The smartphone market is a tricky one to navigate. The duopoly of Apple and Samsung in the flagship race has led to a boom in budget Android phones from companies looking to carve out a niche among first-time buyers or enthusiasts disappointed in the giants moving away from features like Micro SD card slots or removable batteries. And, more recently, we’ve seen companies like OnePlus and Asus come to market with budget-priced phones packed with premium features, strategically skimping on luxury features like metal builds and advanced camera settings.
Entering the fray is the Axon, a flagship phone from ZTE, a Chinese company apparently looking to shed its budget perception in the North American market. It’s an objectively good device, ticking most of the boxes on the checklist, but some design choices leave us wondering about its prospects in the market.
The ZTE Axon goes big — it’s a 5.5″ Android 5.1 Lollipop phone enclosed in a metal (not unibody) chassis. It runs on a 2.0 GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 SoC with 4 GB of RAM and features a 534 ppi 2560 x 1440 display. Both of those are high-level features that put the Axon in the same company as premium phones like the Galaxy S6 and HTC One M9. But, like those premium phones, the Axon will disappoint some — it has 32 GB of storage with no Micro SD card slot to expand local storage, and the 3,000 mAh battery is not removable.
Camera and audio are the two main ways ZTE is trying to distance itself from those other flagship phones. The Axon has an 8 MP front camera and, in a fresh look, a dual-lens rear camera with one 13 MP sensor and one 2 MP sensor (the whole array has backside illumination and dual-LED flash). The second rear lens will allow you to refocus a shot and play with depth of field after you’ve taken a picture. The big flagship box that the Axon ticks in the camera list is 4k recording (at 30 fps), which has become a ubiquitous feature on premium phones.
On the audio side, the Axon features a Hi-Fi DAC chipset that promises to improve audio quality, although it should be noted that that will only be true insofar as you have lossless audio tracks to listen to and high-quality earphones or headphones. The Axon will come bundled with the latter in the form of JBL earphones.
For connectivity, the Axon has 802.11 ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, GPS, and GSM 4G LTE — as increasingly usual with unlocked smartphones, no dice for Sprint and Verizon customers in the U.S.
It’s a pretty unimpeachable phone on paper. If you buy one, chances are you wouldn’t be disappointed, although we’ll have to do a full review to be sure. The trouble, as ever, is the price — $450 unlocked. That’s a good deal compared to the flagship phones like the Galaxy S6 and One M9 that it’s trying to compete with, but it’s awfully expensive compared to the OnePlus One and the Asus ZenFone 2, devices that offer slightly less in processing power, build quality, and display resolution, but still provide something very close to a premium experience.
The trouble for ZTE is that the company still isn’t well known in the United States. That alone doesn’t bode well for the Axon’s chances of gaining enough ground on the Galaxy S6 or even distant competitors like the One M9 to make the whole enterprise worth it. That’s compounded by the fact that a good number of people in other markets or who are looking for Galaxy S6 alternatives are also looking for ditched features like Micro SD card slots, dual SIM card slots, and removable batteries, things they won’t find on the Axon. The camera and audio features are nice, but I’m not so sure that will be enough to swing a significant number smartphone buyers. Still, it looks like a good phone — if you’re in the flagship market and looking for a change of pace for the sake of it, the ZTE Axon is worth looking into as long as price isn’t your number one concern. You can preorder a ZTE Axon now for $450, with shipping scheduled for July 27.