ZTE Axon First Look and Photos: Great Value Stained by Not-So-Great Software

ZTE Axon First Look and Photos: Great Value Stained by Not-So-Great Software

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ZTE is back again this year with round two of their ambitious Axon series smartphone. This year’s Axon 7 brings an incredible package of specs and a great warranty with a $400 price tag. Check out our earlier look for a detailed read of the specs.

Here in the USA we are offered the 4GB RAM/64GB Storage option. ZTE says the 6GB/128GB options will come to the USA sometime this year. My Axon 7 Arrived last week and I’ve spent a little time getting to know the phone and snapped a few photos of the device (with a guest appearance of a Soft Gold OnePlus 3).

First and foremost, the packaging and presentation is terrific. There’s absolutely no indication that this is a “budget” device. This box is loaded with freebies and accessories much like what’d you expect out of an $800 phone. The Axon comes with:

  • Headphones
  • QuickCharge 3.0 charger
  • USB A to C cable
  • MicroUSB to USB C dongle
  • A (plastic) screen protector
  • A SIM removal tool

Overall, the packaging and presentation is outstanding. Well done ZTE. 

As far as the Axon itself. I’ll split my thoughts up into two categories: Hardware and Software.

Hardware


The Axon is an incredibly solid feeling phone. The phone is firm heavy and substantial. The build quality on this phone is absolutely top notch. There are no rough seams nor shortcuts here.

The front panel has a sort of “2.5D” glass with rounded edges that feels incredibly nice. Right below the display there are 3 capacitive (non-backlit…) buttons that work well enough. They can also be customized in the software if for some reason you want them the wrong way. The front speaker grills look great and flow well with the device. The buttons are firm and clicky. I really can’t say enough good about the Axon’s build quality.

Speaking of the speaker grilles, the Axon gets outrageously loud. Sound quality out of the speakers is terrific and blows away the single bottom speakers many other phones use. One of the big selling points of the Axon is the internal DAC. ZTE bills the Axon as a “Premiere HiFi Smartphone.” I make no claims to being an audiophile, but output via the headphone jack sounds and gets plenty loud.

Color Settings

Color Settings

To finish out the media experience, the Axon comes is equipped with a QHD (2560×1440) AMOLED display. Subjectively this display gets brighter than my Nexus 6P and gets just about as dim as well — further tests will determine the precise difference. ZTE has provided a few settings to control the vibrancy and color temperature of the display; I prefer colorful and warm myself.

Powering all of this is a 3,250 mAh (non-removable) battery. In the week or so I’ve been using the Axon I don’t have any battery complaints. I’ve been able to make it through a full day consistently.

Around back we have a great fingerprint reader. Accuracy is excellent and it’s easy to find. Vibration is a bit different from something like the Nexus, though. On the Axon, a successful unlock doesn’t vibrate, while a misread has the familiar “double vibrate” of a Nexus device — a better feedback setup would have been preferred.

If there is one part of the hardware package that doesn’t feel top-tier it has to be the camera. The 20MP rear camera is adequate certainly, but Android flagships have truly raised the bar recently. In bright daylight the Axon takes great photos, with less than optimal lighting however the camera struggles. But hey, we’re talking $400 here; not everything can be top notch. Then again, much of this might simply be due to sub-par software, which we’ll tackle below.

Software


When it comes to the software experience of the Axon, I’m a bit less enthusiastic. For starters, the phone just came out and is running the May 1st security patches. Leading up to release there were claims of a “stock” interface. In actuality, this is simply a theme that changes very little of the Axon’s UI, with a rather different aesthetic and iconography. In fact it’s not even that close to stock, and I have no idea how an ‘expert’ at a publication could mistake this for a Stock interface; either they need an eye check or Stock doesn’t mean anything anymore. The notification shade, settings menu, intents app chooser, and lock screen all remain “tweaked.”

I have a few issues overall with the UI experience on the Axon. For starters, the stock DPI is awful. The phone comes out of the box set to 640 DPI on a 5.5 inch QHD screen. Here ZTE is joining LG in the ridiculous decision of wasting a big beautiful display. What on earth is the point in providing a wonderful dense display and making all the UI elements cartoonishly big? Thankfully one can somewhat rectify this with a bit of ADB wizardry (adb shell wm density 560 worked well for me.) Thankfully most of the Axon’s software seems to work fine with the new (better) DPI; however this causes a few graphical glitches and does break the lock screen showing notifications, which can be a determent for many.

Speaking of the lock screen, ZTE has made it so notifications don’t show up until the user presses a bell button on the lock screen. I have absolutely no idea why an OEM would make this change. It completely defeats the purpose of a lock screen. Stock Android already has settings to hide sensitive information on the lock screen if a user so chooses. ZTE has simply made the lockscreen worse. They’re promising a toggle in a future update, but we don’t have it yet.

The Axon’s notification pull down is also changed from Stock Android. One swipe greets the user with some (customizable) quick toggles. A second swipe brings down a (quite frankly, rather ugly) full set of quick toggles including brightness. Everything here functions fine, though I wish you could hide some of these. There’s a ‘clear all’ button on the bottom right, and the bottom left has a pretty neat eyeball icon that can hide specific notifications for good.

ZTE has made some more UI tweaks to the settings menu. It’s now a two pane affair with the left pane being quick settings, and the right side being the traditional settings menu. Some specific settings areas have also been tweaked a bit. For instance, there’s no native way to display screen on time. Overall the settings menu is fine, though different. 

Two strange features that come to mind are the Mi-Pop and the the “toolkit” app. The first, is a strange floating back button. Long pressing on the button gives access to the recent apps and home button as well. The toolkit app is full of things like a ruler, a “noise test,” calculator, and protractor. I suppose this could be pretty handy but it still seems like a bizarre addition and it can’t be disabled.

Close all is too big

Close all is too big

The recent apps UI is mostly stock. ZTE has unfortunately decided to place a gigantic ‘clear all’ button right at the bottom near the capacitive buttons. Literally the only time I pressed this button was on accident and it makes for a very frustrating interaction. I really wish I could toggle this button off or at the very least it was much smaller and more obscure.

The software is also rife with obvious translations. Many UI elements and labels are very sloppily translated from Chinese and it make the experience feel less polished and badly thought out.

For our readers it’s also worth mentioning right now there is not a bootloader unlock available, even though we already have kernel sources. ZTE has mentioned on their forums and in a webinar that one is likely coming, but if that’s important to you, wait and see if it comes to fruition. In the end it might not happen, and sticking with the stock ROM without the ability to heavily modify/replace the software is not the prettiest prospect.

Summary


Overall ZTE has put together a very completing package with the Axon 7. It’s particularly attractive given the impressive $400 price point. As is usually the case with these kind of offerings, the software is one of the weakest points of the experience. Nearly every issue I have with the device could be addressed via OTAs. Whether or not those software updates (or bootloader unlock!) come remains to be seen, but I really hope ZTE is quick to address the complaints and requests for the Axon 7’s sake. It’s just too nice of a value to be left neglected, and even a mere bootloader unlock could take the hardware and the experience a long way forward. In the meantime, the Axon 7 is a solid phone that needs just a bit more attention from ZTE to be truly excellent.