ZTE Axon: A Quick Look at Specs and Strategy
ZTE is one of a number of manufacturers from across the world desperately trying to break into the US market, and today they have announced their new flagship offering, the Axon. Previous efforts from ZTE like the Grand and Grand Max have fallen within the mid to low range, with the company’s separately managed Nubia line releasing phones in a similar vein. ZTE is currently gunning for a bigger slice of the US market share, although they’ll need their new release to do very well to beat the efforts of rivals LG, HTC and Motorola.
We actually covered the Axon in a post last month, but today’s press event clears up any remaining mystery. The Axon is a large 5.5″ all metal smartphone with a fairly unique design, looking a bit like an enlarged HTC One X from head-on, and featuring industrial style triangular grilles as accents. Unfortunately the twin grilles on the front don’t feature two speakers like some would hope, with only the bottom being a front-facing loudspeaker, although that might be enough to edge out some of the competition. Whilst on the front this style creates quite a nice effect, creating uniformity, it does stick out a little on the rear between the cameras. Yes, cameras plural, as the ZTE Axon features a dual setup similar to HTC’s M8, where a 2MP camera accompanies the main 13MP shooter, apparently assisting with quick autofocus, and post shot refocusing. On the front, an 8MP front-facing camera should provide some above average pictures for those who value the selfie. All the normal tricks are present too, like 4K and slow-mo, along with an interesting ‘aperture’ control in the camera app itself, although with no specific hardware mentioned this is probably just software-based. This all looks great on paper of course, but we’re yet to test out the cameras for ourselves to judge the quality objectively, and to pit it against the competition.
Continuing with the individual design language, the Axon comes with a dedicated shutter button for quickly launching the camera app and focusing, which is a feature limited for the most part to Sony’s Xperia line and a welcomed addition. Below the display you’ll find three off-screen capacitive buttons, the middle key being a circle similar to the stock Lollipop home button, and the left and right keys manifesting themselves as small dots, appearing when the phone is used. Amazingly ZTE has made the excellent choice of matching vanilla Android’s layout with these keys, meaning that the lit dots function as Back and Recents buttons on the left and right respectively. Either the metal design conflicts with wireless charging technology or the Chinese manufacturer has decided to forego the feature, although Quick Charge 2.0 support is present and correct. The phone will be released in three colors, ‘Phthalo Blue’, ‘Ion Gold’ and ‘Chromium Silver’.
The aforementioned 5.5″ display is a 2K (1440p) affair, and from first impressions looks like a good performer, with no complaints regarding brightness, color reproduction or viewing angles. Unfortunately, the large size combined with the obvious bezels, buttons and grill arrangement make for quite a tall phone, meaning that those with smaller hands may have significant trouble reaching the notification shade, for example. This is powered by the infamous Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 clocked at 2.0GHz, which of course brings worries of overheating and will be an instant warning sign to many. On balance, this at least is the revised 2.1 version with the slightly quicker GPU also being used in the upcoming OnePlus Two, however the Sony Xperia Z4/3+ shipped with this SOC, and did still suffer from throttling so we’re not convinced yet.
Supplementing the toasty CPU is a whopping 4GB of RAM, which is fast becoming the expected amount for phones released in the latter half of 2015, and 32GB of ROM which is good to see, but there is no Micro SD Card slot which means that this storage is capped. A 3000mAh battery sits below all this hardware, meaning that battery life shouldn’t disappoint per se, but considering the size of the phone itself and the fact that the battery isn’t removable we would have like to have seen more. Lastly, the handset will be packaged along with some above average looking JBL earphones, alongside which Hi-Res audio is claimed, so the ability to play 24bit 192Khz audio files natively is present for all the good it will do.
ZTE is releasing the handset with Android 5.1.1 on board which is great to see, with their proprietary ‘Z Tray’ interface sitting on top of a relatively clean UI. The phone comes with only two additional apps, cutting down on bloatware, and a minimal style that upholds many of the Material Design elements. There are changes of course, but not many, reminding us of the direction that Sony take with the software on their flagships. ZTE has promised that they will stay committed to keeping the Axon running the latest version, directly mentioning the enthusiast market that would usually gravitate to Nexus devices, a bold but encouraging aim. It’s pricing the flagship at $449.98, which isn’t exactly cheap, but again will appeal to those that understand the hardware that they’re purchasing. In a similar direction to others who aren’t as well known in the US, ZTE won’t be selling the Axon through any carriers, but instead will be offering the device unlocked through their website, or through alternatives like Newegg and Amazon, and it should be noted that AT&T and T-Mobile’s LTE networks are the only two that are advertised to be compatible.
At the moment, ZTE is one of the few companies that market directly to the US, although this hasn’t stopped competition for market share stepping up hugely over the previous year. In terms of those that are wholly or partly Chinese, the numbers globally aren’t all that different from what you see in America. Combining Lenovo (and Motorola), Xiaomi, ZTE, TCL-Alcatel, Oppo and OnePlus accounts for 26% of all smartphone shipments across the world, and a staggering 19.6% in the USA alone, which considering how well known the remaining brands are is quite the achievement. With this announcement, ZTE will be looking to secure themselves a position in this highly competitive market early, and attempting to beat Xiaomi and Huawei to the punch before those larger names begin selling directly to US stores and carriers.
This will be a decisive move from the Chinese manufacturer; the Axon is certainly a compelling device, and one that could do very well if it is noticed by enough people. Unfortunately, marketing is where ZTE will inevitably fall short, as with its current expenditure it will not be able to complete with more established brands, and selling the smartphone outside of the US carriers will increase its potential obscurity. However, ZTE claims that this move means that it can put more money into the design of their devices, and in that sense they are competing with some of the best handsets out there. The Axon is built in the US, and aimed squarely at that demographic with a two-year manufacturers warranty coming as standard on purchase, which definitely eliminates some of the apprehension that buyers can face when buying outside of a contract. This also puts them in direct competition with those offering devices to American consumers in the same manner, like Alcatel’s OneTouch range.
So, do you think ZTE has done enough with the Axon?