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ZTE Axon Review: In Depth

The Good

  • Good screen
  • Competent cameras
  • Aluminium body
  • Customisable UI

The Bad

  • Bulky
  • Styling quirks
  • Underwhelming battery life
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ZTE Axon Review: For a Chinese smartphone maker who, for the longest time built conservative carrier-branded affordable handsets, the Axon is a turnout for the books.

Design

Triangles, there’s no doubt that that’s the motif running throughout the Axon’s design aesthetic; from the slick unboxing experience, to the phone’s hardware keys, grilles and even its wallpapers.

The Axon feels like a tick list of what makes a premium phone premium, which isn’t always a recipe for success, but works well for the most part in this configuration.

ZTE Axon front ZTE Axon back

There’s an expansive 5.5-inch display, which dictates that this be a large device. Its aluminium body weighs in at 173 grams, but that doesn’t translate to any level of heft to give cause for concern. The antennae arrangement sits underneath a capped design that includes faux stitching – an embellishment that didn’t work with the Samsung Galaxy Note 3 and doesn’t work here either.

The Axon opts for programmable capacitive keys below the display, rather than on-screen controls, with the same circular home button the brand’s more recent smartphones have characterised, whilst the back is undoubtedly the most interesting part of the device.

ZTE Axon speaker grille
You’ll see triangles wherever you look on the Axon.

It’s one of ZTE’s first devices to sport a centrally positioned fingerprint sensor (although it forgoes the gesture controls like those found on the Honor 7) and an interesting dual-camera arrangement that again features yet more triangles.

With the exception of that faux stitching, the Axon looks and feels like a flagship at first sight, we’d recommend you opt for the black version with gold accents however, as the all gold model isn’t quite as sophisticated.

Screen

The screen size of the Axon places it in the same territory as the likes of Apple iPhone 6 Plus and that means it’s got to be able to dole out a solid media experience.

ZTE Axon screen

Luckily the Full HD resolution and IPS LCD technology ensure it pushes out bright visuals with good contrast and slightly oversaturated colour reproduction that really pops. If you likes eye-catching, vibrant imagery (even at the expense of colour accuracy), then the Axon’s display will be right up your street.

OS

Whilst the Axon runs Android 5.0 Lollipop, like the rest of the Chinese smartphone crop (encompassing ZTE, Huawei and Honor) the experience is noticeably different to a stock Android image.

Packing ZTE’s MiFavor UI 3.2, the Axon forgoes an apps drawer and dials it up on the level of customisation at the user’s fingertips. One of the three capacitive buttons beneath the display is the menu key, which when pressed on a homescreen pulls up customisation options to change accent colour, wallpaper, icon pack and home screen transition animation.

There are a handful of consistent themes and icon packs to choose from, but you can mix and match as you see fit as well as download more from dedicated online repositories; including a not-so-subtly-named ‘Apple’ icon pack which dresses icons for the most popular apps in a familiar iOS garb.

From any home screen you can get at that customisation menu or the notifications panel by swiping up or down respectively, which is nice and the notifications section houses a two-stage shortcuts pane and settings menu that works well.

If you’re worried about lock screen security, the Axon also packs a number of unlock methods include Android standards like pattern unlock or pin unlock as well as fingerprint unlocking and Sky Unlock, which uses the phone’s front facing camera for eye recognition before letting you in.

Performance

To strengthen the flagship persona of Axon, ZTE has gone the whole hog and introduced the Snapdragon 810 octa-core chip you’d find in the likes of the HTC One M9, Sony Xperia Z5 family or the OnePlus 2.

Along with 3GB of (super snappy DDR4) RAM it’s as extremely fast and fluid, handling multitasking and gaming without breaking a sweat. Interestingly the ZTE also doesn’t appear to heat up as readily as some of its better-known rivals, although that might be down to its thicker bodywork.

ZTE Axon profile

32GB of internal storage should satiate most user’s needs, but microSD expandability by up to 128GB should cover file-heavy usage otherwise, unless of course you want to use that second slot for an additional SIM card, you can’t have it both ways.

The 3000mAh does a solid job of keeping the Axon running, but expect to charge this big-screened device up about once a day, more if you’re using both SIM slots. Thankfully, you can go from zero to 60 per cent charge in about 30 minutes thanks to Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 2.0 capabilities, which goes some way to reduce battery anxiety.

Camera

When you first pick up the Axon, the camera arrangement is unquestionably its most noticeable feature. The lower of the two lenses is a respectable 13-megapixel sensor, whilst the smaller module above it uses a lowly 2-megapixel sensor, but its function is explicitly for depth perception when using the phone’s DSLR Mode.

In practice throwing around the F-stop to achieve bokeh is a nice trick, even if the means to achieve it feels a little over-engineered and gimmicky (just as it did on the HTC One M8). General shooting also yielded surprisingly good results and in the bright but overcast settings of London, shots still came out looking half decent.

The dual LED flash is a little harsh, but unquestionably alleviates low light situations and the camera’s macro capabilities also proved to be surprisingly strong.

If it’s video you’re after, the Axon will happily take in Full HD or 4K footage, although there’s no discernable image stabilisation to speak of and selfie fans will appreciate the 8-megapixel front-facer with obligatory beauty mode, even if detail and performance in anything other than ideal lighting conditions is a little ropey.

Verdict

So how did the ZTE do in bringing its first truly competitive flagship to western markets? Pretty well by our estimations.

The internal hardware is comparable to the rest of the current top tier devices out there and whilst there are many facets that mark the Axon as a ‘me too’ handset, such as its dual camera arrangement, it has enough of an identity of its own to serve as an interesting alternative to the more established flagships on offer.

ZTE Axon verdict

At around £300 it doesn’t blow the likes of the OnePlus 2 out of the water or anything quite so dramatic, but we’d go so far as to recommend it over the similarly priced HTC One M9 or as a cheaper alternative to the likes of the Xperia Z3+. Nicely done ZTE, can’t wait to see what you’re cooking up next.

Specification

Screen size5.5-inches
Screen resolutionFull HD (1920x1080)
Weight170 grams
OSAndroid 5.0 Lollipop
Rear Camera13-megapixel w/ 2-megapixel depth camera
Front camera8-megapixel
Processor2.0GHz/1.5GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 810
Memory3GB RAM
Storage32GB. Expandable via microSD up to 128GB
4G LTEYes
Bonus featuresAntimicrobial Gorilla Glass, Quick Charge 2.0, Sky Unlock

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