ZTE Axon M review: foldable, dual-screen smartphone good for multitasking, but extended view is let down by bulky hinge
Chinese-designed handset’s chunkiness makes it awkward at times and the camera leaves a lot to be desired, but the Axon M’s ability to run two apps side by side is genuinely useful
Most handsets look the same these days in the increasingly overcrowded smartphone market, sporting that same sleek, glass body with slim bezels and dual cameras. ZTE, however, is zigging where everyone is zagging, with a chunky two-screen phone that folds in half.
Design and hardware
The Axon M’s build is all about function over form, with its two 5.2-inch displays linked side-by-side by a bulky, sturdy hinge.
Out of the box, or when placed in your pocket, the two screens are folded outwards, facing opposite directions. This creates a thicker-than-usual device (12.2mm). In this form, you’ll use the Axon M like any other phone, though the thick bezels at the top and bottom of the decent LCD panel make it look really dated.
All the buttons are on the left side of the device. These include volume rockers, a power button with an embedded fingerprint reader, and a third button that is customisable to launch specific apps of the user’s choosing. There is a headphone jack at the top of the device, for those who dislike the inevitable death of the port.
When both screens are extended and become one, you effectively have a 6.75-inch screen to play with. (If you’re wondering why two 5.2-inch screens only add up to 6.75 inches, that is because displays are measured diagonally from corner to corner.)
Curiously, the Axon M is powered by an almost two-year-old Qualcomm processor, the Snapdragon 821. I suspect this is due to the longer-than-usual development time of the device. Paired with 4GB of RAM, there’s still enough power for most users even in 2018, but this is not a phone whose spec sheet compares favourably to its peers.
Software and features
Since the Android operating system is designed for single-screen use, ZTE had to optimise the software itself. Though there are some bugs, the result is mostly impressive.
Review: Meizu Pro 7 Plus - dual-screen smartphone will change how you take selfies, and makes sure you don’t miss a thing
There are three ways to use the dual screens. The first, named “dual mode”, is the most obvious: you can run an app on each screen for real multitasking. I’ve tested numerous pairings – Facebook and Twitter; WhatsApp and Google Maps; streaming Netflix while browsing Gmail; and almost everything worked, in landscape or portrait orientation.
The only combination the phone can’t handle is two active games, because the phone simply can’t process, say, two racing games at the same time (you can’t physically play both simultaneously anyway). But a pair of lighter games – maybe a turn-based RPG and a board game – will work fine.
The second usage mode is “extend”, which combines both screens into one large canvas. Apps that have been optimised by ZTE – including Facebook, Chrome and Google Play Store – will go into a larger, tablet version that displays more information than usual. Non-optimised apps (Instagram, for example) will stretch themselves across two screens and look slightly awkward, but are still fully usable.
In theory, this mode sounds great for watching videos or gaming. The hinge between the two displays, however, creates a very visible black bar in the middle of the screen which really breaks the illusion of having one large screen.
For less visually driven experiences like reading articles or scrolling through Twitter feeds, having two screens stitched together as one does make for a superior reading experience. The best use of this mode, though, is writing long emails or Word documents, because you get a larger-than-usual keyboard.
Finally, there’s “mirror mode”. It does exactly as the name suggests: both screens will show the same content. The only use for this is allowing two people sitting opposite each other to watch the same video. Otherwise, mirror mode is useless.
As mentioned, there are some minor bugs – apps will sometimes crash when stretched across two screens; switching orientation can be laggy – but overall, these features work as advertised.
Performance and battery life
With an older processor, the Axon M isn’t the fastest or most powerful device out there. There are animation stutters when switching from a single screen to two, or when going from mirror mode to extend mode, and so on. It’s nothing too bad, just not flagship quality by today’s standards.
What could end up being a deal-breaker for some is the camera. Because the Axon M, when in its default closed-shell form factor, has a screen on each side of the device, ZTE decided to save on costs and built only one camera into the phone.
The lens is front facing by default, so if you want to take photos of something in front of you, you’ll have to press a button to flip the display to the other side, then turn the phone around.
This overly complicated set-up might be tolerable if the camera took amazing photos, but despite the specs, the camera is average. Colours appear muted, and lowlight performance is poor.
Battery life is decent, though. I couldn’t quite get the Axon M to last an entire day, but I was using the phone with both screens on extensively. Your mileage may vary.
While the implementation is a bit clunky and the camera is poor, the Axon M’s ability to run two apps side by side is genuinely useful.
If you’re someone who prioritises photography, the Axon M is a no-go. But if you often need to do office work on the go, and you don’t want to lug around a laptop, then this phone may be worth a look.
Dimensions: 150.9mm x 71.6mm x 12.2mm
Display: Dual 5.2-inch 1080 x 1920 LCD panels
Battery: 3,180 mAh
OS version reviewed: Android 7.1.2
Processor: Snapdragon 821
Cameras: 20-megapixel lens
Memory: 64GB; 4GB RAM
Price: 4,450 yuan (US$700)