The last few ZTE phones that have come across my desk were all outstanding phones for the money. The problem with this is that the people that typically buy those kind of phones have no idea who made it.
If ZTE wants to move upmarket, theyíll need to replicate their formula of offering more phone for less dough.
ZTEís budget line is called ďGrandĒ so hereís their range-topper, the Axon. You can find at Fido for a very un-ZTE $400. I canít think of any other $400 phones that come with a Snapdragon 801 SoC, 32GB of storage and a metal body. Theyíre definitely off to a good start; letís check out the rest of the package.
vs Motorola Moto X Play:
For the same money, the Moto X Play has a more modest SoC, half the storage and only a single camera on the back. However, it's a much more well-rounded package mostly because the camera is a huge step up, the huge 3630mAh battery also provides epic runtime though the ZTE isnít too shabby in this department.
vs 2014 Motorola Moto X:
You can get last yearís Moto X for $400 unlocked from Staples Canada. It has the same Snapdragon 801 SoC though you only get half the storage.
Between the Axon and the Moto X, itís a tougher call. If you need an unlocked phone, then the X is a easy choice but then again getting a phone unlocked is usually pretty straight forward.
The Moto Xís big flaw is that it only comes with 16GB of storage which isnít expandable. I guess 16GB is enough storage that you can live with it but the Axon comes with a much more generous 32GB.
Neither has a great camera but the Moto Xís is a bit better.
The Moto Xís trump card is that it just might be the most comfortable metal framed phone ever made. The Axonís metal back is no slouch but once youíve held a 2nd gen Moto X, youíll know what I mean.
Anyways, either phone is a really balanced package so itís a toss up.
vs LG Nexus 5x:
For another $100, you can get the unlocked Nexus 5x. For your extra money, you get a phone with one of the very best cameras on the market. Itís SoC is also a bit faster.
The Axon counters with more built-in storage - a very practical feature and a metal back.
Even though the 5x has less storage, itís a more well-rounded package and thus easier to live with choice.
If you need more storage you can pick up a 32GB variant for an extra $60 CAN.
- Qualcomm Snapdragon 801
- 5.5Ē LCD display
- 2GB RAM
- 32 of storage
- 13MP rear camera with f/1.8 lens
- 2MP rear camera (for depth)
- 8MP front camera
- 3000mAh battery
- LTE bands 2/4/5/7/12/17
- Carrier aggregation 4/12/17
- Android 5.1 Lollipop
- 154 x 75 x 9.7 mm
The back is metal with plastic on the top and bottom parts. It makes the Axon a very solid phone.
Yup, there are 2 cameras on the back.
The top and bottom of the front look like they are are covered with long speaker grills. However, if you look closely youíll see that only small part of it is used as a speaker. The rest are not functional. They remind me of a car that has a huge scoop on the hood that doesnít actually do anything.
Thereís a camera shutter button on the side which you can double press to quickly launch the camera.
Note that the volume buttons are on the left while the power button and shutter buttons are on the right.
I prefer this arrangement as it keeps the sides from getting too cluttered.
There are capacitive back and task switch buttons on the front below the screen. You can swap them around in the menus.
Itís a nice phone to hold thatís easy to use.
In front is a 5.5Ē 1920x1080 IPS LCD display. At 400PPI, itís extremely sharp. Viewing angles are decent.
Colour looks accurate
Black levels could be a little deeper but at this price point, itís to be expected.
Overall, itís a very good display.
You can double press the shutter button on the side to start the camera from any screen. You can also use it when the phone is locked.
There are dual cameras on the back; a 13 megapixel one for shooting still photos while the other, is a 2 megapixel which captures depth information. Yes, itís a similar setup as last yearís HTC One M8.
The extra camera allows the Axon to blur out the background. Hereís how it works.
You know how SLR cameras usually have nicely blurred out backgrounds? Itís mostly a function of their imaging sensors which are many times larger than a typical Smartphoneís (there are other factors but thatís one of the main ones). So, larger sensors means a shallower depth of field.
On the other hand, Smartphone sensor which are comparatively tiny, have extremely deep depth of fields. Just look at this photo, while Iím in focus, so is the background.
Back to SLR cameras, a shallow depth of field is often desirable because it helps to isolate your subject.
Since the Axonís second camera captures depth information, it knows where the background is and is able to blur them out to approximate the effect youíd get from a much bigger sensor.
This is all great but thereís a big problem; the Axonís camera sensor isnít very good.
Itís very noisy indoors and has a very limited dynamic range. Dark areas have no details while bright areas are usually blown out. Itís only usable outdoors or indoors when there is plenty of light and your scene doesnít have anything too bright (like a window) or too dark.
I canít help but wonder if the Axon would have been better off if ZTE had ditched the extra camera and used those resourced on putting a better sensor in. Itís a real shame because the camera app itself actually has a lot of features.
The manual mode in particular isnít bad:
- shutter speed
- white balance
- metering mode (spot, center, average)
- interval shooting
Thereís also a rule of thirds grid and a level (they called it a gradienter).
To take advantage of the depth camera, thereís a Bokeh mode which lets you choose just how blurred you want your background to be. You can go back and adjust the amount of blur and focus after the fact.
Video also looks pretty awful. It can record at 4K but the quality is so bad, thereís no point. Recorded audio doesnít sound all that great either.
You get Android 5.1.1 with ZTEís overlay. Itís a pretty standard overlay, custom home screen, modified pull down toggles, skinned buttons along with duplicates for some of the built-in apps.
- Dolby Audio
- File Manager
- FM Radio
- Sound Recorder
- Task Manager
The default keyboard is TouchPal which looks like itís designed more for users who require Chinese character entry.
One nice extra is that there is support for multiple users.
ZTE hasnít had the greatest record when it comes to keeping their devices updated here in Canada. However, the thing to remember is that until now, ZTE phones were all budget specials. Software updates arenít as important to this segment of the market as it is to someone who shelling out for a flagship.
I recently had a chance to sit down with Lixin Cheng, President of ZTE North America and he acknowledged that software updates are important to a phone like the Axon because itís their ZTE flagship device here in Canada. While he didnít make any promises, the fact that heís cognisant of the importance of updates to the Axon means thereís a better chance it will get updates.
Powering the show is a 32bit Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 SoC which is backed by 2GB of RAM. Itís typical of what youíd find in an early 2014 Flagship phone like a Samsung GS5 or an HTC One M8.
Most competitors are using 64bit Snapdragon 615 SoCís. Is newer better? Not really, while its newer, Qualcomm is really good at making sure thereís quite a cushion between their flagship 800 series SoC and the not-quite flagship 600 series.
Having said that, strangely enough, the Axon scores noticeably lower than the 2014 Moto X even though they have the same SoC. One reason is because the Motoís runs at up to 2.5Ghz while the Axonís only goes up to 2.3Ghz but clock speed alone doesnít account for the gap in their scores. Note that I re-tested the 2014 Moto X to see if Android/App updates have lowered its scores. In case youíre wondering, theyíre about the same
The PCMark score is especially puzzling.
Is it a RAM speed issue? Maybe the Axon ships with slower RAM? I ran GeekBench and the Axonís RAM actually scores higher than the X, so itís not that.
Fortunately, PCMark has a setting where you can view the clock speed while itís running.
Turns out that the Axonís clock speed is usually much lower than the 2014 Xís.
Is it a case of the Axon running too hot and having to keep its speed under wraps? I doubt it because it barely gets warm when running PCMark. I tried tossing it in the fridge for a while but that doesnít result in higher scores so itís not a heat issue.
For some reason itís just unwilling to put the pedal to the metal.
Youíre probably wondering what affect these scores have on everyday usage. I tried using both the Axon and the Moto X Play side-by-side and most of the time thereís no difference. Webpages load at the same time on both devices, apps load at the same speed, that sort of thing.
The only time the Axon feels faster than the Play is when youíre installing apps or launching large ones. In those cases the Axon is usually a few seconds faster. Game levels also typically load a tiny bit faster on the ZTE.
Where the Axon really pulls ahead is in graphics performance. When you type in a new address in Google maps and are flying around, itís is quite a bit smoother.
While the 801 is afraid to run fast, its GPU seems unaffected.
As a Phone:
While maximum earpiece volume is average, the earpiece sweet spot is hard to locate because it is located too close to the edge. This also makes it uncomfortable to use. Itís form over function.
Speakerphone maximum volume is average.
RF performance is average.
Inside is a large 3000mAh battery. The Axon managed an above average 6.7 hours of Netflix playback though it trails the Moto X Play and its impressive 12.5 hrs.
The large grill on the top and bottom make it look as if the Axon has a mean set of stereo speakers. However, as it turns out, theyíre mostly there for looks. Only a few are actually used for the speakers while the rest are not functional.
Further, you can only use one at a time so thereís no stereo.
The worst thing though is that the speakers donít sound all that great. They donít have a lot of bass and theyíre not that loud.
ZTE talks up the sound on the Axon because it has a discrete (separate) DAC and ADC chips. They should have spent that money on better speakers.
When I connected my headphones (Sennheiser Momentum on-Ear), I was appalled at the sound quality. As it turns out, thatís because the Dolby sound setting was turned on. The default setting sounds like itís been tuned by a child who turned all the settings to max.
Once youíve turned the Dolby setting off, sound quality is pretty good. I did a bit of listening to it but couldnít really tell if the separate DAC and ADCís make a difference - mostly because I couldn't guarantee the source where my FLAC files were coming from.
Anyways, the Axon has a excellent sound quality plus itís quite powerful.
The Snapdragon 801 and 32GB of built-in storage are fairly generous for its price point. Ditto for the classy metal case.
However, the camera, which draws a lot of attention to itself is not up to snuff and the speakers are forgettable.
While the ZTE Axon has some high points at a reasonable price, overall itís not a well rounded package.
3.5 Howies out of 5.
- slick metal body
- 32GB of storage
- Snapdragon 801 at this price point
- separate DAC and ADC chips