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ZTE Axon Pro (unlocked) review:

ZTE's best phone yet, but it falls short of the competition

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The Good The competitively priced ZTE Axon Pro has a crisp display and a stylish design, and its capable dual rear camera comes packed with useful photo tools.

The Bad The phone's call volume is low and its battery life is unexceptional.

The Bottom Line The ZTE Axon Pro is powerful, stylish and inexpensive, but the OnePlus 2 has a lower price and more compelling features.

CNET Editors' Rating

7.6 Overall
  • Design 8.0
  • Features 8.0
  • Performance 8.0
  • Camera 8.0
  • Battery 6.0

When ZTE announced in July that it would begin a new line of marquee handsets, I admit I was skeptical. With a slew of decent but ultimately unmemorable midrange smartphones under its belt, ZTE didn't strike me as a strong contender for the flagship arena.

But with the Axon Pro, its inaugural flagship device, I stand corrected. Sporting a Snapdragon 810 processor, a sharp 1440p display and a dual rear-facing camera, the unlocked handset boasts powerful specs at an ultracompetitive $500 price. (Especially when considering the fact that most premium phones go for $600 or more, unlocked.) The Axon Pro is also undoubtedly ZTE's best looking handset. UK and Australian launches for the phone have yet to be confirmed, but the US unlocked price converts to around £300 or AU$600.

In a vacuum, the device would be a top choice for a high-end smartphone. But ZTE isn't the only one offering top-tier handsets. The OnePlus 2 , for instance, is another unlocked device that has even more persuasive hardware at $390. With such a strong alternative available, ZTE's flagship ambition unfortunately doesn't reach far enough.

Design and build

  • 5.5-inch display with 2,560x1,440-pixel resolution
  • 6.1 by 2.9 by 0.37 inches (154 by 74 by 9.4mm)
  • 6.1 ounces (173 grams)

The Axon Pro comes in three colors: blue, gold and silver, and it sports a polished metal body. A triangular webbed pattern decorates the device near the top and bottom bezels and around the rear cameras. Though it doesn't look as slim and sleek as some high-end Nubia handsets (a subsidiary of the ZTE brand), the Axon Pro still has a solid build quality. I especially liked how well the gold detail contrasted well with the blue variant, and how sleek and luxurious the entire gold version looked. Overall, ZTE took the time to elevate the phone's aesthetic, and the general quality is superior to what I've usually seen in mid- and top-tier devices from the company.

One thing to consider, however, is the handset's substantial size. With its expansive display, the phone isn't pocket-friendly, and for those who have a petite grip (like me), it's difficult to maneuver the Axon Pro with just one hand. This isn't a deal-breaker of course, but it's something to keep in mind.

On the device's left edge is a SIM card slot and a thin volume rocker subtly textured by the same triangle motif. Up top is a 3.5mm headphone jack. About midway down the right spine sits a sleep-power button with a textured launch key for the camera follows right below. On the bottom is a Micro-USB port for charging and transferring data.

A closer look at the device's decorative accents. Josh Miller/CNET

The display is coated with Corning Gorilla Glass 3, and its 1440p resolution means images and video are clear, and text looks refined. It's also sensitive and responsive to the touch, and when outside in direct sunlight with the brightness cranked all the way up, its viewing angles were adequately wide and I could comfortably see the images on the display as I moved the handset around.

Below the display are three hotkeys for back, home and recent apps. If you long-press the center home key (signified by the small white circle), you can launch Google's digital and voice assistant, Google Now.

Operating system (OS), apps and other features

  • Google Android 5.1.1 Lollipop OS
  • Some apps include RockMyRun, Argus and Yahoo Sports
  • High-fidelity audio and Dolby Audio technology

The phone runs the Google Android 5.1.1 Lollipop and features two health related apps. One is Argus, a pedometer that tracks your steps throughout the day and is viewable directly on the lockscreen. The other is RockMyRun, which plays music and playlists that match the tempo and rhythm of your run. If you swipe upward from the center soft key, a dash page shows up with your currently playing music, favorite contacts, steps taken and a recent news headline.

Other apps are Yahoo Sports; an app that lets you download keyboard themes called TouchPal; several task-managing apps and tools (like a calculator, an FM radio, a sound recorder, a video player and more); and a bunch of Google apps such as Maps, the Chrome Web browser, Photos and YouTube.

The handset's quick-access menu (left) and app info from Argus on the lockscreen. Lynn La/CNET

The Axon Pro has two audio chips inside and is equipped with high-fidelity audio technology for the in-ear speaker. Thanks to software from Dolby Audio and the JBL earbuds the device comes packaged with, listening to music and movies was robust and clear. Bass tones were deep and in general, audio sounded full and richly dimensional.

Camera and video

  • 13-megapixel (bottom) and 2-megapixel (top) rear-facing cameras
  • 8-megapixel front-facing camera
  • Can record 4K video (rear) and 1080p video (front)
  • Additional 2-megapixel rear-facing camera with OmniVision lens adjusts depth-of-field

The rear camera is impressive and takes sharp, accurate photos. Colors are true to life, objects are in focus and photos maintain plenty of clear detail when zoomed in at full resolution. The camera works quickly, but every time you press a shutter, its viewfinder purposely becomes grayed out, so you do have to wait a beat between taking shots. However, if you want to take pictures in quick succession without having to pause, you can long-press the shutter button.

Video quality was also satisfactory. Playback was smooth and both moving and still objects were sharp. Recordings had accurate coloring, and the camera adjusted quickly to different lighting situations and focus areas. There was no noticeable lag between my moving of the camera and what I saw in the viewfinder. Finally, audio was particularly notable, especially in-ear playback. The handset was able to pick up near and distant audio clearly and with depth, like the sound of a car door slamming a few feet away from me, a bicycle whizzing by, and even far-off traffic down the street. For more information on camera quality, click the photos below to view them at their full resolution.

In this outdoor photo, lighting is even and figures are sharp with distinct edges. Lynn La/CNET
Despite the dimmer lighting, objects in this indoor picture are still clear and in-focus. Lynn La/CNET

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