The best thing about having the Axon M ($144 at Amazon) 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 Sony Tablet P, both of which also had two screens attached together with a hinge and were mediocre.and
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 ($460 at Walmart) and iPhone 8 ($650 at Best Buy). 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.
Double the display, double the fun
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.
- Mirroring: Both screens display the same content. Good for watching stuff with another person across from you, so you can both see the same thing. (You'll just need to prop the phone up like a tent)
- Expanded: Both screens act as one mega-screen, and content expands across the entire 6.8-inch diagonal. Similar to the same experience you get on a tablet (except for the unseemly big black hinge that goes down the middle) and ideal for watching videos.
- Independent: Each screen is its own display, and you can open different apps and pages on both. This option is best for multitasking; for instance, if you wanted to keep an email or browser window open on one side while penciling down a related calendar event on the other. You can move apps to another screen by swiping left or right across one display to the other.
- Single: This option uses just one screen (the one attached to the battery and camera), while the fold-out display remains off. The phone will auto-switch to this mode when you close the device. You can also flip open the second screen part way and place it down to use as a kickstand.
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.