ZTE has long been known as a purveyor of inexpensive devices—you might even call them cheap. Many phones manufactured by ZTE in past years didn't even have the company's name on them. Last year, it started going after the premium device market with the Axon Pro. ZTE is back in 2016 with another Axon—the Axon 7. This $400 phone seems to target potential OnePlus 3 buyers with similar specs and a few notable improvements, at least on paper. Does the Axon 7 mark ZTE's arrival in the budget flagship space or does OnePlus still own it?

Specs

Processor Snapdragon 820
Memory 4GB RAM
Storage 64 GB plus microSD card
Screen 5.5-inch AMOLED, 1440p
Camera 20MP f/1.8 with OIS rear, 8MP f/2.2 front
Battery 3250 mAh battery, Quick Charge 3.0
Software Android 6.0 Marshmallow, MiFavor 4.0
Audio Dual front-facing speakers, 32-bit/192kHz audio
LTE support B2/B4/B5/B12/B13/B17/B7/B3/B1/B20/B29/B30/B25/B26/B41 (NA)
Measurements 151.7 x 75 x 7.9 mm, 175g

The Good

Design Solid aluminum construction and a rear-facing fingerprint sensor in a comfortable divot.
Display A bright, crisp 1440p AMOLED display that's very good for the price.
Audio The front-facing speakers are fantastic, same for the 32-bit/192kHz audio over headphones.
Battery Decent battery life with standard Quick Charge 3.0

The Not So Good

Navigation buttons The non-backlit nav buttons are too close together and you can't see them in the dark.
Fingerprint sensor It's not as fast or accurate as other phones in this price range. It also wakes up the phone even when you're on a call (ignores proximity sensor).
Camera Struggles with noise and white balance in low light. Shutter lag is also a frequent problem.
Software ZTE makes some features like the lock screen and Do No Disturb less useful. Extra features like Mi-POP and My Voice are basically useless.
Bloatware ZTE included a ton of default apps you won't use. There's also a lame Perk.com promotional app that wants to show you ads.

Design

You might recall the Axon last year had a funky design with dual cameras and triangular cut-outs on the speaker grille/earpiece. ZTE has gone for a more conservative look with the Axon 7. It's an aluminum unibody phone with gently rolled edges and antenna lines at the top and bottom of the back housing. The antennas are in almost the same configuration as the OnePlus 3. The similarity is hard not to notice. On the bottom is a USB Type-C port with support for Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0.

On the back you have the single camera module and below that a fingerprint sensor. I like a lot of things about this aspect of the design. The sensor and the camera are lined up with a slight depression in the aluminum frame, and the two features are the same size. The fingerprint sensor doesn't look slapped on, and the aforementioned depression makes it very easy to find by feel. It reminds me of the Motorola dimple because it helps you stabilize the phone during use. I am also generally a big fan of rear-facing fingerprint sensors.

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I wish I could say as many nice things about the sensor itself, but it's not as good as many other phones. Even after re-training it with my prints a few times, the ZTE Axon is slower to detect my finger, and it rejects too often. It's really not in the same league as the OnePlus 3, which has one of the best fingerprint sensors I've ever used. It's also extremely odd to me that the fingerprint sensor isn't disabled when you're on a phone call with the phone at your ear. It just ignores the proximity sensor (this is probably more of a software thing than hardware). So, if you place your finger in the divot for maximum comfort, you will unlock the phone. I thought I was going insane when I started using the Axon 7 because every time I took a call the flashlight would turn on. I eventually figured out the fingerprint sensor issue and realized the flashlight toggle was at the top of the quick settings in prime ear-touching territory. This is a pretty obvious mistake ZTE should have caught.

On the right edge are the power button and volume rocker—no complaint there. They're nice and clicky with no rattling around. The navigation buttons, on the other hand, are not good. This phone has capacitive buttons below the screen for home, back, and overview. They're in the correct order, but only home uses the icon we're all used to. The back and overview button are just dots. Even worse, none of the buttons are backlit. This is something I'd expect to see on a much less expensive phone; the Zenfone 2 comes to mind. The "hitboxes" for the buttons are too small as well, making them extremely hard to nail in the dark. The spacing feels off to me as well. All three buttons are close together, and right at the edge of the display. I don't think ZTE did any usability testing of this nav button design because it's just awful.

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The overall feel of the Axon 7 is good—the bezels are small all the way around and the rolled edge doesn't dig into your hand. The phone is slightly heavier than I'd like, though. It's 175g, which is substantially heavier than the OnePlus 3 (158g), Idol 4S (149g), and Galaxy S7 (152g).

Display and audio

The front of the phone isn't all bad news. The Axon 7 has front-facing stereo speakers, and they're really good. The volume is excellent and the overall quality is there, as long as you engage the Dolby Atmos setting. This is basically a built-in EQ that makes the audio sound less tinny and controls distortion at high volume. Compared to the OnePlus 3 (sorry, we're going to be doing this a lot), the Axon 7 is the clear winner in audio quality.

The Axon 7 also has Hi-Fi audio over headphones. I'm by no means an audiophile, so perhaps I'm simply not able to fully appreciate the nuances of Hi-Fi audio. Headphones on the Axon 7 sound nice, maybe a little louder than other devices.

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ZTE has moved on from the boring LCDs it used last year and equipped the Axon 7 with a QHD AMOLED display. The colors are bright and vivid, but not over-saturated. There are a few color settings you can play around with if you want to push the colors to be more saturated or change the white balance. I think they look good at the default, though. Brightness is on-par with other phones in this price range. It's a little brighter than the OnePlus 3, and yes, it's crisper than that phone too. The glass curves down at the edges, which is fairly common these days. It still looks quite nice, though.

Camera

The Axon 7 only has one rear-facing 20MP camera unlike the Axon Pro, and it's mostly good. In outdoor settings or when you have good indoor lighting, the Axon 7 snaps excellent photos with rich colors and great detail. It has optical image stabilization and captures images quickly. Photos taken inside are overall solid, but there's a detectable amount of noise in darker spots.

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My main qualm here is that when HDR mode flips on to cope with varying light levels, the shutter lag gets noticeable. The results are okay as long as your subject isn't moving. Hopefully this is something ZTE can address in an update.

When the lights come down, that's when you see the other side of the Axon 7's camera, and it's not as pretty. This is where a lot of phones stumble, so ZTE is not alone. The issues I have with shutter lag from HDR are even more pronounced in low light. The Axon 7 flips to night mode rather aggressively, even when it doesn't seem particularly dark. This means a longer exposure to pull in more light, but it makes it virtually impossible to capture movement. The OIS helps reduce blurring, but it can still happen if you're not steady. Much of the detail that the camera would capture in brighter light is lost in a sea of noise and over-processing. I'm also not too pleased with the white balance in low light photos—they're all very warm.

I think the OnePlus 3 does a little better overall, but outdoors it's a toss-up. The higher resolution Axon 7 does look crisper in good light, but the OP3 has noticeably better white balance and clarity in low light.

Performance and battery

The ZTE Axon 7 has a Snapdragon 820 and 4GB of RAM, so guess what... it's pretty fast. Opening apps, multitasking, loading web pages, and all the other general smartphone tasks are very snappy. I didn't find myself waiting on the Axon 7 at any point, and I did try to push it by hopping back and forth between apps. As usual, here are a few benchmarks if you like that sort of thing.

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For the sake of comparison, the Axon 7's performance is about on par with the OnePlus 3. It has less RAM, but that never seemed to make much of a difference on the OP3 in my experience.

Gaming performance too is great. That's no surprise with the hardware, but it's still nice to see with a phone that costs a few hundred less than flagship devices. There's maybe a tiny bit more lag in heavy games than other SD820 phones, but it's a minimal difference at any rate.

The Axon does beat the OnePlus 3 when it comes to battery life, but not by a wide margin. Its battery is a little larger—3,250 vs. 3,000mAh. The Axon 7 with heavy use including frequent messaging, some phone calls, games, and web browsing has been getting me a little over five hours of screen time (the OP3 gets just shy of five hours) over the course of 17-18 hours. It's actually a little hard to track screen time on this phone because ZTE chose to hide the standard battery use screen in the settings. I had to use third-party apps to measure this, so your mileage may vary.

The Axon 7 has a USB Type-C port with support for Quick Charge 3.0. That's the standard type of fast charging, not that wonky VOOC technology that's backing Dash Charge on the OnePlus 3. You'll actually be able to buy fast charging hardware that works with the Axon 7, and I can report that it does indeed charge very quickly.

Software

The hardware side of the Axon is mostly good, but things take a turn when you look at the software. ZTE calls its version of Android "MiFavor 4.0." On the surface, this is a fairly clean version of Android that doesn't add any garish colors. It does, however, completely replace some standard features, hide others, and give prominent placement to things you just don't need.

One of the most annoying things is also one of the first you encounter—the lock screen. Every phone I've used in the last few years shows your notifications by default on the lock screen. That's how Android works now. ZTE, on the other hand, has opted to change it. You get a series of admittedly nice photos on the lock screen that change every time you wake the phone up (you can long-press to magnify them too). That's nice and all, but the notifications are hidden. You can bring them up by tapping a button in the upper left corner, but it's tiny. If I'm going to the trouble, why not just unlock the phone?

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ZTE also decided to make the standard Android Do Not Disturb mode harder to access. It's not in the quick settings, and you can't add it. In fact, the only way to turn it on is to go into the settings (which I also take issue with, more on that later) and dig into the sound menu. You can turn DND on, off, or leave it on a schedule. You cannot turn it on for a set length of time. Every other phone I've used in recent memory lets you activate DND for a couple hours at a time. I don't get why ZTE would modify a useful feature to make it less useful.

About those settings: ZTE has a frequently used interface for the settings, and that's what opens when you access the settings UI every time it's not already running in the background. This is full-screen, and I don't believe it's actually based on what you're using the most. It has not changed in the time I've been using the phone. It's just another confusing UI decision from ZTE. Most of the standard battery use stats are hidden from the main UI as well.

There are also a number of custom features that don't need to exist. For instance, there's Mi-POP. Yeah, it's not a very descriptive name. Mi-POP is a floating nav button UI. It displays a back button that you can tap, but drag it away from the edge of the screen and it expands to home, back, overview, and menu. The capacitive buttons aren't good, but this isn't a solution. Mi-POP is laggy, and the expanded buttons disappear too quickly, leading to missed taps. Then there's "My Voice." This one at least has a descriptive name so you can figure out what it does. It's ZTE's voice actions engine, but I don't know why anyone would use it. Google's voice actions are more accurate and powerful. ZTE has a voice print unlock feature as well, but it takes forever to set up and barely works.

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The home screen isn't bad, but it kind of isn't anything. There are no special features I've noticed, aside from looping back to the first panel when you reach the end and transition effects. The widget picker is tiny and tedious to scroll through too. There's a stock Android theme (the default) and a MiFavor theme. The icons appear to be the only difference between them. I don't know why ZTE even bothered including its own boring home screen when it could have just used the Google Now Launcher.

There's one other thing I should point out; ZTE has included what I would consider a lot of bloat on this phone. If there's an app it could pre-install, it did. The Axon 7 has its own browser, email client, messenger, music player (might make sense in the context of HiFi audio), voice recorder, file manager, and an exceedingly dumb ZTE Rewards app. ZTE Rewards is just a cover for Perk.com promotional offers. You watch ads, download lame apps, take surveys, and share junk with your friends for points that can be exchanged for items on Perk. This really shouldn't be on the phone. There's a lot to disable here.

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Using the Axon 7 reminds me of a Samsung phone from three or four years ago. I don't mean the UI—MiFavor 4.0 doesn't look bad. It's just overloaded with buggy features that probably don't need to exist. It feels cluttered. At the same time, features that I do want like lock screen notifications and Do Not Disturb mode are made less accessible.

Conclusion

Looking at the ZTE Axon 7 on paper, it seems great. The specs are high-end, it's running Marshmallow, and it looks quite nice. In practice, it wasn't as good as I was hoping it would be. This isn't a bad phone—there's no single deal breaker for me, but there are a lot of little things that make it a frustrating experience.

I definitely like the overall design of the phone and the location of the fingerprint sensor. It's a very comfortable phone, and the bezels are thin for something with a 5.5-inch display. However, the fingerprint sensor isn't accurate enough for me, and it isn't disabled by the proximity sensor. Thus, I hate making phone calls on the Axon 7 even more than I hate making phone calls in general. Oh, and the nav buttons. A $400 phone should not have non-backlit buttons. It's even worse when they're as small as these.

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The speakers are some of the best you can get on a phone right now. I don't know that this is a big selling point for most people, but it is absolutely a strong point for the Axon 7. Likewise, the 1440p AMOLED display is a solid component. It's not as bright or vibrant as Samsung's current gen panels, but it looks quite nice—certainly better than the OnePlus 3 at any rate.

I could cope with a few hardware foibles, but I think the issues with the software would be too aggravating over time. The lack of notifications on the lock screen until you expand them is just bizarre. I like pretty pictures as much as the next nerd, but I also like my notifications being easily accessible. The changes to Do Not Disturb mode, the battery stats, and the settings screen are also an annoyance. Then there are the features ZTE added on top of Android like the voice control and floating buttons, neither of which work very well.

The Axon 7 has some excellent points, but for $400, I'd probably still recommend the OnePlus 3.

Thanks to B&H for helping us out with a review unit.