ZTE Axon 7 review: Outstanding with a few faults
ZTE is making waves this year by pushing out a phone most Android enthusiasts crave, at least on paper. For the increasingly common and competitive $400 price, the Axon 7 offers a stylish metal unibody, QHD AMOLED screen, dual-front facing speakers, a rear fingerprint sensor and the latest Snapdragon 820 chip with 4GB of RAM. Oh, and you’ll be getting 64 GB of storage too. However there’s some serious competition in the field for the same price or less. Let’s find out if this phone deserves your money.
As soon as you hold the Axon 7, you’ll notice its heavier than just about every flagship phone today. This can be credited to the all metal body and the larger 3250 battery, but there are other phones with similar features that weigh noticeably lighter. To most people, the slightly heavier weight may not matter, but I did find it uncomfortable to hold horizontally for awhile while watching Netflix in bed with the phone or a lot of YouTube videos as it added a strain on my wrist when holding with one hand.
Heaviness aside, this feels like a truly premium phone. The aluminum body is smooth all over with no sharp edges on the sides or bottom, and it’s curved just right on the back to fit in the palm nicely.
I’m impressed that ZTE was able to keep this phone so compact. For a 5.5 inch phone with a decently sized battery and front facing speakers, this phone is still shorter than the 5.5 inch OnePlus 3. The phones shares the very common top and bottom antenna line like many other metal devices today, and I’ve found reception to be more than acceptable where I’m located in Athens, Ohio using AT&T LTE. WiFi speeds have been very fast, however I’ve noticed it takes a little longer to connect to my house and school WiFi than other smartphones I’ve tested recently.
The fingerprint sensor is located on the back of the device which will be a hit or miss to all of you. After using this and the Nexus 6P, I’ve easily gotten use to having my index finger on the sensor as I’m pulling the device out of my pocket, waking up the screen as soon as I look at it. The sensor used on the Axon 7 is very fast, and I would place it between the Nexus 6P and OnePlus 3 (the 3 being the fastest I’ve used).
My biggest complain about the phone’s build is the capacity navigation keys at the bottom. From left to right, these act as the back, home, and recent buttons. I suppose I like how minimal they look, but they are took close together and it makes it difficult accurately tap them. I really wish ZTE allowed us to toggle software navigation keys, because these aren’t even back-lit, making them impossible to see at night.
ZTE knew exactly what a hardcore Android enthusiast wanted here and placed two front-facing speakers on the phone backed up by Dolby Audio. I was really impressed with the sound that was coming out of these. Dolby Surround is on by default with this device, but you can toggle it in the quick settings to hear the difference. Turning Dolby on while playing out the speakers provided a much more area effect to the audio, which was very apparent in videos and movies. When Dolby is off, movies and music sound a bit louder actually, but lose the surrounding effect and clarity. I always kept Dolby on.
Overall though, I found these speakers to be very clear, but not as loud as some phones I’ve listened to. The Alcatel Idol 4S takes the cake as having the best phone speakers I’ve ever heard.
The Axon 7 gives us the same panel used on the Samsung Galaxy S6, which is a damn good screen. Samsung has yet to sell its latest generation of AMOLED panels to other companies, so this screen as good as AMOLED screens get except for the newest Galaxy S7 phones.
With the 1440×2560 QHD resolution, I could not see any pixels even if I squinted close up. The phone got very bright, but in direct sunlight I did have some trouble seeing smaller text and overall detail. It’s not on par with Samsung’s ability to “overdrive” their displays in sunlight.
Regardless, this screen can easily be featured as the highlight of this phone for how great the colors are and how crisp everything is. However going back on fourth between this phone and my OnePlus 3 daily driver, I can notice the improved clarity of the QHD panel closer to my face, but I’m still completely satisfied with 1080p screens and am not sure is QHD is worth the cost yet. Still, these two phones are the same price, so if the higher resolution is really worth it to you, you’ll be glad to know this screen is noticeably better.
ZTE is giving us almost the best the market can offer with the Axon 7 in terms of performance. The Snapdragon 820 chip coupled with 4GB of RAM offers a quick and pleasant Android experience, but isn’t perfect.
Because most high-end Android phones offer near identical performance, the best way to rate the Axon 7’s performance is to compare it with the other big hitters this year, as I have used several of them.
After using the Galaxy S7 Active, Idol 4S, OnePlus 3, HTC 10, and for a limited time, LG G5, I can say the multitasking is slightly worse on the Axon 7, as apps take slightly longer to hop back into even when it’s still in memory. I also ran into a few hiccups during my time of use where I tried to go back into an app I just used to see it had closed and needed to reopen. While the Snapdragon 820 chip is plenty fast enough to open apps in 1-2 seconds, there is no excuse as to why an app so recently used should have closed down. Like I said though, this only happened a few times.
Small problems aside, this phone just doesn’t offer a jaw dropping fast experience as I had witnessed when first using the HTC 10 and OnePlus 3. It’s fast, don’t get me wrong, but not the fastest by a long shot.
In daylight, the Axon 7 takes some amazing photos. With the 20 megapixel rear-shooter, I loved being able to zoom into photos more than other phones I’ve used this year. Colors and brightness all looked great during the day, and detail was very crisp.
Starting with a few shots I grabbed in glorious Gatlinburg, the detail in these are very impressive in large part due to the optical image stabilization in the camera helping balance pictures being taken. Usually the sun is over exposed in pictures like these taken with smartphone cameras but this one was incredibly well balanced as the trees still held a lot of detail.
The phone’s camera does struggle at night, much more than other high-end phones I’ve used. When capturing our school’s library at night, the lights are easily seen, but not much else even with HDR mode enabled. Detail on the townhouses shown above aren’t very impressive either, and the lights are way overexposed.
After using the phone for about a month, I’ve always felt comfortable that the phone would last me a whole day. My current schedule includes unplugging the phone at 8:30 a.m. and making till about midnight when I go to sleep with about 15% or slightly less left.
My daily phone agenda involves using GroupMe about all day (I think I’m ready for college to be over), about 15-20 minutes of Snapchat use, occasional SMS texting, heavy Reddit use, about an hour of Netflix and YouTube combined, constant Gmail syncing and a few other apps. About 80% of my day I’m connected to WiFi and the rest I’m on LTE. I don’t usually play games on my phone so I’m using the Axon 7 as I would my daily driver.
I rank the Axon 7 slightly lower than the OnePlus 3 which would rarely reach less than 20% by the end of the day for me, and lower than the Idol 4S (also a $399 phone) which got me the best battery life out of either of these devices. However this phone is still a really solid performer and if it does need a quick sip, Qualcomm Quick-Charge allowed me to charge the phone 0% to 54% in 30 minutes.
This is the first ZTE device I’ve ever reviewed, so I was nervous about their software experience. They’ve clearly tuned things quite a bit from previous devices, as the software strongly resembles stock Android with small cosmetic changes. I actually really like the shade of dark blue that carries throughout the system UI – much more than stock Android. Also the way the pull-down notification bar and quick settings change color with the wallpaper is a really nice touch.
On to the functional side of things, ZTE made the default homescreen launcher their “Stock Android” launcher, a quick and fluid homescreen that includes an app drawer and similar aspects of the Google Now Launcher, except for the actual integration of Google Now. ZTE included another launcher that you can switch to in your settings menu, but I couldn’t stand it as it was just an attempt to mirror iOS. Both of these launchers were pretty basic and lacked customization, so I downloaded a different launcher.
ZTE’s settings menu includes two columns. One for quick access to common categories of the phone, and the other is about the same as stock Android. As part of habit, I always swiped left to get to the normal “All settings” view.
One of the stand-out features ZTE included with the Axon 7 is Mi-POP, a software navigation button and can be dragged around your screen in case you don’t want to use the capacity keys. I liked this feature, and used it for a bit without problems, but I hate having clutter on my screen and eventually disabled it, even if it meant having to use the capacitive keys more.
ZTE allows for a decent amount of customization, at least compared to stock Android, and I always like being able to change the color profile of my display. The three options for the color mode include natural (the dullest, looks more like and LCD panel), normal, and vibrant. Vibrant was a bit too saturated for my eyes so I stuck with normal and really liked it.
My biggest grip with the software by far is the lockscreen, and the way the phone displays notifications. Or should I say hides them? For some reason, the folks at ZTE thought it was a good idea to hide your notifications and only allow you to see them if you tap a small bell icon. I couldn’t begin to provide a solid explanation as to why that would be a good idea. There are phones that can show you notifications without even turning the screen on (thank you, moto). If they don’t do that, you might be able to double tap the screen to see your lockscreen notifications. Pretty convenient if the phone is laying on its back. With the Axon 7, there is no hand wave gesture and no double-tap. I have to press the power button, then tap a small icon on the top left just to see who called me or texted me.
Sure, this is first-world problems, but the worst part is you can’t disable it. Not even after a couple software updates. Sorry ZTE, but just about every other phone offers a better way of doing this.
While there are some notable downsides to having this phone, such as the poor low-light camera, occasional performance stutter, the frustrating “feature” of hiding notifications from you on your lockscreen, and the lackluster navigation keys, ZTE has seriously stepped their game up this year and is offering a flagship phone that I almost wanted to purchase myself.
The all-metal build that carries over to the front-facing speakers has caught more than a few eyes when using in public, and the screen of this phone is a thing of sheer beauty. I can confidently say these are the second best speakers I’ve ever heard on a smartphone and I’ll definitely miss having those. Playing Fallout Shelter and Monument Valley provided the best gaming I’ve experienced on a phone, and to the average user, every day usage is going to feel very fluid. This is a phone that looks excellent on paper, and for the most part is. However some software adjustments are needed before I can recommend this phone over some of the other competition in this price range.