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

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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.

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7.9

ZTE Axon 7

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.

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.

ZTE's Axon 7 is its prettiest phone yet (pictures)

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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.

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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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The interface on the optional "stock" Android launcher.

Lynn La/CNET

Camera: A few goodies

Last year's Axon had two rear cameras (2- and 13-megapixel) that let you adjust and refocus the background and foreground after capturing an image. This year, however, ZTE ditched the idea and equipped the device with one 20-megapixel camera in the back and an 8-megapixel shooter in the front.

Overall, the camera launches quickly and has a fast focus, but the shutter could be just a tad faster. Images were sharp and in focus. Colors looked true-to-life and lighting was exposed properly and evenly. Check out my test pictures below, and be sure to click on each image to see them at their full resolutions.

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In this closeup image, the photo is a little underexposed, but colors are accurate and the orchid is in focus.

Lynn La/CNET
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The windows in this indoor picture have a blue tint, which isn't true to life.

Lynn La/CNET
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Objects in this brightly lit photo are sharp and the foreground is evenly exposed.

Lynn La/CNET

Other features include "live photos" that turn pictures into short moving GIFs, a manual shooting mode so you can adjust things like ISO levels and white balance, and the ability to record slow-motion time-lapse and 4K videos.

Performance: Hardware and battery life

The Axon 7 runs smoothly. Simple tasks such as fingerprint unlocking, launching the camera and returning to the home screen were executed quickly. Its Snapdragon 820 processor is the same used in the most powerful Android phones. During our benchmark tests, it edged out the Samsung Galaxy S7, LG G5 and Google Nexus 6P. The OnePlus 3, however, was faster still.

The device performed comparably to other flagship phones in everyday use. While the OnePlus 3 still feels a bit faster (this may be due to its 6GB of RAM, compared to our Axon's 4GB), ZTE's phone can still perform day-to-day tasks satisfactorily. Its impressive benchmark numbers are also a notable indicator of how well games will run on it and just how far ZTE devices have come in terms of hardware performance.

ZTE Axon 7 benchmark scores

ZTE Axon 7 2381 5511 30114OnePlus 3 2407 5640 30337Samsung Galaxy S7 2323 5429 29031LG G5 2313 5345 27758Google Nexus 6P 1286 4313 24224
  • Geekbench 3 Single-Core
  • Geekbench 3 Multi-Core
  • 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited
Notes: Longer bars indicate better performance

The phone's nonremovable 3,250 mAh battery can easily last a full workday without a charge, and during our lab tests for continuous video playback on Airplane mode, it clocked an average of 11 hours and 25 minutes. It also has Quick Charge 3.0 technology from Qualcomm, so it charges rapidly. When I tested it out, the device charged to 50 percent after a half hour and a full charge took about an hour and a half.

For comparison, ZTE's phone outlasted only the Nexus 6P, which clocked in 11 hours and 15 minutes for the same test. But the LG G5 lasted 12 hours and 30 minutes and the OnePlus 3 (which has a smaller 3,000 mAh battery) lasted 14 hours and 17 minutes. The Galaxy S7, however, outlasted all the phones with a marathon 16-hour run.

ZTE Axon 7 Spec Comparison

ZTE Axon 7OnePlus 3Samsung Galaxy S7LG G5Google Nexus 6P
Display size, resolution 5.5-inch; 2,560x1,440 pixels5.5-inch; 1,920x1,080 pixels5.1-inch; 2,560x1,440 pixels5.3-inch, 2,560x1,440 pixels5.7-inch; 2,560x1,440 pixels
Pixel density 538 ppi401 ppi576 ppi554 ppi515 ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 5.97x2.9x0.31 in6.01x2.94x0.29 in5.6x2.7x0.3 in5.88x2.90x0.30 in6.3x3.1x0.28 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 151.7x75x7.9 mm 152.7x74.7x7.35 mm142.4x69.6x7.9 mm149.4x73.9x7.7 mm159x78x7.3 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 6.53 oz; 185 g5.57 oz; 158 g5.4 oz; 152 g5.61 oz; 159g6.3 oz; 178 g
Mobile software Android 6.0.1 MarshmallowAndroid 6.0.1 MarshmallowAndroid 6.0 MarshmallowAndroid 6.0 MarshmallowAndroid 6.0 Marshmallow
Camera 20-megapixel16-megapixel12-megapixel16-megapixel, 8-megapixel wide12.3-megapixel
Front-facing camera 8-megapixel8-megapixel5-megapixel8-megapixel8-megapixel
Video capture 4K4K4K4K4K
Processor 2.15GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 8202.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 8202.15GHz + 1.6GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapgradon 820 processor2.15GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 8202GHz eight-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 810
Storage 64GB, 128GB (varies by region)64GB32GB, 64GB (varies by region)32GB32GB, 64GB, 128GB
RAM 4GB, 6GB (varies by region)6GB4GB4GB3GB
Expandable storage Up to 128GBNone200GB2TBNone
Battery 3,250 mAh (nonremovable)3,000 mAh (nonremovable)3,000 mAh (nonremovable)2,800 mAh (removable)3,450 mAh (nonremovable)
Fingerprint sensor Back coverHome buttonHome buttonBack coverBack cover
Connector USB-CUSB-CMicro-USBUSB-CUSB-C
Special features Dual-SIM, high-fidelity audioNotifications toggle, dual-SIM, Dash ChargingWater-resistant, wireless chargingPull-out battery, two rear cameras"Pure" Android
Price off-contract (USD) $400$400AT&T: $695, Sprint: $650, T-Mobile: $670, Verizon: $672, US Cellular: $672AT&T: $689, Sprint: $576, T-Mobile: $630, Verizon: $624, U.S. Cellular: $636$499 (32GB); $549 (64GB); $649 (128GB)
Price (GBP) £275£329£569£539£449 (32GB); £499 (64GB); £579 (128GB)
Price (AUD) Converts to AU$530Converts to AU$530AU$1,149AU$1,099AU$899 (32GB); AU$999 (64GB); AU$1,099 (128GB)
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7.9

ZTE Axon 7

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 9Camera 8Battery 7