ZTE is a name that's been around a long time in the mobile industry, but the Axon Pro came as a bit of a surprise. The issue is that the few times we've heard their name crop up in North America was when we were talking about phones not many people were buying, and didn't have any "pizazz" factor. Good solid phones built for Boost Mobile are important, but that's a tough way to carve out a reputation among fickle consumers.
The Axon Pro is clearly the way ZTE is going to try and break out of that mold. It's big, it's flashy, it hits the spec sheets right where it counts and it was clearly designed to garner interest from folks using AT&T and T-Mobile in the United States — the network support is not only present, but it performs really well.
I love unlocked phones. Especially ones that come at us with a price that makes them a value. At $450, the Axon Pro checks in a good bit less expensive than others, but a bit more than a "budget" model. It's a tough category to compete in.
Let's dive into the ZTE Axon Pro, and see how she stacks up.
- Performance on par with phones costing hundreds more
- Impressive headphone audio
- Full manual controls in camera
- Fully compliant with all major GSM networks in the US
- No dual front speakers, though room is there for them
- Only available in 32GB storage option
- We've seen some intermittent software issues
- Battery life is questionable
A surprisingly quality experience
Axon Pro quick summary
The Axon Pro is one of the best phones in it's price range. That doesn't mean it's perfect, but no phone ever is. There needs to be a higher storage option for the folks who need it, and the battery life could be a bit better, but the pros outweigh the cons.
There are also some software bugs, but they were more annoying than game breaking. They also look to be the types of things one of those "optimization" updates we see so often can fix.
The specs and real-world performance put the Axon Pro on the short list of phones I would recommend, to both beginners and pros alike.
Axon Pro Design
The Axon Pro has a metal design, though it's not a unibody. The rear of the phone is one large piece of metal (things feel like aluminum here) with separate metal cups on the top and bottom. The metal extends to the front, where all four bezels get the aluminum treatment as well.
The back doesn't come off to give access to the battery, and gentle prying and pushing wasn't able to get the endcaps off, either.
Things feel very solid, and there is no glossy finish to make things more slippery than they should be. The curve of the phone and the generous edges make for easy and comfortable holding in the hand. I don't get the feeling that I'm about to drop the Axon Pro while I'm holding it.
The Axon Pro is easy to hold and use, and it looks good
The buttons — including a dedicated camera button — are spaced well and the right height for easy pushing without firing off accidentally whenever your fingers brush against them. Speaking of buttons, the capacitive buttons work well, but the back and the open apps buttons don't have the familiar icon. Instead, both are replaced by a white dot. You can swap which button is on which side in the settings (which is probably why they went with the dots) so things feel more familiar. But still. Dots.
The top and bottom bezels (as well as the camera ring) have an interesting triangular lattice pattern stamped into the metal. While it appears that there may be two front facing speakers, only the bottom bezel hides one. The earpiece (of course) is at the top, but no external speaker.
Of course, you have the dual-lens camera on the back which we'll talk a bit more about later.
At the end of the day, I liked the design. The Axon Pro was easy to hold and use, and it looks good. Fit and finish on our model was excellent, and having a slightly thicker phone with more meat on the sides made me worry less about dropping it. ZTE isn't trying to break any new ground here, but the attention to detail shows and you're left with a really nicely-built phone.
High end specs in need of some polish
Axon Pro Hardware
ZTE has packed high-end specs into the Axon Pro, and during daily use it shows. Things run smoothly, with very little of the stutter and general wonk we still see in some Android "flagships."
|Dimensions||6.06" x 2.9" x 0.37" (154 x 75 x 9.3mm)|
|Weight||6.10 oz (175 g)|
|Display||5.5" CGS (Continuous Grain Silicon) TFT LCD
Resolution: 2560 x 1440 WQHD, PPI 534
Sharp, Gorilla Glass Gen 3.0
|OS||Android 5.1 (Lollipop)|
|Memory||4 GB RAM, 32 GB ROM|
|Rear-Facing Camera||Dual lens 13MP, 2MP, dual LED Flash, 4K HD resolution|
|Front-Facing Camera||8MP, 88 degree wide-angle, 1080p HD resolution|
|Video Capture||4K HD resolution at 30 FPS|
|Processor||2.0 GHz Octa-Core Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 (MSM8994)|
|SIM Card||Nano (4FF)|
|Hi-Fi Audio Chipset||AKM 4961|
|In-ear Headphones||JBL E13|
|Microphone||2- mic noise suppression|
|Battery||3000 mAh, Quick-charge 2.0|
|High-Speed Data||LTE (Cat 6)|
|Bands||AT&T, T-Mobile, Cricket, MetroPCS 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
We tested the Axon Pro on both AT&T and T-Mobile. Performance on both networks gave us no issues to note. The Axon Pro does support HD calling on T-Mobile (and has band 12 support) but does not support Wifi calling. Data speeds were comparable to both the Moto G 2015 and the ASUS ZenPhone 2 (the two other phones I happen to have running while testing the AXON), though it didn't hold on to a good connection as well as either. But the Axon Pro still gets an "A" rating for network performance, for both voice and data. ZTE did well here.
The Axon Pro gets an "A" rating for network performance
The Snapdragon 810 combined with the metal shell got a little warm when really pushing things — big, simultaneous downloads or 3D gaming — but never got hot enough to cause any real concern. Even while outside in the summer sun I never got any type of thermal warnings or shut downs.
GPS was accurate in the places I expect it to be accurate, both with and without WIfi assistance. Bluetooth clarity was fine, though the range was a bit less than I would like at about 30 feet. There were no connection issues when using an LG G Watch R or a Pebble Time.
You should be prepared to charge more often than you might like
The Continuous Grain Silicon display on the Axon Pro is very good. Colors are slightly saturated (more LG style than Samsung style if you've experienced both first-hand) and things leaned a bit towards warmer, reddish tones on our model. Just enough to notice, but not enough to make things look tinted. Viewing angles were very good, and brightness (including auto-brightness) was good outdoors in the sun. I really liked this display.
The battery life is adequate. Most of the time I could stretch it out until I went to bed, but if I ended up sitting in my chair surfing the net or playing a game for a few extra hours while my wife watched a movie I didn't care for, I needed to plug it in. Quick charge means I didn't have to spend all night tied to the wall, but it's something to be aware of. Battery life is borderline, and you should be prepared to charge more often than you would like.
The Axon Pro is a solid performer. The screen is excellent, network functions were top-notch and compared very favorably against the freakishly good radios from Motorola and Intel, and the Snapdragon 810 didn't cause my hands to catch fire. I'd recommend it, based on the hardware performance, to anyone with no worries.
Quite the earful
Axon Pro Audio
If you're looking for a phone that can double as a great audio player, the Axon pro should be on your short list
The Axon Pro has the AKM 4961 DSP and it's class D amplifier inside, and you can tell ZTE made an effort to make a phone that sounds great while using headphones. The bundled JBL earbuds when used with the included Dolby Audio enhancement software sound excellent out of the box, and chances are most everyone would notice the difference, and like what they are hearing. Things sound bright and spacious (fancy audio-nerd words that mean it sounds like you're listening in-person, while in a big room) with the default settings. If you need a little more punch from the high and lows (the default Dolby settings emphasize the mid-range tones) you can adjust the EQ. For someone who just wants a great sounding audio experience from their phone, ZTE nailed it. Good hardware and good software, in an easy to use package is how it should be done.
For the audiophiles out there, using the included music player app and some 32-bit files on the flattest headphones that the DSP and Amp could drive well (Sony MDR-7506s) produced some lovely noises. I've been impressed with the AKM 4961, and you'll love that ZTE included it in the Axon Pro.
While things sound phenomenal (for a smartphone, anyway) when listening to music on my headphones, I have to point out that the single external speaker isn't anything special. It's loud enough, but it's what you would expect from a single small speaker hidden behind a grill.
If you're looking for a phone that can double as a great audio player, the Axon pro should be on your short list.
Capable in most situations
Axon Pro Camera
The ZTE Axon Pro comes to us with a pretty good camera — both the hardware and the application itself.
The dual lens setup takes great pictures outdoors in the daytime, like most smartphone cameras do, but also turns out decent pictures when the lighting isn't perfect. While not the best camera in a smartphone, it's solid, consistent and easy to use.
The camera app itself is a big reason why I like the package. It's simple on the surface, but one level down you'll find plenty of modes, effects and manual controls that work as expected. Maybe the most interesting thing here is the 'Bokeh" mode."
This is where the secondary lens comes into play. Using the Bokeh mode you can get ultra-sharp focus on one area of the subject, and blur the foreground or background. You take the picture, and can make adjustments afterwards. The idea isn't new, but the execution here is the best I've seen. Be warned, you can go overboard and have some "interesting" effects.
The one area where the camera falls a bit short is the color. Things (both stills and video) seem slightly washed out, especially warmer colors like reds and browns. The easy fix is to enable HDR and get pictures with "pop" or to shoot in manual mode and adjust things to your liking.
I could use the Axon Pro as an everyday camera and have no issues.
Slightly sticky lollipop
Axon Pro Software
The Axon Pro has Android 5.1.1 out of the box, and ZTE didn't feel the need to completely change things or try to make Android "better." They've done their own things to the icons, and added a few custom enhancements, but you'll find everything Android in the right place and working the way you would expect it to work.
ZTE didn't feel the need to completely change things or try to make Android "better"
You have two themes alongside the default, Fancy and Sports. Fancy does away with the app drawer and drops everything onto your home screens, while Sports has it's own icons with a sporty feel. The default is my theme of choice, and coming from any other vanilla phone was an easy transition.
Not being tied to a carrier helps cut down on the bloatware, but a few additions are to be found in the app drawer — and built into the system itself. You have the Dolby audio enhancements (that work well and better than I expected), and a handful of sports and fitness apps tossed in. RockMyRun builds curated music playlists designed to make your workout more fun, and it works well. Yahoo sports helps you keep track of your favorite teams. Inoffensive apps that you can easily ignore or disable if you don't find them useful.
Argus is also included, and it's deeply hooked into the system through the Z-Tray — a lock screen widget that that displays daily activity and music controls. If you're looking for a good fitness app, you'll probably like what ZTE and Argus have done here. If you're not, disable it and move on.
The software is done well. The bloatware is kept to a minimum, and the extras included are unique and will be valued by plenty of users. But not everything is perfect.
I have had a few random stability issues with the software. It looks good, is easy to use, but more than once I've had things freeze intermittently, come back, and then stay very slow until I rebooted the phone. I can't pin it on one specific thing I may be doing to trigger it, and it only happened a few times while using the phone for several weeks, but it's there. After a reboot things operate as normal. This is very much like the issues many have seen with the Note 4 after the Lollipop update, but likely to not be the same issue. Just the same symptoms.
My armchair software engineer side thinks this is one of those things that can be sorted out in a small performance update, but that may be wishful thinking. It may not be a deal-breaking issue for you, but it did taint an otherwise great experience with the phone. In either case, you need to know that it has happened, and may happen to you if you grab an Axon Pro.
A stamp of approval
Axon Pro Conclusion
A few years ago we would have never imagined seeing a phone like the Axon Pro, especially from a company not known for building premium devices. My hat's off to ZTE for being able to jump into a "new" market of less expensive, but still high-end phones and do such a great job on their first try.
The specs and real-world performance put the Axon Pro on the short list of phones I would recommend, to both beginners and pros alike
It's a true contender in the Android phone arena. The build and feel of the phone is done nicely. The hardware ticks the right boxes on the spec sheet. In the end, it just feels and acts like a nice phone.
There are a few drawbacks, though. It's limited to only 32GB of storage which may not be enough for some folks. The camera, while good, isn't quite in the same category as something like the latest from LG or Samsung. The software needs a bit more polish, though it's done well and easy to use. And finally, you might need to babysit the battery more than you would like.
Having said all these words and using the phone for a while, I always like to sit back and ask myself two questions: Would I spend my own money on the phone, and would I recommend others spend their money on it?
My answer is yes, to both. If you're looking for something "better" than a Moto G or the Idol 3, but don't want to jump into the $700 range (or wait an eternity for an invite to buy the damn thing), the Axon Pro is a good choice. As long as ZTE is committed to keep things up to date, and after talking with them I think they are, you'll get more than your money's worth from this one.
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