90%
Software - 58%
Camera - 65%
Performance - 70%
Battery Life - 68%
Value - 80%
The ZTE Axon 7 is impressive but falls short in key areas. Where the Axon 7 really excels is in its media performance: Its best-in-class Dolby Atmos audio and Quad HD display are hard to resist on such a low-cost device. However, its shortcomings hold the Axon 7 back from being the grand slam it should've been.
If you’re even slightly dialed into the tech world, you’ve probably heard about a number mid-range phones — many of which are actually made in China — that have made a major splash in the mainstream smartphone market. The OnePlus 3 is usually the first to come to mind and has raised the bar for specs, performance, design, and all-around quality that we can expect from a sub-400-dollar device.
But OnePlus is no longer the only company capitalizing on what was previously a very limited, niche market. Huawei, another Chinese tech manufacturer that’s become well-known after making last year’s Nexus 6P, has made a name for themselves in the “mid-range flagship” class with the Honor 8, which has been favorably compared to the extremely successful OnePlus 3. The Honor 8 features a QHD, or 2K, display, which is all but unheard of in budget smartphones, and is accompanied by the unique styling that some hate and most have come to love.
While OnePlus and Huawei were developing their own mid-rangers, another company was working on a device that would come to be considered one of the most highly-specced mid-range smartphones of the year… The ZTE Axon 7.
Axon 7 Specs
Let’s get the specifications out of the way first. Like most of this year’s other releases, the Axon 7 sports the Snapdragon 820 quad-core processor clocked at up to 2.2 GHz with an Adreno 530 GPU and 4 GB of RAM. For reference, this is the same chipset that you’ll find in top-shelf flagships like the HTC 10, LG G5, Moto Z and Z Force, Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, and the U.S. version of the Samsung Galaxy Note7. In terms of storage, the standard version of the Axon 7 has 64 GB of built-in storage with the possibility of up to 256 GB of additional storage via the microSD card slot. There’s supposedly an upgraded version of the Axon 7 that has 6 GB of RAM and 128 GB of built-in storage, but it’s only sold in Asian markets for some bizarre reason.
To be competitive with premium flagships, the display on the Axon 7 is a 5.5-inch Quad-HD AMOLED at 1440p; this breaks down to a respectable 538 ppi, or pixels per inch, and a 72.2-percent screen-to-body ratio. The Axon 7 camera setup consists of a 20 MP primary shooter — with f/1.8 aperture, phase-detection autofocus, optical image stabilization, and dual-LED flash — and an 8 MP selfie camera with f/2.2 aperture on the front. The rear camera can shoot video in up to 4K (2160p) resolution at 30 frames per second with either H.264 or next-generation H.265 codecs; the front-facing camera can shoot video in up to 1080p.
For security, the Axon 7 offers a fingerprint sensor on the rear, which is all but a standard feature among this year’s releases. It also adopts the new USB C port like a number of other flagships and flagship-equivalents this year such as the Note7 and the OnePlus 3. Through the USB C port, you get Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0
The pièce de résistance of the Axon 7 is definitely its audio experience as it’s one of a very small number of smartphones to feature Dolby Atmos. This is achieved by the dual front-facing, high-fidelity speakers located behind the strips of decorative cutouts along the top and bottom edges on the front of the phone. They get extremely loud (THD+N: -112 dB, S/N: 120 dB) while the quality of audio remains rich and dynamic. In fact, here’s a challenge: Queue up the Dolby Atmos demo that comes preloaded in the Axon 7 and try not to be impressed.
As well, the Axon 7 has dual independent Hi-Fi audio chips, the AKM AK4961 and the AKM AK4490, giving the Axon 7 exceptional audio recording capabilities (more on that in a moment). Interestingly, you’ll be hard-pressed to find this combination of audio chips in another device, mobile or otherwise; buying them in separate devices could cost you upwards of $3,000 or more, and yet the Axon 7 offers this impressive audio experience with a price tag of just $399. On the other hand, while audio via headphones does seem to get louder and sound a bit fuller, I didn’t find the different from other devices like the OnePlus 3 and Note7 to be that significant.
The Hi-Fi audio is accompanied by capable audio recording abilities, too. ZTE boasted about conference mode on the Axon 7, which is reportedly an industry-leading experience due to the device being capable of the highest-quality audio capturing, amplification, and reproduction. Specifically, the device features omnidirectional and dimensional audio recording with a range of up to eight meters on all directions.
Last year’s Axon devices sported LCD displays, so it’s nice to see an AMOLED in the Axon 7. This means much better viewing angles, richer blacks, greater contrast, and impressive color saturation. However, Quad-HD AMOLED was all but essentially for the Axon 7 to be the first Daydream-ready device; if you’re unaware, this is Google’s new virtual reality platform that has certain spec requirements for operation. A device can be Daydream-ready, Daydream-compatible, or incompatible with Daydream, and apparently, the Axon 7 is the first device confirmed by Google to be ready for Daydream VR. Of course, it’s all for naught without Android Nougat, but rumor has it Axon 7 owners can expect Nougat sooner rather than later.
Axon 7 Design
All of this hardware is encased in either an Ion Gold or Quartz Gray aluminum unibody with soft curves in lieu of harsh edges. The distinct design language of the Axon 7 was actually a collaboration between ZTE and Designworks, which is the design subsidiary of BMW. Although design is subjective, it doesn’t scream “premium” to me.
It almost feels like the Axon 7 doesn’t have any bezels. From the back, the curve toward the front of the phone starts off very broadly, sweeping lazily toward the front before it suddenly becomes abrupt and merges with the front. This has made the phone significantly thicker toward its center, and then on the very, very edge of the phone right where it meets the front, the Axon 7 becomes bizarrely thin. It looks very unpolished, incohesive, and even a bit clunky, more reminiscent of the first-generation iPhone than a 2016 “flagship killer”.
In the hand, the device feels cool, solid, substantial, and comfortable. But there’s something about the design that, again, for me, really lacks the sophistication of the Note7 or even the OnePlus 3. The curvy, bubbly appearance just looks juvenile and unprofessional, so I can’t imagine business moguls or executives being interested in carrying such a phone. Something about it looks distractingly young, almost as if it’s the kind of device you’d buy as a teen’s first phone since you know it’s probably going to get lost, broken, or stolen. Maybe most other people don’t feel this way, but for a device with such impressive specs that goes toe-to-toe with premium flagships, I would’ve like to see something more chic.
At top-center on the back of the Axon 7 is the camera, which protrudes outward enough to be visually noticeable. Beneath the camera is the small LED flash, followed by the fingerprint sensor. To make it easier to distinguish the round camera sensor from the round fingerprint sensor without having to turn the device around and look, the fingerprint sensor is slightly embedded down into the device. For anyone who’s used Motorola devices, it would be like embedding the fingerprint sensor in the the Moto ‘dimple’ found on the back of most Moto devices. It’s a choice that, while practical, becomes another odd design feature.
The USB C port is at the center of the device’s bottom edge as you’d expect. However, both the volume rocker and power button are on the right edge, which always bothers me a little bit since I much prefer the volume rocker and power button to be on opposite sides. Fortunately, all the buttons seem to be well-made and have a lovely click to them. On the top edge, you’ve got the 3.5mm headphone jack, which seems to be a dying feature. The dual-SIM tray is on the left side of the device where the volume rocker should be.
One of my biggest gripes with the Axon 7 is the capacitive buttons. I always, always prefer capacitive buttons to software buttons, especially since I tend to be paranoid about burn-in occurring from software buttons on mobile displays, but the capacitive buttons of the Axon 7 are obviously an afterthought. It’s like they threw them onto the phone without even testing them before it left the manufacturing facility. For one thing, they’re not backlit; in itself, this is something I could live with were it not for the fact that the buttons are tiny and they are so unnaturally close together that there’s only a 50-50 chance you’ll make contact with the button you’re trying to push if you’re in a dark room.
Apparently, the capacitive buttons were added to the Axon 7 due to feedback from test groups right before it went into distribution, but ZTE should have taken the necessary time — surely it wouldn’t have required that much — to make sure they were functional. As they are, the capacitive buttons made it feel like you’re using a device that cost maybe $100, not a device that’s meant to compete with flagships.
Axon 7 Performance
As you would expect from any device with the best specs of the year (so far), the Axon 7 is largely impressive in terms of its performance; however, there are enough issues to give pause, which I’ll explain momentarily.
The camera on the Axon 7 is decent for its class. With adequate light conditions, you’ll find that many of the pictures it takes are downright excellent. However, the performance takes a major hit when in low-light conditions. Granted, most smartphone cameras have trouble in low light, but photos taken in low-light settings with the Axon 7 are significantly poorer than pictures taken by the lower-resolution OnePlus 3, which carries the same price tag. Low-light photos are absolutely littered with noise and artifacts; when HDR mode tries to compensate, the shutter gets extremely laggy and causes trails on the photo, making it seem like your picture was taken from a moving car.
I don’t expect a Galaxy S7 camera in a $400 device, but I would at least hope for a camera that can provide usable shots in most situations. As it stands, the Axon 7 camera can only produce great shots when the conditions are absolutely perfect and the stars have aligned.
In the sample photos above (courtesy GSM Insider), you’ll notice that the shot of the buildings in the daylight is quite impressive; the exposure and contrast are accurate and the photo is impressive in the details the 20 MP sensor captures. Even the photo taken in the tunnel where the sensor was able to lock onto the sunlight coming from the tunnel’s entrance is respectable. But then you see the nighttime shot, which might almost look acceptable from afar or if you squint really hard; however, it has virtually no dynamic range, zero sharpness, and tons of noise throughout the picture that prevents any detail. And this even an example of one of the better low-light images the Axon 7 can produce.
Generally, the Axon 7 is fast in everyday use, which shouldn’t be shocking considering its internals. Opening and switching apps and multitasking is relatively brisk. There aren’t really any times where you’ll find yourself tapping your foot, waiting for the phone to respond to your input. This is also true in gaming. I’m not really a gamer, but I did try Pokemon Go, Monuments Valley, and Leo’s Fortune on the Axon 7, each of which loaded in decent time, performed smoothly, and didn’t appear to drop any frames.
With a slightly larger battery than the OnePlus 3 (3250 vs 3000 mAh), I had expected to get better battery life on the Axon 7, but I actually found the opposite to be true. Admittedly, the better battery life on the OnePlus 3 could be due to the updates that have been pushed out since the phone’s launch; each update seemed to give me better and better battery life. However, I’m averaging between five and six hours of screen-on time on the OnePlus 3, which is very impressive, and I was topping out at four hours on the Axon 7.
To be clear, four hours is considered, more or less, in the normal or average range, but I was surprised to see the OnePlus 3 get such significantly greater battery life. My guess is that it’s due to the Axon 7 having to push so many more pixels on the QHD screen compared to the FHD 1080p screen on the OnePlus 3.
For the life of me, I can’t understand why some people think that the fingerprint sensor on the Axon 7 (a) works well or (b) works fast when in my experience it (c) was neither. Perhaps I’m spoiled by the blazing-fast fingerprint sensor on the OnePlus 3, but the Axon 7 failed to read my fingerprint at least two in every five times; and when it did manage to get a reading, I found it to be extremely slow. In fact, it’s probably the slowest fingerprint sensor I’ve used to date.
Axon 7 Software
Software is a serious weakness for the Axon 7. While the OnePlus 3 offers a semi-stock Android experience, ZTE’s MiFavor UI on the Axon 7 is absolutely skinned to hell. Like other skins on Chinese devices, MiFavor completely changes the appearance of Android, styling it with bubbly, pseudo-iOS icons that are cartoonishly big, oddly monochrome in color, and waste all the pixels on that Quad-HD screen. More recent skins — particularly Samsung’s
TouchWiz Grace UI — have tried to enhance Android, add additional features, and generally get out of your way; however, MiFavor is intrusive from the moment you turn on the phone.
On the lockscreen, you’ll notice that your notifications never appear. Instead, you have to click on this little bell icon that’s almost unnoticeable in the top-left corner of the screen. This will populate your notifications on the screen in the way they should normally be, hiding them again when the screen turns off. There doesn’t seem to be any way to turn off this bell feature, so you’re going to have to keep clicking that bell to see any notifications on the Axon 7 lockscreen.
There’s also no Do Not Disturb mode in the quick settings. ZTE has opted to hide Do Not Disturb deep in the phone’s sound menu, which takes a few minutes to find. Anytime you need a Do Not Disturb setting, it’s because you need a fast way to turn off notification and call sounds, so they might as well have just eliminated the feature altogether. But if you do decide to use Do Not Disturb, you can’t opt to turn it on for a set amount of time; your options are to have it on, off, or leave it on a predetermined schedule. Again, this is extremely inconvenient.
Speaking of the settings menu, ZTE has inserted their own frequently-used settings menu as the default page anytime you go into your phone’s settings. It takes up the entire screen, requiring you to swipe over to get into the standard settings list, and this wouldn’t be a problem if ZTE’s frequently-used page chose what settings to include based on which you use the most. Instead, it seems ZTE decided which settings to put on that page, and they can’t be changed. This essentially negates any convenience you could get from that frequently-used settings page since they’re not settings that you frequently use. You’ll end up having to get into the habit of opening the settings menu and immediately swiping to the left to get to the settings you need.
In trying to add unique functionality to Android, ZTE essentially loaded MiFavor full of superfluous, poorly-implemented features that never work the way they should. Case in point: Mi-POP, the floating navigation button. Although you have the capacitive buttons just below the display, Mi-POP gives you the option to have a floating navigation button that is always present as an overlay on one of the edges of the screen. It can be the back, home, recent, or an options button, or you can hold down it to choose one of the three others. As poor as the capacitive buttons might be, Mi-POP is totally unnecessary.
You can also use ZTE’s own voice-recognition software called My Voice, another totally unneeded feature. For one thing, although it seems ZTE was trying to give you more granular voice control of the device rather than web searches and the like, Google Voice works infinitely better. The most intriguing feature of My Voice is the ability to use your “voice print” in lieu of your fingerprint to unlock the device, but when I finally got it set up it very rarely worked. It’s definitely not a better option than the fingerprint sensor, which is already hit-or-miss.
One of the benefits of buying unlocked devices is the lack of bloatware that comes preinstalled on them, but the Axon 7 comes with its fair share of apps that I would definitely consider bloat. There’s a browser, email client, voice recorder, messenger, file manager, and something called ZTE Rewards that is essentially just a bunch of Perk.com offers.
Using MiFavor feels a lot like using TouchWiz on the Galaxy S3, but worse. And that’s with the so-called “Android theme” that’s active by default. MiFavor is a hideous, half-baked Android skin that handicaps the Axon 7 rather than enhancing it. ZTE would have been much better off going with stock Android or by making Google Now the default launcher. Of course, you can download a launcher from the Play Store to make the Axon 7 more usable, but you should have to immediately cover up a device’s software to make it functional.
Axon 7: Bottom Line
On paper, the Axon 7 is an extremely impressive device. Its specs alone make it more than worth its $400 price. With a third-party launcher, the experience of using the Axon 7 is mostly delightful with just the camera and fingerprint sensor holding the device back.
As you might expect, where the Axon 7 really shines is in media consumption. The Quad-HD display seems well-calibrated and combined with the Dolby Atmos audio, watching YouTube videos or streaming movies via Netflix is truly top-notch. In optimal conditions, the 20 MP camera produces photos and 4K video that are equal to or better than other devices in the budget flagship class; unfortunately, the low-light performance of the camera is so poor that you might as well not even try to take pictures or videos in less-than-optimal conditions.
The Axon 7 is the audiophile’s device; it’s Hi-Fi audio and Dolby Atmos make for immersive, rich audio via headphones as well as the dual front-facing speakers and the ability to record omnidirectional audio from up to eight meters away in all directions. The superb audio will only enhance Daydream experience once the Axon 7 is updated to Nougat and Google officially launches the Daydream platform. Considering the specs, it’s not surprising that Google has certified the Axon 7 as a Daydream-ready device, the first of its kind.
But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. For all its strengths, the Axon 7 also has some issues and you’ll have to decide for yourself whether they’re dealbreakers. The software on the Axon 7 is an atrocity; however, it’s possible this could be remedied over time via updates. Also, ZTE is reportedly committed to making the Axon 7 developer-friendly, at least the U.S. version anyway. Following the Axon 7 launch, ZTE announced that users could put in a request for a special update that would make the bootloader on the Axon 7 unlockable, which would allow for the installation of custom ROMs and firmware. Since then, ZTE has stopped allowing users to request the update, reportedly because the company is pursuing alternate methods of allowing the bootloader unlock.
For $399, there’s no question that the Axon 7 is a compelling device. It has many of the same specs as other top-shelf flagships of the year, but for up to half the cost. Whether or not the Axon 7 is the right device for you comes down to taste. Although I was impressed with the device in many ways, I found myself looking forward to switching back to my gold OnePlus 3, which I believe is a much more well-rounded device with significantly better performance despite having many of the same specs. In short, ZTE almost had a home run with the Axon 7, so I’ll be very interested to see where they take the Axon line next year.