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ZTE Axon Mini Review: In Depth

The Good

  • Premium design elements
  • Competent cameras
  • Force Touch
  • Affordable

The Bad

  • Heavy UI
  • Poorly optimised UX
  • Styling quirks
3.5

ZTE Axon Mini review: Since the lowly Grand X back in 2012 ZTE has spent the last few years refocusing its efforts and the new ZTE Axon Mini represents a stronger brand and a more competitive smartphone.

Design

As with most of the handsets whose names end in ‘mini’ the Axon Mini is a shrunken-down carbon copy of the standard Axon flagship. It features details like a triangular motif and metal design elements present throughout the phone’s body, just like its larger sibling.

ZTE Axon Mini front ZTE Axon Mini back

The full-sized Axon packs a dual camera system, but the Mini opts for a single camera and integrates a dual LED flash into the same arrangement, giving the phone a nice symmetry. The top and bottom of the phone’s back feature rubberised plastic caps, treated to resemble textured leather with faux stitch lines. They’re easily the most unsightly parts of the Axon Mini’s aesthetic and look a little out of place, cheapening the overall design, despite the functional benefit of additional grip.

ZTE Axon Mini stitching
That faux stitch line is not OK.

The Mini also boasts a centrally positioned fingerprint sensor on the back for ambidextrous use and the Boeing 787 aircraft-grade aluminium-titanium alloy frame (aka metal) provides a solid, sturdy feel in the hand. That triangular motif we mentioned earlier is everywhere too – as an embellishment to the camera arrangement, on the hardware controls and even over the microphone and speaker grilles. It’s a very specific styling choice that you’ll either appreciate or turn up your nose at.

Screen

As both the Axon and the Mini use Full HD resolution panels, the latter actually boasts a sharper display (424ppi). The Mini uses a 5.2-inch Super AMOLED screen that head-on packs accurate colour reproduction, but it’s susceptible to distortion at more extreme angles and brightness in direct sunlight could be better too.

ZTE Axon Mini screen

Like Apple’s latest iPhones however, the screen is also where you’ll find the Axon Mini’s party piece, thanks to a pressure sensitive layer that adds an extra level of interaction to the user experience. It doesn’t appear to respond with the fine-grain accuracy of the Huawei Mate S or the iPhone 6s, but for most interactions it’s perfectly serviceable.

Read next: Apple 3D Touch vs Huawei Press Touch vs ZTE Force Touch

ZTE is also one of only a handful of manufacturers to utilise 2.5D glass – which in actuality is a pillowed glass front that feels nice under finger when swiping around the interface.

OS

This is where things get weird for the Axon Mini. ZTE has pre-loaded it’s own MiFavor UI 3.2 atop Android 5.1.1 Lollipop and whilst it’s packed with customisation options, it’s also a pretty rough around the edges from a usability standpoint.

You can change everything from wallpapers to iconography, vary the amount of blur on the homescreen background and generally fiddle. Like Emotion UI on Huawei’s handsets, the Axon Mini forgoes an apps drawer altogether, so everything has to live somewhere on one of your home screens.

If that doesn’t sound crowded enough, ZTE has crammed a ton of features into the UI, some of which are aggressively in your face and others that are tucked away when they really shouldn’t be. The navigation buttons (which can be hidden) also house the UI customisation menu, but to change the lock screen wallpaper takes place elsewhere. The Sky Eye retina scanning feature can’t be used on the lock screen and the notifications panel is rammed with toggles for everything from CPU performance tools to the Mi_pop floating menu tool. It’s all a bit of a mess.

The TouchPal X keyboard packs some nice gestures, letting you capitalise letters or access numbers by swiping up and down on a key, which is a considerable time saver when typing, but it too looks crowded and the layout is on the confusing side. One great Force Touch implementation however, is addition of pressure support on lock screen passwords, so prying eyes not only need to know your security code, but also how hard you’re pressing before they can gain entry.

The most glaring quirk is that it’s as if the whole interface has been pushed through Google Translate. Awkwardly structured sentences, absent or excessive spacing and unnecessarily placed symbols throughout the phone’s system apps and menus suggest that ZTE perhaps didn’t take the utmost care when prepping the Axon Mini for English-speaking markets.

Performance

The Chinese smartphone maker has done a pretty good job on the outside and the same can be said for its internals. The phone’s nomenclature dictates a more modest chipset than the full-fat Axon be used, but in this instance the Qualcomm Snapdragon 616 SoC does a great job of powering the heavy-handed UI and for the most part navigation and basic functionality is good – perhaps helped by the fact that the Axon MinI comes with 3GB of RAM.

ZTE Axon Mini 4/3rds view

Things do start to slow down when you actively try and push it however, but this isn’t entirely surprising. You’ll still be able to play rich 3D games without too much slow down and although multitasking can put pressure on the Mini, it’s depend on the apps that you’re juggling.

The hybrid SIM slot supports two SIM cards of which you have independent control over from the settings menu, or a SIM and a microSD card (up to 128GB) if you prefer to bolster the phone’s 16GB internal storage capacity.

ZTE Axon Mini SIM tray

There’s also a 2800mAh battery locked away inside the Axon Mini which packs enough juice to last up to two days on a single charge and thanks to the option of a scheduled power mode, you can have the phone switch itself off at night and back on in the morning in time for your alarm.

Cameras

The Mini missed out on the dual depth camera arrangement of the full-sized Axon, but the 13-megapixel rear snapper is actually a very competent unit on its own. It boasts a fast shutter and although shots undergo some noticeable post-processing (colour boosting, sharpening etc.), they’re pleasing to the eye and pack plenty of detail.

There are a number of shooting modes, for everything from document capture and HDR to full manual control and many of those features transfer over to shooting on the 8-megapixel front-facer or when capturing video.

Footage appears to undergo a contrast boost and tops out at Full HD resolution, with a notable drop in detail versus stills quality, however it’s still wholly serviceable when shooting in well-lit conditions.

Verdict

At just under £230, the ZTE Axon Mini is for the most part a handset worth considering. The UI needs a lot of work and the phone as a whole could have been refined a little more before hitting the market, but it boasts respectable performance, a nice screen, a surprisingly good camera and a solid feature set for the price.

ZTE Axon Mini handheld

It would make a worthwhile alternative to the likes of the OnePlus 2, the Moto G or Samsung’s updated A-Series phones and it’s one of only three handsets out there with a pressure sensitive display, if that’s important to you. 

Specification

Screen size5.2-inches
Screen resolutionFull HD (1920x1080)
Weight140 grams
OSAndroid 5.1.1 Lollipop
Rear Camera13-megapixel
Front camera8-megapixel
Processor1.2GHz/1.5GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 616
Memory3GB
Storage16GB. Expandable via microSD up to 128GB
4G LTEYes
Bonus featuresSky Eye retinal scanner, Force Touch, fingerprint sensor, 32 bit high-fidelity (Hi-Fi) audio playback

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