A shiny little smartphone package that's almost a better deal than its sibling.
Remember small phones? The kind that easily fit into your pocket, a small clutch purse, or even your car's cup holder? Compact devices are making a comeback and ZTE is one of those companies that's latching on to the trend.
The Axon 7 Mini is indeed a shrunken-down version of its larger, 5.5-inch counterpart, the Axon 7 — and that's precisely what makes it such a good deal. You're getting the same svelte, aluminum unibody hardware, in addition to stereo speakers, solid mid-range specifications, and a camera that's pretty decent in favorable lighting conditions for $100 less than its older sibling. But the Axon 7 Mini would have been a better deal if its software didn't require so much editing.
The bottom line
The ZTE Axon 7 Mini is a capable, compact little package that's a worthy consideration at its $300 starting price point. But be forewarned that its software could become a force to reckon with over time.
- Solid, stylish build
- Packs more into its pricepoint than other manufactuters
- It's a small phone!
- Software is packed with gimmicks galore
- Camera struggles in low light environments
- Not all apps will play nice with its mid-range processor
- 5.2-inch Full HD
- AMOLED Display
- 1080x1920 resolution (423ppi)
- 16MP, ƒ/1.9 lens, PDAF
- 8MP front camera, ƒ/2.2 lens, 1080p
- 2705 mAh capacity
- Quick Charge 2.0
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 processor
- Octa-core 1.5GHz
- 3GB RAM
- 32GB internal storage
- microSD slot with adoptable storage
About this review
I (Florence Ion) am reviewing the ZTE Axon 7 Mini after spending a week with it on AT&T's network in the San Francisco Bay Area. The phone is running Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow under ZTE's MiFavor UI 4.0. It did not receive software updates during my testing period.
ZTE Axon 7 Mini Hardware
One of the biggest complaints I hear is that smartphones these days are "just too big." That's all gradually changing, however, as more manufacturers concede to the fact that consumers like to have a choice. In this case, you can choose between ZTE's larger, supercharged Axon 7 smartphone, or the similarly-styled, mid-range Axon 7 Mini that's a bit more pocketable.
The Axon 7 Mini's aluminum gold chassis is hot. It's striking. And the Mini's futurustic style makes you feel like you're carrying a device worth more than its price tag. The Mini's patterned and perforated speaker grilles also give it a cool edge and you'll notice that each speaker feels velvety to the touch. It's a nice contrast against the device's smooth back plate. And if you're just not that keen on gold, the Axon 7 Mini comes in silver, too.
One bummer of wielding a smaller device is that you're oftentimes compromising on the display size, but not so with the Axon 7 Mini. ZTE clearly whittled down as much as it could of the chassis around the Mini's 5.2-inch 1080p AMOLED display. There's almost no bezel on either side.
Using this phone gave me nostalgia for the smaller phones I used to wield simply because the Axon 7 Mini is easier to accommodate. I don't usually have this much luck with the Pixel XL, for instance; I have to choose a bag very carefully to accommodate its extra bulk, and I'm usually doing finger acrobatics to hold on to it, my car keys, and my wallet at the same time. By contrast, the Axon 7 Mini can be operated one-handed, and you won't feel like you're reaching across a scorching desert as you're extending an index finger along the back of the phone towards the rear-facing fingerprint sensor.
The Axon 7 Mini can be operated one-handed, and you won't feel like you're reaching across a scorching desert to access its fingerprint sensor.
The Axon 7 Mini makes me a little nervous with its protruding optics. I don't mind the center placement of the lens, but having it stick out so much that even the clear plastic case included in its box doesn't shield it makes it seem as if this were an overlooked design decision. I like the lens to be flat on the backside so that when you put on a case, there's a bit of buffer between the ground and the camera.
Casual games like Lumines run fine on the device's mid-range Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 processor and 3GB of RAM. But expect to encounter the occasional slow down. I experienced a few of my own with apps like Snapchat and Hulu. There were also a few instances where apps like PCMark crashed seemingly for no apparent reason. I'll be curious to see what ZTE's MiFavor UI 4.0 runs like six months from now, which is typically when systems start to exhibit slowdown. For now, expect relatively speedy performance as long as you're limiting your usage to two tasks at a time.
I'll be curious to see what ZTE's MiFavor UI 4.0 runs like six months from now.
Lastly, everyone's favorite topic: Battery life. I kept the Axon 7 Mini for about three days on standby and it reminded me of one of those demon-possessed porcelain dolls — it just wouldn't die! The Mini told a different story under duress, however. I left it on overnight for a PCMark battery rundown benchmark and its 2705 mAh battery lasted just under five hours with the screen set to 200 nits. It's the best battery performance we've seen in a while from a phone this price. ZTE also includes a QuickCharge 2.0 charger in the box. In my testing, it managed to replenish close to 40 percent in about 45 minutes. It's not as fast as what some flagships offer with QuickCharge 3.0, but ZTE had to cut costs somewhere.
ZTE Axon 7 Mini Software
ZTE's interpretation of Android is the second-least offensive of the Chinese OEMs. MiFavor UI 4.0 retains the app drawer and sports Marshmallow's icon style, but it's not nearly the same experience as using a phone built by a Google. Its extra features are polarizing, too. For instance, while I appreciate the ability to review a screenshot before saving it, I absolutely abhor the little arrow that lives the navigation bar — this exists solely so that you can hide it if the app you're using won't hide it for you, but it was more of a nuisance than a helping hand.
There's also the Mi-Pop virtual navigation keys, which act like a chat head and don't disappear when you're playing a game. They're exhausting to learn to use and frankly not needed considering the Axon 7 Mini's compact screen size.
MiFavor UI is not a bad rendition of Android, but I wish ZTE would have taken a hint from the OnePlus method.
And then there are the experimental features, like the app that lets you control the Axon 7 Mini with just your voice. It's not the best feature addition, considering it barely works half the time, and you're better off just using Google Now.
MiFavor UI is not a bad rendition of Android. But I wish that ZTE would have taken a hint from the OnePlus method. At the very least, MiFavor UI is much more palatable than Huawei's EMUI.
ZTE Axon 7 Mini Cameras
The Axon 7 Mini is equipped with a 16-megapixel rear-facing camera. It boasts an aperture of f/1.9, digital image stabilization, touch to focus, face detection, and instant exposure control, which shows up as a slider option in the viewfinder. Basically the same specs as its larger counterpart.
The Mini's camera is not always particularly fast. I went for a walk with just the phone in my hand to snap photos of the sunset and while I liked the color composition of the photos I captured, I was saddened when I got home and realized that many of the snaps were either blurry or out of the focus. That lack of optical image stabilization can be a bit of a bummer in varying light conditions. Any of the photos that were in focus weren't particularly sharp, either.
The Axon 7 Mini is also quite sensitive to lighting, which is why it's so prone to producing blurry photos. If you use the tap-to-focus functionality, the photo will tend to expose to the area you've tapped rather than the entire scene. As exhibited in the first photo in the gallery below, this can be problematic in outdoor environments.
If you look at the last picture in the gallery above, you'll see I shot the last photo with one of the Axon 7 Mini's extra camera features, referred to as "Super Night Mode." It's helpful, but there's a bit of a learning curve. I would have appreciated if Super Night Mode popped up with an alert, for instance, to consider using a tripod so that I could take better night shots. Instead, I came out with a blurry photo. The rest of the Axon 7 Mini's extra camera features would also benefit from this kind handholding, if only to get new users into the groove.
On the plus side, the Axon 7 Mini's manual mode is pretty robust. It has all the same controls as Samsung and LG's flagships and you can set the shutter open for up to seven seconds. However, there is no ability to shoot in RAW, so don't expect to become a professional smartphone photographer with this kit in hand.
The Axon 7 Mini is pretty decent at video stabilization. The only shakiness I experienced was from my own terrible camera work. Regardless, while the Mini doesn't record as smoothly as the Google Pixel, it's substantial enough for pointing-and-recording. I also appreciated that I didn't have to touch the screen to maintain focus while recording, though you will notice a bit of blur in between scenes as the Mini constantly attempts to adjust the focus, especially in low-light environments.
As for selfies, you'll do fine with the Axon 7 Mini in your hand. Its 8-megapixel front-facing camera is capable in well-lit environments, and its f/2.2 aperture ensures that you can still snap a headshot when the lights are down low. I also appreciate that ZTE's beautify mode isn't as alien-like as LG and Samsung's.
ZTE Axon 7 Mini Odds and Ends
For a smaller smartphone starting at $300, the Axon 7 Mini is pretty well-equipped. In addition to the features covered here, the Mini also has an expansion slot for a microSD card that doubles as a SIM tray for when you're overseas. Additionally, it sports a USB Type-C port, which is quickly becoming the standard for Android devices across the board. There's also a generous 32GB of storage inside, which is double what you normally find in a phone this price.
ZTE has bundled in a plethora of audio features, including a chip for Hi-Fi Recording, as well as dual noise-suppression microphones. Its Dolby-made dual speakers are also pretty impressive for jamming out to Spotify tunes, though you'll quickly hear its limitations the louder you go.
Should you Buy it? Sure
The Axon 7 Mini made an impression not because of its smaller size, but because of how much polish ZTE put into it. You'll sense it the minute you take it out of its box. Inside, it's nestled neatly by ample padding, protected as if it were a high-end flagship device. The trick is that even though it looks like one and boasts some of the same features, it doesn't nearly cost as much. At $300, you're getting a mix of high-end features paired with mid-range specifications in a stylish, compact little package. If you're looking for a deal, the Axon 7 Mini is it.