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ZTE Axon M review: A ridiculous dual-screen phone that has some promise

Packing two displays that fold out into a mini-tablet, the Axon M is an interesting curiosity.

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Lynn La
Lynn_La2.jpg

Lynn La

Senior Editor / Reviews - Phones

Lynn La covers mobile reviews and news. She previously wrote for The Sacramento Bee, Macworld and The Global Post.

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7 min read

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?"

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ZTE Axon M

The Good

The ZTE Axon M's two displays lend more real estate for viewing videos and double as a kickstand. It has a convenient quick-launch key and a headphone jack, and its camera takes great daytime shots.

The Bad

The phone is heavy and has an uneven, cumbersome design. It's pricey for year-old specs and the black hinge down the middle of the display is irritating in full-screen.

The Bottom Line

The ZTE Axon M has a heavy and awkward design that's genuinely useful for gaming and multitasking. But if you're not down to go double, spend your money on either a top-tier phone, or a cheaper phone with the same specs as the Axon M.

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.

ZTE's Axon M is a flip phone with twice the screens

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But it's not exactly a slam-dunk of a phone that'll change the industry overnight. Unlike the sleekflexible 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.

The Axon M has two screens that fold out.

CNET

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.

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.

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You can prop up the second display as a kickstand.

Josh Miller/CNET

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.

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The Axon M is thick, measuring nearly 0.5 inch (12.1mm) on its side.

Josh Miller/CNET

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.

A double-duty camera

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.

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In this outdoor photo, you can see lots of fine details in the grass and leaves.

Lynn La/CNET
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This well-lit indoor photo features bright colors and sharp detailing on the haystacks and pumpkins.

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Taken in a dimly lit restaurant, you can see the blurriness and digital artifacts captured in this photo.

Lynn La/CNET
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This "selfie" was snapped by propping up the phone's second display as a kickstand, placing it on a nearby shelf and setting a timer.

Lynn La/CNET

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.)  

Pretty fast performance, so-so battery life

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.

Antutu v6.2.7

ZTE Axon M 144,380LG G6 140,243Google Pixel 2 169,449Samsung Galaxy S8 164,134Apple iPhone 8 207,326
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

3D Mark Ice Storm (Unlimited)

ZTE Axon M 30,512LG G6 28,457Google Pixel 2 39,267Samsung Galaxy S8 37,177Apple iPhone 8 62,206
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

Geekbench v.4.0 single-core

ZTE Axon M 1,753LG G6 1,712Google Pixel 2 1,917Samsung Galaxy S8 1,837Apple iPhone 8 4,177
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

Geekbench 4.0 (multi-core)

ZTE Axon M 4,330LG G6 4,064Google Pixel 2 6,396Samsung Galaxy S8 6,347Apple iPhone 8 10,231
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

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 spec comparison


ZTE Axon MLG G6Google Pixel 2Samsung Galaxy S8Apple iPhone 8
Display size, resolution Two 5.2-inch; 1,920x1,080 pixels each5.7-inch, 2,880x1,440 pixels5-inch; 1,920x1,080 pixels5.8-inch; 2,960x1,440 pixels4.7-inch; 1,334x750 pixels
Pixel density 424 ppi565 ppi441 ppi570 ppi326 ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 5.9x2.8x0.5 in5.86x2.83x0.31 in5.7x2.7x0.3 in5.86x2.68x0.32 in5.45x2.65x0.29 in
Dimensions (Millimeters) 150.8x71.6x12.1 mm148.9x71.97.x7.9 mm145.7x69.7x7.8 mm148.9x68.1x8 mm138.4x67.3x7.3 mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 8.1 oz; 230g5.7 oz; 162g5.04 oz; 143g5.5 oz; 155g5.22 oz; 148g
Mobile software Android 7.1.2 NougatAndroid 7.0 NougatAndroid 8.0 OreoAndroid 7.0 NougatiOS 11
Camera 20-megapixel13-megapixel, 13-megapixel wide12-megapixel12-megapixel12-megapixel
Front-facing camera Same lens as above5-megapixel8-megapixel8-megapixel7-megapixel
Video capture 4K4K4K4K4K
Processor 2.15 GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 8212.35GHz Snapdragon 821 with Adreno 530 GPUOcta-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 (2.35GHz+1.9GHz) or Octa-core Samsung Exynos 8895 (2.35GHz+1.7GHz)Apple A11 Bionic
Storage 64GB32GB64GB, 128GB64GB64GB, 256GB
RAM 4GB4GB4GB4GB2GB
Expandable storage Up to 256GBUp to 2TBNoneUp to 2TBNone
Battery 3,180mAh3,300mAh2,700mAh3,000mAh1,821mAh (Apple doesn't confirm this)
Fingerprint sensor Power buttonBack coverBack coverBackHome button (Touch ID)
Connector USB-CUSB-CUSB-CUSB-CLightning
Headphone jack YesYesNoYesNo
Special features Dual-screen, opens to 6.8-inch diagonal display18:9 sceen ratio, wireless charging, IP68Google Assistant; unlimited cloud storage; Daydream VR-readyWater-resistant (IP68), wireless charging, Gigabit LTE-readyWater 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$953AU$1,008AU$1,079 (64GB), AU$1,229 (128GB)AU$1,1999AU$1,079 (64GB), AU$1,329 (256GB)
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ZTE Axon M

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 8Performance 8Camera 7Battery 7