Speedy Hi-Fi Metal on a Budget: ZTE Axon Quick Review

Speedy Hi-Fi Metal on a Budget: ZTE Axon Quick Review

The Axon was announced at a New York event on July 14th after plenty of mystery and rumors of a new brand: “Axon Phone.” As it turned out, Axon is a new label for ZTE’s high-end smartphone offerings. Even the Axon Website downplays their link to ZTE quite a bit.

ZTE is not the first brand that comes to mind when thinking of ‘high specced flagships,’ and the Axon itself is easily lost in a sea of Samsungs, Motorolas, OnePluses and other hype generating devices. The Axon is, however, a pretty solid device that might be worth a look.

ZTE Axon Specifications:

  • Dimensions: 153.9 x 73.7 x 9.4 mm
  • MSM8994 Snapdragon 810
  • 4GB LPDDR4
  • Weight: 172.9g
  • 32 GB of built-in storage
  • 5.5-inch 2560×1440 IPS LCD with Corning Gorilla Glass 3
  • Antimicrobial Glass
  • 13MP rear-facing camera with dual-tone LED flash
  • 2MP secondary rear camera (Dual Camera)
  • 8MP front-facing camera
  • Non-removable 3,000mAh battery
  • Bluetooth v4.0 A2DP EDR
  • Android 5.1.1 Lollipop
  • Qualcomm Quick Charge 2.0 support
  • “Hi-Fi” audio
  • $449 Retail Price

Design and Build Quality

The first impression of a device is from its packaging. The Axon has a clever little window showing the dual cameras and triangle design features.

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The rest of the packaging is standard fare, with the caveat that it arrived unsealed (and undamaged) from Amazon.

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Most of the Axon’s body itself is made of metal. There are two “end caps,” for lack of a better phrase,  on the top and bottom that are plastic. These are likely to allow RF transmission for the phone’s various antennae. The plastic ends have a noticeable difference in texture but don’t detract too much from the overall feel of the device.

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What looks like dual speaker grills are a bit misleading. Only one houses a speaker while the other houses the earpiece. Also, both of them are mostly for show with only a small cutout allowing sound to escape

The buttons are in a well thought out, common layout. There is a power key on the right, along with a camera shutter button. It’s great to see another OEM include a hardware camera key in addition to Sony.  Somewhat disappointingly, though, this is a single stage button rather than a DSLR-style dual stage key.

The left side of the device holds a volume rocker and a nano-SIM card slot – no expandable storage here.

Overall, the build quality and feel of the device is great. It’s not quite the precision and tight tolerances you’ll find on the Galaxy S6, but neither is it poor in anyway.

Performance

Subjectively, using the device is smooth and enjoyable. I rarely run into any lag or hold ups. I know this seems like a token line in most reviews, but this really does feel very “nexus-like” in terms of fluidity and speed. I don’t personally game often, so in day to day use, heat isn’t an issue either.

The 4GB of RAM feels just as great as it did on the Zenfone: apps stay in memory for a very long time. I personally want 4GB of RAM on every device I use going forward. Of course the software is a large part of the fluidity of the experience here. The 5.1.1 build present on the Axon Pro is light and close to stock.

In AnTuTu, the Axon obviously scores higher than the Snapdragon 808 equipped LG G4, but it’s pretty handily beaten by the Note 5.

Device ZTE Axon Pro Galaxy Note 5 LG G4
Antutu 64 bit Score 56185 69286 49807
Multitask Score 6574 9721 6308

CPU & System

The Axon is powered by the much maligned Snapdragon 810. Specifically, a MSM8994  with four ARM Cortex A57 cores running “up to” 2GHz, and four A53 cores clocked at 1.5 GHz. While Idling, two of the lower power cores seem to spend most of their time asleep.

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As is typical with a Snapdragon 810 device, subsequent runs of AnTuTu show a reduction in scores. In normal day-to-day “burst” usage, this is unlikely to be problematic.

Run Number 1 (17:16) 2 (17:20) 3 (17:24) 4 (17:28)
Antutu Score 56185 55136 53470 53023

The Axon seems to level out around the 53,000 range and it’s difficult to heat the device up further with just AnTuTu.

GPU and Gaming

The Snapdragon 810 comes equipped with an Adreno 430 GPU. The Adreno 430 is quite a bit more capable than the Adreno 418 that ships in the 810’s sibling, the Snapdragon 808. Basemark shows how close the Adreno comes to the Exynos’ Mali-T760.   

Device ZTE Axon Pro Galaxy Note 5 LG G4
BaseMark X Score 34080 36490 24511

During intense gaming, the Axon pro can indeed generate some heat. The mostly metal chassis dissipates the heat relatively quickly and effectively, however. The Axon never became too warm to be used or held.

Storage and Memory

One of the biggest potential drawbacks of this device is storage. The Axon Pro comes with 32GB of memory. That’s all you get – there is no microSD slot or larger storage option. While 32GB isn’t a paltry amount, it does lag behind options provided by other devices. It’s important to keep in mind that the Axon Pro is significantly cheaper than something with 64GB or more (save for the OnePlus Two).

The flash storage provided is adequate, with sequential read speeds of 208.57 MB/s and random read speeds of 19.28 MB/s. For comparisons sake, Samsung’s notoriously quick Note 5’s results are on the right. 


As expected, the 4GB of LPDDR4 RAM provided makes for a great multitasking experience. I honestly don’t think I’ve seen a single launcher redraw: a pain point with many other devices.

Display

2015 is definitely a year of big devices and pixel packed displays. The Axon doesn’t disappoint in the display department. Its packing a 5.5 inch 2560 x 1440 IPS panel. The panel itself gets plenty bright and isn’t too cool or too warm. Minimum brightness is low enough to read in pitch black without causing annoyance. Maximum brightness is enough to see what you’re doing outside in sunlight.

Below are a few comparisons of the ZTE up against the Note 5 and G4 respectively:

Overall I don’t have any complaints about the Axon’s display. It’s great to see such competent displays trickle down to lower priced devices. It’s worth noting how the Axon and Note 5 both make the G4 display look very dim.

Audio

One of the most prominent selling points of the Axon is “Hi-Fi audio” playback and recording. As part of this Hi-Fi pitch, the Axon Pro comes with some JBL in-ear headphones right in the box. The DAC present on the Axon is a 32-bit AKM AK4490 (PDF whitepaper here) with “five types of filters” and support for “Velvet Sound Technology.”

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Screenshot_2015-09-04-16-59-08While I don’t claim to be an audiophile, the sound quality through the headphone jack managed to impress and the supplied headphones are high quality, if a bit bass-heavy. It’s worth noting they also get very loud.  To supplement the included JBL earbuds there is also a “HiFi” setting for headphones. It’s not totally clear what these settings do. To my untrained ear, it just seemed like further EQ settings.

In addition to the “Headset HiFi,” the Axon Pro also ships with a competent “Dolby Audio” equalizer built in. You can choose from one of the preset EQs provided, or go nuts and put together your own custom variant. I actually prefer the flatter sound with Dolby turned off, or at least turned down.


Though the dual speaker grills are decidedly fake, the single speaker on the bottom is loud and clear, but you won’t want to use this phone as a boombox. At least, though, the speaker faces the correct way, rather than being on the back.

The Dual mics and noise-cancelling make for a good phone call experience. It can be difficult to find the proper spot to place your ear, as the actual speaker is physically small and located off center of the grill. 

Camera

In a year where Android cameras have drastically improved, it’s a bit difficult to get excited over the Axon Pro’s 13MP unit.

Below are a few sample shots taken outdoors in various lighting.


Much like the HTC M8, ZTE has equipped the backside of the Axon Pro with two cameras. The 13 MP (4096 x 3072) main shooter is bordered by a 2 MP sensor that’s used for depth mapping for artificial bokeh.

These fake bokeh shots are quite large, coming in over 13MB each usually. The results are mixed, but a couple of them actually impressed me. It can certainly provide ugly results, though, if the setup is less than ideal.

The Front camera is a serviceable 8MP sensor. Again, the story is very much the same as the main camera: It works, but it’s not great.

It seems that camera quality remains a differentiator for more expensive flagship devices. If you’re looking for the best Android camera, or even one of the top ones, you’ll want to look elsewhere.

Battery Life and Charging

The Axon Pro comes with a non-removable 3,000 mAh (or 3 Ah) battery inside the metal chassis. Also present is the very helpful QuickCharge 2.0. Charging speeds have been great, as most QC2.0 devices are. There’s no wireless charging here, so your only option is the MicroUSB port.

Battery life in day to day use has been adequate. I often end the day with over 20% remaining.

Running the device down in Geekbench (at max brightness) from 100% until shutoff gave a result of 3 hours and 28 minutes. This isn’t a great result, however the device gets very bright and I suspect that skews the test.

Software UI/UX

ZTE mostly leaves stock Android alone. Seeing as this device is sold unlocked; it’s completely unmarred by any carrier bloat. As far as I can tell, ZTE doesn’t give their UI a code name at all. What ZTE does provide is a slightly tweaked version of Android 5.1.1.

The device has capacitive buttons instead of on-screen keys. These keys are nondescript dots with a larger circle being the home key. I’m a huge fan of the ambiguous flanking keys as it allows users to decide their own button layout. ZTE even provides for this in the settings menu.

Screenshot_2015-08-02-00-47-08

Screenshot_2015-08-13-02-03-17The Notification panel is slightly tweaked from stock. Four toggles are visible on the first pull down of the shade, rather than the zero visible on a Nexus device. Pressing on the battery icon in the second notification pull down doesn’t bring you anywhere – it seems broken as the button still “presses”, while in stock Android it takes you to the battery section of settings.  Also worth noting is the odd “frosted” look of the actual notifications. This is is a strange choice that can make certain app notifications (like Slack) hard to read. This frosted look is also present on the lock screen, which for some reason only shows one notification. Remaining notifications are gathered together behind an “X more notifications” option.

Pulling down the shade again reveals all the remaining toggles. These are freely arranged by the user and the bottom four will always be visible with notifications.

 

The default launcher is a mostly barebones affair. Newly installed apps are graced with a red dot on the top of the icon – much like iOS. Folders also look very much like Apple’s folder style.

Swiping down on the homescreen brings down the notification shade. The launcher also offers the option to change transitions between pages with several animations. The widget section of the launcher is a bit easier to use than Google’s own launcher.

Swiping up from the home key brings up a bizarre yahoo sports, steps, and music “widget.”

Rooting and Development

Our own forums for the Axon are a bit paltry, with very little development thus far.

I don’t have much experience with ZTE devices, and I’m unable to get into fastboot. None of the traditional methods: adb reboot bootloader, power + volume up, power + volume down, seem to let me into the bootloader.

ZTE has been timely with releasing source code, which is something not all OEMs can claim. Check it out here: http://opensource.ztedevice.com/

Final Thoughts

A couple notable extras are worth mentioning in the Axon package. One is the 2-year warranty. An Axon Pro comes with a 2-year warranty in the USA (twice what you would normally expect) and an extended (35 days) buyer remorse period. Also included is a “premium protection plan” which provides the equivalent of third-party accidental damage protection. If you damage and Axon Pro, you’ll have to shell out only $79.99 for a claim. This insurance plan lasts 24 months after purchase. Here’s a link to the finer details of their warranty.

Overall, the Axon is a very solid Android device. I really enjoy using it and the way it feels in the hand. The software is lightly touched, and the phone itself is well made with a great display. In fact, the main issues are that it’s coming to market at a not-so-opportune time, and the camera leaves something to be desired. 

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