The Axon Pro was a respectable first attempt at a flagship-caliber, budget-friendly smartphone. But it ultimately had issues with overheating and wound up being forgettable.
After using the Axon 7 for a week, it’s apparent ZTE took the lessons learned from the Axon Pro and applied them here. For a $399 unlocked phone, the Axon 7 punches way above its weight class and easily competes with phones that cost almost twice as much.
Slight refinements over the Axon Pro
The Axon 7 carries over the same metal housing of the Axon Pro, with minor tweaks here and there. Gone is the gimmicky dual-camera system on the back, which ZTE replaced with a fingerprint sensor below the rear-facing camera.
Sandwiching the screen are the same two speaker grills, but the front-facing camera breaking up the top speaker. ZTE shrunk the Axon 7 just a tad, making it shorter and a bit thinner when compared to last year’s model. That’s a good thing, as our review found the Pro to be far too tall for one-handed use.
In fact, the Axon 7 is slightly smaller than the OnePlus 3 despite both devices having the same 5.5-inch display. Speaking of the screen, the AMOLED display on the Axon 7 is a looker. Colors are bright and vivid without being oversaturated.
An Android skin that stays out of the way
The Axon 7 runs Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow, with ZTE’s MiFavor UI 4.0 Android skin. As we’ve seen other Android makers do over the past few years, ZTE has taken a very light approach to the scope of tweaks and customization.
For example, there’s a nifty wallpaper feature that changes your lock screen images every time you wake the device. You can even swipe through images on your lock screen should you get bored.
One aspect of the lock screen I didn’t like at first but grew fond of was that notifications aren’t prominently displayed at all times. Instead, you have to tap on a notification icon to display alerts on your lock screen. It’s an extra step, and an annoying one to adjust to, but at the end of the day you gain some privacy and an unobstructed view of the lock screen images.
Because the Axon 7 is unlocked to work with AT&T and T-Mobile’s networks, ZTE doesn’t have to bend to carrier demands and overload the phone with crapware. Meaning, you can expect only a few system apps pre-installed outside of Google’s standard affair, but nothing like an AT&T or Verizon phone loaded with everything from VZ Navigator (seriously, how is that still a thing?) or a DirectTV remote app.
Another appreciated option ZTE implemented is the ability to change what the soft keys on either side of the home button do when touched. Prefer to have the back button on the right side of the home button, like on Samsung’s Galaxy line? Or would you rather have the recent app button there? Well, you can set it to do that too. Overall, ZTE’s approach to software on the Axon 7 is to get out of Android's way.
Fast and reliable, but one gripe
Inside the Axon 7 is Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 820 processor, 4GB of memory, 64GB of storage, with microSD support up to 128GB and a 3,250 mAh battery. These specs parlay into a device that runs fast, with little if any performance issues. Battery life was more than enough to get through a day of use. Granted, it’s not going to last through an all-day sesh of Pokémon Go, but I don’t know of a single device that would.
Equipped with Quick Charge 3.0, you can go from a complete dead battery to 50 percent in around 30 minutes.
On a few occasions, I caught the phone in the midst of rebooting while sitting on my desk. It’s hard to say what caused the sporadic restarts. It could have been an app I installed, or something with the device itself. Though I do have the same exact set of apps installed on over a dozen Android devices right now and don't have this issue.
Outside of the random reboot, my biggest complaint about the device's overall performance is related to the fingerprint sensor waking and unlocking the phone. This isn’t even really a performance issue, but more of a user experience dilemma. (At first I thought it was a performance hiccup.)
As with the 2015 crop of Nexus devices, you can place your finger on the Axon 7’s fingerprint sensor to simultaneously wake and unlock the device. Most of the time this occurs without issue. But when the Axon 7 doesn’t recognize your finger there’s a short vibration and nothing else happens. The screen remains dark and fails to provide any more information as to what the vibration meant. At first I assumed the device was unlocking, but the display wasn't properly lighting up.
To clear up any confusion, it would be nice to have an error message on the display to let you know what is going on. Mind you, the Nexus 6P vibrates once when it successfully reads your fingerprint and twice when it doesn’t.
The dual-lens setup on the Axon Pro was nothing more than a cheap parlor trick for adding depth-of-field to a picture. Thankfully, ZTE realized this and did away with it for the Axon 7.
Now you’ll find a single, 20-megapixel camera on the back and an 8-megapixel front-facing camera. Video capabilities include 4K recording. There are several shooting modes built into the camera app, each one designed for a different setting including sports, slow motion, and panoramas.
Overall, the camera snaps crisp photos in outdoor settings where there’s adequate light. In low-light scenarios, auto-focus takes a bit more time to sharpen and photos come out a bit on the grainy side.
Those interested in using Google’s forthcoming virtual reality platform Daydream will be happy to know the Axon 7 is ready for it. While that means little to users today, it will prove beneficial later this year when Google releases Android 7.0 Nougat and its Daydream headset.
Of course, that means ZTE will need to update the Axon 7 to Nougat shortly after Google makes it official.
$400 well invested
Just a few weeks ago, OnePlus made a big splash with the OnePlus 3, and it was well deserved. The OnePlus 3 is a solid phone and well worth the $400 price tag.
And so is the Axon 7. Actually, it beats the OnePlus 3 in terms of screen quality, megapixel count, and Daydreaminess. At this price, you get a fast phone that takes sharp photos and is ready to turn into a VR machine when the time comes. At the end of the day, you can’t go wrong with the Axon 7 or the OnePlus 3 if you’re shopping for an unlocked device on a budget.
ZTE Axon 7
Budget-friendly • Flagship caliber • Solid battery life • Sharp screen
Lockscreen navigation needs refining • Camera speed suffers in low-light
The Bottom Line
ZTEs Axon 7 offers top-of-the line features for a lot less than Samsung’s best offering.