Hands-on with the ZTE Axon M – A Compelling Modern Dual Screen Smartphone

Hands-on with the ZTE Axon M – A Compelling Modern Dual Screen Smartphone

In 2017, smartphone companies have had to implement all sorts of gimmicks to differentiate their products. There’s the HTC U11 with its squeeze gimmick, the LG V30 with its floating bar gimmick, and the Huawei Mate 10 Lite with quad cameras just to name a few. Some of you may disagree with me labeling these features as gimmicks—and you’re right. The overuse of the word gimmick to describe new features has made us cynical towards anything new a company might unveil. I went in to the ZTE Axon M unveiling 2 days back expecting a gimmick, but left with an appreciation for the dual screen smartphone concept. This is my hands-on preview of the ZTE Axon M.

ZTE Axon M
Display 2 x 5.2″ @ 1920×1080.  (6.75″ 1920×2160 “single screen” when unfolded). Gorrilla Glass 5.
Size & Weight 150.8 x 71.6 x 12.1mm, 230g
SoC Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 (2x Kryo @ 1.996 GHz + 2x Kryo HP @ 2.15GHz), Adreno 530 GPU
RAM 4GB
Battery 3,180 mAh with Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0
Internal Storage 64GB
MicroSD Slot Yes (up to 256GB)
SIM size Nano SIM
Connectivity Bluetooth: 4.2

USB: 2.0 Type-C

VoLTE

Camera Photo: Single 20MP f/1.8 aperture, PDAF, dual-image stabilization, dual LED flash.

Video: Up to 4k @30fps. Slow motion: 720p @ 120/240fps

3.5mm Headphone Jack Yes
Audio Dual speakers. Dolby Atmos audio codecs. AKM 4962 Hifi chipset.
Fingerprint Scanner Yes (integrated into power button)
Software Android Nougat 7.1.2 with October security patch and Linux kernel version 3.18.31
Price ~$725
Availability U.S: AT&T ($24.17/month on AT&T Next) this Holiday 2017

Japan: NTT Docomo

China: China Telecom and JD.com in Q1 2018

Europe: Q1 2018

Design

The ZTE Axon M is undoubtedly thicker than most other flagship smartphones on the market, but that doesn’t mean it’s too thick or heavy to be held comfortably. On the contrary, I found it pretty easy to hold in one hand (in its folded state) with my only complaint being that you have to grip the second screen while doing so.

If you were thinking this device would fold and unfold like the Nintendo DS, then you were mistaken. The dual screens don’t fold on top of each other like the DS because that would prevent use of the sole camera on the device.

That’s right, there’s only a single camera here which sounds obvious once you stop to think about it, but may take a few seconds to initially wrap your head around. The camera is affixed to the front of the primary display panel of the phone (where all of the other internals are located). There’s no “rear” or “front-facing” camera distinction to be had—you simply flip the phone to see the viewfinder on the primary screen when taking selfies and on the secondary screen when taking regular photos.

Speaking of flipping the phone, there’s a pretty sturdy hinge that connects the two display panels. ZTE told us that the cable connecting the two display panels (located within the hinge) can withstand 20,000 folds and unfolds of the hinge before the cable starts to wear down. They estimate that the average consumer will be able to use the phone for 3 years before experiencing any issues.

On to the buttons: they’re all located on the left side of the primary screen, opposite the hinge. You have your standard volume up/down button, a power button with an integrated fingerprint sensor, and an additional “quick launch” button that can either open the camera when double-tapped or start TV Mode/launch an app when long-pressed.

At the top, you’ll find a 3.5mm headphone jack. We live in a world where this is now considered a feature, hence why it’s bolded here. Finally at the bottom you’ll find the dual speakers and a USB 2.0 Type-C port that supports fast charging via Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0.

Displays

While each 5.2″ 1080p TFT LCD may not stand up in terms of quality to other display panels on other flagship smartphones, the Axon M makes up for this when considering the functionality that the combined 6.75″ 1920×2160 display brings. Of course, that combined resolution isn’t contiguous due to the hinge separating the two panels. In my opinion, though, the hinge is something you grow to overlook once you get used to the phone, much like owners of the Essential phone state ignore its camera cutout up top.

According to AIDA64, each display panel is a model “zteTruly_td4322″ so it seems to be an in-house panel. The pixel density is 428 dpi (recognized as xxhdpi). What’s most interesting is that, when unfolded, the Android system truly sees the two displays as one. To apps, the unfolded ZTE Axon M is seen as a 6.75″ tablet with a resolution of 1920×2160 while the folded Axon M is seen as a 5.2” smartphone with a resolution of 1920×1080.

In case you’re interested in the full hardware specifications, here is the breakdown from AIDA64:

AIDA64
AIDA64
Developer: FinalWire Ltd
Price: Free+

Performance

Due to the fact that my time with the ZTE Axon M was limited at the launch event, I can’t proclaim that it has excellent performance just yet. That will have to wait for a full review from us before we can really evaluate the Axon M on its performance.

But in the limited time I did spend with the device, it performed admirably. The most stress you can put the device’s hardware under is in its “Dual Mode” where two applications run simultaneously, one on each display. I didn’t have any issue watching a video on one screen while browsing the web on the other, or using the Maps application while reading the forums with XDA Labs. I wouldn’t expect the Axon M to fail these kinds of tasks—that’s exactly what it was built for, after all.

I’ll have to stress test the device to make sure it really can handle dual screen applications of all kinds, but given that it has last year’s Qualcomm Snapdragon 821 (while not the latest and greatest, still performs incredibly well) and 4GBs of RAM I’m confident that it will hold up to these tasks. The reason I’m confident is because the software on the ZTE Axon M is surprisingly light, which otherwise could have contributed to poor UI performance like it did with the ill-fated Samsung Galaxy Note 7.

Dual Screen Modes and Settings

The phone can be used in a single screen view (what ZTE calls “Traditional Mode“). This is basically using the primary 5.2” screen just like any regular smartphone, though the existence of the second screen and the foldable design means you can fold the phone into a tent mode to hold it up on a table.

There are three other modes that the ZTE Axon M can be used in: Extended ModeDual Mode, and Mirror Mode. With Extended Mode, a single application is displayed across both screens to fill up an entire 6.75″ 1920×2160 screen area. In Dual Mode, you can run two different activities on two different screens. In Mirror Mode, the same app is mirrored across both displays.

ZTE actually did a live demonstration of each mode on stage. You can watch the demonstration starting here, but we’ll summarize our thoughts on each below.

Dual Mode

Dual Mode will probably be the most used screen mode on the ZTE Axon M because it opens up a lot of multi-tasking capabilities that aren’t feasible on a traditional single screen smartphone. Think about scenarios where you would want to use Android Nougat’s native split-screen functionality. Now think about how little screen real estate you have to work with when you actually try to run two apps at the same time on a single screen Android smartphone. The Axon M in Dual Mode makes Nougat’s split-screen feature actually usable.

I can already imagine a few scenarios that I would personally find Dual Mode fairly enjoyable. For instance, I could watch two Twitch streams at once, browse for hotel information with Trivago while looking up its location with Maps, or watch a video while browsing Reddit. What helps is that the navigation bar is only present in the last screen that was tapped, so it’s only there where it’s needed.

What’s not so great about Dual Mode is trying to type on one screen when the phone is upright, because the keyboard app in Dual Mode will only show up on one screen causing the other screen to impede your typing if you’re holding the phone. There’s a technical reason why ZTE can’t simply stretch a keyboard across both screens in Dual Mode, though we still think this limitation is unfortunate.

Extended Mode

This is the next most useful feature in my mind. Here, the device acts as a single 6.75″ Android tablet so that apps can draw across both displays. Some applications that are specifically optimized for Extended Mode, like the YouTube application, make perfect use of the display by splitting parts of its UI where it makes sense.

For instance, with the YouTube app videos play on one screen while the description and comments are shown on the other. ZTE states that 100 of the top apps on the Play Store have already been optimized for Extended Mode, with more to come. From what I’ve seen of the developer documentation, it’s actually fairly easy to optimize for the ZTE Axon M—though more on that in a future article.

In case you come across an app that the system tells you isn’t optimized, there’s a setting located under Display Settings which forces all apps to work in Extended Mode.

The one annoying aspect of Extended Mode is right in the middle around the hinge. If you’re trying to select something near the middle, half of it might show up in one screen while the other half might show up on the other. For example, the cut/copy/paste context menu did this for me on a few occasions. All you would have to do to get around this is to just scroll a bit up or down, though, so it’s not that big of a deal. It’s still a limitation to be aware of, though.

Mirror Mode

By far the least useful of the different modes on the ZTE Axon M, Mirror Mode just shows the same thing on both displays. I honestly can’t think of a really good reason why one would use this mode outside of a handful of games, so I think ZTE just added this mode in to cover all of their bases.

ZTE Axon M Mirror Mode

Mirror Mode

Dual Screen Settings

Switching between each of the different dual screen modes can be easily done through the special navigation bar key that is always present. The button’s icon is simply an “M” that when tapped, shows 4 icons representing the 4 different dual screen modes.

ZTE Axon M Mode Switcher

There are also a few gestures to note. First, you can swipe left or right on the navigation bar to switch between screen modes. Next, there’s a gesture where you swipe across screens with 3 fingers to move one app to the other screen in Dual Mode. Lastly, there’s also a 3 finger screenshot gesture that isn’t directly related to any the screen modes, but it certainly beats having to reach for the power button and volume down key on this phone!

ZTE Axon M Gestures

Other Settings

The software skin on the ZTE Axon M is surprisingly light. I haven’t really seen any features that I would say are unnecessary besides the preloaded AT&T applications (which we know how to get rid of without root).

To start off with, there are only 3 additional submenus added to the settings screen on top of the AOSP ones—TV Mode, Quick Launch button, and Gestures. The rest of the Axon M-specific options are tucked away in the settings area they make the most sense in.

“TV Mode” is basically just launching a specific video app such as DIRECTV NOW. I’m not even sure what’s special about “TV Mode” as I haven’t had time to really test it. Plus, ZTE hasn’t advertised or talked about it at all so I’ll have to wait until I get a review unit to see what the big deal is.

The Quick Launch button settings allow you to launch TV Mode or any other app of your choosing. That’s pretty much it. I’m not sure if the Quick Launch button can be remapped to do anything else, but that’s something that will need to be tested.

Night Light from the first generation Google Pixel is there, and it functions identically to it. There are also a few “themes” such as the stock theme, a sports theme, and a theme based on ZTE’s older Mifavor skin. I wish there was more to pick from or even a theme store, but given ZTE’s promise for a quick update to Android Oreo I would probably just hold out until Oreo arrives so you can take advantage of its native theme support.

Camera

I couldn’t test the camera quality at the event, but I’m not the greatest photographer anyways so I wouldn’t be the best to judge the Axon M on its picture-taking prowess. I did grab a bunch of screenshots of the camera app itself in case you are wondering what features it has.

The camera app has all of the features you would expect in a decent camera app such as manual mode with controls for shutter speed, ISO, exposure, white balance, and focus. There are the more gimmicky features such as filters and other effects, too. There’s a “LIVE photo” option which presumably operates similarly to the Motion Photo feature in the Google Pixel 2. You can browse through the screenshots above to get a sense of what else is available.

Accessories

We were able to get a brief look at some of the accessories that ZTE will be offering when they release the Axon M. First, due to the unusual nature of this phone, you won’t find traditional cases available for it. Instead, you’ll need to use some kind of pouch case like the ones that ZTE will be offering.

These pouch cases grip the phone really well so it won’t fall out, but also allow for easy access to the phone when you squeeze the sides to loosen up the top. Then, you just pull the phone out by gripping the phone at the cutout up top.

The more interesting accessory is the Axon M backpack made in collaboration with TYLT. The backpack comes with an additional zipper bag that contains a 20,100 mAh battery pack with a USB Type-A Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 output, a USB Type-C output with USB-PD, and another USB Type-A output for standard charging. The bag also contains the appropriate charging cables for use with each port. Charging the actual battery pack itself can be done with the Type-A or Type-C inputs.

We don’t have any pricing or availability information on either the cases or the backpack yet, but we should hopefully learn more information soon.

Conclusion

Without testing the device’s long-term performance or battery life, we can’t say for sure if the device is worth buying. Furthermore, the phone’s AT&T exclusivity in the U.S. and high price makes buying it a tough pill to swallow since you would be investing in a smartphone concept that has failed in the past. The phone will be sold in Japan, China, and Europe as well, though, so maybe this phone will take off in at least one market.

But without a doubt, ZTE is the first manufacturer to actually pull off the dual screen concept. The software just works and there are definitely legitimate use cases for the device’s screen modes (some more than others). ZTE has proven that dual screens should be treated as more than just a gimmick, though whether or not we can consider the Axon M to be the flag-bearer of dual screen smartphones is still up in the air until we perform a full review.

Android is finally ready to support dual screens, but is the market ready for it? We’ll find out when the smartphone actually launches.

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