ZTE's second designed-in-America flagship hits all the right notes.
ZTE impressed a lot of people, including me, with its Axon and Axon Pro flagships in 2015. Accessible, stand-out designs met high quality build materials, great performance, a focus on audio quality, and impressive cameras. They even ran what amounted to an approximation of stock Android.
The Chinese company's follow-up takes a number of cues from its predecessors, while improving several aspects of the hardware to better compete with 2016 rivals like the OnePlus 3.
The bottom line
The ZTE Axon 7 is an impressive blend of high-end hardware and mostly unblemished Android 6.0.1-based software that skimps on little to get to its $399 price point.
- Excellent build quality and unique design
- Competitive price
- Extremely compact for a 5.5-inch phone
- Fantastic daylight camera
- Software gimmicks distract from the experience
- Camera struggles in poor light
- Some translation issues
- 6GB version limited to Chinese market
- 5.5-inch Quad HD
- AMOLED Display
- 2560x1440 resolution (538ppi)
- 20MP, ƒ/1.8 lens, OIS,
- 8MP front camera, ƒ/2.2 lens, OIS
- 3250 mAh capacity
- Quick Charge 3.0
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor
- Quad-core 2.2GHz
- 4GB RAM
- 64GB internal storage
- microSD slot with adoptable storage
About this review
I (Daniel Bader) am reviewing the Axon 7 after spending a week with it in Toronto, on the Bell network, and in New York, on T-Mobile. During that time, the phone ran Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow with build A2017UV1.0.0B18, security patch May 1, 2016. No updates were issued during my testing period.
ZTE Axon 7 Hardware
I am truly impressed by the Axon 7. As someone who prefers smaller phones, its compact body, which happens to accommodate an excellent 5.5-inch QHD AMOLED display, is one of its signature features.
How ZTE managed that is by reducing the size of the bezels above and below the display, and by minimizing the area filled by the capacitive buttons. Like many recent Android phones, the navigation buttons are capacitive, but these touch targets are very, very small. And while their functions can be reversed in software — either dot can be assigned either "back" or "recents" — they are not backlit, which can make it very difficult to locate the right area in a darkened room. Come on, ZTE, you're better than this.
Using the phone reminded me how accustomed I have become to using, say, the Galaxy S7's physical home button to orient my thumb, and how that isn't possible on something like the Axon 7. Unlike the OnePlus 3, there is no option to enable on-screen buttons, and the Axon 7 saves vital front-of-phone real estate by placing the fingerprint sensor on the phone's back, under the 20 megapixel rear camera sensor.
While I received the gold version of the phone, both colors — Ion Gold and Quartz Gray — are made from unibody aluminum that curves around the shallow sides. Though it impresses no more than the OnePlus 3 did for its price, it's clear that the investment ZTE has made in its manufacturing, and the collaboration with BMW's Designworks team, has paid off.
Around back, the 20MP rear camera sits at the top of a symmetrical strip of hardware, flanked by a fingerprint sensor below and a flash in the middle. That fingerprint sensor is no better than many of its competitors, but having transitioned from a number of devices with front-facing varieties, I still find myself preferring it on the back while the phone is in a pocket, but getting frustrated when it is sitting on a desk.
It's clear that the investment ZTE has made in its manufacturing, and the collaboration with BMW's Designworks team, has paid off.
Thankfully, the Axon 7's 3250 mAh battery is good enough to hold up for a decent day's usage. While the phone doesn't support wireless charging due to its metal back, it supports Quick Charge 3.0, and gains about 50% in 30 minutes — a number that we already take for granted, but is still astonishing. Moreover, the Axon 7, at 7.9mm thin, has larger battery than most phones in its class, and certainly better uptime than many devices we've recently reviewed.
While we typically shy away from performing synthetic battery benchmarks, I'll say this: after using the Axon 7 for two weeks as my primary device, I only once had to charge it for a few minutes midday, largely from an abundance of caution. Every other day it just lasted from the time I woke up until I went to bed. And I get up early and go to bed late.
Finally, there's the audio side of things. Few phones have great speakers, and even less have ample hardware to push high-resistance headphones. The Axon 7 has both. The legacy of what the company calls Hi-Fi audio began with the original Axon, which saw, in addition to a dedicated Digital-to-Analog converter (DAC) a secondary audio codec used to enhance audio recording, particularly with video. While the average person isn't going to notice a big difference in headphone output quality between the Axon 7 and, say, a Galaxy S7 or iPhone 6s, ZTE has included some very high-quality components from AKM, a company that sells its audio conversion equipment primarily to very manufacturers of very expensive audiophile equipment.
Few phones have great speakers, and even less have ample hardware to push high-resistance headphones. The Axon 7 has both.
Aspects of the phone's sound, from a very low signal-to-noise ratio to extremely accurate (for a phone) audio input when recording video, will likely go unappreciated by the vast majority of users — but to those who care, this phone is a dream.
What will be noticed immediately is the robust sound from the dual front-facing speakers, which are powered by a comparatively massive amplifier. Remember HTC BoomSound? Think of this as ZTE BoomierSound.
ZTE Axon 7 Software
ZTE's software, while still mired by translation issues that will hopefully be cleaned up in a future build, is impressively restrained for a Chinese manufacturer. Even the stock launcher — humorously called Stock Android — is free of that type of affect that Americans have widely rejected from companies like Xiaomi and Huawei.
But there are remnants of a more playful and experimental side within the settings, such as the ability to unlock the phone with your voice. That's right, ZTE is all-in on voice actions, allowing you to launch apps and even unlock the phone with a voice command. The problem isn't the ideas, though, but the implementation: like so many proprietary voice-based services, the feature rarely works, and when it does you have to enunciate the words with the precision of a radio announcer. After several attempts at getting the feature to work, I turned it off and promptly forgot about it.
Then there's a feature called Mi-Pop, which surfaces a set of virtual navigation keys in the vein of a chat head — by default, it's a back button, but holding down on it reveals a full set of back, home, and multitasking options that attempt to ameliorate the fact that the physical home buttons are static. I'm sure over the years you've seen iPhone users resorting to the on-screen home button accessed through the iOS accessibility menu, and this is similar, though slightly more full-featured. After a few moments of opaqueness, the Mi-Pop overlay turns translucent, waiting for yet another input.
The fact that Mi-Pop replaces the basic option of adding on-screen navigation buttons irks me to no end.
Here's the thing: I understand that ZTE is trying something new (well, a new take on something old), but the fact that Mi-Pop replaces the basic option of adding on-screen navigation buttons irks me to no end. Especially since, strangely, the model we handled in our preview did have on-screen buttons. I'm not asking ZTE to confirm to the industry, but if you're going to throw the kitchen sink at a problem, at least make sure the plumbing is installed correctly. As a feature, Mi-Pop is buggy and poorly animated, and requires a secondary swipe to open the menu that reveals the remaining Home and Recents menu buttons. Like so many of the Axon 7's "value-added" features, Mi-Pop is a good idea implemented poorly.
The good news is that neither voice unlock nor Mi-Pop nor Dolby Atmos — a nicely branded but terrible equalizer app that comes bundled with the phone — are necessary to enjoy the close-to-stock software experience. ZTE didn't mess with the Settings nor the notification shade, and aside from a few quirks with the lock screen, there is little to complain about. The phone runs like a dream — with a Snapdragon 820 and 4GB of RAM one would hope so — and because it is so compact I found myself using it with one hand with no major problems. That is, only after I inserted the ultra-slippery metal body into the clear TPU case that comes in the box.
ZTE did see fit to include some useful gestures with the Axon 7. A three-finger pinch quickly takes a screenshot, while a strong shake of the phone while idling on the lock screen activates the flashlight.
DeviantArt junkies (or fans of moody wallpapers in general) will also appreciate the on-by-default cycling of lock screen backgrounds whenever the phone is turned on. Most of the photos are over-the-top HDR depictions of popular tourist locations such as the Eiffel Tower or Arizona's Coyote Buttes rock formation, but I began to look forward to seeing what was going to appear next on the occasional time I didn't use the fingerprint sensor to skip the lock screen altogether.
The phone runs like a dream and because it is so compact I found myself using it with one hand with no major problems.
The Axon 7, despite having no carrier bloatware to speak of, does come with a couple of non-essential apps that purport to offer value, but really don't. The most egregious is ZTE Rewards, which asks you to download a number of apps from Perk, a loyalty company that offers free stuff in exchange for a bunch of personal information. More useful is WeShare, an app that allows you to transfer contacts, texts, photos and other phone-specific content from one phone to another.
ZTE Axon Cameras
Eschewing its predecessor's second sensor used for depth augmentation, the Axon 7 comes with a bevy of camera features all its own. The 20MP Samsung ISOCELL sensor is comparable in quality to what you'd find on any mainstream flagship device today. The sensor measures 1/2.6-inch and sports pixels of 1.12-microns in diameter, similar to that of the LG G5. The f/1.8 lens appears to be sharp in the middle with a hint of distortion at the corners while allowing for impressive and true depth of field.
In practice, the Axon 7 is capable of some magnificent photos. The daylight photos appear color-true and free of significant noise, through chromatic aberrations are common in scenes with high-contrast subjects transposed on a bright sky. The lens is able to focus nearly as close to a subject as the Galaxy S7, our macro leader, and one of the best-performing phone cameras on the market.
As with all phones, the less light available to the sensor, the more grainy and less impressive the photo. That is especially true here, even with optical image stabilization playing an important role in keeping the shutter open as long as possible without introducing motion blur. The problem is the size of the pixels; most phones are moving towards sensors with fewer but larger pixels. The Axon 7 bucks that trend by focusing on resolution and detail. As a result, low-light photos — even those taken with ample indoor light — emerge yellow and splotchy, with a lack of fine detail. It's also worth noting that the sensor is actually 16:9 by default, a blunder Samsung corrected this year with the Galaxy S7.
The 8MP front-facing camera is good, and features plenty of ways to turn one's skin "beautiful," which by phone maker standards means soft and artificial. Still, despite a few-second delay in opening the app the camera app itself is nicely designed, with an auto mode that is easy to use and a manual mode that features all the granular settings a photographer like me would care about. And because the Snapdragon 820 is so much faster than the Axon's Snapdragon 801, 4K video capture is smooth at 30 fps and lacks the judder we've come to expect from unsteady hand movement. It's no Galaxy S7, but it's close.
Unfortunately, ZTE decided to crib from the wrong company inside its camera app; not only did it blatantly steal the iPhone's live filters, but it also coopted Apple's Live Photos feature down to the name. Activating LIVE Photo (sic) captures a short 1080p video clip stored in .mp4 format that can be played alongside the static photo, but, like Apple's own faltering format it (though fun) answers a question that nobody asked.
Odds and ends
This phone is interesting for a number of reasons, least of which is the fact that it supports a combination of two SIM cards, or a single SIM and a microSD card. I used the phone on a recent trip to New York and back home to Toronto, placing a T-Mobile SIM card in the secondary slot. While the phone is able to field incoming calls and texts from either number, a single data connection must be specified (for obvious reasons), and the handoff is seamless between the two. Having no use for a dual-SIM phone in Canada, my first experience taking advantage of one was largely positive. Some of the user experience (UX) around setting up the individual SIM cards could be improved, but those are minor criticisms.
The Axon 7 is one of the best phone surprises I've had so far in 2016.
The Axon 7 also sports a USB Type-C port, which is becoming increasingly common among Android phones in 2016. And while the company ships a Quick Charge 3.0 charger and Type-C cable in the box, it generously provides a micro-USB adapter for those who want to keep using those older, far more ubiquitous cables. It's one of many nice touches in a box that includes a very decent pair of headphones and the aforementioned clear TPU case.
Another nice addition is the Passport 2.0 protection plan, which is included alongside every Axon 7 purchased directly from the company in the U.S.. Because the phone is unlocked and carrier-free, it does not include any bloatware — a bonus on top of a two-year warranty, easy warranty exchanges, low-cost repairs and more. It's great that ZTE is maintaining this program, but it's only available to buyers in the U.S., and it only honors hardware; there is no equivalent promise on the software side. And that is something to be concerned about.
ZTE has an awful reputation for keeping its phones updated. Indeed, the Axon and Axon Pro, while eventually receiving an update to Android 6.0 earlier this year, have each received only one update, and are still on the May 1, 2016 security patch (which, ironically, is the same as the Axon 7).
Should you buy it? Yes
The Axon 7 is one of the best phone surprises I've had so far in 2016. Like the OnePlus 3, it provides tremendous value for its $400 asking price, and despite a few software quirks is without major compromise.
Not only is it wonderfully compact for a 5.5-inch phone, but it is well-made and nicely designed, replete with an excellent camera setup and superlative sound. If you can overcome the need to have the latest software (or expeditious software updates, for that matter), the ZTE Axon 7 is one of the best unlocked smartphones you can buy today.