ZTE Axon 9 Pro hands-on: A very pleasant surprise
The other day, ZTE announced its comeback at IFA 2018 in Berlin, announcing that it has fully recovered from the aftereffects imposed by the US ban and is ready to boldly look ahead at the future.
To further show that it is ready to evolve as a company and a business entity, ZTE unraveled its brand new flagship device at the major trade show, the ZTE Axon 9 Pro, which feels like a step in the right direction, a device that ZTE really needed to add to its portfolio at this exact moment.
We had the pleasure of toying with the Axon 9 Pro for a while, and we are ready to share our impressions of this device.
Let's get the obvious stuff out of the way first - the Axon 9 Pro doesn't exactly grab the attention with a terribly original design. Its glass body with metal frame and an iPhone X-like notch are such a direct homage to Apple's 2017 flagship that you'd be forgiven for mistaking the Axon 9 Pro for an iPhone X, provided that you don't look pretty much into the way thicker bottom chin of ZTE's new flagship.
Yet, we find it hard to criticize ZTE for the Axon 9 Pro's design - in an age where almost each and every Android manufacturers imitates the iPhone X, some better than others admittedly, ZTE did a pretty good job of designing its new flagship. All flaws of glass phones apply here as well - the phone attracts fingerprints and smudges like crazy, but at least offers more than enough grip. The relatively lightweight body further adds up to the ease of use - the phone looks much heaver than it actually is, which is great given the fact that it's loaded with a large battery and tons of excellent specs.
Overall, the ZTE Axon 9 Pro feels very good in hand - despite donning a 6.2-display, the phone has pretty adequate dimensions and a very high screen-to-body ratio. Sure, you have to stretch your thumb to reach the notification shade, but honestly, which phones don't these days? The water-resistance and the stereo speakers are definitely two very welcome features that further make the Axon 9 Pro a very likable device. Overall, the new Axon gets cautious thumbs up.
A 6.20inch AMOLED display? Color us interested! Oh, and it's not exorbitantly cold but is actually pleasantly warm? Great!
At first sight, at least, it appears that ZTE has done a good job at calibrating the display of its latest AMOLED phone, which is a pleasant surprise. We've slowly grown accustomed to phones that come with inaccurate displays that aren't very pleasing to look at, but this doesn't seem to be the case here. The reason for that is the notch, which houses an RGB sensor that automatically adapts the Axon's display hues in accordance to the ambient light, which is a super-cool feature to have.
The most important thing about the Axon 9 Pro's display? Well, ZTE has employed a co-processor that upscales movie content all the way up to 60fps, and reportedly helps eliminate rolling shutter artifacts and the such from video content. However, it could potentially introduce the unwanted and very annoying "soap opera" effect.
Credit where it's due, ZTE hasn't skimped on the hardware that made it inside the Axon 9 Pro. We get a Snapdragon 845 chipset aided by 6GB of fast LPDDR4X RAM and 128GB of storage, as well as a pretty sizeable 4,000mAh battery in the trunk. Quick-charging is also on board, and wireless Qi charging is also included. That's a hardware setup that's very similar to Samsung's fresh Note 9, and naturally, it makes the Axon 9 Pro crunch through apps and intensive tasks so easy that it's silly. Part of this is due to the speedy internals, but the super lightweight Android interface definitely helps.
Save for a few features and functionalities included here and there, the phone runs a nearly vanilla version of Android, which is usually beneficial to the overall productivity. Although ZTE did not boast any excessive superlatives about the performance of its new flagship during its announcement, this thing flies, and for the brief part I had it in my hands it hardly ever exhibited any noticeable performance issues.
Admittedly, ZTE hasn't pioneered any noteworthy new camera tech for the Axon 9 Pro to woo the world, but this isn't necessarily a bad thing. For all intents and purposes, the device looks like it wouldn't disappoint in the camera area - it has a dual camera, with the main one comprising a 12MP Sony IMX363 sensor with a large aperture of f/1.75 and optical image stabilization, whereas the secondary camera is a 20MP one with a 130-degree field of view.
Meanwhile, a 20MP camera would take care of selfies, but what's more important here is that the phone has Face ID functionality, which enables for fast unlocking of the device. Just like most contemporary phone out there, this one has a portrait mode as well.
ZTE has proved it really values high-quality audio, and the Axon lineup has long-lasting traditions on the audio field. The Axon 9 Pro doesn't have a 3.5mm audio jack, but it has something better - stereo speakers. Thanks to the preloaded Dolby Atmos app, users can customize the sound experience by enabling various features and messing with different equalizers. While I can't truly attest to the hi-fi capabilities of the Axon 9 Pro, I can say one thing for certain - that phone can get really LOUD. While that's not necessarily a good thing, it hints that the device has lots of audio potential under the hood.
Interface and functionality
Shipping with Android Oreo, the Axon 9 Pro comes with a relatively lightweight stock Android interface and a slew of ZTE specific apps that aim to improve the experience. Aside from the various audio-related settings that are great to have, the company has also thrown in a dedicated Face ID functionality and other not-so-revolutionary changes to the interface. Overall, lovers of stock Android should feel right at home with this device. However, we feel like a bit of personality would have worked wonders for the interface, as it lacks identity in its current state.
Price, availability, and expectations
Despite that the company declined to comment on the availability of the Axon 9 Pro on specific markets, the US one included, it's safe to say the phone won't arrive on US soil, at least legally. However, the phone seems to be headed to the shelves in Germany, where it would carry an EUR649 price tag, which sounds like an okay price for what you'll be getting.
We reckon many other European markets will be getting a fair share of ZTE Axon 9 Pro action in the coming months.
Devices with a similar hardware are usually top tier and sell for much more, the Note 9 being a prime example for that. Of course, you can't really compare the feature-laden Note 9 with the Axon 9 Pro, but in the end of the day, you will be getting similar performance from both.
All in all, the Axon 9 Pro is a surprisingly fresh phone that aims to offer a lot at an adequate price. Surely, at first sight we can highlight a few caveats, namely the interface which is not very fleshed out, the questionable image quality of the camera, and the unoriginal design. However, the phone gets props for not skimping in terms of hardware.