The Chinese phone maker is ambitiously trying to compete with the flagship manufacturers from the US and South Korea, so much so that it designed the phone outside of China – in the US.
What we end up with is the a Android Marshmallow smartphone with the polished metal design, 2K display, front-facing speakers and software customizations of a more expensive handset.
Spoiler alert: ZTE Axon 7 is not going to outclass Samsung’s top-of-the-line camera, or that more elegant Galaxy S7 Edge curved look. It’s just really, really close for the price.
Does that means it’s a reasonable candidate for TechRadar’s best phones list? I’ll continue to test it out – with a detailed ZTE Axon 7 battery life tests to come – but here’s what I found so far.
Release date and price
We’re less than a month out from the ZTE Axon 7 release date, given the fact that the Chinese launch event was May 26 and it’s estimated to be coming to the US a month later.
A UK launch for the Axon 7 is planned at a later date, and its name won’t change to Elite or anything else this time. ZTE said that it sees the value in making a global, unified push for its 2016 flagship phone.
You’ll have to buy this phone unlocked on Amazon or another retailer and pay full price. It won’t be sold at US carriers like AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon or Sprint.
And while it has enough bands to support all US phone networks, it’ll only work with AT&T and T-Mobile SIM cards for now. Verizon and Sprint compatibility is due “possibly later in the year,” resting in the hands of the two CDMA carriers to flip the switch. All of the antennas are inside – this isn’t just a GSM phone.
The good news here is that it’s packed with 64GB of internal storage and will cost $449 (about £340, AU$691). You won’t have to deal with a pesky two-year (or any) contract for that price.
There’s also a 128GB ZTE Axon 7, which includes the company’s own take on a “Force Touch” display, an always-on screen and 6GB of RAM. That makes it faster than the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, but there’s no price or availability information. We’ll have to see if that one makes it out of China.
All of this contrasts with the 32GB Samsung Galaxy S7 at $649 and 64GB iPhone 6S at $749. That 16GB iPhone is no longer acceptable for a comparison when the Axon 7 comes with 64GB as standard.
ZTE Axon 7 is the grown up version of last year’s ZTE Axon Pro thanks to its all-metal design and considerably less chunk. It’s ready to compete with Samsung, LG and Apple.
I can hold it in one hand, but with dimensions of 151.8mm x 75mm x 7.8mm and a slippery aluminum design, I found myself struggling to reach for the corners without resorting to two. Luckily, a clear silicone case is included in the box along with a earbuds and a USB-C-to-micro-USB adapter.
What ZTE did nicely on the front is it maximized the real estate for its 5.5-inch display thanks to an edge-to-edge screen and overall minimalist look. Besides the 2K display, it limits the phone face to awesome-sounding dual-front facing speakers and a small front-facing camera.
You won’t find a fingerprint-sensing home button taking up space on the front. Instead, the home button is on-screen (just like Google and LG do it), while the biometric sensor is elegantly embossed on back.
It’s easy to reach the fingerprint sensor on a phone of this size (easier than I found it to be on the taller Nexus 6P) and it’s as just fast and accurate as its top competition, likely using the same Swedish sensor supplier, Fingerprint Cards.
ZTE also resisted the temptation of stamping its logo on the front of the device, favoring the back. It creates an undeniably cleaner look all around.
So far, I’ve been able to play with the ZTE Axon 7 in an Ion Gold color, and the included earbuds take on matching gold trim. In the future, the company plans to launch a Quartz Silver color, too, but it’s not available at launch.
The ZTE Axon 7 display is 5.5 inches with a 2560 x 1440p quad HD resolution. It’s the same resolution as last year’s Axon, but different in that it’s an AMOLED display instead of an LCD.
That may not seem like a big deal at first, but the color pops more so on this screen, and it could have longer lasting battery life as a result. I’m still putting the battery through its mAh paces.
The 2K display shines brightly (even outdoors) once it’s on, but ZTE didn’t go as far as to include an always-on screen on the standard Axon 7 with 4GB of RAM, as we have seen with the Samsung Galaxy S7 and LG G5.
However, I found out that the souped-up 6GB of RAM version includes an always-lit option as well as a Force Touch display. That version isn’t available to play around with just yet.
The Axon 7 screen is really being set up to not only look good on the phone, but to support VR. Really, that’s the only reason to up displays of this size from 1080p to 2K in my opinion – when it’s that close to your face, it matters.
It also doesn’t hurt that the company put together a nice selection of wallpaper that really lets the lock screen pop – it’s scrollable and randomized by default.
I really can’t understand phone makers that stop short on presenting a vibrant set of default wallpapers when you boot up a phone (read: LG G5) for the first time. ZTE sells itself better.
A smaller, but still noteworthy display change comes in the form of Gorilla Glass 4 instead of Gorilla Glass 3. People who drop their phone will appreciate this upgrade, especially after paying full price.
The ZTE Axon 7 doesn’t just resemble a Samsung or Apple handset on the outside, the inside is also able to compete with top-of-the-line Android phone internals despite its fair price.
It has a Qualcomm 820 processor running at 2.2GHz and 4GB of RAM, matching what we’ve seen in the LG G5, HTC 10 and Samsung Galaxy S7 (well, Samsung’s US version of their phones, at least).
Then there’s that ZTE Axon 7 variant that comes with 128GB of internal storage and 6GB of RAM, easily topping the 32GB of internal space and 4GB of RAM on the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge.
The Samsung Galaxy Note 6 may have those same specs, but three months from now. The availability of the 128GB/6GB RAM version hasn’t been finalized, but we’ll keep you updated in this review.
Even without the 128GB/6GB option, there’s still a big differences between the Axon 7 and other Android phones when it comes to storage. The default 64GB of internal storage doubles its ZTE’s competitors.
Not enough space? It has expandable storage with a microSD card slot or, if you’re not using that, you can always turn the empty tray opening into a second SIM card slot thanks to dual SIM card support.
That’s right, the ZTE Axon 7 remains a dual SIM phone for the US and UK models when most manufacturers rudely change the design on Western variants. Not this time.
The option is welcomed for travelers who want to keep their main phone and texting number active while overseas, but allocate costly data to a cheaper foreign SIM, or simply use T-Mobile’s priceless international-included plan (at slower, but acceptable 2G and 3G speeds) outside of the US.
Performance has been snappy so far, and I haven’t felt it overheat compared to the Snapdragon 810 processor found inside the ZTE Axon Pro. Qualcomm did a much better job with its latest chip.
Running a series of Geekbench 3 benchmark tests, I found the Axon 7 processor speed with an Adreno 530 graphics chip and 4GB of RAM to achieve a multi-score average of 5,456.
That outperforms the chart-leading Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge by a small margin (5,342), at least in the US where Samsung’s phone also has the Snapdragon 820 processor. Everywhere else in the world, where the Samsung Exynos chip is used, ranks way better (6,500).
Whether or not the ZTE Axon with 4GB of RAM is faster is a split decision, fully dependant on where you live. But, no matter what, the benchmark tests tells me how well the phone performs under pressure.
At first, I had trouble nailing down the Geekbench-rated performance of the System-on-a-Chip because the phone launch happened in ZTE’s home country and the Google Play Store doesn’t work in China.
Don’t worry. Though Google services are hard to access in China, ZTE has a good working relationship with the search engine giant and the Axon 7 is running Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow out of the box.
The phone is poised to get Android N sooner rather than later, too. ZTE needs to upgrade to Google’s VR maintenance update when it becomes available to work with Daydream VR platform. Faster Android updates are a side benefit to VR, even if you’re not one to step into virtual reality.
Battery life and camera
The No. 1 feature consumers continue demand from new phones is better battery life, and the ZTE Axon capacity has increased beyond last year’s 3,000mAh ceiling.
It’s 3,250mAh, though I have to run more battery life tests to nail down just how well it performs in conjunction with its MiFavor 4.0 (near-stock Android) operating system overlay.
However, I’m so far pleased with the day-plus battery life I’ve been getting from the ZTE Axon 7, based on my experience with running the screen, snapping dozens of photos and pumping music through its dual-front-facing speakers regularly.
Yes, it’s battery is mightier than the Samsung Galaxy S7, but the numbers don’t tell the entire story. A lot of it has to do with the software and battery-saving mode behind a phone.
I’m also confident that the ZTE Axon 7 camera will be able to go pixel-to-pixel with phones in its price range (specifically the similarly priced Huawei-made Google Nexus 6P).
Axon 7’s 20MP camera, f/1.8 lens and optical image stabilization (OIS) put it in a class with most 2016 Android phones that give me a better picture than my iPhone 6S Plus in most scenarios.
It’s really hard to continue to carry around my iPhone when the ZTE Axon 7 takes better pictures. Both have OIS, a dual LED flash flash and live photos now.
Yes, Axon 7’s photos tend to be more saturated compared to Apple’s iSight camera, and ZTE’s 8MP front-facing camera is good, but it needs HDR to work its magic here in backlit selfie situations. But the color and contrast in rear-facing photos really jumped out at me on the 2K screen.
I’ll have to dig into the camera modes and also its video capabilities, then will pit it against the Samsung Galaxy S7, iPhone 6S Plus, LG G5 and Nexus 6P, all of which have OIS.
I liked the ZTE Axon Pro a year ago, but gave it 3.5 stars out of 5 because there was room for improvement, even with its cheaper price. ZTE listened to many of my complaints.
The Axon 7 pushes out the plastic caps at the top and bottom in favor of an all-metal unibody design. Its sleek and elegant in my hand, even if it still takes two to operate the phone. I also complained about the lack of expandable storage. The ZTE Axon not only includes a microSD card slot, it turns into a dual SIM slot if you’re not using it for its primary function.
Axon 7 is a big step up for audiophiles with Hi-Fi and front-facing speakers that sound much better than the iPhone and Androids with a single speaker grill on the back or at the bottom.
Sound is definitely a highlight of this phone, and it’s evidenced by the clean front that focuses on the 5.5-inch display and speakers while the fingerprint sensor is wisely moved to the back.
There’s still a bunch more testing to do, including proper battery, camera and benchmark tests to really challenge those promising specs. Stand by for more updates to this ongoing ZTE Axon 7 review, as the hardware and pricing become finalized for the US and UK.