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ZTE Axon 7 review: ZTE's best can't beat the OnePlus 3

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The Good The sophisticated and affordable ZTE Axon 7 has a zippy processor, expandable storage and loud speakers.

The Bad The phone is heavy and power users won't appreciate the non-removable battery.

The Bottom Line The Axon 7 is ZTE's best to date, but the OnePlus 3 is a better phone at the same price.

7.9 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 9
  • Camera 8
  • Battery 7

You have to admire ZTE's effort. Its Axon 7 is the best looking and most powerful phone the Chinese company has made to date. Its super speedy processor performs just as fast as the flagship devices of Samsung, LG and Google -- a testament to how far the company has come since last year's Axon Pro.

The phone also has plenty of storage space. The more widely available variant, which I reviewed, has 64GB built-in, 4GB of RAM and up to 128GB of expandable storage if you have a high-capacity microSD card. There's also a variant for Asia, with 128GB of built-in storage and 6GB of RAM.

Plus, at $400 or £275 unlocked (that's approximately AU$500), the Axon 7 is inexpensive compared to more popular marquee handsets that can run up to $700, £500, AU$800 or more.

But the phone market is ruthlessly competitive -- and companies are offering better features for less money every day. Case in point: the OnePlus 3. Though that device doesn't have expandable storage or booming audio speakers like the Axon 7, it's faster, has a longer-lasting battery and has the exact same $400 price. (Though in the UK, the OnePlus 3 is a little more expensive than the ZTE at £329.) Unless you have your heart set on a high-end phone, your first choice should be the OnePlus 3.

Design: Easy on the eyes

Solidly built, with an unbroken metal unibody chassis, the Axon 7 is ZTE's best-looking phone ever. Its 5.5-inch display has a sharp 2,560x1,440-pixel resolution and the screen is bright enough (when cranked up) to easily see details in the sunlight.

Given its luxe looks though, I was surprised at how heavy it felt. Tipping the scales at 6.17 ounces (175 grams), it weighs more than its competitors (see chart below). It was still comfortable to hold and maneuver, however.

The handset has a luxe, polished aesthetic.

Josh Miller/CNET

The left edge houses slots for two SIM cards, which is useful if you travel a lot or have two phone numbers. Similar to the LG G5, it has a fingerprint reader on the back, which you can use to unlock the phone and buy stuff with Android Pay. The sensor works quickly, and I didn't notice any lag between pressing the reader and the screen unlocking. If you don't want to use your fingerprint, you can also use your voice: say a preprogrammed phrase and unlock the phone that way.

ZTE emphasizes the Axon 7's audio expertise. In addition to the two speakers on the front, it's decked out with Dolby Atmos audio technology and an advanced chipset that lets the device both play and record crisp, high-fidelity audio. When I played a few music tracks and movie clips, it was indeed loud and clear, with lots of depth. It didn't come off as "crunchy" as phones with small, narrow audio grilles usually do.

Software: Voice controls and an optional app drawer

The Axon 7 runs Google's Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow software. This newest version of the mobile operating system includes a more advanced digital assistant called Now on Tap, security updates, support for Android Pay and more. It also has very few third-party apps (or annoying bloatware) preloaded.

The phone has a few voice and gesture controls -- you can unlock the phone, play music and activate the camera shutter just by speaking to it. In comparison, the OnePlus has gesture controls too, which mainly entail drawing single letters to launch specific apps, but no voice commands like the Axon 7.

The Axon 7 can also switch from ZTE's own MiFavor 4.0 user interface to another launcher labeled "stock" Android. By "stock," I mean it's really not the pure Android UI. In fact, both settings look pretty much the same (same layout, same app icons and so on). The main difference is that the pseudo-stock version has an app drawer, which keeps all your apps together in a grid, whereas MiFavor does not. I prefer to have the app drawer since it prevents my home screen from getting too cluttered.

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