The best thing about having the Axon M phone is using it in public. On the bus, around my friends, sitting at a bar -- the moment I fold out its second screen, people around me start homing in on the device and I am asked the inevitable question: "What is that?"
But other than the curiosity it elicits from others, there aren't that many reasons for me to jump up and down in excitement. The Axon M -- which has two screens stacked on top of one another and folds open to form a 6.75-inch mini-tablet -- isn't even a new concept. It apes the Kyocera Echo and Sony Tablet P, both of which also had two screens attached together with a hinge and were mediocre.
Thankfully, technology has progressed in the five to six years since, and the Axon M is faster, smoother and has more capabilities. Its two screens come in handy with some day-to-day tasks and can be surprisingly useful in very specific instances, like multitaskers who want to use apps side-by-side or gamers itching for that Nintendo 3DS look and feel.
But it's not exactly a slam-dunk of a phone that'll change the industry overnight. Unlike the sleek, flexible foldable prototype phones we've seen in the past (an indicator of where the industry may be heading), the Axon M's cumbersome design is far from the future we've been imagining. Its ugly seam gets in the way of movie watching and gameplay, it's bulky and thick and its uneven weight distribution makes it uncomfortable to hold.
In the US, the phone is available exclusively on AT&T for $725 (which converts to about £538 and AU$953). That's pricey, and it costs more than the starting price of both the Pixel 2 and iPhone 8. Yet, it doesn't have the camera hardware or processing prowess to go head to head with either of them.
As such, the ZTE Axon M isn't for everybody and most people will find its design ridiculous. And while it's a reliable and decent phone in and of itself overall -- and it'll be interesting to see if ZTE continues to iterate on this device -- you should only get it if you either really see yourself getting a lot of use out of that second screen, or you like indulging the onlookers around you who'll ask if they can see your snazzy phone.
When closed, the Axon M is an extra-thick 5.2-inch phone with all its buttons on the left edge and a hinge on the right. When you want to use the extra screen, you'll have to fold the second display from behind, like opening a book with the binding toward you and the pages facing downward.
One of the control buttons on the side is a quick launch button. You can double click it to launch the camera. A long press will launch an app you assign. However, you can also have it launch "TV Mode" on the long press. This automatically sets the phone to the expanded viewing option and opens a video-viewing app of your choice (YouTube, Google Play Movies & TV or the preloaded DirecTV Now app to name a few). It's a convenient button that I like to use to launch into YouTube, going full screen in a snap and saving me a few taps.
There are four different ways you can use Axon M's dual displays, and you can switch among by tapping the "M" hotkey at the bottom of the main screen.
Having the extra display is useful and even fun to have around. I especially liked using the secondary display as a kickstand or when I needed to multitask and have two apps opened. Playing games on a bigger display also make them more immersive, and runner games (like Super Mario Run), where a lot of the action is at the bottom of the screen, especially benefit from having that top-bottom design.
But there were also some unwelcome things I had to get used to, too. The first thing is its weight. the Axon M is thick at 0.48 inch and heavy at 8.1 ounces -- that's half a pound -- and it can't exactly fit comfortably in your pocket. That's the trade-off for two displays in this design, though the dream of a foldable or rollable phone has always been one that's convenient and thin.
Perhaps the biggest thing I had to get used to, though, was using the camera. During an era when top-tier phones can have up to three cameras, the Axon M only has one. If you want to use it like a point-and-shoot, you'll have to flip the phone over first. Again, this takes time to learn. Firing up the selfie-cam, though, is a breeze and it's a great phone to prop up for all those wide group shots.
The Axon M is also just not a comfortable phone to use. In addition to folding downward, its weight is not completely symmetrical. Because the battery is on one side of the phone, it feels weirdly uneven at first. And when you fold the display over, one edge is rounded with the hinge while the other feels flat and sharp, which is just not pleasant. These kinds of small, awkward design choices are the price you will have to pay if you get this phone.
Lastly, when you fully unfold the phone to get both screens side by side, you'll always have the black hinge running through the middle of your newly expanded display. I know I mentioned that already, but it's worth repeating. Even if you like having that bigger screen, the garish line down the center is distracting. Again, this is something you're really, really going to have to be OK with if you want the Axon M.
The camera itself works well, and photos taken in ample lighting are clear and bright. As for selfies, because it's the same 20-megapixel camera, they look just as good and faces are smooth and sharp. Low-light shooting, however, isn't so great. The camera was slow to focus when I took photos inside a dim restaurant, and the images turned out blurry with lots of digital noise.
The camera also has a few interesting additions. For instance, there's a manual mode to fine-tune your camera settings; you can take a "multi exposure" shot that overlays several photos on top of one another for an artsy collage and a "magic shutter" option makes it easier to take long-exposure image. Lastly, ripped right off from Apple's iPhones, ZTE lets you take GIF-fy "live photos" that include a short amount of movement in your images. (You won't be able to take bokeh-style portrait shots with just the one lens, however.)
Though the Axon M doesn't have the latest Snapdragon 835 chipset (it has the previous 821 iteration instead), it still performs relatively smoothly. Though scrolling through webpages and launching and closing apps were a breeze, I did notice a few hiccups when switching between screens, wherein the phone took about half a second or so to transition from one mode to another.
On paper, its benchmark scores were on par with LG's G6 flagship (which also has an 821 chipset). Both phones, however, were easily outpaced by the Pixel 2, Galaxy S8 and (especially) the iPhone 8. They all sport more advanced processors, and had received better marks on all four benchmark tests I ran.
Battery life was good but could stand to be longer. During our lab tests for continuous video playback on Airplane mode, the Axon M lasted 10 hours and 40 minutes. I always had enough juice to last through the workday, no problem, but the G6, iPhone 8 and Galaxy S8 all lasted longer -- about 13, 14 and 16 hours in our lab tests, respectively.
|ZTE Axon M||LG G6||Google Pixel 2||Samsung Galaxy S8||Apple iPhone 8|
|Display size, resolution||Two 5.2-inch; 1,920x1,080 pixels each||5.7-inch, 2,880x1,440 pixels||5-inch; 1,920x1,080 pixels||5.8-inch; 2,960x1,440 pixels||4.7-inch; 1,334x750 pixels|
|Pixel density||424 ppi||565 ppi||441 ppi||570 ppi||326 ppi|
|Dimensions (Inches)||5.9x2.8x0.5 in||5.86x2.83x0.31 in||5.7x2.7x0.3 in||5.86x2.68x0.32 in||5.45x2.65x0.29 in|
|Dimensions (Millimeters)||150.8x71.6x12.1 mm||148.9x71.97.x7.9 mm||145.7x69.7x7.8 mm||148.9x68.1x8 mm||138.4x67.3x7.3 mm|
|Weight (Ounces, Grams)||8.1 oz; 230g||5.7 oz; 162g||5.04 oz; 143g||5.5 oz; 155g||5.22 oz; 148g|
|Mobile software||Android 7.1.2 Nougat||Android 7.0 Nougat||Android 8.0 Oreo||Android 7.0 Nougat||iOS 11|
|Camera||20-megapixel||13-megapixel, 13-megapixel wide||12-megapixel||12-megapixel||12-megapixel|
|Front-facing camera||Same lens as above||5-megapixel||8-megapixel||8-megapixel||7-megapixel|
|Processor||2.15 GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 821||2.35GHz Snapdragon 821 with Adreno 530 GPU||Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835||Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 (2.35GHz+1.9GHz) or Octa-core Samsung Exynos 8895 (2.35GHz+1.7GHz)||Apple A11 Bionic|
|Storage||64GB||32GB||64GB, 128GB||64GB||64GB, 256GB|
|Expandable storage||Up to 256GB||Up to 2TB||None||Up to 2TB||None|
|Battery||3,180mAh||3,300mAh||2,700mAh||3,000mAh||1,821mAh (Apple doesn't confirm this)|
|Fingerprint sensor||Power button||Back cover||Back cover||Back||Home button (Touch ID)|
|Special features||Dual-screen, opens to 6.8-inch diagonal display||18:9 sceen ratio, wireless charging, IP68||Google Assistant; unlimited cloud storage; Daydream VR-ready||Water-resistant (IP68), wireless charging, Gigabit LTE-ready||Water resistant (IP67), wireless Qi charge compatible|
|Price off-contract (USD)||$724.99 (AT&T)||AT&T: $720, Sprint: $708, T-Mobile: $650, Verizon: $672, U.S. Cellular: $597.60||$649 (64GB), $749 (128GB)||AT&T: $750; Verizon: $720; T-Mobile: $750; Sprint: $750; U.S. Cellular: $675||$699 (64GB), $849 (256GB)|
|Price (GBP)||Converts to £538||£649||£629 (64GB), £729 (128GB)||£689||£699 (64GB), £849 (256GB)|
|Price (AUD)||Converts to AU$953||AU$1,008||AU$1,079 (64GB), AU$1,229 (128GB)||AU$1,1999||AU$1,079 (64GB), AU$1,329 (256GB)|