ZTE Axon Pro (unlocked) review: ZTE's best phone yet, but it falls short of the competition

Objects in our standard studio shot look clear, and the flash is unobstrusive. Lynn La/CNET

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.

With the phone's dual rear lenses, you can adjust a photo's depth of field. Lynn La/CNET

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.

Hardware performance

  • 2GHz octa-core Snapdragon 810 processor from Qualcomm
  • 32GB of internal storage (with no expandable memory)
  • 4GB of RAM
  • 3,000mAh embedded battery

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.

Benchmark tests comparison

ZTE Axon Pro
25,742
868
3,958
OnePlus 2
22,645
1,142
4,461
HTC One M9
22,685
1,078
3,999

Legend:

3DMark Ice Storm (unlimited)
Geekbench 3 (single-core)
Geekbench 3 (multi-core)

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance

Battery life

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 and data speeds

  • GSM/EDGE: (850/900/1800/1900MHz)
  • LTE B2/B4/B5/B12/B17/B29/B30
  • LTE IR B7/B3/B1/B13
  • Wi-Fi b/g/n/ac; 2.4 and 5GHz

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.

ZTE Axon Pro (unlocked on AT&T) average data speeds

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.

Conclusion

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.

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