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When ZTE announced in July that it would begin a new line of marquee handsets, I admit I was skeptical. With a slew of decent but ultimately unmemorable midrange smartphones under its belt, ZTE didn't strike me as a strong contender for the flagship arena.
But with the Axon Pro, its inaugural flagship device, I stand corrected. Sporting a Snapdragon 810 processor, a sharp 1440p display and a dual rear-facing camera, the unlocked handset boasts powerful specs at an ultracompetitive $500 price. (Especially when considering the fact that most premium phones go for $600 or more, unlocked.) The Axon Pro is also undoubtedly ZTE's best looking handset. UK and Australian launches for the phone have yet to be confirmed, but the US unlocked price converts to around £300 or AU$600.
In a vacuum, the device would be a top choice for a high-end smartphone. But ZTE isn't the only one offering top-tier handsets. The OnePlus 2 , for instance, is another unlocked device that has even more persuasive hardware at $390. With such a strong alternative available, ZTE's flagship ambition unfortunately doesn't reach far enough.
The Axon Pro comes in three colors: blue, gold and silver, and it sports a polished metal body. A triangular 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 (a subsidiary of the ZTE brand), the Axon Pro still has a solid build quality. I especially liked how well the gold detail contrasted well with the blue variant, and how sleek and luxurious the entire gold version looked. Overall, ZTE took the time to elevate the phone's aesthetic, and the general quality is superior to what I've usually seen in mid- and top-tier devices from the company.
One thing to consider, however, is the handset's substantial size. With its expansive display, the phone isn't pocket-friendly, and for those who have a petite grip (like me), it's difficult to maneuver the Axon Pro with just one hand. This isn't a deal-breaker of course, but it's something to keep in mind.
On the device's left edge is a SIM card slot and a thin volume rocker subtly textured by the same triangle motif. Up top is a 3.5mm headphone jack. About midway down the right spine sits a sleep-power button with a textured launch key for the camera follows right below. On the bottom is a Micro-USB port for charging and transferring data.
The display is coated with Corning Gorilla Glass 3, and its 1440p resolution means images and video are clear, and text looks refined. It's also sensitive and responsive to the touch, and when outside in direct sunlight with the brightness cranked all the way up, its viewing angles were adequately wide and I could comfortably see the images on the display as I moved the handset around.
Below the display are three hotkeys for back, home and recent apps. If you long-press the center home key (signified by the small white circle), you can launch Google's digital and voice assistant, Google Now.
The phone runs the Google Android 5.1.1 Lollipop and features two health related apps. One is Argus, a pedometer that tracks your steps throughout the day and is viewable directly on the lockscreen. The other is RockMyRun, which plays music and playlists that match the tempo and rhythm of your run. If you swipe upward from the center soft key, a dash page shows up with your currently playing music, favorite contacts, steps taken and a recent news headline.
Other apps are Yahoo Sports; an app that lets you download keyboard themes called TouchPal; several task-managing apps and tools (like a calculator, an FM radio, a sound recorder, a video player and more); and a bunch of Google apps such as Maps, the Chrome Web browser, Photos and YouTube.
The Axon Pro has two audio chips inside and is equipped with high-fidelity audio technology for the in-ear speaker. Thanks to software from Dolby Audio and the JBL earbuds the device comes packaged with, listening to music and movies was robust and clear. Bass tones were deep and in general, audio sounded full and richly dimensional.
The rear camera is impressive and takes sharp, accurate photos. Colors are true to life, objects are in focus and photos maintain plenty of clear detail when zoomed in at full resolution. The camera works quickly, but every time you press a shutter, its viewfinder purposely becomes grayed out, so you do have to wait a beat between taking shots. However, if you want to take pictures in quick succession without having to pause, you can long-press the shutter button.
Video quality was also satisfactory. Playback was smooth and both moving and still objects were sharp. Recordings had accurate coloring, and the camera adjusted quickly to different lighting situations and focus areas. There was no noticeable lag between my moving of the camera and what I saw in the viewfinder. Finally, audio was particularly notable, especially in-ear playback. The handset was able to pick up near and distant audio clearly and with depth, like the sound of a car door slamming a few feet away from me, a bicycle whizzing by, and even far-off traffic down the street. For more information on camera quality, click the photos below to view them at their full resolution.
The camera has three shooting modes that you can switch between by swiping left and right. The default is "Auto," which includes HDR shooting, a timer, geotagging and antibanding options. You can also apply eight Instagram-like filters in real time, and toggle on a "focus lock" when recording video. The second mode is an all-encompassing umbrella "mode" that features six other tools for photos and videos: panorama, multi-exposure, manual, sport, slow motion and interval.
Under this category, the manual option grants users the most control over their photos. Here you can change the shutter speed, ISO and exposure levels; access the six white balance options; and adjust the beauty meter (which changes the blurriness and softness of an object or face). You can also display either the golden spiral or rule-of-three guidelines and choose among nine photo resolutions (ranging from 640x480 to 4,096x3,072-pixel resolution) and five video sizes (from a MMS text video to 2160p 4K video).
The third mode is "Bokeh" and it works in conjunction with the top (2-megapixel) camera on the device's rear. With this mode, you can adjust the depth of field of your photos before you take a picture using the f-stop dial on the bottom of the viewfinder (it ranges from f8 to f1). Shooting with Bokeh lets you edit after you snap the shutter, too, such as increasing or decreasing the level of blurriness in your images and changing the object in focus altogether. (That is, you can shift the focus to objects in the fore-, mid- or background.) This feature is nothing new, and we've seen it before in previous high-end (Nokia) Lumia , HTC , Samsung and LG handsets. Still, having the effect is a nice goodie, and it adds a pleasing touch of drama to your pictures.
There are tons of other camera tools that photography enthusiasts will find worthy of exploring. For example, you can adjust the brightness of the flash, which is unique and useful if you don't want the light to come off as too harsh in a given environment. Other features include smile detection and a beauty meter with the front-facing camera, a 4x digital zoom and the ability to pause recording and take pictures while shooting video.
The octa-core processor is fast enough to carry out daily and necessary tasks swiftly. Launching and quitting apps, calling up the keyboard, and swiping through the app drawer was smooth and quick. In addition, it takes about 26 seconds to shut down and restart the phone, and 1.47 seconds to launch the camera.
Compared to other high-end devices sporting a Snapdragon 810 processor, the Axon Pro was on par with its competition. On 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited, it outperformed both the OnePlus 2 and HTC One M9. However, it had the lowest single-core Geekbench 3 result, with the OnePlus 2's 1.8GHz CPU scoring the highest on both single- and multi-core tests.
The phone's battery has an estimated talk time of 12 hours and standby time of 10 days. During our own lab tests for battery drain, it lasted an average of 8 hours and 8 minutes for continuous video playback. The phone does have a battery-saving mode that you can toggle on in the Settings menu, and it also features Quick Charge 2.0 technology from Qualcomm. The completely drained battery took about an hour and a half to fully charge with its stock charger.
By comparison, the One M9, which has a smaller 2,840mAh battery, lasted a tad longer at 8 hours and 40 minutes. And while we don't have the OnePlus 2's results yet, it does sport a bigger 3,300mAh battery.
Call quality was satisfactory, with connection being strong and consistent. My calling partner was easy to understand, and I didn't hear any extraneous buzzing or static noises. Volume range, however, could have been louder. When I initially picked up the call on medium volume, my partner's voice was too quiet. Though I was able to hear him just fine after increasing the volume, it was still considered too "soft" for a voice on maximum volume. Likewise, when I switched to audio speaker, I would have preferred the volume to be much louder.
As for my partner, he reported that I sounded clear on the other line as well. However, he noted that there were times when I sounded muffled, and when I turned on the speaker, my voice sounded a tad more hollow, as if I was calling from an empty bathroom.
|4G LTE download rate||16.49Mbps|
|4G LTE upload rate||11.76Mbps|
|CNET mobile site load||4 seconds|
|CNET desktop site load||5 seconds|
|Temple Run 2 app download (44.91MB)||2 minutes and 21 seconds|
|"Gravity" movie download (487MB)||10 minutes and 57 seconds|
Data speeds on AT&T's 4G LTE network were respectable, and I was able to browse the Web, download apps, and watch streaming video. Benchmark tests reflected this experience, and according to Ookla's speedtest app, average download and upload rates were 16.49 and 11.76Mbps, respectively. It took about 4 seconds for the phone to load CNET's mobile site and 5 seconds to display the full desktop site. The 44.68MB game Temple Run 2 took 2 minutes and 22 seconds to download and install on average, and the 496MB HD movie "Gravity" took about 10 minutes and 57 seconds to download after three trials.
Aside from its unremarkable battery performance, the ZTE Axon Pro is an excellent device. With its elegant design, powerful hardware, and a camera that's filled to the brim with useful editing features, it is the best handset ZTE has ever produced for the US. And at a time when high-end, unlocked smartphones cost about $600-plus, its $450 price tag is a win. Compared to the $650 HTC One M9, for example, the Axon Pro offers a comparable, if not better performance, for $200 cheaper.
Unfortunately, ZTE isn't alone in offering consumers a premium unlocked device for a competitive price. OnePlus may be a scrappy startup from China, but it's making large gains in the mobile industry. Its highly-anticipated OnePlus 2 flagship is more ambitious than the Axon Pro -- offering users much of the same hardware as the latter (Snapdragon 810, 13-megapixel camera, 5.5-inch display and 4GB of RAM) and more (like its faster and more efficient USB Type-C port, bigger battery and twice as much internal memory). But the real clincher? Even its most expensive 64GB variant, at $390, is cheaper than the Axon Pro.
Due to its popularity, the OnePlus 2 can be hard to come by and its "invitation to purchase" is often out of stock. If you can't wait for a device, the ZTE Axon Pro is a great alternative. But if you can manage it, hold out for the OnePlus 2.