ZTE Axon 7 review

Axon 7 wants to be your Samsung Galaxy S7 and iPhone 7 replacement

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Our Verdict

ZTE Axon 7 is less expensive than the best flagship smartphones, yet it looks and performs like a top-tier Android Marshmallow handset, with front-facing speakers, 64GB of storage and only a few sacrifices.

For

  • Inexpensive, yet well designed
  • Generous 64GB of internal storage
  • Awesome dual front-facing speakers

Against

  • Slippery in the hand
  • Not on all US carriers
  • Doesn't match Samsung's camera

Update: Our ZTE Axon 7 review now includes final benchmarks and a recommended badge due to its design, specs and performance at a reasonable price.

ZTE Axon 7 is a new Android phone with a sleek design, powerful specs and a reasonable price that challenges the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 and rumored iPhone 7 in its dual SIM, unlocked form.

That explains the confusing name of this successor to the ZTE Axon Pro (ZTE Axon Elite in the UK), which has skipped right over the ZTE Axon 2 through ZTE Axon 6 in between last year and now.

The Chinese phone maker is ambitiously trying to compete with the flagship manufacturers from the US and South Korea, so much so that it designed the phone outside of China - right in the US.

ZTE Axon 7

What we end up with is an Android Marshmallow smartphone with a polished metal design, 2K display, front-facing speakers, and software customizations often found in a more expensive handset.

It shouldn't be long before its operating system is upgraded, too. ZTE has promised to be the first Google Daydream VR smartphone as soon as the the proper Android Nougat update arrives.

ZTE Axon 7

ZTE Axon 7 doesn't outclass Samsung's top-of-the-line camera in the Samsung Galaxy S7, or the elegantly curved look of the Galaxy S7 Edge. It's just really, really close for the price.

It's not quite inexpensive enough to be part of our best cheap phones list, but it's definitely a candidate for TechRadar's next best phones list update. Let's break down why that is.

Release date and price

The ZTE Axon 7 release date was July 27 in the US, following pre-orders for the new phone that began on July 13. But you won't see it in the UK just yet or even US carrier stores.

ZTE Axon 7

A UK launch for the Axon 7 is planned at a later date (we'll keep you posted on this page), and its name won't change to Elite or anything else this time around like it did for the original Axon. ZTE said that it sees the value in making a unified, global push for its 2016 flagship phone.

You'll have to buy this phone unlocked on Amazon or another retailer and pay full price. It won't be sold at US carriers like AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon or Sprint and you shouldn't expect subsidies.

While it technically has enough bands to support all US phone networks, it only works with AT&T and T-Mobile nano SIM cards for now. Verizon and Sprint compatibility is due "possibly later in the year," resting in the hands of the two CDMA carriers to flip a switch. All of the antennas are inside - this isn't just a GSM phone.

The good news here is that it's packed with 64GB of internal storage and costs $399 (about £300, AU$525). Plus, you won't have to deal with a pesky two-year (or any) contract or carrier app bloatware for that price.

ZTE Axon 7

There's also a 128GB ZTE Axon 7, which includes the company's own take on a "Force Touch" display, an always-on screen and 6GB of RAM. That makes it faster than the Samsung Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge, but there's no price or availability information. We'll have to see if that one ever makes it out of China.

All of this contrasts with the 32GB Samsung Galaxy S7 unlocked at $669 and 64GB iPhone 6S at $749. Take note that a 16GB iPhone is no longer acceptable for a comparison when the Axon 7 comes with 64GB as standard. That's only fair.

Design

ZTE Axon 7 is the grown-up version of last year's ZTE Axon Pro thanks to its all-metal design and considerably less chunky. It's ready to compete with Samsung, LG and Apple.

ZTE Axon 7

You can hold it in one hand, but with palm-stretchig dimensions of 151.8mm x 75mm x 7.8mm and a slippery aluminum design, you'll find yourself struggling to reach for the corners without using two hands.

Luckily, there's an ultra-thin silicone case included in the box along with standard earbuds and a USB-C-to-micro USB adapter. The clear case makes it grippable without completely detracting from the stylish metal design or matte gold color.

What ZTE did nicely on the front is it maximized the real estate for its 5.5-inch display thanks to a nearly edge-to-edge screen and overall minimalist look. Besides the 2K display, the phone face is limited to awesome-sounding dual front-facing speakers, a small front-facing camera and three out-of-the-way capacitive buttons.

ZTE Axon 7

These always-present, yet subtle buttons are an improvement over ZTE's original on-screen buttons that vanished to allow the display to go "full screen" in certain scenarios (usually right when you want to hit the back button).

These small capacitive buttons are also better a use of space than going to the other extreme. For example, Moto Z makes room for a larger-than-necessary chin that includes a "Moto" logo, fingerprint sensor pad AND on-screen buttons. That's too much bottom bezel and not enough screen.

Our only wish was that these ZTE's tiny buttons lit up for better nighttime phone use. Your brain will have to adjust to memorizing their location.

ZTE Axon 7

You won't find a fingerprint-sensing home button taking up space on the front here. Instead, the biometric sensor is elegantly embossed on back. It's easy to reach the fingerprint sensor on a phone of this size (easier than I found it to be on the taller Nexus 6P) and it's as just fast and accurate as its top competition, using the same Swedish sensor supplier, Fingerprint Cards.

ZTE also resisted the temptation of stamping its logo on the front of the device, favoring the back to splash its name. It creates an undeniably cleaner look all around. So far, the ZTE Axon 7 color of Ion Gold is the only out out there, and the included earbuds take on a matching gold trim. In the future, the company plans to launch a Quartz Silver color, too, but it's not available at launch.

Display

The ZTE Axon 7 display is 5.5 inches with a 2560 x 1440p quad HD resolution. It's the same resolution as last year's Axon, but different in that it's an AMOLED display instead of an LCD.

ZTE Axon 7

That may not seem like a big deal at first, but the color really pops this screen, and it has longer lasting battery life as a result.

The 2K display shines brightly (even outdoors) once it's on, but ZTE didn't go as far as to include an always-on screen on the Axon 7 with 4GB of RAM, as we have seen with the Samsung Galaxy S7 and LG G5.

We found out that ZTE is saving this special display (along with its version of Force Touch) for the souped-up 6GB of RAM version of the phone. But this more powerful phone hasn't show its always-lit face just yet.

The Axon 7 screen is really being set up to not only look good on the phone, but to support VR. Really, that's the only reason to make displays of this size go from 1080p to 2K in our opinion - when it's that close to your face, then a higher resolution matters.

ZTE Axon 7

No surprise, there's an inexpensive (though no price is set) ZTE VR headset coming. It's another Samsung Gear VR clone, like the Huawei VR headset, but it's been future-proofed for Google Daydream.

It also doesn't hurt that the company put together a nice selection of wallpaper that really lets the lock screen show what it's capable of - it's scrollable and randomized by default. We really can't understand why phone makers stop short on presenting a vibrant set of default wallpapers when you first boot up its 2K display (read: LG G5's a sickly green gradient). ZTE sells itself better from the get-go.

A smaller, but still noteworthy display change comes in the form of Gorilla Glass 4 instead of Gorilla Glass 3. It's not quite as durable as Gorilla Glass 5 or shatter-resistant like the Moto Z Force. But you'll appreciate it if (admit it: when) you drop your phone after just having paid full price.