ZTE has finally made the mysterious Axon Pro phone -- which popped up online a few weeks ago with little context and explanation -- official.
During a New York press event today, the Chinese mobile manufacturer announced that it is launching the device in the US as the first in its upcoming series of flagship handsets. As the fourth-largest smartphone maker in the country, it hopes to increase its brand awareness and reach interested users faster by bypassing carrier support and making the Axon Pro available directly to buyers. Its price is $449.98 unlocked (£288 or AU$604, converted), with online pre-orders starting today and shipping scheduled to begin July 27.
The Axon Pro comes in three colors: blue, gold and silver, and sports a polished metal body. An intricate webbed pattern decorates the device near the top and bottom bezels and around the rear cameras. Though it doesn't look as slim and sleek as some high-end Nubia handsets (which is a subsidiary of the ZTE brand), the Axon Pro still has a solid build quality. I especially liked how the gold accents contrast with the blue variant, and its overall aesthetic is superior to what I've usually seen in mid- and high-tiered ZTE phones.
On its left edge is a thin volume rocker, while the power/sleep button is located about midway down the right spine. There's also a textured shortcut button below the power key for quick access to the camera.
With its screen measuring 5.5 inches, the Axon Pro is a substantially sized device. At 6.06 by 2.9 by 0.37 inches (154 by 75 by 9.3mm), it's not very pocket-friendly, and I found it difficult to maneuver with just one hand. However, those who have a bigger grip might not mind its dimensions -- especially when considering its expansive screen.
The display is made with Corning Gorilla Glass 3 and has an ultrasharp 2,560x1,440-pixel resolution. At 534 pixels per inch, images and video are crystal clear, and texts look refined. During my short time with it, the screen was sensitive and responsive to the touch, and its viewing angles were adequately wide so that I could comfortably see the images on the display as I moved the phone around.
Hardware and key components
Powering the handset is a 2GHz octo-core Snapdragon 810 main processor and an Adreno 450 graphics processing unit. This is the same chipset we've seen in the high-caliber HTC One M9 and the LG G Flex 2. Though I'll know more about the Axon Pro's performance after I conduct benchmark tests for a review, I noticed that the phone was able to execute daily tasks (like returning to the homescreen and launching apps) quickly and smoothly. A nonremovable 3,000mAh battery will provide its juice, and Quick Charge 2.0 technology from Qualcomm should charge the device in a timely manner.
For your camera needs, the front of the handset has an 8-megapixel camera that can film 1,080p video. On the back is a 13-megapixel camera with a Sony Exmor RS Image sensor. Along with manual, panoramic and sports shooting modes, it can record 4K HD, time-lapse and slow-mo videos. A second 2-megapixel "Omni Vision" lens, which sits above the standard camera, lets you adjust a photo's depth of field after you've clicked the shutter. This feature isn't anything new, and we've seen it before with other handsets like the Samsung Galaxy S5 and the LG G Pro 2. However, it still does well to add a dash of drama to your pictures. On the Axon Pro, the tool renders relatively quickly, and you can adjust the level of blurriness as well.
Software and other features
The device runs the Google Android 5.1.1 Lollipop mobile operating system. Some interesting software features include a quick launcher on the lock screen that lets you view your active apps, and a pedometer called Argus, which tracks your step and counts your calories burned. Rock My Run is another health-and-fitness-related app; it plays music that matches the tempo and intensity of your run.
In conjunction with the two Asahi audio chips inside the handset is Dolby Audio, which boosts audio and sound quality for music and media. The Axon Pro also has high-fidelity audio for the in-ear speaker. When I tested it out briefly using headphones, audio did sound robust and clear, but without a side-by-side comparison it was difficult to discern if the audio sounded any better than that on other premium handsets.
Other features include an ample 4GB of RAM and 32GB of internal memory without the option to expand. The phone uses GSM technology and works with AT&T and T-Mobile nano-SIM cards.
From what I've seen so far, the ZTE Axon Pro is a powerful and high-quality device with a great display, attractive design and a recent version of Android. At a sub-$500 price, it's also competitively priced as far as premium unlocked handsets go, which can run upward from $600. In addition, by initiating a flagship platform, ZTE hopes to increase its exposure while steadily updating the Axon series in the future.
However, the device does have its challenges. Though steadily growing, ZTE's reputation in the US remains relatively minor, and the Axon Pro will require aggressive exposure to gain consumer attention. Receiving carrier approval can be a slog for phones made by smaller manufacturers, and as such, retailing directly online is a quicker and more inexpensive way to reach potential customers. This is a rising trend particularly with Chinese mobile companies, and some have seen this payoff, such as the popularity with the OnePlus One. The Axon Pro may be a step in the right direction, but hopefully it'll be able to retain brand loyalty by providing customer support and timely software updates.
As for now, we'll know more about the device when we receive our review unit, so be sure to check back with CNET soon. In the meantime, click here to learn more about ZTE phones.