Hands on: ZTE Axon M review

The future of smartphones is foldable

What is a hands on review?
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Our Early Verdict

The ZTE Axon M is a foldable smartphone - well, sort of. The screen itself doesn't flex, but the two screens join together to give a much larger panoramic view of apps. It's a novel idea that's fun to use, and could herald the start of something much bigger in the smartphone world... but the Axon M might be rather ahead of its time.

For

  • Innovative foldable phone design
  • Interface already supports multitouch
  • Many use cases to be explored

Against

  • Can it really take off?
  • Last year's chipset

The ZTE Axon M is the future of smartphone design that’s already here in 2017, and it literally acts on the phrase two is better than one. Here’s another phrase: it’s way ahead of its time.

You’re looking at the first foldable, dual-screen Android phone with modern specs, and it’s an incredibly ambitious idea from the Chinese phone maker that’s not afraid to take risks to beat Apple and Samsung to the latest technology innovations.

It combines two 5.2-inch full HD displays into a single smartphone, and they’re either folded back-to-back – the width of a normal phone with a glass front and glass back – or expanded out to the dimensions of a Nexus 7 tablet.

Yes, it contains a seam in the middle where these conjoined screens come together on a hinge and is thick when folded up , but the potential benefits of having two screen outweigh these obvious issues, and this is just the beginning of the dual-screen idea.

The ZTE Axon M is tackling the modern-day foldable phone challenge first, before the foldable Samsung Galaxy X and well before Apple’s theoretical foldable iPhone.

Are you ready for the future of the smartphone and, more importantly, is the future that the ZTE is presenting right for you? Let’s unfold this mystery in our hands-on review.

Price and release date

The ZTE Axon M release date is this holiday in the US, and the price will start at $24.17 a month through its exclusive American carrier, AT&T. In Japan, it's coming to NTT Docomo, but it could launch in other countries down the line. It'll come to China via China Telecom and Europe with unnamed partners in the first quarter of 2018.

Official US carrier is new for a ZTE flagship phone, which usually launches unlocked, without direct carrier support. On-contract phones are still how most people buy high-end phones in the US, with lower monthly payments rather than a full upfront price.

We also know that it’ll launch in the US before the end of the year. That means it’s going to land in stores before the Samsung Galaxy X even gets announced. ZTE may be months ahead of its biggest competition.

Dual-screen design and interface

Your phone might have a glass back, so why can’t that back be a screen, too? That’s the idea behind the two 5.2-inch Axon M displays, which can expand into mini-tablet-like dimensions

It looks like a Nintendo DS, one that’s setup for smartphone multitasking. We were able to watch video while sending email, get directions while searching the web and type into a Google Doc – in landscape mode – and still see more than three lines of text in our document.

We like this idea the most. Any keyboard in landscape mode on a normal phone usually takes up most of the screen and blocks 90% of what you’re typing. This fixes that problem, without committing you to a full-blown tablet.

An easy three-finger swipe switches the content from one screen to the other whenever you want, and multitouch works across both screen when you blow apps up to fit across the seam. Diving into the Google Maps app on the dual displays and plotting out your route is much easier on the Axon M vs what amounts to more than a fraction of your current smartphone screen.

We had the most fun playing the game Battleship in a trifold mode that lets two players attempt to sink each other’s ships without seeing the other’s screen. Many apps already work across both screens and app developers will have to continue to adapt to the dual displays to achieve results like this game.

Camera, battery and specs

The Axon M has a 20MP camera with an f/1.8 aperture, but we weren’t able to test the photo quality in our short time with the new phone. We were able to gain insight into some of its unique dual-screen functionality, however.

Have you ever taken a selfie with the main (always better) camera and wished you could see yourself with a screen like you could with the front camera? Well, that’s how the Axon M works. There’s only one camera and it has a screen on the same side. You don’t need two cameras with this solution.

The rest of ZTE’s specs are lifted from the ZTE Axon 7S, giving you the Snapdragon 821 chipset, 4GB of RAM  and 64GB of internal storage with a microSD card slot, too. That means the specs are dialed back from many current flagship phones that have been using the Snapdragon 835 for the past eight months, but we’ll await final testing to judge its performance.

Early verdict

The ZTE Axon M is the wildcard smartphone of late 2017, and we’re eager to see how it performs and is received. This an ambitious design idea that makes a lot of sense for the future of smartphones.

We’ve witness that multitasking with the Axon M has its benefits. Its has the potential to be both a productivity and entertainment workhorse with two screens that easily fold up.

The potential use cases make the Axon M a thrilling smartphone we want to test in the wild, and if the specs are enough to keep up with the top phones of 2017, ZTE could be months if not years ahead of Samsung and Apple on this idea. 

We’ll have additional opinions on the new Axon M as more details unfold. 

What is a hands on review?

'Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.