It was merely a year ago when we found out that ZTE was behind the mysterious “Axon Phone,” a promising offering which aimed to keep the consumer in mind. With its Axon sub-brand, ZTE hoped to capture more of the U.S. market by striking a balance between affordability and premiumness.
After testing the original ZTE Axon extensively, we granted it our 2015 Editors’ Choice award for its incredible value. Although the original Axon wasn’t perfect by any stretch, it did incorporate unique features like a two-year premium warranty while still making only a few compromises.
On the surface, the succeeding Axon 7 appears to be a major step forward once again, considering the many improvements ZTE has made. It is evident that the ZTE Axon 7 is more than just a minor refinement to the ZTE Axon, but in an increasingly-competitive “flagship killer” market, has ZTE really done enough to make the Axon 7 worthy of your consideration? Let’s explore that question and more with our comprehensive ZTE Axon 7 review!
The Axon 7’s design could be viewed as a normalization of that of the first Axon, as ZTE has both literally and metaphorically smoothed the edges. Although the updated design is less likely to raise eyebrows, it certainly has character. Unlike many metal smartphones, the Axon 7 does not incorporate plastic caps in its design and instead embraces an aluminum unibody free of any edges.
Although the updated design is less likely to raise eyebrows, it certainly has character
The curved back, although similarly done before, is elegant and feels excellent in the hand. The build quality is great, and it’s very unlikely that you’ll be able to get the Axon 7 to bend, even if you try. The power and volume buttons, which are now both on the right side of the device, as well as the recessed fingerprint reader are very ergonomic. The latter may seem senseless, but it is actually very nice when trying to differentiate it from the camera module.
Some of our keen-eyed readers have likely already noticed and may have even already objected to the Axon 7’s camera hump. Thankfully, it’s not thick enough to cause the phone to wobble when typing on a table, except when typing with excessive force.
ZTE has implemented antenna lines in a such a way to compliment the design rather than blemishing it. The chamfer found where the aluminum meets with the front of the device is also quite nice and feels natural, next to the very slightly curved display.
The “Designed in the USA” tag located on the rear of the Axon 7 may prompt some questions, considering that ZTE is, after all, a Chinese smartphone manufacturer. However, ZTE tells us that they collaborated with Designworks, a US-based BMW Group subsidiary, when designing the Axon 7. This can definitely be seen in the Axon 7’s design, most noticeably with the phone’s curved shape.
I wish the phone wasn't so slippery in the hand
Although I really like the Axon 7’s design overall, I do wish that the phone wasn’t so slippery in the hand. The Axon 7’s size, smooth metal, and curved side edges combined certainly do not help make the device easier to grip. Although I eventually became accustomed to the Axon 7’s slippery profile, its height is still somewhat problematic. Reaching for the top to access the notification panel can be very interesting at times, given that any adjustment in the hand must be done very carefully due to the phone’s lack of grip.
The three non-illuminated capacitive keys on the U.S. Axon 7 do the job, but could be spaced out a bit more. I am nearly sure that the current implementation was designed to cater to aesthetics, but it can be difficult, especially at first or in a dark environment, to locate the side keys, as they are curiously closer to the center than to the edges of the display.
For what it’s worth, however, I really enjoyed the ability to change the key layout. The indeterminate iconography may be a bit jarring for first-time users, but oftentimes becomes irrelevant after a day or so of use.
ZTE has definitely exceeded my expectations with the Axon 7’s display. Whereas many similarly priced options compromise on either resolution or panel quality, the Axon 7 offers one of the very best displays I have seen on a smartphone. It’s a Quad HD 5.5″ AMOLED display with a pixel density of 538 PPI, which translates to excellent sharpness, punchy and saturated colors, deep blacks, great color reproduction, and excellent contrast and viewing angles. It’s most definitely worthy of competing with the highest-end of displays, like those found on phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S7.
The edges of the display glass taper down to meet with the chamfered aluminum
Sunlight readability is also good, and the display also seems to get dim enough in darker environments. The larger screen size is great for any type of content, without being too big to hold comfortably in many cases. The Corning Gorilla Glass 4 protection is also great to see, so users should not have to worry about scratching the display. The edges of the display glass taper down to meet with the chamfered aluminum, which gives the Axon 7 a consistent premium feel when swiping near the edges.
Under the hood, the Axon 7 is powered by a quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 820, with two of the cores running at 2.15GHz and the other two running at 1.6GHz. The Snapdragon 820 has been used in every major flagship smartphone this year, and for good reason, as it is an absolute beast of a processor, offering up some of the best performance to date. It’s a notable step forward from last year’s Snapdragon 810, which was plagued by overheating rumors.
The overall experience is remarkably smooth
In addition to a Snapdragon 820, however, the Axon 7 includes 4 GB of RAM, which is enough for even the heaviest of multitasking. Day-to-day performance was absolutely wonderful and the overall experience is remarkably smooth. The Adreno 530 GPU is also more than enough for mobile gaming.
Although benchmark scores aren’t everything, it is clear that ZTE’s software optimization and selective component choices have paid off. The ludicrous 140,393 score in Antutu is undoubtedly incredible as it reflects actual performance quite well.
Last year, we were slightly disappointed that the Axon was only available with 32 GB of non-expandable storage. With the Axon 7, however, ZTE has included not only double the amount of storage (now 64 GB), but has also included a microSD card expansion slot, which accepts up to 256 GB.
Please do keep in mind, however, that you will need to give up one of the SIM card slots if you’d like to take advantage of microSD card expansion. Regardless, this is an invaluable inclusion for those needing lots of space, and may just give the Axon 7 a slight edge over much of the competition.
The ZTE Axon 7 is an unlocked dual-SIM device which works with all major carriers in the United States, so regardless of whether you’re on T-Mobile’s Band 12 or Verizon, you’ll be receiving full coverage. Since the Axon 7 isn’t officially supported by Verizon or Sprint, however, you will need to contact ZTE if any issues arise.
Even when plugging in a pair of $8 earbuds, the difference in audio quality is noticeable
Although ZTE did implement high-quality audio with the first-generation Axon, the Axon 7 takes it to the next level. With dual independent Hi-Fi audio chips, the AKM AK4961 and AKM AK4490, both recording and listening to audio on the Axon 7 is an excellent experience. Even when plugging in a pair of $8 earbuds, the difference in audio quality is noticeable, especially when streaming at higher bitrates. The audio sounds fuller and the volume isn’t as limited as it is on other devices.
If you’re interested in how the Hi-Fi audio recording sounds, you should have a listen of our video review found above, as the voice over was recorded using the Axon 7 and a Rode smartLav+ microphone. For informal recordings, ZTE states that the dual noise cancelling internal microphones are able to clearly capture voices up to eight meters away from the phone, which is quite impressive.
The listening experience with the Axon 7 is extraordinary
Unlike its predecessor, the ZTE Axon 7 features dual-front facing stereo speakers with Dolby Atmos surround sound technology. The listening experience with the Axon 7 is extraordinary; the sound is impressively clear, loud, and full. There’s very little distortion, even at full volume, and the audio is surprisingly immersive. The quality is nearly unmatched, and gives the speaker found on the HTC 10 a run for its money. Whether you choose to listen to music, play a mobile game, or watch a movie, the Axon 7’s speakers will impress you.
The fingerprint reader on the back of the Axon 7 is both fast and accurate, easily beating out comparable devices like the Huawei Nexus 6P. The reversible USB Type-C port is also great to see, and Quick Charge 3.0 (QC3.0) delivers on its promise of providing a 50% charge in just a half hour. Unlike some manufacturers, ZTE has included a QC3.0 complaint charger in the box, so you won’t have to worry about buying one yourself.
The Axon 7’s 3250mAh non-removable battery may seem somewhat small after factoring in the powerful processor and high resolution display, but it actually holds up quite well. Battery life with the Axon 7 is excellent; I was consistently able to achieve upwards of five hours of screen on time with a full day of heavy use. With moderate usage, six hours of screen on time was achievable.
I was consistently able to achieve upwards of five hours of screen on time with a full day of heavy use
Overall, battery life is very comparable to that of the Galaxy S7, which is excellent considering the phone’s price. It does lack wireless charging, unfortunately, but that’s because of the Axon’s metal body. Thankfully for ZTE, many users prefer the much faster QC 3.0 wired charging anyway.
ZTE has included a 20 MP f/1.8 rear camera with optical image stabilization and phase detection autofocus. In good lighting conditions, the camera does quite well. Images come out sharp and detailed with good contrast and accurate color reproduction. It doesn’t always set exposure correctly, however, and some images can look a bit washed out. Otherwise, the camera is a great performer in good lighting. The 8 MP front-facing camera also performed very well.
ZTE Axon 7 camera samples:
With its fast f/1.8 aperture and OIS, it seems that the Axon 7 would offer great low-light performance. Unfortunately, this is simply not the case; images taken in darker conditions were soft with muted colors. This seems to be more of a software issue as there is an excessive amount of noise reduction taking place in most images. The good news is that this may be able to be at least partially corrected with a software update as the hardware doesn’t seem to be the issue.
The camera performance is where the Axon 7 feels most compromised
It’s difficult to deny that the camera performance is where the Axon 7 feels most compromised. The camera is great, but it’s simply not as excellent as those found on the Galaxy S7 or even Xiaomi Mi 5.
With that said, ZTE’s camera app is very nice and easy to use. The automatic mode will automatically turn on HDR and night mode for you and the manual mode is very comprehensive. There’s also a bunch of filters and additional modes like Panorama and Timelapse. The simple “capture” and “cheese” voice commands to take a picture worked surprisingly well, and using the fingerprint reader on the back as a shutter button is ingenious.
Although the Axon 7 runs ZTE’s MiFavor UI 4.0 over Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow, a “stock Android” theme is available and selected by default. When using the stock Android theme, the launcher is like the Google Now Launcher with a transparent app drawer and a few bonus features like the ability to change the home screen transitions. The multitasking menu is pretty much the same as well, but with a very handy “clear all” button.
ZTE's software feels like stock Android with a very slight tasteful twist
Overall, ZTE’s software feels like stock Android with a very slight tasteful twist. I found myself really enjoying the full screen notification panel and editable quick toggles, and the “frequently used” settings page seems like a nice touch.
Many of the other changes made are either too subtle to mention or purely functional. The latter changes include, for example, a lock screen wallpaper which changes each time you unlock the device. We haven’t seen that feature here in the U.S. yet, but it works quite well and is a nice differentiation. There are also gestures like double tap to wake and shake for the flashlight which are always nice to have, and the power saving modes are comfortably advanced.
You can simply hold the phone up to your ear and the phone will ask who do you want to call?
My favorite addition, however, is the “My Voice” app, which allows you to use genuinely useful voice commands throughout the interface. For example, as long as the screen is on, you can simply hold the phone up to your ear and the phone will ask “who do you want to call?” You can say the phone number or a contact name and the dialer app will place the call. It’s a really cool and unique feature that I wish Google themselves would take note of.
While this is the best software we’ve seen from ZTE to date, there are still areas that could use some additional polish. For example, some translations are grammatically incorrect, the dialer app doesn’t work with third party services like Google Voice, and functional changes like My Voice could be better integrated within Android. With that said, the minor changes needed are just that: minor.
The ZTE Axon 7 is available in the United States for $399.99 from Amazon, Best Buy, B&H Photo, Newegg, and directly from ZTE. That’s a surprisingly low price for what the Axon 7 is, considering that it is unlocked and compatible with every major 4G LTE network within the United States.
There are two color options available: ion gold and quartz gray. The Ion Gold model ships on July 27th and the Quartz Gray model ships on August 17th. Both models are now available for pre-order.
Unlike virtually every other smartphone out there, the Axon 7 includes a two-year warranty. ZTE’s Axon Passport 2.0 program provides everything from upgrade, replacement, and setup assistance to unlimited out-of-warranty repairs for a deductible. Each repair, whether in or out of warranty, will include a free advanced exchange and free two-way shipping. There’s also a 30-day risk free trial period, during which you can return the phone to ZTE for a full refund if you’re unhappy with it.
ZTE’s Axon 7 blows past the competition by providing amazing hardware, great audio fidelity, an exceptional display at a price point that should worry the competition.
It is clear that ZTE has put a massive amount of time and effort into the Axon 7, making it one of the best smartphones we’ve encountered. It’s surprisingly similar to popular offerings like the Galaxy S7 and HTC 10, while costing much less. It’s one of the very few smartphones that feels largely uncompromised, even next to the very best. If you’re looking for a flagship smartphone and don’t need the absolute best of cameras, we cannot recommend the ZTE Axon 7 enough. Simply put… ZTE’s Axon 7 blows past the competition by providing amazing hardware, great audio fidelity, an exceptional display at a price point that should worry the competition.
So, what do you think of the ZTE Axon 7? It will certainly be interesting to see how ZTE’s strategy plays out. Are you considering purchasing the Axon 7? Do you already have one on pre-order or does another device take your fancy, and if so, which one? Please do let us know your thoughts in the comments below!