ZTE Axon Pro Review
Funny how the smartphone market goes in this day and age, it’s just so unpredictable. Companies can live and die in a moment’s notice, which makes it more crucial for them to have the right ingredients and follow a meticulous recipe to succeed. If not, they can instantly nosedive without any sort of indication to their untimely demise. Before any of that, though, they have to deliver an outstanding phone worthy enough to reign amongst the successful elites currently in the space – namely the Apple iPhone 6, Samsung Galaxy S6, and LG G4 to name a few.
Even though they’re not necessarily new in the US smartphone space, ZTE’s reputation thus far has been largely relegated to being a name attached to entry-level, mostly boring smartphones. For a good while there, they delivered subpar smartphones you wouldn’t touch if they paid you to use it. Abroad, though, the story is something else because the company's reputation is dramatically different, as its Nubia line embodies the qualities of what we’d want in premium smartphones.
With the recent introduction of its new flagship line here for the US, the ZTE Axon Pro is undoubtedly the result of many years of ambitious planning. Boasting a specs sheet that impresses on all fronts, the other remarkable part of this phone is the undercutting price point it’s been attached with. At only $450, it’s undeniably bred for stardom, but will it pay off in making ZTE a formidable force here?
The package contains:
- ZTE Axon Pro
- microUSB cable
- Wall charger
- Quick start guide
- JBL in-ear headphones
Premium and solid, it’s a stark contrast to the kind of phones we’re used to seeing from ZTE in the US.
Flaunting an aluminum framed body, there’s that feeling of substance and premium craftsmanship with its design – and we do like it! Available in three different color options, phthalo blue, ion gold, and chromium, our review unit is dressed in the latter. Naturally, the decision to go with aluminum instantly gives the Axon Pro that high class look and feel, but makes the phone a bit slippery at the same time (be careful not to drop it). Despite this, we’ll applaud ZTE for designing something that enables them to shed that reputation here in the US for being a maker of cheapo-feeling phones.
In contrast to its esteemed rivals, one logical comparison here is against the HTC One M9 – regarded by many still to be one of the best looking flagships right now. Certainly, there are some obvious design language similarities at play here with the Axon Pro, but it’s still just a smidgen behind the cleaner looks and uniformity of the One M9’s design. We’re talking specifically about the off-colored top and bottom pieces of the rear casing, which appears to be plastic made to emulate the look of its aluminum trim.
At first glance, it appears as though it’s sporting dual front-firing speakers, due to the triangular shaped cutouts that comprise the grills, but they’re not. Rather, it’s just the usual earpiece above the display, while the grill that’s below is for the speaker. Strangely, though, both the earpiece and speaker don’t occupy the entire space, choosing instead to be offset right and only take up a small area. Below the display, it features three capacitive buttons – the middle is the home button, while the other two can be set up to be either the back or recent apps function.
Thankfully, its ports and buttons are logically arranged in places we’re familiar with. Therefore, that includes the power button on the right side, the volume controls on the left, 3.5mm headphone jack and noise cancellation mic on the top, and the microUSB port and standard mic along the bottom. Interestingly enough, they’re nice to include a shutter key along the bottom right corner, but it’s only active when running the camera app – so we can’t long press it to launch the camera itself.
Kudos to ZTE, this flagship phone gets treated to a flagship-esque display!
Profoundly classifying itself as a premium flagship, the ZTE Axon Pro comes at us with a 5.5-inch 1440 x 2560 CGS (Continuous Grain Silicon) TFT LCD display from Sharp. Of course, thanks to its Quad-HD resolution, it’s able to produce an incredible amount of fine detail rivaling its esteemed competition – while still maintaining several other favorable qualities at the same time.
While it’s not perfectly calibrated, nor boasting that ideal color temperature of 6500K, the Axon Pro’s display carries enough attractive elements for us to fall in love with it. Delivering a potent amount of iridescence and color vibrancy, its 466 nit luminance is enough to make it visible in most situations outdoors. Finding a color temperature of ~7200K, it means that the panel here favors a slightly colder tone – giving colors a bit of a bluish tone. And when we detail its accuracy in the sRGB color spectrum, it doesn’t always hit the mark spot-on with each color gradient, but it’s neither obnoxiously over-saturated.
One unique thing about it, though, is that it’s the first phone to employ Corning’s antimicrobial Gorilla Glass, which gives the surface that slick-to-the-touch feel. Well, to be fair, it’s claimed to kill germs and viruses that normally lounge around, but being unable to verify this claim for ourselves, we’ll leave saying that slick feel of the glass makes it substantially easier to wipe away smudges and fingerprints.
Interface and Functionality
You can’t go wrong with a mostly stock Android Lollipop experience.
Funny how things turn out. Unlike its premium Nubia line of phones abroad that run heavily customized Android experiences, ZTE has taken an unexpected 180-degree course of action with the Axon Pro. Purists will no doubt relish over its mostly stock Android 5.1.1 Lollipop experience. Superficially, most folks will be hard-pressed to even realize some of the subtle optimizations in play with this experience, such as the choice of swiping animations with the homescreen – or how doing a swipe up gesture in the homescreen accesses a mini menu.
Better yet, the phone doesn’t come preloaded with much bloatware, which is a big deal mainly because ZTE’s phones are notorious for that. Seriously, the bloat present here in the Axon Pro are the Argus, Mi-Moment, Dolby Audio, RockMyRun, and Yahoo Sports apps – and that’s all. On top of that, it’s one of the few phones to offer Lollipop’s multi-user feature! That alone is a rarity because most other phones only provide a “guest” mode and nothing more, but with this, we’re able to set up multiple profiles.
In all seriousness, you can never go wrong with an experience that’s vanilla Android. Even though this isn’t entirely a faithful experience, it’s still considerably closer than the heavily customized experiences of other phones, so to that end, we have to give our seal of approval to the folks over at ZTE for choosing to take this path.
Continuing its theme of sticking to a very faithful vanilla Android experience, the usual set of organizer apps all sport a stock look and operation. Therefore, if you’re using the calculator, calendar, or phonebook, you’ll fit right at home because they don’t receive any sort of visual or functional enhancements.
The same can be said about the Axon Pro’s messaging experience, as the Gmail and Email apps are here to keep our messages all organized. Sure, we can set up other email accounts using the Email app, but now that the Gmail app can support other services besides Google, it’s the choice we prefer using thanks to how incredibly effective it is with its organization.
Having only the Google keyboard to use for typing out messages, it’s incredibly equipped to handle the most demanding of users thanks to its generous real estate, responsiveness, and logical layout. While individually tapping on each letter is effective for most people, the swiping like function is also a good alternative when it comes to speed typing without having to lift your finger too often from the screen.
Processor and Memory
Fluid and responsive with superficial tasks, its Quad-HD poses some challenges with its graphics processing performance.
By now, we’re all quite aware about the Snapdragon 810’s lingering uncertainties, but regardless of that, it’s what powers the ZTE Axon Pro. To be more exact, it’s the 64-bit based 2.0 GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 MSM8994 chipset, which is accompanied by a generous 4GB of RAM and the Adreno 430 GPU. Quite simply, this hardware combination rumbles with an authoritative roar, as its base level performance is remarkably snappy – so its execution is effortless with benign operations.
As for graphics processing, the Adreno 430 GPU suffices enough to handle all of today’s demanding gaming titles, but it’s evidently clear that Quad-HD resolution takes its toll, as frame rates are slower than other phones using the same chipset, but with lower-res screens.
Keeping production as uniform as possible, ZTE eliminates having varying degrees of storage options with Axon Pro. Instead, it’s only being produced as a single 32GB option – with no way to expand that amount, so you’ll want to tread carefully.
Internet and Connectivity
There’s only one option for surfing the web here, and that title goes to Google Chrome. Not surprising at all, the phone more than caters to our needs thanks to its fast page loads, buttery smooth navigational controls, and its ability to render pages on the fly. And naturally, its detail superiority is evident by the insane level of sharpness of fine text in a zoomed out view.
Being an unlocked GSM smartphone, the ZTE Axon Pro is bred to be compatible to work on a wealth of networks both domestically and internationally. Although it’s equipped to work on the LTE networks of AT&T and T-Mobile, the only thing lacking here is support for the CDMA carries, which we feel to be a compromising factor for an ambitious phone expected to be a huge force in the US.
Beyond that, though, it’s accompanied by the usual set of connectivity features – they consist of aGPS, Bluetooth 4.0, dual-band 802.11 b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, and NFC. The only other extra amenity missing here is just an IR blaster.
While it’s able to pull out some cool shots with its dual camera configuration, it still just trails its peers in its overall quality.
Again, we can argue that its design is inspired by HTC’s One series, as the Axon Pro is fashioned with a dual-camera setup in its rear, which works in similar fashion to how the HTC One M8 was able to apply a bokeh effect to photos post shot. Well, this particular configuration breaks down to a main 13-megapixel sensor and a secondary 2-megapixel one – accompanied with BSI, dual-LED flash, and a 6-element f/1.8 aperture lens. The love doesn’t stop there, since front camera is treated to a wide-angle 8-megapixel sensor.
A dual-camera setup isn’t really new, but it merely makes a statement for the ZTE Axon Pro. Going beyond the hardware, the camera app is sure to delight a broad range of users. Indeed, it’s accompanied with a plethora of shooting modes, such as HDR, panoramic, and time-lapse modes, but there’s a manual one that allows us to adjust the shutter speed parameter as well, which impressively tops out at 80 seconds. Going further than that, its carries a bokeh mode as well that enables it to achieve an aperture of f/1.0 via software – allowing us to adjust the focus and bokeh effect to our liking post shot.
Thus far, our interest has been piqued thanks to its dual-camera setup, as well as the rich shooting modes it has to offer, but at the end of the day, it’s the performance and quality that matters the most. In that regard, our views about the ZTE Axon Pro’s camera are largely positive, but it’s not enough to overcome and overpower the likes of the Samsung Galaxy S6 and LG G4. Although, it’s still better than the HTC One M9.
To the untrained eye, the images from the Axon Pro’s camera under ideal lighting conditions are passable – blending saturated colors with average details. It’s particularly good with close-ups, especially when using its bokeh mode to achieve that professional look. Thanks to the dual-camera setup, we’re able to snap an image at will, and then have the ability to select the focus and bokeh intensity later on. From what we’re able to see, the phone does a really great job in properly recognizing boundaries – so that the out-of-focus effect is applied to areas outside of the subject.
However, upon further inspection, we can visualize how fine details appear slightly speckled looking at times when switching over its HDR mode. Additionally, it has a tough time properly applying the correct exposures to give photos that neutral dynamic range – and it doesn’t help either when colors are overblown. In fact, the end results tend to come out extremely artificial looking.
Using the automatic mode, there’s nothing to gloat about with its low light performance. Well, to be frank, it’s pretty subpar and plagued by softer toned details, graininess, and washed out colors. Enthusiasts, however, can achieve better results by properly using its manual mode. Aided by keeping the phone extremely still, whether it’s done by propping the phone against something or placing it on a stand, setting the shutter speed for a long exposure helps to draw details out – evident in the shots of the living room using varying shutters speeds between 2 to 80 seconds.
The same can be said about its video recording performance. It’s just okay, that’s all. You’ll want to stick with shooting in UHD 3840 x 2160 resolution because 1080p is just lacking the sharp details to win our eyes over. With UHD resolution, at least, it’s able to maintain a high level of clarity – while also being complemented by its super clear audio recording and fast focus adjustment. Under low lighting, though, it’s marred by muddy visuals that can sometimes see a reduction in its frame rate. And finally, its the slow-motion video capture is cool looking, but comes up short in the detail department.
You’ll be blown away by the Hi-Fi sound experience!
For anyone who loves editing their photos before sharing, they’ll fall in love with the ZTE Axon Pro’s various editing tools through the gallery app. Indeed, it offers all the customary options for filters and adjustments, but there’s also a useful gif animation and collage maker available through the gallery app.
Using the music player provided by ZTE as an alternative to Google’s own Play Music, it’s pretty conventional with its layout and functionality – so it’s just your ordinary, basic player. When playing music through its internal speaker, we blown away by the intensity of its volume output, which is indeed deafening at an outstanding mark of 80.3 dB, but it never sounds shrill or irritating. It simply commands authority.
Well, we can say the same thing about listening to music via its headphone jack. Despite putting out a ho-hum 0.583 V through the port, it’s able to achieve a higher degree of fidelity after enabling its Dolby Audio. Featuring two dedicated audio chipsets for Hi-Fi sound, the result is an experience that’s music to our ears, as it’s back by substantial audio ranges that never sound flat or dell. Sweetening the deal even more, the included JBL E13 in-ear headphones help solidify it as one of the best phones for music listening.
The only challenging thing here is just the placement of the earpiece, but besides that, it’s close to perfection.
This is close to perfection when it comes to call quality, with the exception of one particular thing that we find challenging – the placement of the earpiece. Normally, you’d place your ear dead smack against the middle section of the earpiece, but with the Axon Pro, the earpiece is actually offset to the right. Besides that, we have no complaints whatsoever with the quality because voices on both ends exhibit clear voices that have strong emphasis.
With the larger battery cell, we were expecting something more long-lasting.
While there isn’t much to gloat about its battery life, the handset features a quick-charge 2.0 microUSB port that gets its battery juiced back to 100% capacity in just a matter of 85 minutes, which is perhaps one of the fastest when factoring its battery size.
Okay, you’ve got our attention, ZTE. Well done in achieving that, because as we’ve seen in the past, ZTE phones haven’t been all that desirable here in the US. We’ve waited and prayed to hopefully see its Nubia line of smartphones arrive on American soil, but that never came. Perhaps some of us are saddened by that realization, but in all fairness, we’re comforted and impressed by what the ZTE Axon Pro is undertaking.
First and foremost, this is one incredibly powerful smartphone that’ll appease the folks who are all about the specs sheet – it just reeks everywhere of high-end hardware befitting of a flagship. Secondly, ZTE surprises us more by accompanying it with a mostly stock Android Lollipop experience. And finally, the $450 cost attached to this unlocked phone makes it so that it’s undercutting the competition in a significant way.
Everything seems to point to a unanimous hit for ZTE, but the biggest opportunity left for the Axon Pro is achieving broader availability. Yes, it’s unlocked and ready to ride on any GSM network, but it lacks the necessary radios to make it compatible to work with the CDMA networks of Sprint and Verizon. In contrast, its direct rivals are offered in all sorts of variants to cover the gap – giving them greater exposure to consumers.
So, is it worth it to pick up the ZTE Axon Pro over some of the aforementioned devices? Naturally, that’s tough because there are still opportunities to advance its performance in the areas of its camera and battery life. If you’re looking for the savings in a high-end, flagship phone, you’ll certainly get it here with the Axon Pro – whereas devices like the iPhone 6 and Galaxy S6 will still cost you at least $650. This is just the beginning, as the Axon Pro is meant to be the bridge device in getting ZTE’s name into the minds of consumers. So far, it strikes a nerve that’s deeply electrical. Let’s just hope they can use the momentum to their advantage.
Software version of the review unit:
Android Version: 5.1.1
Build Number: A1PV1.0.0B17
Kernel Version: 3.10.49-perf-g4ae9856