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Smartphones

Review: ZTE Axon 7 – hi-def phone, half the price of an iPhone

With a rich sound from the stereo speakers and a screen to rival the Samsung Edge, the Axon 7 doesn’t compromise on sound or vision and is great value

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 February, 2017, 7:03am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 February, 2017, 7:03am

In the past year the smartphone market has seen a fair share of high-quality devices at the US$400 range (about half that of a new iPhone or Samsung) from Chinese brands such as OnePlus and Xiaomi. But while those phones all pack flagship calibre chips and enough raw power to go toe-to-toe with the big boys, they do compromise in areas such as screen resolution and audio quality. ZTE’s Axon 7, however, does no such thing.

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Design and hardware

There are two things that make the Axon 7 stand out over other similarly-priced Chinese phones, and it’s all in the hardware.

First, the Axon 7 has a 5.5-inch Quad HD AMOLED display, which is the same type of panel found on more expensive phones like the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge. All other phones in the Axon 7’s price range have inferior 1080P LCD panels.

Second, the Axon 7 has two front-facing speaker grills (above and below the display) that pump out stereo sound. Since almost every Android phone on the market has a single bottom-firing mono speaker, that means the Axon 7 wins any speaker showdown. The speakers are so rich and loud, in fact, I’ve been using the Axon 7 at home as my music player in place of a portable Bluetooth speaker.

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The rest of the hardware is pretty standard fare. The Axon 7 is a metal unibody phone with 64GB of internal storage, a rear fingerprint sensor and three touch capacitive buttons below the display. The buttons can be customisable (for example, you can have the back button on the left or right side) but they do not have backlights. That’s about the only shortcoming on the hardware front, as this phone ticks every other box, including options for expandable storage or using two sim cards.

The phone is, however, slightly bulky and doesn’t have that sleek sexy look of a Xiaomi, Huawei or Samsung device. It’s not ugly, but I wouldn’t call it pretty either.

Software and features

The Axon 7 runs Android 6.0, which is quite dated – but people in the US have begun receiving Android 7 updates at the time of this review, so Hong Kong might get it soon. Powering everything is a Snapdragon 820 chip on 4GB of RAM, both standard fare for an Android released in 2016. It’s not the latest and baddest, but it’s enough for most.

ZTE’s Android skin is very minimal, so the phone runs mostly like a stock Nexus/Pixel device. There are some software additions like motion gesture shortcuts – tilt the phone inwards to zoom into a photo; shake the phone twice to turn on torch – but they’re more gimmicks than actually useful features.

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The 20-megapixel camera here is a bit of a mixed bag. It’s very capable at capturing vibrant daylight images (as is every smartphone released in the past year), but struggles in low light. Photos come out noticeably darker and noisier than on not just the top shooters such as Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge or iPhone 7, but even the fellow mid-tier phones like OnePlus 3.

The camera software is fun though, as it comes with dozens of preset filters modes that capture trick shots such as long exposure “light trail” shots.

Performance and battery life

The 3,250 mAh battery isn’t particularly large by today’s standards, so battery life isn’t amazing. It has enough juice to last me a full day, but just barely. Power users will want to keep their portable battery pack with them for a long day out.

Otherwise, the phone performs fine. It doesn’t have the blistering speed of an iPhone 7 or a Google Pixel, but keep in mind the Axon 7 is half the price.

Conclusion

The Axon 7, if judged in a vacuum, is not the best smartphone on the market. The iPhone 7 and Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge take much better low-light photos and are waterproof. Xiaomi’s Mi Mix and Vivo’s XPlay 6 have newer Snapdragon chips and look much sexier. But those phones cost from HK$1,500 to HK$4,000 more, and none of them sound nearly as good.

So the Axon 7 is perfect for two types of consumers: those to whom audio quality is paramount, and those who want the best bang for their buck.

Price: HK$2,950

Processor: Snapdragon 820

Display: 5.5 inches

Dimensions: 151.7mm x 75mm x 7.9mm

Weight: 175 grams

Battery: 3,250 mAH

OS version reviewed: Android 6.0.1

Cameras: 20 megapixels with f/1.8 aperture rear camera, 8 megapixel f/2.0 front-facing camera