ZTE Axon 7 review: Outstanding with a few faults

ZTE is making waves this year by pushing out a phone most Android enthusiasts crave, at least on paper. For the increasingly common and competitive $400 price, the Axon 7 offers a stylish metal unibody, QHD AMOLED screen, dual-front facing speakers, a rear fingerprint sensor and the latest Snapdragon 820 chip with 4GB of RAM. Oh, and you’ll be getting 64 GB of storage too. However there’s some serious competition in the field for the same price or less. Let’s find out if this phone deserves your money.

Build

As soon as you hold the Axon 7, you’ll notice its heavier than just about every flagship phone today. This can be credited to the all metal body and the larger 3250 battery, but there are other phones with similar features that weigh noticeably lighter. To most people, the slightly heavier weight may not matter, but I did find it uncomfortable to hold horizontally for awhile while watching Netflix in bed with the phone or a lot of YouTube videos as it added a strain on my wrist when holding with one hand.

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Heaviness aside, this feels like a truly premium phone. The aluminum body is smooth all over with no sharp edges on the sides or bottom, and it’s curved just right on the back to fit in the palm nicely.

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I’m impressed that ZTE was able to keep this phone so compact. For a 5.5 inch phone with a decently sized battery and front facing speakers, this phone is still shorter than the 5.5 inch OnePlus 3. The phones shares the very common top and bottom antenna line like many other metal devices today, and I’ve found reception to be more than acceptable where I’m located in Athens, Ohio using AT&T LTE. WiFi speeds have been very fast, however I’ve noticed it takes a little longer to connect to my house and school WiFi than other smartphones I’ve tested recently.

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The fingerprint sensor is located on the back of the device which will be a hit or miss to all of you. After using this and the Nexus 6P, I’ve easily gotten use to having my index finger on the sensor as I’m pulling the device out of my pocket, waking up the screen as soon as I look at it. The sensor used on the Axon 7 is very fast, and I would place it between the Nexus 6P and OnePlus 3 (the 3 being the fastest I’ve used).

My biggest complaint about the phone’s build is the capacity navigation keys at the bottom. From left to right, these act as the back, home, and recent buttons. I suppose I like how minimal they look, but they are took close together and it makes it difficult accurately tap them. I really wish ZTE allowed us to toggle software navigation keys, because these aren’t even backlit, making them impossible to see at night.

ZTE knew exactly what a hardcore Android enthusiast wanted here and placed two front-facing speakers on the phone backed up by Dolby Audio. I was really impressed with the sound that was coming out of these. Dolby Surround is on by default with this device, but you can toggle it in the quick settings to hear the difference. Turning Dolby on while playing out the speakers provided a much more area effect to the audio, which was very apparent in videos and movies. When Dolby is off, movies and music sound a bit louder actually, but lose the surrounding effect and clarity. I always kept Dolby on.

Overall though, I found these speakers to be very clear, but not as loud as some phones I’ve listened to. The Alcatel Idol 4S takes the cake as having the best phone speakers I’ve ever heard.

Display

The Axon 7 gives us the same panel used on the Samsung Galaxy S6, which is a damn good screen. Samsung has yet to sell its latest generation of AMOLED panels to other companies, so this screen as good as AMOLED screens get except for the newest Galaxy S7 phones.

With the 1440×2560 QHD resolution, I could not see any pixels even if I squinted close up. The phone got very bright, but in direct sunlight I did have some trouble seeing smaller text and overall detail. It’s not on par with Samsung’s ability to “overdrive” their displays in sunlight.

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Regardless, this screen can easily be featured as the highlight of this phone for how great the colors are and how crisp everything is. However going back on fourth between this phone and my OnePlus 3 daily driver, I can notice the improved clarity of the QHD panel closer to my face, but I’m still completely satisfied with 1080p screens and am not sure is QHD is worth the cost yet. Still, these two phones are the same price, so if the higher resolution is really worth it to you, you’ll be glad to know this screen is noticeably better.

Performance

ZTE is giving us almost the best the market can offer with the Axon 7 in terms of performance. The Snapdragon 820 chip coupled with 4GB of RAM offers a quick and pleasant Android experience, but isn’t perfect.

Because most high-end Android phones offer near identical performance, the best way to rate the Axon 7’s performance is to compare it with the other big hitters this year, as I have used several of them.

After using the Galaxy S7 Active, Idol 4S, OnePlus 3, HTC 10, and for a limited time, LG G5, I can say the multitasking is slightly worse on the Axon 7, as apps take slightly longer to hop back into even when it’s still in memory. I also ran into a few hiccups during my time of use where I tried to go back into an app I just used to see it had closed and needed to reopen. While the Snapdragon 820 chip is plenty fast enough to open apps in 1-2 seconds, there is no excuse as to why an app so recently used should have closed down. Like I said though, this only happened a few times.

Small problems aside, this phone just doesn’t offer a jaw dropping fast experience as I had witnessed when first using the HTC 10 and OnePlus 3. It’s fast, don’t get me wrong, but not the fastest by a long shot.

Camera

In daylight, the Axon 7 takes some amazing photos. With the 20 megapixel rear-shooter, I loved being able to zoom into photos more than other phones I’ve used this year. Colors and brightness all looked great during the day, and detail was very crisp.

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Starting with a few shots I grabbed in glorious Gatlinburg, the detail in these are very impressive in large part due to the optical image stabilization in the camera helping balance pictures being taken. Usually the sun is over exposed in pictures like these taken with smartphone cameras but this one was incredibly well balanced as the trees still held a lot of detail.

The phone’s camera does struggle at night, much more than other high-end phones I’ve used. When capturing our school’s library at night, the lights are easily seen, but not much else even with HDR mode enabled. Detail on the townhouses shown above aren’t very impressive either, and the lights are way overexposed.

Battery

After using the phone for about a month, I’ve always felt comfortable that the phone would last me a whole day. My current schedule includes unplugging the phone at 8:30 a.m. and making till about midnight when I go to sleep with about 15% or slightly less left.

My daily phone agenda involves using GroupMe about all day (I think I’m ready for college to be over), about 15-20 minutes of Snapchat use, occasional SMS texting, heavy Reddit use, about an hour of Netflix and YouTube combined, constant Gmail syncing and a few other apps. About 80% of my day I’m connected to WiFi and the rest I’m on LTE. I don’t usually play games on my phone so I’m using the Axon 7 as I would my daily driver.

I rank the Axon 7 slightly lower than the OnePlus 3 which would rarely reach less than 20% by the end of the day for me, and lower than the Idol 4S (also a $399 phone) which got me the best battery life out of either of these devices. However this phone is still a really solid performer and if it does need a quick sip, Qualcomm Quick-Charge allowed me to charge the phone 0% to 54% in 30 minutes.

Software

This is the first ZTE device I’ve ever reviewed, so I was nervous about their software experience. They’ve clearly tuned things quite a bit from previous devices, as the software strongly resembles stock Android with small cosmetic changes. I actually really like the shade of dark blue that carries throughout the system UI – much more than stock Android. Also the way the pull-down notification bar and quick settings change color with the wallpaper is a really nice touch.

On to the functional side of things, ZTE made the default homescreen launcher their “Stock Android” launcher, a quick and fluid homescreen that includes an app drawer and similar aspects of the Google Now Launcher, except for the actual integration of Google Now. ZTE included another launcher that you can switch to in your settings menu, but I couldn’t stand it as it was just an attempt to mirror iOS. Both of these launchers were pretty basic and lacked customization, so I downloaded a different launcher.

ZTE’s settings menu includes two columns. One for quick access to common categories of the phone, and the other is about the same as stock Android. As part of habit, I always swiped left to get to the normal “All settings” view.

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One of the stand-out features ZTE included with the Axon 7 is Mi-POP, a software navigation button and can be dragged around your screen in case you don’t want to use the capacity keys. I liked this feature, and used it for a bit without problems, but I hate having clutter on my screen and eventually disabled it, even if it meant having to use the capacitive keys more.

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ZTE allows for a decent amount of customization, at least compared to stock Android, and I always like being able to change the color profile of my display. The three options for the color mode include natural (the dullest, looks more like and LCD panel), normal, and vibrant. Vibrant was a bit too saturated for my eyes so I stuck with normal and really liked it.

My biggest grip with the software by far is the lockscreen, and the way the phone displays notifications. Or should I say hides them? For some reason, the folks at ZTE thought it was a good idea to hide your notifications and only allow you to see them if you tap a small bell icon. I couldn’t begin to provide a solid explanation as to why that would be a good idea. There are phones that can show you notifications without even turning the screen on (thank you, moto). If they don’t do that, you might be able to double tap the screen to see your lockscreen notifications. Pretty convenient if the phone is laying on its back. With the Axon 7, there is no hand wave gesture, and the double tap to wake is much slower and inconsistent compared to other devices. I have to press the power button, then tap a small icon on the top left just to see who called me or texted me.

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Sure, this is first-world problems, but the worst part is you can’t disable it. Not even after a couple software updates. Sorry ZTE, but just about every other phone offers a better way of doing this.

Conclusion

While there are some notable downsides to having this phone, such as the poor low-light camera, occasional performance stutter, the frustrating “feature” of hiding notifications from you on your lockscreen, and the lackluster navigation keys, ZTE has seriously stepped their game up this year and is offering a flagship phone that I almost wanted to purchase myself.

The all-metal build that carries over to the front-facing speakers has caught more than a few eyes when using in public, and the screen of this phone is a thing of sheer beauty. I can confidently say these are the second best speakers I’ve ever heard on a smartphone and I’ll definitely miss having those. Playing Fallout Shelter and Monument Valley provided the best gaming I’ve experienced on a phone, and to the average user, every day usage is going to feel very fluid. This is a phone that looks excellent on paper, and for the most part is. However some software adjustments are needed before I can recommend this phone over some of the other competition in this price range.

 

 

  • john

    I am currently using this phone to read this article. I love it. Yes, I highly recommend.

    • Jack McNenny

      Glad you like it, hopefully ZTE keeps bringing it!

  • Brandon Liu

    Try swapping on those nav area or try Mi-pop in quick setting.

  • Joy

    I have to make a replacement with my axon 7. When making calls they cannot hear me. Incoming calls were okay. When cast to TV or to Bluetooth speakers the sound goes way down low, even with my replacement. My one plus one (not 3) still working good.

    • Darren Litchfield

      I had the same issue with the calls. Returned it sadly.

  • Louis D.

    According to ZTE in their forums the next software update brings the option to toggle the annoying bell.

    • Jack McNenny

      This is great news, hopefully they roll it out soon!

  • Darren Litchfield

    I loved this phone but ultimately returned it. The hidden notifications were enough to drive me crazy. This article missed that there IS a double tap feature, but 99% of the time it took 2-3 tries to get it to work. I also had inconsistent issues with connection. People could hear me on the speaker phone at all, not just poor reception. So I would switch to normal, and then after a while they couldn’t hear me there. So I switched to speaker and they could what me. Super frustrating. And I dropped calls for the first time ever when using this phone. All in all, if they fixed these things, I’d love to rock this phone. So many great things. Shame it’s not polished.

    • deadpenguins

      Out of curiosity, when did you return your phone? I am currently looking into this phone as my next purchase, and have heard that virtually all of those gripes you mentioned were remedied in late September through updates.

      • Darren Litchfield

        I had all the latest updates that I am aware of and just sent it back 2 weeks ago in early Oct. I can’t confirm for sure if I did have them updated, so take it with a grain of salt. I just know I was looking for any way to fix it because the phone is pretty great. And if the notifications bell could be disabled, that would help so much. I never realized how much I depended on being able to quickly see if a message was important enough to open up the phone or not. I would have to double tap it a few times, then reach up and hit the tiny bell in the top left corner, just to see if I wanted to open my phone. Then if so, swipe up and then put in PW or pattern. That or just pick up the phone off the table/desk to access the fingerprint reader to open it up all the way each time. It was just a bad experience. But man I miss those speakers. I switched to a Nexus 6P which I love but the speakers are so weak in comparison. Good luck!

        • deadpenguins

          I heard about the dreaded Bell, but supposedly there is a post on the ZTE forums that they are letting users disable the feature in an update to be released soon. I think I may try my luck with it and see how it goes. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll be joining you in the 6P club!

      • daaper

        For what it’s worth, I currently have the phone and have none of those issues. Double tap works every time , no sound issues, and no dropped calls in the week and a half I’ve had it. They’re also fixing the notification bell in the next couple weeks with their latest update. I’ve been completely happy with this phone and have had no issues.

        • deadpenguins

          Thanks for the input. I’m going to order it later today cause I found a really good deal on new egg

    • Jack McNenny

      Thank you for correction, that’s my bad for missing the double-tap to wake. You’re right about the inconsistency, and man it’s very slow to wake…

  • Alex Thorn

    Seriously? The phone is too heavy? First thought in my mind head was… Pussy.

    I love the weight of this phone… It actually feels like a premium peice of hardware. I understand the notification grief. I have a smart watch so it’s not a big deal for me as I get my notifications there. Other than that, it’s a great phone. Can’t top my oneplus one experience but it’s close.

  • Kevin

    Also not mentioned is the excellent FREE extensive warranty that is included with the purchase of this phone. Pretty much get for free what some wireless providers are charging $15-$20 a month.

    As for the Lockscreen, try Floatify from the App store. Works well for me, though there is a cost to get the Pro version to show more than 1 notification on the screen.

    • tre916

      How do you implement lock screen widgets on the Axon7

      • Kevin

        Sorry, I said the wrong app, it should be Floatify. That app has it’s own notifications display on the lockscreen that can be used instead of the standard notifications. You can follow a detailed discussion on XDA about it: http://forum.xda-developers.com/axon-7/themes/floatify-app-kills-notification-bell-t3465751

        As far as I know you are not able to use regular Lockscreen widgets on the Axon 7.

        • tre916

          OK, yeah I was wondering how you managed that. Thanks

  • tre916

    I have a few issues with this article mostly because it seems as though nobody bothered to proofread it.

    Also, you mentioned the performance ‘issue’ did you bother to go in and turn off the smart battery saver thats on by default? https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/5bb9a95e26ec663a8fb6b7b4634cb8450cd9ed497f4142f32d1fd5b6af7c156a.jpg

    • Jack McNenny

      Every phone I use I make sure to disable any battery saver right off the bat, including this time. All respect due, this is a very fast phone, but I felt it necessary to compare it with other high-end devices to see just how well optimized it was. My experience with the Axon 7 in terms of performance just slightly lags behind the phones I mentioned above.

      • tre916

        Fair enough, just thought you might have missed it because I did.

        • Jack McNenny

          Their settings for battery tweaking are pretty nifty, and I did like how they showed which apps are hogging power in the background

          • tre916

            Yeah, even when I noticed the battery saver I left it on. It feels plenty fast coming from my last Android phone being HTC One M7.

            I do feel like the Honor 8s battery monitor provided better information about exactly what was consuming battery but the Axon’s is functional. Plus I like how you can lock apps in the multitasking view so that they will stay in memory. Especially since I use Groove music and the app will forget your playlist the second the notification banner goes away.

  • Alex

    I have this phone & almost decided to get rid of it due to a weird shady app called SystemUpdates with very broken English that appeared without my knowledge or permission. Did a factory reset & the app is now gone.

    https://community.zteusa.com/thread/12105

    • gatorguy

      It’s not malware, but instead an official app for Orange…
      and yes the wording is terrible so I too would have considered it as possible malware.

      Anyway the explanation is in the latter end of the thread you had linked.

  • Nathan

    Just got an update today that makes the lockscreen notification bell optional. Looks like ZTE took the feedback on how annoying this “feature” was. I don’t mind the capacitive keys myself, but I do like options. Would be nice if the software allowed more customization in this regard.

    This is a great phone overall. I’m encouraged that ZTE is listening to feedback.

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